It is a common place now to see and affirm that St. Pius X put up a roadblock to so called “Modernism” by his encyclical Pascendi which permitted the Church, in its due time, i.e. the Second Vatican Council, to digest and formulate its personal experience of Jesus Christ, the true Protagonist of all Revelation. And I would say that the Church has not yet emerged from the state of crisis since – for example – the brouhaha over “Amoris Laetitia” of Pope Francis is the result of the discrepancy over what the Church teaches concering the truth of Jesus Christ and the truth of morality. What still has not been resolved in the experience of the Church is sanctity by self-gift and sanctity by checking the boxes. Pope Fr ancis confronted the real situation in Gaudete et Éxultate. Chapter 1 is sanctity as gift of oneself to another. He gives the example of the woman shopping: self-gift or sanctity in the hidden and sexual commonplace. I coopy Chapter 2 here below: T he two subtle enemies of holiness are the Gnosticism of reducing living the life of Christ to the numbers, which is one with doing it by yourself without divine help (Pelagianism). The attempt to overcome those enemies was dubbed “modernist” and this because it seemed to violate the truth of faith that had been understood to be contained primarily as conceptual and logical as reducible to syllogism. Notice what appeared in Vatican II (concretely in JPII’s post Vatican II encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” read: “It is urgent to rediscover and to set forth once more the authentic reality of the Christian faith, which is not simply a set of propositions to be accepted with intellectual assent. Rather, faith is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of his commandments, and a truth to be lived out. A word, in any event, is not truly received until it passes into action, until it is put into practice. Faith is a decision involving one’s whole existence. It is an encounter, a dialogue, a communion of love and of life between the believer and Jesus Christ, the Way, and the Truth, and the Life (cf Jn. 14, 6). It entails an act of trusting abanonment to Christ, which enables us to live as he iived (cf. Gal. 2, 20), in profound love of God and of our brothers and sisters.” In a word, Faith is not primarily conceptual but a lived consciousness. By doing it, you know it.
I would offer that the above which was considered as “modernist” became what we now understand to be Vatican II.
TWO SUBTLE ENEMIES OF HOLINESS
35. Here I would like to mention two false forms of holiness that can lead us astray: gnosticism and pelagianism. They are two heresies from early Christian times, yet they continue to plague us. In our times too, many Christians, perhaps without realizing it, can be seduced by these deceptive ideas, which reflect an anthropocentric immanentism disguised as Catholic truth. Let us take a look at these two forms of doctrinal or disciplinary security that give rise “to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyses and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others”.
36. Gnosticism presumes “a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings”.
An intellect without God and without flesh
37. Thanks be to God, throughout the history of the Church it has always been clear that a person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity. “Gnostics” do not understand this, because they judge others based on their ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines. They think of the intellect as separate from the flesh, and thus become incapable of touching Christ’s suffering flesh in others, locked up as they are in an encyclopaedia of abstractions. In the end, by disembodying the mystery, they prefer “a God without Christ, a Christ without the Church, a Church without her people”.
38. Certainly this is a superficial conceit: there is much movement on the surface, but the mind is neither deeply moved nor affected. Still, gnosticism exercises a deceptive attraction for some people, since the gnostic approach is strict and allegedly pure, and can appear to possess a certain harmony or order that encompasses everything.
39. Here we have to be careful. I am not referring to a rationalism inimical to Christian faith. It can be present within the Church, both among the laity in parishes and teachers of philosophy and theology in centres of formation. Gnostics think that their explanations can make the entirety of the faith and the Gospel perfectly comprehensible. They absolutize their own theories and force others to submit to their way of thinking. A healthy and humble use of reason in order to reflect on the theological and moral teaching of the Gospel is one thing. It is another to reduce Jesus’ teaching to a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything.
A doctrine without mystery
40. Gnosticism is one of the most sinister ideologies because, while unduly exalting knowledge or a specific experience, it considers its own vision of reality to be perfect. Thus, perhaps without even realizing it, this ideology feeds on itself and becomes even more myopic. It can become all the more illusory when it masks itself as a disembodied spirituality. For gnosticism “by its very nature seeks to domesticate the mystery”, whether the mystery of God and his grace, or the mystery of others’ lives.
41. When somebody has an answer for every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right road. They may well be false prophets, who use religion for their own purposes, to promote their own psychological or intellectual theories. God infinitely transcends us; he is full of surprises. We are not the ones to determine when and how we will encounter him; the exact times and places of that encounter are not up to us. Someone who wants everything to be clear and sure presumes to control God’s transcendence.
42. Nor can we claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life. This is part of the mystery that a gnostic mentality cannot accept, since it is beyond its control.
The limits of reason
43. It is not easy to grasp the truth that we have received from the Lord. And it is even more difficult to express it. So we cannot claim that our way of understanding this truth authorizes us to exercise a strict supervision over others’ lives. Here I would note that in the Church there legitimately coexist different ways of interpreting many aspects of doctrine and Christian life; in their variety, they “help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word”. It is true that “for those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion”. Indeed, some currents of gnosticism scorned the concrete simplicity of the Gospel and attempted to replace the trinitarian and incarnate God with a superior Unity, wherein the rich diversity of our history disappeared.
44. In effect, doctrine, or better, our understanding and expression of it, “is not a closed system, devoid of the dynamic capacity to pose questions, doubts, inquiries… The questions of our people, their suffering, their struggles, their dreams, their trials and their worries, all possess an interpretational value that we cannot ignore if we want to take the principle of the incarnation seriously. Their wondering helps us to wonder, their questions question us”.
45. A dangerous confusion can arise. We can think that because we know something, or are able to explain it in certain terms, we are already saints, perfect and better than the “ignorant masses”. Saint John Paul II warned of the temptation on the part of those in the Church who are more highly educated “to feel somehow superior to other members of the faithful”. In point of fact, what we think we know should always motivate us to respond more fully to God’s love. Indeed, “you learn so as to live: theology and holiness are inseparable”.
46. When Saint Francis of Assisi saw that some of his disciples were engaged in teaching, he wanted to avoid the temptation to gnosticism. He wrote to Saint Anthony of Padua: “I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers, provided that… you do not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion during study of this kind”. Francis recognized the temptation to turn the Christian experience into a set of intellectual exercises that distance us from the freshness of the Gospel. Saint Bonaventure, on the other hand, pointed out that true Christian wisdom can never be separated from mercy towards our neighbour: “The greatest possible wisdom is to share fruitfully what we have to give… Even as mercy is the companion of wisdom, avarice is its enemy”.“There are activities that, united to contemplation, do not prevent the latter, but rather facilitate it, such as works of mercy and devotion”.
47. Gnosticism gave way to another heresy, likewise present in our day. As time passed, many came to realize that it is not knowledge that betters us or makes us saints, but the kind of life we lead. But this subtly led back to the old error of the gnostics, which was simply transformed rather than eliminated.
48. The same power that the gnostics attributed to the intellect, others now began to attribute to the human will, to personal effort. This was the case with the pelagians and semi-pelagians. Now it was not intelligence that took the place of mystery and grace, but our human will. It was forgotten that everything “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (Rom 9:16) and that “he first loved us” (cf. 1 Jn 4:19).
A will lacking humility
49. Those who yield to this pelagian or semi-pelagian mindset, even though they speak warmly of God’s grace, “ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style”. When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that “not everyone can do everything”, and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace. In every case, as Saint Augustine taught, God commands you to do what you can and to ask for what you cannot, and indeed to pray to him humbly: “Grant what you command, and command what you will”.
50. Ultimately, the lack of a heartfelt and prayerful acknowledgment of our limitations prevents grace from working more effectively within us, for no room is left for bringing about the potential good that is part of a sincere and genuine journey of growth.Grace, precisely because it builds on nature, does not make us superhuman all at once. That kind of thinking would show too much confidence in our own abilities. Underneath our orthodoxy, our attitudes might not correspond to our talk about the need for grace, and in specific situations we can end up putting little trust in it. Unless we can acknowledge our concrete and limited situation, we will not be able to see the real and possible steps that the Lord demands of us at every moment, once we are attracted and empowered by his gift. Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively. If we reject this historical and progressive reality, we can actually refuse and block grace, even as we extol it by our words.
51. When God speaks to Abraham, he tells him: “I am God Almighty, walk before me, and be blameless” (Gen 17:1). In order to be blameless, as he would have us, we need to live humbly in his presence, cloaked in his glory; we need to walk in union with him, recognizing his constant love in our lives. We need to lose our fear before that presence which can only be for our good. God is the Father who gave us life and loves us greatly. Once we accept him, and stop trying to live our lives without him, the anguish of loneliness will disappear (cf. Ps 139:23-24). In this way we will know the pleasing and perfect will of the Lord (cf. Rom 12:1-2) and allow him to mould us like a potter (cf. Is 29:16). So often we say that God dwells in us, but it is better to say that we dwell in him, that he enables us to dwell in his light and love. He is our temple; we ask to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of our life (cf. Ps 27:4). “For one day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere” (Ps 84:10). In him is our holiness.
An often overlooked Church teaching
52. The Church has repeatedly taught that we are justified not by our own works or efforts, but by the grace of the Lord, who always takes the initiative. The Fathers of the Church, even before Saint Augustine, clearly expressed this fundamental belief. Saint John Chrysostom said that God pours into us the very source of all his gifts even before we enter into battle. Saint Basil the Great remarked that the faithful glory in God alone, for “they realize that they lack true justice and are justified only through faith in Christ”.
53. The Second Synod of Orange taught with firm authority that nothing human can demand, merit or buy the gift of divine grace, and that all cooperation with it is a prior gift of that same grace: “Even the desire to be cleansed comes about in us through the outpouring and working of the Holy Spirit”. Subsequently, the Council of Trent, while emphasizing the importance of our cooperation for spiritual growth, reaffirmed that dogmatic teaching: “We are said to be justified gratuitously because nothing that precedes justification, neither faith nor works, merits the grace of justification; for ‘if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise, grace would no longer be grace’ (Rom 11:6)”.
54. The Catechism of the Catholic Church also reminds us that the gift of grace “surpasses the power of human intellect and will” and that “with regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality”. His friendship infinitely transcends us; we cannot buy it with our works, it can only be a gift born of his loving initiative. This invites us to live in joyful gratitude for this completely unmerited gift, since “after one has grace, the grace already possessed cannot come under merit”. The saints avoided putting trust in their own works: “In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you empty-handed, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justices have stains in your sight”.
55. This is one of the great convictions that the Church has come firmly to hold. It is so clearly expressed in the word of God that there can be no question of it. Like the supreme commandment of love, this truth should affect the way we live, for it flows from the heart of the Gospel and demands that we not only accept it intellectually but also make it a source of contagious joy. Yet we cannot celebrate this free gift of the Lord’s friendship unless we realize that our earthly life and our natural abilities are his gift. We need “to acknowledge jubilantly that our life is essentially a gift, and recognize that our freedom is a grace. This is not easy today, in a world that thinks it can keep something for itself, the fruits of its own creativity or freedom”.
56. Only on the basis of God’s gift, freely accepted and humbly received, can we cooperate by our own efforts in our progressive transformation. We must first belong to God, offering ourselves to him who was there first, and entrusting to him our abilities, our efforts, our struggle against evil and our creativity, so that his free gift may grow and develop within us: “I appeal to you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1). For that matter, the Church has always taught that charity alone makes growth in the life of grace possible, for “if I do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2).
57. Still, some Christians insist on taking another path, that of justification by their own efforts, the worship of the human will and their own abilities. The result is a self-centred and elitist complacency, bereft of true love. This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment. Some Christians spend their time and energy on these things, rather than letting themselves be led by the Spirit in the way of love, rather than being passionate about communicating the beauty and the joy of the Gospel and seeking out the lost among the immense crowds that thirst for Christ.
*************************************************************************************A Remark by Etienne Gilson to de Lubac on Modernist:
9 On 21 June 1965, after reading The Mystery of the Supernatural, Étienne Gilson wrote in a long letter to de Lubac, “The tragedy of modernism was that the rotten theology promulgated by its opponents was in large part responsible for its errors. Modernism was wrong, but its repression was undertaken by men who were also wrong, whose pseudo-theology made a modernist reaction inevitable.” He went on to say, “I see redemption only in a Thomist theology as you perceive it, in the company of St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure, and the great theologians of the East” (Henri de Lubac, At the Service of the Church: Henri de Lubac Reflects on the Circumstances that Occasioned His Writings, trans. Anne Elizabeth Englund [French edition, 1989; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993], 124–26, at 126).
Ratzinger, accused of Modernism by Schmaus, hsd been totally vindicated with the accompanying explanation. Attention to the quote on Johan Metz.
Modernism – the heresy of all heresies – is true in that it tried to get to the Person of Christ beyond the reductionism of mere doctrine – the divine “I” of the Son. It is false in that it dipped into a subjectivism and lost the reality of Christ by relegating Him to consciousness. Christ was reduced to an internal sentiment (of subjective thought and feeling) and all religion to a psychology of vital immanence, and therefore a phenomenon of evolutionary development.
This is very delicate business on which the entire Vatican Council stands, crossing the threshold of the third millennium, the new evangelization, the universal call to sanctity in secular life characterized by secularity all emerging from an identification with the Person of the God-man, Jesus Christ. It all hangs on the ontological reality of the God-man, Jesus Christ Who is the revelation of Who God is, and who man is. In a word, it hangs on the meaning of “revelation.” Is Revelation Scripture and Tradition or is it God’s revelation of Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ?
Ratzinger found it most clearly in Bonaventure in that the Person of Christ – the divine Son – is the Word spoken by the Father as the most intimate revelation of Who God is. Since God is Creator, nothing can be anterior or more primordial than He. Creatures can tell us that He is, and attributes of Him, but nothing created can tell us Who the Creator is. Only He can. And that telling is “the Son.” The problem, then, is how to know the Son. And elsewhere, Ratzinger will tell us that only God knows God, and only by becoming the Son can one experience being the Son by experiencing oneself – reading Him from within oneself by the ontological experience of going out of oneself, the act of faith [the first act of which is prayer: Ratzinger, “Behold the Pierced One” Ignatius 25-27].
Behold a new/old phenomenological metaphysics of the “I” which is not subjectivism, but subjectivity and the most experiential realism. This is what Ratzinger discovered in Bonaventure and found himself failing the doctrinal part of his habilitation thesis because it looked like the subjectivism and relativism of Modernism. And this, which was to become Vatican II.
The Ratzinger Text:
“In my research [for his rehabilitation thesis], I had seen that the study of the Middle Ages in Munich, primarily represented by Michael Schmaus, had come to almost a complete halt at its prewar state. The great new breakthroughs that had been made in the meantime, particularly by those writing in French, had not even been acknowledged. With a forthrightness not advisable in a beginner, I criticized the superseded positions, and this was apparently too much for Schmaus, especially since it was unthinkable to him that I could have worked on a medieval theme without entrusting myself to his direction. The copy of my book that he used was in the end full of glosses of all colors in the margins, which themselves left nothing to be desired by way of forthrightness. And while he was at it, he expressed irritation at the deficient appearance of the graphic layout and at various errors in the references that had remained despite all my efforts.
“But he also did not like the result of my analyses. I had ascertained that in Bonaventure (as well as in theologians of the thirteenth century) there was nothing corresponding to our conception of ‘revelation,’ by which we are normally in the habit of referring to all the revealed contents of the faith: it has even become a part of linguistic usage to refer to Sacred Scripture simply as ‘revelation,’ by which we are normally in the habit or referring to all the revealed contents of the faith: it has even become a part of linguistic usage to refer to Sacred Scripture simply as ‘revelation.’ Such an identification would have been unthinkable in the language of the High Middle Ages. Here, ‘revelation’ is always a concept denoting an act. The word refers to the act in which God shows himself, not to the objectified result of this act. And because this is so, the receiving subject is always also a part of the concept of ‘revelation.’ Where there is no one to perceive ‘revelation,’ no re-vel-ation has occurred, because no veil has been removed. By definition, revelation requires a someone who apprehends it. These insights, gained through my reading of Bonaventure, were later on very important for me at the time of the conciliar discussion on revelation, Scripture, and tradition. Because if Bonaventure is right, then revelation precedes Scripture and becomes deposited in Scripture but is not simply identical with it. This in turn means that revelation is always something greater than what is merely written down. And this again means that there can be no such thing as pure sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”), because an essential element of Scripture is the Church as understanding subject, and with this the fundamental sense of tradition is already given. At that moment, however, the burning question was the habilitation thesis, and Michael Schmaus, who had perhaps also heard annoying rumors from some in Freising concerning the modernity of my theology, saw in these theses not at all a faithful rendering of Bonaventure’s thought (however, to this day I still affirm the contrary) but a dangerous modernism that had to lead to the subjectivization of the concept of revelation.”[
The thesis of Modernism and Ratzinger are alike in that there is a turn to the subject, the “I;” but with the difference that the modernist “I” is a subjective consciousness, whereas the “I” of Ratzinger is the ontological “I Am” of Christ as the Word and Revelation of the Father [Yahweh], who is communicated to us by our becoming Him. He, being Son, abandons the trappings of the Godhead without ceasing to be God, and becomes one of us so that we can become Him (eat my flesh, drink my blood, live my life).
In 2011, I wrote: “This understanding of faith as conversion away from self in order to receive and be transformed into Christ as subject and therefore take on a relational anthropology is the Second Vatican Council (GS #24). This conversion takes place in the interchange of subjectivities (Christ and the believers), but it is not subjectivism and the non-reality of relativism. Rather, it is supreme realism. The supreme created reality – being – that reason craves is the self itself in the act of going out of self. It is Wojtyla’s “Acting Person.” It is the “I” being loved by being called to walk on water by Christ.
Therefore, Modernism had its true side, but dangerous in its falsity. Pius X providentially stopped the proliferation of the falsity of modernism while giving the Holy Spirit the time and space to develop the spirituality of Opus Dei, the theology of De Lubac and Joseph Ratzinger and the phenomenological metaphysics of Karol Wojtyla. All of this has conspired with a technology of universal communication to give us the greatest possibility to restart a global culture with a “new trajectory of thinking” (BXVI “Caritas in Veritate #54 ) built on this relational anthropology of the “I” for the “new civilization of love.” Therefore, I repeat the remark of Ratzinger taken from Johann Metz’: Levels of Teaching: “The text (Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian) also offers different forms of binding which arise from different levels of magisterial teaching. It states – perhaps for the first time with such clarity – that there are magisterial decisions which can not be and are not intended to be the last word on the matter as such, but are a substantial anchorage in the problem and are first and foremost an expression of pastoral prudence, a sort of provisional disposition. Their core remains valid, but the individual details influenced by the circumstances at the time may need further rectification.” Ratzinger continues: “In this regard one can refer to the statements of the Popes during the last century on religious freedom as well as the anti-Modernist decisions at the beginning of this century, especially the decisions of the Biblical Commission of that time As a warning cry against hasty and superficial adaptations they remain fully justified; a person of the stature of Johann Baptist Metz has said, for example, that the anti-Modernity decisions of the Church rendered a great service in keeping her from sinking into the liberal-bourgeois world. But the details of the determinations of their contents were later superseded once they had carried out their pastoral duty at a particular moment.”  J. Ratzinger, “Theology is not the Private Idea of Theologians,” The Wanderer August 2, 1990 (Reprinted from L’Osservatore Romano [English] July 2, 1990.