In one of her letters, the American novelist Flannery O’Connor relates how, at a dinner party, one of the guests – an ex-Catholic – called the Eucharist a nice symbol. O’Connor replied, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” This incident highlights a fundamental point about the Catholic faith: if it’s not true, then really, who cares? If theology is just a word game, played with interesting concepts within a rich historical tradition, that’s maybe nice, but ultimately of no import. It was to oppose such a notion of Catholicism that Pius X early in the last century took steps against what was termed Modernism, especially in his 1907 encyclical, Pascendi Dominici Gregis.
During the last years of the 19th century the Modernist movement had been surreptitiously growing, in France and elsewhere. Under cover of a pious and traditional vocabulary Modernism sought a total remaking of the faith, which is why Pope Pius called it “the synthesis of all heresies”.
The Modernists held, as Pius X wrote, that “human reason is confined entirely within the field of phenomena”. Our religious ideas come not from outside our minds, but from inside ourselves, from “a movement of the heart”.
But we should notice that this question of the ability of the human mind to know truth is primarily a philosophical, not a theological question. For Pius X, to ignore philosophy under a plea that it is more spiritual to focus on doctrine or theology is to give away the store. For a sound philosophy gives the necessary intellectual setting without which theology is reduced to a game. Revelation itself can be nullified by bad philosophy.
History matters too. The Faith is premised on a series of historical events, but for the Modernist as historian these events are outside the consideration of history, for “history, like science [that is, philosophy], deals entirely with phenomena, and the consequence is that … every intervention of God in human affairs is to be relegated to the domain of faith”; whence false distinctions such as that between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.
According to Modernism, the miracles of our Lord, his death and resurrection, “will be denied by the philosopher as a philosopher … and will be affirmed by the believer as a believer.” On this account, faith, being a product of the human heart, does not deal with the objective external world.
What remedy did Pius X propose? Primarily good philosophy, especially that of St Thomas. But in doing so Pius was giving credit to man’s natural capacities, to natural knowledge, to the human science of philosophy. In this sense his attitude was less otherworldly, more respectful of human knowledge. It was the Modernists who wanted to found faith on what they called the religious sense, whereas it was Pope Pius who gave credit to the crucial role of human reason in the foundations of faith.