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Modernism's Limited Vision 

by James Hitchcock
August 16, 2002

In the nineteenth century the phenomenon of Modernism insisted that change is itself a way of life, to which human beings must adapt themselves. There are no truths as such, merely ideas which seem true in particular historical contexts. Everything new is automatically assumed to be superior to the old.

Such a stance is scarcely compatible with Catholic Tradition, and around l900 a few European theologians -- the Modernists -- attempted to revolutionize Catholic belief. For them Tradition was merely the Church's way of expressing its beliefs in each age, guided by the spirit of the age. Alfred Loisy, the leading Modernist, did not believe it was possible to transcend the limits of one's own historical period, thus doctrinal statements were not permanently valid. Eventually he admitted that he believed nothing in the Creed except that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate.

George Tyrrell thought dogmas were valid only so long as they were not defined since they were attempts to express inner religious experience. The Modernists did not believe in the divine authorship of the Scriptures, nor that the Church had any final teaching authority. Tyrrell came to hate the papacy, and Modernists had a particular animosity toward Saint Thomas Aquinas, who had been proclaimed the Church's preeminent theologian but who for Modernists was merely the relic of a bygone age.

In l907, Pope Saint Pius X condemned Modernism, calling it "the synthesis of all heresies", a religion which was essentially naturalistic, without any necessary divine truth. Religious beliefs were the product of evolving human consciousness, dogmas and theology merely symbolic ways of expressing human insights.  The Modernists were accused of disbelieving in the ability of the mind to know God and therefore of preoccupying themselves merely with the idea of God as it developed throughout history. Pius X once again directed that the thought of Saint Thomas be the basis of Catholic theology.

Following the papal condemnation, Modernism ceased to be a significant intellectual force in the Church, and in fact it had never been one except in marginal circles. Some people speculate that the movement continued underground, but it did not survive in an organized way, although later thinkers returned to some of the same questions.

The issues which the Modernists raised included: l) Whether ideas can transcend the historical era in which they are formulated? 2) Whether it is necessary to adapt beliefs to the spirit of each age? 3) To what extent is religious belief the product of human experience rather than of supernatural revelation? 4) Whether modern biblical studies have discredited traditional beliefs?

The Modernists charged that their condemnation put an end to intellectual life in the Church. But, paradoxically, the decades after l907 saw a brilliant Catholic intellectual flowering, especially represented by scholars who were powerfully attracted by precisely the philosophy of Saint Thomas, which the Modernists found to be without merit. The philosophical system which the Modernists rejected as stifling was the basis of this intellectual revival, which flourished also in history, literature, art, and music and none of these great Catholic intellectuals felt themselves constrained by dogma. Rather they found it nourishing.

The fact that the Modernists could see nothing of value in Thomism reveals the narrowness of their own vision. They could have contributed most creatively to the Church by a synthesis between Tradition and new ideas. Instead they jettisoned Tradition where it seemed to conflict with modernity, and their overall impact was to narrow and restrict Catholic intellectual life, deliberately confining it within the limits of a particular historical era.

In the past century Catholic intellectuals have responded to modernity in a variety of ways, but most have not found it necessary to abandon dogma for the sake of intellectual integrity. Had the Church embraced Modernism, it would have gone down a blind alley, imprisoned in a particular age which, as the Modernists' own philosophy dictated, would itself soon be outmoded. Modernism proved to be the preoccupation of a narrow group of intellectuals who believed that they had little to learn from the rich, centuries-old traditions of their Church.


James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock


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