Modernism ~ James Akin


by James Akin

Founders: Fr. Alfred Loisy, Fr. George Tyrrell, and others

Dates: 1900-1910, 1966-present

Principal Errors:

(1) God cannot be known and proved to exist by natural reason;(2)
external signs of revelation, such as miracles and prophecies, do not
prove the divine origin of the Christian religion and are not suited
to the intellect of modern man; (3) Christ did not found a Church;
(4) and the essential structure of the Church can change; (5) the
Church’s dogmas continually evolve over time so that they can change
from meaning one thing to meaning another; (6) faith is a blind
religious feeling that wells up from the subconscious under the
impulse of a heart and a will trained to morality, not a real assent
of the intellect to divine truth learned by hearing it from an
external source.


The heresy of Modernism was inspired by tendencies prevalent in
liberal Protestantism and secular philosophy. It was influenced by
nineteenth-century studies by Kant and Hegel, by liberal Protestant
theologians and biblical critics (such as Schleiermacher and von
Harnack), by the evolutionary theories of Darwin, and by certain
liberal political movements in Europe. The centers of Modernism were
in France, England, Italy, and Germany. Two of its leading figures
were Fr. Alfred Loisy, a French theologian and Scripture scholar, and
Fr. George Tyrrell, an Irish-born Protestant who became a Catholic
and a Jesuit, though he was dismissed from the Jesuits in 1906.

The heresy:

Pope Piux X dubbed Modernism “the synthesis of all heresies.”
Modernists viewed doctrine not as a means of obtaining supernatural
knowledge, but as a symbol of an unknowable ultimate reality or as a
symbol of human religious expression. Because they do not contain
genuine knowledge of the supernatural, theological dogmas are
relative and may adopted or rejected based on whether they exercise
power over people’s imaginations. Those dogmas which are found
productive to people’s religious sentiments are to be accepted, then
abandoned when they are no longer found satisfying. Dogmas may thus
change over time, either being completely rejected or re- interpreted
and given a meaning different than what they originally had.

Since dogmas do not give us knowledge of the supernatural and
religion is best viewed as an expression of human religious
aspirations, no real, objective knowledge of God is possible.
Intellectual arguments in favor of his existence are useless, as are
arguments based on miracles or fulfilled prophecies. In the Modernist
view, the only knowledge we can have of God is subjective, found in
individual religious experiences (which are binding on only those who
receive them).

Since God is found primarily or exclusively in the human heart-in
subjective experience-he is profoundly immanent in the world.
Modernism has a tendency toward pantheism (the doctrine that God is
identical with the world or a part of it), emphasizing his immanence
at the expense of his transcendence.

Because theology does not give us knowledge of the supernatural,
Scripture is best viewed as an expression of profound religious
experiences had by its authors, but not as a sure guide to a
knowledge of God and his ways. Scripture is not free from human error
and contains much symbol and myth. Since it is historically
unreliable and based on human religious sentiment, there is a gap
between what it records and what actually took place.

This gap means that there is a great difference between the glorious
Christ the Church proclaims (the Christ of faith) and the human Jesus
who walked the hills of Israel (the Jesus of history). Jesus did not
know (at least for certain) that he was the Messiah or God Incarnate.
He did not intend to found a Church. He did not bestow the earthly
leadership of this Church upon Peter. Except for baptism and the
Lord’s Supper, Christ did not institute any sacraments, and even
these have been heavily colored by Christian theological reflection.

In view of the fact that theological dogmas are relative, all
Christian denominations are equal with the Catholic Church. Even
non-Christian religions are valid expressions of man’s religious
yearnings. It follows that the Church should have no special
relationship with the state and that the state has no duty to uphold
and promote the true religion. Instead of openly acknowledging that
the state’s power comes from God (Rom. 13:1) through Jesus Christ
(Matt. 28:18), the state should be indifferent to all religions and
to those with no religion.

Orthodox response:

Although key Modernist claims had already been censured by Pius IX’s
<Syllabus of Errors> (1864) or infallibly condemned by the First
Vatican Council (1870), whose status as an ecumenical council was
challenged by many Modernists, it was necessary for the magisterium
to take new action.

In December 1903, Pope Pius X approved a decree of the Holy Office
that placed five of Loisy’s works on the Index of Forbidden Books.
Works by other Modernist authors were placed on the Index as well.

In June 1907 the Holy Office published a decree titled <Lamentabili>,
which condemned 65 Modernist propositions. Pope Pius X added his
censure to this document, declaring each and all of the errors to be
condemned and proscribed.

In September the Pope published the encyclical <Pascendi Dominici
Gregis>, which further condemned Modernism. In November he published
a motu proprio titled <Praestantia Scripturae>, which bound Catholics
in conscience to embrace the decisions of the Pontifical Biblical
Commission and imposed the penalty of excommunication on those who
contradicted <Lamentabili> or <Pascendi>.

Modernist leaders began to be excommunicated. Tyrrell was
excommunicated in 1907 and Loisy in 1908.

In September 1910 Pius X published an oath against Modernism which
all clerics before the sub-diaconate, confessors, preachers, pastors,
canons, benifice-holders, seminary professors, officials in Roman
congregations and episcopal curias, and religious superiors were
required to take.

This oath required one to reject the six principal errors listed
above, to affirm and assent to <Lamentabili> and <Pascendi>, and to
reject a variety of other errors, especially those opposing doctrine
and history (such as the difference between the Christ of faith and
the Jesus of history). Only 40 priests in the entire world refused to
take the anti-Modernist oath, which effectively ended the Modernist
crisis for the short term.

Tyrrell died in 1909, depriving the movement of one of its central
pillars. As he lay dying he was given a conditional absolution
(conditional on his mentally retracting his errors; he was too ill to
speak) and extreme unction. His friend and supporter, Miss Maude
Petre, who cared for his as he died, refused to take the
anti-Modernist oath and was barred from the sacraments, though not
formally excommunicated. Loisy died in 1940.

In the middle of the century, a strand of Modernism erupted through
the writings of Fr.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, leading to Pope Pius
XII’s 1950 encyclical <Humanae Generis.>

Modern Parallels:

Following Vatican II, the Index and the anti-Modernist oath were
abolished (in 1966 and 1967, respectively). Modernism reappeared
under the influence of theologians and writers such as Hans Kung,
Edward Schillebeeckx, and Charles Curran. These clerics challenged
papal and scriptural infallibility, rejected Catholic moral teachings
(such as on contraception), and began to promote ideas such as
women’s ordination to the priesthood. Over time, these individuals
were censured by the Church and prohibited from presenting themselves
as Catholic theologians.

In response to the neo-Modernist crisis, Pope John Paul II issued in
1992 the <Catechism of the Catholic Church>, the first Church-wide
catechism in four hundred years. In 1993 he released the encyclical
<Veritatis Splendor> to correct errors in Catholic moral teaching. In
1994 he issued <Ordinatio Sacerdotalis>, definitively rejecting the
idea of women’s ordination. He is said to be readying an encyclical
on sexual morality that is expected to reaffirm the teaching given in
<Humanae Vitae>.


4. The magisterium of the Church, even by dogmatic definitions,
cannot determine the genuine sense of the sacred Scriptures.

5. Since in the deposit of faith only revealed truths are contained,
in no respect does it pertain to the Church to pass judgment on the
assertions of human sciences.

7. When the Church proscribes errors, she cannot exact any internal
assent of the faithful by which the judgments published by her are

11. Divine inspiration does not so extend to all sacred Scripture so
that it fortifies each and every part of it against all error.

14. In many narratives the Gospel writers related not so much what is
true, as what they thought to be more profitable for the reader,
although false.

18. John, indeed, claims for himself the character of an eyewitness
concerning Christ, but in reality he is nothing but a distinguished
witness of the Christian life or of the life of the Christian Church
at the end of the first century.

25. The assent of faith ultimately depends on an accumulation of

27. The divinity of Jesus Christ is not proved from the Gospels but
is a dogma which the Christian conscience has deduced from the notion
of the Messiah.

28. When Jesus was exercising his ministry, he did not speak with the
purpose of teaching that he was the Messiah, nor did his miracles
have as their purpose to demonstrate this.

29. It may be conceded that the Christ whom history presents is far
inferior to the Christ who is the object of faith.

35. Christ did not always have the consciousness of his Messianic

36. The resurrection of the Savior is not properly a fact of the
historical order, but a fact of the purely supernatural order,
neither demonstrated nor demonstrable, and which the Christian
conscience gradually derived from other sources.

52. It was foreign to the mind of Christ to establish a Church as a
society upon earth to endure for a long course of centuries; rather,
in the mind of Christ the kingdom of heaven together with the end of
the world was to come presently.

53. The organic constitution of the Church is not immutable, but
Christian society, just as human society, is subject to perpetual

55. Simon Peter never even suspected that the primacy of the Church
was entrusted to him by Christ.

64. The progress of the sciences demand that the concepts of
Christian doctrine about God, creation, revelation, the person of the
incarnate Word, and redemption be readjusted.

65. Present day Catholicism cannot be reconciled with true science
unless it be transformed into a kind of non-dogmatic Christianity,
that is, into a broad and liberal Protestantism.

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