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


Part I | Part II

Gregory XVI was the first of the modern Popes to address the central role of biblical studies in the advance of the Modernist heresy within the Church. In his 1844 encyclical Inter Praecipuas, Pope Gregory explains that the enemies of the Church actively promote the publication and dissemination of vernacular translations of Sacred Scripture among the laity because it invites the common man to read the Bible without the necessary guidance of the Magisterium:

In his sacred writings, Peter, after praising the letters of Paul, warns that in these epistles “certain things are difficult to understand, which the unlearned and the unstable distort just as they do the rest of the Scriptures, which also leads to their destruction.” He adds at once, “Since you know this beforehand, be on your guard lest, carried away by the error of the foolish, you fall away from your own steadfastness.”[1] Hence, it is clear to you that, even from the first ages of Christianity, this was a skill appropriate for heretics. Having repudiated the given word of God and rejected the authority of the Catholic Church, they either interpolate by artifice into the Scriptures or pervert its meaning through interpretation.[2]

By the time Inter Praecipuas was issued, Pope Gregory had already been alerted to the subversive activity of the Alta Vendita, the highest lodge of the Italian Carbonari, a secret society with strong ties to Freemasonry.[3] He knew from their manifesto, the Permanent Instruction, that these enemies of the Church were attempting to infiltrate her seminaries, universities and schools, but he did not know exactly how they would go about demoralizing a generation of Catholic priests. This would only begin to become clear during the long reign of his successor, Pius IX.

In his very first encyclical, Qui Pluribus, published in 1846, Blessed Pope Pius IX condemns numerous errors, including political liberalism and religious indifferentism – both of which were integral parts of the plan described in the Permanent Instruction. The overall purpose of the encyclical, however, is to condemn the principles of Humanism and the Enlightenment in their application to the substance of the Catholic faith, particularly as it is contained in the word of God. The enemy, Pius IX explains, poses as a “philosopher” who would examine God’s revealed truth through the lens of critical inquiry, liberating it of its supposedly superstitious accretions[4] and perfecting it through the application of human reason.[5] He condemns such hubristic treatment of Sacred Scripture in the following words:

This consideration, too, clarifies the great error of those others as well who boldly venture to explain and interpret the words of God by their own judgment, misusing their reason and holding the opinion that these words are like a human work. God Himself has set up a living authority to establish and teach the true and legitimate meaning of His heavenly revelation. This authority judges infallibly all disputes which concern matters of faith and morals, lest the faithful be swirled around by every wind of doctrine which springs from the evilness of men in encompassing error.[6]

Having underscored the right, possessed by the Catholic Church alone, to determine the true meaning of Scripture, he goes on to exhort the bishops to guard their flocks against such “philosophers” of biblical criticism:

We urge you to strive carefully and zealously to continually warn and exhort the faithful entrusted to your care to hold to these first principles. Urge them never to allow themselves to be deceived and led into error by men who have become abominable in their pursuits. These men attempt to destroy faith on the pretext of human progress, subjecting it in an impious manner to reason and changing the meaning of the words of God.[7]

As is apparent from the opening paragraphs of Qui Pluribus, Pius IX considers the problem to be primarily external to the Church; there might have been some wayward priests and the occasional bishop who had fallen prey to such intellectual pride, but the attack on Sacred Scripture is identified as having been launched by the humanist sons of the Enlightenment and declared enemies of the Church, i.e. Protestants and Freemasons. Pius IX is quite correct in this estimation; but it appears that he was largely unaware of the extent to which the principles of the Enlightenment had already found their way into Catholic seminaries and universities.

As early as the 18th century, a movement within the Church was under way to subject both the understanding of Sacred Scripture and the perennial teachings drawn from it to the demands of the Enlightenment. In a recently published monograph treating this movement, Dr. Ulrich L. Lehner summarizes the goals of these so-called “Catholic Enlighteners” as follows:

What was on the agenda of Catholic Enlighteners? Their aim was (a) to use the newest achievements of philosophy and science to defend the essential dogmas of Catholic Christianity by explaining them in a new language, and (b) to reconcile Catholicism with modern culture. If anything held these diverse thinkers together, it was their belief that Catholicism had to modernize if it wanted to be a viable intellectual alternative to the persuasive arguments of the anti-clerical Enlighteners. Catholic Enlighteners differed among themselves as to how such a modernization should be brought about, but all agreed that Aristotelian Scholasticism could no longer serve as the universal foundation for theology.[8]

Presumably in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the miserable situation of the 15th century, when an ossified Scholasticism, having strayed far from the principles which helped it to prominence, failed to effectively address the concerns of the new humanist philosophers of nature,[9] Catholic intellectuals of the 18th century were keen to be seen welcoming developments in the secular sciences. It was a time typified by men such as Fr. François Jacquier, a personal friend of Voltaire who nonetheless enjoyed tremendous influence, both in Rome and abroad, and was widely praised for his erudition and contributions to science. Catholic institutions, too, were eager to modernize. For example, the Benedictine university of Salzburg was the first European institution of higher learning to introduce the study of experimental Newtonian physics in the 1740s.[10] As Lehner observes – with obvious approval – the removal of Copernicus’ works from the Index Librorum Prohibitorum by Pope Benedict XIV in 1757 was “an important signal of the return of intellectual openness to the Church”[11] – a signal which many perceived as indicating tacit approval to advance the program of modernization set forth by the principles of Humanism which had been effectively shut down by the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563).

The general openness to the critical methods of the new science which inspired men like Jacquier also influenced the manner in which scholars attempted to defend Sacred Scripture from the attacks of the secular Enlightenment. For example, Jean Astruc tried to turn the weapons used by Hobbes and Spinoza to undermine the credibility of the books of Moses against them, resulting in an early form of the theory that would eventually become an established dogma of all Modernist biblical criticism: the Documentary Hypothesis. While the motives of such men were for the most part as yet pure, they failed to see that the poison of the Enlightenment was not confined to the fruits it produced, but was in the very methods it used to produce them. Accepting those methods meant allowing Sacred Scripture and the doctrine it contains to become objects of investigation which either may or may not satisfy the demands of human reason. Regardless of how well men like Astruc marshaled their well-reasoned and empirically evidenced arguments in defense of God’s word, the real bone of contention – the unquestionable authority of Sacred Scripture – had already been conceded.

Seen from this context, the condemnation of Pope Pius IX in 1846 – who was widely held to be a supporter of such liberalization before his election – appears in a different light, as does the activity of the Alta Vendita. The situation in the Church at the time was one of internal estrangement if not outright division, with some maintaining the old Patristic-Scholastic orthodoxy and others working silently towards its overthrow and eventual replacement with a bastard form of Enlightenment philosophy. These latter, who had already established themselves in numerous seminaries and universities, were the eventual ‘useful idiots’ of the freemasonic Alta Vendita, and would go on to ensure that the strenuous efforts of the Popes to prevent the rise of Modernism would remain largely ineffective.

By the time Pius IX convoked the First Vatican Council in 1868, the attacks on Sacred Scripture as an infallible arbiter of truth had reached a new level of intensity. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had been published less than a decade prior, and was taking the secular scientific establishment by storm.[12] The last bastion of teleology in the natural sciences, biology, was being overrun by the same atheism which had worked its way into the entire field of scientific inquiry over the previous half-century. Intellectuals who still believed that Scripture provided a historically accurate account of the origins of the cosmos and particularly of the first man were becoming increasingly rare. As foreshadowed by Pierre-Simon Laplace, God Himself was quickly becoming an unnecessary hypothesis.

Despite being interrupted in 1870, the Council of the Vatican was able to promulgate two important documents, one of which is of particular significance in the present context: Dei Filius, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith. This document places the question of the relationship between divine revelation and human reason – the real source of conflict with the thinkers of the Enlightenment – front and center. It devotes a large chapter each to the subjects of revelation (chapter 2), faith (chapter 3) and the relationship between faith and reason (chapter 4), and offers a resounding rejection of the entire program of biblical criticism along with its philosophical presuppositions. Dei Filius is Pius IX’s great attempt to stave off the spread of error and heresy which he knew must come from a perverted understanding of Sacred Scripture. If any were still holding out hope that his pontificate would be amenable to the modernization of the Church, the Dogmatic Constitution left them bitterly disappointed.

The successors to Pius IX shared his keen recognition of the vital threat which the field of biblical studies posed to the entire body of Catholic doctrine, and all of them worked tirelessly to regain control of the situation. In the interest of economy, the following list provides a summary overview of their work towards this goal:

  • 1893: Pope Leo XIII issues Providentissimus Deus, his landmark encyclical on the study and interpretation of Holy Scripture.
  • 1902: Leo XIII issues the apostolic letter Vigilantiae Studiique, which declares the creation of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
  • 1904: Pope St. Pius X issues the apostolic letter Scripturae Sanctae, which grants the Biblical Commission the power to award academic degrees in Sacred Scripture.
  • 1907: St. Pius X issues Lamentabili Sane, the syllabus condemning the errors of the Modernists, many of which treat explicitly of errors in biblical interpretation.
  • 1907: St. Pius X issues his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, a philosophical analysis and condemnation of the doctrines of Modernism, which he refers to as “the synthesis of all heresies.”[13]
  • 1908: St. Pius X excommunicates arch-Modernists Fr. Alfred Loisy and Fr. George Tyrrell, both of whom are outspoken proponents of the historical-critical method of biblical study.
  • 1910: St. Pius X mandates by the Motu proprio Sacrorum Antistitum the famous oath against the errors of the Modernists, among the prohibitions of which we read: “I likewise reject that method of determining and interpreting Sacred Scripture which, setting aside the Church’s tradition and the analogy of faith and the norms of the Holy See, adopts the principles of the rationalists, and with equal arbitrariness regards textual criticism as a sole supreme rule.”[14] The oath would be sworn by all bishops, priests and teachers until its abolition by Pope Paul VI in 1967.
  • 1920: Pope Benedict XV issues Spiritus Paraclitus, his encyclical on St. Jerome and the inspiration of Holy Scripture. In it, he explicitly refutes the arguments of the Modernists regarding the correct understanding of the directives given in Leo XIII’s Providentissimus.
  • 1924: Pope Pius XI mandates by the Motu proprio Bibliorum Scientia that the degrees of the Biblical Commission shall have the equivalent status as those of the Pontifical Universities.
  • 1943: Pope Pius XII issues the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu on the promotion of biblical studies.

The mere perfunctory record of this tremendous and sustained effort – which, when combined with that of Gregory XVI and Pius IX, spans nearly a century – is sufficient to demonstrate not only that the Popes recognized Sacred Scripture as the focal point of the Modernists’ attacks, but also that they saw the plan to corrupt her authentic teaching and traditional discipline through criticism of the Bible as posing an imminent threat to the life of the Church. If they failed to defend Sacred Scripture from the attacks of the Modernists, the very fabric of Catholic doctrine would unravel, and the words of her sacred liturgy would be emptied of their true meaning. A Modernist victory in this battle would inaugurate an age of perpetual revolution within the Church to the ruin of countless souls.[15] No Vicar of Christ worthy of the office could stand idle as His Bride was thus defiled.

The heroism of these Holy Fathers, however, is decidedly tragic. While doing everything in their power to defend the deposit of faith as contained in the word of God, many of the very men charged with carrying out their commands were already infected with the pernicious disease of doubt, having placed their trust in the wisdom of the world rather than in the Wisdom that is of God.[16] They had either forgotten or chosen to ignore the prophetic admonition of St. Paul:

Make sure that no one traps you and deprives you of your freedom by some secondhand, empty, rational philosophy based on the principles of this world instead of on Christ.[17]

Even more grievous than that which they suffered through the hands of faithless prelates, however, is their betrayal through the very laity they so ardently fought to protect. Let us not pretend that our collective faith in the inspiration and inerrancy of Sacred Scripture was taken from us by corrupt priests and daft university professors. While such men played an important, perhaps even instrumental role, they were ultimately mere accessories to the crime. It is we who have allowed our childlike faith to be shaken to the core; it is we who have pricked our ears at the sound of that whispered voice, calling to us from the darkness: Did God really say…?

There are many among us who would point to the changes in the liturgy as the obvious cause of the near-total collapse of the faith – the “silent apostasy” lamented by John Paul II[18] – that became manifest in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, as though that famous axiom coined by St. Prosper of Aquitaine, lex orandi, lex credendi, were not merely descriptive, but also prescriptive in nature. Yet we cannot ignore that the most destructive forces ever unleashed upon the Church were welcomed into the sanctuary not merely by an episcopate, but also by a laity steeped in the authentic prayer of the Church, having been reared on the Tridentine Mass and the traditional Breviary. No, the apostasy did not arise due to a change in the liturgy; rather, the liturgy was changed to accommodate and reflect the already present apostasy.[19]

While the situation in the wider Church is too far gone to find any remedy short of an act of divine intervention, we remain nonetheless responsible for the defense of our own faith and of those who depend upon us. We must, if we are to make good on our promise to uphold Tradition, be prepared to suffer the scorn which the world heaps upon all who would defend Holy Writ, interpreted by the authentic Magisterium of the Catholic Church, as an infallible and inerrant arbiter of truth. The world tells us that to believe in the plain sense of Sacred Scripture as understood by the Fathers, i.e. to take the Bible as it presents itself – namely, as the divinely revealed word of God – is to commit an act of unforgivable foolishness. Let us, then, become – once again – fools for the sake of Christ.[20] Let us pray in earnest for that special grace so acclaimed by the early Fathers: simplicitas fidei, the simplicity of faith.[21] In the words of St. Zeno of Verona:

I consider it patently obvious that the simple believer is better than the scrupulous dialectician, for the simple believer gives every word of God the assent of faith, while the dialectician, reduced to idiocy by his all-too-great “wisdom,” is led by his senseless puzzling ever deeper into confusion.[22]



[1] 2 Peter 3:16-17.

[2] Pope Gregory XVI, Encyclical on Biblical Societies Inter Praecipuas, §2.

[3] Venarri, John (1999). The Permanent Instruction of the Alta Vendita, pg. 5.

[4] “…fictions of human invention…” Pope Pius IX, Encyclical on Faith and Religion Qui Pluribus, §4.

[5] Ibid, §5.

[6] Ibid, §10.

[7] Ibid, §12.

[8] Lehner, Ulrich (2016). The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement, pg. 7.

[9] Turner, William (1903). History of Philosophy, pg. 423.

[10] Ulrich (2016), pg. 7.

[11] Ibid, pg. 8.

[12] It is often forgotten – or conveniently overlooked – that Darwinism was condemned by the Provincial Council of Cologne in 1860, the year following the appearance of Darwin’s opus, in the following terms: “Our first parents were formed immediately by God. Therefore, we declare that the opinion of those who do not fear to assert that this human being, man as regards his body, emerged finally from the spontaneous continuous change of imperfect nature to the more perfect, is clearly opposed to Sacred Scripture and to the Faith.” Furthermore, it is rumored that Vatican I had plans to repeat this condemnation, making it binding on all Catholics, but was prevented from doing so by the capture of Rome by the Kingdom of Italy in 1870, whereupon the Council was suspended.

[13] Pope Pius X, Encyclical on the Doctrines of the Modernists Pascendi Dominici Gregis, §39.

[14] Pope Pius X, Motu proprio ‘Oath against the Errors of the Modernists’ Sacrorum Antistitum.

[15] The central importance and logical priority of the interpretation of Sacred Scripture to the plan of revolution is admitted nowhere as plainly as in the praise heaped upon Dei Verbum, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: “According to the principle of the hierarchy of truths, Dei Verbum has a certain priority over the other documents, since one’s notion of Church (Lumen gentium), its worship (Sacrosanctum Concilium), and its relationship to the world (Gaudium et spes) should derive from the prior notion of how one conceives God’s revelation and its reception-transmission in history.” Rush, Ormond (2004). Still Interpreting Vatican II: Some Hermeneutical Principles, pg. 42. Again: “Dei Verbum was the Second Vatican Council’s most important achievement.” Witherup, Ronald (2014). “Scripture at Vatican II: An Analysis of Dei Verbum,” in Newman Rambler (Vatican II. Special Edition No. 2), p. 22.

[16] 1 Corinthians 1:24.

[17] Colossians 2:8. Cf. also 1 Timothy 6:4; Titus 3:9-11.

[18] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa, §9 (June 28, 2003).

[19] This is, in the opinion of this writer, the key to understanding the entire crisis. The changes which were implemented after Vatican II are not the causes of the apostasy, but rather its visible symptoms.

[20] 1 Corinthians 4:10.

[21] Cf. St. Ambrose: “In the end, the simple truth of the fisherman excludes the words of the philosophers.” On the Sacrament of the Lord’s Incarnation, 9:89.

[22] Tractatus, 2:3:1:2.

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