Portraits of the Roman Catholic Modernist Crisis in the United States
William L. Portier
Catholic University of America Press, $39.95, 408 pp.
This fine book highlights four once-prominent U.S. clerics—John Slattery, Dennis O’Connell, William Sullivan, and Joseph McSorley—who were involved in an early-twentieth-century theological controversy that sent Catholic intellectuals scrambling for cover. The spirit of Isaac Hecker, the nineteenth-century convert and founder of the Paulist Fathers who inspired each of them, pervades the narrative, securing him a starring role in the book, too. Theologian and historian William Portier, a regular Commonweal contributor, meticulously illustrates how these men collectively nourished a distinctive, though now sadly underappreciated, American theological and spiritual tradition, one that appeared to be doomed a century ago. Along the way, he makes a strong case that academic theology programs in the United States have unduly favored European theologians and shortchanged the vision and accomplishments of the homegrown Hecker.
What got these men into trouble? In one sense, the answer is simple. In 1907, Pope Pius X denounced something he called “Modernism,” a fearsome “synthesis of all heresies” issuing from the incursion of contemporary historical, philosophical, and scientific methods...