Antiquated Modernists
Why Modernists are the Dinosaurs

Peter Chojnowski
Reproduced with Permission

St. Pius X, in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, speaks of Modernism as "the synthesis of all heresies."1 Since we live in times when the heresy of Modernism and its theological progeny dominate the Catholic intellectual landscape, it is profitable to consider this error from many different vantage points. The vantage point that I shall take in this article is the following: Is Modernism truly modern? By this question, I do not mean to throw into doubt the historical fact that Modernism emerged as a full-fledged heresy in the 19th century as a result of the subjectivism introduced into Western philosophy by the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant with his book The Critique of Pure Reason.

Just as I am not questioning the modern context of the emergence of Modernism, so also do I not question the fact that Modernism, as a heresy, teaches that the fundamental doctrines of the Faith are in some way subject to the "religious consciousness" of the times. Indeed, as I will state, this is the modernists' only claim to the label "modern." The only other potential claim the modernists have to this label stems from their slavish devotion to certain schools of modern philosophy. St. Pius X, in Pascendi, constantly makes reference to the fact that the modernist theologian dances to the tune of the modern philosopher. By this, of course, St. Pius X means those philosophers who have made Kant's "subjectivist turn."

With all of these qualifications in mind, I will state my thesis. Modernism, as a heresy, is not at all in accord with some of the most notable aspects of modernity. I base this conclusion on the premise that it is empirical science which is the most concrete "achievement" of modernity. It shall be my thesis that, rather than being in accord with modern scientific innovations and the outlook on the world which produced them, Modernism, in its most fundamental theological and philosophical positions, is alien to and in essential conflict with that outlook and with the innovations which were the result of that outlook.

Some may object that my thesis indicates an over concern with reclaiming the label "modern" from the modernists. The objector would be extremely perceptive in this regard, since I believe it provides those who propagate Modernism with an enormous psychological advantage to be thought of as "modern." Isn't it self-evident that to be "modern" is to be the inheritor of the collective wisdom and empirical knowledge of the ages? My thesis, in this regard, is stark and clear. Traditional Catholicism has every right to be considered "modern," an Modernism, in all its contemporary forms, ought to be considered antiquated.

Before this thesis is argued for, it is best to first remember one thing. It was the Catholic medievals who were the first people in Western history to refer to themselves as "the moderns." Indeed, one of the names used to refer to the newly emerging Gothic architecture in the vicinity of Paris in the 1100's was the opus modernum or "modern work." When arguing for the truth of my thesis that traditional Catholicism, rather than Modernism, is in fundamental accord with certain essential aspects of modernity, I will refer to the scholarly work done by Fr. Stanley Jaki, O.S.B., physicist and theologian. [Fr. Jaki is a Hungarian-born Benedictine, ordained in 1948. He has doctorates in physics and theology and has been on the faculty of Seton Hall University since 1965 - Ed.].

The two works which shall particularly draw my attention are his Gifford Lectures, published under the title The Road of Science and the Ways to God and his book The Savior of Science. In these works, Fr. Jaki argues the case that it is only within the religious and cultural context of a civilization dominated by Roman Catholicism that modern empirical science as we know it could have emerged. The reasons for this being the case, along with the essential conflict between the modern scientific outlook on the world and the modernist outlook on the world, will constitute the subject matter of this essay.

Modernism as Primitivist Revial

Before arguing the thesis that Modernism is not "modern" at all, but rather, a type of neo-primitivism, it is best to first define what I mean by the term "Modernism." Here I will rely solely on the explanation given of Modernism by St. Pius X in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis. I will also refer to the ways in which the progeny of Modernism, feminist "theology," the New Age, and "liberation theology" are actually a "turning of the clock back" to non-empirical modes of thought. Before St. Pius X discusses the specifics of modernist Christology and their position on the relationship between faith, science, and history, he first discusses the modernist notion of the relationship between the human mind and the world. According to St. Pius X, the modernists reject the idea that the human mind is in immediate and vital contact with the world. Instead, what the human mind has access to is "phenomena" or that which "appears" to the human mind. What the human mind "perceives" is not the created order in all of its variety, richness, purposefulness, and meaningfulness, but rather, sensible impressions which serve as the building blocks of a "world" which has meaning and purpose only insofar as it is perceived by a human mind.2

This modernist disengagement of the human mind from the true order of nature, leads, according to Pascendi, to the philosophical/theological position of agnosticism. Since the human mind is unable to have living contact with the created order, but only with an empirically-based mental "reconstruction" of that order, neither is it able to have a living, rational contact with the Creator of that order.3 The "world" as the modernists portray it then, is not one which directs our minds to God, but rather, a "field" of empirical facts which whispers not of its origins.

This sterile world of facts is, therefore, the only one which the natural mind has access to. This is the "world" which is the subject matter of science and history. Such a "world" without metaphysical roots in the creative Will of God, is only "transformed" into a world which has religious meaning when it encounters the mind of the "believer." It is the faith of the "believer" or the faith of a community of "believers" which invests a world of bare facts with theological significance.4

The example St. Pius X gives of this "transformation" of the phenomena, is what the modernists teach concerning the sacred person of our Lord. According to them, Christ was merely a man whose life, being so extraordinary, has been invested with a theological meaning by the faith of the early Christian community. Since our Lord's life was such an anomaly in His own time and place, the faith of His early followers invested Him with divine attributes.5 The culmination of this process of deification is the prologue to St. John's Gospel. Here Christ becomes the Logos or Verbum of the Eternal Father.6 Not only has Christ become for the believer the Savior of all, but moreover, He has become Him "through Whom all things were made." This leads us to the question as to what the modernists say about the relationship between faith, science, and history. According to St. Pius X, the modernists set up an unbreachable wall between the "world" of faith and the "world" of science and history. The two "worlds" really have nothing to do with one another. The "world" of faith is the product of interior religious sentiments being projected upon the "world" of empirical facts, thereby transfiguring and disfiguring those facts.7

The origin of this theologically meaningful "world" is not the human mind's recognition of the need for an Ultimate Cause of the order which it fords in the world, rather, its source is the human mind's own efforts to make meaningful that which is otherwise value-neutral. By creating this "world" of religious fiction, the human mind attempts to satisfy its own vague "need" for the divine.8 The salvation history spoken of by the Catholic tradition, then, is merely various attempts by the community of believers to satisfy an interior need of the human heart. The "idea" which went farthest in satisfying this need, was the "idea" of the Incarnation.

The "world" of empirical science and objective history, however, knows nothing about the truths of faith. According to St. Pius X, the modernists go so far as to say that science and history know nothing either of God the Savior or of God the Creator. Science and history can only convey empirical facts concerning the world as it is perceived by the human mind. This world needs no God to create it, redeem it, or sustain it. St. Pius X insists that even though the modernists make a radical distinction between the realm of faith and the realm of science, it is the realm of science which they truly take seriously. Since the modernists attribute the truths of faith to the subjective consciousness of man and the truths of empirical science and history to rationality, it is only natural that, ultimately, the facts of science and history would be taken for truth and the facts of faith be interpreted as a sort of pious entertainment, entertainment which distracts one from the cold, hard facts.

In order to keep the truths of faith relevant to the empirical facts of science, religious consciousness ought to conform itself to the basic view of reality presented by empirical science. Thus, rather than being in a domain of its own, faith must adapt itself constantly to the newly-discovered facts of science. What is to be avoided at all cost is the interference of faith in the serious domain of scientific discovery.

What, according to St. Pius X, is the ultimate result of this bifurcation of faith and science? Since the rational mind cannot find evidence of the activity or presence of God in either nature or the events of history, its only logical conclusion must be that nature possesses an autonomy such that it need not be dependent on an ultimate creative and sustaining cause. Nature is its own "cause." It is its own source of existence, life, and motion.

When this belief in the autonomy of nature is united with a religious subjectivism or, as St. Pius X refers to it, a "vital immanence"9 in which God only manifests Himself through the sentiments of an individual, what results is the philosophical position of pantheism. In several places in Pascendi, St. Pius X mentions this as almost an inevitability.10 If there is not a very specific infinite and perfect Being who is distinct from the world, yet also knowable, perhaps everything is "God."

The Scientific Method and the Mind's Path to God

As we have seen above, the modernists, when it comes to the question as to the relationship between Christian faith and science, take the same position as Charles Darwin did when writing to a perplexed German high school student by the name of W. Mengden: "Science has nothing to do with Christ." By taking this position, the modernists and Darwin neglected two glaring facts about the history of science.

The first is that all of scientific discovery is guided by universal and generalized notions and presuppositions. Empirical science never moved incrementally from one small empirical fact to another small empirical fact, such as Sir Francis Bacon and the Empiricists would have it.

The second is the glaring historical fact that modern empirical science emerged, and only emerged, within the context of a Roman Catholic cultural milieu. Within such a cultural environment, certain truths are presupposed. Such presuppositions served as the general framework and intellectual support for all of the great discoveries in the empirical sciences from the 17th century to our own day.

These two facts make the modernist's claim that science is completely independent of the facts of the Faith and of the historical facts of salvation history all the more quaint and outdated. It was in the 20th century, the most "modern" of all, that historians of science like Pierre Duhem,11 himself a devout Catholic, have shown the roots of modern quantitative physics, for example, to lie in the Catholic Middle Ages. Also in the 20th century, a thinker who was not at all sympathetic to the Catholic Church, Alfred North Whitehead, spoke of the debt which modern science owed to the medieval scholastics.12 Whitehead, of course, was a pantheist and the father of what is called "process theology."

What is the reason for this debt which modern empirical science owes to the Catholic Church and to the culture which the Church produced? The reason for the debt is simply this; as most philosophers and historians of science now recognize, empirical science essentially depends upon certain presuppositions concerning the nature of the world and man's ability to know that world. There is no such thing as "presuppositionless" science (i.e., without anything taken for granted).

What I will maintain here is that these presuppositions are primarily theological and philosophical. What modern empirical science presupposes is a view of the world and of the human mind which has been presented to Western man by none other than the Catholic Church. So rather than the Christian religion being led around by science like a silly and immature sibling, it is the true religion which has opened the gates to progress and attainment in the sciences. Therefore, rather than continue to assert the dated modernist position that the truths of faith and the facts of salvation history are unrelated to science or the history of science, we become aware of the cultural context in which modern science emerged and of the fundamental notions and dogmas which formed the foundation of that cultural context.

Interestingly enough, the truths which provided the foundation and the necessary presuppositions for successful modern scientific inquiry are precisely the truths which are contemptuously rejected by the modernists. As Jaki argues in his book The Savior of Science, it was precisely the Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation of the Divine Word, the Verbum or Logos of the Eternal Father, which provided the human mind with an understanding of the universe which was compatible with a progressive scientific culture. Again, interestingly enough, but not surprisingly, it is precisely the doctrine of the Incarnation of the Divine Word which the modernists contemptuously claim has nothing to do with real science, not to mention the real history of science.

Why is it that the Catholic doctrines of the Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ and His Incarnation are the sine qua non of a truly scientific and "modern" mentality? The answer is simply this. Only if the Divine Word, through whom all things were made, is fully divine can we be sure that the universe is rationally ordered throughout all of its parts. It is only such a universe which can be the object of true science. St. Athanasius, a young deacon at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea, used the evident fact of the orderliness and regularity of the universe to argue for the full divinity of the Divine Logos, who became flesh in the Man Jesus of Nazareth."13

Not only is the fact of our Lord's Divinity an essential presupposition for the emergence of a truly scientific and modern mentality, the fact that our Lord is the "only begotten" of the Eternal Father, monogenes in the Nicean Greek, was also historically a necessary presupposition. This is also the case for a very simple reason. For many of the ancient civilizations of the past, the universe itself was considered to be the "only begotten" of the First Principle. The universe was, therefore, considered by the ancient pagans to be divine. The Babylonians, the Chinese, the Hindus, even, to a great extent, the Romans and the Greeks, could be classified as pantheists; "everything" is God.14

Such a "divine" universe is not one which serves as an appropriate object of scientific investigation. It is only a created universe, orderly and regular throughout, which can serve as such an object. To be created and, therefore, to be a creature, means to be "contingent," dependent on the intention and will of a Creator. Such a universe does not have to exist, nor does it have to exist in a certain way. It is such a singular and unique universe, which can both incite scientific interest and satisfy it.

Fr. Jaki insists that the reason for the failure of science in pre-Christian cultures was due precisely to the fact that they failed to recognize the universe as created, contingent, and ordered and regular throughout. It was, of course, only in Latin Christendom that the empirical sciences became a progressive, cumulative discovery of the structure of the universe. Historically it is the case that only in a culture founded on the truth that God, who is completely distinct from the world, came into the world and took on flesh, did the most "modern" of endeavors reach the stage of fruition. It is the modernists, then, along with the New Agers, the ecological feminists, and the "Christian" Marxists, who reject the basics of the modern outlook. They, like the ancients, seek to divinize the universe. Not only are the "modernists" "turning back the clock" when it comes to their re-divinization of the universe, they also advance a view of the mind's relationship to reality which is not at all consonant with modern empirical science. As we have seen earlier, St. Pius X traced the philosophical roots of Modernism to an agnosticism which refuses to recognize the fact which St. Thomas Aquinas took to be obvious, that the human mind can move from a knowledge of creation to a knowledge of the Creator. This natural progression of the mind is what is denied by those who wish to separate the natural mind from an order which the human mind itself did not create.

By short-circuiting the created mind's connection to its Creator through its grasp of the order and regularity of nature, the modernists dim the lights on any possibility of explaining the rationality of empirical science. By restricting the human mind to "phenomena," or "that which appears to the mind," the modernists deny that fact which modern empirical science presupposes, that the object of science is not "what appears to the human mind," but rather, natural reality itself. This is why empirical science pays no attention whatsoever to "modern" subjectivist philosophical trends. Here we have another reason why "modern" subjectivist philosophy, upon which Modernism is ultimately based, is "out of tune with the times."15 As Fr. Jaki argues in his 1974-1975 Gifford Lectures,16 it is the same basic view of human knowledge which permeates both St. Thomas Aquinas's five proofs for God's existence and modern empirical science's attempt to uncover the telescopic and microscopic complexity of the created order. Both understand there to be an immediate and informative contact between the mind and nature; both understand that there stands something "behind" the phenomena which the senses perceive and which common sense evaluates.

The Last Gospel as Prologue to Modernity

Just as it is perfectly natural for natural theology to make the intellectual "leap" from creature to Creator, so empirical science must "leap" from the minutiae of empirical observations to the most general and universally applicable theories and explanations concerning the natural laws which "stand behind" what we see and touch. The reason both natural theology and modern empirical science feel so self-assured in making these leaps is on account of the solid foundation of universal natural order and stability upon which both types of sciences stand.

This presumption of nature's order, stability, regularity, and contingency has only been held to by those minds which have accepted the theology contained in the prologue of the Gospel of St. John. It is only a world created through the Word who is the perfect image of God the Father which can be assumed to be regular throughout all of its parts. It is only a world made from nothing which could be so singular and unique as to generate interest in empirical investigations. In a created and contingent universe, nothing but its general features of order, regularity, and universal uniformity can be presupposed. A world which "knew not" its Creator when He "dwelt among us," is one which is not divine, in any sense of the term. So, contrary to the modernist and Darwinian belief that "Christ has nothing to do with science," it was the Divine Word becoming Flesh which opened the intellectual and psychological gates to the advancement of empirical science. Moreover, this utterly unique earthly birth of One who "was in the beginning with God," also made for a more distinct and "scientific" understanding of history.

Now that such a unique and unrepeatable event has occurred in cosmic history, all events must be seen as unique and, in some way, unrepeatable. Such events are the only ones which can be chronicled by historians. Christ, then, stands at the beginning of "history." Can, however, traditional Catholics tolerate the label "modern?" Perhaps it would take some getting used to. If "modernity" is ours, perhaps it is the Catholic mind which can render the most thorough critique of the path which modernity and modern quantitative science has taken. It is also the Catholic mind which can assess the measure to which empirical science has deviated from the path of human wisdom. It is only the mother of an adult wayward child who can truly explain to a casual observer the personal "story" behind her child's waywardness. Only she, because she knew him in the beginning. Let us remember that modern science and modernity itself emerged from a cultural soil enlivened by the radiance of the Roman Mass. No other "religious" rite in history can claim this distinction. It is only in such a realistic and bracing liturgical setting that one can glimpse the true visage of a mankind freed from pagan superstition and pantheism. For modernity, truly understood, says to man what antiquity never did, "You are not God." Worship Him who dwelt among us and whose glory we have beheld.


1 Pope St. Pius X, "Pascendi Dominici Gregis" in The Papal Encyclicals 1903-1939, trans. and ed. Claudia Carlen, IHM (McGrath Publishing Company, 1981), p.89. [Back]

2 Ibid., sect.6, p.72. [Back]

3 Ibid., sect.6, p.72. [Back]

4 Ibid., sect.9, p.74. [Back]

5 Ibid., sect.9, p.74. [Back]

6 Ibid., sect.31, p.85. [Back]

7 Ibid., sect.9, p.74. [Back]

8 Ibid., sect.7, p.73. [Back]

9 Ibid., sect.7, p.73. [Back]

10 Ibid., sect.l9, p.79; sect.22, p.80; sect.39, p.90. [Back]

11 Duhem makes this claim in his magisterial work entitled Le Systeme dumonde. Also, see Fr. Stanley Jaki's articles on this subject matter entitled: "The Role of Faith in Physics," Zygon 2 (1967), pp. 187-202 and "Theological Aspects of Creative Science," in Creation, Christ, and Culture: Essays in Honour of T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1976), pp.149-166. [Back]

12 Alfred North Whitehead, Science in the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1926), p.10. [Back]

13 See Fr. Stanley Jaki, The Savior of Science (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1990), p.76. St. Athanasius states his argument connecting the regularity and the orderliness of the universe to the simplicity of God's Being and His Trinitarian character in his Against the Heathen, sect. 39, in vol. IV of The Nicean and Post-Nicean Fathers, pp.24-25. [Back]

14 See Jaki, pp.72-80. [Back]

15 There has even occurred, from the 1960's to our own day, an attack on the objectivity of science, and upon its cumulative nature, by the denizens of modern subjectivism. Thomas Kuhn and P.K. Feyerabend were leaders in this attack. Feyerabend brought subjectivism to its logical conclusion when he stated that witchcraft was as intellectually respectable as empirical science. He also has called "authoritarian" the idea that knowledge has a foundation in reality. With this idea, the "Question Authority" crowd and the "Question Reality" crowd meet and become one! [Back]

16 Published under the title The Road of Science and the Ways to God (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1978). [Back]