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Modernism refers to theological opinions expressed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but with influence reaching into the 21st century, which are characterized by a break with the past. Catholic modernists form an amorphous group. The term "modernist" appears in Pope Pius X's 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis. Modernists, and what are now termed "Neo-Modernists," generally, do not openly use this label in describing themselves.

Modernists came to prominence in French and British intellectual circles and, to a lesser extent, in Italy.[1] The Modernist movement was influenced by Protestant theologians and clergy, starting with the Tübingen school in the mid-19th century. Some modernists, however, such as George Tyrrell, would disagree with this analogy; Tyrrell saw himself as loyal to the unity of the Church, and disliked liberal Protestantism (Hales 1958).

Forms of Modernism in the Church

Some Catholics see Modernism as the descent from Christianity to atheism.

Modernism in the Catholic Church might be described under the following broad headings:

  • Rationalist approach to the Bible. The rationalism that was characteristic of the Enlightenment took a proto-materialistic view of miracles and the historicity of biblical narratives. This approach sought to interpret the Bible by focusing on the text while simultaneously ignoring what the Church fathers had traditionally taught about it. This method was readily accepted by Protestants and Anglicans. It was an expected offshoot of Martin Luther's sola scriptura, which asserts that scripture is the highest authority, and that one can rely on it alone regarding all things pertaining to salvation and a Christian life.
  • Secularism and other Enlightenment ideals. The ideal of secularism can be briefly summarised as holding that the best course of action in politics and other civic fields is that which flows from disparate groups’ and religions’ common understanding of the “good”. By implication, Church and State should be separated, and the laws of the state should generally only cover the “common ground” of beliefs between the various religious groups that might be present — for example the prohibition of murder, etc. From the secularists’ point of view, it was possible to distinguish between political ideas and structures that were religious and those that were not. Catholic theologians in the mainstream argued that such a distinction was not possible, that all aspects of society had to be organized with the final goal of heaven in mind. This was a direct counter to the thread of Humanism that had been in the forefront of intellectual thought since the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution.
  • Modern philosophical systems. Philosophers such as Kant and Henri Bergson inspired the mainstream of Modernist thought. One of the main currents was the attempt to synthesize the vocabularies/epistemologies/metaphysics and other features of certain modern systems of philosophy with Catholicism, in much the same way the Scholastics earlier attempted to synthesize Platonic and Aristotlean philosophy with Catholicism.

As more naturalistic or scientific studies of history appeared, a sense of historicism suggested that ideas are generally so conditioned by the age in which they are expressed; thus modernists generally believed that most dogmas or teachings of the Church were novelties which arose because of specific historical circumstances throughout the history of the Church. Rationalism and textual criticism downplayed the possible role of the miraculous, and the philosophical systems in vogue at the time taught that the existence of God and other things could never be known (see Agnosticism). Theology, formerly the “queen of the sciences” was dethroned. (Wilkinson 2002) So it was argued that religion must be primarily caused by and centered on the feelings of believers. This bolsters the claims of secularism in weakening any position that supported favoring one religion over the other in the state (since, if there isn’t a scientific and reasonable assumption that one's religion is right, it would be a much easier to organize society based on the assumption that no particular religion is right).

Evolution of dogmas

The final overall teaching of Modernism, is that dogmas (what is taught by the Church and what its members are required to believe) can evolve over time, rather than being the same for all time. This aspect of thought was what made Modernism unique in the history of heresies in the Church. Previously, a heretic (someone who believed and taught something different from what the rest of the church believed) would either claim that he was right and the rest of the church was wrong because he had received a new revelation from God, or that he had understood the true teaching of God which was previously understood but then lost. Both of those scenarios almost necessarily led to an organizational separation away from the Church (schism) or the offender being ejected from the Church (excommunication). With this new idea that doctrines evolve, it was possible for the modernist to believe that the old teachings of the Church and his new seemingly contradictory teachings were both correct — each had their time and place. This system allows almost any type of new belief that the modernist might want to introduce, and for this reason Modernism was labelled the "synthesis of all heresies" by Pope Pius X.

Social/anthropological causes of Modernism

Catholic historians and theologians have social explanations as to why Modernism developed as it did and became so popular:

  • Working with the modern philosophical systems was popular. It allowed theologians to work with non-Catholic philosopher contemporaries, and not to be looked down upon as "ancient" for their frequently exclusively Scholastic philosophy.
  • In the Americas, especially in the United States, priests, bishops and theologians were surrounded by a culture and laity committed to the concept of secularism. Anti-Catholic uprisings during the colonial period and later caused a desire for priests and bishops to “fit in” and to “prove their loyalty to the American way”. Documents such as the Syllabus of Errors (which condemned freedom of religion and separation of church and state) were largely ignored by these priests and bishops. The modernistic trend of injecting secular values into Catholicism itself would allow for a much smoother relationship in these areas. Also, some argue, the downplaying of the doctrines taught by the Church contrary to American culture led them to be virtually unknown by succeeding generations of Catholics, causing newly ordained priests and bishops almost automatically to have secularist beliefs.
  • The "evolution of dogmas" theory (see Development of doctrine), much like certain interpretations of being saved sola fide (“by faith alone”), allows for a constant updating of standards of morality. As moral standards shifted heavily during the 20th century, previously a Catholic would have had to deny his faith to engage in some of the actions of his contemporaries. Now, by citing the theory that dogmas can change, it was possible to “update” Catholic morality while not being concerned with possible contradictions.

Official Church response

In 1893, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus affirmed in principle the legitimacy of Biblical criticism only insofar as it was pursued in a spirit of faith. In 1903 Leo established a Pontifical Biblical Commission to oversee those studies and ensure that they were conducted with respect for the Catholic doctrines on the inspiration and interpretation of scripture.

Pope Pius X, who succeeded Leo, was the first to identify Modernism as a movement. He frequently condemned both its aims and ideas, and was deeply concerned by the ability of Modernism to allow its adherents to believe themselves strict Catholics while having a markedly different belief as to what that meant (a consequence of the notion of evolution of dogma). In July 1907 the Holy Office published the document Lamentabili Sane Exitu, a sweeping condemnation which distinguished sixty-five propositions as a Modernist Heresy. In September of the same year, Pius X promulgated an encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis which enjoined a compulsory Oath Against Modernism on all Catholic bishops, priests and teachers. The oath was abolished by Pope Paul VI in 1967.

To ensure enforcement of these decisions, Monsignor Umberto Benigni organized, through his personal contacts with theologians, an unofficial group of censors who would report to him those thought to be teaching condemned doctrine. This group was called the Sodalitium Pianum, i.e. Fellowship of Pius (X), which in France was known as La Sapinière. Its frequently overzealous and clandestine methods hindered rather than helped the Church's combat against Modernism.[2]

Since Pope Paul VI, most church authorities have largely dropped the term "modernism", perhaps because it is inherently ambiguous and can possibly be confused with the modernist movement in art, instead preferring to identify more precise errors, such as secularism, liberalism or relativism. The term has however enjoyed a revival amongst Traditionalists and Conservative critics within the Catholic Church.

Some Catholic Modernists

Major figures

Early modernists

  • Alfred Loisy (1857-1940), whose L'Évangile et L’Église (1902) sparked the crisis
  • George Tyrell (1861-1909)
  • Ernesto Buonaiuti (1881–1946), as a scholar in History of Christianity and religious philosophy he was one of the most important exponents of the modernist current.

Other, less public modernists

Suspected of Modernism

  • Marie-Joseph Lagrange (1855-1938), founder of the École Biblique in Jerusalem
    • The École Biblique itself
  • Lucien Laberthonierre
  • Pierre Batiffol (1861-1929), historian of dogma
  • Maurice Blondel (1861-1949), philosopher and apologist (not strictly a “modernist” yet one of the chief suspects given his role in the debate and misunderstandings of his work)

See also


External links


  • Acton, Lord, The History of Freedom and Other Essays An outsider's criticism.
  • Ilaria Biagioli, Alfonso Botti, Rocco Cerrato (eds), Romolo Murri e i murrismi in Italia e in Europa cent'anni dopo, Urbino, QuattroVenti, 2005
  • Alfonso Botti, Rocco Cerrato (eds), Il modernismo tra cristianità e secolarizzazione, Urbino, QuattroVenti, 2001
  • Poulat, É. 1979. Histoire, dogme et critique dans la crise moderniste. Tournai. Casterman.
  • Altholz, Josef L. 1962. The Liberal Catholic Movement in England
  • Hales, E.E.Y., 1954. Pio Nono: A Study in European Politics and Religion in the Nineteenth Century (Doubleday)
  • Gauthier, P. 1988. Newman et Blondel. Tradition et développement du dogme. Paris. Le Cerf.
  • Hales, 1958. The Catholic Church in the Modern World (Doubleday)
  • Izquierdo, C. 1990. Blondel y la crisis modernista. Análisis de « Historia y dogma ». Pamplona. Ed. Univ. De Navarra.
  • Jodock, Darrell, editor, 2002. Catholicism Contending with Modernity (Cambridge University Press)
  • Loome, Thomas Michael Liberal Catholicism, Reform Catholicism, Modernism: A Contribution to a New Orientation in Modernist Research[1].
  • O’Connell, Marvin, Critics on Trial : An Introduction to the Catholic Modernist Crisis, Catholic University of America Press, Washington DC, 1994.
  • Virgoulay, R. 1980. Blondel et le modernisme. La philosophie de l’action et les sciences religieuses (1896-1913). Paris. Le Cerf.
  • Reviewed by Fr. John Parsons
  • Sinke Guimarães, Atila (1997) (in English). In the Murky Waters of Vatican II. Metairie: MAETA. ISBN 1889168068. 
  • Amerio, Romano (1996) (in English). Iota Unum. Kansas City: Sarto House. ISBN 0963903217. 

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