In 1907, the year after Monsignor John A. Ryan published his doctoral thesis, A Living Wage, Pope Pius X, whom the Catholic Church recognizes as a “saint,” issued Pascendi Dominici Gregis: “On the Doctrines of the Modernists.” This was a follow-up to the issuance of Lamentabili Sane, the “Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists” published a few months previously.
Even a less suspicious person than I might be tempted to see at least a tentative link between the rapid spread of “the synthesis of all heresies” in the Catholic Church, and the growing influence of economic and philosophical theories directly at odds with the natural law and explicit Church doctrines. Nowhere would this be more evident than in the theories of Msgr. Ryan, whose teachings were to establish a virtual hegemony tantamount to a new religion over the interpretation of Catholic social teaching that has lasted down to the present day. We also see this in the way Keynesian economics, for all its obvious flaws, has come to dominate global monetary and fiscal policy, with disastrous results.
Thanks largely to the efforts of Father Edward McGlynn, ably assisted by other “Americanists,” and despite McGlynn’s excommunication, the theories of Henry George had penetrated deep into American Catholic thought. Things had gotten so bad by 1907 that Pius X actually went to the extraordinary length of warning people against what many people today accept as the sole job of “religion”: taking care of people’s material needs.
This was bad enough, but (as we have seen) even understanding of the active virtues, especially justice and charity, had been confused and undermined. Consistent with the program of Henry George, the mission of the Catholic Church in the world was no longer to be a sure guide to understanding the precepts of the natural law and an interpreter in matters of faith and morals.
Instead, everything was to be subordinated to meeting the needs of the poor — and that by any means necessary. This is what Dr. Franz H. Mueller, the solidarist economist, would call “meliorism” in his harsh critique of Msgr. Ryan’s lamentable influence on Catholic social thought, The Church and the Social Question (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1984).
This egregious misunderstanding of the roles of religion and faith may be the heaviest cross the popes of the 20th and 21st centuries have had to bear. As Pope John Paul II would remind the bishops of North and South America nearly a century later,
The results could hardly have been unexpected. As the obsession with material wellbeing increased, concern for spiritual goods decreased. In the latter half of the 20th century, when the Second Vatican Council appeared to give a purely “social Gospel” à la Ryan the imprimatur, attendance at Sunday mass plummeted. Vocations declined dramatically.
This makes sense. If “religion” can be summed up as “help the poor,” and almsgiving is the only sacrament, why bother with all that meaningless ritual? What can a priest, brother, or sister do that anyone else cannot? Why work for a heaven in the hereafter, when we can have it in the here and now?
This past “All Souls Day” at the parish where I sing in the choir (a feast that Catholics celebrate November 2), there was a special series of masses to pray for the dead, especially those who died during the year. At the noon mass — the “big event” for the day — the choir almost outnumbered the congregation.
The rector, who celebrated the mass, complained aloud that ten years previously the church would have been full. He counted barely forty people in attendance. He seemed to blame the poor turnout on indifference.
This, too, makes sense. Why, after all, pray that the dead may be loosed from sin in order to enter a spiritual heaven, when the exclusive mission of the “Church Militant” (members of the Church in this life) is to make a material heaven on earth? Why waste money on masses for the dead, on parish maintenance, or anything else, when you can give that money to the poor?
And the less generous? Why bother to go to mass when all you hear is how you are damned for all eternity for not being poor, not being poor the right way, or not supporting the right State programs or political candidates who will vote for greater benefits?
“[L]ove for the poor must be preferential, but not exclusive. . . . it was in part because of an approach to the pastoral care of the poor marked by a certain exclusiveness that the pastoral care for the leading sectors of society has been neglected and many people have thus been estranged from the Church.” (Ecclesia in America, § 67.)
Unfortunately, the emphasis on meeting the needs of the poor above all else meant that socialism, because of its ostensible concern for the poor, would be preferred over capitalism, which clearly marginalizes the poor. Further, either one would be preferred over a common sense system based on the full spectrum of natural rights, i.e., life, liberty, and property, such as the Just Third Way.
This, of course, raises the question as to what, exactly, this “modernism” is all about. Perhaps most simply put, modernism (while being anything but modern) is the application of the shift from sound reason to bad faith in religion. We noted this already in reference to the understanding of the natural law applied in civil society. As Pius XI declared in his first encyclical in 1922, “There is a species of moral, legal, and social modernism which We condemn, no less decidedly than We condemn theological modernism.” (Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio, § 61.)
Once we understand that modernism is the manifestation in religious society of the legal positivism that William Crosskey noted in civil society, things fall into place. Crosskey pinpointed the problems in his analysis of the infamous Dred Scott decision and the effective nullification of the Fourteenth Amendment by means of the “crafty” opinion the Supreme Court rendered in the Slaughterhouse Cases in 1873. This, as we have noted, shifted the basis of the Constitution from the lex ratio (reason) found in the Declaration of Independence, to lex voluntas (will/faith), by means of which might makes right.
Problems Crosskey noted included the tendency to redefine basic concepts, twist words, even manipulate facts to justify a position. Thus, Crosskey claimed that James Madison creatively edited the minutes of the Constitutional Convention to preserve slavery (vide “The Ex-Post-Facto and the Contracts Clauses in the Federal Convention: A Note on the Editorial Ingenuity of James Madison,” 35 U. Chi. L. Rev. 248 (1968)).
By 1873 and the Slaughterhouse Cases, however, slavery had finally been abolished — but the Supreme Court had tasted power and obviously liked it. Slaughterhouse enshrined the change in the whole concept of human nature and natural law into American politics and jurisprudence, from whence it has yet to be ousted.
Similarly, by redefining basic concepts, twisting words, and manipulating facts, modernists made Catholic doctrine subject to the will of the strongest, rather than reason. The analytical framework shifted from sound reason to unsound faith. The first point of attack in modernism was scholastic philosophy, the strongpoint of reason, particularly the philosophy of Aquinas. As Pius X noted,
“If we pass from the moral to the intellectual causes of Modernism, the first which presents itself, and the chief one, is ignorance. Yes, these very Modernists who pose as Doctors of the Church, who puff out their cheeks when they speak of modern philosophy, and show such contempt for scholasticism, have embraced the one with all its false glamour because their ignorance of the other has left them without the means of being able to recognize confusion of thought, and to refute sophistry. Their whole system, with all its errors, has been born of the alliance between faith and false philosophy.” (Pascendi Dominici Gregis, § 41.)
The common thread in all forms of modernism and positivism is the separation of being from personality. If rights are not inherent in human beings as part of their unchangeable nature from the moment of creation, but are a revocable or amenable grant after a human being comes into existence, then everything is up for grabs. Who is in the right — and who, therefore, grants rights — depends on who has the power to force his or her will on others. Nothing in this framework is or could possibly be objectively true, while effective sovereignty depends on who has power.
This accounts for both the “raw judicial power” exercised by the U.S. Supreme Court in, e.g., Roe v. Wade (410 U.S. 113 (1973)), and the bullying and intimidation one sees increasingly in religious circles. With reason and knowledge meaningless concepts, true debate becomes impossible. Trickery, deceit, and pressure tactics become the order of the day in civil society (the State), religious society (the Church) and, increasingly, domestic society (the Family). Without a solid foundation in the natural law based on reality — nature itself — and discerned by reason instead of faith in either God or the State, the social order at every level dissolves in chaos.