George Tyrrell (1861-1909) was the posthumous son of an Anglican journalist in Dublin. Raised in poverty, he converted in 1879 and joined the Jesuits the following year. After being ordained in 1891, he was posted to the prestigious Jesuit secondary school Stonyhurst (successor to its college at St Omer, France, where Archbishop John Carroll and many other famous names had studied).
At that time, the philosophy dominant in Jesuit institutions was a kind of Thomism peculiar to themselves, being mediated through the 16th-century Jesuit philosopher Francisco Suárez. Disagreeing with this stance, Fr Tyrrell came into conflict with other faculty members, and in 1896 was transferred to Farm Street, the celebrated church of his order in London. There he discovered the work of the French philosopher Maurice Blondel, which heavily influenced him. Fr Tyrrell published a book attacking scholasticism in general in 1899. He maintained that the truths of the Faith must be re-expressed in every age – even if that meant contradicting earlier expressions of the Faith. He was reassigned to a small Yorkshire mission church.
His views – similar to those held by a number of Jesuits and Dominicans in particular – were seen as eroding the immutable nature of Catholicism. Fr Tyrrell was asked to recant them in 1906; refusing to do so, he was expelled from the Society of Jesus. The following year, Pope St Pius X in the decree Lamentabili and the encyclical Pascendi condemned these ideas, dubbed “Modernism”, as the “synthesis of all heresies”. Fr Tyrrell attacked these documents in the London Times, was excommunicated in 1908, and died in 1909. But a careful reading of St Pius X’s documents reveals a methodology that has become standard for many theologians inside and outside the Church – and has been as corrosive as that holy pontiff feared.