September 24, 2012

From our point in history, more than 100 years after the so-called modernist crisis of the early 20th century, it is easy to be appalled by the Church's repression of any and all creative theology in the 60 years prior to the Second Vatican Council.

But that repression and subsequent ossification of the theology taught in seminaries is quite understandable in its historical context. From the time of the horrors of the French Revolution, the Church faced real and serious threats to its position in society.

The rise of modern socialism, the expansion of individual liberties and liberal democracy, and, most dramatically, the fall of Rome in the Italian Revolution of 1870 all served to radically diminish the Church's influential position in society.

Prior to 1870, the Church had helped to shape European society through its diplomacy. The establishment of secular governments rendered that diplomacy nearly impotent. The papacy of Leo XIII (1878-1903) was a last gasp at restoring the effectiveness of that diplomacy.

Pope St. Pius X, aided by his Secretary of State Cardinal Raphael Merry del Val, began to see the ordinary laity as agents of Christian-inspired social change. The modern world, however, was seen as an implacable enemy, one with which no compromise could be accepted. The papacy sought to heighten the spirituality of the people and improve their consciences.


Pope Pius' 1907 encyclical Pascendi domini gregis (Feeding the Lord's Flock) tarred a small number of disconnected heterodox Catholic writers with the label "modernism," defining the term so broadly that virtually any Catholic thinker who drew inspiration from any source other than the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas became highly suspect.

Pope St. Pius X

The encyclical, wrote Darrell Jodock, a religion professor, condemned modernism "with such vehemence, and the measures prescribed to prevent its growth were so stringent that it virtually slammed the door on any historical study of the Bible, on theological creativity and on Church reform."

The result was at least two-fold. First, the theological formation of seminarians entailed little more than coming to a basic understanding of 24 theses pulled out of the writings of Aquinas. Second, any theologian who strayed from the strict study of Thomistic writings, even including researching the early Fathers of the Church, did so at his peril.


Theology was a package of truths derived from the words of Christ and defined and defended by the Church. Any appeal to personal experience was seen as subjectivism and hence an example of modernism.

Oddly, this cold rationality of seminary scholasticism existed side-by-side with exorbitant claims about Marian apparitions and miracles and the promotion of sentimental devotions. It was a bifurcated reality with reason and sentiment co-existing, but neither one having the slightest effect on the other.

Despite this theological repression – or maybe even because of it – the 20th century began to produce some significant theologians. The French Dominican Marie-Dominique Chenu called for a unity of theology and contemplation. The theologian needed to pray his theology.

Chenu also maintained that truth is more than propositions, more than dogmatic affirmations. God is revealed not only in his words, but also through his actions.


Chenu was subsequently investigated and interrogated by his religious order, forced to sign a juvenile statement of beliefs and barred from teaching in Dominican institutions. However, his teaching about the nature of revelation became a cornerstone of one of the most important documents of Vatican II, The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.

Another Dominican, Yves Congar, was later to become one of the most influential theologians at Vatican II. But because he had consorted with Protestants and written books on ecumenism, the theology of the laity and reform of the Church, Congar was subjected to a series of persecutions right up to the start of Vatican II. At one point, he was forced into a lonely three-year exile in England.

Hans Urs von Balthasar was likely the greatest theologian of the 20th century. While he never faced persecution himself – his most important writing began around 1960 – he had nothing but scorn for the facsimile of theology inflicted on future priests. Entering the Jesuits at age 24, already armed with a doctorate in German literature, Balthasar wore earplugs and read the Fathers of the Church while attending his mandatory theology classes.


"My entire period of study in the Society of Jesus was a grim struggle with the dreariness of theology, with what men had made out of the glory of revelation," Balthasar later wrote.

The near-paranoid repression of anything that smelled slightly of "modernism" prevented any theological creativity from reaching lay Catholics or their priests for the first 60 years of the century.

But inside the pot, the temperature was rising. At Vatican II, all that theological energy would explode on the mass of largely-unsuspecting bishops with major consequences for the life of the Church.

(Information for this article came from articles published in Catholicism Contending with Modernity, Darrell Jodock [editor], and from Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians by Fergus Kerr.)