Project Canterbury

Liberal Catholicism and the Modern World

Edited by Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1933.


Rector of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York City

PROPERLY SPEAKING, "Modernism" is a term which should be confined to the intellectual movement which took place in the Roman Catholic Church during the last years of the nineteenth and the opening years of the twentieth century. It was a movement undertaken by a group of priests and scholars who felt that, in view of the progress of modern science and secular knowledge, the development of a new type of apologetic might do much to commend Catholicism to the men and women of their time. Students of the history of Christian thought, they knew that in times past similar attempts at restatement of the eternal truths of religion had been made and with notable success, perhaps the greatest achievement of this character being the work by which St. Thomas Aquinas harmonized the teachings of Catholicism with the prevailing Aristotelianism of the thirteenth century. These men hoped to do as much for the Catholicism of their own day.

A modernist, in the definition of Fr. George Tyrrell, one of their number, is one "who believes in the reconciliation of the truths of tradition with the truths of modernity." No Catholic, so it would seem, could take exception to this definition of the meaning and purpose of Modernism, for the Catholic God is the God and Author of all truth however and whenever revealed. Scientific truths, historical truths, philosophical truths--whether ancient or modern--must of necessity be capable of reconciliation with the truths of religion and tradition. Tyrrell emphasized in his early writings the conservation of "the truths of tradition"--the essentials of Catholic faith--as equally important for the modernist as the acceptance of "the truths of modernity." The basic principle lying behind Tyrrell's definition of Modernism would seem simply to be that the Christian religion is necessarily both reasonable and true.

Unhappily for their program, and as many think, unhappily for the ultimate welfare of the Roman Church, the modernist movement was condemned root and branch and thrust out of that communion in the year 1907. For this the modernists themselves were undoubtedly largely responsible. Some of them had become very radical indeed and had accepted as "truths of modernity" the more dubious guesses of scholarship. Some seemed to have forgotten that love and consideration for the "weaker brethren" have their place in Christianity as well as the promulgation of truth. Some seemed to deny altogether the facts of divine revelation and of God's transcendence, and to make of religion a mere philosophical quest and God merely immanent--the God of Pantheism shut up in His own world.

Some in their desire to put dogmas beyond the reach of historical criticism seemed but too willing to abandon the claim that Christianity had any roots in history at all. These were dangerous and disquieting tendencies. The Pope who had succeeded Leo XIII on the throne of St. Peter, Pius X, was a man of great personal holiness of life, but a man likewise of limited intellectual outlook, contrasting with the large views of his predecessor. He failed entirely to envisage the good toward which the modernists were working or even the necessity of reinterpreting Catholicism to the modern world. Instead he saw only the unsettlement of faith, the "scandal" that some of their writings were causing to the simple faithful. So he condemned and swept away the whole movement. Modernism was declared to be the "compendium of all the heresies," the final and worst manifestation of the spirit of error. By the imposition of stringent anti-modernist oaths and by other similar methods all the men who had been associated with the movement were either silenced or else driven from the Church. Modernism in the Roman Catholic Church was finished, was dead. From henceforth the Church was free to go on proclaiming the "unchanging deposit of faith" in the terms of Aristotelian scholasticism in which it had been formulated by St. Thomas and promulgated by the Councils of Trent and of the Vatican. From henceforth the Church was made secure against the destructive inroads of modern thought by the simple process of ignoring the latter altogether and completely.

The justice of the Pope's condemnation in some respects was seen by the effects of the condemnation. Some of the leaders, such as the Abbe Loisy, proceeded to advance to positions which were not only plainly non-Catholic but also evidently anti-Christian. The complete silencing of all the voices of criticism, furthermore, gave to the Church of Rome a seeming appearance of unity and authority in doctrine, the like of which had never before been seen in any part of the Church, and which appears still to have a great attractiveness to a certain type of modern mind, harassed by doubts engendered by the skeptical temper of the day, and weary of the effort to think things through.

In many of the positions adopted by the modernists--for example, in their too frequent assumption that the Liberal Protestant Christ of their time was an authentic portrait of the historic Jesus--as well as in their exclusively immanental philosophy, the march of knowledge and of thought has shown them to be mistaken. Nevertheless, it is true that the condemnation of Modernism has been injurious to the Church. For by it the Roman Catholic Church has undertaken to reject truth, has undertaken, as Miss M. D. Petre has put it, "to declare what is probably true to be certainly false." The condemnation of Modernism was a sort of resuscitation of the happily almost-forgotten Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX, in which the pontiff had roundly declared that he "the pontiff neither can be, nor ought to be, reconciled with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization." No discrimination whatever was shown in the wholesale condemnation which fell upon Modernism. Biblical criticism of even the mildest type went the same way as Pantheism, and an extreme "fundamentalism" as regards the Bible became the only possible position for a Roman Catholic. The Church was made safe for ultra-conservative traditionalism; the task and duty of the Church to interpret to men and women of today the eternal verities of the Catholic religion was neglected, ignored, and disowned.

With "Modernism" thus banished from its home within the fold of Roman Catholicism, the waif speedily found many eager to adopt it. People of Liberal Protestant views who had come to hold a theology which was scarcely undistinguishable from old-fashioned Unitarianism found that their ancient heresies were much better received by the public when rechristened by the name of "Modernism." In a similar way "Broad" Churchmen within our own communion preferred to call themselves "modernists"; and in Anglicanism the term has come to signify those who frankly reject the Catholic doctrine of the person of our Lord, who assert that "miracles don't happen," and who dislike the dogmatic assertions of the Apostles and the Nicene Creed. But while some thus rejoice in the appellation of "modernist," others use it as a term of abuse. To the fundamentalist Protestant anyone who cannot hold the verbal infallibility of the Bible is a "dangerous modernist"; and to some of our Roman Catholic critics the entire Anglo-Catholic Movement is "honeycombed with Modernism." The truth of the matter is that Modernism has come to be an entirely unmeaning word; whether adopted as a badge of honor, or employed as a mark of abuse, it seldom, if ever, has the meaning with which it was invested by George Tyrrell--the belief that it is possible to reconcile the truths of tradition with the truths of modernity.

And still that task and that faith is needed never more than today. We may not call it Modernism--indeed, because of misunderstandings and the odium theologicum which has become attached to that much-abused word it is probably better not to do so--but it is still necessary to proclaim to the world that it is possible in this twentieth century for a thoroughly educated man to be a Catholic Christian as well. In our claims we must go even further and proclaim that only in Catholicism properly understood can we find a religion suited to the needs and knowledge of the modern man. Says Miss Petre:

"If faith is other than knowledge, faith and knowledge are, nevertheless, inseparable companions; neither can go on living without the other. Theology has a new task in a new age; and if it had no task then it would have no further reason for existence." [Modernism, p. 99.]

It hardly seems necessary to point to the revolution in thought which has taken place in our world in the past hundred years, since the beginning of that Oxford Movement whose centenary we are this year commemorating. In 1833, Darwin and the theory of evolution were not yet heard of. Geological science was in its infancy. Biblical criticism so far as England was concerned was almost completely unknown. The study of the history of religions (comparative religion as it used to be called) had not yet come into being. Modern psychology was as yet unthought of. Since that time these and other sciences and studies have come into being, developed, made great gains, and led us into many new and helpful truths. It is idle to pretend that they have no repercussions on religion, no effect upon the expression of our faith, no influence on our apologetics. The conflicts between "science and religion" during the past century bear witness to the exact contrary. The theory of evolution was hotly debated pro and con by scientists and theologians. And although Darwinism in its original form no longer holds the field, there can be no doubt at all that evolution in the larger sense is an established fact. Furthermore, what was originally so feared by the bishops is now seen to be in no way opposed to Catholic truth. Genesis and geology had a mighty tussle--and geology won the day, but with no loss of the spiritual values of the Book of Genesis.

That particular "truth of Modernism" has once again been reconciled with the "truth of tradition." Biblical criticism, first of the Old then of the New Testament, was bitterly opposed by devout souls fearful lest shipwreck should be made of the faith. While it cannot truthfully be said that all the problems raised by modern criticism have yet been satisfactorily solved, nor that there are not still difficulties which historical investigation of the Sacred Scriptures present to our Catholic faith; still, much progress has been made in this field, and that chiefly by the efforts of devout Christian scholars who were unafraid of the truth because they were stedfast in the faith. The difficulties which the "modern psychologies" raise as to the reality and validity of religious experience are a matter of only yesterday and are still under discussion. We cannot afford to neglect these things even if we would. Whether we like it or not we are all "modernists" in the sense that we are modern men and women living in a modern world. We cannot live in the first or third or thirteenth or sixteenth century even if we prefer to do so; we cannot shut our eyes to modern knowledge. It does not tend to inspire outsiders with confidence as to the truth of our religion, to put ourselves forever in the position of opposing every modern idea or discovery, "fighting it to the death in the last ditch and then--moving to another," as Fr. Wilfred Knox has well said. Should we not rather trust our Lord's promise to His Church that the Holy Spirit will guide it into all truth, and strong in the faith, welcome every reverent and earnest investigation of truth as leading us at the end into a better understanding and a firmer grasp of the religion of the Incarnation--the Eternal Word made flesh?

In this task our own Anglican communion can play a great part, provided we can learn to exercise patience and charity one toward another, provided we have the faith not to give ourselves over to wild alarms and baseless fears. We need to trust our own theologians. We need to stop calling names. We need to realize the necessity and the greatness of the task which lies before us in translating the eternal verities of our faith into terms which the present age can understand. It may well be that in the course of this task mistakes may be made, it is possible that some in the investigation of truth may wander into byways, and may even seem to endanger the security of the faith. But if our Catholic religion is true--and we surely believe it is--we can rest in the assurance that in the end no truth can stand against it. We have had to discover, for instance, that some views of the inspiration of the Bible are incapable of reconciliation with modern knowledge. But with the same discovery has come a greater appreciation of the Bible and the inspiration there set forth for us. And if and when real error does appear as we go forward in our task--if some mistaken appraisal of a supposed "truth of Modernism" leads some scholar to deny one of the "truths of tradition"--the error should be met, not by denunciation and abuse and calling names, marks always of a losing cause, but by a greater and truer scholarship which will refute the error and point out the truth. Yes, the task is difficult, frightening perhaps in its vast-ness, but it must be done.

As a matter of fact the Catholic Revival for some forty-five years past has not shirked its duty. In the task which we have outlined above and which modern theology has to face we may rightly take pride in the achievements which have already been accomplished by Catholic scholars in our own communion. In the reconciliation of the "truths of modernity" with the "truths of tradition," no one has taken a higher place nor has a more honored name than that saintly scholar, Bishop Gore. Absolutely honest in his search for truth, absolutely fearless because strong in the Catholic faith, Bishop Gore has been most effective in commending the Catholic religion to intelligent men and women of our generation. In cooperation with a group of like-minded men, all strongly Catholic in their outlook and sympathies, he published as editor in 1899 the volume entitled Lux Mundi, an "attempt to put the Catholic faith into its right relation to modern intellectual and moral problems." In the preface to this remarkable volume of essays, Gore wrote:

"The real development of theology is (rather) the process in which the Church, standing firm in her old truths, enters into the apprehension of the new social and intellectual movements of each age; and because 'the truth makes her free' is able to assimilate all new material, to welcome and give its place to all new knowledge, to throw herself into the sanctifi-cation of each new social order, bringing forth out of her treasures things new and old, and showing again and again her power of witnessing under changed conditions to the Catholic capacity of her faith and life."

It will be seen that the declaration of the purpose of theology in this passage does not differ materially from the aims of the contemporaneous "modernist" movement in the Church of Rome. Both were the response of a living Catholicism to the spirit of the age. But whereas this movement was brought to an abrupt close by the action of papal authority in the Roman communion, the freer atmosphere of Anglicanism had found it possible within a few years to assimilate the teachings of Lux Mundi without any serious shock to faith, and with no disloyalty to Catholic truth. It is true that at the time of the publication of the essays there was not a little distress among the more conservatively devout. Gore's own essay on "The Holy Spirit and Inspiration" was to many, including Canon Liddon, most disturbing. For not only did he accept the critical results of the study of the Old Testament but, having done so, he went on boldly to face the problem arising from the resulting apparent limitation of our Lord's human knowledge. In the New Testament our Lord seems to assume the Davidic authorship of Psalm 110 in quoting from it, while modern scholarship which God had accepted denies that King David could have written the psalm. Gore's solution of the difficulty is found in supposing that, in the sphere of His Incarnate life, our Lord's knowledge was really limited by a kenosis or self-emptying. In other words, our Lord's real humanity includes a limited human knowledge. The particular solution made by Dr. Gore was greatly criticized as overthrowing a widely held view as to the Incarnate Lord and even on other grounds is still open to criticism; but the fact that it was made at all illustrates well that combination of a fearless desire to follow new truth, wherever it may lead, together with a sure confidence in the abiding truth of the Catholic religion which is characteristic of the whole book of essays. It is that spirit and that temper which is still the characteristic of Anglo-Catholic theologians, a temper and spirit which may well and truthfully be named Liberal Catholicism.

It would be tedious and beyond the limits of this paper to review in detail the work of other Anglo-Catholic scholars, who following the paths marked out in Lux Mundi and thoroughly familiar with modern thought have continued to show that Catholic theology is capable in the fullest sense of "assimilating all new material, of welcoming and giving its place to all new knowledge." To name only a few representative writings of this school we have that remarkable book entitled Belief and Practice by Will Spens, which attempts to work out a consistent and rational basis for authority in religion; A. E. J. Rawlinson's New Testament Doctrine of the Christ; and the volumes of essays entitled respectively, Essays on the Trinity and Incarnation, and Essays Catholic and Critical. Equally important is the great book by Fr. L. S. Thornton entitled The Incarnate Lord; Professor A. E. Taylor's remarkable Faith of a Moralist and the splendid treatises on moral theology and ethics by Professor K. E. Kirk. It is hardly too much to say that Catholics in our communion stand now almost alone in presenting a theology and an apologetic which is at one and the same time scholarly, modern, devout, and orthodox. The results of these learned researches are made available to the faithful by a multitude of smaller books, tracts, and pamphlets based on them. As Professor Kirk says,

"in the realms of doctrine, biblical criticism, ecclesiastical history and philosophy, Anglicanism has wholly vindicated its unique form of Christian polity. Without surrendering anything that appertains to the fundamentals of our religion it has reached a concordat with the best secular thought more satisfactory than any which stands to the credit of other bodies claiming an equal place within the general tradition of Catholic Christendom." [Conscience and Its Problems, p. 87.]

We are Catholics, but we are also modern men and women. We believe utterly in the truths of our holy religion, and because we so believe we are unafraid of any truth. The householder--the Catholic Church--is intended by God to bring forth from His treasury things new as well as old. And we know whom we have believed. For Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

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