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In a Catholic context, Modernism is neither a system, school, or doctrine, but refers to a number of individual attempts to reconcile Roman Catholicism with modern culture; specifically an understanding of scripture in light of scientific advances in archeology, philology, the historical-critical method and other new developments of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—and implicitly all that this might entail.
Writing in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Arthur Vermeersch describes modernism thus: "In general we may say that modernism aims at that radical transformation of human thought in relation to God, man, the world, and life, here and hereafter, which was prepared by Humanism and eighteenth-century philosophy, and solemnly promulgated at the French Revolution." The term came to prominence in Pope Pius X's 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis, which synthesizes and condemns modernism as embracing every heresy. The movement was influenced by Protestant theologians and clergy, starting with the Tübingen School in the mid-19th century. Pius charged that it was prominent in French and British intellectual circles and, to a lesser extent, in Italy. The term is generally used by critics of rather than adherents to positions associated with it.
Liberal Catholicism was a current of thought within the Catholic Church that was influential in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, especially in France. It is largely identified with French political theorists such as Felicité Robert de Lamennais, Henri Lacordaire, and Charles Forbes René de Montalembert influenced, in part, by a similar contemporaneous movement in Belgium. Engelbert Sterckx, Archbishop of Mechelen, a skilled negotiator with a natural inclination to conciliatory pragmatism, had managed to take advantage of the new freedoms to completely reorganize his archdiocese, establishing schools, colleges, monasteries, charities and minor seminaries in Hoogstraten and Waver. Lamennais and his associates saw no conflict between Catholicism and liberal reform. They advocated for an enlarged suffrage, separation of church and state, and universal freedom of conscience, instruction, assembly, and the press.
In August 1832, Pope Gregory XVI issued the encyclical Mirari vos (On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism). He attacked religious indifferentism, which was defined as the opinion that one religion is as good as another, which he saw as the basis for the argument for liberty of conscience. He also denounced secret societies that sought to overturn the legitimate governments of the Italian states, and the freedom to publish or distribute any writings indiscriminately.
Lamennais, under attack from French conservatives, issued in 1834 the book, Paroles d'un croyant (Words of a Believer), in which he denounced all authority, civil as well as ecclesiastical. Paroles marked Lamennais' turn to a Christian socialism that inspired a whole generation. His radical ideas reflected an overlap of Catholic and socialist ideas that can be traced back to the 1820s. The experience of the popes during the recent revolutions, being expelled from Rome, widespread unrest in the Papal States, the increasing temporal power of anti-Catholic forces, and the erosion of even spiritual allegiance, predisposed the Papacy to a reactionary stance. Gregory XVI's reaction was entirely predictable. He issued a second encyclical, Singulari Nos in June 1834, condemning Lamennais' book and its ideas.
In August 1863, Montalembert gave speeches in Mechelen, Belgium in which he devolped his views concerning the future of modern society and the Church. His first speech aimed to show the necessity of Christianizing the new democracies by accepting modern liberties. His second speech dealt with liberty of conscience, concluding that the Church could be in perfect harmony with religious liberty and with the modern state. Being largely political, Liberal Catholicism was distinct from, but parallel to the theological movement of modernism.
Catholic studies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries avoided the use of critical methodology because of its rationalist tendencies. Frequent political revolutions, bitter opposition of “liberalism” to the church, and the expulsion of religious orders from France and Germany, made the church understandably suspicious of the new intellectual currents.
In 1863, Ernest Renan published Vie de Jésus (Life of Jesus). Renan had trained for the priesthood before choosing a secular career as a philologist and historian. His book described Jesus as "Un homme incomparable", a man, no doubt extraordinary, but only a man. The book was very popular, but cost him his chair of Hebrew at the College de France. Among Renan’s most controversial ideas was that "a miracle does not count as a historical event; people believing in a miracle does. Renan’s Jesus is a man of simple piety and almost unimaginable charisma whose main historical significance was his legion of followers.
Gregory XVI was succeeded by Pope Pius IX, who in December 1864 issued the encyclical Quanta cura, decrying what he considered significant errors afflicting the modern age. It condemned certain propositions such as: the people’s will, manifested by what is called public opinion ..., constitutes a supreme law, free from all divine and human control; on civil law alone depend all rights of parents over their children, and especially that of providing for education; and that Religious orders have no legitimate reason for being permitted. Some of these condemnations were aimed at anticlerical governments in various European countries, which were in the process of secularizing education and taking over Catholic schools, as well as suppressing religious orders and confiscating their property. Attached to the encyclical was a "Syllabus of Errors" which had been condemned in previous documents, requiring recourse to the original statements to be understood. The government of France briefly tried to suppress the circulation of the encyclical and the Syllabus within its borders; it forbade priests to explain the Syllabus from the pulpit, though newspapers were allowed to discuss it from a secular point of view. Among the propositions condemned in the Syllabus were:
The First Vatican Council was held from December 1869 to October 1870. It was convoked to deal with the issue of the rising influence of rationalism, liberalism, and materialism. The objects of the council were to be the correction of modern errors and a revision of the Church legislation. The council provoked a degree of controversy even before it met. In anticipation that the subject of papal infallibility would be discussed, a number of bishops expressed the opinion that the time was "inopportune". Ignaz von Döllinger, provost of St. Cajetan and professor of church history at Munich led a movement in Germany hostile to the council. Six years before, he had invited 100 theologians to meet at Mechelen and discuss the question which the liberals Lamennais and Lacordaire had raised in France, namely, the attitude that should be assumed by the Roman Catholic Church towards modern ideas. In his address, “On the Past and Future of Catholic Theology”, Döllinger advocated for greater academic freedom.
The dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith defended the fundamental principles of Christianity against the errors of modern Rationalism, Materialism, and atheism. The other dogmatic Constitution addressed the primacy of the pope and rejected the idea that decrees issued by the pope for the guidance of the Church are not valid unless confirmed by the secular power. It also declared the infallibility of the pope when speaking "ex cathedra" on matters of faith. Other matters were deferred when the Piedmontese infantry entered Rome and the council was prorogued.
Louis Duchesne was a French priest, philologist, teacher, and amateur archaeologist. Trained at the École pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, he applied modern methods to Church history, drawing together archaeology and topography to supplement literature and setting ecclesiastical events within the contexts of social history. Duchesne held the chair of ecclesiastical history at the Institut Catholique de Paris, and was frequently in contact with like-minded historians among the Bollandists, with their long history of critical editions of hagiographies. Duchesne gained fame as a demythologizing critical historian of the popular, pious lives of saints produced by Second Empire publishers. However, his Histoire ancienne de l'Église, 1906‑11 (translated as Early History of the Christian Church) was considered too modernist by the Church at the time, and was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1912.
Alfred Loisy was a French Roman Catholic priest, professor and theologian generally credited as a founder of Biblical Modernism in the Roman Catholic Church. He had studied at the École pratique des Hautes Études under Louis Duchesne. Harvey Hill says that the development of Loisy's theories originated not within an early modernist movement, but within the context of France's Church-State conflict, which contributed to Loisy's crisis of faith in the 1880's. In November 1893, Loisy published the last lecture of his course, in which he summed up his position on Biblical criticism in five propositions: the Pentateuch was not the work of Moses, the first five chapters of Genesis were not literal history, the New Testament and the Old Testament did not possess equal historical value, there was a development in scriptural doctrine, and Biblical writings were subject to the same limitations as those by other authors of the ancient world. Loisy came to regard the Christian religion more as a system of humanistic ethics than as divine revelation. Loisy was excommunicated in 1908.
In 1878, Pope Leo XIII had encouraged the study of history and archaeology. In 1887 he encouraged the study of the natural sciences, and in 1891 opened the Vatican Observatory. Leo's response to the modernist trend to undermine the authority of sacred scripture, was for the Church to have its own trained experts. In 1893, with Providentissimus Deus, Pope Leo gave the first formal authorization for the use of critical methods in biblical scholarship. "Hence it is most proper that Professors of Sacred Scripture and theologians should master those tongues in which the sacred Books were originally written, and have a knowledge of natural science.. He recommended that the student of scripture be first given a sound grounding in the interpretations of the Fathers such as Tertullian, Cyprian, Hilary, Ambrose, Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, Augustine and Jerome, and understand what they interpreted literally, and what allegorically; and note what they lay down as belonging to faith and what is opinion.
At the turn of the 20th century the official Catholic attitude to the study of holy Scripture was one of cautious advance, and at the same time of a growing appreciation of what had promise for the future. In 1902, Pope Leo XIII instituted the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which was to adapt Roman Catholic Biblical studies to modern scholarship and to protect Scripture against attacks.
In 1890 the École Biblique, the first Catholic school specifically dedicated to the critical study of the bible, was established in Jerusalem by Dominican Marie-Joseph Lagrange. In 1892 Pope Leo XIII gave his official approval. While many of Lagrange's contemporaries criticized the new scientific and critical approach to the Bible, he made use of it. Lagrange founded the Revue Biblique, and his first articles drew sharp criticism, but Pope Leo was not inclined to discourage new ideas. As long as Pope Leo lived, Lagrange's work quietly progressed, but after Leo's death, an ultra-conservative reaction set in. The Historical-Critical Method was considered suspect by the Vatican. Père Lagrange, like other scholars involved in the 19th-century renaissance of biblical studies, was suspected of being a Modernist. In 1912 Lagrange was given an order for the Revue Biblique to cease publication and to return to France. The École itself was closed for a year, and then Lagrange was sent back to Jerusalem to continue his work.
Pius X opposed modernism and various nineteenth-century philosophies, which he viewed as an import of secular errors incompatible with Catholic dogma.
At the heart of Modernist theory is the assertion that objective truth is received subjectively. Modernism in the Catholic Church was the subject of the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis of Pope Pius X. Modernism may be described under the following broad headings:
As more naturalistic and scientific studies of history appeared, a way of thinking called historicism arose which suggested that ideas are conditioned by the age in which they are expressed; thus modernists generally believed that most dogma or teachings of the Church were novelties which arose because of specific circumstances obtaining at given points in its history. At the same time rationalism and literary criticism reduced the possible role of the miraculous, so that the philosophical systems in vogue at the time taught among other things that the existence of God could never be known (see Agnosticism). Theology, formerly “queen of the sciences”, was dethroned.[full citation needed]
The final overall teaching of modernism is that dogmata (the teachings of the Church, which its members are required to believe) can evolve over time – not only in their expression but also in their substance – rather than remaining the same in substance for all time. Using the new idea that doctrines evolve, it was possible for the modernist to believe that both the old teachings of the Church and her new, seemingly contradictory teachings were correct — each group had its time and place. This system allows almost any type of new belief which the modernist in question might wish to introduce, and for this reason modernism was labelled by Pope Pius X as "the synthesis of all heresies".
The "evolution of dogma" theory (see Development of doctrine), much in the manner of Luther’s theory of salvation sola fide ('by faith alone') allows for a constant updating of standards of morality. The phrase sola fide derives from Pange Lingua Gloriosi Corporis Mysterium, a Eucharistic hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas: et si sensus deficit, | ad firmandum cor sincerum | sola fides sufficit. Since majority moral standards shifted heavily during the 20th century, Catholics not accepting the theory were placed in the position of having to abstain from receiving Communion if they wished to engage in some of the actions of some of their fellow-religionists.
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 go on believing themselves strict Catholics while having an understanding markedly different from the traditional one 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 modernist heresies. In September of the same year Pius X promulgated an encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis, followed in 1910 by the introduction of an anti-modernist oath to be taken by all Catholic bishops, priests and academic teachers of religion.
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 often hindered rather than helped the Church in its combat with modernism.
In the period between World War II and the Cold War Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O.P. was the "torchbearer of orthodox Thomism" against modernism. Garrigou-Lagrange, who was a professor of philosophy and theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum, is commonly held to have influenced the decision in 1942 to place the privately circulated book Une école de théologie: le Saulchoir (Étiolles 1937) by Marie-Dominique Chenu O.P. on the Vatican's "Index of Forbidden Books" as the culmination of a polemic within the Dominican Order between the Angelicum supporters of a speculative scholasticism and the French revival Thomists who were more attentive to historical hermeneutics, such as Yves Congar O.P.. Congar's Chrétiens désunis was also suspected of modernism because its methodology derived more from religious experience than from syllogistic analysis.[page needed][page needed]
Since Pope Paul VI, most Church authorities have largely dropped the term "modernism", preferring instead in the interest of precision to call beliefs such as secularism, liberalism or relativism by their several names. The older term has however remained current in the usage of many Traditionalist Catholics and conservative critics within the Church.
The New York Review was a journal produced by Saint Joseph's Seminary (Dunwoodie). While the "Review" itself never published an article that was suspect, but it did print papers by leading Catholic Biblical experts who were part of the newly emerging schools of Biblical criticism, which raised eyebrows in Rome. Around 1908, the "Review" was discontinued, ostensibly for financial reasons, although there is evidence that it was suppressed.