In his recent homage to Archbishop Amigo, Pastor Iuventus gives short shrift not only to my fellow Jesuit George Tyrrell, but, by implication, to the Modernist movement as a whole, of which Archbishop Amigo was an arch-enemy. 


Up to a point one can see why the Roman Church reacted so badly to the new movements of the second half of the 19th Century. The Papal States were gone; a Pope had been imprisoned in the name of Liberalism; in a Latin American chaos, anti-clerical and ‘liberal’ governments first ousted, and in turn were ousted by, very conservative Catholic ones in an unstable merry-go-round. The political ideal of a Catholic Monarch guiding his citizens in the true faith was most spectacularly rejected by the United States, whose constitution explicitly excluded any established religion,  and which, to make matters worse, was a democracy; ‘Americanism’ was condemned in 1899. Even France was becoming more and more secularist and anti-clerical. It was no wonder, the Roman authorities thought, that true theology was under threat from ideological leftists. They ascribed the decline of sound theology since the Reformation to the fact that its secure medieval basis, exemplified by Thomas Aquinas as they understood him, was being radically threatened by the ‘subjectivist’ theology of Luther and by philosophers such as Descartes, Hume and Kant.


What Rome at first did not truly grasp was that the security of Christian beliefs was to be even more damagingly challenged by the huge strides the sciences had made in the 19th century.  The theory of evolution seemed to be all but certain, yet its implications for the interpretation of the book of Genesis and several key Christian doctrines seemed to be disastrous. Worse still, the vast increase in knowledge of the ancient Middle East had led to a radical revision of scholarly opinion about how the biblical texts had been written and what in fact they were saying. Nearly three hundred years earlier, the Jesuit Cardinal Robert Bellarmine had seen what was at stake. He supported Galileo, if he was saying no more than that his heliocentric system was a good fit for the data observed: but, Bellarmine went on to say, if Galileo was claiming that it was not just a theory accounting for the data as best one could, but was a clear absolute truth, then the issue was much more serious.  Bellarmine saw that then the whole tradition of biblical interpretation would have to be radically revised. He realised the magnitude of the effort that would require, and, I think, was very glad that things had not quite reached that point yet.


By the end of the 19th century, that point had very definitely been reached. Most of the Christian churches,  not just the Catholic Church, simply panicked.  The authorities in Rome tried, as Vatican I had tried, to deal with these immensely complex issues by a simple claim to be the sole authority in theology, whose decrees were final and irrevocable. Catholic scholars, trying seriously to come to grips with the challenges they faced, found that their every effort to deal with these new issues responsibly was rebuffed. They themselves were silenced, and sometimes, like the unfortunate Tyrrell, even excommunicated. Here is a selection of the many views which the Vatican simply condemned in its decree Lamentabili of 1907. 

Various modernists had said:

-       The magisterium of the Church cannot determine the correct meaning of the scriptures simply by issuing dogmatic decrees.

-       In particular, the Church’s interpretation of New Testament texts might helpfully be examined, and sometimes corrected, by critical exegetes.

-       The narratives in the gospel of John are not straightforward historical accounts, but rather they are mystical reflections on the gospel; and the discourses in his gospel are theological meditations on the mystery of salvation, not speeches which Jesus himself had made.

-       The Revelation of the Catholic faith was not complete by the time the last apostle died.

-       The dogmas which the Catholic Church presents as revealed did not drop ready-made from heaven; they are interpretations of religious facts which our human minds have with much labour formulated for ourselves.

-       The sacraments of the Church were gradually developed for pastoral reasons, rather than being directly instituted by Jesus.

-       As the Christian Supper gradually took the form of a liturgical action, those who normally presided at it took on the role of priesthood.

-       The status of the Church of Rome and its Bishop developed gradually over time.


It is clear enough now, as it was to many scholars then, that these and similar beliefs can be honestly held, and are indeed correct. The ‘modernists’ realised that a massive work had to be undertaken to enable the church to adapt to the discoveries made in the modern world. They saw clearly enough that claims to be authoritative could not simply be issued and forcibly imposed; they had to be supported by honest intellectual work, and occasionally by admitting that we had previously got things wrong in this or that respect.  The lesson of the Galileo affair had not been taken on board, and indeed was not fully acknowledged until very recent times. So, the theory of evolution was rejected, the advances in biblical understanding simply ignored. Theological research was put into a deep freeze.


To some extent, these lessons still have to be learnt even now. There are still people in authoritative positions in the Church who reduce the most complex issues to a simple call for blind obedience to ‘the magisterium’. Those of us who wish to make sure that we do not repeat the mistakes made 100 years ago and whose legacy is still to some extent with us, might, out of sheer frustration, be over-critical. We might be tempted to think of Church authorities as motivated by a desire for power or control. No doubt, there may be some people like that, in the Church as much as anywhere else.  But in general I think their motives, as they were in 1870, in 1910 and still now in 2014, spring from a holy fear of getting things wrong and misleading the faithful. What is very sad is that almost the opposite is the case. The faithful will simply ignore the Church and many churchmen if they perceive them as out of touch both with the needs of ordinary Catholics, and with the ways in which authority has to be painstakingly earned. One cannot simply claim to be an authority in our world of critical media and instant communications. Indeed the greatest respect is often shown to eminent people who have admitted that in one way or another they were wrong. Such admissions can indeed sometimes undermine a person’s authority; but they can often enhance it.


            Pope Francis provides a shining example. He admits to having made mistakes over the years. He is well aware that the first thing that has to be done is to find out and understand what people – Catholics, other Christians or anyone else – really need from the Church in their quest for honest religious beliefs which are at home in our world. He sees that we the Church must assimilate all that before we even try to pronounce with authority on any of the myriad problems – of true faith, social justice and morality generally – which confront people today. Pope Francis has earned enormous authority for his openness, humanity, and honesty about. He is trying to find out what Catholics really think on a variety of issues, and how the Church has to be welcoming to people who are struggling or have been made to feel unwelcome in the past. He has, in words very reminiscent of the decrees of Vatican II, urged the Church of today to reclaim, in contemporary form, the vision for which the modernists of 1910 were persecuted. That way, the ‘Church in the modern world’ can hope to be ‘A light to the nations.’