July 29, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

20th-century Church: Pope Pius X condemns modernism

John F. Fink(First in a series of columns)

The Catholic Church was a much different church at the end of the 20th century than it was at its beginning. Perhaps the difference is best shown by the fact that Pope Pius X condemned modernism in 1907.

Modernism was never formally defined, but the English modernist George Tyrrell said that a modernist was “any Christian of any denomination who is convinced that the essential truths of his religion and the essential truths of modern society can enter into a synthesis.” Pope Pius X disagreed.

Pius X is a saint, canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1954. He had a profound effect on the spiritual renewal of the Church, especially in reference to devotion to the Eucharist. But he was also a traditionalist who could not abide modern methods of scholarship.

He particularly disliked historical studies by theologians and scholars that showed how Catholic doctrines developed over the centuries. Specifically, he deplored Scripture scholars who were showing that the Bible could not be read as a literal account of history.

In 1902, Father Alfred Loisy published The Gospel and the Church in which he said that the Gospels were never meant to be a biography of Jesus, but were records of the early Church’s faith experience. That’s what the Church teaches now, but in 1902 it was considered heretical.

When he became pope, Pius X condemned Loisy’s writings.

On July 3, 1907, Pius X had the Holy Office publish a decree that condemned 65 modernist propositions, and outlined ways to keep modernism out of seminaries and schools. Two months later, the pope issued the encyclical “Pascendi” in which he tried to impose a systematic destruction of modernism. He decreed that all clergy must take an oath disavowing modernism.

To carry out this suppression, Pius X ordered every diocese to set up a “vigilance committee” to root out any signs of modernism. These committees were to do their work in absolute secrecy. Anyone who disagreed with the condemnation of modernism was to be excommunicated. The Vatican also set up a network of spies in some dioceses who kept their work secret and communicated in code. It seemed like a return to the days of the Inquisition.

This had a devastating effect on Catholic scholarship. Seminaries were forced to teach a biblical fundamentalism. Scholars were forbidden to question whether Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament (he didn’t), whether Isaiah had more than one author (it did), whether Matthew was the first Gospel written (it wasn’t), or whether Paul wrote the Letter to the Hebrews (he didn’t).

Those who supported Pius X called themselves “integral Catholics.” They began to search out for denunciation those whom they considered less than Catholics. Among those denounced were two future popes—Benedict XV and John XXIII.

Fortunately for the Church, the anti-modernist witch-hunt didn’t last past the death of Pius X in 1914. His successor, Benedict XV, condemned integralism in his first encyclical, and dismissed integralists within the Curia. But the reputation of the Church among scholars suffered well beyond that time. †

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