International Catholic University


Catholic Modernism

James Hitchcock

XII -- Aftermath

Following the papal condemnation of 1907, Modernism ceased to be a significant intellectual force in the Church. In fact it had never been one, except in rather marginal circles.

In view of the intellectual turmoil which followed the Second Vatican Council of 1962-5, some Catholics have speculated that, despite the papal condemnation and despite the Oath against Modernism required of all priests, the movement continued an underground existence for more than half a century. The suspicion is untrue that Modernism survived in any organized sense; there is no evidence for the existence of any cabal of secret Modernists during the period 1910-1960.

However, the Modernists had responded to certain intellectual questions which remained open, and they wrote books which continued to be available in libraries. Hence from time to time, later thinkers returned to some of the Modernist questions, without being conscious disciples of the original Modernists.

The issues which the Modernists raised, and which continued to be open questions for some Catholics, included: l) Whether beliefs and concepts can transcend the historical era in which they are formulated? 2) Whether it is necessary to adapt beliefs to the spirit of each age, in order to make them credible? 3) To what extent is religious belief the product of human experience, of a natural religious sense, rather than of supernatural revelation? 4) Whether modern scholarship, especially biblical studies, has discredited certain traditional beliefs?

The Modernists themselves charged that the condemnation of their movement in effect put an end to all genuine intellectual life in the Church, since they thought of themselves as virtually the only people in the Church who were really thinking. Yet paradoxically, the ensuing decades, down to the time of Vatican II, saw a brilliant intellectual flowering in the Church, a Catholic intellectual revival unequalled since the seventeenth century.

At almost the exact moment when Modernism was being condemned, in Paris the young Jacques Maritain was converting to the Catholic Church, and a few years later the young Etienne Gilson would experience a reconversion to his childhood faith. Both were powerfully attracted by precisely the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, among other things, which the Modernists found to be totally without merit. The philosophical system which the Modernists regarded as dead and stifling would become the basis for the Catholic intellectual revival, which would flourish also in other ways -- history (Christopher Dawson), literature (Francois Mauriac, Evelyn Waugh, Sigrid Undset), art (Georges Rouault), music (Maurice Durufle), and other things. None of these great Catholic intellectuals, nor the many people who admired their work, felt themselves constrained by Catholic dogma. In fact they found it profound and nourishing.

Whatever the validity of the Modernists' own ideas, the fact that they could see nothing of value in Scholasticism reveals the narrowness of their vision. The intellectual challenges which they identified could have been most creatively met by an attempt at some kind of synthesis between Catholic tradition and new concepts. Instead the Modernists in effect jettisoned those traditions at every point where they seemed to conflict with modernity, and the overall impact of their thought was to narrow and restrict Catholic intellectual life, deliberately confining it within the limits of a particular historical era.

During the intellectual chaos which followed the Second Vatican Council, some Catholics came to regard the Modernists, in retrospect, as intellectual heroes. But it is significant that virtually no contemporary Catholic thinker simply is a Modernist, in the sense that the term was used in 1907.

Later Catholic theologians (Henri DeLubac, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, and others) pursued some of the questions which interested the Modernists but did so in ways compatible with Catholic dogma, thereby immeasurably enriching the intellectual life of the Church. Modern Catholics have responded to things like biblical scholarship in a variety of ways, but few think that the answers which the Modernists proposed were particularly fruitful or intellectually satisfying.

In a sense the Modernists were enthusiasts, people who grasped certain new ideas and began to run with them uncritically, thus, paradoxically, eventually rendering themselves obsolete. Modernism in the end proved to be the preoccupation of a restricted group of somewhat provincial English and French intellectuals, who seemed to believe that they had little to learn from the rich, centuries-old traditions of their Church.

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