Modern Age

Religion--whether Christian, monotheistic, or otherwise--found itself challenged or sometimes even shunted aside as modernity developed. While it is untrue to say that the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment were entirely secular and anti-religious, the cumulative result of their changes in worldview tended to devalue religion as the central glue of society, specifically when it came to using religion to bolster a particular form of government, such as divine-right monarchy.

The case of Galileo points out the limits of religious authority. Copernicus (1473-1543), a Polish astronomer, was pretty sure that the sun and not the earth was the center of what is, in fact, a solar system. Galileo (1564-1642), with more sophisticated tools in hand, proved Copernicus's theory, leading to conflict with Pope Urban VIII. The issue, as we see now from a long view, was not so much the scientific facts, which cannot be denied, but Galileo's assertion that the Church shouldn't be in the science business--a fact that Pope John Paul II recognized in his 1992 rehabilitation of Galileo.

So, too, the Enlightenment idea of liberalism--that is, a large measure of individual human freedom in virtually every sphere of thought and action--hit resistance when it came to religion. While some continued to argue for a close connection between the state and religion (integralism), most Enlightenment thinkers wanted to separate church from state. Indeed, what we find in modernity is a range of "isms" that competed with religion for a person's ultimate allegiance: nationalism, materialism, secularism, industrialism, capitalism, communism, imperialism, socialism, skepticism, and Deism--any of which could attain the status of a new religion. Moreover, the principle of toleration of religious pluralism tended to reduce Christianity's monopoly on western thinking, as Protestantism had cut deeply into Roman Catholicism's monopoly of ancient and medieval Christendom in Europe.

It is often, though mistakenly, said that the Roman Catholic Church went into a siege mentality after the Council of Trent (1545-1563), meeting Protestant challenges with a string of condemnations and then retreating behind her walls.  There were fairly forward-thinking ideas in Trent, and the centuries after the council witnessed innovations in religious orders (Jesuits, Ursulines) and missionaries in Africa, Asia, and North and South America.

It is also true, however, that when the French Revolution's secular tendencies, picked up by Napoleon shortly afterward, directly assaulted the Roman Catholic Church--to the degree that Napoleon took two popes prisoner--Rome did indeed withdraw because she saw the world as a dangerous place. This did not last long, however, and many late 19th-century Roman Catholic academics, historians, archeologists, liturgists, and scripture scholars embraced modern ideas and methodologies like textual criticism.  This encouraged them to focus on the early Church and uncover what she was like at the beginning.

Some of these scholars were lumped together as Modernists, an ill-fitting term. Their historical-critical methodology has been labeled as a tendency, not an organized school, but the Vatican lumped them all together and twice condemned modernism as skeptical, disruptive, destructive, and disrespectful rationalism. Pope Pius IX issued his Syllabus of Errors in 1864, which railed against many of the isms mentioned earlier, but Pope Leo XIII was open to some innovations in scholarship. He allowed scholars into the Vatican's Secret Archives and stated that the Church had nothing to fear from historians, but he also declared that it was not possible for the Bible to contain an error. Pope Pius X, like his namesake, issued another list of condemnations and errors in 1907.

Many of these same methodologies eventually triumphed at Vatican II (1962-1965). Scholars before, during, and after Vatican II championed a ressourcement, a French word denoting a return to the Church's ancient sources, and a parallel modernization under the Italian word aggiornamento. Current debate wonders if Vatican II was a complete break with the past or is in continuity with the past. The answer is: both. Vatican II, especially in the liturgical renewal that it received and spurred on, asked the Church to recover the best of its past, but to adapt it to current practices.

There were important paradigm shifts at Vatican II.  First, the document Gaudium et spes countered a tendency to spurn the world (contemptus mundi) and reminded the Church of her heritage in engaging the world to act as leaven, applying especially to laypeople who were well-placed to spread the faith in their families, places of work, schools, and social settings.  Second, the council recognized the Church's serious faults in relating to Jews, especially, but also to other non-Christian faiths, and set about correcting those relationships.  Third, council fathers worked closely with other Christians--there were, in fact, official Protestant observers at the Council--to begin to repair the sundered relationship and to see where mutual work could be built on what the churches share as opposed to where they disagree.  

Study Questions:
     1.     How has modernity devalued religion’s role in society? Where did people begin to place their allegiance?
     2.     How did Pope Pius IX deal with the conflicts between modernity and religion?
     3.     Has the Catholic Church changed since its inception? Explain.
     4.     What three important shifts came with Vatican II?

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