By Eugene Kevane
Msgr. Eugene Kevane was a pioneer in the field of catechetics. He authored nine books related to catechetics, history, philosophy, and more, including The Lord of History, available in a new edition from Emmaus Road.
The phenomenon of Modernism in religion may seem at first sight irrelevant in a discussion of the philosophy of history. Exactly the opposite is true, however, for Religious Modernism is the product and function of the philosophy of history in its older Voltairean and Hegelian form.
Hence it is impossible to do comprehensive research in this branch of philosophy without taking it into consideration. This kind of analysis, furthermore, has great practical value for priestly and catechetical teaching, for the philosophy of history is the best instrument for unmasking the nature of Modernism, for parrying its deception, and for winning a true victory over it for the cause of authentic religious thinking.
Modernism in religion is a phenomenon of the “Modern” period of Western Civilization, the specific result of an application of Modern philosophy to the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Cornelio Fabro describes its genesis accurately: it is “that penetration of Modern Philosophy into the seminaries which produces the phenomenon which comes soon to receive the name of Modernism.”
This insight, furthermore, applies equally well to all three branches of the Western religious heritage. When Modern philosophy, as such, was introduced into the training of young men as Rabbis, Reform Judaism resulted and is sustained. When the same was done in training for the Protestant Ministry, Liberal Protestantism resulted and is sustained. In these cases, the general effect is an undermining of faith in the historicity of the sources of each religious tradition, a reinterpretation of these sources in such a way that a new kind of religion begins to function within their organizational frameworks and didactic terminologies. They are thus gradually transformed into what Karl Jaspers aptly terms philosophical faith directed more at the cultivation of immanent human powers on the natural level than religious faith directed toward an order of revealed truth and knowledge, distinct in origin and in object, coming from the personal God standing transcendent above nature.
While this phenomenon is powerfully present in Protestantism and Judaism, its impact within the Catholic Church in the formal and technical sense of “Modernism” is altogether unique. The reason for this bears much further research; but the cause appears to be the presence and the actions of the Magisterium, that teaching authority which is unique in Catholicity.
The intellectual victory over Modernism is not difficult to accomplish, whether in personal thought or in ecclesiastical teaching. For this victory does indeed have these two aspects. The first is the result of personal thinking in the new postmodern position, done in the context of the philosophy of history. For it is quite easy to recognize the dated character of Modernist philosophical thinking, and to see that it has been growing intellectually ever more moribund in the years since 1893, 1908, and 1914. This is clear from the viewpoint of God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth, when the discoveries of twentieth century science are recognized and duly considered. It is equally clear from the viewpoint of God the Son, the incarnate Lord of human history, when the philosophy of history is liberated from the Voltairean pattern and allowed to open once again to the prophetic word. And it is not unclear from the viewpoint of God the Holy Spirit, who raises and sustains the Catholic Church as a fact standing in history, quite luminous and visible in the late twentieth century as a great sign in the realm of the human values. In each of the three instances, the philosophy of history is renewed and restored, achieving contact once again with Him who is the Lord of history.
The second aspect of the victory is a social one within the Catholic Church itself. For just as Modernism fastens its grip upon the internal life of the Church chiefly by forcing its ideas in philosophy to prevail in the training of young men for the priesthood, and now also in training for the Ministry of the Word among Religious Sisters and professional religious educators generally, so the victory over Modernism results from postmodern thinking in the design of philosophical curricula, syllabi, and courses of study, thinking which implements the Optatam totius of Vatican II.
The key to this is the recognition that the contemporary renewal of philosophy in the Church has been postmodern since its inception in Vatican I and the Aeterni Patris of Leo XIII. When the study of philosophy becomes truly postmodern, candidates for the priesthood and catechists preparing for the Ministry of the Word will study philosophy of the right kind, metaphysically open to objective reality, to the transcendent God of Creation, and to the spirituality of the human soul. And the mode will be that of the philosophy of history, not that of the history of philosophy.
For the older Modernist approach, teaching philosophy as a history of philosophy whereby truth in philosophy is presented naively and simplistically as the result of a timeline emptying into the Modern Age as such, and ending with a “philosophy” that is no longer distinct from the positive sciences, will be left behind as outmoded in the postmodern situation. No longer will young men be forced to go from Kant, Comte, Hegel, and Marx to the study of theology. On the contrary, when the design of the syllabus for philosophy and the mode of didactic presentation are properly those of the liberated Christian philosophy of history, then the relativism and immanentism of Modern philosophy will be seen in the full context of the construct “Modern,” and evaluated from a superior position in metaphysics, open and free, aware that it is an autonomous and distinct science with its own proper object and method.
Victory over this historically dated and philosophically parochial approach in religion results from the advent of postmodern empirical positions in science and postmodern thinking in philosophy, the kind of thinking for which the Church has been calling consistently from Vatican I through Vatican II to the present.
It is a salutary victory. It saves souls. For it preserves that “religious way of thinking” which is an integral part of persevering loyalty to Him who is the Lord of history.