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This ideology emerged clearly within the Church c. 1900 and sought a revolutionary transmutation of Catholic doctrine through the application of naturalistic evolutionary philosophy and arbitrary historical criticism. It was condemned by the decree lamentabili and the encyclical, pascendi, and definitively ended by the oath against Modernism.


The roots of Modernism are extremely complex. Four factors may be singled out as the principal occasions for its rise: (1) in philosophy, the prevalence among Catholics of a shallow eclecticism combined with the strong influence exerted by neo-kantianism Pragmatism, and the disciples of F. D. E. schleiermacher; (2) in theology, a growing dissatisfaction with a too static neoscholasticism; (3) in the sciences, the development of evolutionary biological theory and the growth of historical method; and (4) at least of equal importance, the not yet assimilated changing relationship between the Church and the sociopolitical order.

Philosophy and Theology. During most of the 19th century an eclecticism under the patronage of thinkers such as descartes, leibniz, and rosmini-serbati prevailed in Catholic circles. It was neither profound nor systematic. After the encyclical of aeterni patris (1879) neoscholasticism began to exercise greater influence from its centers in Rome, Louvain, and Germany. Many Catholic writers c. 1900, however, never experienced this influence. Furthermore, the categories of neoscholasticism began to appear inadequate to contain the rich reality suggested by the new work in Sacred Scripture and history, and by a philosophy with an accent on the aspect of immanence.

ecclesiology had been scarcely influenced by the great mystical and organic insights of J. A. mÖhler and the Tübingen Catholic school. The functions of authority and hierarchical power tended to hold the central perspective in the theological manuals. The work of new man on the development of dogma (1845) had opened new vistas, but its influence on scholastic theology was negligible.

Contemporary thought had begun to challenge scholastic positions, both in Catholicism and in Protestantism. About 1800 Schleiermacher developed his theory of experience (the feeling of dependence) as the heart of religion. His later disciples eliminated, perhaps more than Schleiermacher intended, the element of intelligence. Religion was portrayed as a sentiment, an experience beyond the critique of intellectual concepts. In the Catholic tradition, Möhler, who had steeped himself in the Bible and the Fathers, stressed that the living organism of the Church cannot be fully understood unless it is vitally lived. Newman worked out his own theory of experience as contrasted with notional knowledge, a fact that augured the trend toward a greater emphasis on spiritual anthropology. By 1893 blondel in his L'Action presented a fully rounded metaphysic of action in which man's totality, and not exclusively his intellect, played a vital role in the approach to God and in the understanding of tradition. Möhler, Newman, and Blondel to an extent resembled the Modernists in the questions that interested them, but not in their solutions.

In the closing decades of the 19th century the emphasis on growth and development in religion received influential support from Neo-Hegelians, such as John and Edward Caird in Britain, and from neoidealists, such as Rudolf Eucken in Germany with his philosophy of activism. In England the pragmatists, under the influence of William james, struggled against Neo-Hegelianism. Yet the two streams of pragmatism and Neo-Hegelianism tended to blend into a composite theory of a radical evolution of dogma and of a pragmatic norm for finding religious truth, i.e., its fruitful life-value and permanence. Lastly, Neo-Kantianism was still influential in its separation of thought from reality, and it joined evolutionary and pragmatic theory in questioning the stability and reality of dogma (see hegelianism and neo-hegelianism; idealism).

Natural Science and History. The general idea of development was caught up and quickened by the publication of darwin's The Origin of Species (1859). The same notion began to emerge with regard to the Bible through the work in biblical archeology in the Middle East around 1850. The scientific development of historical method during the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in Germany, began to leave its mark on the Church toward 1900, particularly through J. J. I. von dÖllinger and Lord acton. Induction and empirical work lined up against the more deductive approach of the scholastics. Subsequent to Döllinger, the split grew between historian and theologian.

Around 1870 the great movement of biblical exegesis was set in motion by German liberal scholars. New and often valid insights concerning the formation of the Pentateuch were glimpsed in the light of J. wellhausen. The influence of the New Testament work of holtzmann, the culminating point of liberal exegesis, began to be felt in Catholic circles. The establishment of Catholic institutes in France (1875) and the contributions of Catholic Scripture scholars in Germany and Belgium around the same period marked the beginning of renewed exegetical work in the Church. duchesne began his important historical studies in 1877; and the first work of his pupil, loisy, was on the history of the Old Testament canon (1890). In general, Catholic exegetes lagged behind liberal Protestant scholarship, although many of them were unaware of it. Apathy had been created by a lack of historical sense and by an excessive reliance on deductive method. There had also developed a general fear of the new critical methods that had been used so destructively, as in J. E. renan's Vie de Jésus (1863). Further, with some exception in Germany and Belgium, where Catholic faculties received state support, the Church-State struggles had greatly harmed the opportunities for Catholic scholarship. The desire to catch up brought with it the risk of hasty conclusion and the danger of intellectual indigestion.

Culture and Politics. The final stage of the Church's relationship to political society was discerned by relatively few of the participants in the bitter struggle between Church and State in the 18th and 19th centuries. The immediate outcome around the time of Vatican Council I (1870) was the hardening of positions into two camps, with antireligious and anticlerical groups opposing Catholics who were religiously and politically conservative and who supported an extremely simplified view of ultramontanism. Liberal Catholic thought had in general been ineffectual. The Church-State struggles had contributed to the destruction of the intellectual structures of the Church, especially in France. The intellectual life of the seminaries had been hampered, although piety prospered. As a reaction to these struggles, greater centralization of Church authority in Rome gradually increased. Against this background, the decrees of Vatican Council I on papal infallibility were given a rigid and overriding interpretation by conservative Catholic spokesmen, in the tradition of Louis veuillot in France and W. G. ward in England.

In France political and religious conservatism supported monarchism and projected the image of a Church attached to the old order. The Dreyfus affair revealed anti-Semitic and other unjust attitudes among some Catholic conservatives. Many of their leaders rallied around Charles maurras and action franÇaise. At the same time the Sillon under the direction of Marc sangnier emerged as the liberal, democratic counterpart of Action Française. Thus the most outspoken in the Church in France were radically split in their political and religious thinking.

In Germany, somewhat less touched by political reactionism than France, reformkatholizismus, especially as represented by F. X. kraus and H. schell, began during the 1890s to urge reforms in the Latin type of Catholicism and "Romanism." Curial centralization and excessive use of papal power were criticized. It was urged that a "religious Catholicism" be substituted for an external and political one. Discussions centered to a large extent on Church discipline and scholarly freedom. In 1902 Hochland, a periodical whose liberal aim was to bring the Church out of its cultural ghetto, began publication.

In Italy, because of the loss of papal temporal power and the unification of the peninsula, many young priests envisioned a totally new relationship between Church and State. There was a growing indifference toward the clear-cut philosophies that formed the backdrop of the old conflicts. Some Catholics began to favor an idealistic philosophy that regarded the Church as merely a powerful cultural force, a totally variable expression of a deeper religious aspiration. At the same time catholic action groups began forming to inject Catholic social influence into the mainstream of national life. Simultaneously, however, Catholics were forbidden to take part in the political life of a government traditionally opposed to the spirit and demands of the Church. In social thought and action there arose a tension among many young Catholics concerning subordination to bishops and Church discipline in general.

In England, both numerically and intellectually, the Church was only beginning to become a social influence. Not until 1895 were Catholics permitted to attend the great universities.

In the midst of this complex ebb and flow of philosophies and cultural pressures, Modernism appeared as an abortive and self-destructive attempt at adaptation and rejuvenation. Thinkers, for the most part ill-prepared philosophically, desperately grasped for and tried to force on the Church theories not sufficiently analyzed and purified. The outcome was a necessary reaction of the magisterium to these indigestible syncretisms.

Modernist Movement

Modernism began as a spontaneous rather than as an organized phenomenon. Its four centers of influence were France, England, Italy, and Germany.

France. In 1897 Louis A. sabatier, a French Protestant, presented with force and clarity many of the ideas of Schleiermacher and Albrecht ritschl in L'Esquisse d'une philosophie de la religion d'après la psychologie et l'histoire, a work that was to have great influence on Modernist thinking. In 1899 M. hÉbert published his Souvenirs d'Assise in which he began his denial of personality in God and became the herald-philosopher of Modernism within the Church.

Loisy had been working on the frontiers of the new criticism, especially in the Old Testament, from 1890 to about 1900, and aroused suspicions. (During this period the liberal but solid positions of M. J. lagrange were, to a lesser extent, subject to similar suspicions in conservative quarters.) In 1893 Loisy lost his position at the Institut Catholique in Paris and gradually moved toward work on the New Testament. In 1900 he published an article strongly criticizing the notion of inspiration as presented in the encyclical providentissimus deus (1893). Then he published two books, L'Évangile et L'Église (1902) and Autour d'un petit livre (1903), which then started a violent public controversy.

Through a selection of eschatological texts in the Synoptic Gospels, Loisy presented the essence of Christ's preaching as a literal teaching of an imminent coming of a physical, visible end-of-the-world kingdom. This theory resembled closely that of the liberal Protestant exegete, Johannes Weiss, which appeared in 1892. Loisy concluded: "Jesus announced the Kingdom and it is the Church which came." Terming his work a defense against A. von harnack's rejection of doctrinal development, Loisy attempted to justify the appearance of a Church, which was never in the mind of Christ, and an evolution of its dogma, which would be genuine development. Blondel attacked this outlook, while advancing his own theory of vital tradition in action as an avenue of approach to the understanding of the Gospels. F. von hÜgel defended Loisy's right as a Catholic to present such a theory. Loisy's writings caused great anguish among the intellectuals and young clergy in France and Italy. The two works were among the five of Loisy's books placed on the Index in 1903. In 1904, after some ambiguous retractations, Loisy made his submission, an act that rankled him afterward.

E. le roy, a Catholic layman and disciple of bergson, rejected in an extreme way the intellectual content of dogma in the article, "Quest-ce quun dogme?"(1905). He asserted that since dogma was formulated in relative terms, it could not aim at an absolute intellectual assent. Rather, it negatively safeguarded against error and it positively prescribed a rule of practical conduct, a personal stance of action in the face of supernatural reality. Thus the dogma of God as Father is to be assimilated not intellectually, but through filial action toward Him as Father. In 1902 and 1906 Abbé houtin published studies that were extremely critical of recent Catholic exegetical work and favored the most extreme positions.

Abbé turmel, a historian of dogma who had lost the faith as early as 1886 but wanted to remain in the Church, began c. 1900 to publish numerous pseudonymous articles attacking Catholic dogma. Meanwhile the French Protestant, Paul sabatier, took a leading part in propaganda for the movement.

Abbé laberthonniÈre, many of whose writings were later condemned, and Blondel, with his philosophy of action, were leaders in the contemporary movement of liberal Catholic philosophical thought; but from the beginning they reacted against Modernist aims and cannot be considered part of that movement. Similarly Archbishop mignot, who was in contact with Loisy and favored a more liberal attitude toward scholarly work within the Church, was gradually dismayed by the more extreme exegetical positions and by the tendency toward philosophical immanentism.

England. George tyrrell, who had privately distributed certain works, was dismissed from the Society of Jesus (1906) for refusing to retract the ideas in his anonymous "Letter to a Professor of Anthropology," which was published in Italy without his permission. In this work he greatly minimized the function of Church dogma. Privately outlining a blueprint of the Church of the future, he became more and more caught up in controversy. He attacked papal infallibility, ultramontane and otherwise, and the ecumenicity of Vatican Council I. Until his death (1909), he kept developing a theory of the relation of revelation to dogma. Revelation, as the self-manifestation of the divine in our inward life, was presented as an experience, first of the Apostolic Church, which was normative, and then of every Christian. Revelation, when communicated biblically, he called dogma or prophetic truth, an imaginative and prophetic presentment of divine reality. Prophetic truth was the living shadow of this reality. Later formulations he termed "theology" or "secondary dogmas." These metaphysically conceptualized the original prophetic communication. They were merely protective or illustrative formulas for prophetic truth, could be later contradicted or discarded, and in general were useful but totally relative formulas. Revealed truth (res ) was still contained in the formula (enuntiabile ), but since the prophetic imagery was now transferred to scientific language, no absolute value guaranteed to be true could be assigned to the formula. Conciliar pronouncements were to be accepted only through the subsequent acceptance of the entire Church. Having drastically reduced the intellectual element in the original experience, Tyrrell worked out the rest of his system rather consistently, but through a confusing rhetoric. He never sufficiently accounted for the fact that conciliar formulas themselves have their axes in the Absolute. At the end of his life he espoused the theory of an error by Christ as to the time of the Parousia. Tyrrell never held the doctrine of exclusive immanence as condemned by Pascendi. Many of his positions, however, were an evident object of the encyclical's attack.

Von Hügel, Tyrrell's friend, while rejecting the new immanentist philosophical approach, was the leader of a crusade for the untrammeled rights of the exegete. These rights, he insisted, were being infringed upon by Roman authority. Conferring with various high-ranking ecclesiastics in and out of Rome and maintaining a vast correspondence with the leaders of the new thought, he endeavored to give some coherence and organization to the movement. Maude petre supported the ideas of Tyrrell and published his life in 1912.

Italy. In Italy the movement had more of a social flavor. Discussion of political and social theory, however, continually drifted back and forth across the terrain of religion and theology. The Italian priest, R. murri, supported christian democracy and founded the Lega democratica nazionale. This movement, intended to be independent of the hierarchy, urged reform of the Church's institutional and social structure. Although he was anticlerical in tone, Murri worked out his ideas from a scholastic basis. Later he moved toward an idealism somewhat reminiscent of B. croce and G. gentile, though he was attacked by them for the equivocation in his position.

In the exegetical and theological fields Salvatore Minocchi, a priest, founded the review Studi religiosi in 1901 as a forum for the new thought. He was strongly influenced by Loisy in the exegetical area, and later by Tyrrell in the interpretation of dogma. Another priest, Ernesto buonaiuti, early enamored of Blondel's philosophy of action, became fascinated with immanentism and moved toward a form of social messianism. He emerged as the leading Italian Modernist but was eager to remain within the Church for the working out of his ideas.

More on the edge of Modernism and ultimately loyal to the Church were the layman Fogazzaro, whose novel Il Santo (1905) became the literary symbol of the movement, and the Barnabite priest, Giovanni Semeria, who worked in religious and biblical criticism. In 1907 the journal Rinnovamento became an important organ for liberal political and religious opinion.

Germany. In Germany the review Zwanzigste Jahrhundert, which was founded in 1901 at Munich by F. Klasen and continued by Thaddäus Engert, became an organ for Reformkatholizismus. Like the Krausgesellschaft founded in Munich in 1904, Reformkatholizismus carried out a program of anti-Roman and antischolastic sentiment. It attacked political ultramontanism and insisted on freedom in scientific religious work and on the abolition of the Index. It did not totally overlap Modernism but remained principally on the level of practical Church discipline. The Bavarian priest, K. Gebert, however, in 1905 proposed a Kantian and immanentist approach not unlike that reproved by Pascendi. Engert, also a priest, demanded the abandonment of the notion of biblical inerrancy and the complete revision of the concept of inspiration. Yet it was not until after the condemnations of Pascendi that Engert and Josef Schnitzer of the University of Munich, who was a supporter of Loisy, emerged as the leaders of a small Modernist extreme. In Germany, Modernism was more localized than in France and Italy and brought forth less extreme theological positions than in any of the other major countries involved.

Action by Church Authorities. Leo XIII, whose liberal policy was accompanied by serious reserves over the new thought but who hesitated to take strong action, was succeeded (Aug. 4, 1903) by pius x, who decided that firm action was mandatory. He approved the decree of the Holy Office placing five works of Loisy on the Index (Dec. 17, 1903). His encyclical Il fermo proposito (June 11, 1905) encouraged Catholic Action but insisted that it must be subordinate to ecclesiastical officials. The encyclical Pieni l'animo (July 28, 1906) warned of insubordination among the Italian clergy and declared priests who became members of the Lega democratica nazionale suspended. The same year Fogazzaro's Il Santo and two works of Laberthonnière were placed on the Index, and Tyrrell was dismissed from the Jesuits. Murri was suspended April 15, 1907. On July 3, 1907, the Holy Office's decree lamentabili condemned 65 propositions in the area of criticism and dogma. On July 26, Le Roy's Dogme et critique was put on the Index. (During August, Fogazzaro, Murri, Buonaiuti, von Hügel, and others met in northern Italy to limit the terms of their submission.)

The encyclical pascendi (Sept. 8, 1907) presented a global blueprint of the whole Modernist program. It condemned theory on dogma and biblical criticism, which had an agnostic, immanentist-evolutionary, and anti-intellectualist basis. Constructed from ideas found in the work of various Modernists, it reproved a system, to every detail of which not all the Modernists subscribed. Yet, as Gentile and Petre, the subsequent champion of Modernism, admitted, Pascendi seized the movement in its totality. At the same time, immanentism, Neo-Hegelianism, and agnosticism were the terminal point rather than the point of departure for many Modernist thinkers. Pascendi in its picture of Modernism not only described the situation of some Modernists but also was an accurate prophecy of the final position of others.

Pius X decreed in the motu proprio Praestantia scripturae (Nov. 18, 1907) that all were bound in conscience to submit to the decrees of the pontifical biblical commission, both past and future, in the same way as to the doctrinal decrees issued by the Sacred Congregations and approved by the pope. (Since 1905 the Biblical Commission had issued a series of generally conservative prudential norms with regard to scriptural interpretation.)

Some loosely organized opposition had developed among the group associated with Rinnovamento, but writers and supporters of the review were made subject to excommunication at the end of 1907. Tyrrell (October 1907) and Schnitzer (February 1908) were excommunicated for their opposition to the encyclical. Minocchi was suspended and Loisy excommunicated in 1908. Subsequently Loisy developed his doctrine of the religion of humanity built on a vague agnostic basis. With Tyrrell's death (1909) the heart went out of the movement, though small pockets of resistance remained. The oath against Modernism (Sept. 1, 1910) to be taken by professors and pastors of souls marked the end of the crisis (see modernism, oath against). Petre, deprived of the Sacraments in her own diocese though never singled out for formal excommunication by name, and Buonaiuti, finally excommunicated by name in 1926, continued as champions of Modernism. Le Roy, Semeria, and von Hügel, previously more or less on the margin of Modernism, remained faithful to the Church. Engert became a Protestant. Houtin rejected the whole Modernist plan and became agnostic. Murri, with reservations on his political and social positions, was received back only in 1943.

Aftermath. After Pascendi, there followed a period of unmasking Modernism that caused great anguish. Many thought incorrectly that Newman and Blondel had been condemned. The committees of vigilance set up by the encyclical were used as a specious support by simplist conservative groups to justify sweeping condemnations. Thinking and nuance were rejected in favor of polemics. Modernism became a slogan to be applied to whatever was disliked in liberal Catholic thought, theology, literature, and politics. At the center of this campaign was the association, sodalitium pianum, directed by Monsignor benigni in Italy. A secret code, the counterpart of Modernist anonymity, protected collaborators in various countries. The attacks of Action Française (whose condemnation in 1914, four years after the condemnation of Sillon, was made public only in 1926), and the intransigence of writers, such as Emmanuel Barbier and J. Fontaine, brought into popularity a counterlabel, integralism. At the beatification of Pius X in 1950, evidence was presented that showed that he did not give his support to a great deal of this campaign, but held his hand for fear of encouraging the Modernists. Benedict XV, in his inaugural encyclical Ad beatissimi Apostolorum (Nov. 1, 1914) warned against excessive accusations. This, together with the eruption of World War I, ended this phase in the aftermath of the Modernist crisis.


Some have defined Modernism as an attempt to retain the form while dropping the content of dogma. Some Modernists, however, desired to drop also the form. If Modernism is defined very broadly, then only its extreme form was condemned. Any definition of Modernism must be drawn mainly from Pascendi, the most solemn Church condemnation. The loose application of the term "Modernism" to the development of theological thinking is widely admitted to be an abuse. Further, faint similarities of a position to statements in Pascendi can be judged fully Modernistic only if they are related also to the essential points of condemnation in the encyclical. Pascendi stated that it was directly attacking agnostic, immanentist, and evolutionary-naturalistic doctrine.

The following definition is suggested. Modernism was an ideological orientation, tendency, or movement within the Catholic Church, clearly emerging during the waning years of the 19th century and rapidly dying out around 1910 after official condemnation. Only loosely and sporadically organized, it was characterized by a tone antagonistic to all ecclesiastical authority, and by a belief in an adaptation of the Church to what was considered sound in modern thought even at the expense of radically changing the Church's essence. At its roots, grounded beyond liberal Catholic positions on biblical criticism and theology, lay a triple thesis: (1) a denial of the supernatural as an object of certain knowledge (in the totally symbolic nonobjective approach to the content of dogma, which is also related to a type of agnosticism in natural theology); (2) an exclusive immanence of the Divine and of revelation ("vital immanence") reducing the Church to a simple social civilizing phenomenon; (3) a total emancipation of scientific research from Church dogma, which would allow the continued assertion of faith in dogma with its contradiction on the historical level, as understood in certain presentations of the "Christ of faith, Christ of history," "Church of faith, Church of history" distinctions (see doctrine, development of.)


The difficulty in assessing the influence of Modernist thinkers on the later Church arises from the fact that these men also fed on and assimilated many legitimate tendencies that were arising in the contemporary Church, such as the idea of faith as a personal encounter, the increased appreciation of religious experience and spiritual anthropology, the deeper probing of the relation between psychology and religion, the return to the traditional emphasis on the sense of mystery, the renewed realization of the pastoral function of theology, the less mechanical assessment of the role of authority, the growth in insight into the development of dogma, the underlining of the organic nature of the Church and the importance of the laity, a greater respect for scriptural scholarship and natural science, a newer framework of Church-State relations, and a call to leave a cultural ghetto. Many of these insights, however, were already found in the works of scholars, such as Möhler, Newman, Blondel, and other orthodox thinkers, who, previous to the rise of Modernism, had begun to investigate these questions. With the return to the spirit of genuine thomism the stage would have been set, it seems, for their fruitful development. It is difficult to see how certain values said to arise from Modernism were not actually hampered in their development within the Church by Modernism's very appearance and by the strong medicine deemed necessary to eradicate it.

Nevertheless, through its excess Modernism did point out certain areas that called for investigation within a sound theological framework, as in the insights mentioned above. Certain authors, such as De grandmaison, Lagrange, and lebreton, continued their scholarly contributions. The exaggerated spread of suspicions, however, that followed the condemnation of Modernism probably caused many scholars to avoid delicate subjects. Only after World War II did a trend emerge toward a renewed consideration of subjects that had been so destructively and abortively handled by the Modernists.

The Modernist crisis retarded Catholic scholarship and strengthened Catholic discipline, but its capital effect was decisive victory over a subtle and mortal enemy, a victory that preserved the essential life of the Church.

Bibliography: v. a. yzermans, All Things in Christ (Westminster, Md. 1954), has documents of Pius X in Eng. j. riviÈre, Le Modernisme dans l'Église (Paris 1929); Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 10.2:200947. a. d'alÈs et al., Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique, ed. a. d'alÈs, 4 v. (Paris 191122; Table analytique 1931) 3:591695. a. r. vidler, The Modernist Movement in the Roman Church (Cambridge, Eng.1934). j. brugerette, Le Prêtre français et la société contemporiane, 3 v. (Paris 193338) 3:125345. g. martini, Cattolicesimo e storicismo (Naples 1951). l. v. coutinho, Tradition et histoire dans la controversy moderniste (Rome 1954). r. marlÉ ed., Au coeur de la crise moderniste (Paris 1960). p. scoppola, Crisi moderniste e rinnovamento cattolico in Italia (Bologna 1961). É. poulat, Histoire, dogme et critique dans la crise moderniste (Paris 1962). m. de la bedoyÈre, The Life of Baron von Hügel (New York 1952). a. dansette, Religious History of Modern France, tr. j. dingle, 2 v. (New York 1961), v. 2. a. dru, The Contribution of German Catholicism (New York 1963). r. rouquette, "Bilan du Modernisme," Études 289 (1956) 321343. h. daniel-rops, L'Église des révolutions: Un Combat pour Dieu (Histoire de l'Église du Christ 6.2; Paris 1963).

[j. j. heaney]

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