An Adjusted View of Modernism

This is truly a vast subject to which my attention had been drawn by traditionalist and conservative polemics. All, the same, it deserves attention on one of these one-day wonder blog postings. I took the trouble to read J. Lewis May’s Father Tyrrell and the Modernist Movement published in 1932. In my life, there are two characters who have haunted me and acted as a kind of mirror to understand why I am as I am. One is historical and the other fictional. I name Fr George Tyrrell and Captain Nemo from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. The former gave me extreme intellectual curiosity at the time when I was at university and at seminary. The second gave an example of excessive zeal for pacifism and anti-imperialism. Verne’s Nemo character is a complex man of paradox, between love of nature and human inspiration, and his dark side of playing God through sinking ships out of vengeance. Nemo haunted me as a small boy – he and my great grandfather gave me my love of the sea. Tyrrell haunted my time as a theological student, seminarian and priest.

So then, a new joke could begin: What have a submarine captain and a Jesuit priest in common? The mind boggles!

The rhetorical question of Walt Whitman also comes out of this – Wherefore unsatisfied soul? and Whither O mocking life? That is the spirit of Modernism, of a new world emerging from the stiff and pharsaical orthodoxy of the nineteenth century, a short-lived optimism that died on the battlefields of the Somme and Flanders.

The word was coined in Pope Pius X’s 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis. Tyrrell, and even Loisy, did not describe themselves as Modernists. It was a mixed bag, and the Pope and his advisors missed vital distinctions. Some of the movement was influenced by liberal Protestant theologians, starting with the Tübingen school in the mid-19th century. This tendency is now represented by Hans Küng and much of the Anglican Communion, together with the general tendency Pope Benedict XVI characterised as the tyranny of relativism. Von Hügel and Tyrrell saw the general movement in a different way. There was indeed a need to speak about God and theology in terms that would be credible to the modern scientific mind but without denying all spiritual life and the supernatural. There are several characteristics of Modernism.

For example we have an approach to the Bible that seeks to depart from literalism and fundamentalism. That gave the phenomenal biblical movement that Leo XIII sought to channel in the 1890’s. The second would be secularism and the ideals of the Enlightenment – the best course of action in politics and other civic fields is that which flows from a common understanding of the Good by various groups and religions. Secularism is far from perfect, but it seems to be better at maintaining order in society than a theocracy. I am personally convinced that the future of Christianity lies in its complete separation from politics and becoming an invisible leaven of prayer among people who live in the community and help the poor and the weak. Yes, evil will be committed by secular authorities, and we observe the reply of Jesus to Pilate “My Kingdom is not of this world”. That says it all for me.

I also see merit in what I understand of philosophies like those of Hegel. Much of the philosophy that underpins modern thought goes back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What is usually understood by modernity by historians is something like the latter half of the eighteenth century to our own times. The essential criterion is the mindset of the Enlightenment. It did a lot of harm to the Church, guillotined many bishops and priests, but the Church had brought it upon herself together with the Monarchy and the Aristocracy. Louis XVI’s desire for reform came too late. The pent-up anger exploded and the bomb had gone off!

One aspect Pius X nailed onto Modernism was the idea of evolving dogma. Newman was very lucky to spend much of his life as a theologian under the Roman patrician Leo XIII. There were many subtleties like considering the definition of papal infallibility as inopportune or talking of development of doctrine rather than evolving dogma. That to me sounds a little like criticising a piece of writing because synonyms could have been used (or employed) instead of the words actually used. Children at catechism are (or were) taught that Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle, namely Saint John. Whatever that means to the average eleven-year old is difficult to imagine! On the other hand, the Papacy is hard-pressed to find evidence of papal infallibility in the Scriptures or the Fathers of the Church!

Life progresses and develops, at least before it grows old and dies, not before having passed life to new generations that will do the same. We post-moderns challenge many of the assumptions of our forebears when we ask whether technology and progress are a good thing when it is used for making weapons of war. What about our moral and spiritual progress? There, Captain Nemo comes out in me. I would have gladly joined the Merchant Navy as a boy, becoming a “lorry driver” of the sea, but I would have been too much of a pacifist to consider joining the Royal Navy. To this day, I find it incredible that no ship designed to carry freight or passengers is nuclear powered. At least there are facilities that split the atom to make electricity – and some of that goes into this computer! Back to theology. There is not much to update in theology – except the language we use. Nearly all disputes in theology are over the language used to express concepts. It’s all in the technical terms, and wars are started for less.

I once wrote about the Sodalitium Pianum, an organisation set up under Pius X as a response to the Modernist “crisis”. The Church responded by coercive means rather than work on the theology with real intellectual rigour. With a more pastoral and educational approach, I am sure the dialectics of conservatism and relativism could have been avoided, leading to the tragedy of the 1960’s – not only in the Roman Catholic Church, but also in all western Christian denominations.

Some of the Modernists were the greatest and most enlightened historians of their day. I think of liturgical scholars like Pierre Batiffol (1861–1929) and Louis Duchesne (1843-1922), and am embarrassed to read of their work being referred to as the synthesis of all heresies.

Distinctions have to be made, but this theological movement, which colluded with the Pre-Raphaelites and Arts & Crafts and much of the reaction from the materialism of the nineteenth century, needs to become better known and popularised. Perhaps this will become a new goal and foundational myth for this blog.

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1 Response to An Adjusted View of Modernism

  1. Stephen K says:

    I think this article and theme deserves some acknowledgment. I came across Tyrell’s writings only relatively recently, though of course I had been aware of him and Loisy for a long time. I read his reply to Cardinal Mercier and Lex credendi. I found his presentations very clear and coherent. I think your earlier post on Tyrell reflects a measured characterisation of how he would not have seen himself. I can only imagine the profound sad perplexity and disappointment he must have felt at being so rejected at the time.

    It seems to me that our human tendency to place, for efficiency’s sake, a label on people we disagree with on one thing is not only destructive but misleading. What, after all, is a Modernist? Or a Traditionalist? There are more than the prescribed Heinz varieties, it seems, with lots of cross-overs. We can use these tags, even of ourselves, as I say, for efficiency’s sake, but they do tend to close or narrow our open consideration of what people have to say in the religious or spiritual field. Were Tyrell’s ideas and formulations “dangerous”, as the condemnations would have it? Well, perhaps no more than any other idea or formulation devised by Man once it goes through the interpretative and existential cauldron of an individual.

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