Academic journal article Theological Studies

"The Synthesis of All Heresies"-100 Years On

Academic journal article Theological Studies

"The Synthesis of All Heresies"-100 Years On

Article excerpt

To discover who people think they are, what they think they are doing, and to what end they think they are doing it, it is necessary to gain a working familiarity with the frames of meaning within which they enact their lives.

--Clifford Geertz (1)

IN THE FALL OF 1907 Wilfrid Ward was worried. That September Rome had issued the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis, which condemned Modernism as "the synthesis of all heresies." The document had done some synthesizing of its own in order to present Modernism as a coherent system, exposing its philosophical roots and the extent of its reach into multiple areas of Catholic life and thought. What caused Ward no little anxiety was a perception that the encyclical had done its work all too well, casting its net so widely that it seemed to have enmeshed even John Henry Newman. (2) Friedrich von Hugel's concerns were more catholic: rather than desiring the exemption of this or that Catholic from the papal condemnation, for him "the only thing that could make Pascendi tolerable would be a real, and not merely nominal, demonstration of how the document was in fact compatible with the best and the oldest aspects of Christian life and thought." (3) George Tyrrell's reaction was more aggressive. In the course of two articles in the Times he observed, "When the encyclical tries to show the modernist that he is no Catholic, it mostly succeeds in showing him that he is no scholastic--which he knew." (4) Tyrrell was content to see the net cast widely--the better to discredit the authorities who had woven it. (It was these two articles that got Tyrrell excommunicated.) Alfred Loisy responded to Pascendi with "a feeling of deepest depression," which he communicated to Cardinal Merry del Val at the end of September 1907. Loisy went on to write that in the encyclical he found "not merely a solemn denunciation of opinions which, in essential respects, are not those of the persons to whom they are imputed, but also a personal defamation of them." (5) Of course, Pascendi found its expositors and defenders, but it is apparent from this mere sampling that the Vatican's synthesis did not go uncontested. Moreover, a series of measures directed against theological innovators in the years following the condemnation in a climate of denunciation that came to be known as Integralism, together with the imposition of an oath against Modernism in 1910, indicates that authorities were more than willing to enforce the measures set out in the encyclical.

Hence contestation marks the Modernist period (basically coincident with "La Belle Epoque, 1890-1914) and may appropriately serve as a guiding thread through what follows here. This element of contestation is evident in attempts during that period itself to frame the issues and craft appropriate responses. Although the terms under which Modernism was condemned constricted the limits under which Catholic scholars could work, "progressives" continued to grapple with some of the same problems, while taking care to distance themselves from solutions censured as "Modernist." Thus, in the post-Modernist period Modernism and its legacy were far from settled. While "Modernism" remained a contagious stigma, the very diagnosis of the disease could vary, according to the frame of reference of the diagnostician. The third and final section of my article moves from post-Modernism to postmodernism. If the nature of Roman Catholic Modernism was (and, to a degree, still is) contested, all the more so is that of postmodernism. "Many postmodernists would take a dim view of any attempt to 'define' the movement, as such a process, they would claim, is part of the modern agenda." (6) Nonetheless, postmodern perspectives have reframed many of the issues contested between advocates of intellectual and structural renewal at the time of the Modernist crisis and their neo-Scholastic critics. Some appreciation of the postmodern contestation of modernity is necessary for gaining perspective on Modernism and its condemnation 100 years on. …

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