Anglo-Catholicism, Modernism and Aggiornamento

The Holy Triduum always has its profound effect on me as on countless other Christians. We are speechless faced with the horror of human wickedness and the contrasting love of God in Jesus Christ – that one last hope for sinful humanity. I also had that “Here we go again…” feeling about the last thread of comments that coincided with the embers of Spy Wednesday. I have that way of bouncing back, but not without learning lessons.

One thing I heard about a considerable amount in my days as a young convert to traditionalist / conservative Catholicism was portrayed as the worst demonic enemy of faith and true religion – Modernism. I am not the sort of person to jump onto a bandwagon and rave about Modernists like Hitler ranted about the Jews. A couple of times at seminary, I had to recite an Anti-Modernist Oath to receive the subdiaconate and the diaconate. This text written in the time of Pius X at the beginning of the twentieth century described barely comprehensible notions of evolving revelations and doctrine reduced to sentimentalism – something not at all difficult to reject. The truth is that the Vatican, as usual, made a mess of the whole affair, blaming so-called Modernists for what was being read in the writings of German liberal Protestants, the very people Modernists opposed! The Modernist “demon” aroused my curiosity. I had sincerely abjured ideas I found wrong or irrelevant anyway, but discovered a whole different world.

See Catholic Modernism (1896-1914) which shows that the notion of a Vatican screwup was not my invention, but there is more information in some books I have in my library, which I would have to root out. It could be said that if Modernism was the ideology Pius X attempted to characterise, there were no Modernists. Remember that this was a time when reactionary and counter-revolutionary conspiracy theorists saw Jews and Freemasons under every bed! Anti-Semitism was not invented by the Nazis!

Very early on in my Catholic life, I asked questions and read about the so-called “synthesis” of all heresies. In the late nineteenth century, there were those who developed the thought of the Oxford Movement and the various offshoots of Romanticism – men like George Tyrrell. Tyrrell was not alone in the abusively broadly-defined Modernist movement, but he worked, thought and lived largely alone. He was not part of a conspiracy or even a movement. The convergence was nothing more than the Zeitgeist, an aspiration to interiority and beauty in reaction against secularism and rationalism in official institutional religion.

I am not going to set out to write a complete essay on Modernism, as more learned men have accomplished this task. Here are a couple of inspiring articles on the Internet, one from the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev and from the American Kenneth Rexroth. The former wrote Catholic Modernism and the Crisis of the Contemporary Consciousness in 1908. Rexroth wrote two articles a while ago, which I find very interesting, one on The Catholic Modernists and the other on the “proto-modernist” leaven in the Oxford Movement and Anglo-Catholicism – The Evolution of Anglo-Catholicism. I leave you to read these two articles.

In The Catholic Modernists, the author leaves off with the reflection:

It seems to me that there are two drives operating today, two contradictory definitions of aggiornamento. One is the now long dead Liberal Protestantism which is given lip service in the luncheon clubs and all the forums of the Social Lie, the apotheosis of spiritual vulgarity. If this wins, it means the end of Catholicism, Christianity, religion, all interiority. The other is simply a more developed concept of prayer, and the opening of all life to its pervasiveness. This is not new at all, but Patristic, Apostolic, Evangelical — or if you will, a clarification of the religious experience as such, so that it might be shared by all men, today. Father Tyrrell and Baron von Hügel were amongst the first to be acutely aware of this antithesis in modern religion. It is obvious which side they chose, which is why they are so desperately relevant today.

This simple distinction helps me better to understand my own thought and spiritual anguish over the years. Modernism is not so-called Liberal Protestantism, that spiritually-dead caricature of Christianity. I have insisted for a long time that our agonies are not resumed in a dualistic struggle between conservatism and liberalism, each demonising the other in a combat of mutual anathemas, but that the human soul aspires to transcendence, beauty, peace and wisdom. Transcendence is the quality of the prophetic souls of this world, of musicians, artists, explorers, navigators and scientists – but this remains the greatest secret.

Perhaps Christ was the first Modernist! I don’t like the word, but if this is what it means, it is altogether my way.

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1 Response to Anglo-Catholicism, Modernism and Aggiornamento

  1. Stephen K says:

    I have waited a few days before venturing a comment here. I personally do not find the notion that Jesus was a Modernist shocking. In a very obvious sense, Jesus challenged the prevailing Jewish interpretation of what it meant to keep faithful to the Covenant of Abraham. It was not, contrary to the emphasis of the Pharisees, a rigorous application of the letter, nor, contrary to the Saduccees, a rigourous attention to ritual purity and worship in the Temple, nor, contrary to the Essenes, a complete withdrawal from the world, the corrupt and the unclean and the mundane. It was something more vital and organic and indiscriminating, involving the embrace of the leper and the forgiveness of others and the common table.

    It was in this sense that the modernism and the modernists condemned by Pius X were very much trying to keep the faith vital. They were condemned en masse – despite significant differences in emphasis and thesis amongst the chief proponents – because their criticisms, of Scripture, church, and the meaning of the faith, threatened the comfortable status quo in one way or another. Jesus did so too. We do not, I suggest, fully understand how but we have theories which form the bedrock of Christian faith – that he was the Logos made man, to show the true Way, and the true LIfe, through Ultimate sacrificial Love.

    I have read some of George Tyrell, and find him something of a prophetic voice unappreciated by the establishment of his time. If the Christian religion cannot handle or embrace prophets that call the structures and doctrines to task, then it is doomed to be a museum piece. 2000 years shows it will endure for ever? Not, I say. The Egyptian religion lasted for over 4000 years before it went with the submersion of its empires. We are barely halfway, and already it suffers huge credibility problems in its heartland. In the timeframe of human development, Christianity is a latecomer, but whether it is a youth or an old man nearing death will depend on its ability to speak and inspire new generations who accept the paradoxes of relative time and space.

    A distinction is made between Liberal Protestantism and true Aggiornomento. I am not sure this distinction is so neat. Both represent the instinct and desire to be free of ossification. The first step in learning and advancing in knowledge and virtue is to admit we need to learn and advance because we do not know enough and have no cause to boast any merit.

    These are just my own personal reflections but what do others think?

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