“American Modernism” by Father Brian Van Hove, SJ

American Modernism

“Americanism” must be introduced before the term “American Modernism”. The preface to the French translation of the Life of Father Hecker (1819-1888) impressed some in the Roman Curia that ideas widespread in the church in the United States included forming a “national church” with its own particularities. In this ultramontane era the Curia micro-managed bishops.

The ideal form of civil government was a benevolent monarchy, a union of church and state in the style of the ancien régime, even after 1891-1892 when Leo XIII technically sanctioned a republican form of government with a policy known as the Raillement. The preface to the French translation of the Life of Father Hecker generated anxiety. Perhaps there were other reports never made public.

An assessment of the church in America was written by the pope in 1895 in the encyclical Longinqua Oceani Spatia. This statement about the development of the mission church in the United States was positive. The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore had concluded in December 1884, and the church in America was growing and well-ordered.

By contrast, the 1899 encyclical Testem Benevolentiae signed by the aging Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) was a mild paternal call for vigilance addressed to the unofficial primate in Baltimore, Cardinal James Gibbons (1834-1921). Leo took into account the possible mistranslation of the French preface. But there was added concern to stop any incipient “heresy of activism” (synonymous to some Europeans with “Americanism”) which may have entered the church through the Protestant-dominated culture of the United States. Possibly some Catholics in America seemed prideful of their American ways to the denigration of the European church which to them lagged behind American-style democracy.

Certain prelates were considered sympathetic to some version of “Americanism”, yet no bishop (neither John Ireland, John Lancaster Spalding, nor John Joseph Keane) or seminary professor or other ecclesiastic was accused of instilling or tolerating the elusive phantom of “Americanism”. The United States remained a missionary land until 1908 and there were no further public letters from Rome after Testem Benevolentiae. The drama took place in Europe. A few regarded “Americanism” as a prelude to “Modernism” in the United States.

Probably some European Catholic intellectuals had no clear method to “digest” scientific thought, especially after Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) made institutional Thomism mandatory. The challenge of German Idealism in philosophy, the rise of the notion of scientific progress, evolutionary theory, socialism, and the application of scientific methods to the study of Scripture (and to everything else in society and religion) were at first difficulties awaiting integration with the faith. This situation is best seen in the history of Liberal Protestantism when the Reformed tradition did not integrate the new science with faith, but was instead overwhelmed and lost its soul. Much of classical Protestantism simply disintegrated and the acceptance of new ideas led to the abandonment of historical Christianity.

Modernism not only applied new criticism to the study of the Bible but also to dogma. This resulted in deemphasizing the doctrinal tradition and the content of the creeds and replacing them with the humanistic aspects of religion. There was a shift to the immanent rather than the transcendent nature of God. Modernist or “liberal” ideas, often originating in Germany, were accepted in all or in part by mainline Protestant denominations in Europe and in America.

Likewise in respect to the belated Catholic Modernist movement was the adoption of the “higher” critical approach to the Bible, by then already accepted in most Protestant churches, and the rejection of Thomistic philosophy and theology, with a corresponding subordination of doctrine to praxis or ethics. Modernists applied the pragmatic method to the sacraments, to dogma, and to prayer. They considered the sacraments to have no reality as divinely ordained means of grace, but valuable only for their psychological effect. These tendencies led them to deny the authority of the church and the traditional Christian concept of the triune God.

Had the First Vatican Council been able to finish its work, some of these issues would have been dealt with, but the aborted council ending in 1870 left the task of managing the relationship between modern thought and the Catholic Church to the papacy. Pope Saint Pius X (1835–1914) in 1907 issued Lamentabile Sane, the Apostolic Constitution on a Syllabus of Errors Condemning Modernism, and also in 1907 Pascendi Dominici Gregis.

Thought generated in Europe came to America. Some American Catholic clerical intellectuals were associated with what was known as “Modernism”. Modernist or not, the names of  John Gmeiner, John Zahm, Francis Gigot, James Driscoll, William L. Sullivan, John Slattery, Henry Poels (1868-1948), Thomas O’Gorman, and Denis J. O’Connell, were on the list. Sullivan and Slattery left the church in the manner of Alfred Loisy. O’Gorman and O’Connell were made bishops and John Zahm in 1897 became Provincial of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Poels, a Dutchman, was unjustly dismissed from his professorship at The Catholic University of America when he refused to affirm the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Because they taught in seminaries, the Sulpicians came in for scrutiny.

In 1895 Zahm first attempted to show the compatibility of Catholicism and evolution.  In 1910 Sullivan published his Letters to His Holiness Pope Pius X after formally repudiating Roman Catholicism. William Laurence Sullivan (1872-1935) was a Paulist priest who became a liberal Unitarian minister. The connection between “Americanism” and the Paulist Fathers founded by Isaac Hecker was already in focus. Leaders of the Paulist community denied that their founder, Isaac Hecker, was in any way unorthodox, and they did not encourage Sullivan in his doubts. However, the community considered itself avant-garde, and in 1909 five Paulist priests resigned from the priesthood after the condemnation of Modernism and the excommunications of Alfred Loisy and George Tyrell.

After the Paulists, the second American religious community for men was the St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart or “Josephites”, founded in 1893 to work among blacks in the South. Their superior general was John R. Slattery (1851-1926), who first found himself scandalized by racism among Catholics, then came under the influence of biblical criticism. He left the Church in 1906 and moved to France.

Although Archbishop John Ireland (1838-1913) once offered the French Modernist Alfred Loisy a professorship in the St. Paul seminary, the “Americanist” leaders had little knowledge of the doctrinal issues at stake in European Modernism. When several of them visited France in 1905, Loisy was disappointed that they were indifferent to the issues which preoccupied him. The Americans seemed only interested in their “successful” model of church-state relations.

Francis Patrick Duffy (1862-1932) was the editor of the New York Review when it fell under suspicion of Modernism and was suppressed in 1907. The Review had printed European articles on biblical criticism. Duffy went into parish work and was later a friend of the convert Joyce Kilmer. In 1927 Duffy was consulted by Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York, a Catholic running for president, on the subject of freedom of conscience in a pluralistic state.

Much later, the small élite of priests and bishops associated with the Americanist controversy or the Modernist crisis have been canonized by post-Vatican II ideological liberals as martyrs who were ahead of their time. They point to the overreaction of the intransigent, “reactionary” Roman Curia and to the repression (and paranoia) which followed the papal condemnations of 1907 and the excommunications in Europe in 1908 when “progressive” thought became off limits to Catholic institutional life.

However, after the rise of Liberal Protestantism and its total abandonment of the Christian faith, and after the inability of the First Vatican Council to reconvene, it was necessary for the central teaching office of the Catholic Church to act. It did this by determining the boundaries of religious orthodoxy, protecting the deposit of faith, and preventing the church from going the way of Liberal Protestantism. The means to the end were imperfect, and even more imperfectly applied, but a remedy was in order.

The majority of Catholic intellectuals remained in the church in the Modernist period and subsequently, laboring to integrate new ideas with the traditional faith. Upon becoming pope in 1914, Benedict XV tried to heal the wounds left by the Modernist crisis.


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Rev. Brian Van Hove, S.J.
Alma, Michigan

Published in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, vol. 108, no. 7 (April 2008): 54-57.


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