The Catholic Modernists

This is a book a good many people have been looking forward to, ever since it was announced. John Ratté has made a specialty of the study of the evolution of liberal, radical, progressive and modernist Catholicism in the nineteenth and twenties centuries. Presumably he knows as much about the subjects — plural, each one of these adjectives refers to a different school of thought, a different group of men — as anybody now writing. Yet this is not the book I for one had hoped for. Perhaps it is the generation gap. Ratté makes it all seem very remote. Although he would certainly say he was most sympathetic with Loisy, Tyrrell and Sullivan, here is a case where that infinitely misused term “empathy” can be used correctly. He just doesn’t seem to have much Einfuhling, much visceral identification, with the gut agonies of his subjects. The fact that he treats all three men more or less as equals, and as more or less the same kind of “modernists,” is sufficient proof of his lack of deep feeling for them. They are actually very unlike, and Sullivan is as remote as can be from the other two.

Alfred Loisy was a late-born member of the French Enlightenment, a rationalist of the orthodox school. When he left the Church, this is what he became, and it is the last lingering descendants of Voltaire, Tom Paine and Robert Ingersoll, who read him today. For all his connections with German Higher Criticism of the Gospels, he was utterly French. In France the Church is, even today, a social institution, with roots that sink deep through the centuries and millenniums to, not just Roman or Gallic times, but to the mysteries of the caves of the Dordogne, the rites of passage and of the year, that subtly reshape the ceremonies of the Church in remote villages in the Massif Central — but which also still determine the kind and quality of devotion in St. Severin, the parish of the most radical intellectuals, in Paris. It is the almost instinctual urge to preserve the special tremendum which haunts French society at its most significant moments that is responsible for the Goddess of Reason enthroned on the altar at Notre Dame by the Revolution, the High Church rituals of the Comteans, and even for the ceremonial sins of Baudelaire, Gourmont and Huysmans. Had Loisy been left to his own devices, and not forced to quit the Church, he would have become the apostle of a ritualistic, agnostic, intensely chauvinistic, social cultus, very like Japanese Shinto in the years just before War Two. Neither the evangelical Jesus, in all ways made like unto us, nor the prayer life of the Catholic mystics, nor the re-creation of a specifically Christian philosophy, like the Fathers of the Church or the modern Russians, meant much to Loisy. It is precisely these aspects of the Church, as well as its Ultramontane political structure, that he wished to do away with.

Sullivan is not relevant, except to show in what a distorting mirror English and French modernism appeared in the United States. Both Loisy and Tyrrell were amongst the least vulgar of modern religious thinkers, and von Hügel was so refined that he was inaccessible to almost all of his contemporaries in the Church. (Which is probably the real reason he was not condemned.) Sullivan was what is wrong with the Church — any contemporary Christian Church in America — pushed to its logical conclusions. He was shockingly vulgar. Ratté quotes some pretty embarrassing things from his published and unpublished writings, but he apparently assumes that no one is likely to go back and read Sullivan. Try it. You can find his novel in most big libraries. Queasy is a mild term for the reaction to a full dose of William L. Sullivan. I suppose he does represent one tendency in modern Catholicism — that tendency which has produced a liturgy in the language of the luncheon clubs and a confessional modeled on Dear Abby. What is modern about it? This we have always with us. Bingo. Many sincere men believe that if you can just talk the language of a spiritually famished society dominated by the cash nexus and with TV tastes, you can convert that society, or at least nibble around its edges. I believe this is a grave error, due to the fact that the clergy simply cannot communicate at all with the socially alienated and corrupted except in the most catastrophic emergencies. Jive liturgies and rock Masses mimic, they do not communicate. Sullivan doesn’t mimic — he is a natural-born Babbitt.

Father George Tyrrell is a different kettle of fish altogether. His life was centered on prayer. He was blest with a soul of exceptional natural nobility. His primary vocation was pastoral — as confessor and spiritual counselor. Everything he wrote was shaped by the passionate concern of a contemplative for the cure of souls, and it cannot be understood properly if divorced from that living context. He was also the only man in the entire movement of reform, from Acton to the American Paulists, who was manifestly what the Church, if it had not expelled him, would have called a saint. Loisy is reasonable, Sullivan is rhetorical, Tyrrell is passionate, and these qualities are applied by each specifically to the love of God and the love of man. Loisy and Sullivan are chauvinists, Sullivan not a little crazy on the subject. Tyrrell never gives up a mystical quest for the City of God. Even after he was expelled, some of the most sensitive and acute religious intelligences in England, both Roman Catholic and Anglican, continued to go to Father Tyrrell for spiritual counsel, if not confession. I can imagine going to confession to either Sullivan or Loisy only on a stormy night when far, far from home, and heavy burdened.

One of the most annoying things about Ratté’s book is its constant slight, subtle undertone of depreciation of both Loisy and Tyrrell — especially Tyrrell — but not of Sullivan. Ratté is the master of the gently pejorative, and of the innocent quotation en deshabille. Or is this what the book is all about? Is the inclusion of Sullivan with these two large-souled, richly cultivated men delicate a exercise in vulgarization by association? Again, both Loisy and Tyrrell are judged by what they became after they were expelled. This is manifestly unjust. Tyrrell lived on only a short while, and always in great mental pain, and he certainly never ceased to think of himself, except in brief moments of despair, as anything but a Roman Catholic. He never even showed any interest in returning to the Anglicanism from which he had come, and where he had hundreds of followers and many more sympathizers. Loisy was no different than countless French priests, from Suger of Brabant to today, who are devout Catholic skeptics.

Most important, it is extremely unjust to portray the modernist movement as an attack on the Church. It was exactly the opposite. It was an attempt to construct a new defense, which would answer the modern challenger in terms he could understand. The modernists were acutely aware that Darwin, Freud, William James, Einstein, or even James Joyce, defined a universe of discourse which lay outside that defined by the opponents of St. Thomas, and that the old apologetic was simply not relevant. (I don’t of course mean that they had heard of all these individuals, some of whom came to public notice after their time.) Tyrrell and von Hügel conceived of this apologetic as founded on a specifically Christian philosophy, something which had not existed in the main tradition of the Western Church since Origen and St. Clement — who did not belong to the Western Church. It is interesting to compare the first tentative steps of the modernists toward a Christian, not a Christianized, philosophy, with the normal development of Russian philosophy from the beginnings to Berdyaev. What seemed an adventure into unexplored territory to them was just the accepted and familiar field of Russian Orthodox thought. This, obviously, is due to the abiding power of the tradition of the Fathers of the Church in Orthodoxy.

So likewise, it was in Anglicanism that the modernists met with their greatest response, and precisely because the Anglo-Catholic movement since the days of Keble, Pusey and Newman had been founded on two rocks — one of which was the Apostolic and Patristic Christian world view. The other was the interpretation of the Christian experience as the experience of Christ — what His experience was, and what others experienced when their lives touched His. Even Loisy, who was hardly a mystic, realized that this meant, beyond Christology and the analysis of texts, the living experience of the Christian community, the fellowship of the Christian experience. As Wittgenstein used to say of philosophy, “What do we do when we do Christianity?” On this hangs all the law and the prophets — but the first and greatest commandment and the second that is like unto it, are forms of prayer, and this Father Tyrrell, counselor of seekers, never forgot.

Exegesis, philosophy, liturgics, the concerns of aggiornamento, bear little resemblance to those of the modernists of the beginning of the century. Roman Catholicism dropped them and passed them by and has come at the basic dilemmas by quite different routes. Not so with Anglicanism. The documents of modern Anglo-Catholic theology and apologetics are not just deeply indebted to Tyrrell and von Hügel, they are all part of an essentially developing tradition. The most reliable historian of Catholic modernism is the Anglican Alec Vidler, quoted often by John Ratté, and in his books Bishop Charles Gore, Father Thornton, Bishop Weston, Essays Catholic and Critical, A.E. Taylor, and the rest, march along in order with Tyrrell and von Hügel, nobody breaking ranks in the development of a contemporary Catholic apologetic which has grown up alongside, and quite independent of, the leaders of the world of Post-Vatican Two. This last Advent season, while considering this review, I have read once again Father Tyrrell’s meditations on the Spirit of Christ and the Prayer of Christ, Lex Credendi. This is Tyrrell at the high point, spiritually, of his career, and it is certainly meaningful still in a way that much of the New Theology is not, and it is certainly intensely, inexpungibly, Catholic.

It seems to me that there are two drives operating today, two contradictory definitions of aggiornamento. One is the now long dead Liberal Protestantism which is given lip service in the luncheon clubs and all the forums of the Social Lie, the apotheosis of spiritual vulgarity. If this wins, it means the end of Catholicism, Christianity, religion, all interiority. The other is simply a more developed concept of prayer, and the opening of all life to its pervasiveness. This is not new at all, but Patristic, Apostolic, Evangelical — or if you will, a clarification of the religious experience as such, so that it might be shared by all men, today. Father Tyrrell and Baron von Hügel were amongst the first to be acutely aware of this antithesis in modern religion. It is obvious which side they chose, which is why they are so desperately relevant today.


This essay, a review of John Ratté’s Three Modernists: Alfred Loisy, George Tyrrell, William L. Sullivan (1967), originally appeared in The New Republic (1968) and was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Copyright 1970. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays