The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era

By Reher, Margaret Mary | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2005 | Go to article overview

The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era


Reher, Margaret Mary, The Catholic Historical Review


American The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era. By Thomas E. Woods, Jr. (New York: Columbia University Press. 2004. Pp. xi, 270. $29.50.)

In this study, begun as a doctoral dissertation at Columbia University, the author intends to demonstrate the vigor of American Catholic intellectual life at the turn ot the twentieth century. Three priest scholars: Thomas Shields, William Kerby, and Edward Pace, faculty members of the fledgling Catholic University, are the study's principal focus. Their challenge lay in the threats of Progressivism and Pragmatism abroad in America. The chief philosophical issue was a general dismissal of "a priori" reasoning foundational to Catholic philosophy. Within this context, Woods offers a detailed analysis of his subjects' writings against the philosophical currents of the day. He argues that they accepted what was of value in the new systems, adopted what could be used, and challenged the rest.

Thomas Shields is a case in point. He appreciated John Dewey's "progressive" system which aimed at educating "the whole child." It suggested a method of presenting religion as a dynamic reality, encompassing music, even the arts, rather than as a static set of questions and answers. But Shields was no "progressive," Woods reminds the reader-his aim was a child completely formed in the faith, not Dewey's "non-denominational citizen." William Kirby, pioneer professor of sociology, never let his enthusiasm for the nescient social sciences blur the distinction between the Church as a "perfect society from God," and sociology, the work of mere humans. In the area of capital and labor, American bishops with their rather remarkable Plan for Social Reconstruction (1919), could make common cause with secular progressives, though they had arrived by a very different philosophical route. The Natural Law theory was basic to the Catholic enterprise. In Woods's retelling, the theory assumes the aura of divine revelation.

For all his research, this reviewer found Woods's study disappointing. When he narrowly focuses on a subject's writing, he is thorough, even exhaustive. …

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