La Bête Noire

Sometimes, the subject of theological Modernism comes up, as in Surviving Modernism. I have often written about it on my blog. In the 1900’s, the Roman Curia became so paranoid about it that steps were taken to set up as a kind of super-inquisition called the Sodalitium Pianum.

I think I have read enough Emile Poulat and some other authors to be able to home in onto the real issues. In the encyclical Pascendi of Pius X, it is clear that no distinctions are made between a man like Loisy and another like Tyrrell. Modernism was understood by the remnants of intransigent Catholicism as an organised conspiracy, perhaps aided by Freemasonry, Zionism and all the other little beasties under the bed.

In my recent discoveries of Romanticism from William Blake to many of the poets who lived from the end of the eighteenth century to the first half of the nineteenth, Catholic theology and apologetics were no longer able to reach or convince the thinking mind. It was not simply the progress of the Renaissance and the natural sciences, but a whole cultural and human change. There had to be a new way of putting things over, a new apologia. This change is a part of us all, at least most of us. Before the election of Giuseppe Sarto to the Papacy in 1903, this critical attitude was generally called Liberalism.

There seems to be a certain unity in this cultural movement that ran against the rationalist classicism of the post-baroque era and appealed to the interior forces of humanity. Is religion something totally exterior and to be imposed like a garment, or is it a part of us, immanent? If Catholicism continues to be presented the way it was in the neo-scholastic manuals, then modern man has every right to dismiss it as a load of bunk – and this has happened. The churches are empty and the Church is exhausted.

The words liberal and modernist have become emotionally charged, when their etymological and historical meanings are something else. Liberalism referred to the freedom of man with respect to the Industrial Revolution and the anti-religious climate in revolutionary France. Modernism referred to the need to address modernity on its own terms and give new meanings to ancient truths and the entire religious instinct of humanity. By the end of the nineteenth century, there was a divergence between the secularising tendencies and the mystical and Romantic expressions of men like Von Hügel and Tyrrell. We should read Tyrrell’s work instead of branding him as an anti-Catholic monster. Scylla and Charybdis and Christianity at the Crossroads are beautiful works written by a deeply spiritual man, a true Romantic. Why such a man joined the Jesuits in the first place is an enigma!

Traditionalists and conservatives would have us read Pascendi the way Evangelicals read the Bible. I would have us read a lot of carefully researched historical works like Emile Poulat, Intégrisme et Catholicisme Intégrale, Paris 1969. We need to see the whole cultural climate of the nineteenth century, going back to the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution that inspired Blake’s Jerusalem. When we see the impotence of neo-scholasticsm faced with rationalism in the eighteenth century, we will begin to understand the issues.

So-called Modernism was not a conspiracy to ruin a hitherto “perfect” Church, as is the opinion of some of the present-day conservative ideologues, but to make Christianity credible for people who cannot live with cognitive dissonance and arbitrary authoritarianism.

Historically, since the 1900’s, things ran their course through a divergence between the mystical point of view and the attempt to reconcile faith with rationalism through secularism. Think of Tyrrell setting out to oppose the demythologising rationalism of Harnack or Bultmann. The secularists won out in the 1960’s in a revolutionary movement. The present drifts in Anglicanism, Old Catholicism and Roman Catholicism are all animated by an über-rationalist managerial and bureaucratic mentality.

The other tendency, which was tarred by the same brush, was the mystical / romantic thread continued in men like Teilhard de Chardin, Urs von Balthasar, to an extent with Henri de Lubac and many of the ressourcement school of the 1950’s. I definitely find this tendency in John Paul II’s existential personalism as some have called it. Von Hügel and Tyrrell, and the maverick Arnold Harris Mathew (Old Catholic archbishop in England) were of this more romantic / mystical tendency.

If you really want my opinion about the problems in the Roman Catholic Church, it isn’t Modernism. It is what happens in any autocratic and authoritarian state or empire. The system cannot perpetuate itself and loses credibility with its citizens. When that happens, the system implodes. Nobody sincerely believes in the ideology put in place by Pius IX and perpetuated by the systematic canonisation of Popes of the “correct” tendency. It was said back in the nineteenth century that the new totalitarian ecclesiology would fail to convince thinking people. The working class has been alienated by the bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century. This was the work neither of liberalism or modernism, but the system itself.

I would not call the Popes antichrists or evil. In most of the twentieth century pontiffs, I discern sincerity and a concern for the good of the Church. They were part of a system that they were bound to uphold. I am not personally bitter about that Church, despite my personal sufferings over about fifteen years. There are many saintly bishops, priests, lay people and religious. God is worshipped and people learn about the Scriptures, prayer and the Christian life. There is no “true church”, but truth subsists in all Churches where there is faith and sincerity.

Conservatism does more harm than attempts by thinkers and visionaries to do something positive, to make wake-up calls. Conservatism deadens and kills both thought and the spirit. It is not the way forward.

Voices cry in the wilderness, and are seldom heeded…

* * *

Update: please see comments to Surviving Modernism and the article Sodalitium Pianum. It’s interesting that the conversation turns to Freemasonry. I have never been a Freemason, though my grandfather was high up in the Grand Lodge in England and a notable in his Yorkshire town of Pickering. There are several obediences in Freemasonry and differing ideas about God and religion. English and American Masons are generally Deists in the manner of eighteenth-century rationalism, and the Grand Orient in France and Italy, among other countries, is virulently atheistic and anti-religious.

To what extent Pius X, Cardinal Mery del Val or others believed that Modernism was a result of a Masonic conspiracy is difficult to discern. It seems to be a red herring from the essential theological issues, which need to be reflected upon, studied and discussed – especially the relationship between faith and reason, the nature of revelation and the degree of communion and perichoreisis between what we call nature and what lies totally beyond our experience as mortal humans. These are the real issues.

The aggiornamento of Vatican II failed to convince modern man of the credibility of Christianity. Two responses are possible: building the walls even higher or addressing the issues with honesty and self-criticism. Instead of destroying the liturgy, they could have looked at their own failings and rank hypocrisy! Anyway, we need to keep calm and constructive, and charitable towards the sincere folk in that Church. I appreciate discussion in this spirit.

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3 Responses to La Bête Noire

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    To toss a couple gobbets on the cutting board as possible ingredients for the stew pot or limbec of further discussion:

    Gobbet the first: Chesterton has some interesting observations in chapter 7 of his Autobiography about “two tendencies” which “were in flatly contrary directions; and it is thoroughly typical of the world that they were both called by the same name. Both were supposed to be liberal theology or the religion of all sensible men.” He goes on to say, “One of these movements of progress led into the glorious fairyland of George Macdonald, the other led into the stark and hollowed hills of Thomas Hardy.” Chesterton, in answering the question, “Why did you join the Church of Rome?”, here, is far from dismissing MacDonald out of hand: indeed, the title of his last chapter quotes that of one of MacDonald’s stories – “The God with the Golden Key”. In it, GKC also quotes another convert to Catholicism (from Swedenborgianism), Coventry Patmore.

    I would mount my tentative hobbyhorse of ‘Romanticism comes of age’, and see MacDonald, and Novalis whome he admired and translated, before him, and Patmore contemporary with him and Chesterton as younger contemporary as distinctive examples of Romanticism coming of age to which Christ, Christianity, and the Church are central, with some of them being (so to put it) emphatically ‘Roman Romantics’.

    Gobbet the second: Lewis, in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, interestingly distinguishes writers by their thought about Natural Law and State Sovereignty, and so, for example, finds Tyndale and Pius II in this respect on ‘the same side’, while for Hooker, “The Almighty Himself repudiates the sort of sovereignty that Tyndale thinks fit for Henry VIII” Lewis also compares the appeal of Calvinism to many young intellectuals in the Sixteenth century to that of Marxism to many of those of the Twentieth.

    Gobbet the third: Eric Voegelin, who describes himself, theologically, as a “modernist”, interestingly considers the Reformation ‘wars of religion’ in terms of ‘dogmatomachy’, and sees them as followed by something like a secularized recapitulation of them in ideological ‘dogmatomachies’.

    • Roman Romantics? There were the French liberals turned Ultramontanists in the early 19th century like Chateaubriand, Lamennais and Dom Guéranger. The Oxford Movement divines seem to have been unconnected with the French, but what a coincidence!

      I don’t know how I would have been in the 1890’s or 1900’s. Going to the consecration of Westminster Cathedral must have been quite a shot of dopamine to the RC’s then and Anglicans thinking of doing the swim! There are some beautiful stories about converts and heroism. There is also the story of Tyrrell who (metaphorically) ran into a wall and hurt his head!

      The genie can’t be put back into the bottle. Similarly, I grow quite impatient with attempts on the internet to perpetuate the old Reformation polemics around Calvinism and Arminianism.

      There is an article in Damian Thompson’s blog about Richard Dawkins softening his anti-religious stance, and perhaps even tending towards a return to Christianity. What kind of Christianity would he embrace?

      The “mainstream” Church is not the image projected by the conservatives and traditionalists. The Modernist debate hardly has any more relevance than the old Reformation polemics. It has become a Church of enthusiasts instead of being the “official” religion of everywhere it established itself in the past. People worship the Pope wherever he goes. There is still parish and community life, but it is ever more distant from the experience of ordinary people.

      The conservatives and traditionalists are very marginal. We are all marginal – I certainly am. The things I discuss on this blog must seem surreal to some!

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Dear Father Anthony,
        Thanks for the additional sharp observations to add to the things to think about!

        My experience of the last quarter-century among varieties of scions of the Dutch Reformation(s), have convinced me that “the old Reformation polemics around Calvinism and Arminianism” in one form or another have been ‘alive and kicking’ throughout that period and are still so today, apart from as well as in relation to internet. How “marginal” they – scions and polemics – are, in what senses, whether beyond or within the visible Church (in Hooker’s sense), is another field of inquiry and discussion.

        I’ve also ahd some contact, over the past 34 years, with Christian (graduate) students from Eastern Europe, the Balkans, South America, Africa, and the Sub-Continent, yet I do not feel I have a very clear sense of where the Church is how “marginal” or not, in what senses exactly. I do feel confident that various sorts of ideologues, religious, anti-religious, and eratz religious want it to be marginal, and determinedly depict it as so, to that end. And you certainly seem right in saying it is not “the ‘official’ religion of everywhere it established itself in the past.” How differenlty, or not so very differently, can we speak the lines from T.S. Eliot’s play, The Rock, from the way they were spoken 80 years ago, when it was written, “And what shall we say of the future? Is one church all we can. build? Or shall the Visible Church go on to conquer the World?”

        Perhaps the most curious contemporary example of a ‘Roman Romantic’ quite the opposite of “marginal” where (popular) cultural recognition and influence goes, is Tolkien: but how successfully ‘Roman’ or ‘mere Christian’ is that ‘non-marginality’, when there seem many who combine loving his work with hating his central loves?

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