Modernism (catholicism)

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Under the slogan modernism is summed up in the Roman Catholic Church to the time before the Second Vatican Council within the church movements and scientific opinions of the 19th and early 20th century together, the theological teachings with the respective state of knowledge of modern science and philosophy in a Wished to connect in a way that would eliminate the contradictions between the Catholic faith and the modern worldview and enable church teaching to connect with modernity .


The term "modernism" was such primarily by opponents of theological aspirations of used battle cry ; it was not a self-chosen name for a particular group of theologians. The term “modernism” summarized various phenomena, so that it is necessary to examine in each case which views were condemned as “modernist” in each individual case. The opponents of "modernism" are appropriately identified with the term anti-modernism . It is discussed whether the term “modernism” is helpful because of its defensive character and the variety of approaches that are described as “modernist”.

The term “modernism” found widespread use in the Catholic Church. The violent internal church dispute at the beginning of the 20th century, which led to a strong polarization between opponents and supporters of "modernist" views and was exacerbated by the explicit teaching condemnation of modernism, is known as the modernism dispute . Many historians also speak more neutrally of the modernism crisis , which is also limited in time to the years from 1893 (Bible encyclical Providentissimus Deus ) to 1914 (death of Pope Pius X ).

The term is also used to some extent for comparable currents in the Church of England and in Protestantism , where such ideas were often wholly or partially accepted by church majority opinions. There were also “modernist” interpretations of the Christian faith in Protestant circles, which valued technical, scientific and social processes or innovations as progress ; there were also groups that rejected it or received it very critically. From them emerged Christian (" biblical ") fundamentalism and the evangelical movement.


Modernism favored a certain application of historical-critical exegesis in biblical interpretation and the history of dogma. These methods justified the suspicion that the church dogmas and confessions were being relativized. A common goal of the theologians accused of modernism can be seen as their will to enable the church to catch up with modernity by adapting to the worldview of the time.

In the Catholic Church, modernism appeared predominantly in France, England and Italy; he also had a number of supporters in the Catholic theological faculties of German universities. Here Munich was considered the center of German “modernism”. According to its opponents, “modernism” advocated the scientific interpretation of the Bible based on Hermann Samuel Reimarus , David Friedrich Strauss , Ernest Renan and the more recent Protestant biblical criticism (e.g. Julius Wellhausen ). “Modernists” like Alfred Loisy , on the other hand, asserted that they had gained their knowledge through their own critical Bible studies and in contrast to Protestant positions like that of Adolf von Harnack . “Modernism” was opposed to the papally sponsored neo-scholastic theology ( Thomism ) taught in Germany especially at the Episcopal Lyceum in Eichstätt .

Modernism dispute

The church teaching office in particular was attacked by modernism. The term “modernism” as a uniform designation for a broader current was constituted by the papal resistance (not by the programmatic writings of the “modernists”). Partly following on from the theological direction of the " Syllabus errorum " ( 1864 ) by Pius IX. and to his direct predecessor in office Leo XIII. Pope Pius X called modernism the "collecting basin of all heresies " ( omnium haereseon collectum ). In particular, he condemned what he called modernism in the Pascendi encyclical of September 7, 1907, which was primarily directed against the French theologian Alfred Loisy (1857–1940). This was preceded by the decree Lamentabili sane exitu of July 3, 1907; in it the critical attitude of the magisterium towards the biblical criticism of Loisy and the new dogma hermeneutics was affirmed, without the decree using the term "modernism". This document of the 'Holy Office', today's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith , confirmed by Pope Pius X. , is also known as the New Syllabus (syllabus = compilation). Unlike the syllabus of 1864, however, this compilation does not contain any condemnations of modern conceptions of the relationship between church and state, which are the main theme in the work of Pius IX. were. In Lamentabili 65 theological theses attributed to the 'innovators' are listed and rejected. On November 18, 1907, Pius X. once again condemned the teachings of “modernism” in his Motu proprio Praestantia Scripturae , imposing automatic excommunication as a punishment for the modernists. Loisy himself stated that in 1908 (with his excommunication ) his efforts had failed completely.

Under Pius X, the activity of Catholic lay people in politics and society, which was independent of the hierarchy, also tended to be “modernist”. Reservations against democratization, which were feared to spread to the Church, are already evident in the Pascendi encyclical, but also in the excommunication of the priest Romolo Murri in Italy (1909) and in the papal dissolution of the French Christian Democratic movement Le Sillon by layman Marc Sangnier (1910). The interdenominational activity of lay people was also viewed critically, as was shown in the trade union dispute in Germany.

The struggle of the Pope, canonized in 1954, was part of a zealous reform of the Church. Pius X introduced the anti-modernist oath in 1910 , with which every cleric had to renounce modernism. Among other things, this brought some theology professors into serious conflicts of conscience. The anti-modernist oath was required until 1967; today there is a creed in its place.

Further development

After initially Pope Benedict XV. Since 1914, the anti-modernist efforts of integralist circles had been contained (cf. encyclical Ad beatissimam Apostolorum principis ), Pope Pius XI condemned . in his inaugural encyclical Ubi arcano Dei 1922, the “social modernism” as the compromise between modern ideologies and Christianity. This was followed by magisterial statements against communism, national socialism and Italian fascism until 1939. Pius XI. published on December 20, 1926 the indexing of the Action française (AF), which the Index Congregation had already decided under Pope Pius X. in 1914. Pius X. had kept the indexing a secret under pressure from prominent anti-modernists. In March 1927 the members of the AF were even excluded from receiving the sacraments (the ban was lifted in July 1939 by the newly elected Pope Pius XII).

Pope Pius XII published his apostolic circular Humani generis on August 12, 1950 . In it he criticizes new modern teachings and warns against exaggerations, including irenism , relativism and “historicism” (meaning historicism ). However, these teachings are deliberately no longer assigned to modernism (i.e. the conflict of the first years of the 20th century). The Council Popes John XXIII. and Paul VI. criticized equally serious errors in their respective inaugural encyclicals, but the Second Vatican Council is viewed by some church historians (e.g. Manfred Weitlauff and Otto Weiß ) as an at least partial victory for previously perceived modernist views, especially with regard to the relationship between the church and the modern state concerns in the pluralistic society. The concern for adequate modernity in the Church marked the following period and also the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.

Already in the above In 1907, Encyclical Pius X abandoned the traditional method of contradicting certain sentences as wrong and tried to systematically describe the opposing worldview. Most (moderate) modernists, however, could not recognize their view in it, which is why some of them also took the anti-modernist oath without changing their convictions. Since Benedict XV. (Pope 1914–1922) saw the popes no longer see the rejection of individual sentences as a suitable instrument of discipline because of the obvious problems of interpretation. That is why the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) made it the task of the Catholic Church to spread Jesus' claim through persuasion in dialogue instead of condemning individual sentences. Church official doctrinal condemnations of time errors (changeable errors) have therefore become rare today. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for example, although repeatedly linked to the history of the Inquisition, has criticized only around a dozen special opinions of individual theologians as incompatible with dogma since 1968 .

The “post-conciliar crisis” favored the tendency within the Roman Catholic Church to accommodate the modern worldview. In the case of conservative or integralist groups, the expression neo-modernist or neo-modernism has become commonplace. Conversely, liberal theologians use the terms fundamentalism or integralism with regard to the anti-modern groups, at least with a tendency . To put it more neutrally, the Second Vatican Council at least partially reduced the theological problem overhangs of the modernism crisis, including in the area of ​​the historical-critical interpretation of the Bible and the understanding of Revelation .

Catholic modernists


Individual evidence

  1. For the history of the concept and the problematic of the concept as well as the definition of the 'modernism crisis' see Claus Arnold: Kleine Geschichte des Modernismus , Herder, Freiburg 2007, pp. 11–22.
  2. Patrick T. Merricks: Religion and Racial Progress in Twentieth-Century Britain: Bishop Barnes of Birmingham , Palgrave Macmillan, Cham 2017.
  3. Claus Arnold: Kleine Geschichte des Modernismus , Herder, Freiburg 2007, pp. 52–68.
  4. ^ Claus Arnold / Giacomo Losito: "Lamentabili sane exitu" (1907). Les documents préparatoires du Saint Office (Fontes Archivi Sancti Officii Romani 6), Libreria editrice vaticana, Vatican City 2011.
  5. Jan Dirk Busemann: Catholic lay emancipation and Roman reaction: The Index Congregation in the literary, trade union and center dispute , Schöningh, Paderborn 2017.
  6. ^ Claus Arnold: The anti-modernism under Pius X. From Alfred Loisy to Charles Maurras . In: Historical yearbook . tape 125 , 2005, pp. 153-168 .
  7. After anti-modernism? On the Paths of Catholic Theology 1918–1958
  8. ^ Henri Delafosse (Joseph Turmel): The letter to the Romans
  9. Raymond Laia: Dogma and dogma development in the imagination of Loisys ( Memento from December 31, 2005 in the Internet Archive )
  10. Gregor Klapczynski: “Ab initio sic non erat!” “Modernism” using the example of Hugo Koch (1869-1940). In: Hubert Wolf , Judith Schepers (Ed.): In a wild, unbridled hunt for the new. 100 years of modernism and anti-modernism in the Catholic Church. Schöningh, Paderborn 2010, pp. 271–288