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Pius X Condemns Modernism: Relevant Then, Relevant Now

I offer this article in honor of Pope St. Pius X on his feast day in the calendar of the traditional Roman Rite – that is, September 3.

On September 8, 1907, Pope Pius X issued his encyclical letter Pascendi Dominici Gregis, On the Doctrine of the Modernists. The Modernists in question were a group of mostly European Catholic intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who, as they saw it, had the mission of bringing Christianity “up to date” and into conformity with the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. To them, the march of modern progress, most plainly seen in the ever expanding discoveries of the natural sciences, forced a reinterpretation or redefinition of every major tenet of Christian doctrine, from the creation account to the inspiration of Scripture, from the Virgin Birth to the Resurrection, from ecclesiology to eschatology. Nothing, including the liturgy, was to be left unmodernized, or, in a term that would become fashionable later on, “updated” (according to the Italian term aggiornamento).

The attempt to fashion a modernized Christianity – more “spiritual” and “authentic,” less “mythical,” miraculous, and supernatural – meant sooner or later rejecting the very idea of an inerrant deposit of faith contained in Scripture and Tradition and of a Magisterium that understands and teaches this deposit without error and also without contradicting itself over the ages. As a consequence, many of the Modernists came to reject the great historic Creeds, drifted away from the Faith, and turned into hardened skeptics.

Although the Modernists never formed a definite school with a definite system (there was much variation in opinion from individual to individual, country to country, discipline to discipline), nevertheless, their ideas tended to emerge from similar currents of modern thought – particularly the strong influence of German philosophy, above all Kant and Hegel – and to issue in similar proposals for “reinterpretation,” revision, and reform. As a result, it was possible and desirable for St. Pius X to publish a survey of the overall system to which these ideas would of necessity give rise, and then to demonstrate how it is utterly irreconcileable with confessional Christianity, or even with sound philosophy. The originality and power of the encyclical consists, in part, in its limning out of a fully consistent Modernism that probably did not exist in any individual’s mind, but which was the complete package if one took the time to assemble all the pieces.

The hundredth anniversary of this encyclical in 2007 came and went without public celebration or official commemoration; relatively few Catholics nowadays have heard of it. Theologians and historians who deign to mention the document often dismiss it as an embarrassing papal tantrum, a belligerent caricature that fell wide of its mark, an unsympathetic and even uncomprehending refusal to assimilate the findings of honorably motivated modern theologians – and, in any case, lost whatever relevance it may have had when Pius X died. Indeed, a Jesuit historian in 2007 opined that “the movement of the ‘innovators’ (at least the doctrinal and theological movement) remained confined to the restricted circles of Catholic scholars, mostly young priests or seminarians,” and therefore had no real impact on wider Catholic life and thought. The same historian “highlighted the elements judged as most outdated: its excessively ‘doctrinaire’ structure, its excessively ‘harsh and censorious’ tone, and its ‘excessively fundamentalist and hard-line’ application.”

And yet…it can hardly escape the notice of one who reads it attentively that this encyclical is not only not irrelevant, but vastly more relevant now than it was a century ago. The errors in doctrine and practice that Pius X condemned are far more prevalent in the Church of today, and in Catholic educational institutions, than they were in the heyday of the Loisy, Tyrrell, and von Hügel. As for the Jesuit’s remark, one is perhaps reminded of those who say that the Americanism condemned by Leo XIII was a “ghost heresy” that existed only on European paper and not on American soil. On the contrary, I challenge anyone who reads Testem Benevolentiae today to make a case that the principles targeted by Leo XIII do not permeate and dominate the church in the United States. Leo XIII and his successor Pius X were astute doctors of the body politic and the body ecclesiastical: they knew the cancerous effects of false principles left unchecked. That is why they did their utmost to lead the Church away from the many reductive and destructive “-isms” of modernity, toward the only whole that precontains and validates all partial truths: the Catholic Faith.

Consider the Modernist reinterpretation of Christianity, as the encyclical Pascendi portrays it. For the Modernist, faith is an interior “sense” originating in a need for the divine; it is not a gift from without, but an immanent surge, an intuition of the heart, a subjective “experience.” Religion, accordingly, is when this “sense” rises to the level of consciousness and becomes an expression of a worldview. What, then, is revelation? The awakening consciousness of the divine within me. Doctrine, in turn, is the intellect’s ongoing elaboration of that awakening, while dogmatic formulas are mere symbols or instruments by which the intellect tries to capture the meaning of religious experience. Hence, of necessity, dogma evolves in response to the pressure of vital forces, with ever changing beliefs corresponding to ever changing understandings of reality and of subjective experience. What become of Scripture and Tradition? Tradition is the sharing with others of an original experience in such a way that it becomes the experience of others, too, while Scripture is the written record of particularly powerful experiences, expressed with poetic inspiration. Sacraments, finally, are public gestures by which the assembled faith community represents to itself a certain worldview and excites in itself an awareness of the divine.

No wonder the 1907 document Lamentabili Sane from the Holy Office condemned the following Modernist proposition (with many others akin to it): “Truth is no more unchangeable than man himself, since it evolves with him, in him, and through him.” As Cardinal Mercier wrote in the same year: “Modernism consists essentially in affirming that the religious soul must draw from itself, from nothing but itself, the object and motive of its faith. It rejects all revelation imposed upon the conscience, and thus, as a necessary consequence, becomes the negation of the doctrinal authority of the Church established by Jesus Christ, and it denies, moreover, to the divinely constituted hierarchy the right to govern Christian society.”

Once, I was teaching Pascendi to a group of college students. After we had finished laying out the Modernist redefinitions of traditional terms like faith and revelation, I asked them: “What do you think of all this?” Sure enough, one student said: “Well, it sounds a lot like what we learned back in my catechism class.” Another said: “Yeah, I’ve heard stuff like that preached a few times from the pulpit.” Still another: “My friend had a book about the Mass that was exactly the same as what you said.”

Then I asked: “Why does St. Pius X reject all of it, lock, stock, and barrel?” A student piped up: “Because it’s all subjective, it’s all in your head, and where’s God?” A neighboring student added: “It completely does away with the idea of faith as a gift, as something God does for you. The Modernists created their own God and their own religion, so that they didn’t have to submit their minds to the real one. It takes humility to abandon oneself in faith and not to think that modern man is so special and different.”

As our discussion went on, this much became painfully clear to me (and, I hope, to my students as well): all the errors that Pius X analyzes in Pascendi are still being taught today – indeed, in the most scandalous dereliction of duty yet seen in Church history, by the pope himself, not just once or twice, but frequently, across a wide range of subjects. There is more need than ever for teachers who, deeply in love with the truth of Christ and of His Church, will speak that truth with love and live it with joy. These will be the torchbearers who bring the light of the Faith into the remaining decades of the 21st century and beyond, while the Modernist sect implodes.

After all, as our Lord said in no uncertain terms: Veritas liberabit vos, the truth will set you free. He Himself is that truth – Ego sum via, et veritas, et vita – and His Church is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Because of the flight from God that began with Adam’s rebellion and worms its way into the children of Eve, we will not be surprised if the world prefers the slavery of subjectivism to the truth that sets us free: “The time is coming when people will not endure sound doctrine, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths” (2 Tim 3:3-4).

But surely it is not too much to ask of loyal Catholics that they not follow suit; that, instead, they seek out, study, and promote sound doctrine in all faith and humility; that they turn away from fashionable modern myths to embrace a heritage of perennial truths; that they accumulate teachers who, unashamed to be lowly pupils in the school of Christ, feed upon every word that comes from the mouth of God, and nourish their disciples with the same life-giving food.

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