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Neo-Modernism: An Underground Plague

by Philip Trower


Chapter Three of the booklet, The Church Learned And The Revolt Of The Scholars.

Larger Work

The Church Learned And The Revolt Of The Scholars


22 - 28

Publisher & Date

The Wanderer Press, 1979

Chapter Three

By 1900, Modernist ideas were spreading among the more cultivated clergy and penetrating the seminaries. Everywhere priests started having crises of faith. (Von Hugel's daughter had earlier, in 1897, had a crisis of faith when her father had disclosed to her his spiritual doubts and his hopes for a change in doctrine. Fr. Tyrrel had been called in to resettle her mind.) Books were put on the Index, warnings issued, reviews prohibited. Loisy, Tyrrel, and some others were excommunicated. Loisy, who for years had been protesting his Catholicism, later admitted that he had begun to lose his Faith around 1885.

However, those not excommunicated continued to push their ideas, regardless of censures. In 1907, the Pope issued the decree Lamentabili and the encyclical Pascendi. These listed, analyzed, and condemned Modernist errors. After 1910, priests were required to take a special anti-Modernist oath. Bishops were instructed to make sure that no one teaching in their seminaries held Modernist views.

St. Pius X was, and still is, bitterly attacked for these measures. But the steps he took were proportionate to the danger. They were made necessary partly by what I'm afraid we must call the Modernists' deviousness, by their determination to continue posing as Catholics when they no longer were, but chiefly because their beliefs struck at the heart of the Christian religion. Who can blame a Pope for condemning ideas which led a priest into denying that Christ is God, that the Church has authority to teach and rule in His place, and that its doctrines are objectively true? One does not have to be a Scripture scholar to know what St. Peter and St. Paul would have said.

The ordinary faithful who opposed Modernism and fought back were also attacked. Writers sympathetic to Modernism speak of a White Terror; though there was no loss of life. The truth is that in any serious conflict a proportion of people, even with right on their side, are going to act badly, or in the heat of the fight give blows below the belt. But when all cases have been accounted for in which individuals became overexcited and flung accusations at the wrong target, or took advantage of the crisis to work off petty grudges, the reactions of the faithful are thoroughly intelligible.

As soon as they became aware of the new teachings, they recognized them, like the Catholics of the fourth century so highly praised by Newman, as a deadly temptation. A powerful temptation, in anyone aware of what it is, evokes a forceful rejection, and temptations against the Faith have to be dealt with just as firmly as other temptations. When a naked woman was introduced into St. Thomas Aquinas' room in the family castle where he was being held captive, he did not, on grounds of charity, sit down and discuss with her why she was underdressed. He pushed her out of the room and slammed the door. The position of the Modernists was analogous to that of the woman. They were trying to stay in the Church without wearing the wedding garment of faith. For Catholics, their doctrinal nakedness was an enticement to infidelity, and that was why they were strenuously repulsed.

Following Devious Routes To The Public Mind

After 1910, Modernism went underground for 50 years. The majority of those involved in the drama outwardly submitted, some, according to their private letters, taking the anti-Modernist oath with mental reservations. Most Catholics imagined that Modernism had died out. Two world wars and the economic and political troubles of the twenties and thirties helped to turn away attention from the movement and to keep it in control; there were seemingly more serious things to worry about.

But although Modernist ideas were no longer openly expressed or defended, they persisted and continued to exert an influence.

Laberthonniere only died in 1932. Although forbidden to publish, he continued to write, and these later books appeared as soon as he was dead.

Leroy lived on until 1954. As a professor at the College of France, with the prestige of that position, his influence was greater. Being a layman, he was not forbidden to publish. His books were merely censured as they came out. Each time he submitted, but without changing his course; the same ideas would be developed in a succeeding book. Official formulas, he maintained, should receive only official submission and be interpreted to bear an acceptable meaning; he was not dealing with an infallible authority. But his importance for us today lies in his having been a close friend of Teilhard de Chardin. He and Pere Teilhard, he confessed, had discussed their theories together so often that he could no longer tell which were Pere Teilhard's and which his own. As a result, many of Teilhard de Chardin's ideas got into print long before the publication of his own works after his death.

Young men who, around 1910 at the height of the crisis, were having their minds formed in the seminaries were still only in their late sixties at the death of Pius XII in 1958. If only a relatively small number lost their Faith, many emerged with battered confidence in the certainty of some of the Church's teachings, a grudging attitude towards the Magisterium, or generally fretful feelings.

Memoirs, apologias, histories of Modernism also appeared in great numbers between the two wars and exerted an influence on the more intellectually inquiring Catholic clergy and laity, helping to enlarge what one might call the Church of Discontent.

However, most of the Modernist literature produced between 1910 and 1958 appears to have circulated among the higher clergy in typescript or mimeograph, and it seems to have been principally against this that in 1950 Pius XII directed his encyclical Humani Generis, On False Trends In Modern Teaching, one of the chief, though not the only figure aimed at, being Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

De Chardin: Hero And Martyr

I don't mean to linger over Teilhard de Chardin. More than enough has been written about him, and I want to avoid giving an unbalanced picture of his place within Modernism. His fame has given many people the impression that he and Modernism are more or less synonymous — that without him Modernism would not have survived — which is certainly not so. Devastating though his ideas have been, they represent only one strand — the evolutionary strand — of Modernism. This strand may be considered the most important one. But Modernism in its totality, as we have seen, is something much more: the attempt at substituting, not just natural selection and the emergence of man from ape, but a whole spectrum of unacceptable theories for the Catholic Faith.

However, in writing an historical sketch of Modernism and its development, I cannot leave him out altogether. I will, therefore, confine myself to what seem to me some salient points about him as a personality, without going into an analysis of his ideas.

Pere Teilhard did not play any part in the first Modernist movement and during his life was unknown to the general public. But from 1922 — when an essay on Original Sin, calling it in question, accidentally reached Rome — until his death in 1955, he was a person the highest authorities in the Church were increasingly aware of and worried about. Although forbidden to teach and publish, he wrote prolifically, and what he wrote was read by those who mattered. His active life thus corresponded with the period of Modernism's life underground, during which he was certainly its most significant figure. But he was neither a leader nor an organizer, and at this time was important chiefly, I think, as a symbol. Being prepared, like Loisy and Tyrrel, to say with less circumspection what others would have liked to say if they could have done so without damaging their reputations, he became for Modernism a blend of hero and martyr — who happened not to have been killed and in spite of official displeasure lived a comfortable and interesting life — and a focus for Modernist hopes. What was hoped for among other things, what his vindication, if it ever came, would represent, was the death and burial once and for all of Adam and Eve, and with them Original Sin and eternal punishment — "the cruel doctrines" as they were coming to be called.

Now that it is possible to see him in perspective, I think three things strike one (apart from his loss of Faith): how lacking in originality he really was; how spiritually coarse-grained; and — in the grand way that only a deluded savant can be — how densely stupid!

This may seem an extreme judgment to make about a man who has been applauded by so many highly educated people, but I think it can be justified.

The Man And His Unbelief

A slight acquaintance with Modernism shows that many of de Chardin's most typical ideas — his pan-psychism for instance (the notion that even in stones and chemicals there is a rudimentary presence of "spirit"), his refusal to allow any distinction between a natural and supernatural order — were already ideological currency when he came on the scene. Most of the rest of his system is just evolutionary progress religion disguised in language and concepts borrowed, after suitable adaptions, from the Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation and the Mystical Body.

If people are unaware of the other qualities I have mentioned it is partly, I imagine, because they have only read his more "presentable" books where his thought is to some extent veiled.

What might be called the "dangerous writings" — those confidential letters and essays which have made their appearance more slowly, often apparently against the wishes of his friends, and which give a different impression of the man and his mind, are less well-known.

Only in these do we discover the extent to which he idolized power and cunning; that he regarded Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia as the triumph of civilization over savagery; that he had favorable words for Hitler and fascism as long as they were winning ("constructive idealism, however distorted" was on their side); that he thought the German fifth column a force for good (after all, was he not himself a fifth column inside the Church?); that after the defeat of Germany, Communism began to receive his approval, this now representing the wave of the future. From the same sources we learn that he believed in the existence of superior and inferior races and had a generally low opinion of black Africans. (In spite of being fine physical specimens, were they fully "hominized," i.e. human? They were probably doomed to die out.) "Progress implies an unquenchable force," he writes, "that insists on the destruction of everything that has outlived its time."

I think it would be difficult to say anything more stupid and coarse-grained than that. One seems to be listening to a particularly ruthless business tycoon planning to shut down an unproductive factory, sack the work force, and exploit a new market.

These aspects of his thought, though appropriate enough in a consistent disciple of Darwin, have of course been soft-pedalled because they are damaging to his reputation as a Christian and a progressive.

Sincere But Wrong-Headed

But if he was neither original nor very intelligent, how are we to account for his success? As big business, he must be in the same class as the pop-star industry.

I think we must admit that, whatever else he lacked, he had literary abilities and imagination. It was these, which enabled him to give his ugly banalities the appearance of a mystical vision. Through the haze people are not quite sure what they are being shown — though Catholics should be.

Secondly, he really believed in his system, and in putting over ideas, however wrong-headed, conviction and tenacity, which he had in abundance, are often what count most.

He also seems to have had to an unusual degree that difficult to define power — similar to charm without being it — of attracting disciples and fascinating his friends. This is not now easy to understand; the personality that has come to light is so unsympathetic, not to say repellent. But it is plainly a fact. It explains I think why writers like Fr. Henri de Lubac, who should know better, spend so much time bolstering his reputation and whitewashing his spots.

But I think his success is chiefly to be accounted for by the fact that his books carried a message, which many were longing to hear. They fell on a world of believers whose faith had for several generations been giving way under the hammer blows of "scientific" materialism. (Scientific materialism is no different from straightforward materialism. It is simply materialism propped up with arguments drawn from the natural sciences.) At last Darwin (popularly, though not entirely accurately, seen as the symbol of that scientific materialism), had, so these anxious believers supposed, been in some mysterious way reconciled with Christ. Evolution had been made to sound religious, and religion scientific. They did not see that by Pere Teilhard Christ had been sacrificed to Darwin.

All of this also no doubt explains the protection he enjoyed and more than once boasted of, from men enjoying high positions in the Church, both within the Jesuit order and outside. In view of what it knew, and he was saying, "brutal" Rome was surprisingly lenient to him. Evidently his friends and protectors were able to persuade the authorities that even if they had a heretic on their hands, the heretic was a world genius and they must hold on to him at all costs. Only later did anyone realize that the world genius was just Nostradamus all over again, but this time wearing a Roman collar and reading the fossils instead of the stars.

Pere Teilhard's great influence, of course, only began after his death, when his friends started to publish his manuscripts, and Catholics, ignoring warnings, to read them. But here I will leave him for the moment and return to Modernism in general.

In spite of the influence of men like Leroy and Teilhard, it would be a mistake to attribute the continuance of Modernism to some isolated individuals or survivors from its first phase.

Modernism persisted through the '20s and '30s because the causes which had first brought it into being persisted: Catholic intellectuals weak in faith — and also, I am sure, insufficiently supported by the prayers of their fellow Catholics — trying unsuccessfully to grapple with the problems presented by modern thought; trying to map the jungle and gradually getting lost in it.

By the '40s, it was in essence the same, but had received some important additions and adornments. Aspects of modern thought which in 1910 had been in the background had been brought forward to more distinguished positions. Catholics had been making friends with them too.

In addition to enthusiasts for Darwinism, biblical and historical criticism, philosophical pragmatism and comparative religion, there were now clergy anxious to incorporate into Catholic belief chock-a-block and largely unexamined, the principles of Freudian psychology, existentialism, sociology, Marxist and liberal-democratic theory, and a whole range of other subjects and ideologies.

It is these which have given today's Modernism its slightly different overall appearance and which justify its being called neo-Modernism. We are looking at the same woman with a new hairstyle, some extra jewelry, and a harder expression on her face.

To complete our understanding of Modernism, we must now glance through these too to see what notions derived from them were being taken on board.

I will start with two general ideas: progress and liberty. Neither, of course, is connected with any particular branch of learning, but like Pere Teilhard they are too important to ignore. In any consideration of neo-Modernism they should be put at the center of the stage.

The New Message Of Salvation

Progress deserves consideration, even though I wrote at some length about it in a previous article. Like Pere Teilhard, in a general survey of the formation of Modernism, progress is too important to leave out.

Belief in progress as a force in some way immanent in nature and driving it forward to a state of perfection, an earthly paradise, is, as we know, the new message of salvation, which has been growing in power and influence since it was first preached 250 years ago — with liberty, equality, and fraternity replacing Faith, Hope, and Charity as the three absolutely necessary requirements for beatitude. In one or all of its branches, Marxist, secular humanist, or Utopian liberal, it is the Church's major religious rival, whose teachings she has to take into account and which faces her at every turn.

Since 1900, as Christians of all kinds have, with increasing rapidity, fallen away from their religion and joined those who believe in some kind of progress religion, so has the influence of progress religion on the remaining Christians become correspondingly greater. Its power also seems to grow with prosperity.

By the 1950s, more and more of the westernized clergy were plainly feeling its attractions. Just as progress religion is the heart of modern thought, so, when the lid is taken off the cauldron, it will be found that progress religion is the heart of neo-Modernism — and will be preached by enraged ecclesiastics as "liberation theology" and by the sedate and respectable as "human advancement" and "making a world fit for humans to live in."

What the Church means by expressions like these is something quite different. Although we are to engage whole-heartedly in all good works and make the best we can of it, says the Council, "the form of this world, distorted by sin, is passing away" (Gaudium et Spes, No. 39).

All the ambiguous references to "hope" and "salvation" which will abound in the catechism to come, will have in mind the earthly, not the heavenly paradise. Between 1956 and the opening of the Council, the hearts of many bishops and priests as well as laymen were turned even more decisively in this direction by perusing Pere Teilhard's Phenomenon Of Man, Divine Milieu, and Hymn Of The Universe, and using them as their spiritual reading. The two first were the books Pere Teilhard, while he was alive, tried hardest to get permission to have published, and in which he tailored his ideas to make them as little unacceptable to the ecclesiastical censors as possible. They converted influential clergy in large numbers to his semi-pagan, semi-materialist "Christianity."

Blessed Are The Successful

In Pere Teilhard's version of progress religion, the reality and effects of the Fall are denied or ignored. Moral evil has been more or less abolished, as has the need for grace. Sin and evil have been more or less identified with pain and suffering (the consequences of sin) or with whatever else limits and keeps men down: all of which men by their ingenuity must abolish. (Men have now taken over from God in the running of evolution and are responsible for its further development.) The cause of sin and evil is not wickedness in the human heart or rebellion against God; nor is death a punishment for sin. All these things are due to the statistically unavoidable accidents of evolution (which God is unable to prevent) or men's failure to cooperate with it. The Christian worldview preached for 2000 years, beginning with the Apostles, and foreshadowed in the Jewish worldview, is completely wrong. We are not a fallen, but an ascending race. This world is not substantially a "vale of tears," a damaged paradise. The purpose of life is not primarily personal sanctification through the service of God and neighbor amid trials and tribulations in the hope of an eternal reward. We are the work force in a booming contracting business. The task of Christians is to dominate nature and transform the world into a well-organized garden suburb full of healthy, happy (and immortal?) citizens, which our Lord, when He comes again, will find humanly fit to live in. He will then take over this desirable property. There will not apparently be a Judgment, which would be an affront to human dignity. (The end of the story, however, is ambiguous. When Pere Teilhard talks about our Lord as the culmination of human history or the summit of the evolutionary process — his Omega point — one can never be sure whether he believes in a Second Coming or even that our Lord still exists and is God. The name Christ in this context often seems to be simply a symbolic word for the future race of supermen he looks forward to. The same can be said of very many of his followers.) Throughout, no conflict is recognized between holiness and worldly success; "economic and social emancipation," it is assumed, automatically produce virtue; sanctity and prosperity are seen as advancing hand in hand. "Blessed are the occupants of the Ritz Hotel." We are dealing with a religion for successful professionals.

These naive, and in Christians, astonishing ideas, were given clear expression at the Council by a Philippine Archbishop, and are now preached in whole or in part with embarrassing candor by public figures like Archbishop Hurley of Durban (see the Archbishop's address to a medical congress in Bombay reprinted in the London Tablet May 20th, May 27th, and June 3rd, 1978).

Blessed Are The Liberated

I come next to Liberty, the summum bonum for genuine liberals. I would say that in places where basic needs are satisfied, equality and brotherhood arc, as objects of desire, very much second best. Having been now in the air for several centuries, liberty as the supreme ideal now is the air for western civilizations, its indispensable oxygen,

But this liberty is, in important respects, at variance with the Christian concept of liberty, the liberty of the sons of God. All men understandably value their liberty as a most precious possession. But for Christians, the highest goal is not liberty; it is the pursuit of truth and goodness, and liberty is only valuable insofar as it serves that end. As ingredients of happiness, the friendship of God and a right conscience are infinitely above it. If we are abusing our liberty to the danger of our salvation, it is a blessing to have it curtailed. This is why poverty and suffering are called blessed states. In no other sense are they. In Heaven we shall all be rich.

The western cult of liberty, however much it once had in it that was good and reasonable, is now closer to the quasi-neurotic passion for one's own way and resentment at restraint of frantic adolescents and spoiled children, regarding all authority as an evil and subordination as an affront. One cannot help thinking that Eric Fromm should have written a companion study to his famous Fear Or Freedom, and called it The Loathing Of Authority. It is just as much a western disease, and looks as if it may lead to the loss of the liberties we have.

Over the last 50 years, the non-Christian idea of liberty has been seeping into more and more Catholic hearts, and for many of the Catholic intelligentsia had plainly become the highest good, more precious, more in need of protection and preservation than the Faith itself. It now dominates all their thinking, indeed, is often the sole subject of their thinking. As an idea, it is perhaps this more than anything else, which has emptied religious houses, secularized the life of seminaries, and produced doctrinal chaos. Ecclesiastical authorities of nearly every kind are, it seems, so terrified of challenging it, so apparently uncertain what is objectionable about it, that the majority find themselves powerless when it makes its demands. Both progress religion and the cult of liberty are far more important components of neo-Modernism than they were of early Modernism. In that first drama, they only had a walk-on part.

Leaving these general notions, however, which live on the public highways of modern life, we will return in the next installment to the studies and libraries of the learned and look at the most important new arrival there: existentialism.

Title Page

Chapter Two: The Roots Of Modernist Unbelief

Chapter Four: Existentialism: The Ugly Intruder

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