Is Modernism still alive?

A few days ago, someone sent an interesting question to the Twitter account of our Spanish counterparts; resulting, it seems, from an attempt to defend Catholic truth within the ecclesial ambiences he/she frequents, with the help of the abundant magisterial documentation offered by The Denzinger-Bergoglio. Since it appears, at first glance, to be a complex problem he/she requests our assistance, which we happily offer, sure that the response will be useful not only in his particular situation but also for many of our readers.

But, first of all, we wish to praise the wise prudence demonstrated in not becoming discouraged by a sophism which is perceived to be false, in spite of not possessing the sufficient doctrinal argumentation to adequately combat it. Also, worthy of mention is the fact that it is an evident sign of Catholic spirit to humbly request assistance from the teachings of the Church with the intention of protecting one’s own faith; and, moreover, noting the presence of heresies even without sufficient theological knowledge.

Thanks be to God, once again the Magisterium of the Church gives us a convincing and accurate reply to the problem.

Before going into the problem…let’s read the aforementioned request:

“Hello. I’m encountering a problem with certain people (I refer to authorities, catechists, priests) who, in light of proofs based on the Magisterium, say: all right, but all of that was for another historical moment, and “it is necessary to interpret what Jesus is telling us TODAY, for our concrete reality, as a Church that journeys in this concrete historical moment, etc.”, and they also put doctrine up against the “the personal experience of encounter with God”, as though they was mutually excluding, and [as if] seeking the TRUTH taught by the Church would distance us from the an authentic encounter with the Lord, more based on an emotional aspect. I need orientation to respond to this, I realize it is false but do not have the sufficient formation to refute it. To me it seems fundamental, because with this point of view, all argumentation based on the Magisterium is annulled. The same for the errors of Liberation Theology, which in Latin America have been assimilated in many places. I think that these two themes presented with your characteristic clarity, would be of great importance.”

Let’s consider the alleged arguments: “It is necessary to interpret that which Christ tells us today, for our concrete reality, as a Church that journeys in this concrete historical moment”; opposing doctrine “to the personal experience of an encounter with God” …
We confess that our first impression upon reading this was of horrified surprise, even though afterwards we realized that the situation wasn’t so gloomy. Yes, because the exact arguments that were presented by the interlocutors – catechists and priests! – are nothing other than the backbone of a doctrine defined by Pope Pius X as “a synthesis of all heresies”, that is, Modernism.
It’s not surprising that such people despise the documents of the Magisterium for, just as the Holy Pontiff said, “they recognize that the three chief difficulties which stand in their way are the scholastic method of philosophy, the authority and tradition of the Fathers, and the Magisterium.” How curious, for these are exactly the points that The Denzinger-Bergoglio presents to its readers as elements of good judgment.

Modernism was a whole system of doctrines exposed by Saint Pius X, mainly through a magnificent Encyclical entitled Pascendi Dominici Gregis. The brilliance of this Encyclical consisted in presenting the aforementioned system – whose thought was until that time dissimulated within the multiple intricacies of diverse issues and apparently disconnected authors – into a coherent and structured form. At this point, it would be too difficult to wander from our present objective so as to undertake a detailed study regarding this theme. But what interests us is showing that precisely these arguments presented by the “priests and catechists”, constitute the fundamental theory of the modernists. According to their belief, these formulas – which they refer to in a derogatory tone – that we true Catholics call dogmas, are subject to a constant mutation. Yes, they insist that a dogma may not only develop and change, but that it necessarily should change. Consequently, there should be a fundamental distinction made between the concrete meaning of the formulas and the religious and moral impulse that flows from the human being. This mysterious “personal encounter with God” allegedly might even contradict that which the Church teaches us, whereby an excessive adhesion to the formulas may suffocate, without doubt, that which they consider true religion. It’s quite a mixture, isn’t it? To better understand this, let’s take a look at what the Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis itself says, along with various documents of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (As always, the subtitles are ours – in an attempt to aid the understanding of the text).


I – Key Modernist theories unmasked in the Encyclical Pascendi
II – The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding some recent errors
III – Some Modernist propositions condemned by the Church


I – Key Modernist theories unmasked in the Encyclical Pascendi

1 — Faith is not infused by God, but rather arises from the interior of man by the natural need of the divine that dwells within him

Therefore, since God is the object of religion, we must conclude that faith, which is the basis and the foundation of all religion, consists in a sentiment which originates from a need of the divine. This need of the divine, which is experienced only in special and favourable circumstances, cannot, of itself, appertain to the domain of consciousness; it is at first latent within the consciousness, or, to borrow a term from modern philosophy, in the subconsciousness, where also its roots lies hidden and undetected. (Pius X. Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, no. 7, September 8, 1907)

2 – Thus, faith is nothing other than a sentiment, which would be the starting point of religion

Should anyone ask how it is that this need of the divine which man experiences within himself grows up into a religion, the Modernists reply thus: Science and history, they say, are confined within two limits, the one external, namely, the visible world, the other internal, which is consciousness. When one or other of these boundaries has been reached, there can be no further progress, for beyond is the unknowable. In presence of this unknowable, whether it is outside man and beyond the visible world of nature, or lies hidden within in the subconsciousness, the need of the divine, according to the principles of Fideism, excites in a soul with a propensity towards religion a certain special sentiment, without any previous advertence of the mind: and this sentiment possesses, implied within itself both as its own object and as its intrinsic cause, the reality of the divine, and in a way unites man with God. It is this sentiment to which Modernists give the name of faith, and this it is which they consider the beginning of religion. (Pius X. Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, no. 7, September 8, 1907)

3 – Revelation is verified in accordance with this religious sentiment. The result: this sentiment is placed as a universal rule, the teachings of the Church being irrelevant

But we have not yet come to the end of their philosophy, or, to speak more accurately, their folly. For Modernism finds in this sentiment not faith only, but with and in faith, as they understand it, revelation, they say, abides. For what more can one require for revelation? Is not that religious sentiment which is perceptible in the consciousness revelation, or at least the beginning of revelation? Nay, is not God Himself, as He manifests Himself to the soul, indistinctly it is true, in this same religious sense, revelation? […] Hence the law, according to which religious consciousness is given as the universal rule, to be put on an equal footing with revelation, and to which all must submit, even the supreme authority of the Church, whether in its teaching capacity, or in that of legislator in the province of sacred liturgy or discipline. (Pius X. Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, no. 8, September 8, 1907)

4 – From the expression of this religious sentiment, there subsequently arises propositions, with the help of the intellect, that summarize such this concept of ‘faith’

In that sentiment of which We have frequently spoken, since sentiment is not knowledge, God indeed presents Himself to man, but in a manner so confused and indistinct that He can hardly be perceived by the believer. It is therefore necessary that a ray of light should be cast upon this sentiment, so that God may be clearly distinguished and set apart from it. This is the task of the intellect, whose office it is to reflect and to analyse, and by means of which man first transforms into mental pictures the vital phenomena which arise within him, and then expresses them in words. Hence the common saying of Modernists: that ‘the religious man must ponder his faith’. The intellect, then, encountering this sentiment directs itself upon it, and produces in it a work resembling that of a painter who restores and gives new life to a picture that has perished with age. The simile is that of one of the leaders of Modernism. (Pius X. Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, no. 11, September 8, 1907)

5 – From these declarations of the intelligence, formulas arise, which, sanctioned by the Church, are transformed into dogmas

The operation of the intellect in this work is a double one: first by a natural and spontaneous act it expresses its concept in a simple, ordinary statement; then, on reflection and deeper consideration, or, as they say, by elaborating its thought, it expresses the idea in secondary propositions, which are derived from the first, but are more perfect and distinct. These secondary propositions, if they finally receive the approval of the supreme magisterium of the Church, constitute dogma. (Pius X. Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, no. 11, September 8, 1907)

6 – The result: Dogmas are nothing other than formulas to give rational support to the aforementioned religious experience, but they can never be absolute, for they must be adapted to the religious sentiment, just as it is lived within a concrete historic moment

Thus, We have reached one of the principal points in the Modernists’ system, namely the origin and the nature of dogma. […] To ascertain the nature of dogma, we must first find the relation which exists between the religious formulas and the religious sentiment. This will be readily perceived by him who realizes that these formulas have no other purpose than to furnish the believer with a means of giving an account of his faith to himself. These formulas therefore stand midway between the believer and his faith; in their relation to the faith, they are the inadequate expression of its object, and are usually called symbols; in their relation to the believer, they are mere instruments. Hence it is quite impossible to maintain that they express absolute truth: for, in so far as they are symbols, they are the images of truth, and so must be adapted to the religious sentiment in its relation to man; and as instruments, they are the vehicles of truth, and must therefore in their turn be adapted to man in his relation to the religious sentiment. But the object of the religious sentiment, since it embraces that absolute, possesses an infinite variety of aspects of which now one, now another, may present itself. In like manner, he who believes may pass through different phases. (Pius X. Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, nos. 12, 13, September 8, 1907)

Conclusion, the fundamental theory of the modernists: Dogma is perfectly liable to change, according to the intimate religious experience of each epoch

Consequently, the formulae too, which we call dogmas, must be subject to these vicissitudes, and are, therefore, liable to change. Thus the way is open to the intrinsic evolution of dogma.
An immense collection of sophisms this, that ruins and destroys all religion.

Dogma is not only able, but ought to evolve and to be changed. This is strongly affirmed by the Modernists, and as clearly flows from their principles. […] it is necessary that the primitive formula be accepted and sanctioned by the heart; and similarly the subsequent work from which spring the secondary formulas must proceed under the guidance of the heart. Hence it comes that these formulas, to be living, should be, and should remain, adapted to the faith and to him who believes. Wherefore if for any reason this adaptation should cease to exist, they lose their first meaning and accordingly must be changed. And since the character and lot of dogmatic formulas is so precarious, there is no room for surprise that Modernists regard them so lightly and in such open disrespect. And so they audaciously charge the Church both with taking the wrong road from inability to distinguish the religious and moral sense of formulas from their surface meaning, and with clinging tenaciously and vainly to meaningless formulas whilst religion is allowed to go to ruin. (Pius X. Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, no. 13, September 8, 1907)

Consequence: Such formulas, and dogmas, are employed by the modernists according to their own convenience

Since symbols are but symbols in regard to their objects and only instruments in regard to the believer, it is necessary first of all, according to the teachings of the Modernists, that the believer do not lay too much stress on the formula, but avail himself of it only with the scope of uniting himself to the absolute truth which the formula at once reveals and conceals, that is to say, endeavours to express but without succeeding in doing so. They would also have the believer avail himself of the formulas only in as far as they are useful to him, for they are given to be a help and not a hindrance; with proper regard, however, for the social respect due to formulas which the public magisterium has deemed suitable for expressing the common consciousness until such time as the same magisterium provide otherwise. […] [Summary:] To begin with dogma, we have already indicated its origin and nature. Dogma is born of the species of impulse or necessity by virtue of which the believer is constrained to elaborate his religious thought so as to render it clearer for himself and others. This elaboration consists entirely in the process of penetrating and refining the primitive formula, not indeed in itself and according to logical development, but as required by circumstances, or vitally as the Modernists more abstrusely put it. Hence it happens that around the primitive formula secondary formulas gradually continue to be formed, and these subsequently grouped into bodies of doctrine, or into doctrinal constructions as they prefer to call them, and further sanctioned by the public magisterium as responding to the common consciousness, are called dogma. (Pius X. Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, no. 19.21, September 8, 1907)

Until this point, we have covered the main line of modernist thought —in a condensed, though hopefully clear, manner — which so well describes the contenders of our friend.
Yes, that’s how things are…this horrible sophism, which sustains a “synthesis of all heresies” has penetrated to the grassroots with complete normality. Consistent with their theory, the aforementioned might claim that all of this was in the epoch of Pius X, an old-fashioned Pope who made the Church regress one hundred years in the midst of an epoch of abundant progress. However, this thought has been sustained by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, quite recently, in the Declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae, regarding Catholic Doctrine, in an effort to defend the Church from some current errors. Let’s take a look:

II – The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding some recent errors

 1 – How to understand a possible historical conditioning in the formulation of the dogmas

With regard to this historical condition, it must first be observed that the meaning of the pronouncements of faith depends partly upon the expressive power of the language used at a certain point in time and in particular circumstances. Moreover, it sometimes happens that some dogmatic truth is first expressed incompletely (but not falsely), and at a later date, when considered in a broader context of faith or human knowledge, it receives a fuller and more perfect expression. In addition, when the Church makes new pronouncements she intends to confirm or clarify what is in some way contained in Sacred Scripture or in previous expressions of Tradition; but at the same time she usually has the intention of solving certain questions or removing certain errors. All these things have to be taken into account in order that these pronouncements may be properly interpreted. Finally, even though the truths which the Church intends to teach through her dogmatic formulas are distinct from the changeable conceptions of a given epoch and can be expressed without them, nevertheless it can sometimes happen that these truths may be enunciated by the Sacred Magisterium in terms that bear traces of such conceptions. (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Declaration in Defense of the Catholic Doctrine on the Church against certain errors of the present day, Mysterium ecclesiae no. 5, June 24, 1973. Ratified and confirmed by Paul VI on May 11, 1973; and published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis an. 65 (1973), pp. 396-408).

2 – The dogmatic formulas of the Magisterium are always suitable for communicating revealed truth

In view of the above, it must be stated that the dogmatic formulas of the Church’s Magisterium were from the beginning suitable for communicating revealed truth, and that as they are they remain forever suitable for communicating this truth to those who interpret them correctly.(Cf. Pius IX, Brief Eximiam Tuam: DS 2831; Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, AAS 57 (1965), p.757ff. and L’Oriente cristiano nella luce di immortali Concilii, in Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, vol. 5, p. 412ff.). It does not however follow that every one of these formulas has always been or will always be so to the same extent. For this reason theologians seek to define exactly the intention of teaching proper to the various formulas, and in carrying out this work they are of considerable assistance to the living Magisterium of the Church, to which they remain subordinated. For this reason also it often happens that ancient dogmatic formulas and others closely connected with them remain living and fruitful in the habitual usage of the Church, but with suitable expository and explanatory additions that maintain and clarify their original meaning. In addition, it has sometimes happened that in this habitual usage of the Church certain of these formulas gave way to new expressions which, proposed and approved by the Sacred Magisterium, presented more clearly or more completely the same meaning. (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Declaration in Defense of the Catholic Doctrine on the Church against certain errors of the present day, Mysterium ecclesiae, no. 5, June 24, 1973. Ratified and confirmed by Paul VI on May 11, 1973; and published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis an. 65 (1973), pp. 396-408).

3 – The significance of dogmatic formulas manifests the truth without deformation or alteration.

As for the meaning of dogmatic formulas, this remains ever true and constant in the Church, even when it is expressed with greater clarity or more developed. The faithful therefore must shun the opinion, first, that dogmatic formulas (or some category of them) cannot signify truth in a determinate way, but can only offer changeable approximations to it, which to a certain extent distort of alter it; secondly, that these formulas signify the truth only in an indeterminate way, this truth being like a goal that is constantly being sought by means of such approximations. Those who hold such an opinion do not avoid dogmatic relativism and they corrupt the concept of the Church’s infallibility relative to the truth to be taught or held in a determinate way.
Such an opinion clearly is in disagreement with the declarations of the First Vatican Council, which, while fully aware of the progress of the Church in her knowledge of revealed truth, nevertheless taught as follows: ‘That meaning of sacred dogmas…must always be maintained which Holy Mother Church declared once and for all, nor should one ever depart from that meaning under the guise of or in the name of a more advanced understanding’ (cf. Conc. Vaticano I, Const. dogm. Dei Filius, c. 4: DzS 3020). The Council moreover condemned the opinion that ‘dogmas once proposed by the Church must, with the progress of science be given a meaning other than that which was understood by the Church, or which she understands’ (ibid. c.3). There is no doubt that, according to these texts of the Council, the meaning of dogmas which is declared by the Church is determinate and unalterable.
The aforementioned opinion also differs from the declaration made by the high Pontiff John XXIII regarding Christian doctrine, during the inauguration of Vatican Council II: ‘This certain and unchangeable doctrine, to which faithful obedience is due, has to be explored and presented in a way that is demanded by our times. One thing is the deposit of faith, which consists of the truths contained in sacred doctrine, another thing is the manner of presentation, always however with the same meaning and signification’(John XXIII, Alloc. in the inauguration of the Vatican Council; Gaudium et spes, 62). Since the Successor of Peter is here speaking about certain and unchangeable Christian doctrine, about the deposit of faith which is the same as the truths contained in that doctrine and about the truths which have to be preserved with the same meaning, it is clear that he admits that we can know the true and unchanging meaning of dogmas. What is new and what he recommends in view of the needs of the times pertains only to the modes of studying, expounding and presenting that doctrine while keeping its permanent meaning. In a similar way the Supreme Pontiff Paul VI exhorted the pastors of the Church in the following words: ‘Nowadays a serious effort is required of us to ensure that the teaching of the faith should keep the fullness of its meaning and force, while expressing itself in a form which allows it to reach the spirit and heart of the people to whom it is addressed’ (Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Quinque iam anni). (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Declaration in Defense of the Catholic Doctrine on the Church against certain errors of the present day, Mysterium ecclesiae, no. 5, June 24, 1973. Ratified and confirmed by Paul VI on May 11, 1973; and published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis an. 65 (1973), pp. 396-408).

In concrete practice, the same Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has found itself obliged to correct certain theologians who defended the modernist theory. We may observe this in two examples, one of which is very recent.

Example A – Regarding the works of Fr. Jon Sobrino, SJ

Father Sobrino considers the dogmatic development of the first centuries of the Church including the great Councils to be ambiguous and even negative. Although he does not deny the normative character of the dogmatic formulations, neither does he recognize in them any value except in the cultural milieu in which these formulations were developed. He does not take into account the fact that the transtemporal subject of the faith is the believing Church, and that the pronouncements of the first Councils have been accepted and lived by the entire ecclesial community.
[Exemplifying:] The divinity of Jesus has been the object of the Church’s faith from the beginning, long before his consubstantiality with the Father was proclaimed by the Council of Nicea. The fact that this term was not used does not mean that the divinity of Jesus was not affirmed in the strict sense, contrary to what the Author seems to imply. Father Sobrino does not deny the divinity of Jesus when he proposes that it is found in the New Testament only ‘in seed’ and was formulated dogmatically only after many years of believing reflection. Nevertheless he fails to affirm Jesus’ divinity with sufficient clarity. This reticence gives credence to the suspicion that the historical development of dogma, which Sobrino describes as ambiguous, has arrived at the formulation of Jesus’ divinity without a clear continuity with the New Testament.

But the divinity of Jesus is clearly attested to in the passages of the New Testament to which we have referred. The numerous Conciliar declarations in this regard are in continuity with that which the New Testament affirms explicitly and not only ‘in seed’. The confession of the divinity of Jesus Christ has been an absolutely essential part of the faith of the Church since her origins. It is explicitly witnessed to since the New Testament. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Notification on the works of Father Jon Sobrino, SJ, nos. 3. 4, November 26, 2006 – – Acta Apostolicae Sedis an. 99 (2007), pp. 181-194)

Example B – Regarding the works of Professor Hans Küng

The opinion which at least puts in doubt the dogma of infallibility in the Church or reduces it to a certain fundamental indefectibility of the Church in truth, with the possibility of error in doctrinal statements which the Magisterium of the Church teaches must be held definitively […] contradicts the doctrine defined by Vatican Council I and confirmed by Vatican Council II. (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Christi Ecclesia, on the works of Professor Hans Küng, February 5, 1975– Acta Apostolicae Sedis an. 67 (1975), pp. 203-204)

We are not sure, and even doubt, that this demonstration will convince the interlocutors of our friend, but we are certain that they will serve our readers to better understand the solidity of the arguments of the doctrine of the Church manifested in its bimillenary Magisterium.
As a conclusion, it is not a bad idea to include some of the modernist propositions explicitly condemned by Saint Pius X. There is no harm in familiarizing oneself with them, and they will be especially useful within the next few weeks…

III – Some Modernist propositions condemned by the Church


22. The dogmas which the Church professes as revealed are not truths fallen from heaven, but they are a kind of interpretation of religious facts, which the human mind by a laborious effort prepared for itself.
26. The dogmas of faith are to be held only according to a practical sense, that is, as preceptive norms for action, but not as norms for believing
39. The opinions about the origin of the sacraments with which the Fathers of Trent were imbued, and which certainly had an influence on their dogmatic canons, are far different from those which now rightly obtain among historical investigators of Christianity.
51. Matrimony could not have emerged as a sacrament of the New Law in the Church, since in order that matrimony might be held to be a sacrament, it was necessary that a full theological development of the doctrine on grace and the sacraments take place first.
54. The dogmas, the sacraments, the hierarchy, as far as pertains both to the notion and to the reality, are nothing but interpretations and the evolution of the Christian intelligence, which have increased and perfected the little germ latent in the Gospel.
58. Truth is no more immutable than man himself, inasmuch as it is evolved with him, in him, and through him.
62. The principal articles of the Apostles’ Creed did not have the same meaning for the Christians of the earliest times as they have for the Christians of our time.
63. The Church shows herself unequal to the task of preserving the ethics of the Gospel, because she clings obstinately to immutable doctrines which cannot be reconciled with present day advances.
64. The progress of the sciences demands that the concepts of Christian doctrine about God, creation, revelation, the Person of the Incarnate Word, the redemption, be recast.
65. Present day Catholicism cannot be reconciled with true science, unless it be transformed into a kind of nondogmatic Christianity, that is, into a broad and liberal Protestantism. (Denzinger-Hünermann 3422.2426.3439.3451.3454.3458.3462.3463.3464.3465. Saint Pius X, Lamentabili Sine Exitu, from the Decree on the errors of Modernism, July 3, 1907)

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5 thoughts on “Is Modernism still alive?

  1. Benedict XVI has a lot on this – the centrality of truth in pastoral practice. It might be useful for your work.

  2. Your anonymous friend took the words out of my mouth. In my parish, that is just what the priest says – we need to adapt to the times, be more pastoral, and so on. As if letting people continue sinning is pastoral! Thanks a lot! Great post!

  3. It should not be the way of the Catholic Church to downgrade herself to the people. On the contrary, it should be her faithful who need to have a sincere and authentic desire to follow her in every truth laid by her spouse, Jesus Christ. This truth is unchangeable. Christ is the same: yesterday, today and forever!

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