Catholicism and "Modernism"
The hope of modernists to diminish the orthodoxy of the Church
There are two sharply defined views as to the significance of what is called "modern religious thought." The first -- that of the thinkers in question -- is that it marks the beginning of an epoch, that it has immense promises for the future, that it is about to transform, little by little, all religious opinion and especially such opinions as are called "orthodox." The second view is that it marks the end of an epoch, that it is of the nature of a melancholy process at last discredited, that it is about to be re-absorbed in the organism from which it takes its origin or lost in the sands of time. Let us examine these two points of view.
The modern thinkers take their rise, practically, from the religious upheaval of the sixteenth century. At that period of Christendom the establishment of the principle of nationalism in religion struck the first blow against the idea of a final revelation guaranteed by an infallible authority, for the substitution, as a court of appeal, of a written nook for a living voice could only be a transitional step toward the acceptance by each individual, in whose hands the book is placed, of himself as interpreter of it. Congregationalism followed nationalism, and individualism (or pure Protestantism) congregationalism; and since both the nation and the congregation disclaimed absolute authority, little by little there came into existence the view that "true religion" was that system of belief which each individual thought out for himself; and, since these individuals were not found to agree together, "truth" finally became more and more subjective, until there was established the most characteristically modern form of thought -- namely that truth was not absolute at all and that what was true and imperative for one was not true nor imperative for another. Further, the original acceptance of the Bible as containing divine revelation became itself modified by internal criticism until at the present day we find "modern religion" practically to consist in an attitude of mind, more or less Christian in sentiment, though often indignantly claiming the name, in an ethical system and a belief in progress toward an undefined and only gradually realizable goal rather than in an acceptance of a series of historical events and of dogmas built upon them.
On the other side stands that body of opinion represented by the Catholic Church, whose tenets are as they have always been -- involving, and indeed founded upon, the idea that theology is not, as the other sciences, merely progressive and inductive but is rather the working out, under divine guarantees, of a body of truth revealed by God two thousand years ago.
We find then at the present day two mutually exclusive views of the future of religion. To the "modern thinker" it appears certain that the process begun almost instinctively in the sixteenth century, justified as it seems to be by the advance of science and criticism, will continue indefinitely, to the final destruction of the other view. To the Catholic it appears equally certain that the crumbling of all systematic authority down to that of the individual, and the impossibility of discovering any final court in Protestantism to which the individual will bow, is the death sentence of every attempt to find religious truth outside that infallible authority to whose charge, he believes, truth has been committed. The view of the writer of this paper is emphatically the second of these two.
That the "modern system" has accomplished great things and made important contributions to thought is of course obvious. Much of the useful work that has been done recently, especially in the direction of popularizing science, as well as of correlating discoveries and compiling statistics, particularly in the sphere of comparative religion, has been done by these independent thinkers. But they have injured their own usefulness by assuming an authority which, by their own profession, they repudiate and by displaying an almost amazing ignorance of the significance of certain enormous facts and even of the existence of the facts themselves.
A second criticism of "modern religious thought" is that it attempts to restrict to terms of a part of human nature that which is the affair of the whole of human nature; it tends to reject all evidence which is not the direct object of the intellect in its narrowest sense. Mr. Arthur Balfour, in his Foundations of Belief, put the truth about the matter in a single sentence, to the effect that any system of religion which was small enough for our intellectual capacity could not be large enough for our spiritual needs. Professor Romanes traces the beginning of his return from materialism to Christianity to the discovery of that same truth. He had always rejected, he tells us, the evidence of the heart in his search for religious truth, until he reflected that without the evidence of the heart no truth worth knowing can be discovered at all.
The historian cannot interpret events rightly unless he is keenly and emotionally interested in them; the sociologist cannot interpret events adequately unless he personally knows something of passion; and more than all this, the very finest instincts of the human race, by which the greatest truths are arrived at -- the principle of the sacrifice of the strong in the cause of the weak, for instance, all art, all poetry (and these are as objective as anything else), chivalry, and the rest -- all these things, with their exceedingly solid results in a thousand directions, could never have come into existence, much less have been formulated and classified, unless the heart had followed, not only as well as the head, but sometimes even in apparent and transient contradiction to the head. Now, modern religious thinkers are undoubtedly acute, but an acute point is more limited than a blunt one. They are acute, in that they dissect with astonishing subtlety that which they can reach; but they do not touch so many data as can a broader surface; and to seek to test all religion by a purely intellectual test, to refuse to treat as important such evidences as do not come within the range of pure intellect, is as foolishly limited and narrow-minded as to seek to deal with Raphael’s Madonnas by a process of chemical analysis. I am not now defending mere emotionalism in attacking mere intellectualism; I am but arguing that man has a heart as well as a head that his heart continually puts him in touch with facts which transcend, though they need not contradict, mere reason; and, with Romanes, that to neglect the evidence of the heart is to rule an eye-witness out of court because he happens not to be a philosopher or a trained detective.
This, then, is the terrible and almost inevitable drawback of the specialistic or academic mind. It has studied so long one particular department of truth that it becomes imbued with an idee fixe that there is no truth obtainable except in that particular department. Certainly these modern critics of supernatural religion are often learned men, and their names accordingly carry weight; yet, in nine cases out of ten, just because of their special knowledge -- or rather because of the specialization of their knowledge and their consequent loss of touch with life and thought as a whole -- they are far less competent judges of the claims of religion than are those men with half their knowledge but twice their general experience. "I have searched the universe with my telescope," cries the astronomer, "and I have not found God." "I have searched the human body with my microscope," cries the biologist, "and I have not found the soul." But did they really expect it? "I have smelt Botticelli’s Primavera, and I have detected no odor of beauty; I have licked a violin all over, but I can find in it no passion or harmony."
So far we have glanced at a couple of very serious defects in the modern method; but undoubtedly there are a great many more. For instance, these "modern thinkers" are perpetually assuming the attitude of standing alone in the world as independent and impartial observers, and there is nothing more disastrous than this for a searcher after truth. None of us is independent or impartial for one instant, ever, anywhere. Each of us begins with a bias, partly temperamental, partly educative, partly circumstantial. Possibly we may succeed in changing our point of view altogether; certainly we all modify it; but we all do, always, occupy some position from which we view the universe. You cannot observe a mountain unless you stand still, and to stand still in one place implies the impossibility of standing still simultaneously in another place.
To take one example of the unhappy effect of not being aware of this very fundamental fact, it is only necessary to glance at biblical criticism. It is notorious that biblical critics who have renounced Christianity’s claim, above all others, approach the Scriptures impartially, but that is exactly what they do not do. They have already decided that the Christian interpretation of the Bible is untrue that the Scriptures are merely the work of more or less acute or imaginative human minds, and they therefore are obliged -- of course unconsciously -- to find evidence for their position. They discover, let us say, that in certain points there are apparent discrepancies in the accounts of Christ’s Resurrection. "You see," they say, "we told you so. The stories do not even agree." A little further on they discover minute and accurate agreement in the various accounts. "You see," they repeat, "it is just as we said. Obviously Matthew has copied from Mark."
Now, I do not desire to blame these critics for taking a biased and prejudiced view of the Scriptures, for I have no doubt that I do myself, but they do deserve blame for pretending that it is not so; and what is worse, their ignorance of their own prejudice is an absolute bar to their making allowance for that prejudice. To use an unpunctual watch is not necessarily to be an unpunctual man; he only is unpunctual who is unaware that his watch is so.
Now, the facts mentioned are surely suggestive, not necessarily of the truth of the Catholic religion, but of the extreme likelihood that that religion, and not a benevolent pantheism or immanentism, is to form the faith of the future. Here is a religious society which is not only up to the present the one single religious force that can really control and unite the masses, but also the one single religious body with clear dogmatic principles which can attract at any rate a considerable selection of the most advanced and cultivated thinkers of the age. It is the easiest thing in the world to become an individualist; it is always easy to believe in the practical infallibility of one’s self -- one only requires the simple equipment of a sufficiently resolute contempt of one’s neighbor -- but it is not very easy to believe in the infallibility of someone else. That requires humility, at least intellectual. The craving for an external authority is not, in spite of a popular and shallow opinion to the contrary, nearly so natural to man as a firm reliance upon his own. Yet here the fact remains of this continuous stream of converts into the most practically and theoretically dogmatic society in the world, of converts who through their education and attainments surely should be tempted, if any were tempted, to remain in the pleasant paradise of individualism and personal popery.
Next, there is the consideration of the undoubted tendency of academic minds to be blind to all data except those which fall under the particular science to which they have devoted themselves -- faced by the very sensible and Catholic way of treating man as a feeling as well as a thinking animal, and of taking into account in the study of truth, not only matters of dry intellect, but those departments of knowledge to which access can only be gained by the heart.
There remain, however, several other signs of the future which must not be disregarded.
Mr. Charles Devas, in his brilliant book, The Key to the World’s Progress, points out by an argument too long to reproduce here that, so far as the word "progress" means anything, it denotes that kind of development and civilization which only makes its appearance, and only is sustained, under the influence of Catholicism. He traces with great sociological learning the state of comparative coma in which "ante-Christian" nations seem always involved; the exuberance of life, for both good and evil, that bursts up so soon as Catholicism reaches them (whether directly, as in the case of Africa and Spain, or indirectly, by imitation, as in the case of Japan); and the activities of corruption that, together with the dying impetus of the old faith, keep things moving, so soon as Catholicism is once more abandoned, as in the case of France. In regard to both virtues and vices, the ante-Christian, the Christian, and the post-Christian nations are clearly and generically distinguished. The object of his book is to indicate the strong probability of the truth of a religion which exhibits these effects, but it is also of service in indicating the probability that that same religion should accompany and inspire progress in the future as it has in the past.
A large and very significant detail in this process lies in the effect of Catholicism on the family. Not only are Catholics more prolific than other nations (directly in virtue of Catholic teaching on the subjects of divorce and race-suicide), but the Church also is the one body that resolutely regards the family, and not the state or the individual, as the unit of growth. And it is simply notorious that where the family is overshadowed by the state, as in the case of Sparta, or by the individual, as in the case of every really autocratic despotism, no virtues of patriotism or courage can avail to save the country from destruction. It seems astonishing that our modern armchair philosophers seem unaware of the significance of all this with regard to the future of religion.
Another sign of the times surely lies in the province of comparative religion. Our more recent researches have taught us, what the Church has consistently known and maintained, that there are great elements of truth common to all religions. Once more our modern theorists have leaped forward enthusiastically and acclaimed the discovery of this very ancient fact as a proof that Catholicism is but one among many faiths and no truer than the rest. "Here," they say, "are contemplation and asceticism in Buddhism, a reverence for the departed among the Confucians, the idea of a divine redeemer in Mithraic worship, and sacramentalism among the American Indians." Very prudently they do not lay stress upon the eternal despair of Buddhism, the puerilities of the Confucians, or the religious brutality and materialism of the Indians. They select those elements of sanity and truth that are distributed among the various faiths of the world, those elements which appeal to all men, in some degree, and find in their diffusion an argument against the one faith that holds them all!
"Comparative religion" has done, in fact, an enormous service to the claims of Catholicism. It has revealed to the world exactly that phenomenon which should be looked for, ex hypothesi, in a divine revelation, namely, that the creed which embodied that revelation should contain, correlated and organized into a whole, all those points of faith of which each merely human system of belief can catch and reflect but one or two. It is inconceivable that, if there is to be at any period of history a revelation from God, many points in that revelation should not have been anticipated, at least partly and fragmentarily, by groups of human minds for which, later, that revelation was intended. In rejecting Catholicism, then, our "modern thinkers" are rejecting not merely one Western creed but a creed that finds an echo of nearly every clause, under some form or another (from the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity down to the use of holy water), in one or another of all the great world-religions that have ever controlled the eternal hopes of men. And yet our "modern thinkers" seriously maintain that the religion of the future is to be one which contains none of these articles of what is, diffusedly, practically universal belief!
One last indication of the future of Catholicism lies in its power of recuperation. Not only is it the sole religion which has arisen in the East and has dominated the West, and now once more is reconquering the East, but it is also the one religion that has been proclaimed as dead, over and over again, and yet somehow has always reappeared. Once "the world groaned to find itself Arian"; now Arius is enshrined in the text-books, and the Creed of Athanasius is repeated by living men. Once Gnosticism trampled on the ancient faith everywhere; now not one man in a hundred could write five lines on what it was that the Gnostics believed. Once the Turks overran Africa and Spain and threatened Christendom itself; now the nations trained by Christianity are wondering how they can best dispose of Constantinople. Nero thought he had crucified Christianity in Peter; now Peter sits on Nero’s seat. Once Elizabeth disemboweled every seminary priest she could lay hands on and established Protestantism in Ireland. Now Westminster Cathedral draws immeasurably larger congregations than Westminster Abbey, where Elizabeth lies buried, and Catholic Irishmen are dictating in an English Parliament how the children in English schools are to be educated.
At every crisis in the history of Christendom -- at the captivity of Avignon, the appearance of Luther, and the capture of Rome in 1870 -- it was declared by "modern thinkers" that Catholicism was discredited forever. And yet, somehow or other, the Church is as much alive today as ever she was -- and that, in spite of the fact that she is, in her faith, committed to the past and to doctrines formulated centuries before modern science was dreamed of.
Is there any other society in the world, secular or sacred, that has passed through such vicissitudes with such a burden on its shoulders and survived? For it is a burden which she cannot shift. She cannot, at least, "recast her theology" and drop unpopular or unfashionable dogmas (as can all sects which claim merely human authority) and yet live. Yet who can doubt that she is more of a force today than all the most accommodating denominations around her? She has lived, too, in the tumultuous rush of Western life, not in the patient lethargy of the East. She has struggled, not only with enemies in her gate, but with her own children in her own house. She has been betrayed over and over again by the treachery or wickedness or cowardice of her own rulers; she has been exiled from nearly every country which she had nursed into maturity; she has been stripped in nearly every one of her lands of all her treasures; she has finally seen her supreme sovereign on earth driven to take refuge in his own house by the children of the men whom she raised to honor.
And yet on her secular side she has seen every kingdom of Europe rise and fall and rise again; she has seen a republic give birth to a monarchy or an empire and an empire yield to a republic; she has seen every dynasty fall except her own; she has seen, in religious affairs, every "modern" sect -- whose one claim to efficiency lies in its modernity -- fail to keep pace with herself who has the centuries on her shoulders; and she remains today the one single sacred and secular commonwealth which has faced the revolutions and the whirling religions of the West and has survived, with a continuity so unshaken that not one of her enemies can dispute it and an authority which they can only resent; she reigns even in this day of her "discredit" over more hearts than any other earthly sovereign and more heads than any philosopher of the schools; she arouses more love and obedience on the one side and more hatred or contempt on the other than the most romantic, the most brutal, or the most constitutional sovereign, sage, or thinker ever seen.
I called this characteristic of her "recuperation." I call it now "resurrection," for this is the "sign of the Prophet Jonas" to which her divine Founder appealed. And yet our "modern religious thinkers" are dreaming in their armchairs of another "creed"!
-- Robert Hugh Benson