Ok so we agree that it is not a good idea for the pope to reconcile himself to progress, liberalism and modern civilization—or at least we agree to that if we are faithful to the teachings of Pius IX and the syllabus of errors (published 1864). It is interesting to see how in the nineteenth century the papacy grew very frightened of the world around it. In the century since the French Revolution had destroyed the old alliance between Throne and Altar, a world in which the Church could no longer dictate its decrees to the populace and expect government and society to enforce them, the Church was like a child who had lost her mother in the mob and had no idea how to carry on for herself. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon use a wonderful image in one of their book comparing the Church (in their example Protestantism, but if fits for 19th century Catholicism as well: “Like an aging dowager, living in a decaying mansion on the edge of town, bankrupt and penniless; house decaying around her but acting as if her family still controlled the city, our theologians and church leaders continued to think and act as if we were in charge, as if the old arrangements were still valid.” (Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, Nashville:Abingdon, 1989, p. 29) Leo XII, Pius VIII, Gregory XVI, Pius IX—none of them seemed capable of realizing that the old order was over and a new day had dawned. It was an age of the bourgeoisie, not the nobility; an age shaped by rational thought, not religious doctrine; an age of democracy not absolutism; an age of people thinking for themselves, not of being dictated to. Catholicism was seen as a relic and few people thought it would outlast the secular power of the popes. They were wrong, of course, but the Church survived by—despite the syllabus of errors—adapting itself to the modern world—maybe not fully and certainly not happily, but adapting none the less. All that being said, Leo XIII who became pope in 1878 seemed to usher in a new era. He was a man who was practical, yet wise. Leo liked liberal thinkers—we have seen that with Gibbons and Newman. But the fact of the matter is that when he realized the implications of modern thought for the faith, he panicked and he put his views of Doctrine and Society in separate compartments—air and watertight. Remaining a social liberal, he reacted strong to liberal theology affected by higher biblical criticism and the critical spirit of contemporary Protestant dogmatics. Leo established the Pontifical Biblical Commission not to suppress higher biblical criticism completely but certainly to restrict its growth by establishing some strong limits to what conclusions biblical scholars could come to regarding Divine Inspiration of the Scriptures and Scriptura inerrancy.
Leo’s successor Pius X, unlike Leo, was no liberal. A man of deep personal piety (he would one day be canonized a saint) he was no intellectual and was frightened of new ideas. He was more than frightened; he was actually paranoid of modernism and reacted precipitously at the slightest accusation of modernism, directed towards any theologian. In 1907 he issued a list of 65 theological propositions he considered to be “modernist “and heretical. Pius’ concern was to assert the authority of the Pope and Bishops over Scripture and theology so that the role of theology became not an understanding of the faith as found in Scripture and Tradition, but justifying the faith as defined by the magisterium. The Catholic approach to understanding the scriptures were all but reduced to the most crass fundamentalism ignoring the insights of linguists and historians. Like the Syllabus of Errors, this condemnation (contained in the papal brief, Lamentabili Sane Exitu) shows just how frightened the Roman authorities were of authentic scholarship.
There were several agendas at work. Fear was one—and a legitimate fear of people losing their faith if faith were subject the critique of reason. Indeed, as many of the points that Pius X had condemned have found their way into Catholic audiences in mid-twentieth century, we have seen a grave decline in religious practice in Western Europe and—to a lesser but still dangerous extent—in North America. I think there was also a sense of insecurity when popes and bishops, lacking the intellectual expertise of the scholar, cannot hold their weight as equal partners in the discussions, begin to claim a higher authority not subject to critique by scholars. And I think even further that the Church itself—or rather the men at the helm—were just plain terrifiedthat the bark of Peter would come apart at its seams amidst the turbulent waves of late 19th and 20th century intellectualism.
In the end modernism offered a threat to Church authority by empowering voices other than the pope and bishops to discuss doctrine and practice. Modernism was not an issue in the United States—frankly the Americans were not sufficiently serious scholars to ask the deep and penetrating questions. The American Church has always been a Church of businessmen and lawyers (bishoply businessmen and lawyers, but businessmen and lawyers nonetheless) rather than intellectuals and scholars. Nevertheless to the men behind the desks in Rome—who were not intellectuals themselves, at least for the most part, the independent spirit of both the Americanists and the Modernists made them appear to be interrelated—that wasn’t good for the traditional degree of autonomy which the American Church enjoyed.
The image today is Pope Saint Pius X
The image today is Pope Saint Pius X