The accusation of modernism gets thrown around a lot, especially in traditional circles. As a descriptor of heresy, modernism is a vague term. Modernism can refer to a movement of art and architecture, as well as to the general spirit of modern thought as a rejection of the past. These are genuine usages of the word, but when speak of the heresy of modernism we need more precision.
I will attempt to define the heresy of modernism and show how this more precise understanding relates to Cardinal Blase Cupich’s recent reflections on Amoris Laetitia, specifically in his teaching on the religious life of the family.
Defining the Heresy of Modernism
Pope St. Pius X coined the “modernist heresy” to represent a general movement in biblical studies, philosophy, and theology. Therefore we must turn to him for a definition, especially in his encyclical, Pascendi Domenici Gregis (1907). From my experience teaching the encyclical, I would define the heresy broadly in the following terms:
Modernism is a heresy that situates the transmission of revelation and grace within the subjective religious experience of the individual. The teaching and ministry of the Church are secondary outward expressions of this religious experience, and thus are subject to revision as the religious experience of humanity evolves.
Those are my words, but I will give some relevant quotes from Pius to support them. Pius describes the subconscious religious sentiment that undergirds the modernist understanding of revelation:
In presence of this unknowable, whether it is outside man and beyond the visible world of nature, or lies hidden within in the subconsciousness, the need of the divine, according to the principles of Fideism, excites in a soul with a propensity towards religion a certain special sentiment, without any previous advertence of the mind: and this sentiment possesses, implied within itself both as its own object and as its intrinsic cause, the reality of the divine, and in a way unites man with God. It is this sentiment to which Modernists give the name of faith, and this it is which they consider the beginning of religion. But we have not yet come to the end of their philosophy, or, to speak more accurately, their folly. For Modernism finds in this sentiment not faith only, but with and in faith, as they understand it, revelation, they say, abides (7-8).
And then we come to the application of this theory to Catholicism, as simply one outward expression of this sentiment among others, relativizing even Christ’s teaching as one expression, even if the fullest, of this sentiment:
Therefore the religious sentiment, which through the agency of vital immanence emerges from the lurking places of the subconsciousness, is the germ of all religion, and the explanation of everything that has been or ever will be in any religion. The sentiment, which was at first only rudimentary and almost formless, gradually matured, under the influence of that mysterious principle from which it originated, with the progress of human life, of which, as has been said, it is a form. This, then, is the origin of all religion, even supernatural religion; it is only a development of this religious sentiment. Nor is the Catholic religion an exception; it is quite on a level with the rest (10).
A key aspect of the heresy also entails the subordination of the magisterium to individual conscience: “And as this magisterium springs, in its last analysis, from the individual consciences and possesses its mandate of public utility for their benefit, it follows that the ecclesiastical magisterium must be subordinate to them, and should therefore take democratic forms” (25). Overall, modernism relativizes the teaching and ministry of the Church, by subordinating them to a primal religious sense within the individual.
Pius imposed an oath against modernism to be taken by all priests, seeking to uproot it from clergy. Due to modernism’s amorphous nature, however, no one ever quite knew exactly where to find the heresy or even if anyone actually was a modernist. As time went on, however, the seeds of a modernist resurgence grew.
Neo-modernism after Vatican II
Modernism as a spirit remained present though mostly dormant for decades, though it resurfaced with a vengeance after the Second Vatican Council. Within Pope John Paul II’s spiritual diary, he reflected in September of 1971 that neo-modernism “threatens contemporary priests.” In fact, this neo-modernism dominated seminary studies in the decades following the Council, especially through the teaching of Karl Rahner. The clearest place to see modernism in his thought, as expressing the definition given above, comes within his assertion of a “supernatural existential.”
In Theological Investigations, Rahner defines this supernatural existential as “a mode of being, or ‘existential,’ which is constituted by the salvific will of God for all men, to become an abiding element in their spiritual existence and to belong inescapably to human nature as such.” He elaborates in Foundations of Christian Faith that “man is the event of a free, unmerited and forgiving, and absolute self-communication of God.” This communication is so essential to who man is that “God in his own most proper reality makes himself the innermost constitutive element of man.” He claims that God’s presence constitutes our humanity!
In asserting this, Rahner conflates nature and grace, making nature grace’s vehicle, or even turning nature into grace itself. This means that human beings in their freedom are fundamentally creatures constituted by and in relation to the supernatural, without needing to be forgiven from original sin (the reality of which Rahner denied), repent, or receive the ministry of the Church (though these could help). The way he defines the supernatural existential matches up almost exactly with the quotes from Pascendi I included above. Both place the primal source of revelation and grace within human nature, rather than recognizing the need for them to come to us from the Church.
Rahner’s teaching impacted the tendency of many Catholics to defer to conscience as an independent authority and way of hearing God’s voice directly. If you’ve had an experience of a priest telling you that you hadn’t really sinned in confession, there’s a good chance that he was influenced by Rahner’s teaching that sin would have to be a fundamental rejection of God’s self-communication within us (which may not even be possible for Rahner). Fr. George Rutler very helpfully showed us recently how John Henry Newman’s teaching on conscience has been reinterpreted in neo-modernist fashion, including by Cardinal Cupich. Newman spoke of our innate moral sense, which manifests the natural law to us, not a direct experience of supernatural revelation.
Cardinal Cupich on the Family
It is quite ironic, that Cardinal Cupich’s recent lecture at Cambridge, “Pope Francis’ Revolution of Mercy: Amoris Laetitia as a New Paradigm of Catholicity,” was hosted by the Von Hügel Institute, named after the brother of one the key proponents of the modernist heresy, Baron Friedrich von Hügel. There is much that could be said about the lecture, but I will focus specifically on what he said about the nature of family life. I want to mention, first, that although I disagree with Cupich’s interpretation of Amoris, I do appreciate the fact that he is communicating his thoughts publicly and initiating a conversation.
I focus on family life, because Cupich uses descriptors when speaking of it very much akin to Rahner’s supernatural existential. For instance, he says “the family is already itself a Gospel,” and relates, within a heading, “The Family is a Privileged Site of God’s Self-Revelation.” If you substitute “man” for “the family,” you would have a description of the supernatural existential. He continues:
Likewise, if we accept that families are a privileged place of God’s self-revelation and activity, then no family should be considered deprived of God’s grace. Our ministerial approach should begin with the understanding that families are not problems to solve. Rather, they are opportunities for the Church to discern with the aid of the Spirit how God is active in our time and what God is calling us to do here and now.
Notice how the shift occurs from families coming to the Church for forgiveness and to receive the Gospel to the Church coming to families to discern God’s will for the present moment. This teaching stands very much akin to what Pius related on conscience in Pascendi that the Church stands under the experience of God within the individual.
He continues this train of thought by claiming: “The presupposition must always be that whenever there is a family striving to live together and to love one another, the Spirit is already present. The task of those who minister to families, then, is to open their eyes to see, and to help families discern where God is calling them.” Once again, we see a conflation of nature and grace. Yes, each individual has dignity and marriage and family life are natural goods. Therefore, there is a foundation of goodness in each individual and in every family. It is a huge jump, however, to claim the Holy Spirit supernatural presence in every family and that the Church, rather than offering healing and strength, primarily must help families to recognize what is already present in their lives. This would seem to relativize revelation and grace in a modernist fashion.
The Truth: Families as Places of Encounter
The coherence of Cardinal Cupich’s claims on the nature of family life come down to what Francis teaches in Amoris. Cupich claims that “Pope Francis reminds us that the family is such a privileged place for God’s self-revelation that nothing can stand in the way of God’s grace.” In fact, neither of these claims are made by Francis in Amoris. The word revelation is used only to describe Jesus’ teaching about marriage (paragraphs 62, 77). On the second point, Amoris rightly recognizes that sin can and does reject God’s plan for marriage and sexuality (paragraphs 19, 26, 56, 297), though Christ has brought redemption and grace to couples in the sacrament of marriage (71, 200, 211, 306).
To defend his views of the Spirit’s presence in families, Cupich quotes this line from Amoris: “The Lord’s presence dwells in real and concrete families, with all their daily troubles and struggles, joys and hopes” (315). The Lord does dwell in the soul of all Christians in the state of grace and guides families through the grace of the sacrament of matrimony. Francis, however, locates the presence of the Spirit in prayer for the family, not simply as a natural presence: “They [the couple] can always invoke the assistance of the Holy Spirit who consecrated their union, so that his grace may be felt in every new situation that they encounter.” God assists families through his grace and through the teaching of the Church.
I can agree with what seems like an overarching point that Cardinal Cupich tries to make—families are the privileged place to encounter God. Families are the primary way that children will receive the teaching and grace of the Church, with parents as key mediators. As the domestic church, the family experiences the natural goods of family life, while infused with the supernatural life that comes from the Church. Francis seems to teach this line of thought in Amoris:
The spirituality of family love is made up of thousands of small but real gestures. In that variety of gifts and encounters which deepen communion, God has his dwelling place. This mutual concern “brings together the human and the divine,” (Gaudium et Spes) for it is filled with the love of God (315).
A positive experience of family communion is a true path to daily sanctification and mystical growth, a means for deeper union with God. The fraternal and communal demands of family life are an incentive to growth in openness of heart and thus to an ever fuller encounter with the Lord (316).
Thus, we see that the family stands underneath the grace of God in a receptive way, encountering him and allowing him to transform their life. If the family encounters God then this means that he is offering the family something that they must accept from him, rather than simply take for granted.
To reinforce what Francis is actually teaching in Amoris, Pope Benedict XVI affirmed that “the family … is the fundamental school of Christian formation on the supernatural level” (Ad limina, Nov. 18, 2005). The family helps us to encounter God and enter into the supernatural life. The family does not automatically possess this life.
I echo Fr. Rutler’s call for greater, genuine clarity in his piece, “The Clarity of Cardinal Cupich.” I hope I have brought more clarity to light in this piece! Even if you disagree with some of Amoris Laetitia claims, it is important to represent the document accurately. Ultimately, however, we need clarity on the relationship of nature and grace. It stands contrary to God’s revelation and to the magisterium’s teaching throughout the centuries to claim that families (and conscience) have independent and automatic access to God’s grace apart from the Church. The possibility of implicit faith, which would give access to God’s grace, as taught by Aquinas and others, is not the same as making grace automatic and natural. To claim otherwise would be to enter the realm of modernism.