International Catholic University


Catholic Modernism

James Hitchcock

VI- George Tyrrell

George Tyrrell was born in Ireland of Anglo-Irish Protestant parents but converted to Catholicism as a young man. He soon entered the Jesuits, but within a few years of his ordination to the priesthood his theological speculations began to attract the unfavorable notice of his superiors and, after several warnings, he was expelled from the Society of Jesus in 1906.

Tyrrell had a particular animosity towards Scholastic theology, especially the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, whom Pope Leo XIII in 188l had proclaimed the Church's preeminent theologian. To Tyrrell, Scholasticism was a dead and deadening system from a bygone age which had no relevance to the modern world.

Tyrrell, like Loisy, placed religious experience at the heart of the faith, the Church itself having a kind of collective experience which was then translated into dogma.

For Tyrrell these dogmas were precious, but only so long as no effort is made to define them, or to set boundaries between true and false belief. Dogmas are attempts to express inner religious experience, the verbal formula having a kind of analogous relationship to the experiences themselves, which were primary. Since dogma could never exhaust religious experience, no definition of it is adequate, hence all attempts at definition are bound to fail, and even to prove destructive of true religion.

Also like Loisy, Tyrrell did not believe in the divine authorship of the Scriptures, nor did he think the Tradition of the Church has any finally normative authority. His belief in Darwinian evolution extended itself from biological life to religious life as well, so that religious belief of necessity has to continue changing, in accordance with the needs of each new age.

In this Tyrrell was virtually the polar opposite of Newman, who had discussed the development of doctrine as guided by an essential fidelity to the past, which Tyrrell dismissed. Tyrrell was unusual in being one of the few intellectual converts of the age who found doctrinal orthodoxy a burden rather than a blessing, and it is not clear why he chose to become a Catholic in the first place.

Even before the papal condemnation of Modernism in 1907, Tyrrell had come to hate the papacy, which he saw as the principal obstacle to authentic development of doctrine, and his remaining few years were marked by a deep bitterness. He died in 1909.

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