Last in a Series treating Modernism and Modern Thought
Fr. Joseph Bampton, S.J.
It was said in our opening lecture that Modernism represents a spirit, a tendency, a movement in contemporary thought rather than a cut-and-dried system. Such movements develop almost imperceptibly. It is difficult, therefore, to trace the history of Modernism, to say precisely how and when it arose. But certain stages in its development may be put on record.
The name Modernism would seem to be derived from France; the thing would seem to owe its origin partly to French, partly to German sources. The name, it is said, is as old as the days of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher and deist of the latter half of the eighteenth century. He used the term Modernist of certain savants of his own time and country who were the forerunners, apparently, of our modern evolutionists. But, as applied to the system we have been discussing, the term Modernism seems first to have come into general use in Italy. The thing, the system of Modernism, as sufficiently appears from what has been said, may be ultimately ascribed to the German professor of Konigsberg in the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant. The name of Modernism, then, may be traced to Rousseau, the system ultimately to Kant. But Modernism in its present form is much more recent than either Rousseau or Kant.
In the year 1864, Pope Pius IX published his famous Syllabus of Errors against the faith, in which he solemnly condemned by anticipation some of the most conspicuous doctrines of the Modernism of the present day. The views which distinguish it were gaining ground even then, but, as a system, it seems to have developed somewhat as follows. There was a French Catholic Professor of the University of Lille, by name Maurice Blondel, who was known to be imbued with Kantian ideas. He had first come into notice as the author of an essay entitled L'Action, directed to the harmonising of Catholicity and modern thought. In the year 1896, he published a Letter, in which he attacked the traditional methods of defence employed by the Church against the infidel philosophy and science of the day. He declared that traditional method of the Church to be antiquated and out-of-date. He contended that some new kind of apologetics was necessary to meet the requirements of modern thought. He was followed soon after by a French Oratorian priest, Père Laberthonnière, who, in 1897, published a book called The Religious Problem, very much on the same lines as the Letter of Maurice Blondel. Similar views had been expressed in print by another French priest, the Abbé Marcel Hébert, an avowed disciple of Kant, a professor of philosophy in the École Fénelon in Paris. Observe, the attack was delivered at first upon Scholasticism of which it is enough to say here that it is the traditional method employed in Catholic schools of philosophy and theology. Blondel, Laberthonnière, and Hébert were soon joined by a more formidable adherent, the Abbé Loisy.
The Abbé Loisy had already come into some prominence as a man of extreme views on scriptural subjects; he became one of the leaders of this new movement, and, therefore, we must devote a little more attention to him. He began his career as a professor in the Catholic Institute of Paris. He was a man of brilliant abilities and of great learning; but, after a brief tenure of his chair, he had to be dismissed on account of his liberalising tendencies by the Rector of the Institute, the late Mgr. d'Hulst. At that time, however, he was not formally condemned. He became chaplain to the Dominican Convent of Neuilly, near Paris, but unhappily, while residing there, he began to publish under assumed names papers and articles, many of which were in distinct opposition to Catholic teaching. Such furtive methods of propagating their views have unfortunately become characteristic of the leaders of Modernism. Loisy seems to have set the example. From his retirement as chaplain, he presently emerged as professor again, this time in a Government post, in a lay school of higher studies in Paris. There, under Government patronage, he became bolder, and published what is perhaps his best-known work, The Gospel and the Church. That book was a reply to a work by the German Lutheran professor, Harnack, entitled The Essence of Christianity. Loisy's book was ostensibly a defence of the Church. But its main thesis was "The necessity of the adaptation of the Gospel to the changing needs of humanity." And the adaptation advocated by Loisy was of such a radical kind that this book and similar publications led to his condemnation, and, on his refusal to retract, to his excommunication in 1908. We have mentioned Blondel, Laberthonnière, Hébert, and Loisy. To these may be added Leroy, another French lay professor, whose book, Dogma and Criticism, reversed all accepted notions of what dogma means, and the Abbé Houtin, who, in the Crisis of the Clergy, published a violent attack upon the Church. Observe the rate at which Modernism was travelling. At first it began with an attack on the scholastic system; in a few years' time it developed into an attack upon the Church itself. However, the views thus advocated began to spread among some of the younger and more adventurous spirits in the ranks of the French clergy. From France they passed, chiefly through the writings of Loisy, into Germany and Italy. In Germany, the names of Schell and Schnitzer were associated with the movement, and, in Italy, those of Romolo Murri, the priest-agitator, and of Fogazzaro, the well-known author of Il Santo. England did not escape the invasion of the new errors, as the Autobiography and Life of Father Tyrrell sufficiently proves, and in the year 1900 a joint pastoral of the English Bishops warned English Catholics against them. It might have given pause to those Catholics who affected Modernist views if they had taken note of the kind of persons who claimed fellowship with them. To confine ourselves to France, the cradle of the movement, there were first the Sabatiers, the younger of whom, Paul, lectured on Modernism here in London at the Passmore Settlement in 1908, and was dubbed in France the Pope of Modernism; but the Sabatiers were Protestant divines of what we should call in England "broad-Church" views. Another ally of the Modernists was the well-known Professor of the College of France, Henri Bergson, but Bergson is a professed free-thinker. And yet another patron of the movement was Solomon Reinach, the distinguished archaeologist and art critic and litterateur, but a Jew.
So much with reference to the leaders. Now to come to the rank and file. What the number of the adherents of Modernism may have been at any given time is difficult to estimate. It was undoubtedly large at one period, especially in France and Italy. In 1909, a French writer went so far as to say that the number of Modernists amongst the French clergy alone might be computed as at least fifteen thousand. This was a gross exaggeration, a libel on the French clergy as a body. It was promptly contradicted by one who was perhaps the best authority on the subject - the Abbé Loisy himself. Loisy said that he would not put the number at fifteen hundred, and he added that, in his opinion, Modernism had for the moment sustained a complete rout. That was true of the movement considered as a public agitation carried on openly and without concealment in the Church. And what brought about the rout was the energetic action taken by Pope Pius X. In July, 1907, he published a syllabus - Lamentabili - in which he condemned sixty-five of the most distinctive doctrines of Modernism. They were extracted chiefly from Loisy's writings. Later, on September 8th of the same year, he published his famous encyclical Pascendi, in which he condemned the whole system of Modernism, root and branch.
As was to be expected, both the Pope himself and his measures were severely criticised in certain quarters. He was represented as the very type of a reactionary and obscurantist Roman Pontiff, eager to repress by violent means every indication within the Church of originality of thought and independence of judgment, attempting to stifle a movement with which some of the best thinkers of the age were in sympathy, and which, if properly directed instead of suppressed, might have resulted in incalculable benefit to the cause of religion in general. And not only the person of the Pontiff, the measures also taken by him were fiercely attacked. Such measures were the regulation of the professional studies of the clergy, the prohibition of the reading of books dangerous to faith and morals, the anti-Modernist oath exacted from the officials of the Church and candidates for Holy Orders, and the like. Such measures were denounced as tyrannical, trivial; so trivial, so minute, as to be childish. But the measures had to be drastic, and to descend to matter of detail, if they were to be effective at all. Vague, general denunciations would have been of little use. I wonder how many of those who thus found fault with the Holy Father's action understood what Modernism really meant. I wonder how many of those Christian critics who were among the severest in their criticisms suspected that they were undermining their own position. I wonder how many of them realised that Modernism struck at the very roots of Christianity itself. What the Holy Father did was to tear away the mask from Modernism, and expose it to the world in its true colours as subversive of the Christian faith; and all who called themselves Christians should have been grateful to him for doing so. We Catholics at least may thank God that in Pius X we possess a Pope quick to discern error, and prompt to crush it. We who in this country are accustomed to the spectacle of a State-Church which, faced with the determined onslaught of infidelity upon Christian truth, compromises and temporises and economises and minimises, we who almost daily read and hear of doctrines incompatible with the most elementary Christian notions taught without protest by so-called Christian teachers from so-called Christian pulpits, while ecclesiastical authority looks on with folded arms, helpless, inarticulate, tongue-tied, incapable of taking any steps to protect the truth of which it is supposed to be the official guardian in the land; we, who are more happily circumstanced, may thank God that in Pius X we possess a Pope who understands his office better, and is more conscious of its solemn duties and responsibilities; we may thank God that, whenever the need arises, and Christian truth is called in question, above the confused babel of conflicting tongues there rings out loud and clear, proclaiming truth and refuting error, the voice of the successor of him to whom Christ gave the charge of the sheep and lambs of His flock, for whom Christ prayed that his faith might fail not, whom Christ appointed to confirm the brethren. Pius X will go down to history distinguished amongst the illustrious line of Roman Pontiffs for his vigilance in watching over the deposit of the faith entrusted to his keeping, and for his courage, his superb courage, in defending it; and nowhere have these qualities been more conspicuously displayed than in his condemnation of Modernism. Dominus conservet eum et vivificet eum et beatum faciat eum in terra et non tradat eiim in animam inimicorum eus.
"The Pope has spoken, Modernism has ceased to be." Such were the words of the distinguished French novelist and academician, Paul Bourget. They are true of Modernism regarded as a public movement within the Church. But it would be a mistake to suppose that Modernism as a hidden force is extinct. We need not credit the stories of a secret propaganda, a sort of organised Freemasonry of Modernism among the faithful. We need not accept as authentic the manifesto which purported to come from large numbers of the French clergy, and which declared their intention of subscribing to the anti-Modernist oath as a mere outward formality, while inwardly repudiating it. This document appeared in the public press in 1910; it was unsigned, and, if authentic at all, was probably the work of a handful of malcontents. But, apart from such exaggerated statements, there is evidence to show that Modernism still reckons some secret adherents among the clergy and laity of the Catholic Church. Whatever their numbers, they seem to be considerable enough to encourage them in the hope of gradually influencing the general body of the faithful. It was with the object of warning Catholics against that danger, and of helping them to realise its character, that the foregoing course of lectures was undertaken.