May 2014 Print

On Modernism Past and Present


Fr. Roger-Thomas Calmel, O.P.

The classic heretic—Arius, Nestorius, Luther—even if he has a velleity to stay in the Catholic Church, does what is needed to incur exclusion from it: he fights openly against the revealed truth of which the living deposit is safeguarded by the Church. The heretical, or rather apostate, modernist—a Reverend Loisy or a Father Teilhard de Chardin—consciously rejects the whole doctrine of the Church, but he cherishes the will to stay in the Church, and he takes the means necessary to do so: he dissembles, he pretends, in the hope of achieving his design to transform the Church from within, or as the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin wrote, to rectify the faith. The characteristic, specifying note of the modernist is hypocrisy. The modernist, it can never be sufficiently borne in mind, is an apostate who is also a traitor.

You may ask: Given the fundamentally dishonest position adopted by the modernist, how is it possible for him to stick with it his whole life without it disturbing his internal equilibrium? Is psychological balance compatible with indefinitely prolonged duplicity regarding the ultimate questions? As regards the leaders, the answer must be in the affirmative. For the great number, the followers, the question of psychological equilibrium within sustained hypocrisy is no doubt less acute. Especially since the followers, when they are priests, which is frequent, generally end up marrying, which puts an end to their need to dissimulate. Once married, they may still be apostates, but they are no longer modernists. Things become clear concerning them; they no longer need to counterfeit the appearance of the Catholic priest. For the leaders, for the prelates placed in important posts, if the modernism is practicable without too much psychological distress it is undoubtedly because they are diverted by restless accomplices or by unflagging flatterers. Being thus distracted from ever returning within their own heart, they can evade the tormenting questions of a lingering moral conscience.

Ceaselessly Changing Modernity

For the modernist, as the name suggests, religion is essentially modern. It does not dominate time. It is entirely immersed in history, in the adventures of mankind on the move. There is no revelation given once and for all to teach the divine mysteries. There is no sacrifice meriting grace once and for all. There is no new and eternal testament. There is indefinite evolution. It is in this sense that religion is said to be modern by the modernists. For them, the Catholic religion is purely and simply human, not received from God in an infinitely merciful initiative, by perfect Revelation, and the plenary grace of the Lord Jesus, but a simple product of human progress. The Catholic religion is no doubt a particularly precious and refined product, but still it has nothing to do with what are called grace and revelation. It is strictly contained and enclosed within the limits of the human spirit; it does not exceed the virtualities of mankind in the making, for its virtualities have no fixed limits. When a modernist pronounces Christian vocables—divine intervention, revelation, or grace—he does not understand them in a Christian sense. He reinterprets them, astutely reducing them so that they do not exceed the natural. God is not transcendent. The modernist does not say in the same sense as we do, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” no more than he says in a Catholic sense that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, Redeemer. For the modernists, it is not true that God so loved the world as to give His only-begotten son born of the Virgin Mary.

From this particular conception of religion, or rather from this radical negation, the modernism of the time of St. Pius X and present-day modernism differ on many points. Nevertheless, the essence is identical; the variations do not bear on the essential. In this heresy, or rather in this apostasy, one principle is immutable: religion must be modern. One procedure is invariable: disguise in order to stay in the Church and change it from within. It is because the Catechism on Modernism of Father Lemius1 focuses intently on this principle and this procedure that it remains useful fifty years after its publication, regardless of the differences that may exist between the second modernism and the first.

The Strategy of Modernism

The basic ideas of modernism have nothing original. These apostates have not devised a new philosophy, but they have attempted to align religion on a false philosophy—the subjectivism and idealism that have been poisoning the world for the last three centuries. You will not find among the modernists a thinker on the order of a Descartes or a Regel. Teilhard de Chardin, who was in vogue for a while, did nothing more than produce variations on the well-worn theme of evolutionary monism. As far as theories go, the second modernism, the one prevailing since Vatican II, adds to the first the confused notion, never clearly justified, of unrestrained ecumenism, a false ecumenism at once religious and humanitarian, that would first de-dogmatize and then fuse beliefs and rites.

This is why it is not the genius of a few great thinkers that has given modernism its power, but its perfection of the techniques of infiltration and domination. The procedures themselves are copied from those of secret societies, notably the various rites of Freemasonry. These are the old methods, described by Augustin Cochin in his Abstraction révolutionnaire et réalisme catholique,2 that had already proved successful in the French Revolution, and that have been applied to the Church for its devastation. The distinctive characteristics are well known: first and foremost, a shadow authority.3 The real authority belongs to various organisms, difficult to describe precisely, unofficial, while the official authority is reduced to serving as their screen and to get their anti-Christian directives accepted by the people. To get an idea of the destructive power of a shadow authority, recall the speed with which the devastating practice of the new rites of communion, the new “Eucharistic prayers,” and the new liturgy in general, prevailed. The form par excellence of the shadow authorities is post-conciliar collegiality. The total victory of the Church over modernism will come by the suppression of collegiality.

Causes of the Triumph of Modernism

At the beginning of the twentieth century, had one asked the simple layman what modernism is, he would probably have been quite hard put to give an answer. Fifty years later, the simple layman would have had much less difficulty. He would have said in essence: It’s a new religion: The Mass is no longer the same, the new funerals are repugnant, the new marriages are tomfoolery, people no longer go to confession, they have all kinds of trouble getting their children baptized; the pastors only talk about getting married and their sermons have become political claptrap; in sum, modernism has gotten into religion. Similar remarks are becoming more and more frequent among Catholics. At the beginning of the century, the simple layman had not really grasped what modernism was about; fifty years later he knows it superabundantly, and he is disgusted. For in the half-century after St. Pius X, modernism has passed from the chair of the learned doctors in theology into the Mass celebrated by the vicar or curate. Aberrant exegesis has become liturgical ceremony and catechism for children; the apostasy that was the luxury of a few high-flown intellectuals has become the mass-produced rubbish within reach of the first priest who comes along, within reach of the pitiable nuns whom diabolical priests, quite conscious of their work, deliberately led astray. In half a century modernism has been introduced into every sector of the Church: not a one has escaped. But also in almost every sector, resistance is emerging.

As to why the virus advanced so far in the organism, we can enumerate three main reasons: firstly, the imposture of Vatican II, the only one of all the councils that refused to be doctrinal; secondly, the progressive occupation of the highest posts by modernist prelates; thirdly, the debility of the life of faith, hope, and charity in all the Christian people, beginning with the head. A council that betrayed, certain prelates that betrayed, a Christian people incapable of resisting the betrayal because it was spiritually debilitated—there at least in part is what happened between the two modernisms, the one of the time of St. Pius X, who was a saint; and the one of Paul VI, who eerily resembles Honorius I.

So saying, I don’t deny that there are other causes, but I take them to be less decisive. Between the two modernisms, the world experienced the Communist revolution and the extension of revolutionary methods. Between the two modernisms, Masonry made inroads among the ecclesiastics and even into the ranks of the Vatican Curia: on this point, the diagnosis of the Bishop of Regensburg, Monsignor Rudolf Graber, is one of the most enlightening (Saint Athanasius and the Church of Our Time, 1973). Between the two modernisms there was also the methodical launching of the books by the Jesuit Father Teilhard de Chardin. For at least fifteen years, from 1945 to 1960, the Teilhardian artillery pounded all the orthodox positions; once the destruction of the defense works had been achieved they withdrew the heavy artillery; there’s not been much talk of Teilhard since the Council. One cannot but notice in this regard that when the destruction was underway, the Jesuits knew how to maneuver shrewdly enough to keep their great man from receiving a categorical condemnation that would have preserved a good part of the Church from his influence. There was no placing on the Index, not by Pius XII, and not by John XXIII. There was certainly a monitum, but the Jesuits were not unaware that the effect of a monitum is not comparable to being placed on the Index.

Anyhow, whatever may be the multiplicity of causes, the decisive or accidental factors in the progress of modernism, we ought to be telling ourselves (and doing so in order to draw nearer to God) that if there had been in the Church greater faith and fervor, and especially if there had been among us bishops and priests with a more Christian sense of the Mass, modernism would not have won as it has won. In any case, it would not have so easily infected the holy liturgy everywhere. The Christian people, the countless throng of pusilli, would not be reduced to clamoring and crying out: Most Holy Father, give us back the Mass, give us back the Catechism, give us back Sacred Scripture.

First Remedy: A Teaching Pope

Is there a remedy? Surely, one or even several exist. The evil is not incurable, since it is of faith that the gates of hell shall not prevail (Mt. 16:18), since the Lord will not leave us orphans (Jn. 14:18), since no one will take from the Lord the sheep that are His (Jn. 10:28), since the Lord will continue to offer His sacrifice through the ministry of His priests donec veniat, till His return (I Cor. 11:26). So the evil afflicting the Church is not going to annihilate it. It is curable. But this time, unlike what happened at the beginning of the twentieth century, the evil has deeply penetrated the hierarchy itself. So long as the hierarchy has not eliminated the poison infecting it, the remedy can only be partial and limited. Doubtless it is not from the hierarchy alone, nor from the head alone that the remedy will come. The body in all its organs must rid itself of the poison. Nonetheless, a complete recovery requires that the head return to health.

The search for a remedy against modernism brings up three chief topics: the head of the Church, the witness to be given, and theological studies.

It is impossible to avoid the question of the head, since the current Sovereign Pontiff has been complicit in the apostasy. The proofs are flagrant: official recourse to notorious heretics for the purpose of remaking the rites, and remaking them in favor of heretics and against faithful Catholics; public collusion with Freemasons and Communists; the absence of canonical measures against the parallel authorities who undermine religion. Faced with this new way of governing the Church of God, of what use are the Wednesday talks? This endless eloquence doesn’t even succeed in misdirection anymore because it is contradicted by the worst of innovations in every domain. The question of the head is posed because of these frightful innovations. The question of the head would only become tragic if it were to arise within the context of infallibility. But there is nothing of the sort. The upheavals of the current pontiff, which certainly go against apostolic tradition, not only fall short of infallibility, but even of regular, specific precepts accompanied by canonical sanctions. The duty of obedience therefore does not come up.

On True Obedience

Moreover, the obedience due to any man, even the pope, cannot be unlimited, unconditional, beyond the bounds of good and evil, of virtue and sin. In this, obedience to the pope is no exception. It is not by abstracting from circumstances, and notably by abstracting from apostolic tradition, that the word of the Lord that who hears you hears me defines an obligation for the faithful.

It would be blasphemous to think that, in order to obey the pope, the Lord would have put us in a position of having to sin against morals or against the faith, to give up the Roman Catechism or to accept an equivocal, protestantized rite of Mass after having sent to the devil the irreproachable, holy rite that has been handed down intact for more than fifteen centuries. Just as the qui vos audit me audit would not have applied in the case of one of these awful Renaissance Popes who abused his position to seduce an irresolute, intimidated woman, neither would it apply when a chimerical pope pretends to make use of his authority to make us accept equivocal rites or to treat unrepentant heretics as Catholics. The pope enjoys legitimate authority only within the limits of conformity with apostolic tradition, and not in what subtly contradicts it; it follows that obedience to the pope is contained within the same limits. That is why the question of a bad head that becomes a matter of conscience for the faithful is not insoluble.

Infallibility vs. Impeccability

In part, but only in part, the question of the authority of the visible head of the Church will be resolved if we understand that in certain cases the exercise of his authority can be bad. The dogma of faith defined by the First Vatican Council obliges us to distinguish infallibility, which leaves no doubt under certain conditions, from impeccability, which is not a papal privilege. Thus a pope can fall, not only in the order of morals but, up to a point, even in the order of faith. Should the failings of the pope as guardian of the faith be serious, should they reach a certain threshold, we are tested to the limits of our strength. We know, and now we know from experience, that in order to endure it without wavering, it is not enough merely to have a correct notion, a Christian notion of the authority reserved to the pope and the obedience we owe him. Only prayer will enable us to welcome this trial coming from the visible head of the Church, in such wise that we shall live more than ever of the life of the Church. Consequent upon the failing of the visible head, we are obliged more than ever to draw very close to the invisible and victorious head, our Lord Jesus Christ. We are obliged more than ever to have recourse to and take refuge in the Immaculate Heart of the Mother of the Sovereign High-Priest, the Virgin of Compassion and of the Cenacle, whose supplication is almighty over the heart of her Son.

Prayer will make us understand that the Lord predicted these times when the abomination of desolation would stand in the holy place (Mt. 24:15); He predicted them so that the faithful who would witness them would not lose courage, but would become partakers of His victory: Ecce praedixi vobis (Mt. 24:25). Sed haec locutus sum vobis ut cum venerit hora eorum, reminiscamini quia ego dixi vobis (Jn. 16:4). Confidite, ego vici mundum (Jn. 16:33). The post-conciliar neo-modernist rush would not have submerged the Church had a great number of souls among the prelates, priests, and laity stayed alive, living by the theological virtues and by mental prayer. Conversely, for modernism to be thrown off, it is indispensable that the life of prayer once again flourish in the Church among the laity, still more among the priests, and still more among the prelates.

Second Remedy: Public Confession of Faith

It is indispensable to confess the faith, to give public witness to it with as much humility and meekness as pride and patience. For the true confession of faith is a work of love, humility, and goodness, and not only of fortitude and courage. We are not ignorant of what new difficulties present themselves in a period of modernist revolution to hinder the confession of faith and the sacraments of faith from being a great work of love. But if it were not that, it would be very insufficient in the sight of God, of angels, and of men. If our witness to the traditional Catholic Mass were in the face of the classic persecutors, if we had to deal as our ancestors did with the tribunals of the Terror or the Directory, we would find ourselves exposed to a violent death by the mere fact of attending a Catholic Mass. In such extreme conditions how could we fail to hear Mass or celebrate it with heightened fervor? The violence would put us in the near occasion, so to speak, of tending towards ardent love in order not to commit the sin of denying the faith. But now we are dealing with the modernist revolution and not violent persecution.

Bearing witness to the traditional Catholic Mass no doubt demands of us patient effort, but it does not force us to tend toward greater charity when we celebrate or hear Mass. We would not necessarily become renegades of the Mass if we were to continue to go with such mediocre dispositions, when our forebears in periods of classic persecution would have become renegades had their interior dispositions remained mediocre. In fact, there are laymen and priests who go to much trouble in order to confess their faith in the traditional Catholic Mass, but even so it is with an invariable lukewarmness that they persist in celebrating or hearing it. It does not seem that they bring this great love that animated the martyrs of the Terror when they exposed themselves to a death sentence for going to the Mass of a recusant priest. They bear a certain witness to the traditional Catholic Mass without being obliged to put much love in their attendance or in the celebration of Mass.

Today the stimulus no longer comes from without; but even without exterior provocation, the interior flame of the theological virtues and of prayer ought to become intense enough for us to bear witness to the faith and the sacraments of faith with all the love our Lord expects. Not only the Lord, but souls of good will expect it; they hope to find it in us so that they in their turn can summon the courage to turn towards God and to profess the Catholic faith and the sacraments of faith.

Charity makes us attentive to the veritable needs of our neighbor; it makes us perceive the right way to present the true religion so that, without being corrupted or compromised, it relates to the present day. Even when the supreme authority falters and the general adaptations, far from being effective, have taken the form of general perversions, even in these extreme cases, charity makes the simple priest or even better the bishop discover, within the proper field of their authority, the best way to preach sound doctrine and to celebrate the Catholic Mass in such a way that the faithful participate without anything being lost.

Moreover, examples are not lacking. The priests who keep the traditional Catholic Mass, Latin and Gregorian, out of a loving attachment to the Sovereign Priest and thus, inseparably, out of zeal for souls, know how to take the faithful in charge for their holy participation. These same priests captivate the children by teaching them the Catechism of St. Pius X and do not think they have to concede anything to modernism in order to find a suitable pedagogy. Nevertheless, these adapted presentations or this faithful adaptation only happens on two conditions: first, continual meditation on doctrine and the traditional rites so as to keep them as they are without bending or distortion; then, living united to God in such wise that one’s witness to the Catholic faith is an effect of love.

Third Remedy: Contemplative Theology

Among the principal means of resisting modernism, we have indicated the teaching of sound doctrine in such a way that, far from remaining superficial, it fosters prayer and contemplation. A few words are in order about teaching a theology imbued with contemplation, and theological study that not only enlightens the mind but also disposes the soul to prayer and prompts preaching.

The primary goal of theology is not to develop the life of prayer, but to sound the depths of the revealed mysteries we hold by faith, to accustom our mind to them, and to become capable of expounding them to our neighbor. The first goal of theology is to form Christians whose minds are steeped in the supernatural mysteries and who are capable of preaching them. Even so, in his reflections the theologian is constantly invited to return to the mysteries of faith, and so doing he must deepen the life of prayer in his soul. The principles of theological thinking are held by faith; how then can this thinking be carried on without our being inclined to silence in faith and in loving contemplation? How is it possible to reach a synthetic view of a theological treatise or an entire Pars of the corpus theologicum without experiencing the value of this vision and a sense of its limits; without a desire quickening in us to let ourselves be taught by the Spirit of God beyond words in mental prayer and through sacrifice? How, moreover, can the theologian defend the truths of salvation intellectually so as to preach them in all their purity and not aspire at the same time, for the sake of this defense, to an increase of the virtues of fortitude, humility, and mercy? For the defense of the truths of salvation, for truths of this order, it is so obvious that the mind’s mastery and the rightness of the reasoning, needful though they be, are not enough.

Therefore, the teaching of theology ought to foster the life of faith and apostolic zeal. But what is normal is, in fact, not widespread. It is rather rare that theological work proceeds from prayer and is turned towards prayer.

Moreover, when the notion of theological faith itself is marred, how could the study of theology remain unaffected by troublesome consequences? Theological faith must be presented not only in its formal motive, which is of itself supernatural, and not only by manifesting the worth of the motives of credibility, but by presenting faith in its normal state—its normal state being to be vivified by charity, to be the source of contemplation inspired by the gifts of the Holy Spirit which are inseparable from charity. Still more, it would be necessary to say a word about the modern systems that have debilitated theology, which have contributed, even before the advent of rationalist textual criticism, to render theology anti-contemplative, little capable of favoring prayer and preaching. Molinism, for example, under the pretext of safeguarding freedom, is built on a profound distrust of the mysterious omnipotence of the grace of Jesus Christ. Besides, some systems of moral theology are influenced by an unworthy concern to dispense us from generosity in the love of the Lord, but also, preoccupied with avoiding serious sin, seek to assure our salvation by setting aside the observance of the first precept, which is the perfection of love; perfection that is prescribed not as a matter to achieve hic et nunc but as the end toward which to tend in truth and in earnest. The divers systems I am denouncing have rendered theology anemic and unfit to nourish our intellect and to make us desire the superior food of contemplation. On the other hand, when adequately taught in light of St. Thomas Aquinas, theology aids us to pray better and to resist the onslaught of modernist apostasy from an impregnable rampart.


Our combat against modernism, even if it is sustained by prayer as it should be, even if it employs the appropriate weapons, remains unequal to the evil to be withstood. This time apostasy has perfected its methods too well for it to be vanquished without a miracle. Then let us not cease to implore this miracle from the Immaculate Heart of our Lady. Let us carry on the fight with all our strength as useless servants, while having recourse more than ever to the all-powerful intercession of Mary, ever Virgin Mother of God, for it is she who will once again be victorious over heresy. Gaude, Maria Virgo, cunctas haereses sola interemisti quae Gabrielis archangeli dictis credidisti.

Translation of “Le Modernisme actuel,” Itinéraires, No. 184, June 1974. Translated by A. M. Stinnett.

Fr. Roger-Thomas Calmel, O.P. (1914-75), was a prominent French Dominican and Thomist philosopher and spiritual director, who made an immense contribution to the fight for Catholic Tradition through his writings and conferences, notably as a regular contributor for 17 years to Jean Madiran’s Itinéraires. His most enduring influence is through the traditional Dominican Teaching Sisters of Fanjeaux and Brignoles in France, who operate 12 girls’ schools in France and the United States.

1 The Rev. J. B. Lemius, O.M.I., A Catechism on Modernism according to the Encyclical “Pascendi Dominici Gregis” of His Holiness Pius X (New York: Benziger, 1908; reprinted by TAN Books & Publishers in 1981).

2 Michel de Boüard, ed. (Paris: Desclée de Brower, 1936, 1960).

3 “une autorité de mensonge”.