Omaha, Nebraska
Spring 1994
Volume 5, Number 2

Modernism in Three Acts

A Review of David G. Schultenover, S.J., A View from Rome: On the Eve of the Modernist Crisis. New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 1993.

Bruce J. Malina
Professor of Theology

This very readable book by a member of Creighton's Department of Theology is significant on at least two counts: the topic and the way the topic is treated. The topic is "Modernism," a Vaticanese technical term chosen by Roman Catholic officialdom at the beginning of this century to describe everything and anything that contrasted with the way of life customary then (and still) among Vatican Roman Catholic officialdom. This way of life was monarchic, authoritarian, ahistorical, and rooted in aristocratic power based on land ownership and patriarchy. Patriarchy entailed strict separation of gender roles, and focused on family honor and patronage. In sum it is the traditional Mediterranean way of life characteristic of Roman clericalism.

The rise of democracy, individualism, rationalism, historical consciousness and industrialism marked a radical departure from this way of life, to say the least. Obviously this opposing package of social structures and values was fundamental to the "Protestant" American way of life. Any number of items in the package were congenial to the citizenry of "Protestant" northern Europe and were let loose on the European countryside thanks to various and terrible wars of nationalism. Americanism and Modernism took on the same contours in the Mediterranean perspective.

The way Fr. Schultenover treats Modernism in its theological and ecclesiological ramifications marks a significant departure from the U.S. church historian's bias in favor of psychological and philosophical (read: ideological) explanations of the subject. Fr. Schultenover analyzes events through the lenses of Mediterranean cultural anthropology. With the help of these lenses, he reveals what the Mediterranean anti-Modernists saw and makes their reaction quite understandable--in terms of Mediterranean cultural scripts.

This may be getting ahead of the story. For why did Modernism become a problem at all? What might account for the way in which its chief opponents dealt, first of all with their perception of the problem, and secondly with each other in the conflict provoked by Modernism?

Fr. Schultenover tells the story in three acts, which he entitles: Papal Perceptions, Perceptions of the Jesuit General and Perceptions of the Mediterranean Mind. Relative to Papal Perceptions, he first describes Rome's general perspective of the isms that preceded Modernism, from Protestantism on (chap. 1). After this he focuses on Rome's more particular and immediate perspective, its focus on Americanism/Modernism (chap. 2). The second act considers the role of the head of the Jesuits at the time, Luis Martin (1846-1906). The author draws on the memoirs of Fr. Martin to trace his interaction with the English Jesuits leading to a joint pastoral condemnation of that version of Modernism called "liberalism" (chap. 3). This probe equally sheds light on how that condemnation was produced at all (chap. 4). Since the Vatican's perception of Modernism in general and Fr. Martin's collaboration with Vatican officialdom in particular are rooted in and derive from Mediterranean social systems, the final segment of the book deals with general Mediterranean cultural values and their realization in the behavior of antagonists in the fray (chap 5).

Modernism was never defined by the so-called Modernists. Rather it was the anti-modernists who specified what was wrong with society in terms of those values and structures that comprised Modernism. Now this book is very important because all of this century's Roman Catholic policies, practical and theoretical, have been constantly overshadowed by the perception on the part of officials of that same bugaboo, Modernism. The agenda of Vatican II was set in dialogue with the anti-modernist perceptions. And in spite of Vatican II's shift in perspective, Pope John Paul II, along with countless cardinals and bishops, continues to act as though Modernism were the abiding problem for the Roman Catholic church, well over a century since it was duly diagnosed and remedies applied. The training of the extant Roman Catholic hierarchy consisted largely in learning theological positions whose task would be to waylay Modernism. Many times in their lives they had to take an oath against Modernism. For them, Modernism remains a very considerable and influential religious problem.

How did Modernism become a problem? Schultenover writes:

    The all-too-personal experience of the popes in the revolutions of the nineteenth century--being expelled from Rome, being held hostage, losing the Papal States and temporal power to anti-Catholic forces, and the erosion of even spiritual allegiance--precipitated the development of a Vatican counter-offensive. The first step of that offensive was analysis of the situation to its cause: private judgment (= Protestant Revolt). The second step was to devise a strategy to reclaim the spiritual ground threatened by or lost to private judgment. The third step was to execute the strategy. The strategy and its execution were begun by Gregory XVI with Singulari nos; advanced significantly by Plus IX with his Syllabus of Errors and definition of papal infallibility; intellectually and spiritually undergirded by Leo XIII with his efforts (a) to corral independent modes of thought into the single philosophical system of scholasticism, and (b) to provide people everywhere a way out of the social maelstrom by transcending heads of state and appealing directly to conscience, thereby constituting supranational populus christianus led by Christ's vicar; and finally, the policing of this transcendent state through the measures enacted by Plus X: Pascendi dominici gregis, the oath against modernism, and the vigilance committees (p. 164).

Pope John Paul Il's insistence on clerical holiness, close supervision and control of seminary faculty (see Origins 23 #32, Jan. 27, 1994), and unity of unchangeable church teaching (Veritatis Splendor) are reruns of the same solutions to the Modernist problem proposed and presumably implemented in the last century. Cardinal Ratzinger's complaints against historical criticism in biblical study (Origins 17 #35, Feb. 11, 1988), and his reminder that the Pontifical Biblical Commission is no longer "an organ of the church's teaching office" (Origins 23 #29, Jan 6, 1994, 499) again point to problems with that Modernist mental virus, a sense of history. The modem sense of history entails two aspects: that things once were not the way they are today, and therefore, that things need not remain the way they are. It is this sense of history that produces historical criticism. As Schultenover observes:

    The specific opposition that Pius X had in mind--which to him was but a manifestation of the disease of rationalism--was historical criticism. He characterized it as "a certain new and fallacious science, which . . . with masked and cunning arguments strives to open the door to the errors of rationalism and semi-rationalism." Combined in this one remark are several characteristics of the Mediterranean anti-modernist response to opposition (or difference of perception). One that we have just seen is to find all opposition rooted in a single etiology--here, as elsewhere, rationalism. Another is to deal with opposition by belittling, ridiculing, denigrating, or trivializing it--all of which is effected here by the implied feminism of "masked and cunning." . . . Commonly, among the anti-modernists any idea that could in any way be associated with rationalism or liberalism was dismissed both by the association itself ("You're nothing but a rationalist!" and by deprecating the idea as a novelty or as "new" (not approved by tradition). Practically synonymous with "new" was "fallacious." Eventually the error that Plus X defined was reified in the term "modernism" (p. 186).

Pope John Paul Il's most recent encyclical, Veritatis splendor (Origins 23 #18, Oct. 14, 1993) demonstrates repeatedly that Modernism is still the problem that obsesses the Vatican. The encyclical sees individualism as the core problem in the world today (see par. 31-4). Individualism, of course, is an updated synonym for Plus X's "private judgment." And there are a number of contemporary anti-Modernist organizations, some secret like Opus Dei, others not so secret, such as the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, which seek to support the pope in the face of democratically rooted criticism, and defend the "one true religion" in proper Mediterranean fashion, even though not a few of these defenders are Romanized non-Mediterraneans. The quality of recently appointed bishops and the stance they are expected to take relative to Roman Catholic theologians point to ongoing concern about Modernism (Origins 23 #27, Dec. 16, 1993: whole issue on theologians and the mandate to teach). What went around is still going around. The Mediterranean matrix of Roman Catholicism and the enculturation of its chief protagonists go a long way toward explaining why even this generation of Roman Catholic officialdom insists on rushing headlong into the nineteenth century, while much of the rest of the planet prepares for the twenty-first.

Fr. Schultenover's book is must reading for anyone seeking to understand the Vatican's stance regarding the United States and the religious issues of our day. Anyone employed by and teaching at a Roman Catholic university will find the book eminently insightful and practical. For it presents the proper context for those official Roman Catholic ecclesiastical documents and pronouncements that affect the university community.