Life of Pius X - F. A. Forbes

Pius X and Modernism

In July, 1907, the Sacred Congregation of the Roman Inquisition issued the Decree "Lamentabili," which condemned sixty-five of the most distinctive Modernist doctrines. Two months later appeared the Encyclical "Pascendi," denouncing under the name of "Modernism "a group of errors which struck at the very roots of the Christian Faith.

It was not the first time that the Holy See had spoken on this matter, nor was Modernism a thing of yesterday. It had its birth in the Humanist philosophy of the eighteenth century, and came to its own at the French Revolution. The very name Modernism was coined by Jean Jacques Rousseau, the apostle of Humanism, when alluding to the writings of an atheistical philosopher.

The syllabus of Pius IX. which appeared in 1864, although directed chiefly against rationalism, condemned many errors which have since been appropriated by the Modernists. "It is astounding," says a modern writer, "how fearlessly he fought against the false liberalism which threatened to destroy the very essence of faith and religion."

Pius X., a no less fearless fighter than his glorious predecessor, had followed the progress of the movement with the grave intelligence that he brought to bear on all the questions which affected the Catholic Faith. In his Encyclical issued for the centenary of St. Gregory the Great in 1904, he had already pointed out the dangers of certain new theological methods, "which, based upon Agnosticism and Immanence, tend to divest Catholic doctrine of all objective, absolute, and immutable truth, especially when these methods are associated with subversive criticism of Holy Scripture and of the origins of Christianity."

It may be interesting to survey shortly the course of events, and to see how Modernism, the child of the Humanist teaching of the eighteenth century, came to be condemned by the Church in the twentieth as "a compendium of all the heresies."

The researches of German scholars—Protestants or atheists for the most part in the field of Biblical criticism had during the last two hundred years tended to the negation of many of the doctrines of the Christian Faith amongst those who accepted their views as the outcome of the progress of modern science. To the views of Eichhorn, Hegel, Harnack, and other free-thinking critics, may be attributed the marked tendency at the present day outside of the Catholic Church, even among men who profess to be theologians, to look upon the chief doctrines of Christianity as open questions, to be believed or not according to individual opinion.

It is generally acknowledged that the principles of Modernism are largely derived from the teaching of the eighteenth-century professor of Konigsberg, Immanuel Kant, who, as a rationalist, rejected supernatural religion. That their teaching is largely based on his philosophy is indubitable, although they may be said to owe still more to Schleiermacher, another German thinker whose plan was to reform religion by attempting to conciliate it with science. While rejecting, like the Modernist, natural religion as a pure abstraction, and declaring that dogma could only be derived from religious experience, Schleiermacher claimed the right to be acknowledged as a Christian. Here we have something very like the attitude of the Modernist of the present day.

In France, meanwhile, Modernism was progressing on more dangerous lines, inasmuch as it was within the Church itself. In the year 1896, Blondel, a French Catholic professor of the University of Lille, attacked the traditional methods of defense employed by the Church against the infidel philosophy and science of the day, declaring that they were antiquated and out of date. Pere Laberthonniere, of the French Oratory, published in the following year a book called "The Religious Problem," in which the same charge was repeated. Like views had been already set forth by the Abbe Marcel Hebert, an avowed disciple of Kant, and professor of philosophy in the Ecole Fenelon at Paris. They were joined soon after by the Abbe Loisy, who had already come before the public as a man of extreme views on scriptural subjects.

The Abbe Loisy, who was to become one of the leaders of the heresy known as Modernism, had begun his career as a professor in the Catholic Institute of Paris. Although a man of brilliant intelligence and of great learning, he had been dismissed by the Rector of the Institute on account of his marked tendency to liberalism. Having become chaplain to the Dominican convent of Neuilly near Paris for he had not been formally condemned he proceeded to publish anonymously papers and articles containing seditious and heretical arguments against the Church to which he professed to belong, a mode of action which has been characteristic of Modernists in every country where they have obtained a footing. He next appeared as an employee of the anti-clerical French Government, as professor in a lay school of higher studies in Paris, publishing this time under his own name—what is perhaps his best-known work, "L'Evangile et l'Eglise." The book was condemned at once by Cardinal Richard, Archbishop of Paris, as containing heretical opinions. It was rumored that the author had submitted, a conjecture which was dispelled a few months later by the appearance of another book, "Autour d'un petit Livre," in which he further emphasized the statements contained in "L'Evangile et l'Eglise," treating the prohibition of the Cardinal, Archbishop and of the other Bishops who had forbidden the circulation of the book in their dioceses with an ironical banter which was nothing less than insulting.

While still Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Sarto had established, for the benefit of the younger priests of his archdiocese, a series of conferences on current topics. It is noteworthy that the first subject to be explained and refuted in this course was Abbe Loisy's book, "L'Evangile et l'Eglise." In the interval between its publication and the appearance of "Autour d'un petit Livre," the Patriarch had become Pope. Yet he found time to read this book himself before condemning it. His condemnation of Modernism three years later was therefore no hasty action, prompted by a misconception of the issues at stake. He had been observing with the closest attention the development of the Modernist theories, causing to be collected and digested every book, pamphlet, and article that had a bearing on the subject.

The official condemnation of Loisy's works was the signal for a storm of abuse in the rationalist, anti-clerical, and Modernist press. "The old shadowy images of Rome gagging her progressive men will be revived with added venom to poison the mind of the public," prophesied a writer in the Ecclesiastical Review, and the prophecy was certainly fulfilled. In vain did the Abbe Monchamp, Vicar of Liege, point out, after close analysis of Loisy's book, the impossibility of escaping the conclusion which places the writer in direct opposition to the authoritative teaching of the Church. The authoritative teaching of the Church, to the minds of many, was a much less important thing than the retaining of a few intelligent men within her fold. Yet even among those outside of the Church there were men who saw more clearly. "From the paternal standpoint of the Church of 'Rome," wrote Professor Sanday, "it seems to me, if I may say so, that the authorities have acted wisely. It is not an insuperable barrier placed in the way of future progress, but the intimation of a need for caution." This is much the same argument as that of a Catholic writer: "Loisy is condemned by the Church to-day because his statements not only lack sufficiently convincing proofs, but because they are an injury to the children of her household." The Church, while recommending the exercise of criticism according to sound principles and unbiased by rationalistic presuppositions, is bound to condemn conclusions which are at variance with revealed truth.

But the storm of abuse which had arisen at the condemnation of Loisy, and which had been further strengthened by the publication of the decree "Lamentabili," reached its climax at the appearance of the Encyclical "Pascendi," which tore the veil from Modernism and exposed its errors with ruthless precision. Modernism, like Jansenism, had made up its mind to remain in the Church and to mould her teaching to its will; and now it was only one more of the many heresies that had fallen on the rock of the promise and has been broken in the falling. The Pope and Cardinal Merry del Val, who, as Secretary of State, had the honour of sharing in all the attacks that were leveled at his illustrious. Chief, were denounced as intolerant fanatics. The one idea of Pius X., cried the Modernists, was to repress by violent means every indication of originality of thought and independence of judgment within the Church; he had attempted to stifle a movement with which some of the best thinkers of the age were in sympathy. He was a "good country priest," perhaps; but utterly incapable of dealing with the questions which were at issue. The Modernists, according to their own judgment, were to have been the light of the world, and he had done his best to quench it. Some, not content with assailing his policy, with that meanness which has strangely characterized the willful heretic in every age and country, attacked, and are still attacking, the blameless life of the Pontiff, to which all lovers of holiness, even outside the Church, have paid a generous tribute. "A hypocrite," they said, "an intriguer, who by a feigned humility which was but the veil for an unscrupulous ambition, had wormed his way upwards and had now thrown off the veil." 'Thus Arius against Athanasius, the Jansenists against Vincent de Paul. History repeats itself.

"The Modernist movement had quickened a thousand dim dreams of reunion into enthusiastic hopes," wrote Father Tyrrell, the leader of Modernism in England, "when lo! Pius X. comes forward with a stone in one hand and a scorpion in the other."

"If you have not, and do not wish to have," wrote a Protestant theologian, M. Ferdinand Buisson, "either Credo, or Catechism, or Pope or Council, if you do not believe in the infallibility of either a man or a book, or in the immortality of any doctrine or of any institution, have the courage of your convictions, and call yourselves what you are—freethinkers." Although in these words M. Buisson was merely pointing out the dangers of liberal protestantism to Protestants, and they were written several years before the condemnation of Modernism, they can be applied equally well to the Modernist attitude.

To many Christians the Encyclical "Pascendi" revealed a danger that they themselves had never suspected; and the account of the Modernist doctrines which it so lucidly gave was for them a lesson more eloquent than any censure. It was no accusation, much less a travesty, as the Modernists themselves allowed, that masterly analysis of a system which claimed the right to substitute itself for the Catholic conception of a teaching authority established by Jesus Christ.

"Yes or no, do you believe in the divine authority of the Church?" asks Cardinal Mercier in Modernism in Science.  "Do you accept outwardly and in the sincerity of your heart what in the name of Christ she commands? Do you consent to obey her? If so, she offers you her Sacraments and undertakes to conduct you safely into the harbor of salvation. If not, then you deliberately sever the tie that unites you to her, and break the bond consecrated by her grace. Before God and your conscience you no longer belong to her; remain no longer in obstinate hypocrisy a pretended member of her fold. You cannot honestly pass yourself off as one of her sons; and as she cannot be a party to hypocrisy and sacrilege, she bids you, if you force her to it, to leave her ranks . . . The Modernism condemned by the Pope is the negation of the Church's teaching."

What is Modernism? is a question that has been often asked. It is not easy to put the matter in a nutshell, and various answers have been given. "Modernists differ so much among themselves," says Father Bampton, "that it is difficult to pin them down to one coherent set of opinions. But the general drift of Modernism in its bearing upon Catholicity is unmistakable. Its object is quite clear and open and avowed. That object is not ostensibly to set up a brand-new form of Catholicity, but to reconstruct the old on new lines. Its object, as Modernists are fond of saying, is to readjust Catholicity to the mentality of the age, to reinterpret Christianity in terms of modern thought. The question is," he asks later, what is modern thought? Modern thought, thanks in great measure to Kant, is largely rationalistic. It is a difficult matter to interpret Catholicity in terms of rationalism, and Modernism has had the hardihood to attempt the task."

"Modernism," says a French writer, "is an application of Pragmatism to religious beliefs."'

Professor Perin, of Louvain, describes Modernism as the "humanitarian tendency of contemporary society—the ambition to eliminate God from all social life." This, he admits, is Modernism in its extreme form; in less acute stages it may be described as liberalism of every degree and shade.

"Modernism," says the Abbate Cavalcanti, "is a morbid state of conscience that professes manifold ideals, opinions, and tendencies. From time to time these tendencies work out into systems that are to renew the basis and superstructure of society, politics, philosophy, and theology, of the Church herself, and of the Christian religion."

"Modernism," says Cardinal Mercier, "consists essentially in affirming that a religious soul must draw from itself, from nothing but itself, the object and motive of its faith. It rejects all revelation imposed by the conscience, and therefore becomes a negation of the doctrinal authority of the Church established by Jesus Christ, to which it denies the right to govern Christian society."

"Modernism," says the same writer, "is not the modern expression of science; consequently the condemnation of Modernism is not the condemnation of science nor a disapproval of her methods."

But for the complete analysis of Modernism we must go to the Encyclical itself. After condemning Modernism as "the meeting-ground of all heresies," the Pope denounced in it a group of errors which included the separation of an historical from a religious Christ; the reversal of the Incarnation by the denial of the ingerence of the Divine in the domain of fact; the degradation of faith to the region of sentiment; the reduction of religious authority from an Apostolic to a mere presidential basis; and the superannuation and substitution of the Bible and revelation in favor of interior revelation. After alluding to the gravity of the situation, the Encyclical proceeded to deal with the subject in three parts. First came the analysis of Modernist teaching, with agnosticism as the basis of its philosophy, and immanence as its positive side, thus placing the explanation of religion in man alone, and lifting conscience to the same level as revelation. Faith and science to the Modernist are separate, the latter being supreme, and religious dogmas are not only inadequate but must be changeable to be adapted to living needs. Everything must be subject to evolution, and these principles were being applied to the deformation of history and of apologetics.

In the second part Modernism was traced to its causes.

"The proximate cause," said the Holy Father, "is without any doubt an error of the mind. The remoter causes are two: curiosity and pride. Curiosity, unless wisely held in check, is of itself sufficient to account for all errors. But far more effective in obscuring the mind and leading it into error is pride, which, as it were, dwells in Modernism as in its own house. Through pride the Modernists have over-estimated themselves. They are puffed up with a vain-glory which allows them to regard themselves as the sole possessors of knowledge, and, elated with presumption, makes them say, 'We are not as the rest of men,' and which leads them, lest they should seem as other men, to embrace and to devise novelties even of the most absurd kind. It is pride which . . . causes them to demand a compromise between authority and liberty. It is owing to their pride that they seek to be the reformers of others while they forget to reform themselves."

"If from moral causes we pass to the intellectual, the first and most powerful is ignorance. "These very men who pose as Doctors of the Church, who speak so highly of modern philosophy and show such contempt for scholasticism, have embraced the one with its false glamour, precisely because their ignorance of the other has left them without the means of recognizing the confusion of their ideas and of refuting sophistry. Their system, replete with so many errors, has been born of the union between faith and false philosophy."

"Modernism is inclined to Pantheism by its doctrine of Divine immanence—i.e., of the intimate presence of God within us," continues the Pope. "Does this God declare Himself as distinct from us? If so, then the position of Modernism must not be opposed to that of Catholicism, nor exterior revelation rejected. But if God declares Himself as not distinct from us, the position of Modernism becomes openly Pantheistic." Such was the dilemma in which the Modernists were placed by the Encyclical.

In the third are set forth the remedies for the evil, amongst which are the enforcement of the study of scholastic philosophy in seminaries and by clerics at the Universities; ceaseless activity and watchfulness on the part of the Bishops by a diocesan censorship of books, and the presentation of an oath to clergy and professors in Universities, by which they were to bind themselves to reject the errors denounced in the Encyclical and Decree, The gravity of the sentence was only to be accounted for by the gravity of the case. "The security of the Catholic name," said the Pope, "is at stake; to keep silence longer would be a crime."

The danger was indeed a serious one. The Modernists had put themselves forward as the champions of science, led to the conclusions they defended by mere anxiety for scientific truth. Their movement, from the point of view of many, marked a religious reaction against the materialism and positivism which had failed so signally to satisfy the longings of the human soul. It was a reaction in the right direction which had taken the wrong road, and which threatened to land its votaries in a deeper abyss than that from which they had set out. There was therefore an attractive side to its teaching, especially to youthful minds, even amongst the faithful children of the Church.

"Whence comes the charm of Modernism for youthful minds?" asks Cardinal Mercier, "and what are its dangers?"

"In the first place," he answers, "comes the false analogy which confuses the constitution of the Catholic Church with the political organizations of modern society and which would apply the rules of the one to the other. Secondly, timid believers and superficial thinkers, ignorant of Catholic philosophy and theology, and conscious of intellectual weakness when confronted with the conclusions of free-thinking science, look to find a position of security here. Thirdly, the failure to comprehend that the unity of Christian faith is safe only in the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church's stability derives only from the Chair of Peter"

Pius X., in the Encyclical "Pascendi," speaks more clearly still. "Excited and confused by this clamor of praise and abuse—for when a Modernist falls under the condemnation of the Church the others hold him in veneration as almost a martyr for the truth—young men, some of them afraid of being branded as ignorant, others ambitious to rank among the learned, and both classes goaded internally by curiosity and pride, not infrequently yield to temptation and give themselves up to Modernism."

"The adversaries of the Church will doubtless traduce Us as the enemy of science and of the progress of humanity," continues the Pope. "As a fresh answer to such accusations . . . it is Our intention to establish a special Institute, in which, through the co-operation of those Catholics who are most eminent for their learning, the advance of science and every other department of knowledge may be promoted under the guidance and teaching of Catholic truth."

This scheme was carried out a little later, when Pius X. established in Rome the Biblical Institute, where young ecclesiastics who had finished their course of philosophy and theology could give themselves, under the direction of the most eminent Catholic scholars of the day, to the special study of the sacred Scriptures.

The storm raged hotly for a while round the Pontiff who had spoken so fearlessly; but a deep thanksgiving was in the hearts of those who could see the issues at stake.

"In his dealings with France," wrote one of these, "the Holy Father saved, so to speak, the body of the Church, but now he has saved her soul." "The Pope has spoken, Modernism has ceased to be," wrote the famous French novelist and academician, Paul Bourget, a year or two later. Modernists still survive, it is true, and by their venom we may know them, but their system is shattered the veil is torn away."

"Five years ago," wrote Monsignor Benson on the death of Pius X., "it was proclaimed that by his action thought was once more thrown back into the fetters from which it was shaking itself loose, and that Rome henceforward must be considered as finally out of the struggle; that once more she had feared to face the light, and held back or cast out those of her children who honestly desired it. And now there is practically not a Christian anywhere—a Christian, that is to say, in the historic sense of the word, who believes that Christ's mission lay in the revelation which He promulgated, and not merely in the impulse which His coming gave to spiritual aspiration—there is not a Christian in this sense, however far his sympathies may be from the Catholic interpretation of the contents of that revelation, who does not acknowledge that Pius stood firm where their religious leaders faltered or temporized; and that Rome, under his leadership, placed herself on the side of plain Gospel truth, of the authority of Holy Scripture, and of the Divinity of Christ."