Roman Catholic Modernism

In 1910 Pius X published an “Oath against Modernism” which priests had to take until it was abolished by Pope Paul VI in 1967. The Oath required priests to acknowledge that the doctrines of the Faith were “handed down to us from the apostles through the orthodox Fathers in exactly the same meaning (emphasis added),” that is, doctrine did not really develop. The basics for repression were now in place to counter the real enemy, the modern world that promoted liberty, separation of church and state, freedom of religion, of the press, and of speech, and anything else that called into question papal authority and its totalitarian methods of dealing with dissidents.

See Also: History and Heresy: How Historical Forces Can Create Doctrinal Conflicts (Liturgical Press 2012)

By Joseph F. Kelly
Professor of Church History
John Carroll University
October 2013

In the first half of the twentieth century Roman Catholic biblical scholarship lagged far behind that of Protestants and Jews, a situation brought about by one man, Giuseppe Sarto, who in 1903 became Pope Pius X. He chose that name to affirm his solidarity with Pius IX (1846-1878), famous for his Syllabus of Errors that condemned many modern values such as freedom of religion, of the press, and of speech. Pius X had to accept – because he could not change – much about the modern world, including the satanic Italian state – but he could keep the modern world out of the Church.

Bright but not scholarly, Pius resented and feared modern biblical exegesis, founded by German Protestants and dominated by the great Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), that employed disciplines such as textual criticism and the literary-historical method (as it was then called). For seven centuries Catholic theologians had relied upon the interpretation of the Bible as done by the Medieval scholastics, especially Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Although a brilliant theologian, Thomas could not read Greek or Hebrew and had to do his exegesis via the Latin text of the Bible. Furthermore, as a Dominican friar, he had to make sure that his conclusions fell in line with Catholic teaching.

The scholastic approach achieved much in the thirteenth century, and Pius believed it to be applicable in the twentieth. But scholasticism was ill-equipped for the new approaches to Scripture. For example, Catholic theologians believed that the miracles of Jesus could be treated as historical facts, whereas modern scholars pointed out that that miracles involve divine intervention, something that cannot be demonstrated historically.

Inevitably Catholic exegetes became aware of the new methods and wanted to use them, not to challenge the prevailing Catholic theology but to strengthen it. Their concern was that Catholic scholarship in all areas would suffer without the freedom to try new methods and that the Church which they loved would pay a heavy price, especially with educated people. They turned out to be right.

A number of these Catholic scholars had such views, which Pius X would later denounce as “modernism,” a very restrictive and confusing term. The suffix “-ism” implies a belief system, but no “modernist” ever suggested in believing something just because it was modern. Furthermore, the “-ism” implies a movement, such as Communism, but such a “modernist” movement never existed. As the many scholars have demonstrated, the “movement” consisted of a group of individual scholars who knew one another’s work and who were sometimes connected by a nobleman named Friedrich von Hügel, a sort of fellow traveler who met with many new thinkers and passed along books, articles and ideas. The two most prominent “modernists,” a Frenchman and an Englishman, never even met.

The Frenchman and the most important “modernist” was Albert Loisy (1857-1940), a priest who survived a wretched seminary education in provincial France to become a great exegete and an admirer and sometime critic of von Harnack (who reciprocated). Loisy worked at the same time as another French priest and exegete, Marie-Joseph LaGrange (1855-1938), a Dominican who worked on the Old Testament and concluded that Moses could not have authored the entire Pentateuch, no matter what Catholic tradition and scholastic theology had posited. In 1897, when he wrote a commentary on Genesis, using the new methods, his Dominican superiors in Rome called the book “inopportune” and warned that unnamed critics would take offense at Lagrange’s conclusions. In 1907 the Pontifical Biblical Commission, filled with non-specialists who loathed the new exegesis, confirmed that Moses had written the Pentateuch. In 1907 Pius X forbade the publication of Lagrange’s Genesis commentary which Lagrange accepted “prostrate at the feet of You Holiness” and in “filial obedience.” [After this episode, the Dominican superior in Rome told Lagrange to abandon his work on the Book of Judges since it would be judged badly at the Vatican.]

Lagrange was a priest whose commitment to the Dominican Order and the Roman Catholic Church was stronger than his commitment to scholarship – because that was, indeed, his choice. His Genesis commentary was never published in his lifetime, but he did do a good deal of scholarship, especially on the New Testament, that did reach publication.

Loisy and Lagrange met on two occasions, although not after 1895, and they had great respect for one another’s scholarship, but Loisy was a very different type of scholar. He initially tried to follow Lagrange’s approach of claiming that his work did not challenge any current Catholic thinking on the Bible. Initially this presented no problem because Loisy knew and respected scholastic theology, but his biblical scholarship soon made him realize that he could not maintain the fiction that his work fit into the traditional Catholic understanding of Scripture.

Lagrange got in trouble working on the Pentateuch; Loisy upped the ante by applying the new exegesis to the New Testament, especially the gospels. Even his first tentative conclusions proved problematic to Vatican authorities. For example, he pointed out that the New Testament does not prove that Jesus performed miracles but only that his followers believed and/or claimed that he did, today accepted as a rather obvious point but at that time challenging the scholastic acceptance of the miracles’ historicity. Loisy justified his position and defended his method, but hostile criticism, in Rome and among French bishops, mounted steadily and made his situation at the Institut Catholique in Paris untenable. In 1893 Loisy felt he had no choice but to resign.

But Loisy remained a Catholic priest who feared that his church would fall behind intellectually and lose credibility with educated and sophisticated believers, that is, those who moved the societies in which the Church must function. But he needed to prove that to church authorities. He decided to use the new exegesis to reply to von Harnack’s theory of Hellenization, that the earliest church got caught up in Greco-Roman culture, lost its original way, and needed to return to scriptural principles. Loisy would demonstrate that the church played a role in the construction of the gospels and thus could not be in opposition to the Bible. The result of his efforts was The Gospel and the Church (1902).

Loisy demonstrated that the words of Jesus had been preserved and interpreted in the church before being written down, thus giving the church a major role in revelation. But scholastic theologians considered Jesus’ words in the gospels as verbatim information provided by the incarnate Word upon which theological generalizations could be based. Loisy’s method also meant that the gospel were not fully historical. The Vatican response came quickly. In 1903 the book was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. Loisy began to realize that Church leaders would never accept the new exegesis, at least while Pius X ruled.

The other most famous modernist was George Tyrrell (1861-1909), an Anglo-Irish Protestant who converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit in England. He too feared that the Church would fall behind intellectually and lose credibility with educated believers, especially in democratic, largely Protestant England which had little love for the Vatican and its ways.

Tyrrell first gained attention with an article criticizing the scholastic treatment of damnation as too rationalistic and lacking a sense of mystery. He soon followed that with arguments that doctrinal formulas are products of history and culture and should be updated to acknowledge new realities, such as scientific advances. Although not an exegete, Tyrell recognized that opponents of accepting scientific advances would use biblical literalism against his ideas.

Significantly, educated English Catholics liked Tyrell and agreed with his English Jesuit brothers that his approach would help the Church in the United Kingdom. But the Jesuit superior general in Rome, Luis Martin, disagreed. Martin, coming from 99% Catholic Spain and living in 99% Catholic Italy, had little interest in England. (At this time many Mediterranean Catholics had literally never met a Protestant.) Martin sent warnings to Tyrell, but the English Jesuit province supported him. The infuriated Martin responded by relieving the English provincial of his office. Seeing the inevitable, in 1905 Tyrell resigned from the Jesuits to protect the English province, and Rome placed his writings on the Index.

But Rome could not stop these new ideas from spreading, and, as modernist ideas began to appear in Catholic circles in Germany and even in Italy, Pius concluded that stronger steps were necessary.

On July 3, 1907 he published the syllabus Lamentabili, and the opening sentence shows what Pius thought to be lamentable: “Our age, casting aside all restraint in its search for the ultimate causes of things, frequently pursues novelties.” The modern world is the real problem, causing theologians to “go beyond the limits determined by the Fathers and the Church herself.” Lamentabili then lists a series of errors to be condemned (including “errors” that no Catholic theologian ever taught). One of main errors was that “the Resurrection of the Savior is not properly a fact of the historical order,” that is, the resurrection is an historical event even though it cannot be proven historically.

Two months later Pius published the encyclical Pascendi which would provide a far-ranging condemnation not just of errors but of the heresy behind them, modernism, a name created in the Vatican to include various dangerous “novelties,” a word used nine times in the encyclical. Indeed, modernism was the “synthesis of all heresies.”

Using a Medieval term, Pius insisted philosophy was the ancilla (usually translated as “handmaiden” but actually meaning “female slave”) of scholastic theology, that is, philosophy was not an independent discipline. Furthermore, “there is no surer sign that a man is tending toward modernism than when he begins to show his dislike for the scholastic method,” that is, criticizing scholasticism is incipient heresy.

As for liberty in discussing thelogy, there are many who “have been so infected by breathing a poisoned atmosphere as to think, speak, and write with a degree of liberty ill becoming a Catholic.” Readers must have wondered what degree of liberty did not ill become a Catholic.

Pius had exposed the virus, now came the antidote. “We strictly ordain that scholastic philosophy be made the basis of the sacred sciences,” and that the sacred sciences will wait upon scholasticism after the manner of an ancilla. Thus biblical textual critics would have to have their work approved by scholastic theologians with no expertise in that area.

But how to be sure that these therapeutic practices would be carried out? Any teacher “tainted with modernism” is to be fired , and bishops should watch out for “those who show a love of novelty in history, archaeology, and biblical exegesis.” Yet wrong ideas can also be spread by books, so Pascendi ordered bishops to prevent the printing of modernist books and “to drive out of your diocese…any pernicious book that might be in circulation there.” All dioceses should have censors, and the bishops should also monitor Catholic booksellers.

But individual censors may not be enough, so “We decree…that in every diocese there shall be what We are pleased to name the ‘Council of Vigilance’…which shall watch most carefully for every trace and sign of Modernism.” Naturally the vigilantes “shall be bound to secrecy as to their deliberations and decisions.” Every diocese would have its own heres-hunting committee.

Yet even these measures proved insufficient, so in 1910 Pius X published an “Oath against Modernism” which priests had to take until it was abolished by Pope Paul VI in 1967. The Oath required priests to acknowledge that the doctrines of the Faith were “handed down to us from the apostles through the orthodox Fathers in exactly the same meaning (emphasis added),” that is, doctrine did not really develop.

The basics for repression were now in place to counter the real enemy, the modern world that promoted liberty, separation of church and state, freedom of religion, of the press, and of speech, and anything else that called into question papal authority and its totalitarian methods of dealing with dissidents.

The impact of Pascendi was severe and immediate.

The pious Lagrange kept his head down and avoided condemnation but at the price of his scholarship.

Loisy knew he had to choose between the Catholic Church and scholarship. He chose the latter, was excommunicated in 1908, but in 1909 received appointment to the prestigious Collège de France where he worked alongside such great names as Émile Durkheim and Henri Bergson and kept up.

By 1907 Tyrell was suffering seriously from nephritis from which he died in 1909. But he went down fighting, writing articles for The Times that denounced Pascendi.

The heresy hunting was always vile but sometimes ridiculous. In the early twentieth century the United States had 15 million Catholics. The vigilantes found three modernists (all priests), that is, one modernist for every three million Catholics!

The decades after Pius X were sad ones for Catholic scholarship. No one knew what minor point could bring denunciation. In Bergamo, Italy, a local informer checking the records of a Catholic bookstore, denounced the church history teacher at the local seminary for using a suspect book. The accused church historian was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, the man who, via the Second Vatican Council and his own personal commitment, opened the Catholic Church to the modern world.

In 1943, the well-educated Pius XII (1939-1958) published an encyclical entitled Mediator Dei that urged Catholic scholars to respect the approach taken to the Bible by the Fathers of the Church but also allowed them to use newer methods, such as literary and historical criticism, and to work with the original languages, which in turn meant doing serious textual criticism. Somewhat puzzlingly, he did not abolish the Oath against Modernism.

Initially this encyclical had limited impact. Pius XII wrote it during World War II when the Western world and the Church had more formidable concerns, and he was ill for the last years of his life. Furthermore, most Catholic chairs of theology, including the Scriptural ones, were occupied by those who met the criteria established by Pius X and who internalized the supremacy of scholasticism to all other forms of theological method. But by the 1960s Catholic scholars were doing work that matched the best that Protestants and Jews were doing, and in 1967 Pope Paul VI abolished the Oath for priests.

Further enhancing contemporary Catholic biblical scholarship was the ecumenical movement, which brought Catholic scholars into dialogue with Protestant and Jewish scholars, often as colleagues on the faculty of Catholic universities. Equally significant was the massive changeover in the composition of Catholic university faculties in the late twentieth century. Lay Catholic professors, including many women, brought new views to the campus. They also brought binding contracts, faculty handbooks, and tenure, that is, they are legally protected employees of the university, which must stand by their academic freedom, even in the face of Vatican disapproval.

Catholic biblical scholarship is here to stay.

Comments (5)

Are the imperatives of scholarship applied to a text - ie objective study, following the evidence where it leads and all that - fundamentally (the right word, I think) at various with loyal membership of a body which expounds that text on an organised basis?

#1 - Martin - 10/30/2013 - 11:12

I meant 'at variance'.

#2 - Martin - 10/30/2013 - 11:12

The last sentence and the proceeding paragraph are of course wishful. That they are intended as statements of fact is disturbing and distorting. Your fine historical overview strangely ends without a discussion of the dark period after 1967--most notably that period which opened with Hans Küng's Unfehlbar? of 1970 and which culminated disastrously in the reactionary papacy of Ratzinger which has decisively crushed German scholarship.

You owe your readers a review of these terrible 50 years. Do you really claim that Catholic biblical scholarship
is sound and healthy? Free and responsible?

I find the last sentence and its preceeding paragraph--absent a discussion of post-1967 repression--an inaccurate statement of serious proportions.

Thomas L. Thompson¨
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen

#3 - Thomas L. Thompson, Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen - 10/30/2013 - 16:19

FYI, Pius XII's 1943 encyclical was Divino afflante spiritu, and not Mediator dei, as you write. I have an article in Gregorianum 93 (2012) 765-84 which further details the more recent setbacks mentioned by Professor Thompson above.

#4 - Thomas Bolin - 11/04/2013 - 02:38

I rather think that from the time of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of Heaven is subject to violence and violent men - or at least men who won't listen to reason - possess it or at least some of its fields and citadels.
Isn't it distressing when people make sweeping statements in a forum that invites comment and then make no response to the comments they have received - often (I don't refer to myself) from very well-informed people?

#5 - Martin - 11/07/2013 - 17:26

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