Catholicism and Modernism Contrasted

The text below is taken from a tract published in 1908 and requires editing. -WCM

We have before us the outlines of Modernism as expounded to us by Pope Pius X, and may judge of it for ourselves from the standpoint suggested at the beginning of this tract. That is, we may leave alone for the present the question whether the system is or is not well founded in itself, and ask only, is it Catholic ? Can it be called a con- sistent development of Catholic faith and teaching as we have known it up to now, or must it be set down as directly opposed to Catholic faith and teaching and altogether incompatible with it ? It is difficult to see how the second of these alternative answers can be resisted. Let us note particularly the following points of contrast.

1. In Regard to the Knowledge of God

According to Catholicism, as we have known it hitherto, the human intellect is not under limitations which oblige it to treat all that lies beyond the world of appearances as unknowable. On the contrary it can, through the principle of causality, over-pass that border-line and attain to a knowledge not indeed exhaustive, but absolutely correct and certain as far as it goes, of many important truths relating to the unseen, and among them of the existence and attributes of God. This is laid down in the most formal manner by the Vatican Council:  If any one says that the one true God cannot be known with certainty by the natural light of reason by means of the things that are made, let him be anathema.” Nor is this canon in other than the clearest conformity with the doctrine expressed by the whole line of theologians — Fathers, sacred writers, from the author of the Book of Wisdom 1 downwards — all of whom appeal to the self-same argument of causality, and hold for blameworthy those who will not yield to its force. Yet the new Modernist theory flatly denies the validity of this mode of argument. Starting from its Kantian principle of Agnosticism, it lays down that the invisible world is the unknowable world, and we can repose no trust whatever in the conclusions our reason may arrive at concerning God or anything else that appertains to that hidden region.

2. In Regard to the Claims of Christ

According to Catholicism, as we have known it hitherto, Jesus Christ came into the world claiming to be the ambassador of God and even the Son of God. In support of these claims He appealed, as involving a divine attestation of their justice, to the miracles He wrought and the prophecies He fulfilled; and, having thus established His claim to speak in God’s name and deliver God’s message, He taught us the code of doctrinal truths which we call the Christian revelation. This also is affirmed in the clearest terms by the Vatican Council.

It declares that, besides the way of coming to know God through things created by the natural light of reason, it has pleased His wisdom and goodness to provide another and supernatural way by which to reveal Himself and the eternal decrees of His will to the human race : [wherefore], as the Apostle says, “ Having in past days spoken at many times and in many ways to our forefathers through the prophets, in these latter days God has spoken to us through His Son.”

And again that to render the obedience of our faith conformable to reason, God hits willed to conjoin with the interior aids of the Holy Spirit, external proofs of His revelation, divine facts and especially miracles and prophecies, which, inasmuch as they evidence the omnipotence arid infinite knowledge of God, are signs of a divine revelation which are both most certain and adapted to the intelligence of all.

And here again the Vatican is only formulating what has always been held and taught in the Church by theologians, Fathers, Apostles, and even our Lord Himself. It is a consistent scheme of divine revelation, and the scheme which, in contrast with it, is set up by the Modernists, is also, it must be acknowledged, consistent with itself. If human reason is incapable of any certain knowledge of God, it follows that it cannot be capable of recognizing the divine character of such facts as miracles and prophecies, and hence of recognizing that there was anything more than purely human in the personality of Jesus Christ. If, then, in any narrative of His life, such as is furnished by the four Gospels, miracles are ascribed to Him, or predictions fulfilled in Him which are not explicable as coincidences, the only consistent course for the Modernist is to assume that these superhuman occurrences were not genuine facts, and to inquire by what myth-making or other process of the devout imagination they came to be read into the story. And so the historical Christ becomes a a man of the choicest nature ” indeed, but still only a man, whom it is impossible to regard as the trustworthy organ of a divine revelation. Accordingly, we have here, too, not a development but a flat contradiction between the belief of the Catholic Church and the Modernist tenets.

3. In Regard to the Nature of Faith

Next we come to the question of faith. According to Catholicism, as we have known it hitherto, faith is the assent given to propositions the truth of which is certified to us not directly by the light of our personal reasoning, but indirectly, and on the testimony of God, which we can absolutely trust. So defined it is of like nature with the faith we repose, in regard to earthly facts and truths, in the testimony of human witnesses more experienced than ourselves and known to be truthful. Provided we can have evidence, of the nature specified in the last section, that God has really spoken, the human mind easily recognizes this to be a reason- able mode of arriving at truths otherwise inaccessible to us. And here once more we have a Vatican decree enforcing the definition:

This faith, as the Catholic Church professes, is a supernatural virtue by which, through the gift of God and the aid of grace, we believe that the things revealed by Him are true, not because of their intrinsic truth as seen by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself who reveals them to us, and who can neither be deceived or deceive.

Again, too, the Vatican definition is one which the simplest inspection of the writings of theologians, Fathers, and Apostles will show to be in accord with them. Such a definition for the Modernist, however, is inadmissible, for it implies a divinely authenticated external witness to make the revelation, and that, as we have seen, his fundamental principle of agnosticism forbids him to recognize. Hence the substitution of another species of faith, that of the religious sentiment } which, evolving under the action of vital immanence, arrives by means of suitable experiences at “a firm conviction ” that there is a God, personal, omnipotent, omniscient, all-good, &c.; that Jesus Christ, even though historical criticism can find nothing superhuman in His life, was the ambassador of God and even the Son of God ; and that the whole doctrinal code of the Catholic Church is true, at least in a symbolic sense. This “ firm conviction ” is taken by the Modernist as sufficiently certifying us of the objective truth, in a symbolic sense, of these doctrines, but it is not easy for our minds to see how that can be. What is this religious sentiment f Is it of the nature of perception or volition ? If of perception, why is it not referred to the intellect like the other perceptive acts that occur within us ? If of volition, which seems to be the case since it is called an “ intuition of the heart,” how can volition assure us of the nature of anything, or do more than supply a ground from which some perceptive faculty can infer some truth? These are questions which at once suggest themselves when we hear of the new species of faith originated and matured by vital immanence ; but in any case the opposition between faith of this sort and the faith which believes on the warrant of the divine attestation is as marked and complete as can well be.

4. In Regard to the Nature of Dogma

In regard to dogma, too, the opposition is radical. According to Catholicism, as we have know T n it hitherto, the doctrines of the Christian revelation are true beyond fear of doubt for all times and places. The warrant for their truth is ultimately the testimony of Christ, and proximately the teaching of the Catholic Church, which the Holy Spirit guards from error in her exercise of this teaching office. When the Church makes it clear beyond doubt, in undisputed cases by the tenor of her daily teaching and in controverted cases by her solemn decrees, that such and such doctrines are a true part of the Christian revelation, then doctrines are called dogmas, and, being what they are, are immutable. They may come to be more fully understood by the faithful, but they will never need to be set aside in the interests of greater accuracy. On the other hand, according to the Modernist theory, dogmas are religious formulas tentatively set before the religious sentiment by the devout mind, but which, being only approximations to the truth, and besides symbolic in their relation to the object- world, are liable and even likely to require reconstruction or rejection with the flight of time and the advance of investigation. Moreover, the final test by which their validity is determined is not the voice of Christ speaking with authority through the Church, but acceptance on the part of the religious sentiment which finds them conformable to its need.

And this Modernist conception of dogma involves a further and twofold opposition to Catholicism, as we have known it hitherto. For if the test of doctrinal truth is neither with the rational motives intrinsic to the doctrine, nor with the external testimony of Christ and His Church, but with acceptance or rejection on the part of the religious sentiment, how are we to distinguish between Natural and Supernatural Religion ; and again, between the true and false forms of Christianity? Natural Religion, as the Church understands it, is the Religion based on such knowledge of God as we can attain by the exercise of reason apart from revelation. Supernatural Religion is the religion based on the revelation made to man by our Lord Jesus Christ. As the latter elevates man far above the exigencies of his natural state, it is not due to him, and so cannot become known to him except by revelation. The difference, again, between the true and the spurious forms of Christianity is to be determined by reference to the testimony and commands of Christ, preserved to us by the methods and institutions which He originated and authenticated. Here are tests which under our present system we can apply, and so hope to arrive at the truth. But, under the new theory of dogma and its relation to the religious sentiment , how are we to dis- criminate in this important matter ? The religious sentiment , however much it may have been fed and nurtured by experience, has but the alternative acts — to accept or reject a dogma or practice according as it finds itself in living harmony with it, or the reverse. Moreover, its acceptance when accorded is the outcome of a natural need ; that is, of an exigency which, in the case of supernatural religion, supposing it to be such, cannot arise. And if, as regards the choice between Catholicism and (say) Protestantism, one large group agrees in finding that its religious sentiment is satisfied only by the Catholic system, and another only by the Protestant, on what ground is one to be deemed universally preferable to the other ? It might be said that the strength of endurance was a criterion. But Hinduism and Buddhism are both older than Catholicism, and Mohammedanism is only six centuries younger, and, if it may now seem to some possible to predict an early dissolution of Protestantism, how was that possible to our ancestors of two centuries ago ?

5. In Regard to Tradition and Scripture

Tradition , according to the Church’s belief, is the I faithful guardianship and transmission from generation to generation of the doctrines which in the first instance were revealed by our Lord Jesus Christ. And Scripture^ , according to the same belief, is the Word of God com- I mitted to writing by men who were under the dictation 1 of the Holy Spirit. It is because this is their nature and origin that an absolute authority attaches to their contents, as the Vatican Council, following in the foot- steps of the Council of Trent, has distinctly defined But with the Modernist reconstruction of the conceptions of revelation and dogma there must now be a corresponding reconstruction of the conception of Tradition and Scripture. And so Jesus Christ becomes merely the founder of a great spiritual movement, and Tradition becomes the transmission to future generations, by preaching and other modes of oral communication, of the original experiences gathered by Him and others in the past ; whilst Scripture differs from Tradition only in this, that it contains “ those original experiences of an extraordinary kind which have happened in any religion.” Nor can the notion of authority constraining to acceptance be discovered anywhere in these reconstructed concepts.

6. In Regard to the Nature of the Church

The Church , according to Catholicism, as we have known it hitherto, has its origin in the commission given by our Lord to St. Peter and his fellow Apostles to go and teach all nations, accompanied . as it was by the promise that they and their successors should be divinely guarded in the fulfilment of their trust, as well as by the sanction which exacted under the heaviest penalties acceptance of their teaching and obedience to their commands. It is from this source that the Church claims to derive that authority the exercise of which is found by the Modernist to be so cramping. But according to the latter the Church is “ the product of the collective conscience, the society of individual con- sciences which depend on one first believer who is Christ.” And the origin of Church authority is “in the need which every society has of a directing authority to guide it to the common end and to guard its doctrine and worship ” — which involves that it is an authority coming to the Church’s rulers from below not from above, from the people not from God, and overstepping its just limits and ceasing to bind when it sets itself in opposition to the democratic methods which are the modern people’s will. How different these two con- ceptions are does not need to be shown.

7. In Regard to the Sacraments

The Sacraments have hitherto been held not only to signify but also to impart grace. But that implies institution by Christ during His earthly life, since none but He could give such power to a ceremonial rite. The Modernist conception of a sacrament is that it is a “bare sign or symbol with no power whatever to impart grace, but only to make a deep and useful impression on the mind and heart of the recipient,” and not instituted immediately by Christ, but only mediately and at a date far removed from that of the Public Life. Again the opposition is palpable, and needs no showing.

Source: Sydney Smith, S.J. “The Encyclical on ‘Modernism'”.