The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era

The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era

The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era

The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era


As the twentieth century opened, American intellectuals grew increasingly sympathetic to Pragmatism and empirical methods in the social sciences. The Progressive program as a whole -- in the form of Pragmatism, education, modern sociology, and nationalism -- seemed to be in agreement on one thing: everything was in flux. The dogma and "absolute truth" of the Church were archaisms, unsuited to modern American citizenship and at odds with the new public philosophy being forged by such intellectuals as John Dewey, William James, and the New Republic magazine. Catholics saw this new public philosophy as at least partly an attack on them.

Focusing on the Catholic intellectual critique of modernity during the period immediately before and after the turn of the twentieth century, this provocative and original book examines how the Catholic Church attempted to retain its identity in an age of pluralism. It shows a Church fundamentally united on major issues -- quite unlike the present-day Catholic Church, which has been the site of a low-intensity civil war since the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Defenders of the faith opposed James, Dewey, and other representatives of Pragmatism as it played out in ethics, education, and nationalism. Their goals were to found an economic and political philosophy based on natural law, to appropriate what good they could find in Progressivism to the benefit of the Church, and to make America a Catholic country.

The Church Confronts Modernity explores how the decidedly nonpluralistic institution of Christianity responded to an increasingly pluralistic intellectual environment. In a culture whose chief value was pluralism, they insisted on the uniqueness of the Church and the need for making value judgments based on what they considered a sound philosophy of humanity. In neither capitulating to the new creed nor retreating into a self-righteous isolation, American Catholic intellectuals thus laid the groundwork for a half-century of intellectual vitality.


WHEN FATHER THOMAS J. GERRARD opened the July 1912 issue of the monthly Catholic World with a lengthy article titled “Modern Theories and Moral Disaster,” he conveyed the unease felt by American Catholic thinkers as they surveyed their intellectual milieu in the early twentieth century. From philosophy and economics to art and education, Gerrard explained, the modern world was growing increasingly antagonistic toward Christendom. The subjectivism that had begun with Descartes and that had become more pronounced over the following three centuries of philosophic thought was at last reaching its ultimate destination—not merely in atheism but also in radical individualism, self-indulgence, and even nihilism.

Catholics were not alone, of course, in their alienation from modern developments; historians of American thought and culture have amply documented the apprehension and fear that many ordinary Americans felt when confronted with so much intellectual dislocation all at once. It was indeed a time of disorientation. Darwin's theory of evolution, which according to one scientist “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” only grew in influence in the decades following the publication of The Origin of Species (1859). In place of Christianity's teleological understanding of an orderly universe created by a benevolent God, this new creed pointed to a cosmos born of chaos and chance, materialistic and purposeless. Pragmatism in philosophy not only subjected traditional metaphysics to attack and ridicule—and was not infrequently an explicit assault on medieval Scholasticism—but also seemed to strike at the very idea of fixed standards of right and wrong. Modernity's assault was indeed unrelenting, for no sooner were principles of morality said to be relative to time and place than Einstein, in 1919, demonstrated with his General Theory that time and place were themselves relative. Catholics' assessment of the age, writes historian Patrick Carey, “was not just a narrow-

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