International Catholic University


Catholic Modernism

James Hitchcock

X -- Modernism in America

If the leadership of the movement called Americanism had little or no connection with Modernism, there were some relatively peripheral figures in America who might be deemed Modernists.

The leading example was William Sullivan, a Paulist priest who held positions in various parts of the country and who, even before his ordination in 1899, began to have doubts about the Catholic faith.

Like the other Modernists, Sullivan was especially affected by liberal biblical criticism, which he thought cast into doubt the basic dogmas of the Church. In a self-consciously American manner, he concluded that the true meaning of the Gospel is in its moral teachings, applied for the benefit of society. In a novel called The Priest he portrayed organized religion, including Catholicism, as essentially hypocritical and made his heroes a young couple -- one a priest -- who throw over their inherited faiths to devote themselves to social reform.

Sullivan's Modernism linked itself to the earlier Americanism in that he excoriated the Catholic Church because of its dogmatic tradition, as being completely out of step with American democracy. He left the Church in 1908, following Pius X's condemnation of Modernism, and subsequently published Letters to His Holiness Pope Pius X defiantly stating his position.

Sullivan became a Unitarian minister, choosing the Protestant group least wedded to dogma, and served in that capacity until his death in 1944. For much of the time he was dissatisfied with Unitarianism, finding it lacking spiritual substance.

Leaders of the Paulist community denied that their founder, Isaac Hecker, was in any way unorthodox, and they did not encourage Sullivan in his doubts. However, the community did in some ways consider itself avant-garde, and in 1909 five Paulist priests resigned from the priesthood because of the condemnation of Modernism.

Chronologically, the second American religious community for men were the Josephites, founded to work among blacks in the South. Their general was John R. Slattery, who first found himself scandalized by racism among pious Catholics, then came under the influence of biblical criticism and left the Church.

The most public controversy over Modernism in the United States concerned the New York Review, published at St. Joseph's Seminary (Dunwoodie), of the Archdiocese of New York. Several of the priests affiliated with the Review, who were also professors at the seminary, were Sulpicians who subsequently left that community and became diocesan priests. The Review was controversial because it published articles on modern biblical criticism, as well as summaries of some of the Modernist theology circulating in Europe. The journal was suppressed following the condemnation of Modernism in 1907.

Henry Poels, a Netherlander serving as a professor at Catholic University, was forced to resign because of his espousal of modern biblical criticism.

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