International Catholic University

Catholic Modernism

James Hitchcock

VII -- Baron Von Hugel

Friedrich von Hugel was the son of an Austrian nobleman who held various diplomatic posts and eventually retired to England, so that his son the theologian was in many ways an Englishman, albeit steeped in European culture generally. Of independent means, Von Hugel devoted his life to intellectual pursuits.

From his father he inherited an interest in science, which he said gave him respect for empirical evidence. Although he was not a strong proponent of evolution, he shared with the other Modernists a belief that science had raised new questions for religious faith and that believers could not rely on a purely dogmatic authority.

Von Hugel was also deeply affected by liberal biblical criticism, which called into question the historicity of much of the Bible, and he sought to overcome this by appealing to the sense of "transcendence" which he considered basic to the human soul. If it is truly open to experience and appropriately guided, Von Hugel thought, the soul realizes that there are higher, deeper, more mysterious realities beyond the empirical, which are incapable of natural explanation. It is these which constitute true religion.

Von Hugel became a student of this "experience," especially of the phenomenon of mysticism, in which the soul is drawn into a sense of complete union with God going far beyond any ability to express or formulate in words or images. Von Hugel's chief work on religion was a study of a somewhat obscure medieval mystic, St. Catherine of Genoa.

Von Hugel was, even in his own day, regarded as a man of many paradoxes. In a way he functioned as a kind of broker for the Modernist movement, not all of whose alleged members acknowledged that in fact they did form a movement. Von Hugel made them familiar with each other's work, served as a clearing house of information, and offered strong moral support to those Modernists who were censured by ecclesiastical authority. (Probably because he was a layman, he received no personal censure as a result of the Modernist condemnation.)

Like other Modernists, Von Hugel was unfavorable to Scholasticism. Unlike other Modernists, he was not by nature pugnacious or strident, but he thought that Scholasticism was a dead system which obscured true religion. Also unlike other Modernists, he never allowed himself to express doubt concerning any teaching of the Church, and to the degree that he was a Modernist it was by a shifting of emphasis, an abandonment of the dogmatic tradition without doing so explicitly.

Even more paradoxically, he considered himself an Ultramontaine ("beyond the mountains"), a name given to supporters of the papacy, as against Catholics who adhered to a certain sense of quasi-independent "national churches." But, despite his professed loyalty to the papacy as an institution, he was devastated by the papal condemnation of Modernism.

He was also personally deeply devout, spending hours in front of the Blessed Sacrament and regularly praying the rosary, practices consistent with his sense of the faith as essentially an inner spiritual reality.

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