International Catholic University


Catholic Modernism

James Hitchcock

XI -- Condemnation

Both the French and English hierarchies had been concerned with some of the writings of the Modernists and had imposed sanctions of various kinds. Before long the issue came to the attention of the Holy See, where Modernist writings were examined closely by the Holy Office, the Vatican congregation charged with maintaining orthodoxy of belief. Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, a Spanish-English prelate who was papal Secretary of State, especially pressed for a condemnation of the heresy.

In 1907, Pius X issued two encyclicals, Pascendi Dominici Gregis ("Feeding the Lord's Flock") and Lamentabili Sane Exitu ("With Truly Lamentable Effect"), both condemning the errors of Modernism. The encyclicals condemned a series of propositions, without attributing them to any particular individual, which allowed virtually all the Modernists to claim that their own ideas were not condemned.

Pius X called Modernism "the synthesis of all heresies," and each Modernist complained that the encyclicals constructed a coherent system to which they themselves did not subscribe. The Holy See, however, understood quite well the full implications of Modernist ideas, including some which the Modernists were not as yet ready to acknowledge.

In general the encyclicals condemned an approach to religion which was essentially naturalistic and human, without any necessary divine truth. Religious beliefs were considered to be the result of evolving human consciousness, dogmas and theology merely symbolic and tentative ways of expressing these human insights.

Pius X forthrightly denied, as had Pius IX, that the Church was obligated to conform itself to modern ideas, and he coined the term "Modernism" to indicate that these particular heresies were claiming exactly that. The Modernists were said to contravene directly the teachings of the First Vatican Council. They were accused of disbelieving in the ability of the human mind to know God Himself and therefore of preoccupying themselves merely with the idea of God, as it developed throughout human history. Their errors were said to derive primarily from an uncritical acceptance of certain modern philosophies, notably that of Immanuel Kant, which gave rise to an inevitable agnosticism about religion.

Extending Leo XIII's proclamation of 188l, Pascendi once again proclaimed St. Thomas Aquinas the preeminent Catholic theologian and directed that his thought be the basis of all sound Catholic theology.

Plans were made for the full implementation of the encyclicals, with an oath against Modernism required of all candidates for the priesthood, an oath which ordinands continued to take until the time of the Second Vatican Council.

Partly under official Vatican auspices, partly through unofficial "watchdog" groups, strenuous efforts were made to uncover Modernists, especially priests teaching in seminaries, and to suspend them from their duties. At first unchecked by the Holy See, some of those efforts were irresponsible and targeted men whose orthodoxy was unquestionable.

But in 1914 the election of Pope Benedict XV brought an end to the systematic hunting of Modernists, since the new pope himself had been the target of unwarranted suspicions. Benedict strongly reaffirmed the substance of the anti-Modernist condemnations but insisted that they be implemented in a fair and responsible manner. By that time the influence of the group, to the degree that it was ever strong, had almost completely disappeared.

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