Revisiting the Modernist Wars

Published October 24, 2007

I’ve long had a high regard for Pope Benedict XV, least-known pontiff of the 20th century, whose slight, stooped figure masked a diplomatic and historical intelligence of the first caliber.

Benedict saw with clarity that World War I, prolonged, would be a civilizational catastrophe for Europe. The Great Powers refused to listen; Italy blackballed the Holy See from any post-war peace conference. Benedict nevertheless spent out the Vatican’s financial resources in supporting wartime prisoners and refugees – to the point where Pietro Gasparri, the Cardinal Camerlengo, had to borrow money from the Rothschilds to pay for the 1922 conclave to elect Benedict’s successor.

Benedict XV began his pontificate, however, by trying to stop another war: the civil war within the Church over Modernism, which his predecessor Pius X had condemned in the 1907 encyclical Pascendi as “the synthesis of all heresies.” Anti-Modernist sentiments ran high after Pascendi; clandestine ecclesiastical networks dedicated to rooting out Modernists, crypto-Modernists, and/or alleged Modernists from seminaries and theology faculties ran amock; some entirely reputable scholars were gravely damaged in the process.

It was a tawdry business, even if the principal Modernist paladins (like Alfred Loisy and George Tyrell) were men of highly dubious theological opinions. Benedict XV called off the dogs, and a measure of stability, if in a more subdued mode, returned to Catholic intellectual life.

On the centenary of Pascendi, Peter Steinfels dedicated his New York Times column to some predictable progressive bleating about the encyclical’s deleterious effects: Pascendi, Steinfels mourned, “crippled those very elements in European Catholicism that might have resisted the Church’s sympathy for authoritarian regimes after World War I, when liberal parliamentary governments were besieged by rising totalitarianism.” Pascendi, in other words, decisively shaped the Church’s role “in the blood-drenched history of the first half of the 20th century.”

I wouldn’t go so far as some commentators in the Catholic blogosphere, who charged Dr. Steinfels with suggesting that “less Catholic dogmatism would have prevented the Holocaust.” Steinfels is too clever a writer for that. But his column did seem lacking in a broader historical perspective, which would have suggested the possibility that the popes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had been put in a very difficult position by the modern liberal state in Europe – a position that inevitably shaped their attitudes toward other aspects of modernity, including modern theological adventurousness.

Historians like Michael Burleigh (Earthly Powers), Owen Chadwick (A History of the Popes 1830-1914), and Michael Gross (The War Against Catholicism: Liberalism and the Anti-Catholic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Germany) vigorously disagree with certain papal tactic vis-à-vis anti-clerical European governments. But they also demonstrate, in vivid detail, that those governments indeed waged a kind of war on the Church.

“Liberalism,” to the popes of the 19th and early 20th centuries, did not mean William Jennings Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson. It meant the French government closing all Catholic schools, monasteries, and convents in the early 20th century; it meant Bismarck’s late-19th century “culture-war” against the Church; it meant anti-clerical violence in Spain and Portugal; it meant the destruction of the old Papal States by the Italian Risorgimento. Small wonder that the popes, given their Eurocentricity (and continental Eurocentricity, at that) did not view “liberal democracy” as the Church’s friend.

To suggest, however, that this “conservative” theological and political critique of real-existing-liberalism in continental Europe helped pave the way for fascism is not a claim that will withstand much scrutiny, not least because it was theological innovators, not those benighted conservatives, who were seduced early on by the siren-songs of Nazism.

The Steinfels column was of a piece with the Cowboys-and-Indians interpretation of Vatican II, in which Good Liberals defeat Evil (anti-Modernist) Conservatives. Fortunately, for both the Church and the historical record, we have been blessed with two papal veterans of Vatican II, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who have proposed a far more interesting interpretation of the Council as both a reaffirmation and a development of classic Catholic truth claims.

Some people, it seems, take rather a long time to get the message.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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