by John F. McCarthy

99. The meaning of the word “Modernism.” In the generic sense, the word “Modernism” refers to the belief that the outlook of fully modern man has been irrevocably reformed by modern empirical science and technology to the extent that fully modern man can no longer look at life and religion in the way that primitive mankind did (cf. Rudolf Bultmann). In the specific sense, the word “Modernism” refers to the belief, supposedly characteristic of fully modern man, that all religion springs up irrationally from the subconscious of primitive and non-modernized men and has no basis in objective reality. Modernism in the specific sense was condemned as a heresy and as “the heresy of all heresies” by Pope Saint Pius X on September 8, 1907, in his encyclical letter Pascendi Dominici gregis.

100. Special characteristics of Modernist belief as singled out in Pascendi Dominici gregis:

a.   Belief in the ongoing reform of the Church. Modernists, lacking the firm protection of Scholastic philosophy and theology, vaunt themselves as ongoing reformers of the Church (cf. Pascendi, no. 2).2

b.   Belief that faith is merely a feeling. Modernists hold that the existence of God is not knowable to modern scientific man. Hence, they say, faith is merely a subjective feeling that arises from the subconscious of men, from which also arises what is called “divine revelation” (cf. Pascendi, no. 7).

c.   Belief in the evolution of dogma. Modernists believe that everything that is said about Jesus in the Gospels that is suggestive of the divine or of the supernatural is to be deleted and that what the Church calls “dogmas” are subject to ongoing change, since their purpose is only to enable the believer to give an account of his faith to himself (cf. Pascendi, no. 13).

d.   Belief in a certain “divine reality.” Modernists say that they believe in the existence of a “divine reality” that exists outside of the believer but can be known only by the direct intuition of each individual believer and does not pertain to scientific knowledge (cf. Pascendi, no. 14).

e.   Belief that life is truth. For the Modernist, life and truth are one and the same thing. What faith believes cannot conflict with what science knows, because the two are in different universes of discourse (cf. Pascendi, no. 16). But, they say, religious formulas are subject to the scrutiny of science and of philosophy and must conform themselves to what science knows (cf. Pascendi, no. 17).

f.   Belief that God is immanent (only internal) in man. Modernists maintain that dogmas of the Church are only symbolic representations of a God who does not fully exist outside of the believer, and that the Sacred Scriptures are just a collection of past subjective experiences that are to be lived over again by contemporary believers in their own way (Pascendi, nos. 20-22).

g.   Belief in the “laws of evolution.” Modernists believe that everything in religion is subject to the “laws of evolution,” so that contemporary lived experiences of believers should be able to react against and change what is merely past and traditional in the Church (cf. Pascendi, nos. 25-27).

h.   Belief in historical criticism. Belief in the method of historical criticism is a logical conclusion based upon Modernist principles, such as that there have been no real interventions of God in human history and that the Jesus of history has been elevated and embellished by Christian believers to the Christ of faith in keeping with the needs that these believers felt for a super­naturalized founder (cf. Pascendi, nos. 32-33).

i.   Belief in the evolution of the Bible. Modernists affirm that the books of the Bible, and especially the Pentateuch and the first three Gospels, were gradually formed by additions to a primitive brief narration as effects of “a vital evolution, springing from and corresponding with the evolution of faith” (cf. Pascendi, no. 36).

j.   Rejection of Scholastic philosophy and of the teaching of the Fathers. Modernists maintain that Scholastic philosophy is to be thrown out as an obsolete system of thought, that the dogmas of the Church are to be harmonized with science and history, and that the number of external devotions is to be reduced (cf. Pascendi, no. 38). They also maintain that the Fathers of the Church “were entirely ignorant of history and criticism, for which they are only excusable on account of the time in which they lived” (cf. Pascendi, no. 42).

k.   A poisoned atmosphere. Pope Pius X was also saddened at the sight of “so many other Catholics, who, while they certainly do not go so far as the former, have yet grown into the habit, as though they had been breathing a poisoned atmosphere, of thinking and speaking and writing with a liberty that ill becomes Catholics. [ . . . ] If they treat biblical questions, it is upon Modernist principles. If they write his­tory, it is to search out with curiosity and to publish openly, on the pretext of telling the whole truth and with a species of ill-concealed satisfaction, everything that looks to them like a stain on the history of the Church” (Pascendi, no. 43).

101. Is Modernism active in the Catholic Church today?

a.   Belief in the ongoing reform of the Church. This papal criticism of Modernists as ongoing reformers of the Church does not pertain to future popes or to ecumenical councils or to bishops acting in union with the popes, but it is a warning to bishops not to let themselves be influenced by Modernist ideas. Nor does it pertain to other members of the Church who are acting in union with the Hierarchy. But private voices of dissent are legion in the Church today.

b.   Belief that faith is merely a feeling. We don't ordinarily today hear Catholic dissenters saying that faith is merely a feeling. But many of them seem to be speaking from a background that does imply that faith is not based in objective reality.

c.   Belief in the evolution of dogma. Most educated Catholics today believe in biological evolution. This belief can easily grow into an implicit belief in the evolution of all things, including the dogmas of the Church. So dissenters to various teachings of the Church can be believers in the evolution of dogmas, even though they do not explicitly say so. The remedy to this danger is for those who believe in biological evolution to take an explicit stand against the idea of the evolution of the dogmas of the Church, and thus solidify their faith. How many do so?

d.   Belief in a certain “divine reality.” Belief in the objective reality of the objects of faith is essential to Catholic faith. This includes belief in the objective existence of God. Many Catholic biblical interpreters don't ever bring up the subject of reality at all, thus leaving the road open to a “divine reality” which is not distinct from the subjective reality of the believer. The existentialist “reality of God” as expounded by Rudolf Bultmann and his followers is a Modernist belief. Those who reduce the objective reality of God to the status of a “literary genre,” that is, to a form of fiction, are Modernists, and this brings up the teachings of those form-critics who treat all divine interventions as literary forms without undertaking to show that these divine interventions were historically real.

e.   Belief that life is truth. The truths of the Catholic Faith have come from objective reality and not from the subjective consciousness of believers. Few Catholic dissenters say explicitly that “life is truth,” but those who say that the traditional teachings of the Church must be conformed to the felt needs of believers are implicitly saying that life is truth.

f.   Belief that God is immanent (only internal) in man. To say that an act of God can exist only inasmuch as it is identified with myself (Rudolf Bultmann) is a Modernist idea. It is necessary for Catholics to resist the temptation to think that God does not act or exist outside of themselves, which is only a temptation to pride.

g.   Belief in the “laws of evolution.” Those who believe in the evolution of biological species in an ever-ascending direction (Charles Darwin) often extend this idea to a belief in certain “laws of evolution” which control all manifestations of life, including the life of the Church. There are no such laws of evolution controlling human life and activity, but some Catholics have a vague idea that there are such laws.

h.   Belief in historical criticism. It is interesting that Pope Saint Pius X tied the method of historical criticism to the heresy of Modernism. Catholic historical critics today claim that the Modernist prejudices behind historical criticism at the time of Pope Pius X have been purged from the system, but they do not tend to show in clearly how this is so in their use of the method of historical criticism. And thus students of historical criticism tend to draw Modernist conclusions from what they hear. But the neo-patristic approach to Sacred Scripture does actively purge Modernist presuppositions from the method of historical criticism, and this is one reason why neo-patristic exegesis needs to replace historical criticism as the method of interpreting Sacred Scripture in the Catholic Church.

i.   Belief in the evolution of the Bible. The question is not whether there was a development of the oral tradition upon which the sacred writers based much of their writing, but rather whether the things stated as historical facts in the Bible evolved over time in the imagination of the early Christian communities. In the writings of some Catholic biblical scholars today and in the belief of some educated Catholic readers, are episodes in the Gospels and elsewhere in the Bible that are presented as historical now believed to be products of the fertile imaginations of early Christian believers? Modernists outside of the Church plainly say that none of the supernatural episodes really happened. Do Catholic writers who touch on these episodes clearly refute this Modernist reading, or do they implicitly accept this Modernist reading?

j.   Rejection of Scholastic philosophy and of the teaching of the Fathers. The teaching of Scholastic philosophy and of the writings of the Fathers of the Church has been in great decline in Catholic academic faculties since the Second Vatican Council. Why has this decline taken place? Does the substitution of non-Scholastic philosophical systems and of “new approaches” to the reading of the Bible prepare the students to reject Modernist ideas that are floating around on university campuses? Are Catholic college graduates today coming out of school prepared to defend their faith against so many false ideas presented by the spirit of this world? Why is it that so many Catholic professors don't like Scholastic philosophy any more? Have they become wedded to an exaggerated idea of themselves as “modern men”?

k.   A poisoned atmosphere. There is little doubt that a poisoned mental atmosphere exists on many Catholic college campuses today. To what extent teachers and students have breathed in this poison is a matter of individual cases, but the absence of a strong Catholic apologetics or even of an interest in apologetics on many campuses is a worrying sign. The presence of this Modernist intellectual poison leads one to suspect that some Catholics are already Modernists, while others are becoming Modernists or at least are allowing Modernist ideas to influence their thinking.

102. A practical example to analyze. Recently a large association of Catholic religious institutes made a public statement containing, among other things, the following demands. How do these demands seem to agree with the characteristics of Modernists as described in nos. 100 (a), (c), (g) and (j) above? How do these demands not seem to agree, at least explicitly, with some other characteristics of Modernists?


1. Oblates of Wisdom Study Center, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, Missouri 63157.

2. The references to Pascendi in this lesson are taken from Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals, vol. 3, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, pp.71-98. For a more detailed exposition of the material in this lesson, see Living Tradition numbers 111-112.