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Seattle Catholic is not affiliated with the Archdiocese of Seattle
Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
15 Nov 2004

The Church Confronts Modernity
Catholic Intellectuals in the Progressive Era
(Thomas E. Woods, Jr. - Columbia University Press)

reviewed by Walter M. Hudson

The Church Confronts Modernity

As readers of this journal are aware, modernist control on preconciliar history has for decades been seemingly uncontested in Catholic universities and intellectual circles, continuously reinforced in the pages of journals such as Commonweal and America, and rigorously defended by the likes of Garry Wills and former Archbishop Weakland. The "resistance" to this intellectual paradigm has too often relied on a faulty ultramontanism that Newman warned us about over a century ago. But the modernist moment is nearly done. In tactical terms, it no longer holds uncontested mastery of the intellectual high ground; indeed, its flank is very much "in the air."

And this reader can think of three books, published within the past two years, that have aided in exposing that flank and that have helped us recover the riches of Catholic tradition that existed not in the antiquarian past, but just a few generations ago. Dom Alcuin Reid's The Organic Development of the Liturgy (reviewed recently by the late, great Michael Davies) reveals that there was both a purposeful, prudent, and organic preconciliar liturgical movement as well as a destructive, reckless, and authoritarian one — indeed, one can make a much stronger case that the summation of the liturgical movement was the Missale Romanum, not of 1969, but of 1962. Tracey Rowland's Culture and the Thomist Tradition After Vatican II demonstrates how the Council Fathers kowtowed to a modern world that was already disappearing and how the rejection of Catholic tradition lay at the very core of the primary Council document, Gaudium et Spes.

The third book in this trilogy must be Thomas E. Woods' The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era. One can only be astonished at the young Woods' quantity of output, range of intellect, and scope of pitch. He has published two books (with at least two more approaching publication) and countless op-ed pieces and articles on topics ranging from slovenly dress to medieval science; he is an authority on everything from the Southern Confederacy to the Austrian School of economics; and he can write in a punchy, combative style (see his book co-written with Christopher Ferrara, The Great Façade), as well as a coolly reasoned one (as in this work).

In this groundbreaking work, Woods contends that during the "ideologically charged and intellectually vigorous" era of American social progressivism in the early 20th Century, Catholic intellectuals were a vigorous presence, and offered a unique, and uniquely Catholic, alternative to Progressivist and Pragmatist ideas. What precisely were Progressivism and Pragmatism? Religious Progressivism was best exemplified by the "Social Gospel," whose most notable proponent was Walter Rauschenbusch (and who, incidentally, was the grandfather of the most famous and influential contemporary Pragmatist, Richard Rorty). It sought to "recapture the social teachings of Christ" though works, but without doctrine, dogma, or creed. It found philosophical expression in Pragmatism, which ought to do away with deductive first principles, metaphysics, ontology — all considered a waste of time. What could best be attained was "warranted assertability" — simply put: did something, within the subjective conscious, seem to have present value? Did it make sense within contemporary society?

Pragmatism, Woods points out, was a primarily "home grown" philosophy that arose from New England transcendentalists and intellectuals such as Emerson, William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey (ably recounted in a recent book The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand). But Woods also shows that Catholic intellectuals such as Father Edmund Shanahan traced back Pragmatism to the Protestant Reformation, which by separating faith from reason, led to Kant's private, pietistic view of existence, in which "things in themselves" were ultimately unknowable.

Resisting this was a strong, healthy Catholic body of thought that was both deeply traditional and not simply reactionary. To put it in terms of the prominent contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, the Catholic preconciliar response to Progressivism and Pragmatism was a coherent one within the framework of a functioning tradition. Despite what the modernist politburo and its apparatchiks want us to believe, the American Catholic milieu that arose in the late 19th and early 20th century (and from which the vast majority of American Catholics today trace their roots) was not some post-Tridentine intellectual wasteland.

Plumbing the depths of the tradition is one of the things Woods does so well in this book. We hear from not just the educators and thinkers at the foremost Catholic Universities, such as Thomas Shields and William Kirby, but also from Sister Mary Ruth of the Sisters of St. Dominic, doubtless representative of the countless heroic teaching nuns who put educators' ideas into practice. We thus can see how "thick" the tradition was in the early 20th Century. It was not a kind of intellectual superstructure forced on a cowering faithful (as was, say, the postconciliar liturgy), but deeply embedded in the culture and tradition of American Catholicism at the time.

Additionally, Woods shows us, compared to countries during the time such as France, how united and strong the Catholic sensus was in America. For example, the Americanist heresy, while real, was virtually extinguished at least "in its public manifestations" after Leo XIII condemned it in 1899. The American bishops were, as Woods, points out "profoundly conservative … all of them were basically united on fundamentals." And even the most ardent Americanist, Bishop John Ireland, vigorously attacked modernism. The episcopacy displayed a similar united front when Pius X (who loved the young and vibrant American church) condemned modernism. The American Catholic press likewise overwhelmingly praised Pius X for his stance. And after the sainted pope's Pascendi Dominici Gregis came out, modernism's public manifestations disappeared in America — one reason being that the few truly modernist Americans left the Church.

What all this reveals is not simply an authoritarian pope dictating to hapless bishops, but rather an ecclesial hierarchy in remarkable communion — a sign of vibrant, remarkable consensus rooted in tradition. Indeed, as Woods points out to us, the Catholic responses to Progressivism and Pragmatism were more interesting, challenging, and sophisticated after the Modernist condemnation. It was as if, after having ejected from the tradition that which was inimical to it, the Catholic position clarified and grew even more forceful.

Woods, in the best Dawsonian sense, provides a fair, evenhanded hearing to the movements. Again, pace the storyline of preconciliar Catholicism provided by the modernists, American Catholics were not blind to new things with legitimate worth. Some appropriated certain pedagogical ideas from the Progressives. Indeed, Catholic educator Thomas Shields drew legitimate comparisons between the total educational approach of the Progressivists and the liturgy. Father Shields sought, as Progressivist educators did, a total education experience. Instead of, for example, a typical pedagogical textbook approach, he stressed the importance of art and music (especially Gregorian chant) as central to character formation in young students. It is especially impressive to read the enthusiasm of teaching sisters to the Shields' approach to catechism, and worthwhile to note that Pius X was a strong supporter of Shields' educational approaches.

Indeed, Woods tells us that Shields and another Catholic educator, Edward Pace, were mislabeled as Catholic "progressives" — but they could not have differed any more from the Progressive approaches. Indeed, as an example, Fathers Pace and Shields dissented mightily against a "compromise solution" offered up by some in the American clergy of a generation before — that religious education be done after hours, and that" during the schoolday, parochial school education should focus near exclusively on the "three R's.

It was at points such as these that Catholic educators and intellectuals realized that Progressivism and Pragmatism were opposed to Catholicism. And the opposition was deep, not only because it rejected the possibility of objective truth and absolute norms, but because it could never even settle upon a stable idea of what truth was. As philosopher William Turner pointed out, to a Pragmatist, if a contemporary hypothesis satisfied as an explanation, it was sufficient; this "mental satisfaction" "came, consequently, to be considered a test of truth. The problem with this lay in areas where these conclusions had the most significance. In moral reasoning, this led essentially to philosophical incoherence. What, one might ask, provides "mental satisfaction" for what is morally true? Public opinion? An educational elite? The "Great Books"? And the Catholic Church in America firmly rejected social gospel's rather inane self-contradiction. America magazine, for example, launched a devastating riposte to the Progressivist rhetoric of Harvard President Charles Eliot for "[H]aving exploited to the utmost Christ's authority to enjoin service of our neighbor, and refus[ing] to recognize His authority in any other point."

Catholic intellectuals also respectfully considered a relatively new intellectual discipline, sociology, and again Woods illustrates that Catholics did not dismiss it out-of-hand. Father William Kerby of Catholic University even made serious efforts at creating a sociology within the framework of Catholic tradition, founding in 1921 the National Catholic School of Social Service. Kerby and others did not reject sociology as an empirical, data-gathering discipline, but neither did they accept its metaphysical pretensions. Rather, Catholic sociologists successfully integrated sociological ideas into the Catholic faith by sticking fast to two principles: sociology could not claim "autonomy from the inherited moral tradition of the west. And in the realm of applied sociology and social work, the supernatural remained paramount."

Overall, the early 20th Century American Catholic response to challenges from modernity were respectful, coherent, and carefully articulated — all indications that the Church in America was fully functioning, and firmly rooted in tradition. It considered outside influences, assimilated that which it deemed good, and rejected anything that would distort it. It did not dismiss modernity outright, but was not in awe of it either. The question to be answered (that is beyond the scope of this book) is what, or who, turned a coherent intellectual tradition into a shambles. But what Woods does tell us, and tell us masterfully, is painfully clear: if this was the "Catholic Ghetto", it was better, far better than the upscale spiritual and moral wasteland of Catholic America, circa 2004.


The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era is available through

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