American Idol

Rome vs. the ‘Modernists'

With the advent of a new millennium, what some have called “The American Century” officially came to an end seven years ago. The significance of the United States’ rise to world power and, eventually, to lone superpower status, marked as it was by unprecedented economic, military, and cultural influence around the world, will continue to be debated, and experienced, for decades to come.

One wonders how history will judge U.S. influence on the Roman Catholic Church during the twentieth century. Well known are the contributions of Virgil Michel to liturgical reform and John Courtney Murray to the church’s stunning endorsement of religious freedom, both of which came to initial fruition in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). If not “Americanists” in the strict sense, these and other mid-century pioneers agreed on the desirability of popular participation in liturgy and church governance and on the importance of the church’s autonomy vis-à-vis the state. They had internalized, in short, the hard-won victories of the American “experiment in ordered liberty.”

But what about the noble failures of the Americans and Europeans who explored new ways of “thinking with modernity” decades before such experiments could be endorsed? In calling the church to a new engagement with the modern world, Pope John XXIII took the risk of embracing modernity without capitulating to its many errors. One hundred years ago this month, one of his predecessors, Pius X, catalogued those errors, labeled them “Modernism,” and did everything in his power to drive from the church, or from positions of influence within it, anyone remotely resembling a “Modernist.” A few turn-of-the-century American priests, it turned out, fit the bill.

Though they were never formally accused of Modernism, the major crime of these priests, it seems, was to follow the lead of their European Catholic mentors by defending and advancing the proposition that Catholicism could no longer rely primarily on the philosophical-theological system known as Thomism, as interpreted by its neoscholastic advocates.

Rather, in response to theories of evolution, critical methods of inquiry, and skepticism about the supernatural, these thinkers challenged the church to ransack its past, retrieving alternatives to the “outmoded” system endorsed by the Vatican. We take up the story of these Americanists where it may rightly be said to have begun, in the American heartland. With all due respect to Peoria, it is noteworthy that its intellectually gifted bishop, John Lancaster Spalding, was stuck there thirty-one years, from 1877 until his retirement in 1908. Neither Spalding’s personal entanglements with the Caldwell sisters, benefactors of his pet project, the Catholic University of America, nor his public criticism of the decision to send a Roman apostolic delegate to the United States helped his cause in Rome. But Bishop Spalding was denied promotion to a larger and more influential see, one surmises, in retaliation for public speeches such as the one he delivered at the laying of the cornerstone of Catholic University, on May 24, 1888, where he announced—prematurely, it turned out—the end of the Thomistic era in Catholic thought and the beginning of a brave new experiment with modern philosophy and modern science. “St. Thomas is a powerful intellect,” Spalding acknowledged, “but his point of view in all that concerns natural knowledge has long since vanished from sight.”

Why, the bishop of Peoria asked, should Europe continue to “be the object of awe and admiration for Catholics?” After all, he claims the modern enthusiasm for the scientific method had originated in the United States, and the torch of knowledge and truth was being handed to a new generation of American thinkers in several disciplines. Why not also in theology and philosophy? Medievalism, the long-honored heritage of European Catholicism, had served its purpose. “What a poverty of learning does the early medieval scheme of education reveal,” Spalding opined. “When we read the great names of the past...our eyes are dimmed by the glory of clouds tinged with the splendors of a sun that has set.”

However displeased Rome might be by such remarks, a small but influential circle of American prelates and priests received them with enthusiasm. It included John Ireland, bishop of St. Paul, Minnesota (named archbishop that year); James Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore (named cardinal two years later); and the Rev. John Zahm, CSC, of Notre Dame, who considered himself both a modernized American Catholic and a cutting-edge scientist.

Not long after Spalding’s speech in Washington, D.C., Zahm published several books and delivered a series of public lectures dedicated to making U.S. Catholicism receptive to the concept of “theistic evolution.” Evolution and Dogma (1896), his major work as a Catholic apologist and scientist, argued that Augustine, Aquinas, and other major Catholic thinkers of the past had either endorsed, or allowed for, the notion that nature (“species”) had evolved under the guidance of Providence, with the immortal soul directly infused into the human being by God.

In Europe, meanwhile, a loosely affiliated band of Catholic priests and laymen were exploring alternatives to Thomism and experimenting with critical methods of biblical exegesis, historical and philological studies, and modern philosophies. The French priest and biblical scholar Alfred Firmin Loisy (1857-1940) assumed the mantle of apologist for modern Catholicism in the first great theological debate of the century, one that pitted him against Adolf von Harnack, the renowned German Lutheran historian of dogma.

At issue was the notion that Christian doctrine remained constant—substantively unaltered—despite the accidents of history and the “evolution” of human sensibility. Such a claim, central to official Roman Catholic teaching, was under attack on several fronts at the turn of the twentieth century. Critical exegesis seemed to undermine the authority of Scripture. Historical and textual analysis of the Pentateuch, for example, had discredited the traditional belief that Moses was its author. Partisan debates over meaning and authority in the ancient Jewish and earliest Christian communities, critics contended, had influenced the theologies of both Testaments. Quests for “the historical Jesus,” meanwhile, sought to penetrate layers of meaning and historically conditioned beliefs embedded in the four Gospels.

Published in 1900, Harnack’s The Essence of Christianity (Das Wesen des Christentums) welcomed such findings as powerful confirmation of the Reformation. The first Protestants, he maintained, had been right to decry the Catholic practice of augmenting the Scriptures with “man made” laws and doctrines. That the popes had justified the proliferation of sacraments, doctrines, and ecclesiastical offices by invoking tradition only exacerbated the problem of recovering the pristine message of Jesus.

Memorably, Harnack likened the gospel to a kernel of corn, and the traditions, dogmas, and institutions of the church to the dead husk surrounding it. The task of the historian in every era, he proposed, must be to rip away the husk, revealing the precious kernel of apostolic truth. The Christian historian must “find out what is essential” and liberate the “Geist [Spirit] which works in all the products of history and in us.”

Had Harnack’s views prevailed, Catholics would still be backpedaling. If history is bunk, if Jewish, Greek, and other influences on the gospel and church are to be peeled away in the search for a pure essence of apostolic truth, how was the modern Catholic to defend the seven sacraments, the monarchical papacy, the cult of Mary, and so much else that had become associated with Catholicism?

To the rescue came Alfred Loisy. His 1902 rejoinder, The Gospel and the Church (L’Évangile et l’Église), defended the authority of the church to proclaim and preserve the gospel of Jesus Christ in utmost fidelity to its original meaning. Loisy’s basic argument—that “we know Christ only by the tradition, across the tradition, and in the tradition”—refuted Harnack’s claim that the sacraments, devotion to Mary, and other Catholic “developments” arose from a particular time and place and were thus “nonessential.” The relationship between l’Évangile and l’Église, Loisy argued, is organic and irrevocable. History, far from being disposable, is the arena of God’s ongoing work of redemption.

In contrast to Harnack’s kernel-husk metaphor, the French priest offered the image of the acorn and the oak tree. Who, gazing at the magnificent oak, could isolate its “essence,” the seed that gave it life and provided the blueprint of its growth? The vital principle pervades its entire being, just as the gospel pervades the multidimensional life of the church. History is the soil in which the seed of the gospel is planted; the church is the sprout which grows into the mighty oak. The organism survives only through adaptation to its environment. Harnack’s cure for the “accretions” introduced by history—radical surgery on the Body of Christ—would kill the patient.

Loisy’s campaign to turn biblical and historical criticism to the service of the church resonated with other European Catholic and some American Catholic progressives. The leading would-be reformers were Europeans, many of them inspired by the writings and example of Cardinal John Henry Newman. They included the Anglo-Irish Jesuit, George Tyrell (1861-1909), who renounced his Scholastic training for what his friend Wilfrid Ward called “a far wider assimilation of contemporary thought,” and the Austrian layman Baron Friedrich von Hügel (1852-1925), whose magnum opus, The Mystical Element of Religion as Studied in St. Catherine of Genoa and Her Friends (1908), exemplified the reformers’ retrieval of traditions of interiority as an antidote to what they considered the excessive rationalism of Scholasticism.

Drawn into the circle of discussion—often through the agency of networker-par-excellence von Hügel—was an array of Catholic intellectuals across Europe. In France the movement included the philosopher Maurice Blondel (1861-1949), author of the seminal philosophy of “vital immanence,” Action: An Attempt at a Critique of Life and a Science of Practice (1894), and his pugnacious disciple, Lucien Laberthonnière. In Italy, Modernism took a political cast, led by the novelist, poet, and critic Antonio Fogazzaro, who interacted with a group of Italian priests and social-democratic reformers including Romolo Murri, Salvatore Minnocchi, and Giovanni Genocchi.

Back in the United States, the European ferment captured the imagination of progressive priests, including a small company of Sulpicians who staffed St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie) in Yonkers, New York. Led by the rector, James Francis Driscoll, SS, and Scripture scholar Francis E. Gigot, SS, they published a short-lived but remarkable journal, the New York Review (1905-08), which sought to disseminate some of the European ideas and methods among the American clergy. In launching the journal, Driscoll promised contributions from “the foremost Catholic scholars of the United States, England, and France—men who are really in touch with modern thought and its problems, and who are both able and willing to discuss them from the modern point of view.” The review would aid “the gradual assimilation by theology of what is sound in modern scholarship” by “interpret[ing]...the old truths in light of the new science.” Its first issue featured an essay by Wilfrid Ward that compared Newman to Aquinas by way of suggesting that the former “shows us how the essential teachings of the Catholic tradition may be combined with due recognition of the claims of the positive sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

Ward and other contributors to the New York Review advanced the notion that God communicates divine truth to the human subject through the indwelling agency of the Holy Spirit. Condemned by Pius X under the term “vital immanence,” this notion had been partially embraced by Bishop Spalding, whose preordination studies in Belgium led him to affirm that human knowledge of God was basically intuitive and that individuals, as the historian Patrick Carey puts it, “were made more explicitly open to the divine through poetry, liturgy, and art than through rational investigation or speculation.” Ward identified an immanentist strain in Newman’s thought and celebrated it as the retrieval of an aspect of Catholic thought that had been suppressed by the “supernatural rationalism” of the Scholastic method. In the same (debut) issue of the New York Review, James J. Fox, a professor at the Catholic University of America, chimed in by urging the recovery of the thought of John Duns Scotus, the medieval rival to Aquinas, who emphasized the supremacy of the will over the intellect and limited the role of reason in apprehending metaphysical reality and religious truth.

For two years, the New York Review, whose readership was limited mostly to the U.S. Catholic clergy, continued to publish articles on “the new apologetics,” modern biblical criticism, recent trends in philosophy (for example, French pragmatism), the implications of democracy for religious life, and other developments in European and American Catholic thought. Several leading European reformers, including Tyrrell, Henri Bremond, and Maud Petre, published groundbreaking essays in the journal. While such authors were not shy about pushing an agenda for reform, others simply reported on the latest developments and trends. Gigot, for example, published numerous essays under the title “The Higher Criticism of the Bible,” but maintained a studied neutrality, evident in subtitles such as “Its Constructive Aspect” and “The Nature of Its Problems.”

Such neutrality may have masked the journal’s potential to spark controversy. At any rate, in an act of naive enthusiasm, John M. Farley, the archbishop of New York, approved publication of the New York Review and indicated agreement with editor Driscoll’s assessment of the need for a forward-looking journal that would help reverse “the backwardness of Catholic writers in matters of modern scientific interest.”

And then came the Vatican’s response. What the reformers considered a move to revitalize Catholic thought in response to the daunting challenges of modernity, Pope Pius X described as no less than “the synthesis of all heresies.” Ghostwritten by a Jesuit neo-Scholastic, Pius’s remarkable encyclical, Pascendi dominici gregis, was promulgated on September 8, 1907.

The Modernists’ “method of vital immanence,” the encyclical charged, was agnostic at its heart, and represented “the destruction not of the Catholic religion alone, but of all religion.” Their writing “exudes novelty on every page.... For them the scholarship of a writer is in direct proportion to the recklessness of his attacks on antiquity, and of his efforts to undermine tradition and the ecclesiastical magisterium.”

Indeed, the encyclical portrayed Modernism as a well-organized conspiracy of forces bent on fostering a pernicious revolution. And, in what turned out to be a precedent-setting descent into ad hominem indictment of the Vatican’s Catholic critics and dissenters, Pascendi depicted the Modernists as totally corrupt, “lost to all sense of modesty” and “puffed up with pride and vainglory”—“leaders of the blind, inflated with a boastful science,” busily “perverting the eternal concept of truth and the true nature of religious sentiment” in a quest “to destroy the vital energy of the church and...to utterly overthrow Christ’s kingdom itself.” Historian Marvin O’Connell notes that “a striking feature of Pascendi is its harsh rhetoric, its tone of personal denunciation, its exercise of apparently rash judgment.” In particular, “the narrative, even when treating of highly abstruse matters, is often interrupted to give vent to what seem to be vindictive outbursts.”

The encyclical had teeth. It prescribed Scholastic studies as the basis of all sacred sciences, with the natural sciences to be studied only within narrow boundaries. Publications were to be strictly regulated by the church. Anyone holding an ecclesial office or position in an institution of Catholic higher education who “in any way is found to be imbued with Modernism” was to be “excluded without compunction.” The same went for “those who favor Modernism either by extolling the Modernists or excusing their culpable conduct, by criticizing Scholasticism, the Holy Father, or by refusing obedience to ecclesiastical authority in any of its depositaries; and, finally, to those who show a love of novelty in history, archaeology, biblical exegesis.” Pius X subsequently imposed the Oath against Modernism on all seminarians and priests and installed vigilance committees across the Catholic world to root out traces of the über-heresy.

It didn’t take long for the reverberations of Pascendi to reach the United States. In January 1908, the American Ecclesiastical Review published an anonymous article titled “Modernism in the American Church”; it charged that “the evils of which the pontiff chiefly complains exist to a very large and dangerous extent in the United States.” Accusing fingers pointed at contributors to the New York Review, including Edward Hanna (later bishop of San Francisco), whose series, “The Human Knowledge of Christ,” smacked to some of heterodoxy. The apostolic delegate to the United States, Archbishop Diomede Falconio, paid a visit to Archbishop Farley, to ask why George Tyrell, the condemned Modernist and former English Jesuit, had been praised in the journal as the greatest Catholic writer in English since Newman. An apocryphal tale has it that when Farley visited Rome and presented Pius X with the new Catholic Encyclopedia, a product of the Dunwoodie professors, the pope hurled a volume to the floor and demanded: “Get those Modernists out of your seminary!”

That is exactly what Farley did. In a swift series of moves, the archbishop dispatched Fr. Driscoll, rector of the seminary as well as editor of the New York Review, to St. Ambrose Parish in Manhattan, replacing him with the unlettered John P. Chidwick, a former police chaplain. As for the Review itself, the few post-Pascendi issues had already engaged in a good deal of backpedaling and reframing. But that wasn’t enough. The journal ceased publication in the summer of 1908, and ecclesiastical Latin and a neo-Scholastic curriculum returned to the halls of St. Joseph’s Seminary. The priests who assisted Driscoll in producing the Review were farmed out to parishes in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

As for Fr. Zahm, by 1908 he had already begun to produce anodyne accounts of his international travels, in place of learned treatises on evolution. In a foreshadowing of the anti-Modernist strategy, the editors of the Roman Jesuit publication La Civiltá Cattolica had repudiated Evolution and Dogma when it appeared in 1896, decrying it as a misguided treatment of Augustine and Aquinas, and lamenting the American author’s “insufficient grasp” of Thomism. When Zahm was given the choice of withdrawing his magnum opus from translation and subsequent editions or seeing it on the Index of Forbidden Books, the future superior of the Congregation of Holy Cross chose the former option.

Not every American Catholic “progressive” went quietly. Not to be outdone by the pope in slinging mud was William L. Sullivan, the American Paulist, an occasional contributor to the New York Review, and a disciple of Tyrrell, Loisy, and von Hügel. Sullivan’s public break from the church was controversial and scandalous. He had attended St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts, where Professor John B. Hogan introduced him to the new theories of revelation, inspiration, and biblical exegesis. The precocious Sullivan was determined to write “a great apologetic work in defense of Christian revelation.” Yet he found his colleagues at Catholic University “muddy, vagrant, and ill-equipped with erudition” and, after completing his STL thesis in 1899, he left Washington for two years of mission preaching in Tennessee.

Sullivan soon discovered that the traditional neo-Scholastic approach, which stressed metaphysical arguments, was ineffective in the American towns and villages he visited. Accordingly, he began to craft a new message for Americans, who loved democratic values such as freedom of speech and liberty of conscience above all else. He also began to research the First Vatican Council, developing an obsession with papal infallibility and the Inquisition. Sullivan saw in American Catholicism an antidote to this dark strain in Roman Catholic history. By arousing the moral indignation of American Catholics, he hoped to open the way for a critical examination and reconstruction of Catholic doctrine, culminating in nothing less than the reform of the church and the end of “Vaticanism, ultramontanism, and religious imperialism.” Calling himself “fated, no doubt, to take position with the Modernists,” he urged Catholic scholars to respect the facts established by critical scientific investigation of the Bible and of history, evaluating the evidence for themselves without restriction from the Vatican. The hierarchical exercise of authority, he said, obstructed the creative work of the Spirit in the church. “I began to see,” he wrote in 1906, “that from the very nature of a personality or soul, we incur moral disaster in submitting it without reserve to any institution whatever, civil or ecclesiastical.”

In the aftermath of Pascendi, Sullivan was stunned when his fellow Americanists retracted their opinions or made “obscene” gestures of obeisance to Rome. He condemned his former colleagues as “moral cowards,” and he accused the church of demanding an idolatrous submission of individual consciences. In 1910 he anonymously published Letters to His Holiness, Pope Pius X, a shrill polemic indicting Rome for persistently violating basic human rights, including liberty of conscience and freedom from state coercion in matters of belief. Letters to His Holiness depicted Pius X’s church as the reincarnation of the Inquisition, a conspiracy of Jesuit intellectuals and curial officials seeking to preempt the direct experience of Christ—in sharp contrast to the Modernists, who strove to return religion to the people, and sought political and social structures that would facilitate that return. Sullivan hurled anathemas at Pius X, whom he charged with letting fall “an iron age upon Catholic scholarship”:

You have left untried no expedient for separating Catholics into a mass of illiterates unacquainted with the scholarship of the last hundred years, and closed in by an opaque curtain of medieval exegesis and scholastic theology. And if we ask who is this pontiff who defies the laborious acquisitions of four generations of illustrious scholars, we must answer: He is the product of an Italian seminary of fifty years ago, who is an absolute stranger to the sciences he condemns. He knows nothing of biblical criticism. He entered his pontificate ignorant of every modern language but Italian. He is unread in philosophy, in historical theology, in modern psychology.

Alfred Loisy’s response to papal “correction” was equally “puffed up with pride.” Excommunicated in 1908, his books condemned by the Vatican, the erstwhile Catholic apologist ceased his struggle to reconcile his vision with that of the church, and set himself on an intellectual path that seemed to confirm papal warnings about the agnostic trajectory of Modernism. Indeed, the Vatican’s darkest apprehensions about the “new” critical methods found poignant expression in Loisy’s final “historical” sketch of Jesus—“a village craftsman, naive and enthusiastic who believes the end of the world to be near at hand...he appears absurd to us, as our dearest ideas will appear to our children’s children.”

As for William L. Sullivan, his fervent expectation that free-thinking American Catholics would reject the overweening pretensions of papalism (“A courageous and intelligent laity,” he wrote, “is the sole hope for a better day”) was disappointed; and in 1912, the former Paulist was admitted to the Unitarian ministry.

What, finally, are we to make of the dispute that raged over Modernism a century ago? Its antecedents went back decades. Anti-Modernism was forged in the crucible of the pontificate of Pius IX, who delivered to the modern world a notorious Syllabus of its insidious errors in 1864, and had himself and all future popes declared infallible in 1870 (Vatican I’s Pastor aeternus). Pio Nono defined the modern age as an era of struggle between a secular world given over to corrupting materialism, disbelief, and revolutionary ideologies, and the Roman Catholic Church, presented as the authentic cultural and religious foundation of modern civilization.

Underdeveloped in the church’s arsenal was an intellectual/philosophical justification for continuing to privilege revelation as the “senior partner” of science and reasoned discourse, and a rationale for maintaining a monarchical and hierarchical structure of ecclesial authority in an age of democracy. Leo XIII’s Aeterni patris (1879) provided both. The encyclical presented Thomism as the Catholic intellectual tradition most capable of organizing theology into a comprehensive and coherent body of knowledge, and demonstrated the necessity of the magisterium as the interpreter of divine revelation and arbiter of genuine intellectual, scientific, and cultural “progress.”

By the time Pius X was installed in 1903, the internal Catholic battle had been joined. At its heart was a struggle over authority—specifically, the exercise of institutional versus intellectual power in the church. Those who came to be condemned as Modernists challenged the magisterium’s endorsement of a specific theological-philosophical school—the form of Thomism endorsed by the neoscholastics—as the Catholic rejoinder to secular modernity, one that virtually excluded alternative ancient, medieval, and modern schools, as well as emerging systems such as pragmatism. The Modernists’ rejection of Scholastic hegemony only hardened the Vatican’s stance.

This linkage between institutional, intraecclesial power and theological orthodoxy is the most significant legacy of the Modernist crisis. Throughout the twentieth century, and to this day, the dynamic of orthodoxy/heresy remains configured within a larger struggle over the control of knowledge, meaning, and religious authority. The struggle has played itself out in theological, political, bureaucratic, and even cultural forums.

The theological stakes of the controversy a century ago included a profound transformation in ecclesial self-understanding. In their uncoordinated, inchoate, and sometimes fumbling experiments in critical biblical exegesis and alternate models of Catholic philosophy and theology, the Modernists anticipated a twentieth-century movement away from the neo-Scholastic emphasis on God’s absolute transcendence, on divine revelation as “objective” (“the Deposit of Faith”) and wholly “extrinsic” to the needs or beliefs of the recipient, and, accordingly, on the absolute necessity of the magisterium. As noted, the Modernists emphasized divine immanence—the “always already” indwelling Spirit of Truth preparing the baptized Christian’s heart and soul for revealed truth. The implications of the Modernist view for the hierarchy were unmistakable and unacceptable: every man his own pope.

Whereas Gabriel Daly’s excellent monograph, Transcendence and Immanence: A Study in Catholic Modernism and Integralism (1980), set the intra-Catholic conflict in this theological/ecclesiological context, other scholarly interpreters applied tropes from sociology and political science to the aborted Modernist “revolution.” Historian Gary Lease reduced the crisis to power politics, linking the Vatican’s antidemocratic and antimodernist tactics to Vatican Secretary of State Rafael Merry del Val’s crusade to make the world safe for Catholic-friendly totalitarian regimes in Spain and Italy.

In terms of ecclesial politics, the Modernists were initially naive. It is possible to see them as well-intentioned apologists for a Catholic worldview under siege: star-crossed, self-appointed defenders of the faith, who wanted nothing more than to equip the church with the intellectual tools they deemed necessary for the long battle against Protestantism and various modern forms of irreligion and atheism—and who were surprised and hurt when the Vatican criticized them for their efforts. And thus, as Lester Kurtz observed in his sociological analysis of the Modernist crisis, The Politics of Heresy, they ended up “trapped between the culture of the Vatican and the demands of a secular intellectual culture.”

Another group of interpreters sketches a trajectory from Americanism to Modernism—a logical progression, from political theory to theological innovation, in the writing and networking of certain American priests. Though not original theological or philosophical thinkers, the clergy in question embodied the link between Americanism—a liberal Catholic outlook that entailed the acceptance of religious voluntarism and pluralism, church-state separation, and religious liberty—and Modernism, which also implied a “democratic” mode of doing theology, parsing doctrine, and interacting with external religious authority.

In short, the Modernists taught that God revealed divine truth through the history and experience of ordinary people, not apart from it. “We know what the American Spirit is in the political and social order,” Sullivan wrote. “Translate it into the religious order and you have Modernism at its best and purest.” Knowledge, revelation, authority, and power: Modernists perceived and engaged this modern Catholic dynamic—and eventually were defeated by it.

A related inheritance of the Modernist crisis is the sad legacy of Pascendi’s ad hominem attacks on “dissenting” Catholic intellectuals. In most respects, the church during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI is not to be compared with the anti-Modernist regimes of Pius IX and Pius X: Catholic biblical exegesis has long been informed by the critical scholarship of the academy; biological evolution is accepted as consonant with Catholic doctrine; courses in the historical “evolution” of the church are taught at Catholic universities, colleges, and seminaries.

And yet, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI remained deeply suspicious of “dissenting” theologies—that is, twentieth-century innovations, such as feminism and liberationism, that strayed from Thomism and other traditional Catholic approaches. Both popes presided over intraecclesial culture wars and ad hominem attacks on theologians who thought to expand the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy beyond strict adherence to one of the Vatican-endorsed, medieval (premodern) schools of theology.

Thus one might ask: Have we moved beyond the Modernist/anti-Modernist polarities of a century ago, in which the range of acceptable theological resources is restricted to one historically significant but by no means exclusively orthodox school of thought?

For an answer, one need look no further than the May 18 issue of Commonweal and its cover article on the “notification” of concern delivered by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), to Jon Sobrino, SJ, a major liberation theologian. “The CDF’s critique seems to measure Sobrino not only by the faith of the church, but also from the viewpoint of one particular, if rich and valuable, theological tradition, namely scholasticism,” writes theologian William P. Loewe. “The congregation omits from consideration the historically minded, praxis-oriented rhetorical structure of Sobrino’s theology and thus misses the legitimate differences between a project like Sobrino’s and the sapiential, metaphysically informed tradition of Scholastic theology that the CDF takes as normative.”

After changes upon changes, one fears, we are more or less the same.

 


Read more: Letters, October 17, 2007

Published in the 2007-09-14 issue: 

R. Scott Appleby is the Marilyn Keough Dean of the Keough School of Global Affairs and professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

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