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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
24 Nov 2004

Interview with Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

The Church Confronts Modernity

EDITOR'S NOTE: In addition to his other endeavors, the well-known Catholic writer Thomas E. Woods, Jr. has authored several books recently, ranging in topics from contemporary Catholicism to American History. His latest work, the recently reviewed The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era, discusses the efforts of American Catholics in the early decades of the 20th Century. I asked Dr. Woods to share some of his thoughts on the subject. —PWM

Seattle Catholic (SC): The title of this book, The Church Confronts Modernity, identifies both a struggle and its primary participants. What was it that lay at the heart of this conflict?

Thomas E. Woods, Jr. (TW): I show in the book that American intellectuals during the Progressive Era were trying to construct a new American ethic, in which the citizen's primary loyalty was to the "national community" (by which they essentially meant the federal government) rather than to states and localities, and to a new non-dogmatic, non-denominational ethic instead of to any revealed religion.

According to the Progressive, everything was in flux. This was a time when evolution was still all the rage, and Pragmatism in philosophy was undermining the very idea of unchanging dogma. The chief values in such an ethic were therefore open-mindedness, a willingness to change, and disdain for anything claiming to be absolutely fixed and permanent.

But the Catholic Church, and in particular the Deposit of Faith entrusted to her, happens to be something fixed and permanent. And it was for this reason that Catholics at the time suspected that this new ethic was really an attack on Catholicism. One Catholic described the Progressive attitude this way: "You may hold any faith or religion you please, but then you must not belong to any specific sect or be bound by any dogma." Well, Catholics couldn't accept that demand.

Education is an excellent example. For the Progressive, children in the new age needed to be taught procedural rules rather than substantial goods. In other words, they needed to be taught toleration, open-mindedness, and flexibility, for in this world of change and flux we needed to train citizens who would be easily adaptable. The last thing children needed, therefore, was unchanging religious dogma taught as truth.

For this very reason, John Dewey, perhaps the most influential Progressive educational theorist, denounced Catholic education in no uncertain terms: "It is essential that this basic issue be seen for what it is — namely, as the encouragement of a powerful reactionary world organization [i.e., the Church] in the most vital realm of democratic life, with the resulting promulgation of principles inimical to democracy."

According to one Progressive educator, William H. Kilpatrick (whose theories were promoted in the Soviet Union, he later discovered to his delight), "The right of parents or other grown-ups to determine what children shall think must be essentially revised. In the new situation of ever increasing change, we cannot, try as we will, foretell what our children will need to think, while with the new philosophy of change and its ethics those who are at present in authority have no such right of control."

The Progressives often spoke in a religious idiom, but we should not be deceived by it. The only version of Christianity that they considered compatible with the national community they were constructing was the denuded, non-dogmatic "church" of the Social Gospel. Anything that smacked of authority, hierarchy, or doctrine was to be avoided, even condemned. Again, Catholics were obviously not being paranoid when they concluded that they were faced here with a frankly anti-Catholic movement.

SC: What was it that interested you in this topic or time period, enough so for you to choose it for your doctrinal dissertation, and later this book?

TW: Frankly, it's very difficult to come up with a good dissertation topic. What with the enormous supply of historians out there, it seems as if everything has already been done. To come up with something that fills a gap in the literature, amounts to a genuine contribution to our understanding, and would actually be worth reading, is a real feat. Given also that Columbia University, where I did my graduate work, wasn't exactly overflowing with faculty members bursting with suggestions I would have liked, it was tough. It was therefore with a huge sigh of relief that I concluded in early 1998, during some archival research in Washington, D.C., that I had found something that fulfilled all those demands.

I had originally intended to write something on John J. Wynne, S.J., the heroic founding editor of America magazine. So I went back and read early issues of America, which began publication in 1909. I fell in love with it. Out of curiosity, I began reading other Catholic publications from that period, including Catholic World, Catholic University Bulletin, and the American Catholic Quarterly Review. All excellent. These writers all sounded like traditionalists!

More importantly, I began to notice something: what emerged from the pages of these journals and from the private papers of some of the great Catholic writers of the time was a systematic and marvelously Catholic critique of the so-called Progressive Era. This, I knew right away, needed to be made part of the historical record. Look around in the historical literature for a book on opponents of the Progressive Era, people who raised an alarm about progressive education, philosophical pragmatism, and the like. It doesn't exist.

Thus the book's purpose is really twofold: from a historical point of view it fills a gap in the existing literature on the Progressive Era, and from a traditional Catholic point of view it allows us a glimpse of pre-conciliar life that debunks the myths of the anti-Catholic left and the neoconservative right.

SC: In researching the Catholic periodicals and reading the words of Catholic intellectuals from this era, what did you find most surprising?

TW: I didn't realize that I would be brought face to face with such dramatic testimony that the old Church really existed as I had heard it from my older friends, and that she really worked. I was talking to Roger McCaffrey not long ago and we agreed that the degree to which some traditionalists attack the pre-conciliar Church is most unfortunate.

What I think is so interesting and compelling about the story the book tells is that, faced with this challenge from the secular world, American Catholics did not capitulate. To the contrary, they grew more insistent than ever that the Church was absolutely unique and irreplaceable, and that she would not allow herself to be subsumed into the non-denominational blob envisioned by Progressives. The book shows the amazing vibrancy — in terms of conversions, vocations, and the like — of the Church at a time when she made no apologies and no attempt to dilute her message. People flocked to her. I don't think that's a coincidence.

The book also reminds us that Catholics have tried an approach to interacting with the surrounding culture other than the present one of allowing themselves to be totally absorbed by it. You can hardly tell a Catholic from a secular university today, for example, so eagerly have allegedly Catholic university presidents allowed themselves to be carried along by the secular tide. The men whose work I discuss in the book observed just the right balance between engaging and interacting with the culture on the one hand while keeping the Faith absolutely undefiled on the other.

Finally, the book records a very important moment in our Catholic past. Winston Churchill once said that the Soviet Union was the only country in the world with an unpredictable past. What he meant was that the regime was constantly changing the received understanding of events in order to serve the propaganda purposes of the present. As time passes and more and more people who lived during the pre-conciliar period — and who are therefore equipped to refute, from firsthand experience, the caricatures that pass for descriptions of it today — pass to their eternal reward, it will be easier and easier for our enemies to paint the old Church however they wish. Liberals can continue to condemn her as malignant and oppressive, and "conservative" defenders of the conciliar revolution can go on describing her as intellectually moribund, in desperate need of the injection of light, energy, and whatever else it is they say the Second Vatican Council gave her. There is an urgent need for traditionalists to preserve the past as it really was, and part of the reason I wrote The Church Confronts Modernity was to contribute to that important task.

SC: The attitude of Catholics quoted in the book (even in such journals such as America) was radically different from that seen today. Rather than the rush to defend everything short of clear and obstinate apostasy, Catholics displayed a militant attitude to protect their Faith from even the most subtle attempts toward what they regarded as thinly-veiled anti-Catholicism. What do you consider the turning point in which Catholic instincts turned from "fight" to "flight"?

TW: A lot of it, though not all, has to be placed squarely at the feet of the Second Vatican Council, which so often took a diffident, even apologetic, stance toward the modern world. But in the 1950s, as the Cold War was heating up, there was also a sense among some Catholics that in the fight against Communism we needed to close ranks and join together with non-Catholics in a common struggle. Now that is by no means an entirely wrongheaded idea, but over time I think it had the effect of wearing away the earlier insistence on preserving a distinctive Catholic intellectual identity.

SC: How important do you consider the consistency and certainty of the messages coming from the Vatican during this time period?

TW: In the late 1990s I was in Rome with a prominent traditionalist and we had dinner with a group of seminarians from the North American College. The topic of conversation drifted to the American bishops, and the seminarians were discussing whether the problem with them originated in the will or the intellect — in other words, were we dealing with cowards or (frankly) with fools? And this traditionalist insisted that the answer was neither — the problem, he said, was Rome. If Rome sent clear and consistent messages, at least some of the bishops would follow. A lot of people, bishops included, sway whichever way the political winds are blowing.

One of the points I make in the book is that the outstanding and fearless popes of the early twentieth century, particularly St. Pius X, helped create the milieu in which the kind of militant Catholicism that I describe, which attracted so many converts, was possible. And in case my point is too subtle, the epilogue brings the story up to the present day with an examination of what happened at Vatican II and in the post-conciliar period.

SC: Was there anything you came across in your research that you consider a precursor to, or foreshadowing of the collapse that was to befall the Church a few decades later?

TW: Not much, to be honest. That must sound like special pleading — perhaps I've so come to respect the Catholics of this period that I'm blind to their shortcomings. But I really don't think so. The writings of these men are available for anyone to read. The fact is, when Pius X clamped down on Modernism he had a very strong influence. A man suspected of Modernism simply could not get published in the American Catholic press. Left-wing historians — in other words, the kind who usually write the kind of historical studies of American Catholicism that my book represents — always and everywhere deplore this influence. I have rather a different response, as readers can see.

What does disturb me, though, is the degree to which the American hierarchy supported Woodrow Wilson's decision to involve the United States in World War I. It is all the more bizarre given James Cardinal Gibbons' public criticism of President Wilson less than two years earlier for attempting to drag his country into a war for no reason other than to vindicate the ludicrous principle that every American should have the right during wartime to travel through declared submarine zones aboard armed, belligerent merchant ships. (Shameless plug: I think the World War I chapter is the most satisfying section of my other new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.)

Likewise, I am disturbed by the extent to which Msgr. John A. Ryan, who was so good on so many issues, was willing to collaborate with and provide a Catholic veneer to Franklin Roosevelt's disastrous, centralizing New Deal a decade later. Whatever happened to subsidiarity? It apparently vanished amid all the excitement for national economic planning, and few seem to have mourned its passing. That is beyond a shame. Professor Paul Gottfried, in his otherwise favorable review of The Church Confronts Modernity in The American Conservative, criticized Msgr. Ryan and others for believing "they could work with the regime they criticized without being swallowed up."

Thankfully, Kevin Schmiesing's book Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II, which I am slated to review for the Journal of Markets and Morality, promises to demonstrate that a diversity of Catholic opinion existed on the New Deal.

SC: Perhaps the surest sign of the outcome of a conflict is when the claims of one side (in this case, the Progressives) are no longer seen as novel propositions, but are taken for granted, even among Catholics. Given such a contemporary intellectual environment, what practical hope exists for the return to the perspectives that animated the Catholic side of this conflict?

TW: Humanly speaking, the situation is indeed grim. Yet it's not as grim as I would probably have said even five years ago. At The Latin Mass I've had an opportunity to see some excellent young talent emerge onto the scene — bright, energetic, learned, and driven by a profound love for the traditional faith. We're now blessed with up-and-coming and original young traditional writers like Thaddeus Kozinski, Edward Feser (a brilliant philosopher whose influence will only grow), and Claudio Salvucci. These guys aren't in the rut of writing the same article over and over again. These are men who possess a talent and insight that can finally take our message beyond the precincts of the traditional world and into the mainstream. We need much more of that — the names of our people should ring bells beyond the confines of our own circles.

I was pleased to see that The Church Confronts Modernity was sympathetically reviewed by Villanova University's Eugene McCarraher in the November/December 2004 issue of Books & Culture, the book review publication of Christianity Today — not exactly a bastion of Catholic traditionalism. Professor McCarraher opened his review by noting how tiresome it was to hear, over and over again, the standard refrain about the intellectually moribund old Church:

Until the aggiornamento, so the tale goes, the American Church was shrouded in neo-scholastic darkness, with its finest minds malnourished by an intellectual diet of all Thomas, all the time. And then came the springtime of Catholics, when "the spirit of Vatican II" — another phrase that's become a hackneyed generational market — shone through the vaults of this musty medievalism, bathing the sanctuary in the saving light of modern secular culture.

If a writer for Christianity Today is saying these things, it's safe to say that the mystique of Vatican II is beginning to fade away.

SC: Do you have any parting thoughts you'd like to share?

TW: I'm hopeful that traditionalists will support the book, not only because I think it advances our argument on a number of levels but also because it would be nice for a publisher with the prestige of Columbia University Press to see that a market really exists for a book like this. Columbia isn't generally in the habit of publishing pro-traditionalist books, as you can see from browsing their current titles. I'm thrilled that this project, a real labor of love for me, has been able to bring the traditionalist perspective into some mainstream outlets, where it's been getting a far more respectful hearing than I expected.

My favorite moment in this project thus far, though, occurred when I gave a lecture on the subject at Sacred Heart University. An elderly woman in the audience approached me afterward, visibly moved, since while a college student herself she had known some of the very men I profile in the book. She looked back with such fondness on that time and on those great priests, and she was overjoyed that someone had told their story.

I get emails all the time from Catholic graduate students looking for research topics or seeking good sources on various subjects. What I'm telling more and more of them is that the preconciliar Catholic Church, while by no means flawless, contains case after case of heroic untold stories, waiting to be uncovered. Here's hoping we start hearing more of them!


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

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