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A Crisis of Meaning: Sacred Scripture & the Rise of Modernism (Pt. I)


Part I | Part II

With man being wholly dependent upon God as upon his Creator and Lord, and created reason being absolutely subject to uncreated truth, we are bound to yield to God, by faith in His revelation, the full obedience of our intelligence and will. And the Catholic Church teaches that this faith, which is the beginning of man’s salvation, is a supernatural virtue whereby, inspired and assisted by the grace of God, we believe that the things which He has revealed are true; not because of the intrinsic truth of the things, viewed by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself who reveals them, and who can neither be deceived nor deceive. For faith, as the Apostle testifies, is “the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things that appear not.”[1]

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Bible is a difficult book to understand. In fact, errors in biblical interpretation are so common that we’ve invented a word for the act of producing them: eisegesis. If one were to attempt to write a history of biblical eisegesis, it would be nearly indistinguishable from a history of the Catholic Church itself, as every major heresy she has endured over the last two millennia – Gnosticism, Arianism, Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Iconoclasm, Protestantism – was made possible by one or more errors in the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. In point of fact, the history of sin itself began with a doubt regarding the correct interpretation of God’s word:

Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?[2]

As the word of God is at the very heart of her faith, the Catholic Church has always condemned errors regarding Sacred Scripture in the harshest of terms. The intentional loss or alteration of a single letter of that divine deposit would be an offense against the God who revealed it; the acceptance of an interpretation at odds with that of the Apostles and the Holy Fathers would be a dereliction of sacred duty that would send shockwaves through the entire edifice of magisterial teaching. To preserve and transmit Sacred Scripture in its entirety, in both letter and spirit, is an integral part of the Church’s divine mandate to go out to the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to all creation.[3] When it is attacked by the infidel or abused by the heretic, therefore, the Church must not only repair the damage done but also bring the full force of her condemnation to bear upon the offender.

Despite the conspicuous dependence of heretical movements upon such impious abuse of Sacred Scripture, the essentiality of the latter for the proliferation of the heresy currently wreaking havoc in the Church, i.e. Modernism, has hitherto gone almost entirely unnoticed. This is particularly regrettable given that it was precisely as a result of the slow and systematic corruption of the faith of millions in the inspiration and inerrancy of Sacred Scripture that the Modernists gained their foothold in the Church. Understandably, faithful Catholics have focused their attention on the visible deformations and acts of general malfeasance which have become so commonplace in the Church of the “New Pentecost.” Exposing such abuses is also a necessary and, at times, salutary task. But we should not allow it to obscure that fact that the crisis of Modernism is essentially a crisis of faith in the word of God.

Perhaps the best way to begin unpacking this claim is to examine the writings of the Modernists themselves. In a private letter dated 1908, heresiarch Fr. Alfred Loisy explained how his fall from grace and ultimate rejection of the Catholic Faith began with his private study of Sacred Scripture:

I became a priest to the regret of my family, who preferred that I should choose another career; but I desired to serve the Church, and to serve it from the side that suited my aptitudes, by science and instruction. I can say, without the least vanity, that since my entrance into the great seminary of Chalons, in October, 1874, I have not ceased to work, always in the line of my ecclesiastical studies, and without allowing myself to turn towards those specialties which would have diverted me from my original object: the study and defense of catholic Christianity. I have applied myself wholly and spontaneously to the study of the Bible; circumstances have made it possible for me to give myself entire liberty in this for more than twenty-five years. But in proportion as I advanced in my researches, I perceived that our official instruction was a customary formula which did not correspond to the reality of things. Then, instead of abandoning my apologetic design, instead of taking the miserable part of defending, under the respected name of Tradition, the theses of which I saw the decay (between ourselves, Monsieur, I will tell you that I might have had in the Church a career sufficiently brilliant and honored, if I could have lied), I have undertaken, after years of labor, after long reflections, and – why shall I not say it? – after a long period of inward sufferings, during which I saw falling, one by one, as dead leaves, the received ideas with which my youth had been prejudiced, and I sought what I might recover in that ruin of the edifice where I had believed my faith to be sheltered for eternity, I have undertaken, I say, to show how the essentials of Catholicism can survive the crisis of contemporary thought, how the Church can justify its past, and assure itself of the future.[4]

In 1902, Loisy published the work which has been described as the Magna Carta of Catholic Modernism:[5]The Gospel and the Church. It was written as a public response to Rudolf Harnack’s equally seminal What is Christianity?, a collection of lectures delivered at the University of Berlin from 1899 to 1900. In it, Loisy uses the methods of biblical criticism to affect a total divorce of Sacred Scripture from the doctrines of the Catholic Faith as taught by the Magisterium, pitting “individual piety” against “the Church of Law and Imperialism.”[6] His rejection of the dogmatic content of God’s word is so complete that he views any attempt on the part of Protestants to come to doctrinal clarity regarding the meaning of Sacred Scripture[7] as a betrayal of the Reformation:

In this respect, Protestantism threatens to become an inferior type of Catholicism. Let the Evangelical Churches beware of becoming Catholicized! If they would remain truly evangelical, they must have no orthodoxy.[8]

Given his scandalous treatment of the Gospel and open contempt for the Church’s Magisterium, none who were familiar with his work were surprised when Loisy was excommunicated by Pope St. Pius X in 1908. This did not prevent his sympathizers and supporters, however, from making a public show of indignation. For example, Fr. George Tyrrell, S.J., another principle agitator for Modernism who would go on to suffer the same fate as Fr. Loisy,[9] wrote in protest:

One may excommunicate M. Loisy, but to excommunicate facts is very like excommunicating oneself.[10]

Styled a martyr for the cause of Modernism,[11] Loisy’s public disgrace served to embolden others, both within the Catholic Church and without,[12] to join him in promoting historical-critical investigation of God’s word as both the motivation for and logical prerequisite to bringing about a program of total reform in the Church. Several attempts to formulate such a plan of action were drawn up and circulated widely among the adherents of the movement. One such program enumerates the principal elements of the Modernist strategy, in order of primacy, as follows:

  1. Modernists use the method of Biblical Criticism and accept its results without hesitation [in order to]  destroy a number of false views of the Bible.
  2. Modernists study Church History by the methods of Historical Criticism [in order to]  destroy a multitude of untenable positions [and promote]  the elimination of historical fact from the traditional theories in which it is too often shrouded.
  3. Modernists study dogmas by the use of Modern Philosophy [which]  discredits the scholastic formulas in which both Roman and Protestant dogmas are encased.
  4. Modernists accept without hesitation the results of Modern Science. They usually adopt the principle of evolution, with its valuable consequences. […] All Modernists see in Church History a development, or evolution, of institution and doctrine.
  5. Modernists advocate a reform of the Church and its institutions in accordance with modern methods of government and discipline, and with scientific, social and economic principles. They practice the active rather than the passive virtues, and urge more comprehensiveness and efficiency in religious work. This involves practical reform all along the line.[13]

Another key summary of the motivation and goals of Modernism is Alfred Lilley’s 1908 work The Programme of Modernism. Written in large part as a reaction to the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, in which Pope St. Pius X delivers a damning philosophical analysis of Modernism, the Programme provides an explanation of the Modernist system from the perspective of an adherent. What is particularly noteworthy about the work is that the bulk of it is focused on the treatment of one issue: biblical criticism. Lilley spares no effort in his attempt to demonstrate that the system of Modernism is not based on philosophy per se, but rather on the fruits of the application of the historical-critical method to Sacred Scripture. Lilley begins his defense of Modernism with the following dementi:

First of all, we must lay bare an equivocation by which inexpert readers of the Encyclical might easily be misled. That document starts with the assumption that there lies at the root of Modernism a certain philosophical system from which we deduce our critical methods, whether biblical or historical; in other words, that our zeal to reconcile the doctrines of Catholic tradition with the conclusions of positive science springs really from some theoretical apriorism which we defend through our ignorance of scholasticism and the rebellious pride of our reason. Now, the assertion is false, and since it is the basis on which the Encyclical arranges its various arguments, we cannot in our reply follow the order of that fallacious arrangement; but we must first of all show the utter emptiness of this allegation, and then discuss the theories which the Encyclical imputes to us. In truth, the historical development, the methods and programme of so-called Modernism are very different from what they are said to be by the compilers of Pascendi Dominici Gregis. So far from our philosophy dictating our critical method, it is the critical method that has, of its own accord, forced us to a very tentative and uncertain formulation of various philosophical conclusions, or better still, to a clearer exposition of certain ways of thinking to which Catholic apologetic has never been wholly a stranger.[14]

To their credit, the Modernists correctly perceived how attenuating the traditional doctrine on the inspiration and inerrancy of Sacred Scripture must necessarily affect every other aspect of the life of the Church, from what she believes and teaches, commands and legislates, to the manner in which she prays and worships. A crisis of faith in the word of God must set into motion a chain reaction which, as Pope St. Pius X puts it, leaves “nothing stable, nothing immutable in the Church.”[15]

They lay the axe not to the branches and shoots, but to the very root, that is, to the faith and its deepest fires. And having struck at this root of immortality, they proceed to disseminate poison through the whole tree, so that there is no part of Catholic truth from which they hold their hand, none that they do not strive to corrupt.[16]

The Modernists themselves, of course, rejected such a negative view of their activity; they saw each other as loyal sons of the Church who were willing to risk condemnation and excommunication in the defense of truth. In the dedication of his book Modernism: A Record and Review to the excommunicate Fr. George Tyrrell, Alfred Lilley waxes panegyrical:

You have been condemned as the enemy of religious authority, indeed as the enemy of religion itself, because you have sought to recall authority to the sources of its strength and thus to restore to religious unity a world which existing forms and methods of authority have been for long, and are now ever more and more rapidly, reducing to religious disintegration and decay. You will not be arrested in the work of enduring pith and moment to which you have been called, by this fiat of a day. Through you the dawn has at last broken for thousands of wearied souls who have battled all their lives, and battled hopelessly, with the spectres of doubt and darkness. You have spoken for them the word of hope, so simple and obvious that, till you spoke it with the calm confidence of assured conviction, they dared not believe it to be true: “The present is older and wiser and better than the past which it incorporates and transcends.”[17]

The Modernists never tired of stressing the purity of their motives – in particular, that their desire for reform stemmed from the modern historical-critical evaluation of Sacred Scripture.[18] The changes they sought to bring about – so goes the narrative – were demanded by objective, scientific investigation of Holy Writ itself, and not by a spirit of rebellion, as was often claimed. Now, one might well object that their appeals to the burgeoning science of biblical criticism were simply attempts to rationalize their actual agenda, which they hid under a veneer of academic respectability – an effective strategy in an age when everything which cannot be rationally comprehended and empirically verified is to be viewed with suspicion, if not made the object of outright derision. This is a real possibility, and one which approaches certainty in a few cases.[19] Regardless of their true motivation, however, it is clear that the Popes who fought against Modernism understood that it was through the seeds of doubt being sown in the field of biblical studies that the heresy was rapidly gaining followers in the Church.

In the next installment of this essay, we’ll examine what the popes did to combat this assault on the proper understanding of scripture – beginning with the 1844 encyclical Inter Praecipuas by Pope Gregory XVI.



[1] Hebrews 11:1; First Vatican Council, 3rd Session (1870), Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith Dei Filius, II, §15.

[2] Genesis 3:1.

[3] Cf. Mark 16:15.

[4] Loisy, Alfred (1908). Quelques Lettres sur des Questions Actuelles et sur des Événemants Récents, pp. 116-117. Quoted in Loisy, Alfred (1912). The Gospel and the Church, pp. ix-x.

[5] Cf. Neuner, Peter (2009). Der Streit um den katholischen Modernismus, pp. 60-61.

[6] Loisy, Alfred (1912). The Gospel and the Church, pg. 185.

[7] This search for doctrinal clarity in the conspicuous absence of any authentic magisterium gave rise to the Fundamentalism movement of the early 20th century – which, ironically, was in reaction to Modernist theology; cf. Marsden, George (1980). Fundamentalism and American Culture, pp. 4-5.

[8] Loisy (1912), pg. 187.

[9] Tyrrell was excommunicated in 1908, the same year as Loisy. He died unrepentant the following year, and the odor of condemnation hung so thickly about him that a priest who dared to make the sign of the cross over his grave – Tyrrell was refused a Catholic burial – was consequently suspended a divinis by the local Ordinary.

[10] Tyrrell, George (1908). “Mediaevalism and Modernism,” in Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 1, pg. 318.

[11] Cf. Lilley, Alfred Leslie (1909). Modernism: A Record and Review, pg. 266.

[12] It should be noted that Modernism was, from its inception, a Pan-Christian undertaking. As the Presbyterian Charles A. Briggs remarked in 1909: “Progressive Protestants and Catholic Modernists are lined up in the same ranks. It is no longer a battle between Protestants and Roman Catholics.”

[13] Briggs, Charles Augustus (1909). “Modernism Mediating the Coming Catholicism,“ in The North American Review, June, pp. 879-880.

[14] Lilley, Alfred Leslie (1908). The Programme of Modernism, pp. 15-16.

[15] Pius X (1907). Pascendi Dominici Gregis, §28.

[16]Ibid, §3.

[17] Lilley, Alfred Leslie (1909). Modernism: A Record and Review, pp. x-xi.

[18] One sympathetic Catholic priest, writing anonymously in 1909, justified the doctrinal reforms proposed by the Modernist agitators as follows: “[…] Critical studies have brought about a hopeless bankruptcy of the traditional scheme of Catholic dogma. […] Consequently Catholicism can continue to live among educated men only on condition that it revise and restate many of the articles of its ancient creed.” Cf. “Some Recent Discussions of Modernism,” in The American Journal of Theology, Vol. 13, No. 2, April 1909.

[19] Cf. Bulletin de l’Occident Chrétien Nr.12, July, 1976, which published a list of more than 100 supposedly confirmed Freemasons in positions of power within the Church hierarchy.

12 thoughts on “A Crisis of Meaning: Sacred Scripture & the Rise of Modernism (Pt. I)”

  1. This is one of those great pieces that is at one and the same time completely obvious as well as being new and original. Truth is often like that.

  2. Oakes Spalding’s comment really nails it. It’s a great piece. Thank you for your work. Looking forward to part 2.

  3. Thanks Matthew for beginning the tour of how we arrived to where we are in the Church today.. I look forward to your next installment.

  4. The real sceptic (modernist) never thinks he is wrong; for the real sceptic does not think that there is any wrong. He sinks through floor after floor of a bottomless universe.

    from GK Chesterton;)


  5. Thanks for this nice exposition on the development of Modernism. Entire books have been written on this topic so I appreciate your ability to fit this into a series of articles by which the faithful may come to a relatively quick understanding on the origins and effects of this scourge upon the Church.

  6. In some respect it seems to be no wonder that Alfred Loisy is a Frenchman. One could perhaps say that he is in the footprints of the french philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650). His famous words are: cogito ergo sum.
    With this short sentence he turned upside down philosophy as was taught throughout the Middle Ages: sum ergo cogito.
    Descartes` sentence is exactly contrary to what Mr. Karmel is citing here: “With man being wholly dependent upon God as upon his Creator and Lord,
    and created reason being absolutely subject to uncreated truth, we are
    bound to yield to God, by faith in His revelation, the full obedience of
    our intelligence and will…”
    Descartes not only changed philosophy (until Nietzsche postulated “der Übermensch”- “the superman”) but also the “natural sciences” in a deep way up to Charles Darwin, or better, the Darwinists and others until today who want us making believe that there is no God-Creator and anything is coincidence or need as has been rejected also by pope Benedikt XVI.
    When there is no God-Creator writes John Paul II. than “man” can decide who has the right to live or not as was shown by the communists and nazis and today by others (abortion and other evils).

    That finally this “modern” thinking found its way into catholic theology is plausible.
    In German I would like to add: “modern” does not alone meaning “modern” but could also mean something like rotten (smile) .

  7. A lot of this originated with Bultmann in the early 20th century as well. The Oblates of Wisdom, based in St. Louis, have been working to promote neo patristic interpretation of scripture which combats the form- or historical- critical methods which have undermined the faith. See


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