Project Canterbury

Liberal Catholicism and the Modern World

Edited by Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1933.


Professor of Philosophy, Yale University

NOT SO LONG AGO there appeared in a well known undergraduate publication an article entitled Religion Leaves the Colleges, which attracted rather widespread attention. It voiced a certain youthful impatience and contempt for the emasculated faith which modern liberal Protestantism seems to offer, but it also struck a deeper note. It closed with the definite conviction that the alternative for the thinking man today is that between Catholicism and Humanism, an alternative, it may be added, which is forcing itself upon many modern minds. If we hesitate to take this alternative too seriously--and I certainly do--it yet serves to indicate a situation which is familiar to all thoughtful observers. The mere fact that the question of such an alternative is raised at all is symptomatic of much in present-day religious thought.

The meaning of this situation is, I think, evident. It is that religion in America is entering upon a more philosophical stage. The need of a Catholic philosophy of which I am to speak is but part of a more general need for a more philosophic content of life. The American people have been slowly coming of age intellectually, and with this has come the need of philosophy. As we have taken our social and political life practically, without too much interest in the intellectual issues involved, so also in the main we have taken our religion. For reasons which are clear to every thinking mind, such an attitude is no longer possible either in our secular or our religious life. If issues in any sense similar to those described in the preceding paragraph are forcing themselves upon thinking men, then the religious period upon which we are entering should see a deepening of religious thought such as we have not hitherto known.

In this general need for a philosophic background to life, the Catholic Movement in the Anglican Church, especially in America, shares. The Oxford Movement, of which we are now celebrating the centenary, although strongly intellectual at the beginning, has not in its further development been primarily an intellectual movement. The development of Catholic worship and practice, the emphasis upon works of charity and the social implications of the Gospel--these have been the motive forces of the movement, and they have thoroughly justified themselves in the quickening of the religious life within our own communion and in their quite widespread influence upon English-speaking Christianity in general. It is readily understandable that these should have claimed our attention. But if the movement is to do the work for future generations, if it is to play its part in the situation I have briefly indicated, it must, I am convinced, assume a more intellectual character.

In this strong conviction of the need of a Catholic philosophy, I welcome heartily this series of papers on Liberal Catholicism and the Modern World, with its section on The Faith and Thought. I shall conceive my own task in this connection as general and introductory. Other papers will deal specifically with the content of such a philosophy, with the "necessary premises of Catholic thinking," with certain "traditional elements in Catholic thought," with the Catholic faith and modernism, and with Catholic thinking and moral philosophy. I shall content myself with pointing out certain points at which the need of Catholic thinking is especially clear. And in developing them I shall have constantly in mind the contrast between Humanism and Catholicism with which the paper started.


What then is Catholic philosophy? If one should ask this question within the Roman communion there could be but one answer. It is the philosophy of St. Thomas which, since Leo XIII's time, has become the official philosophy of that Church. Now that the Thomistic philosophy is still the source of much that is fundamental in Catholic Christian thinking, I would be the last to deny. It is the repository of philosophical concepts that are deathless and are also important for modern secular philosophy. Moreover, the Neo-Scholastic Movement has done much to modernize its teachings and to bring it into relation with recent developments in science and philosophy.

None the less, there are insuperable difficulties in the way of the identification of Catholic philosophy with this form, great and significant as it is. For better or for worse, the intellectual life of English-speaking Christians has been too completely formed by other forces and influences to make an authoritative philosophy of this sort possible. We must therefore conceive Catholic philosophy in a broader sense.

What I have in mind has already found statement in the preface to Essays, Catholic and Critical. [E. G. Selwyn, editor.] To the first, the Catholic way of thinking, belongs, we are told,

"everything in us that adores and acknowledges the one abiding transcendent and supremely given Reality, God; believes in Jesus Christ as the unique revelation in true personal form of His mystery; and recognizes His Spirit, embodied in the Church, as the authoritative and ever-living witness of His will, word, and work."

This, I think we shall all agree, is the essence of the Catholic temper, the very heart of Catholic ways of thinking. But I think we shall also all agree that back of such adoration and acknowledgment lies a reasoned view of God and the universe and this we call Catholic philosophy.

Such a philosophy of God, of man, and of the universe, has developed through the ages and become part of the intellectual tradition of the Church. Of the elements of that tradition, gathered from all that is best in Greek and Christian thinking, and fused into one mighty whole--of which the Thomistic philosophy is but one great historical expression--other papers in this series will speak more specifically. It is my part rather to indicate the points in modern life and thought at which this great and ever-living tradition is needed. In so doing I shall hope to make both the spirit and the content of Catholic thought more evident.


There is no point at which a liberal Catholic philosophy is more needed at the present time than that which is suggested by the contrast of the terms Catholic and Critical, Faith and Reason. There is also, perhaps, no point at which Catholic and non-Catholic philosophies diverge more significantly and completely than here.

In a very real sense, Newman's Grammar of Assent is indicative of the deeper springs and motives of the Anglo-Catholic Movement. [Longmans.] A movement for the restoration of lost provinces of faith and practice to the Anglican communion, it was at the same time, and--as I believe--even more deeply, a movement to meet and, as it were, to anticipate the disintegrating forces of a narrow rationalism which Newman and his co-workers felt had already entered into Protestant Christianity, and which has since carried on most completely its destructive work.

The struggle between science and religion was already in full force. In this struggle modern liberal Protestantism sought to render unto science the things that are science's and unto religion the things that are religion's. In the end it has surrendered almost everything that is rational to science, leaving to religion only faith, and that faith a matter of non-rational feeling.

Against this tendency Catholic thinking is adamant. It refuses to surrender the rational basis of faith. The Vatican Council, for instance, decreed that "the existence of God can be demonstrated by natural reason." The decree was not meant to justify suspense of assent until demonstration had been produced and found satisfactory. That would be to ignore the element of faith. What it was meant to insist upon is that ultimately there cannot be any complete dualism between faith and reason. The very life blood of the Church, the very drive which makes it virile and strong, is its hold on the rational basis of faith. On this and similar points a Catholic philosophy must stand fast. It may not be possible for a liberal Catholicism to hold the historic proofs in precisely the form in which they were enshrined in the scholastic philosophy, but the spirit and the principle of these proofs must be retained if Catholic life and worship is to be maintained. And the same must be said for the intellectual and philosophical principles which underlie the doctrine on the divine attributes, the nature of deity as enshrined in our creedal statements.

The first note of any Catholic philosophy is, then, that religion is not a matter of mere feeling, as so many modern men hold, but of reason. How much this fundamental note needs to be sounded may be seen by the divorce between faith and reason which has taken place in so much of modern Christianity. The popular view--that it does not matter what a man believes, but merely that he should believe--is a corollary of this divorce. Against this wave of indifferentism the Catholic Revival has from the beginning set its face. In his last years Newman "rejoiced" that "for fifty years he had resisted to the best of his powers this spirit (of false liberalism), the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another." "It is," as he said, "inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true. It teaches us that all are to be tolerated and that all are a matter of opinion."

"Why," asks St. Augustine, "should God disdain Reason, his first-born son?" Catholic philosophy has never disdained it. It is modern naturalism, more particularly that evolutionary naturalism which, as it says, completely "naturalizes man's intelligence," which denies that man by his reason can find God. For Catholic thinking reason is a divinely implanted gift, and between the natural reason of man and the truths of revelation there can be no ultimate conflict.

There is no place that Catholic thinking diverges more from non-Catholic than at this point. There is no point also, perhaps, where a Catholic philosophy is so greatly needed.


To the Catholic mind and temper belongs first of all, we have seen, everything in us that acknowledges and adores the one abiding, transcendent, and supremely given Reality, God. This acknowledgment, and above all, adoration, is the supreme gift of the Anglo-Catholic Movement to Anglo-American Christianity. The note of adoration, as expressed in the revival of Catholic worship, is everywhere recognized as its outstanding quality.

But it is not always realized that this element of worship retains its reality and significance only when back of it lies a Catholic theology and a philosophy of deity which commends itself to the deepest reason in man. Otherwise it sinks into mere emotionalism and estheticism. The unreality of much of Christian worship, especially in many of its non-Catholic forms, is everywhere felt. It is this vague sense of unreality, as much as anything else, that is driving multitudes from the churches. If now we ask what is the source of this sense of unreality, it is the divorce of worship from belief, of thought from feeling. Men say one thing in their hymns and prayers and another thing in their minds and hearts. There is a practical denial of the one abiding, transcendent, and supremely given Reality, of which alone adoration in any real sense is possible.

This, then, is the second point at which a Catholic philosophy is greatly needed at the present time. The Anglo-Catholic Movement has restored to many the great gift of adoration and worship. Certainly I shall not be thought to exaggerate if I say that this gift is, if not empty, at least wholly incomplete, if with it is not restored the great structure of Catholic theology and philosophy that lies back of it.

This need is measured by the degree to which the practical denial of the one abiding transcendent and supremely given Reality has gone. What is described as Humanism in religion is but an extreme form of this tendency, but the tendency is far-reaching in modern Christianity. It is not unknown in our own communion.

This movement is the outcome of certain very definite philosophical tendencies of our time. An outgrowth of pure naturalism and of naturalistic pragmatism, it has, as I have said, rendered unto science everything that is "rational" and left to religion only the vague realm of feeling that remains. It naturalizes completely man's intelligence. Reason is not God's first-born son, but a mere product of natural evolution. As such, to man's intelligence is denied all but merely sensational and empirical approaches to truth and reality and anything of the nature of the supernatural and of revelation is denied. Those who have thus abandoned all but empirical approaches to religion have ended in purely empirical and human conceptions of deity. God becomes for them merely a name for man's own highest ideals, or, at most, a finite being, a part of nature in the making. For such objects there can ultimately be no real worship or adoration.

This implicit denial of the Catholic, even Christian, conception of God--not only of the divine attributes of Christian creed and theology, but even of the divine being in any ultimate or significant sense--is, I repeat, the outcome of far-reaching philosophical tendencies of our time. It is therefore not enough for the Catholic Movement to adore in its worship or to acknowledge in its creeds--fundamental as these things are. It must also rethink, in modern terms, the grounds of its adoration and acknowledgment. Nay more, it must challenge the very premises of this naturalism which would dethrone the object of its worship. If the "acids of modernity" have eaten the God of Christian worship out of so many hearts, it is partly at least because a naturalistic philosophy has taken the transcendent Reason, which is God, out of the cosmos. It is vain for us to think that that which is destroyed by thought can be restored without greater and still deeper thought, that false philosophies can be otherwise met than by true ones. The truth of the Catholic religion in which we believe cannot, in the last analysis, be separated from the truth of Catholic theology and philosophy in which that faith has found its inevitable form.


If a Catholic philosophy of deity is needed at the present moment, still more, if it were possible, is needed a Catholic philosophy of humanity. The corollary of a true conception of God is a true conception of man. As Catholic worship cannot be separated from a Catholic conception of God, so Catholic practice cannot be separated from a Catholic philosophy of man.

It has long been one of my deepest convictions that the present loss of faith in God is related to a still deeper loss of faith in man, and that these elements of confusion and insincerity that have crept into modern Christian life are due to confusions in our notion of the nature of man. For many man has really ceased to be a son of God, and become merely a high-grade simian. Others are still struggling desperately to think of him as both at the same time.

A purely naturalistic anthropology has grown up all around us. Much of what is known as modern psychology and sociology is based upon premises which made it impossible to think of man as more than animal. As this movement has completely naturalized man's intelligence, and thus made it impossible by that intelligence to reach a transcendent deity, all wise, all powerful, and all good, so it has completely naturalized man's conscience and thus cut away the basis of Christian morality.

For Christian morals man is a son of God, and all its ideas of good and right spring from that. The movement which I have described as Humanism in religion is a virtual denial of these premises. Indeed there is no point at which the contrast between Humanism and Catholicism is more terribly evident than in the field of Christian morals and practice. The same tendencies which threaten to take the heart out of Christian worship also threaten to take the driving force out of the Christian life.

It is not the task of this paper to consider Catholic moral philosophy in detail. The question of the faith and Moral Life is in other hands. It may be permitted me, however, to try to illustrate my thesis more concretely.

The Bishop of St. Albans is, I think, entirely right in holding that the heart of Christian ethics is the ethics of sex and of the family. The heart of any ethics is its view of the springs of life. It is sufficient to know what has been happening in this single sphere of morals, within the world of Christendom itself, to understand how much a Catholic philosophy of man is needed. I have the deepest sense of the difficulties of these problems as affected by the conditions of modern life. I have the deepest sympathy with those who feel so keenly the difficulties and complexities of these problems. But I cannot believe that those many Christians (even within our own communion) who accept so easily so-called "modern" views on this subject, have really thought the matter through. These modern proposals, many of them at least, are based upon purely human and ultimately naturalistic views of man and of man's life in the world. Christian morals, however, can be based only on super-naturalistic premises, on the assumption that man is primarily a son of God--in short upon a philosophy of nature and of man, which is the very substance of Catholic philosophy. Is it not because we have so little philosophy that we are so muddle-headed at this point?


I have indicated three points in the religious life of the modern world at which a Catholic philosophy is especially needed, first in the Anglo-Catholic Movement itself and secondly in the general religious life of our time. Let me indicate a fourth point to my mind no less important and significant. I shall describe it as the need for a philosophy of symbolism.

On the surface, at least, the Anglo-Catholic Movement might be described as a movement to restore symbolism and the symbolic consciousness to the Church. With an instinct profound and sure this movement recognized the close relation between religious faith and life and religious worship--that the acknowledgment and adoration of the one abiding, transcendent, and supremely given Reality is bound up with our ability to envisage Him in concrete form. The Real Presence is the distinguishing note of the Catholic temper and attitude.

Looked at broadly, then, sacramental and creedal religion is the essence of the Catholic standpoint. It follows with equal necessity that a philosophy of creed and sacrament constitutes the distinguishing mark of the intellectual content of the Catholic Movement. Others will speak of the sacramental philosophy of the Church. I should like to speak briefly of the philosophy of creedal belief, of the great creedal symbols of the Church.

This is an era of creedless religion. Religion without dogma is coming to be almost a commonplace of non-Catholic forms of Christianity. It is but another aspect of that divorce between faith and knowledge, feeling and reason, of which we have already spoken. As it is, intellectually speaking, the prime task of the Catholic Movement to heal this breach, so it is also its fundamental task to show the inseparable relation between faith and creedal belief. This is possible, however, in the modern world only by a deeper understanding of the nature of these symbols and by philosophical conceptions of symbolic knowledge and symbolic truth. That this need is not unrealized in the Anglo-Catholic Movement itself is witnessed by the contributions of such thinkers as Fr. Figgis, Bishop Gore, and the philosopher, A. E. Taylor. This is not the place either to consider in detail the contributions already made or to forecast the developments of the future. It must suffice to indicate the need of a Catholic philosophy at this point.

The loss of the sense for symbolism was, perhaps, the bitterest fruit of Protestantism. Protestantism not only destroyed the windows of cathedrals, but also certain precious windows of the soul. With the loss of this sense for symbolism there followed that reaction to biblical literalism which has created the soul-destroying oppositions of Fundamentalism and Humanism. If Anglicanism has been spared the follies of both these movements, it is largely because of a partial restoration of the sense for symbolism. I say restoration, because the Catholic consciousness has always been symbolic and part of Catholic philosophy has always been a philosophy of symbolism. It is this philosophy that, as I believe, is so much needed at this present time.

This need is further reinforced by the fact that within Protestant forms of Christianity there have developed symbolic theories of religion that are purely naturalistic and humanistic in their premises. Since the days of Feuerbach and Lange, it has become more and more the note of modernism in religion to make of religion merely a handmaid of morals, a tendency which has found its complete development in the purely instrumental and social theories of religion which are the basis of Humanism. For the humanist, religious ideas are wholly symbolic, but they are symbolic only of human and moral values. For supernatural, Catholic religion, they are in part also symbolic, but they are symbolic of ultimate metaphysical realities. That is the great, the tremendous difference. This tremendous difference is, I think, generally sensed by those about us. By almost universal consent it is recognized that the Catholic Movement alone stands unequivocally for the great historic creeds as the center of faith and practice. In an almost creedless epoch it is to this movement alone that the world looks for a philosophy of creedal belief, for a way of thinking which will make possible again an acceptance and acknowledgment of these great symbols of the faith.


The need of a Catholic philosophy today is so obvious as scarcely to need argument. If, as we believe, there is need for Catholic worship, faith, and practice, there is need for Catholic thinking and Catholic philosophy. If there is in the modern religious world anything approaching that Great Divide between Catholicism and Humanism which many are envisaging, there is need that the premises of these two opposing ways of thinking should be made quite clear. Humanism and Modernism proceed from a purely naturalistic philosophy. Catholicism is equally based upon a supernaturalistic philosophy.

So much for the general need. Let me in conclusion speak of the special needs of Anglo-Catholicism.

There is reason to believe that some of the deepest motives of this movement, at the beginning at least, were of a philosophical character. In Newman's case at least it was the problem of faith and knowledge which was fundamental in his own thought, and it was a prophetic sense of the coming movements of rationalism and secularism, following upon the primacy of science in the modern world, that partly led him to come to grips with Catholic truth. Be that as it may, the exigencies of the development of the Catholic Movement, especially in this country, have inevitably resulted in this intellectual phase of the movement, falling into the background. The magnificent work of development of Catholic worship and practice, which has been, to be sure, its supreme contribution, is far from done and will still demand the larger portion of the energies of the movement. But in principle at least that contribution is accepted and acknowledged. The task now is the development of deeper Catholic thought.

This is not only our challenge at the present time, but also in a sense the condition of our continuance and survival as a great force in modern life. The movement is far from being a spent force. It is, if we so will it, only beginning its work. But the task of the latter part of the twentieth century must perforce differ in certain ways from those of the first. On this one hundredth anniversary of the movement, the supreme task, it seems to me, is to take vigorous hold of the thought life of the modern world. By very general consent it is recognized that the Catholic Movement is the one form in Anglo-American Christianity that stands unequivocally for the supernatural in religion. In this period of almost complete submergence of the modern mind in wholly naturalistic ways of thinking, what a challenge! God grant that we shall see and be equal to that challenge!

Project Canterbury