Project Canterbury

Liberal Catholicism and the Modern World

Edited by Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1933.


Fellow and Tutor, General Theological Seminary

"THE LIGHT of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light."

The single eye commended in these words of our Lord's may be achieved either by rejection or by subjection, by the elimination of everything else but devotion to God, or by the enrichment by that devotion of a large circle of human interests. The Son of Man is the perfect model of the ascetic. His life on earth exemplifies fully his counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience by the following of which the religious soul is detached from all that is earthly. Yet at the same time he came eating and drinking, and is the perfect model of the Christian living in the world. In the history of the Church these two aspects of our Lord's character are to some extent manifested in different individuals, or rather in different members of His mystical body. Thus, the Church in the fourth century faced a hard battle with the forces of worldliness. It needed the witness of the hermits who literally left the world to be alone with God in the desert. It needed also the witness of those who stayed in the cities to govern the Church, design the mosaics of its splendid basilicas, think out the faith, or merely live as good Christians in a naughty world and bring up children in the fear of the Lord. Neither would have been complete without the other. But usually these two aspects of the Christian life are, in varying degrees, combined in each believer. The Religious, especially in active or mixed Orders, will have some concern with secular learning and with the prosperity of the commonwealth. The secular clergy and the laity in their several vocations are bound to cultivate the spiritual detachment which befits those whose citizenship is in heaven.

The phrase "Liberal Catholicism" may properly be applied to the second of these aspects of Catholic living--that which does not abandon the world, but claims it for God. The adjective "liberal" may be used in several of the senses of that despised but honorable word. It may refer to the combination of freedom and authority in the development of the Church's dogma and practice. It may refer to the social teaching of Catholicism. Liberal Catholicism in both these senses attracts considerable attention today, and is the subject of several articles in this series. A third meaning would give the adjective the same sense as in the phrase "liberal arts." In spite of Tertullian's cry, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" the Church has always claimed that she offers the satisfaction demanded by those aspirations of the human spirit which speak in literature and philosophy. The Word Incarnate appeals not only to man in his simplicity, but also to man thrilled by the vision of the good and the beautiful which that same divine Word has shown him. The Liberal Catholic in this sense is the same as the Catholic humanist. He may write as theologian, acknowledging how congruous with the Catholic faith is all that is good in human thought. Or he may as Christian scholar or artist discover the full meaning and value of his science and his art when it is placed in its Catholic context. I shall attempt in this essay to cite some episodes in the history of Liberal Catholicism, or Catholic humanism, in its relation to the general intellectual history of the Western world, with the purpose of seeing what contributions it may have for the Catholicism of the future.

St. Paul's well known quotations of the Greek poets are enough to show that even in the intensity of the first preaching of the gospel the Apostle did not consider some memories of secular literature out of place. Not until the second century, however, do we see Christianity in conscious contact with the main cultural tradition of the Roman world. In the Apologies of Justin, philosopher and martyr, the principles were laid down which have been normative ever since for the Church's attitude to secular thought. The claims already implied in the cosmic Christology of St. Paul and St. John are here applied to a new area. "For each one [Plato, Stoics, poets, historians, etc.] spoke well by reason of his share in the spermatic Word of God, as far as he saw what was in accordance with it ... everything, therefore, that has been well said by anybody belongs to us Christians." [Justin, Second Apology, 13.]

Socrates might be condemned among the Greeks as an atheist, but since he died for truth we hail him as a true martyr for Christ. St. Justin in his defences of Christianity does not merely repel current slanders and argue for the truth of the Jewish revelation. He points out how the Catholic faith confirmed the noblest intuitions of the Greeks about God and man, while at the same time adapted to correct what was wrong and to supply what was lacking in the Greek tradition. In one important respect Justin's problem differed from ours. He lived in an age when science had long been on the decline. Philosophy and ethics were the living branches of the intellectual life. Hence he merely notes the existence of divergent opinions about nature to contrast them with the certainty of the faith. More could not have been expected at that period.

The great teachers of the school of Alexandria developed Justin's principles into a system of Christian education. Origen's educational methods have been described by one of his pupils, Gregory, afterwards Bishop of Cssarea. The whole curriculum of the ancient schools has been reinvigorated by the new purpose which has come into life. The training of the mind to think logically and to express itself, the study of natural science, the survey of various philosophical and ethical systems--all are seriously undertaken as preparatory to the highest knowledge, in which God and his prophets are our teachers.

Side by side with study goes the acquisition of the Christian virtues, of which Origen himself was so noble an example. A truly Catholic atmosphere of freedom and joy can be sensed in Gregory's description:

"We were permitted with all freedom to go round the whole circle of knowledge, bearing off from all and enjoying the riches of the soul . . . this is indeed the garden of delight." [Address to Origen, 15-16.]

It is not surprising that Origen's pupils and those trained by them were the leaders of the Eastern Church, both in thought and action, for several generations. To minds influenced by his ideas fell the task of claiming the Church's position in the world of thought after the persecutions were at an end. The tradition of the apologists was continued in the massive and scholarly work of Eusebius. His learning was devoted to the interpretation of the Scriptures, in which Origen had shown the way, and to the history of the Church. His Preparatio Evangelica laboriously exhibits the parallels to Christian teaching to be found in Plato, as well as the points in which he and other non-Christian philosophers require to be supplemented. The greater genius of Athanasius produced a more important work of interpretation. His apologetic in the De Incarnatione does not begin from the faults, but from the merits, of the natural man. In the manner of earlier apologists he has dealt with the testimony of the soul to God, and then proceeds to the reason for the Incarnation. The fall was a derangement of that harmony in which it was God's plan that the Word should guide the world, like the conductor of some vast orchestra. It has not destroyed man's perception of truth and goodness, but it has resulted in error in philosophy, superstition in religion, individual and social sin. The Incarnation initiates a process of restoration to God's purpose; already it has made true philosophy and virtue, formerly the possession of a few, possible for the masses. At the thought of the coming Christian era of peace and enlightenment, in which the life of reason as well as the rest of human activity will move in the rich harmony God intended for it, the saint breaks out into a paean of joy.

Church history of the following centuries is the record of the disappointment of these hopes. We are here concerned only with one particular area, the intellectual life. The civilization which the Church confronted in 325 was already, though it scarcely suspected it, declining. Before the centuries had passed, the Church was to be performing the function of preserving for future generations the remains of ancient culture. The men who copied ancient authors in monastery libraries might be compared to antarctic explorers laying up their stock of provisions for the winter. There was no room for luxuries; it was a sufficient achievement that the essentials of what man had thought were kept to be the germ of future revival. The service of Liberal Catholicism in such a period of decline took the form of adopting into its own tradition the most necessary parts of the expiring secular culture. In the field of ethics the Stoic ideal had already been harmonized with Christianity. Stoic platitudes are sometimes hard to distinguish from Christian truisms--the difference is in Christian enthusiasm and the supernatural virtues. A typical ethical work of this period is St. Ambrose's adaptation of Cicero's largely Stoic treatise on duties. For Cicero's argument that nothing but the right is ever really expedient Ambrose found Christian illustrations, sometimes drawn from the Bible, sometimes from the practical problems of the clergy, for whom he wrote. But the prevailing philosophy was no longer Stoicism; it was Neo-Platonism. A teaching adapted to a period of decline, it concentrated on man's true end, the beatific vision, regarding science and the active life as lower objects of interest. The philosopher accepted without complaint or enthusiasm such active duties as fell to him. If a Christian emperor was told by his spiritual guides that he was but a stranger here, so too was Julian the Apostate. St. Augustine shows how easily harmony could be established between Christianity and Platonism. [Cf. De Civitate Dei, Books viii and six.] The Platonists were right in affirming one God, whom to know is the end of man's existence. Augustine never repudiates in essentials the Platonic period of his pre-Christian career, although attacking at length the superstitions often attached to Neo-Platonism in practice. The fathers generally, it may be noted, when approving of the truth taught by non-Christians were careful to separate it from any unworthy additions. The campaign of writer after writer in the early Church against astrology is a good example of this. The Church may be obliged to perform a similar service for our age, in which so many private superstitions seem to flourish and, even in academic circles, such mass superstitions as the cult of nationalism. Augustine long ago taught the duty of the Christian to take his part in working for the welfare of his country; but taught also that the motive of his actions was something more important--the peace of the city of God, his true fatherland with saints and angels.

To philosophers and theologians alike human science had come to seem relatively unimportant. At best it could only serve to lead us on to divine things by contemplation of the more remote workings of the divine. A further Neo-Platonic influence entered the Church through the writings ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite. Meanwhile from generation to generation the store of knowledge and the zeal for education was diminishing. All might have been lost, had not the Church, as secular schools died out, preserved at least the essentials of grammar, logic, and science. Monasteries and bishops' households began teaching the future clergy what could no longer be studied elsewhere. Benedict's reform of the monastic ideal easily permitted the rise of intellectual work in Benedictine houses. Cassio-dorus, the learned minister of state who retired to religion, advised his monks to acquire the practical arts, such as medicine, with their literature, and the scholarship necessary for the best interpretation of Scripture. In the cathedral and monastic schools of Gothic Spain the seventh century saw an Indian summer of ancient learning. The scholarly works of Isidore of Seville, and in particular his encyclopedia, the Etymologies, show the zeal with which learning was pursued. One slender volume, to be sure, now suffices to summarize all the remains of human knowledge. Yet if Isidore's work is the end of a decline, it is equally the beginning of a revival, the foundation from which the intellectual life of the middle ages was to expand. Meanwhile, almost beyond the horizon of Western Christendom, Byzantium still remembered Homer and Plato, and learned monophysites were preserving Aristotle in Syriac, in time to return through the Arabs to the attention of Europe.

The common divisions of history obscure the fact that the movement of Western civilization and thought since at least the eleventh century has been a continuous one--it would scarcely be safe to say a continuous progress. The really important renaissance took place in the twelfth century--the impetus to thought given by the recovery, in particular, of Aristotle. An age which had only known science and philosophy from an age of decline now made the acquaintance of ancient thought at its best period, and so started forward once more. In every field of study knowledge increased, and with it the vigor of the human mind. The Platonic tradition, so long dominant in Christian thought, received a magnificent expression in the works of the learned canons of St. Victor. To the Victorines the increase of knowledge provided a wider vision of sub-lunar realities to lead us on to the true Being. But a newer synthesis of theology and secular thought was necessary. It was provided by the encyclopedic mind of St. Albert the Great and the genius of St. Thomas Aquinas. Thomism once more recognizes the importance of the study of created things and the autonomy of human reason. The new knowledge had produced in some a confident scepticism, in others a reaction in favor of ignorance in the name of religion. St. Thomas met both by affirming the rights both of reason and of revelation, and the need of their harmonious cooperation. We should probably draw the line somewhat differently from the way St. Thomas drew it, and would have somewhat different results to report on both sides. That does not affect the importance of his principles and his main conclusions. Behind the ordered hierarchy of being which makes up the universe the Catholic Church still points us to its uncreated Source as the first principle of our philosophy. She still transfigures the humanistic ideal of the "good life" of rational happiness by the Christian assurance that the goal of such happiness is only to be found in the quest of the vision of God, which our life in Christ makes possible for us. To the justice recommended by the ethics of the natural man she still adds the new law of love, and so derives Christian politics and sociology.

There never was any medieval synthesis, as the term is sometimes used. There was a vision of a Catholic civilization, of which I have discussed one aspect, but it was never actualized. The decline of the middle ages (like our modern conceptions of the fall of man) was not so much a collapse as a failure to arrive. But to fail to go forward is to go back, and the intellectual history of early modern times is the record of the loss of such intellectual unity as had existed. Philosophy for a long time separated itself from science, economics cut loose from ethics. The total effect of humanism in the technical sense of the word was to deprive art, literature, and the study of the classics of the close connection they had long had with man's highest aspirations and most practical interests. All agreed in consigning the Queen of the Sciences to a somewhat honorable, but quite complete, retirement from active life. The complete separation of departments typical until recently of American colleges is a good example of the general tendency. There were, of course, many brighter spots in the picture. The Catholic humanists, of whom Dean Colet and blessed Thomas More are obvious English examples, were an important section of the movement in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The inner life of the Church is as vigorous as ever, and theologians in each generation have striven to relate it to the ideals of the age. But it cannot be claimed that the harmony of Catholic and secular thought has increased over the modern period as a whole.

There have from time to time been movements of synthesis in secular thought. Such seems to be the prevailing tendency today. Under banners of whatever color, we are summoned to march on to a new order in which a national plan, aided by science and controlling politics and economics, will at last make the good life possible for all. The position of the Church is not unlike its condition in the days of Justin Martyr or Thomas Aquinas. It must once more adopt an attitude to a non-Christian system of ideas and ideals. Though few like the words, philosophy and ethics are still the chief interests of man. Even those who live without conscious attention to them imply in their actions answers to two of the most important questions discussed by those studies--what possibilities of human happiness does this world permit, and what are the best means of attaining these possibilities? To spend Sunday morning in bed, to go to Mass daily, to attend Socialist meetings, to be mainly interested in one's own success, such actions have profound philosophical implications, and from them may be deduced to no small extent the principles on which lives are being lived. Christianity is today in danger of absorption in a way it was not in the second century. Hitler's attempt to annex German Christianity in only a frank example of a tendency present elsewhere in more subtle forms. What shall be our attitude to "those without"? We cannot be satisfied with maintaining our right to lead lives of Christian devotion isolated from the world, mentally if not physically. Neither may we allow the reputation of the Christian name and the organization of the Church merely to be used to gain support for this or that secular ideal and plan for society. The attitude of Catholics, if they follow the precedents of their history, should be one of critical cooperation. Whatever is well said by anybody is ours. Yet to the best that others have said Catholicism has something to add.

The mutual interaction of Catholicism and secular thought has, as I have tried to illustrate, taken as many different forms as the circumstances of different periods have required. The faith remains the same, but man, to whom it is to be preached, changes his mind from time to time. Consequently, while much can be learned from the past, there is always a new task ahead. The extent of that which now confronts us can be seen from the broad sweep of the subjects which are to be treated in this series. Our communion is perhaps particularly fitted to take part in the work of preparation for the Liberal Catholicism of the future. If feebly organized, we are flexible. If we do not present the Catholic tradition in majestic solidity, our scholars are perhaps more in touch with those discoveries of others which sooner or later must be incorporated into that tradition. Among Anglo-Catholics, Liberal Catholicism has a precedent in the close connection of the Tractarians with certain contemporary movements in European thought and with the "moralism" of their own academic training. Its ideal has been summed up in the pregnant words of Pusey: "Christianity has not 'to fight tooth and nail with civilization' but by the grace of God to ensoul it." [Page 40 of Appendix to "Christianity Without the Cross a Corruption of the Gospel of Christ" in University Sermons, vol. iii, 1880.] Among American Catholics it has not been without its representatives. Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century and James DeKoven in the nineteenth saw the vision, as well as their time permitted, of an America of the future which should be free, enlightened, and Catholic.

What practical measures does Liberal Catholicism demand? We--I mean American Anglo-Catholics--have in the past been mainly interested in concentration, in the preservation of Catholic doctrine and the Catholic life among us by building up centers of Catholic teaching and practice. We must recognize the equal importance of diffusion--of carrying the Catholic message out into the various areas of American life. Here under the conditions of today we shall find it necessary to cooperate with many who are not of our household of faith, many who are not even consciously servants of God. For this there is ample precedent in the ancient recognition of the universal influence of God the Word. The Catholic worker for social justice, for instance, or the Catholic scholar, can only do his duty as a Christian by working in sincere fellowship with many who are not. The principle is the same as that involved in the expression of our life in Christ through our daily contacts with all sorts of men and the duties we share in common with them (e.g., as citizens, or as neighbors). In each case it is our solemn responsibility so to live that we may be an example and a testimony.

So far I have written of Liberal Catholicism as a Catholic. It is fitting also to look at the matter from the other side. As sons of the modern world we see in it much of evil, but would rather have it judged by its good. If there is injustice, oppression, and distress, there is also the protest made in the name of justice, liberty, and the good life for all. There is devotion to truth; there is the love of significant beauty. There is probably more knowledge than ever before; and perhaps not much more conceit. There is honest thought on the mystery of the universe and the life of man. If some of the ideals proposed are incomplete, forged, it may be, only for struggle and not for the organization of victory, we look at their history and understand. What more could we desire than the revelation of a supernatural life which will take up all these good things and, not abandoning one of them, fulfill them with the good news of something higher and greater? Such is the word which Liberal Catholicism has for this generation.

The following are references bearing on Liberal Catholicism:

Justin Martyr, Apologies,

Athanasius, De Incarnatione.

K. E. Kirk, The Vision of God.

A. L. Lilley, Religion and Revelation.

Christopher Dawson, Christianity and the New Age (Essays in Order. No. 3).

P. E. T. Widdrington, "The Social Mission of the Catholic Revival: I, Our Inheritance" in Christendom, June, 1932.

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