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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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5. Historiography and Conclusion. The history of
the idea of crypto-modernism in the Church since 1910
is an index to the dismal ramifications of the condem-
nation. Léonce de Grandmaison, editor of the Jesuit
periodical Études during the crisis, summarized the
liberal-progressive view of the crisis when he defined
the modernist as one who believes that there could
be a conflict between “the traditional and modern
positions” in Christian teaching, and who, faced with
that conflict, decided that it was “the traditional view
which must be adapted to the modern, by retouching,
or, if necessary, radical alteration or abandonment”
(Études, 176 [1923], 644). The progressives argued that
the modernist error did not necessitate the abandon-
ment of the vital work of bringing the truth of tradition
into contact with the truth of modernity. They wanted
development in Christian teaching, defined by Blondel
as “a continuous creation starting from a germ which
transubstantiates its nourishment,” as opposed to
evolution, which he saw as change resulting only from
“external pressures” (Marlé [1960], p. 129). They re-
jected historicism and, in Wilfrid Ward's phrase, they
called for “not less, but more, and better, theology.”
The progressive—by the standards of 1929—historian
of the crisis, Jean Rivière, said that the modernist effort
was a revolution, not a reform, which “ended in
destroying the objective fundamentals of Catholic
dogma,” but he regretfully noted that the most visible
result of the “odious and deplorable campaigns” of the
Integrists was to panic bishops and people, polarize
opinion, render the loyal suspect, and thus make “more
difficult the already hard task of those who were exert-
ing themselves to combat modernism effectively on its
true ground” (1929, col. 2041).

What should be noted in conjunction with these
three opinions is that Grandmaison was himself suspect,
that a special papal document from Pius XII was nec-
essary to remove all taint of heterodoxy from Blondel's
name as late as 1944, and that Rivière was regarded
as a crypto-modernist and officially limited in his
teaching. In fact the literature and correspondence of
the period is a vast set of criss-crossing efforts to indict
or to exculpate figures seen as heterodox by Roman
theologians, including Newman before the crisis, and
Teilhard de Chardin after it. The sad human dimension
of the crisis and the subsequent repression of intellec-
tual life in the Church were summed up in the advice
given by a veteran of those days to a church historian
in the 1950's: “If you ever treat of the modernist crisis,
do not forget to tell how much we suffered.” Recent
historians, most notably Émile Poulat, have attempted
to approach modernism and integrism sociologically
(1960, 1962, 1969), and with an eye on the tumult in
the Church in the wake of Vatican II (O'Dea, 1968).

Seen from the general perspective of intellectual
history in the modern period the modernist crisis in
Catholicism is an example of the imperfect transfer
of ideas between two cultures which, in spite of a
common heritage, were quite distinct by the opening
of the twentieth century. Protestant and scientific
thought, the secular national state and the trans-
formation of its class structures and ideologies through
industrialization and world commerce created a world
alien in almost every principle to the Catholic universe
encapsulated within it, even as the Rome of the popes
was circumscribed and sealed by the modern Italian
state. Roman Catholicism was perceived by its
defenders as a closed and perfect system of belief and
action. From time to time concessions were made to
the epiphenomena of modernity and the perennial
tradition of mysticism, but generally the magisterium
insisted that “the human intellect could know God
from his effects, that the historical proofs of Christ's
divinity were perfectly proportioned to the minds of
men of all times, that there was an objective super-
natural order adequately defined by the Church's doc-
trine” (O'Dea, p. 86). Accustomed to the use of power
by centuries of political experience, the magisterium
found it natural to use power to suppress and thus
negate the existence of an intellectual upheaval which
was evident disproof of the fundamental premiss of its
life: the unthinkableness of an alternative cosmology
and another language of theological and philosophical
discourse for any man shaped in its ways.

It was the argument of most modernists that they
had not been deeply influenced by currents of thought
outside the Church, but had simply drawn out the logic
of Catholic tradition. Thus Loisy insisted on the
originality of his own work in part because once the
statement was made that his teaching was “German
rational-Protestant theology translated into French” his
work would no longer be studied seriously, and his
usefulness for change within the system would end.
Similarly Tyrrell polemicized violently against liberal
Protestantism, not only because he felt that he had
been too attracted by liberal Protestantism in his early
writing but because he knew that once an idea could
be labeled Protestant, or worse, Kantian, it was
automatically refuted. The dilemma of the modernists
in relation to contemporary thought was intensified by
the fact that they were in revolt against the rationalism
of the post-Tridentine Catholic Church and the ration-
alism and materialism of secular thought. They also
tended to ignore their dependence on the modern
culture they sought to manipulate. Thus Loisy's work
was often naively historicist, and Tyrrell was utopian
in his scheme for a science of religion. This occurred
because, as “latecomers to the Enlightenment,” in


Gentile's phrase, they were overwhelmed by the out-
pourings of the Pandora's box of ideas which had been
closed to Catholic thinkers for so long. The confusion
of themes in modernist books puzzled the Pope: in the
encyclical the modernists were condemned both as
rationalists and as anti-intellectuals.

In their turn, many of the modernist intellectuals,
overwhelmed by the attractions of scientism and
historicism, saw the obstinacy of the magisterium as
final proof that Catholicism as a syncretistic expression
of man's moral evolution was as unacceptable in the
modern world as the eschatological “late messianic
Judaism” from which it had sprung. Institutional re-
forms unimagined by the modernists have been ac-
complished in the era of Aggiornamento. A theological
revolution has grown out of the ecumenical movement
many of them derided. Transformations in the scientific
climate have weakened the attacks of the secular
humanist. But the Catholic Church and ecumenical
Christianity are still deeply challenged by dynamics
of modern culture. The threat of the religio depopulata
which this handful of religious intellectuals feared
remains as the residues of “a religious past defined long
ago” confront “a present which has found elsewhere
than in it the living sources of its inspiration” (Poulat
[1969], p. 5).

Émile Poulat's wide-ranging study of the first stage
of the modernist crisis has been characterized as
“sociological.” Hopefully, further studies of individuals
involved in the controversy will follow his example
and attempt to locate the theological and philosophical
issues in a social and political context. The separation
of church and state, the rise of left Catholic political
thought and movements, and the utilization of the
modernist crisis for political purposes by the Catholic
right, are important issues with which the history of
modernism in France should be fully integrated. Recent
work on Italian modernism (Scoppola, 1961), explores
the larger context, but comparable work has not been
done for modernism in England. The integrist position
has been examined in the setting of social history by
Poulat in the introduction to his edition of documents,
Intégrisme et catholicisme intégral (1969). Of greater
significance for the general history of ideas is the proc-
ess whereby the currents of positivism and historicism
were brought to bear on traditional Catholic thought.
The lines of this development can best be traced
through the reconstruction of the understanding of
Protestant and secular learning held by Catholic
writers, as has been done for the influence of German
philosophical sources on the formation of Blondel's
method and thought by J. J. McNeill in The Blondelian
(1966). The comparative analysis of modern-
ist writings and the seminal works in the Protestant
and secular scientific world can be complemented by
tracing patterns of influence in reading and corre-
spondence. The model for this kind of study is the
examination, done by most students of the crisis, of
Harnack's Das Wesen des Christentums (1900) and
Loisy's L'Évangile et l'église (1902).

Finally, modernist ideas should be examined in the
context of Catholic critical movements in the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries, and in conjunction with the
emergence of radical Catholic theological currents in
the 1960's. Comparisons of the two recent periods
should prove particularly enlightening, since in both
cases Protestant thought and scientific advance were
major spurs to innovation. Students of the relationship
between the crisis and the development of Catholic
science in Germany should examine Edmond Vermeil,
Jean-Adam Möhler et l'école Catholique de Tubingue,