Saturday, May 07, 2011

Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today, Part 2: “The Advent of Modernism”

Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today, Part 1: “New Territory” (6:50)

I’m going to continue to provide transcriptions from the lecture, Roman Catholicism Today, by Nick Needham, because he summarizes so well the evolution in Roman Catholic theology and dogma from, say, Vatican I to Vatican II, and not everyone has the opportunity to sit and listen to an hour-long lecture.
Now in order to understand what happened at Vatican II, we need to step back and take a bird’s eye view of Roman Catholic theology in the hundred years or so that preceded the council. No important event in history suddenly pops into being without causes or a background. There were streams of influence flowing within the Roman Catholic communion that finally burst forth at the Second Vatican Council and its decisions. (7:23)

Part of the problem for the great majority of Protestants and evangelicals, is that we know little or nothing of the history of Roman Catholicism after the turmoil and the conflicts of the Reformation era in the 16th century. We could, each of us, no doubt, without difficulty, name six Protestant theologians, preachers, or devotional writers who have lived and worked since the days of Luther or Calvin. How many of us could name six Roman Catholic theologians, preachers, or devotional writers, who’ve lived and worked since that time. Therein lies the problem. It is not our history, and perhaps inevitably, most of us know little or nothing about it. And consequently, we tend to view all Roman Catholicism through the distorting lens of the 16th century conflict. (8:23)

But you see, Roman Catholicism no more stood still than Protestantism did. It “developed” in all kinds of ways. It had its internal problems and struggles. It interacted with the changes in society brought on by such events as the rise of science, the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, the French Revolution, the advent of the modern secular democracy, and nationalism. It had its own distinguished men and women, theologians, philosophers, poets, humanitarian workers, and missionaries, whatever we may think of them. (9:00)

So, let’s try in broad brush strokes, to paint a rudimentary picture of what was going within Roman Catholic theology, in the century that led up to the Second Vatican Council. Prior to Vatican II, the official theology of the Roman Catholic communion was “neo-Thomism,” named after Thomas Aquinas, greatest of the Catholic theologians of the middle ages. “Thomism” [was] the theology of Thomas, and hence “neo-Thomism” the “new” Thomism. Neo-Thomism was a revamped Thomism, adapted and fine-tuned for the purpose of rescuing the church from an increasing diversity of ideas and theologies that had emerged in the early 19th century. Because Thomas and the theologians of the middle ages were known as “scholastic” theologians, you’ll also come across the term “neo-scholasticism” to describe this 19th century movement within Roman Catholicism. (10:07)

So then there was this attempt within the Roman Catholic communion to revive, to rehabilitate medieval scholastic theology in general and Thomism in particular, from around 1840 onward. Neo-Thomism especially, was given the official seal of approval in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter Aeterni Patris of 1879, where Leo named Thomas as the great theologian of the church. (10:42)

Now this is the kind of Roman Catholicism still portrayed in popular Protestant books on the subject. For example, in the classic 1962 volume, Roman Catholicism, by the reformed writer, Lorraine Boettner. It was published during the early stages of the Second Vatican Council. But rather misleadingly, it describes the theology which had prevailed in Rome, up to that point. This is the theology that was essentially neo-Thomist, and also committed to upholding the teachings of the great Council of Trent, a 16th century Roman Catholic council which had reacted to the Reformation, and formulated its views in opposition to it. (11:29)

However, even during this era [the 19th century], when neo-Thomism was the official Roman theology, liberal ideas in various forms were circulating within Roman Catholicism. And these liberal ideas were collectively known as “modernism”. The leading modernist theologians within Roman Catholicism at that time were the German Baron Friedrich von Hugel (1852-1925), the Englishman George Tyrrell (1861-1909), and the French thinker Alfred Loisy (1857-1940), and Maurice Blondel (1861-1949). (12:15)

Now the essence of Roman Catholic modernism was to reshape Roman Catholic theology much along the lines of liberal Protestantism, and its leading thinker Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Schleiermacher had radically reinterpreted and reformatted Protestant theology in this way. Rather than the teaching of an infallible Bible, Schleiermacher made man’s religious experience the heart of his theology. He was trying to respond to the challenges of the 18th century enlightenment, which saw the traditional arguments for the existence of God rejected by leading philosophers. It also saw the historical reliability of the Bible questioned within the church by critical scholars. Schleiermacher thought he could rescue Christianity from these assaults of skepticism. His method has been described thus: “Take heart, all is not lost. Religion does not need outside evidence to justify its existence. Religion is not knowledge, whether in the form of creeds, doctrines, or the content of sacred books. It does not need philosophical reflection either. The essence of religion is piety, and piety is feeling. If you have a feeling of dependence on God, you have all that is necessary to make you a member of the worldwide communion of saints or company of the truly religious. The separate beliefs and practices of the various religions scattered through time and space are simply different ways, all more or less valid, of cultivating and expressing this fundamental instinct or attitude or feeling of dependence, which by itself is sufficient.” (14:22)

Now Schleiermacher was eminently successful in persuading many Protestants to follow his program for reformatting Christianity, and so this human religious feeling and experience. The Roman Catholic modernists pursued a similar path, often with explicit reliance on Schleiermacher. Baron von Hugel, for example, was a disciple of Schleiermacher’s, and he introduced the great English Roman Catholic modernist George Tyrrell to Schleiermacher’s writings. These modernist ideas then, parallel to liberal Protestantism, were circulating among Roman Catholics, even during the heyday of neo-Thomism. (15:09)

But they didn’t escape criticism and censure. Pope Pius X, pope from 1903-14, condemned modernism in his decree, Lamentabili, and his encyclical letter Pascendi Dominici Gregis, both issued in 1907. He described modernism as “the synthesis of all heresies”. The Roman Catholic modernist thinkers, such as von Hugel, Tyrell, Loisy and Blondel, thus become the object of official scorn, and rejection. Tyrrell and Loisy, indeed, were excommunicated. However, the modernist seeds had been sown. (15:55)

And looming in the background stood the titanic figure of Cardinal John Henry Newman.

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