The Roman Catholic Church and the Modernist Controversy

Most people understand vaguely that Christianity in the 21st century is in a different world than it was a hundred years ago. In this series of articles, I hope to highlight the story of how and why we find ourselves in a different world. These are meant to be short reflections about what I believe are key moments when we learned something new and important about the Gospel. Today, we’re looking at Modernism and the Catholic Church. I believe that the lessons learned are the tools we need to move forward in this odd time of being church.

Make it new!

Ezra Pound (1934)

We are living in a very singular moment of history. It is a moment of crisis, in the literal sense of that word. In every branch of our spiritual and material civilization we seem to have arrived at a critical turning-point. This spirit shows itself not only in the actual state of public affairs but also in the general attitude towards fundamental values in personal and social life.

Max Planck (1932)

Over the next two reflections, I want to talk about the reaction of the churches in the West to the phenomenon of Modernism. In this reflection, I will talk about the Catholic response, and the next one will be the Protestant response.

It is hard to overstate how important this moment in church history was. All of the big themes that we are talking about in the church today either come out of this era, or they come from responses to it. During this time, churches divided into groupings that are close to what we now call conservative and liberal. This is where the tendencies and trajectories of the next century begin. To understand ourselves in the 21st century, it is important to understand Modernism.

Modernism Reflected in a Changing World

The Yellow Curtain by Henri Matisse, 1915

What makes this phenomenon difficult to understand, however, is that Modernism is so hard to define. It was a philosophy of a changing world, a world that was becoming industrial, modern, fast, and innovative. It developed at a time when revolution and democratization were undermining established authorities. Socialism and the labour movement were both rising in popularity.

Artists joined the movement, discarding classical forms in favour of abstract explorations of light, shape, and emotion. Novelists were writing stream-of-consciousness novels. Classical musicians were experimenting with atonality. Popular musicians were playing with tempo, creating new forms like Ragtime, Blues and Jazz. It seemed that everything was up for grabs. The only criterion was that things should be new and experimental.

All of these movements had a feeling in common: the world was changing, and changing quickly. But it wasn’t change for change’s sake. The central issue was the conviction that traditional ways of life and thinking were getting in the way of human flourishing. What exactly would replace traditional ways of being was not clear. However, the excitement and energy of Modernism was that something new was emerging.

Modernism and the Roman Catholic Church in Europe

Modernism affected everything, including the churches. This led to a huge crisis in the Roman Catholic church. To understand this situation, we need to see that this crisis is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, so to speak.

The authorities of the Catholic church had felt themselves to be under attack since the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. Before the French Revolution, the Catholic church was in close relationship with most European monarchies. The French church was particularly important. It owned 10 percent of all the land in France, which gave it enormous wealth, power and prestige. But a gulf was widening: the rural areas supported the church, while intellectuals and the rising middle class were chafing against what they perceived as an authoritarian semi-feudal system. When the revolution exploded, the church lost its land and had its wealth confiscated. The clergy were forced to swear oaths to the revolution, or be deported.

This was just the beginning of a long, Europe-wide struggle for the future of the church. There were revolutions and popular movements throughout the 19th century. But the revolutions of 1848, specifically, transformed the Pope, Pius IX, into a man who distrusted the whole modern project. He became convinced that liberal thought and liberal reform did nothing but fuel revolution and anarchy. The Catholic church of his day would have none of it. Ultimately, the church held the First Vatican Council to deal with these issues. The council reaffirmed the church’s teachings against the perceived attacks of rationalism, and they affirmed the doctrine of papal infallibility under certain strictly defined circumstances as a bulwark against modern encroachments into the life of the church.

Modernists in the Catholic Church: Loisy, von Hugel, and Tyrrell

This background sets the stage for the Modernist Controversy. Some members of the Catholic church were deeply moved by the issues I talked about in the previous two articles: Science and Biblical Criticism. They too believed that something new was emerging in the world. They wanted to bring church teaching in line with the most current thought of the day. Most of all, they wanted the church to honour freedom of conscience so that theologians could be free to explore these issues. These scholars became known as Modernists. The most famous were Alfred Loisy, Friedrich von Hugel, and George Tyrrell.

George Tyrrell

George Tyrrell (1861-1909)

George Tyrrell was an Irish Jesuit priest. He actually started out as an Anglican, but converted at the age of 18. He chafed against the scholastic method of theology of his training, which he found arid and dry. Tyrrell thought it failed to address the burning questions of the day, and that the church confused theology with revelation. Theology was secondary reflection. The result was that theology came to be identified with an arid system of propositional truths.

It is all but impossible to imagine the Christ of the synoptics, the advocate of the poor and simple against the intellectual tyranny of lawyers, scribes, and theologians, attaching the slightest religious value to the theologically correct formulation of the inscrutable mysteries prophetically symbolized by the Heavenly Father, the Son of Man, the kingdom of God, etc., or making salvation to depend on any point of mere intellectual exactitude.

George Tyrrell

Pope Pius X reacted strongly. George Tyrrell and Alfred Loisy were both silenced in 1906 and excommunicated in 1908. The pope published two documents condemning a list of Modernist heresies, and condemning Modernism in general as a great synthesis of heresies. In 1910, the church required “all clergy, pastors, confessors, preachers, religious superiors, and professors in philosophical-theological seminaries” to agree on oath to a series of anti-modernist statements. This oath was in place until 1967.

An Ongoing Rift

Of course, this move did not heal the division in the church. In fact, it only reinforced the struggle between “conservative” and “liberal” groups that began at the time of the French Revolution. This split would become the major theme for both Catholic and Protestant churches for the next century. For the conservatives, to be faithful meant rejecting some or all of the Modernist project and holding the line on traditional life and practice. For the liberals, faithfulness meant to follow what they saw as the new movements of the Spirit, allowing freedom of conscience to explore new possibilities in Christian life. There was little room left for moderation. This split continues to this day.

Looking Ahead

It is important to remember that this crisis was not the end of the story. In fact, the Modernist controversy sets the stage for the greatest event in the Catholic church in the 20th century: the Second Vatican Council. At this council, the church would revisit all of these themes again, but with a very different result.

In our next reflection, we will look at the Protestant response to the question of Modernism.

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One Reply to “The Roman Catholic Church and the Modernist Controversy”

  1. I did not know Pious the x took such a harsh stand on modernism. So found this most interesting.

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