Saturday, January 09, 2010

Modernism -- Part 1

As a freshman at the University of Notre Dame I lived in Zahm Hall, named for the priest-scientist John Zahm. Zahm, I later discovered, was a rather remarkable man, an astute scientist, a devout Catholic, an ardent evolutionist, and a theological reformer earnestly interested in bringing the Church and science into consonance. He was part of what came to be called the Modernist movement within the Church, a "heresy" that flourished in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Although somewhat loosely defined, Modernists tended to oppose a natural/supernatural dualism, were suspicious of miracles, believed in the evolution of dogma within a historical and scientific context, looked for the origins of religion and ideas of God within human nature, supported the democratization of the Church and separation of church and state, and so on. The movement was roundly condemned by Pope Pius X in his 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis. This extraordinary document put the brakes on Modernist thinking within the Church, and reaffirmed the primacy of Scholastic philosophy and the authority of Rome. If the Modernists wanted to make theology subservient to science, the pope stressed unambiguously that the proper relationship was the other way around.

Pascendi Dominici Gregis was as important in affirming a tension between science and faith as was the condemnation of Galileo in the 17th century. The response of the Modernists to the encyclical was threefold. Some, such as Father Zahm, at least publicly acquiesced (his book on evolution and dogma had earlier been placed on the Index of Forbidden Books). Some took the logical next step into agnosticism or outright atheism, leaving the Church entirely. Others simply divided their lives into two parts -- outward obedience to enforced orthodoxy, and private dissent. At the University of Notre Dame, where I spent eight years of my young life, we were given a Scholastic grounding in orthodox theology and a scientific education the equal to that of any secular institution. In accordance with the spirit of Pascendi Dominici Gregis, I had to get the permission of a priest/teacher to take Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution out of the library -- a Modernist document if ever there was one -- but getting permission was simply a matter of asking. It was a strange and discontinuous intellectual environment -- the university walking a delicate line between adherence to Roman authority and building a thoroughly modern university. Although much of the fraughtness was alleviated at the time of Vatican II, the University presumably still feels the pressure of ecclesiastical conformity, as illustrated recently by the conservative reaction to President Obama's invitation to be graduation speaker.

Pius X decreed in his encyclical that "No books or papers or periodicals whatever of this [Modernist] kind are to be permitted to seminarists or university students. The injury to them would be not less than that which is caused by immoral reading...It is not enough to hinder the reading and the sale of bad books -- it is also necessary to prevent them from being published." A half-century ago, when I was a student at Notre Dame, When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy would never have been published by a press associated with the university. How happy I am to see the book appear under the Sorin imprint, in the shadow of Zahm Hall. Pascendi Dominici Gregis attempted to return the Church to a pre-Galilean, anti-science fundamentalism. As it turns out, Modernism is alive and well within the Church -- although all too often it dares not speak its name.

More tomorrow.