We have all heard the quote “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” by Lord Acton. (I recently heard Martin Marty say “If power corrupts, power point corrupts absolutely.” I began using power point this past semester anyway. I’ll let my students decide if it corrupted me or them absolutely.)
Recently I’ve been reading about the movement known as Catholic Modernism–something I intend to include in my revision of the 20th Century Theology book. The leading theorists were Alfred Loisy, George Tyrrell and Baron von Hugel. Together they called for greater openness of the Catholic Church to modern thought–something basically accomplished by Vatican 2 in the 1960s. But the modernists were many decades ahead of their time. Most of them suffered excommunication by the ultra-conservative Pope Pius X in 1907 and 1908. The pope’s encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis required Catholic scholars to use scholasticism and to avoid all accommodation to modernity. Shortly after that, the pope imposed an “anti-Modernist oath” on Catholic leaders and teachers. By all accounts, the pope’s response to Modernism was fascist in nature. (For example, anyone who expressed sympathy with even on point of one of the Modernists was considered guilty of everything for which Modernism was condemned.)
Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Acton, 1834-1902) was a Catholic layman and a noted historian and essayist. He’s best known for the quote about power and absolute power–which may have been aimed partly at Pope Pius IX. Acton sympathized with the beginnings of Modernism and opposed papal infallibility.
Here’s the quote I find relevant to evangelicalism today. Lord Acton quipped that the Catholic hierarchy reacted to early Modernism (or Catholic Liberalism) by exercising a “zeal for the prevention of error which represses the intellectual freedom necessary for the progress of truth.” (quoted in Bernard Reardon, “Roman Catholic Modernism” in Nineteenth Century Religious Thought in the West, Volume II, p. 146.)