Modernism (Roman Catholicism)

Modernism (Roman Catholicism)

Modernism in the Roman Catholic Church is a theological viewpoint that usually includes a rationalist approach to the Bible, secularism and modern philosophical systems; it is regarded as heretical by the Catholic Church.

Modernism includes the belief that the Church and Catholic dogma are mere human institutions and as such their nature may radically change over time. The term was used by Pope Pius X, chiefly in reference to the teachings of priests Alfred Loisy and George Tyrrell. "Modernists" generally did not use this label in describing themselves, nor did they necessarily see themselves as a unified group.

In his encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis of 1907, Pius X declared that Modernism was not only heretical, but even condemned it as "the synthesis of all heresies", because it undermined defined Catholic doctrine in a fundamental way, denying the idea of objective unchanging truth and authoritative teaching. In his decree Lamentabili Sane, Pius X presented 65 condemned and proscribed errors of Modernism.

The Modernist crisis took place chiefly in French and British intellectual Catholic circles, to a lesser extent in Italy, and virtually nowhere else. The Modernist movement in Catholicism was influenced by certain Protestant theologians and clergy, starting with the Tübingen school in the mid-19th century. Some, however, such as George Tyrell, disagreed strongly with this analogy; Tyrell saw himself as loyal to the unity of the Church, and disliked liberal Protestantism (Hales 1958). According to Church critics and dissidents of both past and present, in some respects the Church appeared to be reacting to cultural themes that had arisen with Renaissance humanism and had informed the Enlightenment of the 18th century.

Forms of Modernism in the Church

Modernism in the Catholic Church might be described under the following broad headings:

  • Rationalist approach to the Bible. The rationalism that was an aspect of Modernism took a skeptical view of miracles and the historicity of biblical narratives. Furthermore, this approach attempted to evaluate the meaning of the Bible by focusing on the text alone and ignoring what the Church fathers and others have historically taught about it. This way of looking at the Bible became quite popular in the Protestant churches and found its way into Catholic churches. It was an offshoot of the concept of sola scriptura, which asserts that an individual can learn all that is necessary regarding religion just by reading the Bible.
  • Secularism and other Enlightenment ideals. The ideal of secularism can be briefly summarised as holding that the best course of action in politics and other civic fields is that which flows from disparate groups’ and religions’ common understanding of the “good”. By implication, Church and State should be separated, and the laws of the state should generally only cover the “common ground” of beliefs between the various religious groups that might be present — for example the prohibition of murder, etc. From the secularists’ point of view, it was possible to distinguish between political ideas and structures that were religious and those that were not. Catholic theologians in the mainstream argued that such a distinction was not possible, that all aspects of society had to be organized with the final goal of heaven in mind. This was a direct counter to the thread of Humanism that had been in the forefront of intellectual thought since the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. The roots of secularism they traced to those English philosophers who attempted to create a “universal religion” based on the “common denominator” of all other religions; it was largely spread through the secret societies of the Enlightenment, including the Freemasons, the Illuminati, and the Carbonari, and its greatest threat, in the writings of this school, was the spectre of Democracy.
  • Modern philosophical systems. Philosophers such as Kant and Henri Bergson inspired the mainstream of Modernist thought. One of the main currents was the attempt to synthesize the vocabularies/epistemologies/metaphysics and other features of certain modern systems of philosophy with Catholicism, in much the same way the Scholastics earlier attempted to synthesize Platonic and Aristotlean philosophy with Catholicism, although Thomas Aquinas himself counted Aristotle as one of his chief influences.

The combination of these three currents usually led to other conclusions which were common in various streams of progressive thinking that was characterized as Modernism:

  • That religion is primarily a matter of irrational emotions. As more dispassionate and detailed studies of history appeared, a sense of historicism suggested that ideas are generally so conditioned by the age in which they are expressed; thus modernists generally believed that most dogmas or teachings of the Church were novelties which arose because of specific historical circumstances throughout the history of the Church. Rationalism and textual criticism downplayed the possible role of the miraculous, and the philosophical systems in vogue at the time taught that the existence of God and other things could never be known (see Agnosticism). Theology, formerly the “queen of the sciences” was dethroned. (Wilkinson 2002) So it was argued that religion must be primarily caused and centered on the feelings of believers. This bolsters the claims of secularism in weakening any position that supported favoring one religion over the other in the state (since if there isn’t a very scientific and reasonable assumption that one's religion is right, it would be a much safer route to organize society based on the assumption that no particular religion is right).

Evolution of dogmas

The final overall teaching of Modernism, is that dogmas (what is taught by the Church and what its members are required to believe) can evolve over time, rather than being the same for all time. This aspect of thought was what made Modernism unique in the history of heresies in the Church. Previously, a heretic (someone who believed and taught something different from what the rest of the church believed) would either claim that he was right and the rest of the church was wrong because he had received a new revelation from God, or that he had understood the true teaching of God which was previously understood but then lost. Both of those scenarios almost necessarily led to an organizational separation away from the Church (schism) or the offender being ejected from the Church (excommunication). With this new idea that doctrines evolve, it was possible for the modernist to believe that the old teachings of the Church and his new seemingly contradictory teachings were both correct — each had their time and place. This system allows almost any type of new belief that the modernist might want to introduce, and for this reason Modernism was labelled the "synthesis of all heresies" by Pope Pius X.

Social/Anthropological causes of Modernism

Catholic historians and theologians have social explanations as to why Modernism developed as it did and became so popular:

  • Working with the modern philosophical systems was popular. It allowed theologians to work with non-Catholic philosopher contemporaries, and not to be looked down upon as "ancient" for their frequently exclusively Scholastic philosophy.

  • In the Americas, especially in the United States, priests, bishops and theologians were surrounded by a culture and laity committed to the concept of secularism. Anti-Catholic uprisings during the colonial period and later caused a desire for priests and bishops to “fit in” and to “prove their loyalty to the American way”. Documents such as the Syllabus of Errors (which condemned freedom of religion and separation of church and state) were largely ignored by these priests and bishops. The modernistic trend of injecting secular values into Catholicism itself would allow for a much smoother relationship in these areas. Also, some argue, the downplaying of the doctrines taught by the Church contrary to American culture led them to be virtually unknown by succeeding generations of Catholics, causing newly ordained priests and bishops almost automatically to have secularist beliefs.
  • The evolution of dogmas theory, much like certain interpretations of being saved sola fide (“by faith alone”), allows for a constant updating (critics would say “loosening”) of standards of morality. As moral standards shifted heavily during the 20th century, previously a Catholic would have had to deny his faith to engage in some of the actions of his contemporaries. Now, citing that dogmas can change, it was possible to “update” Catholic morality while not being concerned with possible contradictions.

Official Church response

In 1893, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus affirmed in principle the legitimacy of Biblical criticism only insofar as it was pursued in a spirit of faith. In 1903 Leo established a Pontifical Biblical Commission to oversee those studies and ensure that they were conducted with respect for the Catholic doctrines on the inspiration and interpretation of scripture.

Pope Pius X, who succeeded Leo, was the first to identify Modernism as a movement. He frequently condemned both its aims and ideas, and was deeply concerned by the ability of Modernism to allow its adherents to believe themselves strict Catholics while having a markedly different belief as to what that meant (a consequence of the notion of evolution of dogma). In July 1907 the Holy Office published the document Lamentabili Sane, a sweeping condemnation which distinguished sixty-five propositions as a Modernist Heresy. In September of the same year, Pius X promulgated an encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis which enjoined a compulsory Oath Against Modernism on all Catholic bishops, priests and teachers. The oath was abolished by Pope Paul VI in 1967.

To ensure enforcement of these decisions, Monsignor Umberto Benigni organized, through his personal contacts with theologians, an unofficial group of censors who would report to him those thought to be teaching condemned doctrine. This group was called the Sodalitium Pianum, i.e. Fellowship of Pius (X), which in France was known as La Sapinière. Its frequently overzealous and clandestine methods hindered rather than helped the Church's combat against Modernism.

Since Pope Paul VI, most church authorities have largely dropped the term "modernism", perhaps because it is inherently ambiguous, instead preferring to identify more precise errors, such as secularism, liberalism or relativism. The term has however enjoyed a revival amongst Traditionalists and Conservative critics within the Catholic Church.

Some Catholic Modernists

Major figures

Early modernists

  • Alfred Loisy (1857-1940), whose L'Évangile et L’Église (1902) sparked the crisis
  • George Tyrell (1861-1909)
  • Maurice Blondel (1861-1949), philosopher and apologist (not strictly a “modernist” yet one of the chief suspects given his role in the debate and misunderstandings of his work)

Other, less public modernists

Suspected of Modernism


External links


  • Acton, Lord, The History of Freedom and Other Essays An outsider’s criticism.
  • Ilaria Biagioli, Alfonso Botti, Rocco Cerrato (eds), Romolo Murri e i murrismi in Italia e in Europa cent'anni dopo, Urbino, QuattroVenti, 2005
  • Alfonso Botti, Rocco Cerrato (eds), Il modernismo tra cristianità e secolarizzazione, Urbino, QuattroVenti, 2001
  • Poulat, É. 1979. Histoire, dogme et critique dans la crise moderniste. Tournai. Casterman.
  • Altholz, Josef L. 1962. The Liberal Catholic Movement in England
  • Hales, E.E.Y., 1954. Pio Nono: A Study in European Politics and Religion in the Nineteenth Century (Doubleday)
  • Gauthier, P. 1988. Newman et Blondel. Tradition et développement du dogme. Paris. Le Cerf.
  • Hales, 1958. The Catholic Church in the Modern World (Doubleday)
  • Izquierdo, C. 1990. Blondel y la crisis modernista. Análisis de « Historia y dogma ». Pamplona. Ed. Univ. De Navarra.
  • Jodock, Darrell, editor, 2002. Catholicism Contending with Modernity (Cambridge University Press)
  • Loome, Thomas Michael Liberal Catholicism, Reform Catholicism, Modernism: A Contribution to a New Orientation in Modernist Research .
  • O’Connell, Marvin, Critics on Trial : An Introduction to the Catholic Modernist Crisis, Catholic University of America Press, Washington DC, 1994.
  • Virgoulay, R. 1980. Blondel et le modernisme. La philosophie de l’action et les sciences religieuses (1896-1913). Paris. Le Cerf.
  • Reviewed by Fr. John Parsons

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