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The Modernist Persona

We have all had the experience of meeting someone, hearing him tell us he is Catholic, then finding out as the conversation continues that he denies or is entirely ignorant of some portion of the Catholic faith.

Many such people seem to love being in the Church and are involved in almost every parish ministry — yet they do not know or believe that missing Mass without just cause on Sunday is a serious sin, that using artificial contraception or living together before marriage are grave moral evils, or that doing any of these things would require the rite of reconciliation before one could receive the Eucharist worthily. The concept of sin as an actual stain on the soul is unfamiliar or unreasonable to them.

They put off baptizing a new child until it can be conveniently done at the next family reunion, and they wonder aloud why a small child should go to a first confession before receiving First Communion. The most vocal among them openly disagree with the teachings of the Holy Father or the lessons of Sacred Scripture, particularly those of Paul on sexual morality.

When we ask them how this can square with traditional Church teachings, they tell us that the lessons in Scripture are really more suitable for an earlier time-as is our current pope. They say they cannot conceive of a God who would impose all these intricate rules on mankind in the name of love. God, after all, is love, and rules-well, rules are of human origin.

We come away from these encounters dazed, wondering how these people can believe themselves Catholics. I submit that they are not Catholics, but rather are more accurately described as Modernists or as Neo-Modernists. They are the product of a systematic teaching program which has been in full swing since the close of the Second Vatican Council. That teaching program is the outgrowth of an earlier movement which, in 1907, Pius X condemned as Modernism in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis.

To point this out is not to invite name-calling. The purpose is to state a fact already well known: that a large non-Catholic subculture has come to share the pews with Catholics in churches around the world. The purpose is also to suggest that, contrary to appearances, the ascendancy of this subculture is passing.

If Catholics would like to speed the process, they need to understand both the origins and the failures of the Modernist movement and the opportunities at hand for bringing Neo-Modernists into the fullness of the Catholic faith.

To begin with, Modernism is not so much a theological movement as it is a philosophical one. It springs from the ideas of Rene Descartes (15961650), who is rightfully called the father of modern philosophy, but who was not a Modernist in the sense that the word came to describe a movement within the Catholic Church. Descartes believed in the objective content of divine revelation, but he sought a way of presenting the reality of God to skeptics who would not accept revelation as an avenue of truth.

A Calculus of Faith

In Descartes’ day, science was the source of brilliant successes. The application of mathematical methods in astronomy had resulted in great advancements; the Copernican Revolution had shown, contrary to some interpretations of Scripture, that the earth was not at the center of the solar system. Scientists seemed to demonstrate findings with precision and clarity.

Descartes hoped to bring a similar clarity to the belief in God by applying mathematical and scientific methods. He desired to build a kind of calculus of faith, starting from some fundamental principle which even the skeptics could not deny, and working to the undeniable existence of God. To this end, he began to examine everything in the world from the skeptic’s point of view, creating a procedure that came to be known as “methodic doubt.” 

He first concluded that the man’s senses are not reliable. A stick looks straight when it is held in the air, but looks bent when it is stuck in the water. Since both the true and false images of the stick are presented to the mind by the same senses, the senses cannot be trusted.

(Here he ignored the fact that, using all of his senses, man can confirm the stick to be straight. This is characteristic of a scientific method that tends to dissect things and isolate one attribute from all others when analyzing anything.) 

Next he concluded that the mind of man, trapped inside a body fed unreliable information by the senses, cannot be certain that the images it receives truly represent reality. He went so far as to speculate that some evil higher being could be feeding the information to the mind, making it think that there is an objective world out there when in fact there is not. In the long run, Descartes concluded that almost everything we normally take for granted can be doubted.

Even Skeptics Concur

It was not that Descartes himself doubted. He was examining everything from the perspective of a skeptic to find something even the skeptic could not doubt. What he found is summed up in the phrase, “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). No skeptic could doubt this. Even if the entire world is an illusion, the skeptic, by the simple fact that he is pondering the illusion, must admit that he himself exists.

After demonstrating the certainty of his own existence as a thinking mind, Descartes reasoned his way back to the existence of the world and to the existence of a God who is all good and therefore would not fool man by creating the world as an illusion.

The validity of Descartes’ reasoning was challenged for being, among other things, circular, but an important.aspect of his thought remains with us to this day-the concept of man as a mind trapped in a body. It is because of Descartes’ thus splitting man that today one can still pick up popular books about the so-called “mind/body problem.” 

Descartes himself was not very interested in this problem. The important point is that this severing of the mind from the body was a direct divergence from the previously established Scholastic and Catholic view of man as a composed unity of body and soul. The human soul, in the Scholastic sense, is much more than a mind. It is the substantial form of a man. It is the nature of the soul to form the body, and the body and soul together are the man.

Man, in this sense, has direct knowledge of the objective world around him because he sees it, hears it, tastes it, puts his hands on it. It is evident to him, and need not be proven. This is not to say that some knowledge of the world does not result from proofs. Through proofs one can come to the knowledge, for example, that the tangent of an angle is always equal to the inverse of the cotangent of that same angle.

But one can know that a river exists by seeing it and putting one’s feet in it. This type of knowledge is more certain than knowledge obtained by proofs. It cannot, and need not, be proven through a series of mathematical or logical propositions and conclusions.

Unfortunately, there was no great Scholastic philosopher among Descartes’ associates to hammer this point home. As a consequence, modern philosophy has thought of man ever since in a dualistic manner: mind distinct from body.

Descartes’ division of man created a division in modern philosophy itself. Some philosophers believed, like Descartes, that the only things we can know with certainty are concepts in the mind. These are the “Rationalists.” A counter-movement thought we can know things for sure only through our senses; what is in our minds, since it cannot be sensed, measured, and weighed, is basically unknowable. These are the “Empiricists.” 

It is beyond the scope of this article to trace out the various schools of thought spawned by these two philosophies, but it can be known that they all came to despair because each was looking at only a part of man while trying to understand how man as a whole can know things.

It’s All in Your Mind

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) tried to bring these two lines back together, but only succeeded in driving man further inside himself, believing, in the end, that man can know things only in his own mind, never things in themselves as they exist outside of his mind.

In what he called his own “Copernican Revolution,” Kant declared that the mind does not conform itself to the world, rather the world conforms itself to the mind. The world we know is constructed inside our minds from unstructured sense data our minds receive.

In the face of a philosophy like this, the objective world becomes unknowable, then irrelevant, and finally nonexistent. The only thing worth studying is how man conceives things in the depths of his own mind.

This is the reason why modern philosophers have ceased to be able to say anything intelligible to the average man who continues to live in the objective world, transporting body and soul to and from work, using his five senses to navigate the objective reality of rush-hour traffic. The Church, though, never abandoned Scholasticism and has fostered a flowering of interest in Scholasticism in the twentieth century.

The effect of Rationalism, when applied to theology, also led to despair. It separated belief in God from the objective events of history, such as the burning bush and the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. It focused on how man conceives of God rather than how man can know God through creation and revelation. .

This tendency showed up almost immediately in the person of the Jewish philosopher Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), whose life overlapped with that of Descartes. In Spinoza we find the foreshadowing of the Modernist persona in religion. He followed Descartes in seeking the origin of truth in the confines of his own mind, but he departed from Descartes in that he abandoned belief in traditional theology entirely.

For Spinoza, biblical miracles were misinterpreted natural events, and the writings of the prophets applied only to their time of life, not to his. He did not see support in Scripture for belief in angels or the immortality of the human soul, and he once told his fellow students in the synagogue that they knew more about physics or theology than Moses.

With Spinoza we find revealed religion replaced with pantheism: The universe and everything in it is God. Individual things are just different modes of God. Spinoza’s is a religion of the mind, independent of historical events, institutions, dogma, and doctrines. Spinoza set the theme that would be developed over the next three hundred years.

A few examples will suffice to demonstrate how a religion of the mind eventually denied that God was an objective reality and laid the foundation for Modernism.

The Deists in England, for example, took the line that God would only do things in reasonable ways. They held that, since knowledge of God had to be accessible to all, it would not come through revelation to just a select group of people, but through common reason which is accessible to all.

Matthew Tyndall (1657-1733), one of the most respected Deists of the eighteenth century, declared that, since the essence of Christianity is ethics, g.asped by natural reason, there is no need for divine revelation. Religion thus is separate from miracles, history, religious institutions, and priestly hierarchies. No one needs anyone else to tell him what to do; we can all figure it out for ourselves through reason.

In France, Rationalism took a nastier turn. Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694-1778), who coined the term “modern,” was impressed with English Deism and believed that the rational man would believe in God, but certainly not institutional religion. He used his formidable wit and skill as a writer to heap scorn on the concept of Christian salvation and to paint the Church as a cruel instrument of an oppressive hierarchy.

In doing so, he planted the seeds for the darker side of the French Revolution (1789), in which reason finally reigned supreme. People found reasons for scuttling boats full priests and nuns in the Seine because drowning them individually, or tied together in pairs in what was called a “Republican wedding,” was taking too long.

In Germany, the idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) did not scorn religious dogma or institutional religion, but trivialized it as a phase in man’s intellectual evolution. All ideas, according to Hegel, have their moment in history before encountering antithetical ideas with which they are combined into a higher synthesis. The higher synthesis has its moment as an idea before it, too, undergoes the same process in a continuous witch’s brew of evolving truth. Religious doctrines and dogma then are a phase through which man passed on the way to an ever higher consciousness.

When David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) combined Hegel’s theory with the historical biblical criticism that was popular at the time, the result was predictable. In his three-volume work The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, he tells us that the Gospels were neither revelation nor history, but the ideas of people who were deeply moved by the moral example of Jesus.

The Gospel writers were pre-scientific people, innocent of historical methods, who saw no inconsistency in weaving myths into to life Jesus. They projected their own faith onto the life of the man Jesus.

Thus far, the movements discussed are not Modernism as the term applies to a movement in the Catholic Church, but they bring together two streams of thought that form the current from which Modernism is liberally watered.

The first is the tendency to see God as something conceived in man’s mind, rather than as something exterior to man. The second is to blend such thinking with a biblical criticism that claimed, among other things, that the Gospels were written, a couple of generations after the fact, by people who had no contact with the historic Jesus. These writers, it is suggested, were not interested in history. They were more interested in convincing non-believers and passing on the faith as they conceived it.

The reality of God is reduced to the way people conceive of God in various religious communities. The Old Testament writers conceived of a judgmental God in a way characteristic of their times. New Testament writers conceived him in as more loving, but still within the context and moral prejudices of their times.

In this manner, the traditional relationship (God’s dictating man’s concept of morality) is turned on its head; it is man’s morality, in any given time or place, that dictates his concept of God.

Modernism is the attempt by Catholic theologians, most prominently George Tyrrell (1861-1909) in England and Alfred Loisy (18571940) in France, to introduce these trends into Catholic theology. Tyrrell, an Irish-born Jesuit, was a scholar and a poet.

He proposed “Immanentism,” in which religious truth exists in the heart and mind of the individual believer, not in some unchangeable, objective reality exterior to man. Loisy, a priest-scholar and historian, used biblical criticism to propose that Jesus had never thought of himself as God, but only as a prophet.

Loisy believed that Jesus had never intended to establish a Church and sacramental system at all. To get back on track with Jesus, he wanted the Church to stop teaching doctrines and dogmas and concentrate on bringing the world a message of hope. The combination of the ideas of these two men is Modernism-a faith which is subjective, based on a communal life without the constraints of institutions and creeds.

The Heresy That Didn’t Die

Though Modernism was condemned and both Tyrrell and Loisy were excommunicated, it remained a strong, formative force among theologians right up to the Second Vatican Council. But, the teaching office of the Church has always looked on the faith in another way. Certainly faith includes the way we live in whatever times we find ourselves; but there is another meaning to the word faith which indicates its objective content, the deposit of faith, which does not change from community to community or from age to age.

Since the life of faith is a response to the content of the faith, you cannot have one without the other. Part of the objective content of the faith is the belief that the Gospels were written by apostles and that they conveyed the historic events of the life of Jesus as witnessed by his followers. It was not the faith of Christians that created the events in the life of Jesus, but the events witnessed in the life of Jesus that created the faith of Christians.

The apostles wrote about these events in order to convince their audience, but that does not mean that what they said is not true. When a lawyer describes events to jurors to persuade them of the innocence of his client, these events must have some grounding in fact, particularly when there are other eyewitness present. The same is true for the Gospel writers.

The Second Vatican Council itself came down resoundingly against Modernist theories. While the Church encouraged the legitimate use of critical methods in exegesis (when freed from the secularizing prejudices), Dei Verbum, declared that the Church maintains that the “apostles and other men associated with the apostles. . . committed the message of salvation to writing” (7).

The four Gospels these men wrote, “whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught” (19). The Church reminded the faithful that “the task of authentically interpreting the word of God. . . has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church” (9).

The Council also went against Modernism in Lumen Gentium, affirming the hierarchical structure of the Church and the necessity of unity with the Holy Father, who, by virtue of his office, “has full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (22).

Making an End Run

When Modernist theories were explicitly rejected at the Council, Modernists tried to sell their program at the parish level by making it appear that Vatican II had endorsed their views. Within months of the close of the Council, a new catechism was issued by the Dutch bishops, it expounded Modernist views.

The catechism was published in numerous languages and was quickly being sold around the world. Soon it became the source of catechetical works emphasizing the essence of the Eucharist as a communal meal, but not as the Real Presence of Jesus Christ; emphasizing the priesthood of all believers, but never the sacrament of holy orders; emphasizing the conscience of the individual, but never the binding authority of the magisterium of the Church and particularly not the authority of the Holy Father.

This phase has been called Neo-Modernism because it moved to aggressive proselytizing at the parish level, whereas Modernism before Vatican II was more of an ivory-tower phenomenon.

The Vatican met the challenge head-on, calling on the Dutch bishops to correct their catechism and countering its effect with the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s Creed of the People of God, which reaffirmed the Catholic truths that Modernism was denying.

Neo-Modernist teaching, however, has continued at the street level. Educational texts and programs incorporating its creedless Christianity are still cranked out in such quantities that the old method of placing such books on an index is impossible. Religion teachers who drank deeply of Modernist principles are still at their posts, and many of this graying cadre are still true advocates of the Modernist movement. It is probably true that this group will have to die out before it will become possible to teach pure Christianity again without resistance.

At the same time, things have steadily gone downhill for the Modernist movement. In 1993, the Church brought out the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is thoroughly orthodox despite aggressive attempts by Modernists to implant their themes in it. It is a bestseller around the world to a degree that the authors of the Dutch Catechism could only envy.

A 1995 survey of Catholic priests in American showed a major shift away from Modernist views. Contemporary research, including the recent work at Oxford University by Carsten Peter Thiede, a leading authority on New Testament manuscripts, places the writing of the synoptic Gospels in a period predating A.D. 66-70, thus establishing their prophetic content regarding the destruction of Jerusalem and placing them firmly within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses to the existence of Jesus.

There is also evidence of a movement away from Modernism’s emphasis on individual communities toward a unity centered on the Holy See and the Pope’s stands against “the culture of death,” which is the secular inheritance of modern philosophy.

Dying, But Not Dead

At the same time, the Modernist movement, even as it is losing ground in scriptural scholarship and theology, has inflicted deep wounds in the body of the Church. Those teachers who continue teach the Neo-Modernist line are not healing the body, but pouring salt in the wounds. Pointing this out is not divisive; it is the responsible thing to do, especially for the sake of children and converts who have been exposed to Neo-Modernist teaching since Vatican II.

Neo-Modernist teachers do not assent to the creed of the Catholic Church and, therefore, would not themselves have passed the most rudimentary catechism class at any time in Christian history. In dissenting from the creed, they have refused to teach it and have created a class of people who, not having been taught the creed, cannot be considered to be Catholic in the full sense of the word.

Many people are in this state through no fault of their own. They are Modernists, not by deliberate choice, but because they have been caught in the Modernists’ web. Should we begin calling them such? It would serve no good purpose. They have, in some sense, been baptized into the body of the Catholic Church. Many of them are innocent of the Christian creed, which should have been their true inheritance. It is in their innocence of the creed that we should think of them as Modernists and not Catholics. Why? Because they stand in a good position to embrace the fullness of the Catholic faith.

Among the young, such as the hundreds of thousands who attend World Youth Days, there is a hunger for the fullness of the faith, an openness to the sacramental life, a willingness to adhere to an exacting morality. We should provide them with authentic teachers to compensate for the Neo-Modernist teachers they had. We should rain down catechisms among them in the universities, high schools, and CCD programs and exhort them to take up and read the fullness of the faith.

In this way, they can come to know the creed and say “Credo, I believe!” By believing, they can begin to hope; by hoping, they can truly learn to love; and by loving, which starts with knowing the creed, they can become fully Catholic. This should be our great enterprise as we approach the first day of the next millennium-the prayerful evangelization of the Church from the inside out.

What then of the Neo-Modernist teachers and clergy who still occupy their posts? They too should be the objects of our solicitude and prayer. When Thomas More was condemned to death by his fellow Englishmen for adhering to the authentic faith that they themselves had abandoned, he showed no rancor and refrained from guessing their motives.

He said he hoped and prayed to see them in heaven someday, and he knew it was possible, because both Stephen, who was stoned to death, and Saul, who held the coats of those who stoned Stephen, now stand side by side as saints of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We should be so charitable. We should be so true.

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