International Catholic University


Catholic Modernism

James Hitchcock

IV -- The Church and Modernity (II)

However, the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century did mount a severe attack against the Church and, for the first time since the days of pagan Rome, respectable opinion scoffed at the teachings of Christianity and men openly boasted of being non-believers. For the most part the Church did not respond to this attack very well, and some leading clergy went as far as they could in adapting their beliefs to the sceptical spirit of the times, a failed attempt to modernize the Church and make it "relevant."

The French Revolution destroyed much of the actual life of the Church, through sheer brute force. However, the principle that "the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians" once again proved itself, and there was an immense religious revival, especially in France, after 1815. Although conservative in most respects, it too was modern, especially in its strong commitment to evangelizing society, a continuation of the goals of the Catholic Reformation. The nineteenth century saw the beginnings of "social Catholicism," in which Catholics were encouraged to mount a struggle to bring society into conformity with Christian principles at every level.

Religion in the nineteenth century faced severe intellectual attacks, such as Marxism, Darwinian materialism, and the naked atheism and nihilism of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, while the anti-religious policies imposed by a dictatorship during the French Revolution were now sometimes imposed by supposedly democratic governments as well. However, unlike during the Enlightenment, Catholicism in the nineteenth century had its own formidable intellectuals, notably John Henry Newman, who struggled to take into account whatever was valid in modernity and to reconcile it with their faith, while at the same time identifying and refuting modernity's negative aspects. (Newman was the first in a long line of intellectual converts to the Church over the next century and a half.)

But the advent of religious liberty in virtually all Western countries also meant that, for the first time, not being affiliated with any religion came to be socially respectable, and throughout the nineteenth century the faith, even as it flourished in many ways, also lost ground. In some places (the European Continent, notably) the Church lost the allegiance of the working classes, many of whom were attracted to a Communism which promised an earthly utopia.

From the time of the Enlightenment, what eventually came to be called "liberal" Protestantism made strenuous efforts to accommodate the faith to scepticism, not in the orthodox ways which Newman pursued but often through an outright capitulation to non-belief, abandoning everything in the faith which sceptics considered incredible. This culminated, after about 1830, in a corrosively sceptical stance towards the Bible itself, as the "Higher Criticism," originating in Germany, called into doubt the fundamental historicity of the Scriptures, thus depriving Christianity of any solid claim to intellectual credibility and essentially reducing it to a vague kind of moralism.

The prevailing intellectual winds of the nineteenth century thus embodied the rational scepticism of the Enlightenment as well as newer kinds of scepticism represented by Marx, Nietzsche, and others. Liberal Protestants found themselves habitually looking over their shoulders to see what Christianity's "cultured despisers" were saying, although the attempts to win the respect of those despisers consistently failed.

Throughout the nineteenth century there also developed, in rather limited circles, a phenomenon which would be called "liberal Catholicism." The term was elastic and not very precise, extending from those who were orthodox but who considered the discipline of the Church overly narrow and repressive to those who actually rejected official teaching, especially the definition of the dogma of Papal Infallibility in 1870.

Not least because of the strength of the Papacy, the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century remained overall a bastion of orthodoxy. The popes, especially Blessed Pius IX, strongly condemned characteristic modern errors and boldly reaffirmed the truth of the faith in the face of assaults. In a sense the Catholic Reformation had its greatest effects in the nineteenth century.

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