Pope Pius X

Alfred Loisy

The following is adapted from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

MODERNISM.  A movement within the Roman Catholic Church which aimed at bringing the tradition of Catholic belief into closer relation with the modern outlook in philosophy, the historical and other sciences and social ideas. It arose spontaneously and independently in several different countries in the later years of the 19th cent. In France, where it was most vigorous, it was fostered in its earlier years esp. by a number of professors at the Institut Catholique at Paris, notably L. Duchesne (who himself, however, stood apart from the Movement when it had developed) and his pupils. It reached the height of its influence in the first years of the 20th century. It was formally condemned by Pius X in 1907.

The Modernists, having no common programme, differed widely among themselves. The leading ideas and tendencies to be found in the Movement were:

(1) The whole-hearted adoption of the critical view of the Bible, by this date generally accepted outside the Roman Catholic Church. The Bible was to be understood as the record of a real unfolding of Divine truth in history. Abandoning artificial attempts at harmonizing inconsistencies, the Modernists recognized that the biblical writers were subject to many of the limitations of other historians. They approached the scriptural record with considerable independence, indeed often with much greater scepticism than the Protestant scholars. In the 1890s they found encouragement in Leo XIII’s two-edged ‘Providentissimus Deus’ (1893).

(2) A strong inclination to reject the ‘intellectualism’ of the Scholastic theology and correspondingly to subordinate doctrine to practice. Many of the Modernists accepted a philosophy of ‘action’ (M. Blondel) and welcomed the Pragmatism of W. James and the Intuitionism of H. Bergson. They sought the essence of Christianity in life rather than in an intellectual system or creed.

(3) A teleological attitude to history, finding the meaning of the historic process in its issue rather than in its origins. Since the Church’s growth took place under the guidance of the Spirit, the essence of the Gospel will lie in its full expansion rather than in its primitive historic kernel. This belief was sometimes reflected in an extreme historical scepticism about Christian origins. Thus,

[a] whether or not the historic Jesus founded a Church was a question of small importance and one to which we should never know the answer: the significant fact was that the seed then sown had developed into the worldwide institution for bringing men into touch with supernatural reality and saving their souls;

[b] the Mass was to be understood in its developed glory, and this would remain whether or not the historic Christ instituted it.

Among the leaders in the Modernist Movement were, in FRANCE

A. F. Loisy,

M. Blondel,

E. I. Mignot (1842–1918; Abp. of Albi from 1899),

L, Laberthonnière, and

Édouard Le Roy (1870–1954);



Romolo Murri (1870–1944) and

A. Fogazzaro (1842–1911);

and in the BRITISH ISLES,

F. von Hügel and

G. Tyrrell.

In some ways von Hügel filled a special position in the Movement as the chief link between the Modernists in the different countries.

The accession of Leo XIII (Pope, 1878–1903) gave those who held liberal views considerable encouragement, for Leo had a real respect for learning and sought to abandon the isolationism of his predecessor. But his tolerance of Modernism prob. rested rather on grounds of expediency than on any personal sympathy with its ideals; and in his later years he became increasingly critical of the Movement. His successor, St Pius X (Pope, 1903–14), wholly distrusted the Movement from the first. Officially described as the ‘synthesis of all the heresies’, Modernism was finally condemned in 1907 by the decree ‘Lamentabili’ and the encyclical ‘Pascendi’. These decrees were carried into effect by the motu proprio Sacrorum Antistitum(1910), imposing an Anti-Modernist oath on all clerics at their ordination and taking up various offices. While the clergy who had been identified with the Movement were for the most part excommunicated, the laymen, such as von Hügel and Blondel, were generally left untouched.

With regard to the word ‘Modernism’, it should be noted that it was apparently not applied to the Movement until after the turn of the 20th century. In a wider sense the term ‘Modernist’ has been used more recently of radical critics of traditional theology in the non-Roman Catholic Churches, esp. of the thought of those associated with the Modern Church People’s Union (q.v.).

For the official condemnation of Modernism, see bibl. to the decree, lamentabili. Other primary sources for the history of the Movement are the works of A. Loisy (esp. Mémoires, 3 vols., 1930–1), G. Tyrrell and F. von Hügel (esp. Selected Letters, 1927). R. Marlé, SJ (ed), Au cœur de la crise moderniste: Le dossier inédit d’une controverse. Lettres de Maurice Blondel, H. Bremond, FR von Hügel, Alfred Loisy, Fernand Mourret, J. Wehrlé … (1960). Collection of extracts from the writing of the chief modernists tr. Eng., with introd., by B. M. G. Reardon, Roman Catholic Modernists (1970). The most comprehensive single study is J. Rivière, Le Modernisme dans l’Église: Étude d’histoire religieuse contemporaine (1929).É Poulat, Histoire, dogme et critique dans la crise moderniste (1962; 2nd edn., 1979); id., Modernistica: Horizons, physionomies, débats (1982 [collected papers repr. from various sources]). Good summary also in A. R. Vidler, The Modernist Movement in the Roman Churh (Cambridge, 1934); id., A Variety of Catholic Modernists (Sarum Lectures, 1968–9; ibid., 1970). A. L. Lilley, Modernism: A Record and a Review (1908); A. Houtin, Histoire du modernisme catholique (‘1913’ [pub. 1912]); M. D. Petre, Modernism: Its Failure and its Fruits (1918). P. Scoppola, Crisi modernista e rinnovamento cattolico in Italia [Bologna, 1961], with unpub. ‘Petie Consultation sur les difficultés concernant Dieu’ by F. von Hügel, pp. 365–92. T. M. Loome, Liberal Catholicism, Reform Catholicism, Modernism: A Contribution to a New Orientation in Modernist Research (Tübinger Theologische. Studien, 14; 1979). G. Daly, OSA, Transcendence and Immanence: A Study of Catholic Modernism and Integralism (Oxford, 1980). M. R. O’Connell, Critics on Trial: An Introduction to the Catholic Modernist Crisis (Washington, DC [1994]). D. Jodock (ed.), Catholicism Contending with Modernity: Roman Catholic Modernism and Anti-modernism in Historical Conflict (Cambridge, 2000). B. M. G. Reardon in N. Smart and others (eds.), Nineteenth Century Religious Thought in the West, 2 (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 141–71. A. L. Lilley in HERE 8 (1915), pp. 763–8, s.v.; J. Rivière in DTC 10 (pt. 2; 1935), cols. 2009–47, s.v. ‘Modernisme’.





HERE J. Hastings (ed.), Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (12 vols. + index, 1908–26).

DTC Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, ed. A. Vacant, E. Mangenot, and É. Amann (15 vols., 1903–50); Tables Générales by B. Loth and A. Michel (3 vols., 1951–72).




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