American Idol: Rome vs. the 'Modernists'

By Appleby, R. Scott | Commonweal, September 14, 2007 | Go to article overview

American Idol: Rome vs. the 'Modernists'


Appleby, R. Scott, Commonweal


With the advent of a new millennium, what some have called "The American Century" officially came to an end seven years ago. The significance of the United States' rise to world power and, eventually, to lone superpower status, marked as it was by unprecedented economic, military, and cultural influence around the world, will continue to be debated, and experienced, for decades to come.

One wonders how history will judge U.S. influence on the Roman Catholic Church during the twentieth century. Well known are the contributions of Virgil Michel to liturgical reform and John Courtney Murray to the church's stunning endorsement of religious freedom, both of which came to initial fruition in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). If not "Americanists" in the strict sense, these and other mid-century pioneers agreed on the desirability of popular participation in liturgy and church governance and on the importance of the church's autonomy vis-a-vis the state. They had internalized, in short, the hard-won victories of the American "experiment in ordered liberty."

But what about the noble failures of the Americans and Europeans who explored new ways of "thinking with modernity" decades before such experiments could be endorsed? In calling the church to a new engagement with the modern world, Pope John XXIII took the risk of embracing modernity without capitulating to its many errors. One hundred years ago this month, one of his predecessors, Pius X, catalogued those errors, labeled them "Modernism," and did everything in his power to drive from the church, or from positions of influence within it, anyone remotely resembling a "Modernist." A few turn-of-the-century American priests, it turned out, fit the bill.

Though they were never formally accused of Modernism, the major crime of these priests, it seems, was to follow the lead of their European Catholic mentors by defending and advancing the proposition that Catholicism could no longer rely primarily on the philosophical-theological system known as Thomism, as interpreted by its neoscholastic advocates.

Rather, in response to theories of evolution, critical methods of inquiry, and skepticism about the supernatural, these thinkers challenged the church to ransack its past, retrieving alternatives to the "outmoded" system endorsed by the Vatican. We take up the story of these Americanists where it may rightly be said to have begun, in the American heartland.

With all due respect to Peoria, it is noteworthy that its intellectually gifted bishop, John Lancaster Spalding, was stuck there thirty-one years, from 1877 until his retirement in 1908. Neither Spalding's personal entanglements with the Caldwell sisters, benefactors of his pet project, the Catholic University of America, nor his public criticism of the decision to send a Roman apostolic delegate to the United States helped his cause in Rome. But Bishop Spalding was denied promotion to a larger and more influential see, one surmises, in retaliation for public speeches such as the one he delivered at the laying of the cornerstone of Catholic University, on May 24, 1888, where he announced--prematurely, it turned out--the end of the Thomistic era in Catholic thought and the beginning of a brave new experiment with modern philosophy and modern science. "St. Thomas is a powerful intellect," Spalding acknowledged, "but his point of view in all that concerns natural knowledge has long since vanished from sight."

Why, the bishop of Peoria asked, should Europe continue to "be the object of awe and admiration for Catholics?" After all, he claims the modern enthusiasm for the scientific method had originated in the United States, and the torch of knowledge and truth was being handed to a new generation of American thinkers in several disciplines. Why not also in theology and philosophy? Medievalism, the long-honored heritage of European Catholicism, had served its purpose. "What a poverty of learning does the early medieval scheme of education reveal," Spalding opined. …

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