History of the Church: Later Modern Times - Notre Dame

The Church and Liberalism

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I. The Spirit of Liberalism

The Church Militant, like an army passing through hostile territory, must ever be prepared to meet new enemies, or rather to encounter the same foe under changed colours and with different tactics. Persecutions, heresies, defections from primitive fervour, the lapse of whole nations from the faith, are but phases of the great struggle which will reach its climax in the days of Antichrist. The Catholic Revival had not progressed far when new troubles arose.

This Revival was in reality a return to medieval ideals and practices. But the world had changed, and could not retrace its steps through the centuries. Retrospect was useful as giving a starting-point, but it could not provide a permanent resting-place. Moreover, the world was beginning to know itself better, and to turn the search light of philosophy upon the problems of existence. Eminent minds had been busy in purely intellectual spheres, seeking for solutions of which they had been deprived by the Protestant Reformation. They had at least discovered that the rejection and destruction of ancient institutions and landmarks was a mistake; humanity could only progress by constructive growth from the deep roots of the past. It became the habit of philosophers to explain all things by theories of evolution. There was much in this that was consonant with the doctrines of the Church; there was also much in it which might lead unwary souls far astray.

The theory of evolution, in its Christian sense, was applied by Cardinal Newman to matters of religion in his "Development of Christian Doctrine," in which he shows that Catholic dogma, ever the same, has nevertheless grown with the ages, and taken new shapes to suit the varying needs of the changing times. The vitality of the Church is proved by her living teaching, which assimilates the ever-increasing store of human knowledge. Thus, in the thirteenth century, the current Aristotelian philosophy, which was supposed to be directly hostile to Christianity, was made use of by St. Thomas Aquinas to give logical precision and accuracy of expression to the scholastic theology. Nor can it be doubted that the scientific discoveries of modern times, when fully understood and developed, will harmonize perfectly with the teaching of the Church, and prove once more that truth is incapable of contradicting itself. Protestantism, on the contrary, denies the possibility of evolution in dogma, and abides by its own interpretation of the letter of Scripture. The consequence of this stagnation is that when Scripture does not fit a particular case, there is no other refuge than negation, and negation means liberalism in its most extreme form. The followers of liberalism, according to Leo XIII., "deny the existence of any Divine authority to which obedience is due, and proclaim that every man is the law to himself; whence arises that ethical system which they style independent morality, and which, under the guise of liberty, exonerates man from any obedience to the commands of God, and substitutes a boundless licence."

When from this general view of liberalism we turn to the question of "Liberal Catholicism," we find ourselves on somewhat different ground. The English Bishops, in their joint pastoral of 1900, compare the extreme liberal Catholic to "one who, having received a gracious invitation from his Sovereign to reside in the royal palace, should take advantage of his position to destroy or dispose of the royal furniture according to his own caprice or that of friends outside, and to make even structural alterations, without any kind of warrant for so doing." It is clear that a Catholic may have broad and tolerant views without in any way encouraging or countenancing such conduct as is here implied. But, since it is hard to distinguish between the liberalism of so loyal a Catholic as, for instance, Montalembert and that of an incipient pagan like Renan, it is natural that rigid conservatives should be liable to take alarm and at times confuse one with the other. Hence arose regrettable differences between men who, if they had paused to consider the situation, might have recognised that they were acting on principles fundamentally the same. We cannot here do more than touch upon the salient points of a controversy in which theologians and politicians took active parts in France, Germany, and England, until the Church herself interfered by the Vatican decree of the year 1870.

Pius IX. began his reign with conciliatory and liberal intentions. He warmly recognised the adaptability of Catholicism to progress of every kind, and was prepared to meet the modern spirit in all things not at variance with truth and justice. In Italy especially he made concessions, social, political, and ecclesiastical, which alarmed prudent men of the older school, while they gained him immense popularity throughout Europe. His generosity, however, met with ingratitude, and he was even expected to extend it so far as to become a mere instrument in the hands of the Italian radicals. On his refusal to accede to their demands, his Minister, Count Rossi, was assassinated, and the Holy Father himself was driven to seek safety in flight. To quote from Mr. Wilfrid Ward: "The murder of De Rossi, the triumph of the Republicans, the Pope's own enforced flight from Rome, put an abrupt termination to his concessions to liberalism. If he had begun in the spirit of Lacordaire, who sat on the extreme left of the Assembly, like Lacordaire he soon learnt something of the character of the men who flourished and dishonoured the standard of freedom. The French priest retired from public life, but the Pope had necessarily to continue to deal with the people and with the secular power."



Lacordaire and Montalembert had, indeed, once more come to the front in defence of the cause of freedom. When the former retired disheartened from his seat in Parliament, and devoted himself to his famous "Conferences "at Notre Dame of Paris, Montalembert, with new friends, continued the struggle. The chief object of the latter was to find some means of reconciling Catholic ideals with the demands of the modern spirit. These views were advocated in the Correspondant, the organ of the liberal Catholic party in France. But they were violently opposed by the Ultra-montane journal, L'Univers, whose editor was Louis Veuillot. The rival camps carried on sharp debates, though they were at the same time always ready to unite their forces against the free-thinkers of the day. Montalembert and Veuillot, representing as they did Catholic liberalism and Ultramontanism, set aside their differences when it was a question of confronting the irreligious army led by Victor Hugo.

Meanwhile, Pius IX., restored to Rome in 1850 under the protection of France, applied himself to counteracting the growing errors of liberalism. The large number of documents addressed by him to the Bishops of the world, between 1850 and 1864, were finally summarized in the "Syllabus "attached to the Encyclical "Quanta Cura." Pantheism, Rationalism, Socialism, secret societies, and similar products of liberalism run to seed, were here definitely condemned. The condemnations were, of course, taken by the enemies of the Church as a patent proof of the narrowness of Rome and of her opposition to modern enlightenment and progress. This excited no surprise, but it was painful to note that L' Univers, turned the Pope's strictures on liberalism against the Catholic liberal party voiced by the Correspondant. Needless to say, the Holy Father had no such intention, but the anti-Catholic press made use of this interpretation to level its shafts of ridicule at both parties. The storm passed over, nevertheless, and little by little all the points of the "Syllabus "were acknowledged to be reasonable and well-founded, even by men who were most unwilling to allow that Rome could be aught but inimical to progress and enlightenment.

II. The Council of the Vatican

"And now," says Mr. Wilfrid Ward, "began in earnest the struggle of opinion which culminated in the Vatican decree of 1870. Apart altogether from the extreme Liberals, whose leaders ultimately refused to accept the definition, there were, in France, Germany, and England, large numbers of representative Catholics who looked with great regret on the interpretations of the Syllabus  and Encyclical which gave them the colour of a declaration of war against modern civilization . . . In England, as elsewhere, this temper of mind did not at first show itself in an attitude of aversion to the definition. Its most distinguished representative, Cardinal Newman, said, shortly before the Council: 'The thing we have to be anxious about is not that there should. be no definition, but what the definition will be.'"

To us who as children have learnt from our Catechism the definition of infallibility, it seems strange that there should have been any anxiety or doubt as to the result. But, for Catholics who lived at that time, the solution of the problem lay in the unknown future, and none could pronounce absolutely for or against the doctrine until the Church had spoken. All were, however, free to discuss the matter, to give and to seek opinions. Was the Pope personally infallible? If so, with what limitations? What was to be thought of the Gallican proposition that a General Council must consent before an article could be of faith? The answer could scarcely admit of doubt; but would the point be defined? And, if defined, would the definition be opportune? This was the crucial difficulty for the great majority who had already accepted the doctrine of infallibility as afterwards defined. It split them into Opportunists and Inopportunists, whilst leaving them united as to what they believed.

On the 8th of December, 1869, at the invitation of Pius IX., some seven hundred Bishops from all parts of the world met for the opening of the twentieth (Ecumenical Council—the first of the Vatican. In this magnificent gathering there was absolute freedom for thought and discussion, and there were also various shades of opinion. The American Bishop Chatard thus sketches the chief differences. "If any one imagines," he says, "that all who joined in opposing a definition from the outset were actuated by the same motives he would certainly be wide of the mark. While the main point of the controversy was held by the 'Ultramontanes' without exception—and there was but the one question as to the formula to be used—the opposition, as they were generally called, taken all together, had no fixed principle of accord, save an agreement to disagree with the defining of the doctrine as of faith. To analyse the constituent parts of this body we shall class them according to ideas.

"First, in conviction, in determination, and in influence, were the Gallicans, properly so-called, who held and taught the very opposite of the proposed dogma. . . . This class was not very numerous . . .

"The second class comprised those who, believing the doctrine themselves, or at least favouring it speculatively, did not think it capable of definition, not deeming the tradition of the Church clear enough on this point.

"A third class—the most numerous—regarded the definition as possible, but practically fraught with peril to the Church as impeding conversions, as exasperating to governments. For the sake of peace, and for the good of souls, they would not see it proclaimed as of faith."

The eyes of the entire world were fixed upon the proceedings the Council, and hopes were entertained by the enemies of the Church that divisions would ensue from differences of opinion. Session after session went by, until at last, on July i8, 1870, the votes of the Fathers of the Council were taken for the last time. Four hundred and thirty-three Bishops declared in favour of the definition; only two voted against it. Those Bishops who did not wish to speak their minds in the Assembly absented themselves with the Pope's permission; but they, with others whom illness or old age had prevented from being present, gave in their adhesion as soon as the Infallibility of the Pope was declared to be an Article of Faith. Not one raised his voice to dispute the solemn definition that the Holy Father when speaking ex cathedra  is incapable of error in faith or morals. A remnant of theologians, with the German professor, Dr. Dollinger, at their head, refused to accept the decision of the Council. They assumed the name of "Old Catholics," and managed to carry on their schism in Germany by obtaining episcopal consecration for some of their number from the Dutch Jansenists. Their resistance to the infallible authority of the Pope was but the prelude to a series of misfortunes which led to their final disappearance from the pages of history.

Pope Pius IX


As Pius IX. rose on that glorious day and intoned the Te Deum, the Catholic world was with him heart and soul. More convinced than ever that "where Peter is there is the Church," and that "Peter had spoken by the lips of Pius," each one felt that true liberty consists in loving submission to the Vicar of Christ, and that his infallibility is the safeguard of faith and the pledge of the promises on which hope rests.

Lucifer's war-cry "Non serviam"(I will not obey), still rang out in the liberal camp. Popes and Councils spoke in vain when they sought to bring back the erring ones to the right path. The evil was more rampant than ever when, in 1878, Leo XIII. assumed the tiara. "The enemies of public order," he said in his first encyclical, "have thought nothing better suited to destroy the foundations of society than to make an unflagging attack upon the Church of God, to bring her into discredit and odium by spreading infamous calumnies, and accusing her of being opposed to genuine progress." Throughout his pontificate he did not cease by word and writing to warn the faithful against the insidious attacks made by the advocates of false liberty upon the principles of law and order. True liberty, according to Leo XIII., is attainable under any form of government, provided that rulers and subjects abide by the law of God. "Whatever the nature of the government," he says in his celebrated encyclical "Immortale Dei," "rulers must ever bear in mind that God is the paramount Ruler of the world, and must set Him before themselves as their exemplar and law in the administration of the State." Subjects, in their turn, must remember that if God has given them liberty they must use it aright and within the limits assigned to them by Church and State. It stands to reason that in no other way can that order be secured which will preserve to each one his individual freedom, and prevent the encroachments of lawlessness upon the rights of the weak and unprotected.

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