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Modernism” is the charge against the Church in many parts of the internet. In fact, it is common to find Catholics attacking the Second Vatican Council as modernist heresy. So what is modernism, and has it infected the Church? Father Sebastian Walshe, author of Secrets From Heaven and Always a Catholic, explains modernism and engages with the charge of modernism against the Church.


Cy Kellett:
Has the Catholic church fallen prey to modernism? Father Sebastian Walshe is next.

Hello, and welcome to Focus, the Catholic Answers podcast for living, understanding, and defending your Catholic faith. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. And today, we’re going to talk about defending the faith against modernism.

Well, first of all, we’ve got to clear up what modernism is, and then we’ve got to clear up how bad is it in the Catholic church? How bad is this modernism situation? We have to do that, in large part, because A, modernism is a problem. It’s not that we don’t like the modern world. No, no. It has to do with a certain heresy called modernism. But all over the internet, and it happens to us here at Catholic Answers all the time, people will complain that this or that is modern. Second Vatican Council: infected with modernism. Catholic Answers: infected with modernism. Mother Teresa: infected with modernism. So, we got to find out how bad is the infection.

So, we invited our guest, this time, Father Sebastian Walshe. He’s a Norbertine priest from Saint Michael’s Abbey, up the road in Orange County. He’s the author of a brand new book about keeping your kids Catholic. I’ll tell you more about that at the end, so you can buy it. Here’s Father Walshe.

Father Sebastian Walshe, thank you so much for being here with us.

Fr. Walshe:
My pleasure, Cy. Good to see you again.

Cy Kellett:
And congratulations on your latest book.

Fr. Walshe:
Thank you.

Cy Kellett:
The latest one is on helping… it’s for us, parents, helping us to keep our children Catholic.

Fr. Walshe:
I know. What does a priest know about anything like that?

Cy Kellett:
Well, it turns a lot because I’ve started reading it. So, quite a bit. Tell me the title again.

Fr. Walshe:
Always a Catholic. It’s from the phrase “once a Catholic- ”

Cy Kellett:
Always a Catholic.

Fr. Walshe:
… always a Catholic.” So, the idea is keeping your kids always Catholic, and helping them come back if they’ve left.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah. Modernism comes up a lot on our social media, actually. Often, this term is basically a term of abuse people hurl at each other. And we thought, let’s talk to a priest with a great philosophical mind about what is modernism. So, let me just start there. What is modernism?

Fr. Walshe:
Well, first of all, it’s important to distinguish many uses of that name. I mean, we talk about modernism in art. We talk about modernism in architecture. We’re not talking about those things. We’re not talking about modern trends with regard to art and architecture and things like that.

We’re talking about a very well-defined theological position that was very clearly defined by Pope Pius X in an encyclical called Pascendi Dominici Gregis. And there, he identified the essence of modernism is a theological account that fundamentally holds that all religious truth, all religious dogma and doctrine, as well as religious practice, is revisable. It’s something that originates from a subjectivist philosophy of the world. But fundamentally, there’s no such thing as immutable, perennial church teaching or religious teaching or even practice with regard to liturgy and sacraments and other things like that.

Cy Kellett:
So, that seems like you could hold that as a theological position, or you could be influenced by that theological position. You just kind of have tendencies in that direction. I would think most of us, we tend towards modernism in many ways.

Fr. Walshe:
Yeah. Yeah. There’s certain heresies that… they never die precisely because they’re so effective from the standpoint of the evil one is always trying to interject into human society. Some version of that. Or they go kind of hand in hand with original sin. So, pelagianism is like that.

Fr. Walshe:
Pelagianism. This is the idea that we’re actually the primary ones responsible for our salvation. That always keeps on coming back and back because of original sin and our pride. And modernism also has that tendency because the idea of things being immutably true, and the church having a certain authority and teaching, both of those things are difficult for people with original sin to always hold to, shall we say.

Cy Kellett:
Well, you put it in the category of heresy. Has it been formally condemned by the church?

Fr. Walshe:
Absolutely. In that same in encyclical I mentioned, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, Pope Pius X, Saint Pope Pius X, in my opinion, the greatest of all those saint-popes we had in the last century, he said, “Not only is it a heresy, it is the synthesis of all heresies.” Can you imagine that? It’s the worst one. It sort of brings together all the different heresies of the past, and puts them together. This there’s an amazing text where he actually says that all the sap and vigor that’s found in all the other heresies is found concentrated in modernism.

Cy Kellett:
I wonder, what is the underlying sense of… because modernism has this position that everything is revisable, then that means that every heresy can be reconsidered and reintroduced because maybe we could revise in that direction? Is that it?

Fr. Walshe:
Yeah. That’s right. If there’s fundamentally no truth that’s immutable and unchangeable that we have to hold to, that means everything’s revisable. I mean, Christ’s divinity: revisable. We could decide he’s no longer God. The Virgin Mary and her privileges: gone. We could do away with all of those. The Trinity. We could go back to a plurality of persons like polytheism, or we could even become pantheists, if we want, according to modernism. We just keep on giving new formulations based upon, what Pope Pius X refers to as, religious sentiment, the kind of vital imminence that’s… For the modernist, the only real source of his doctrinal beliefs is this kind of religious sentiment that exists within himself. So, he can’t finally be measured by anything outside of him.

Cy Kellett:
Wow. That’s very familiar to our times. I mean, when you think of Pope Saint Pius X in the 19th century, but the… yeah, that’s right.

Fr. Walshe:
Beginning of the 20th century-

Cy Kellett:
Beginning of the 20th century.

Fr. Walshe:
… is really when he wrote this encyclical.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah. But he didn’t stamp it out. I mean, despite his heroic efforts, we’re still living with this.

Fr. Walshe:
You know what’s fascinating? I’m glad you brought that up, he was pretty successful in the decade… A couple decades after this encyclical was issued, modernism went into hiding. It was afraid. I mean, Pius X really did a good job on the modernists. They went into hiding.

And he actually had, as part of that encyclical, the requirement that every three years there should be a report from every bishop and major superior religious in the world, back to the Holy See, saying, “Are we still implementing these measures against modernism?” Well, after his death, some years after his death, they stopped doing that. And only then did modernism start to rear its ugly head again.

Cy Kellett:
So, philosophically, what are the roots of modernism?

Fr. Walshe:
Yeah. The idea of modernism really originates in philosophical subjectivism. Subjectivism basically holds this position: we’re only aware of our own subjective and interior dispositions and the phenomena in the world that sort of presents itself to us. We can have no certain knowledge of things outside of us.

Fr. Walshe:
Now, that does away with two fundamental pillars of Catholic teaching. The first is that we can know God with certitude from reason. That is, we can actually look at the world around us, as Saint Paul says in Romans, Chapter one, or as the Book of Wisdom says, in Wisdom, Chapter 13, that from created things, sensibly apparent to us, we can reason with necessity and certitude to the existence and attributes of God. Well, modernism does away with that. Any kind of natural theology is done with because we can’t even know other people, much less God, right? From a subjectivist perspective.

Cy Kellett:
I see, yeah.

Fr. Walshe:
The other thing it does is it destroys any possibility of God being an historical subject or Jesus being a historical subject because, frankly, if we don’t really know anything outside of ourselves, we don’t know history in the sense of real events that happened before us and outside of us. And therefore, the scriptures as history is done away with.

And so, what’s left? The only thing left is our own interior dispositions, our own subjective inclinations, what Saint Pope Pius X refers to as religious sentiment. And that’s what becomes the new source of revelation, if you want to call it. There’s this idea that I think God exists, but who knows who God is. He could just be myself, as far as the modernist is concerned. He just has this religious experience within him. And then what he does is he expresses his religious experience in terms of words that suit him in the here and now.

And when those words get the approval of the magisterium of the church, we call them dogmas. But, after a while, if they don’t suit, if they don’t accurately reflect our religious experience, we do away with those dogmas, and we replace them with other ones. For the modernist, every dogma’s just a symbol that stands temporarily in place of something that never really actually signifies a truth that’s immutable and perennial. Every dogma is really just a tool, and a mere tool, for the time being to express my present state of religious sentiment. And therefore, dogma has to evolve. As opposed to what we believe in Catholic teaching, that there’s a development of doctrine, the modernist thinks that there’s an evolution of dogma so that you literally get just one thing after another. So, you can completely revise any Catholic teaching or any teaching of any religion.

Cy Kellett:
So, we do believe in a development of doctrine. So, explain to me the difference between an evolution of a dogma, and the idea of development of doctrine.

Fr. Walshe:
Yeah. So, you can understand those better by way of analogy to living things. So, when we talk about the development of a living thing, there’s two things that really go hand in hand there. First, we’re talking about the same individual. So, a little baby is born, a little boy. And then he develops. And while he’s developing, he stays the same individual person the entire time.

The other thing that’s true is that, as he develops, he doesn’t acquire some new identity in the sense of becoming some other kind of thing. The whole time, he’s a human being. He’s a baby; he’s a human being. He’s a boy; he’s a human being. A teenager; he’s a human being. He’s a man; he’s a human being. At every stage, he doesn’t cease to be the kind of thing he is. The only thing that’s changed is that what was before there, indistinctly and vaguely and in a kind of ability or potency, has now been explicated, unfolded, and become more itself, more perfectly and explicitly what it already was in an implicit way. That’s how doctrine develops.

And to give a simple example, you would say we believed, in the early church, we used the formulation “hail, full of grace.” So, that phrase “full of grace” was potent with meaning when the Angel Gabriel said it to Our Lady. And the first Christians understood a certain potency. What does that mean, full of grace? And later on, the church began to understand, and the doctrine developed there, to understand that means, more precisely and explicitly, immaculately conceived. Those aren’t opposed positions; it’s just one is more explicit than the other.

Cy Kellett:
Right. In the way that a tree is more explicit and be fully expressed than the seed for the tree.

Fr. Walshe:
Absolutely.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah. Right.

Fr. Walshe:
And they could look very different. That example of the seed and the tree is a good one because look how different a little acorn looks from an oak tree. And yet, it’s the same individual the whole time and it’s the same kind of thing the whole time, it’s just you’ve unfolded what was there, we would say today in the DNA. It was already there in the DNA; it’s just sort of becoming explicit.

Now, in contrast to that, you have evolution of dogma. And what happens in evolution? There’s two fundamental differences between evolution and development. The first difference is that in evolution, you don’t have the same individual. You have one generation, another generation. So, it’s not that one thing evolves into something else; it’s that it has children, and that individual becomes something else, becomes something else. And eventually, you get something which is different in kind.

And so, you don’t have a single individual persisting through evolution, biological evolution, at least according to the theory. And secondly, by the time you’re done, you have a different kind of thing. You start off with an amoeba; you end up with a rabbit or whatever, okay?

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Fr. Walshe:
And a rabbit isn’t just an amoeba unfolded, right?

Cy Kellett:
No. Right. Right.

Fr. Walshe:
It’s a difference kind of thing.

Cy Kellett:
It’s a different thing. Yeah.

Fr. Walshe:
And it might even have contrary attributes or qualities or whatever else. So, the same way with evolution of dogma, what you get is you get one dogma, replaced by another dogma, replaced by another dogma. And at each stage, you get some different kind of thing, so that you’re not keeping the same in identity. The same teaching of Jesus and the apostles does not persist all the way through.

And not only that, but you’ve even got a different kind of teaching as you go along, a different kind of dogma. It doesn’t even resemble, in potency or in any other way, the doctrine that came before or the dogma that came before. And so, evolution of dogma is a radically different thing than development of doctrine.

Cy Kellett:
Right. Right. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Okay. So, could you give me, in a practical sense or in a real-world kind of sense, what are some of the methods and the teachings of modernism that I would look for and say, “Okay, that’s modernist”?

Fr. Walshe:
Yeah. So, again, the thing that’s the most characteristic viewpoint of a modernist is that all doctrine is revisable. That’s the first way you can tell. You can immediately sniff out a modernist when you see them say like, “Oh, well, that teaching of the church can be changed. It can all be changed.” So, that is one aspect that you’ll find.

Another thing that you’ll notice among modernists is that they look at scripture as fundamentally a human inspiration. And so, when they approach scripture, and they have a kind of a critical view or approach of scripture, what they do is that they disassemble it; and they treat it like it’s just a human text, which was written by a kind of human inspiration; and that the truths that are set down there are not really truths handed down from God in an authoritative way, which are infallible and to be held for all time; but rather, they were just the mere expressions of the religious, very intense albeit, religious sentiment of past persons; and that we now look at those and we say, “Does our religious sentiment resonate with that?” And if it doesn’t, then what we do is that scripture becomes either A, disposable, and we just reject parts of scripture as false or B, we reinterpret scripture and we make it mean something completely different than it used to mean. That’s how a modernist will treat scripture. There’s another example of what a modernist would do.

Another interesting trait of a modernist, according to Pius X, is they speak out of both sides of their mouth. When they’re writing books and scholarly articles, they’re saying all these things that are denying fundamental truths of the faith. They’re the critic, they’re the scholar, whatever. And then when they give their homilies, they’ll be very Catholic. So, they’ll say things that sound very Catholic when they’re doing pastoral ministry. They’ll be fully Catholic. And it’s sort of like the politicians today who say, “My personal belief, I’m personally opposed to abortion, but, as far as my political duties are concerned, I have to stand up for the right to abortion.” Something like that happens with the modernist. “I’m personally one who believes what you believe about these things, but my duty is, as a scholar, is to reject these things and to say that these things are not really something with certitude. I just happen to believe that for my personal life, but I would never impose that on others. I would have to take a more objective view, a more rationalist view of things.” So, you’ll see that kind of bifurcation.

And it’s actually fascinating, Pope Pius X, Saint Pope Pius X, in his encyclical against the modernists, he actually gives, what he calls, seven personalities of a modernist. He says, a modernist is a philosopher. He’s a believer. He’s a theologian. He’s a historian. A critic. An apologist. And a reformer. He gives seven different, what he calls, personalities.

And I always wonder if he wasn’t very deliberate in using that word “personality” because I think of Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven demons, or Jesus says that when a demon is cast out of someone, seven more wicked than itself come in. It’s almost as if the modernist is literally… his soul is fractured. And, on the one hand, he seems to be a believer in his personal preaching and whatever else, his personal life, but then when he becomes a theologian, he’s someone else. And when he becomes a philosopher, he’s someone else. And it’s like a demon. It’s like seven demons that are inside a single individual that’s a kind of almost a theological schizophrenia. So, you find this kind of fractured dividedness and a lack of integrity to a modernist when you see them talk, when you interact with them.

Cy Kellett:
Boy, we really do feel that fracture in the church today. It feels deeply and profoundly fractured.

I have to say, Father, part of the reason we wanted to talk with you about this, and to get an explanation and a kind of investigation of modernism itself, is because part of the fractured state of the church is we’re seeing something that we probably didn’t see that much 20 years ago, and it has grown in intensity: a fear, and sometimes an accusation, but often a fear expressed that, “Well, isn’t the Second Vatican Council infected with modernism?” And so, there’s a kind of like, “Well, maybe the problem that we’re having is the council because the… ” because people will interpret, for example, Pope Paul VI saying that the smoke of Satan has entered the church, well, they’ll say, “Well, see, what the Pope is pointing us to is there’s something fundamentally wrong with what happened in the church in the 1960s, particularly at the council, that is modernist. And all of you who are embracing the Second Vatican Council, you’re being duped into modernism.” We get a lot of that. So, I just want to get your comment on that.

Fr. Walshe:
Okay. So, the first thing to recognize is that the Holy Spirit has guaranteed that the church cannot fail, when it authoritatively teaches in matters of faith and morals to be held definitively by all the faithful, whether the Pope doing that alone or in a council, in an ecumenical council. So, even if a number of the fathers of the council, you could say, or the bishops who were present at the Second Vatican Council, were modernists, and certainly they were, nevertheless, it doesn’t follow from that that the council will itself be modernist and that the Holy Spirit failed to protect and guard the church in a matter of necessity. If there’s anything that’s not Catholic, it’s this idea that the Holy Spirit does not guard and guide the teaching church and prevent it from teaching error to all the faithful and binding the faithful to error. So, that’s certainly not a Catholic position.

And I don’t want to simplify a matter that’s complicated. I know there’s all sorts of arguments. Some people say, “Well, it was a pastoral council. And it wasn’t a dogmatic or doctrinal council.” People point out it’s the only ecumenical council in the history of the church that don’t have canons. And it was always considered that the canons were the infallible part of a council. And all those things have some rationale behind them.

So, for example, do I think, to be a good Catholic, you have to absolutely hold every single statement in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, according to their natural and obvious sense? I don’t think so, but we’ve never thought that about any council for that matter. Nevertheless, the idea that the council itself as a whole was fundamentally teaching modernism is erroneous, and it’s a rejection of a more fundamental Catholic view that the Holy Spirit guards and protects the church. The council was approved by Saint Pope Paul VI. He approved the council, and that means that the doctrines and the council can be understood in an orthodox way if you go through it.

Now, some of that may involve some ambiguity. There might be a lot of ambiguity. And frankly, at every council in the history of the church, there were people at the council who held the opposite views. Council of Nicea had some Aryans there. At every council, there were people well. And some ambiguities may have entered into certain councils. The Council of Chalcedon was a lot clearer, for example, than the Council of Nicea, about the nature of Christ. And so, there might be ambiguities in the Second Vatican Council.

But how do we resolve those ambiguities? We go back to tradition, and we say, “Well, what was the church’s teaching before? And let’s interpret the ambiguities in light of that tradition, and therefore understand the council in an orthodox way, as opposed to some new teaching being introduced or something like that.” So, I guess that’s what I would say about that.

Certainly, there were modernist bishops present at the council. Certainly, they tried to influence the language of the council. But they couldn’t influence it in such a way that the faithful would actually be bound to believe something that was, in fact, a modernist heresy.

And by the way, the problems in the Catholic church, in the United States anyway, didn’t start with the Second Vatican Council. I mean, in the 1950s at Notre Dame, they were teaching, priests were teaching people that there was no hell, no devil. I mean, all that stuff was happening well before the council. So, I just want to point that out.

Cy Kellett:
Right. Right. Well, I mean, why would we have a Pius X’s condemnation of modernism if there wasn’t already problems? That’s why you have those things.

So, maybe we could conclude with some remedies. What do we do about this? I mean, even if we could say with confidence, “I accept the council of the work of the Holy Spirit, and I trust in the Holy spirit,” I still can look at the church now, and say there is a great tendency to say, “Everything is revisable,” which is, as you said, the root of modernism. What are the remedies for it?

Fr. Walshe:
Well, Pius X offered several remedies at the end of his encyclical. And I want to focus on a few of those. Three of those.

The very first remedy he recommends is the antidote for the philosophical agnosticism and subjectivism which was the root of all the modernism in the first place. And that is the proper study of scholastic philosophy. And I want to read to you, just quote verbatim, some of Saint Pius X’s words. He says this, “And let it be clearly understood above all things that the scholastic philosophy we prescribe is that which the angelic doctor,” that’s Saint Thomas Aquinas, “Has bequeathed to us.” So, in other words, the first remedy is that priests and seminarians, bishops, that they all study the original texts of Saint Thomas, and they’re well versed in Saint Thomas.

Now, I hate to point this out, but it’s true. Even at places that are established under the name of Saint Thomas Aquinas, they rarely read his original works. I went to the Angelicum in Rome, which is named after the angelic doctor, and in my first three years, we had a total of three pages of required reading from Saint Thomas, the actual text of Saint Thomas. Everything else was just a recommendation, a digest, a summary, but you don’t learn Saint Thomas that way. And if that’s how it is at the Angelicum in Rome, I hate to see how it is at some other places. So, we have still yet to return to that. And it’s a reason why modernism flourishes today, is that we just don’t have a full and robust study or return to the scholastic philosophy and also theology that’s found in Saint Thomas Aquinas. So, that’s remedy number one.

Remedy number two is that we need to weed out people with modernist tendencies from positions of authority in the church. Pius X was like… he was no laughing stock. And while he was very charitable, he also had the good sense and prudence to know when someone was trying to pull the wool over his eyes. And if there’s one area where I think some of the modern saintly popes have not done as well as Pius X, it’s in this area: weeding out bad apples. And so, Pius X was very clear. He was like, “If you see modernist tendencies in people, don’t promote them. And not only don’t promote them, but remove them from positions of authority.”

Now, that’s not our job, unless one of us is a bishop or a prelate or a-

Cy Kellett:
Head of a university.

Fr. Walshe:
… or the Pope. Yeah, or the head of a university, whatever. But that’s something that Pius X recommends.

And then finally, there has to be vigilance over publications. And the church needs to make sure that modernist viewpoints and positions don’t get published and disseminated as if they were Catholic works. They shouldn’t have imprimaturs. We shouldn’t have nihil obstats. I would say that the vast majority of scriptural studies today would not be approved under Pius X precisely because of modernist tendencies. And just because something today has an imprimatur, it doesn’t mean much today because, like I said, modernism has so infected the system that largely scriptural studies are modernist today.

So, those are three great remedies that we need to reimplement in order to really fight and combat modernism in the church today.

Cy Kellett:
Father Sebastian Walshe, thank you so much. I appreciate this. I really think it’s going to be helpful to people because, as I said, the word is so often used as a bludgeon, but it is actually, if we get to the root of it, a very, very helpful word for understanding our situation.

Fr. Walshe:
Yes.

Cy Kellett:
May we have your blessing before we go, Father?

Fr. Walshe:
Sure. [inaudible 00:29:13].

Cy Kellett:
Amen.

Fr. Walshe:
Amen.

Cy Kellett:
Thank you, Father.

Fr. Walshe:
You’re welcome, Cy. So good to see you again.

Cy Kellett:
You too.

Well, a modernist would say that. I suppose that would be one way of countering what we have to say about modernism here. Well, they’re modernists. That’s why they say that they’re not modernist because that’s what a modernist would say. Well, I suppose that kind of circular thing could go on forever. Modernism is a serious problem, as Father made very, very clear. Good Catholics cannot be modernist. Cannot take the view that everything is negotiable. No. We have to believe in the solidity of the faith, as revealed to us by Jesus Christ, as handed onto the apostles, and from the apostles, all down through the ages to us.

Father’s book, by the way, is Always a Catholic: How to Keep Your Kids in the Faith and Bring Them Back if They’ve Strayed. I told you I’d tell you the name of it before we finished.

If you want to email us, [email protected] is our email address. [email protected] Don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, wherever you get it. That way, you’ll be notified when new episodes are available. We appreciate your support, prayerful support, maybe a little financial support.Just go over to givecatholic.com, give whatever you want to help us keep doing this. And let us know why you gave. That actually means quite a bit. Givecatholic.com. And if you watch it on YouTube, like and subscribe. Like and subscribe. Like and subscribe. All right, Nick, I said it three times.

All right. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers’ Focus.

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