This is the final post in the “Catholic Civil War” series, in which I talk about a destructive tug of war between Catholicism, and some factions of Catholics—Political Catholics, Traditionalists, and, today, Modernists.
If you’d like to read or revisit my thoughts on this “Civil War” in the Church, or about the first two factions I wrote about, follow the link. It would be good to have that foundation before reading this post. I will here discuss Modernism itself, and to conclude I will talk about how Modernism compares to, and contrasts with Traditionalism, and in some ways Political Catholicism. I will also talk a bit about Vatican II, the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II”, and the harmful effects that Modernism and other factions have on the Church.
Pope Pius X labeled modernism as “the synthesis of all heresies”. Brilliantly stated! But what is “modernism” in practical terms? How can it be understood and identified? To put it simply, Modernists do not observe the authority of Sacred Tradition—the deposit of faith, direction, norms, guides, and teachings by Jesus and the Apostles, which the Church is wholly bound to, throughout time. The position that Sacred Tradition has no binding authority is heretical by itself, but also results in subsequent heresies because modernism views Catholicism as being changeable, formable, often relative. Hence, the “synthesis of all heresies”.
Modernists generally reject, in some way or other, various authoritative teachings and doctrines of the Church, in whole or in part. The Church’s doctrines on life, teaching on sexuality and marriage, the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the doctrine of Our Blessed Mother’s perpetual virginity and/or her immaculate conception, and so on. One, several, or more of these core teachings are negotiable, expendable, or changeable for Modernists.
Modernism is quite a shape shifter. Where two, or two million faithful Catholics are substantially identical in their beliefs, no two Modernist are exactly alike in theirs. And so you can find Modernists out there who are faithful to some of the more Traditional, and fundamental core doctrines of the faith (the real presence, or the dignity of life in the womb for example), while rejecting others. Regardless of what beliefs they hold or reject, the personal theological stock of Modernists is often fickle, and sometimes fantastic.
Modernism and the Mass
It isn’t just a loose approach to doctrine that defines Modernism Perhaps more commonly idenfitiable, Modernist Catholics tend to lack a respect for the order and substance of the Liturgy (the mass), since the mass, for them, is detached from the authority of Tradition. This leads to masses that range from absurd or farcical, to illicit and sacrilegious.
Vatican II permitted some flexibility in the liturgy in order to slightly tailor the mass, when necessary, to be more in tune to local cultures of a parish/people or to serve a particular and unique need or purpose. But that flexibility cannot be understood at license. The flexibility permitted in the liturgy does not provide for alterations of the mass that reduce it to a novelty for entertainment, undermine Sacred Tradition, or obscure the presence of Christ.
Liturgical dance, the changing of prayers, the rephrasing of opening and closing blessings, novelties intended to make the mass “entertaining” or fun are all not permitted. Changing the mass into performance art is a no-no. Breaking from the rubrics and the guidelines of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal is not allowed. But these are some of the things favored by Modernist Catholics. Liturgical flexibility does not permit anyone to do with the mass whatever they may please. The flexibility permitted exists within the boundaries of Sacred Tradition, not beyond them. The mass cannot be turned into a carnival. It must remain reverent, sacred, with Jesus as the center of attention. Modernists tend to want to put the people, themselves, or the celebrant at the center of attention, and they alter and progressively disfigure the mass in order to achieve that end; always leveraging the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” to justify desacralizing the mass. It can’t be over-stressed that Vatican II permits very little flexibility in the mass, and permits absolutely no license to recreate the mass.
Modernism and [the spirit of] Vatican II
Modernists often point to Vatican II to justify and validate their errors. They misquote and misapply various documents of the Council, under the umbrella of “The spirit of Vatican II”, a term that exists nowhere in any of the Council’s documents. What is this “spirit” of the Council? It’s an attempt to arbitrarily interpret the documents and glean the actual intent of the Council from that arbitrary interpretation. Even if the “intent” they glean has no connection to what the Council actually states in the document. Rather than following what the Council said, Modernists (and other modernsized Catholics) interpret and apply what they determine the Council meant or intended to achieve.
I’ll give you an example. Paragraph III of Sacrosanctum Concilium, (the Vatican Council’s document on the Liturgy) covers “The Reform of the Sacred Liturgy”. In subsection 21 of that paragraph it states that some elements of the Liturgy are “subject to change”. But it also says that the Liturgy is “made up of immutable elements divinely instituted”. In other words, some parts of the liturgy cannot be changed, while other parts “can and should” change with time, if those parts are no longer in harmony with, or suited to “the inner nature of the Liturgy”. That’s what the Council said. The “spirit of Vatican II” interprets that as “There, ya see, the mass can, and should change if it’s no longer in step with the times. So let’s change this, and let’s change that, and let’s make it more entertaining, and….” you get the idea. Well that’s not what the Council said, it’s merely what people claim that the Council actually meant. That’s the Spirit of Vatican II. It’s as fictitious as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and twice as frightful as the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come.
Comparisons to, Contrasts with Traditionalism
Risks and Dangers
To be clear, Traditionalism and Political Catholicism are technically not heresies. They are ordered toward error, which makes them just as dangerous as an actual heresy. Unlike Traditionalism or political Catholicism, Modernism is a bona fide, clearly defined heresy. But unlike Modernism, which has a clear border that makes it easy to identify and avoid (because it is a bona fide heresy), Traditionalism and political Catholicism are easy errors to fall into. Though not actual heresies, and because they’re not actual heresies, they can lure many souls, and seduce many people into their errant dispositions and ideas, because they aren’t so easy to identify as Modernism is.
No one would drink from a bottle with a skull and crossbones on the label. You’ll know it’s poison, and you’ll avoid it. That’s Modernism. Apart from being a defined heresy, it’s so obviously un-Catholic that it’s easy for most reasoned Catholics to avoid. But what about another bottle of the same shape, same label but without the skull and crossbones on it? You may drink from that if you’re thirsty enough, because it’s not so obvious that it’s poison. It’s not identified as poison, and it seems to satisfy a need, so you drink. That’s Traditionalism and Political Catholicism. They aren’t labeled as poisons, but they are poisons. And because they don’t have a skull and crossbones on the label, many Catholics drink. And consequently their Catholicity slowly dies. They embody something that resembles Catholicism, but actually is not. Just as a lifeless body lacks the soul that once animated it, gave it life, enabled its purpose and being, a dead Catholicity may have resemblance to the true Faith, but it lacks the authentic being, expression, and dynamism of the true Faith. It’s a body without a soul. Traditionalists and Political Catholics are ordered toward heresy, immediately or gradually, whereas Modernism isn’t an ordering toward heresy, but is itself a heresy.
Effects on the Church, theology and culture
Modernism has been trying to pull the Church to the far left (politically and theologically), and far, far away from Sacred Tradition for about 100 years, but most noticeably during latter portion of the 20th century. It is responsible for a lot of the confusion, disorientation, and the identity disorder we find throughout the Church today. The warm and fluffy Jesus, the God who doesn’t judge, the Church that, it would seem, didn’t really exist until Vatican II, the belief that women should be ordained, that weekly mass isn’t important, that confession isn’t necessary—all of this, and more are all the result of Modernism. In response to this identity disorder traditionalism is now going to the other extreme, trying to pull the Church to the far right, theologically and culturally
Traditionalism is responsible for the Jesus who judges seemingly beyond any capacity for mercy, the belief that the Church cannot grow or develop, that the Church rightly is bound to Tradition, but must wrongly be bound by her customs. Traditionalism fosters an understanding of doctrine that is authoritarian in its character, and an ideological understanding of the Catholic faith. Political Catholicism is responsible for the error of placing the authority of oneself over the authority of the Church, which carries Christ’s own authority; it is responsible for turning Catholics into political pundits who offer commentary on Church teaching, but resist being converted by it—whether that person is Joe Biden, or Joe Shmo Average Catholic.
Modernism is dying, but the damage it has done over the past 50 years will be with us for a long time. Many Catholics who are not at all “modernist” have had their personal understanding of Catholicism shaped in some way by modernist errors. Catholics who are faithful, reverent and orthodox in every other way, but believe that God doesn’t judge anyone to hell have had their faith shaped by modernism—at least in that regard, if not in others as well. Wherever Catholicism or Catholicity attempts to blend with the modern world, that’s the result of Modernism, even if the person is not Modernist themselves. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important for Catholics and Catholicism to exist, in its fullness, in the modern world. That was the point of Vatican II. But when Catholicism blends—that is, when it is largely indistinguishable from the modern secular world—it is no longer Catholicism. The more it blends, the less Catholic it is. It instead becomes a secular spiritualism that does not answer to the true God, but to the god of public opinion, perception, and sentimentality.
Traditionalists and modernists are opposite sides of the same problematic coin—a lack of authentic Catholicity, rooted in rebellion rather than in the character of God. They all have good intentions, but their good intentions become misdirected.
Ave Maria, virgo fidelis!