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Issue Date:  November 25, 2005

Revisiting the modernists

These English Catholics survived the tension between conscience and authority


In the long history of the church, change has been prompted by reformers who both left its fold and stayed within it. Abuses -- political, economic, moral -- often sparked the reform, but almost inevitably reform demanded some struggle between the issues of individual conscience and church authority. One can look back to Joan of Arc or Martin Luther, to Francis or Catherine of Siena, or to the contemporary treatment of Frs. Hans Küng or Charles Curran.

Another pivotal contribution to this struggle between conscience and authority was made by the Catholic modernists of the early 20th century. This controversy may seem esoteric, yet Catholic modernism is still criticized even though many of its principal tenets were supported by the Second Vatican Council. Catholic modernism offers an illustration of adherents’ devotion even in the face of cruel and vindictive personal attacks and provides a counter to the demoralization so many faithful Catholics now feel.

Modernism was a tendency among some 19th- and early 20th-century clerical and lay scholars to accommodate traditional Catholic beliefs to developments in modern scientific and historical criticism. The modernists challenged the “medievalism” of Catholic intellectual life. This openness of Catholic modernism was made possible in part by the pontificate of Leo XIII, who helped create receptivity for dialogue between the church and the modern world.

Modernism was not a movement in any traditional sense but rather an orientation shared by a loosely connected group of European Catholic scholars. Its leading proponent was the French cleric Abbé Alfred Loisy. In England, modernism was represented by the fiery and sarcastic convert, the Jesuit Fr. George Tyrrell. Fear of modernism began to grow in the last decade of the 19th century. In 1902 Abbé Loisy published L’Evangile et L’Eglise (The Gospel and the Church), which immediately aroused church opposition and was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. By 1907, modernism was roundly condemned as “the synthesis of all errors,” and in Pius X’s encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregus (“On the Doctrines of the Modernists”), its proponents were denounced in vitriolic language. Pastors and teachers were officially required to take an oath against modernism.

While both Abbé Loisy and Fr. Tyrrell were excommunicated, three prominent lay English Catholics lived on, walking a tightrope between commitment to the freedom of individual conscience and devotion to the church. Protected by wealth, social position and lay status, Friedrich von Hugel, Wilfrid Ward and Maude Petre offered responses of resilience and creativity.

The cosmopolitan Friedrich von Hugel, an Austrian baron, was the most significant Catholic lay theologian in England in the early 20th century. He defended both Abbé Loisy and Fr. Tyrrell and publicly supported free scientific and historical investigation, all the while escaping personal condemnation. Baron von Hugel sustained himself in several ways. He maintained that the church needed an institutional element in order to do its work, but its mystical element was also essential. Since the latter had been badly neglected over the centuries, he devoted himself to reclaiming and strengthening the mystical element through his scholarship. Baron von Hugel was renowned for his intellect and revered for his passionate love of God and his care of souls. This rare combination of intellectual talent and saintliness helped keep him beyond censure. Nonetheless, suspicion about him and condemnation of his modernist friends caused him great suffering in what he came to call “those terrible years.”

Wilfred Ward derived from a wealthy conservative Catholic family of intellectuals. He was enamored of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who represented for him the best in Catholic intellectual life but who at the time was considered a precursor of modernism and hence suspect. As editor of The Dublin Review, a prominent Catholic publication, Mr. Ward’s views were closely monitored. It was unthinkable for him to criticize the church, but his love of Cardinal Newman and his hope that his mentor might serve as a bridge between Catholic thought and modern intellectual developments caused him great anxiety. Mr. Ward believed that church officials should not censure intellectuals. Yet, like Baron von Hugel, he watched in dismay as colleagues were expelled from the church or turned away, unable to “go over to Rome,” the phrase used to describe joining the Roman Catholic church. He also had the sympathetic support of Cardinal Francis Bourne, who continued to protect him as editor of the Review.

The final lay model of survival was the indomitable Maude Petre, a friend of Baron von Hugel, Mr. Ward and Fr. Tyrrell. Wealthy, highly educated, deeply religious and passionately skeptical, Miss Petre studied scholastic philosophy in Rome and joined the Society of the Daughters of Mary, a religious order of women living in their own homes. She was greatly influenced by Fr. Tyrrell and supported him for several years. Her home became the meeting place for modernist thinkers. Although a respecter of church authority, she saw its limitations and dangers. In 1907 she published Catholicism and Independence. When asked to withdraw it, she refused. She was a prolific author. She published Fr. Tyrrell’s autobiography, a volume of Abbé Loisy’s thought and more than 10 other books, including a history of modernism. Since she would not renounce modernism or take an oath against it, she was denied the sacraments in her home diocese; she then moved to another jurisdiction.

Miss Petre believed that the church taught “how to see God,” hence her loyalty to it. But for her it was a road to the truth, not truth itself. She lived on until 1942, the last of the prominent English lay modernists. During her lifetime she saw the gradual abatement of attacks against modernists, beginning in 1914 when Benedict XIV urged Catholics to cease condemning fellow believers. In the same year World War I began, diverting attention to more pragmatic matters.

The seminal ideas of the modernists were largely vindicated with the aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council. In an environment of suspicion and unrelenting personal attack, these modernists persisted in the truth as they understood it and in the faith they loved, embodied in a fallible church. Their lives gave witness to the scripture: “Love casts out fear.”

Dana K. Greene is professor of history at Oxford College at Emory University, Oxford, Ga. She is the author of Evelyn Underhill: Artist of the Infinite Life and The Living of Maisie Ward.

National Catholic Reporter, November 25, 2005

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