Peter Kwasniewski

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Modernism still plagues the Church. Here’s the pope who first started fighting it.

Peter Kwasniewski Peter Kwasniewski Follow Dr. Peter

July 18, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — With his inaugural encyclical E Supremi of October 4, 1903, the supreme pontiff who succeeded Leo XIII eloquently outlined the program of his pontificate: Instaurare omnia in Christo, “to restore all things in Christ.” As subsequent years would prove, Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto (1835–1914), who reigned as Pius X from 1903 to his death in 1914, committed himself bravely and energetically to this mission. Pius X looked with tender love on his own flock, ready to guide it into pastures of sound doctrine and holiness, while he gazed out with anguish upon the ever growing multitudes of unbelievers, lost sheep for whom he felt the Good Shepherd’s compassion.

The first pope in many hundreds of years to have been canonized (due to the lofty and stringent norms for canonizations in place before Vatican II), Pius X was single-mindedly dedicated to the reform of the Church, above all in her liturgical and devotional life. His writings indicate that he always considered the internal strengthening of the Church, the deepening of her life of prayer and sacrifice, her best and, in truth, her only safeguard against depredations from without and dissensions from within.

Like Benedict XVI, Pius X knew the fundamental importance of preserving and preaching Catholic identity, the irreducible uniqueness of our faith, without which the Church has nothing definite and salvific to offer mankind. No matter how much the world changes in its structures, no matter what technology is developed and deployed, the human condition is ever the same: man the sinner is always in need of God’s mercy, always in need of the salvation Christ alone offers to us through the ministry of the Church He founded. It is in light of this stubborn adherence to the immutable essence of the Catholic Faith that we must understand Pius X’s battle against the “Modernists.”

While Modernism was an exceedingly complex movement, the spirit behind it can be discerned in this quotation from its most famous intellectual, the ex-priest Alfred Loisy:

It appears evident to me that the notion of God has never been more than a sort of ideal projection, a replication of the human personality, and that theology has never been, nor could it ever be, more than a mythology that becomes with time more and more sanitized.

The Modernists believed that Christianity must be reinterpreted in accordance with the (perceived) discoveries and needs of the modern age. This, in turn, implies that Christianity is not a religion revealed by God, but a product of human minds cogitating on divine subjects and therefore mirroring the evolution and vicissitudes of human thought and experience. For the Modernist, religion as such is an organized social expression of personal, immanent, subjective experiences of the divine. This expression can be more or less refined according to time and place, so that one might attempt to rank religions by the clarity and purity of their assorted conceptions of the divine. Doctrinal formulations, moral standards, acts of worship, all of these emerge from, correspond to, and follow the lead of an inner exigency or urge of the human spirit called the “religious sense.”

For these errors and still others, St. Pius X in his mighty encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis of September 8, 1907, condemned the entire system of Modernism as “the synthesis of all heresies.” It was declared incompatible with the first truth of the Catholic Faith — namely, that God, in the freedom of His love, willed to reveal Himself to man, to whom He also provided the gift of faith and reasonable motives of belief so that man may freely and reasonably respond to that revelation and base his life upon it.

When St. Thérèse of Lisieux spoke her memorable words “all is grace,” she might well have been summing up Pius X’s objections to Modernism. That God made us; that He reached out to us in our wretched condition; that He was made flesh and died for us; that he poured His Spirit of love into our hearts; that He offers us a share in His life through the sacraments of the Church — all this is pure grace, pure gift, coming down to us from the Father of Lights, the giver of every good gift, to whom we make a gift of ourselves through obedience, filial love, and adoration.

For the Modernist, everything is upside down; one is in a hall of mirrors where all is self, welling up from self, trapped in time, ever evolving, a confusion of becomings, a cacophony of opinions. Behind the catechetical, liturgical, doctrinal, and moral chaos of the Catholic Church today, it is easy to detect the lingering influence of the Modernist ideas that even Pius X’s strict disciplinary efforts were unable to eradicate.

Given the enormous influence of Modernism in the Church, Pascendi is an encyclical that no educated Catholic can afford to ignore, even if it does not make for light reading. (I’ve attempted a short summary here.) Page by page, the encyclical distinguishes, defines, and dismantles each part of the Modernist system, showing how one warped idea leads to the next, and how they contradict the doctrine of the Faith — and often, the truth of sound philosophy as well. To be sure, there are other ingredients in our pot of crisis from the past half-century, but Modernism is more than just salt and pepper. It’s the beef in the stew.

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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.