The Catholic Church’s War Against the ‘Heresy’ of Modernism


We have been introduced to some of the basics of sociologist Lester Kurtz’s heresiography. In this article we will draw from his work insights as they pertain to the Catholic church’s backlash to the perceived heresy of modernism (1).

What is Modernism?

The modernism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the Catholic church opposed was a general, multifaceted direction of inquiry from various scholars applying scientific methods to the study of religious history and issues (2). Modernists were both internal and external to the church. Externally, they were unbelievers, sometimes scholars working in various disciplines, some of whom disliked the church and sought to undermine it. On the internal level, three distinct types of Catholic modernism can be identified. Firstly, ‘doctrinal modernism’ attempted to redefine the Catholic worldview through the use of critical methods that were in the process of development. The ‘philosophical modernists’, located primarily in France, concerned themselves with the nature of dogma and questioned narrow definitions of Catholicism developed by scholastic theologians. The third group consisted of organizations, many of which were in France and Italy, interested in reconciling the church with democracy. Despite these groups’ differences and similarities, all three were denounced by the church hierarchy as being different aspects of the same modernist conspiracy intent on destroying Catholicism.

The Perceived Threat of Modernism

Nineteenth-century modernism was perceived as a threat because its proponents began questioning and attacking the accuracy of the Bible (3). Criticisms were leveled at the biblical creation story in Genesis, the authorship of certain biblical books, the authority of the pope, the virgin birth, and more. These criticisms were seen to bring the entirety of Catholic doctrine into question, as well as the existence of Catholicism and the Catholic church itself, even when the work of modernist scholars did not intend to do this. Particularly threatening was Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution that challenged the Genesis account of humankind’s creation, certain views of Jesus Christ, such as him being no more than merely a great human being, and historical criticism of the Bible used by church opponents seeking to undermine Catholicism. According to Lester, “Anticlericals began to recognize an affinity between their hatred of the church and the ideas of science which could be used to attack the church’s doctrines, thereby weakening its hold on the populace” (4). The thought of modernist proponents was seen to be influenced by Enlightenment philosophy that set the tone for nineteenth-century intellectual debates.

Vatican officials faced difficulties in managing these issues, often facing contradictory demands. On one hand, they knew it was their duty to defend Catholic orthodoxy and to demand total submission to the church’s authority, yet, on the other hand, they needed to rely on Catholic scholars for the development of Catholic teaching institutions. However, Catholic scholars demanded to engage in their scientific research freely, even if the results of their research challenged official church teachings. This presented the church with a challenge and some Catholics felt that forming a scientific historiography within the tradition would be the answer to this dilemma.

The Catholic Church’s Suppression of Modernism

The church’s response to the modernist heresy was to mobilize its defenses to combat a movement which, to them, represented all that was wrong with the modern world (5). However, not all modernists wished to undermine the faith. In fact, many of them were within the church itself, as noted by Pius X when he declared “The partisans of error are to be sought not only among the Church’s open enemies; but, what is to be most dreaded and deplored, in her very bosom…” (6). Ecclesiastical authorities began to suppress the work of a few internal scholars even though a number of internal modernists, notably George Tyrrell, Alfred Loisy, and Baron Friedrich von Hiigel, saw themselves as defending Catholicism by presenting their faith in a way that was not repugnant to the modern intellect. Although the modernist heresy was largely a battle between ecclesiastical authority and scholars, the church was not opposed to all scholarship, but only to those forms that threatened its authority and its definition of Catholicism. In the face of threat, the Roman hierarchy instituted a widespread campaign to eliminate heresy in what has been called “the reign of terror.”

Five mechanisms of control were used by the Catholic church to suppress heresy (7). First, it placed certain heretical articles and books on the Index of Prohibited Books (1930). Second, the hierarchy threatened to ruin the careers of internal modernists, particularly modernist clergy, if they did not comply with the Vatican. Third, declared heresies, whether embraced by an individual or a group, could be condemned by a decree of an ecclesiastical body or by an encyclical from the pope. Those condemned would often be required to retract their statements and correct their errors publicly. Fourth, there was the inclusion of institutional structures with the purpose of detecting and punishing persons found guilty of heresies denounced by an ecclesiastical body or the pope. Fifth, there was excommunication which denied heretics “communion” with the church and its members. Heretics could not attend mass, receive or give sacraments, and were to be avoided by other members of the church.

Decrees such as Lamentabili (July 2, 1907) and Pascendi (September 8, 1907) were established by the Roman hierarchy to condemn “modernist heresy” as the “synthesis of all heresies.” According to Pius X, the modernists “lay the axe not to the branches and shoots, but to the very root, that is, to the faith and its deepest fibres” (8). Modernism thus threatened the church’s very foundations, in particular the authority of the institutional hierarchy and its role in determining interpretations of what constitutes the truth and what does not. The decrees aimed to suppress modernist ideas and demanded they be exorcised from the church: “Anyone who is in any way found to be tainted with modernism is to be excluded without compunction” (9). Further, interpretation of scripture was not to be subjected to scientific investigation but only to the guidelines established by ecclesiastical authorities. According to Pius X, the modernists internal to the church were particularly threatening: “[T]he danger is present almost in the very veins and heart of the Church, whose injury is the more certain from the very fact that their knowledge of her is more intimate” (10). Despite their familiarity with the church, they were also disobedient to the ecclesiastical hierarchy: “There is the fact which is all but fatal to the hope of cure that their very doctrines have given such a bent to their minds, that they disdain all authority and brook no restraint” (11). The church’s educational institutions were also to remove anyone expressing the modernist view, which resulted in the strict regulation of Catholic scholars: “It is the duty of the Bishops to prevent [the publication or reading of] writings of Modernists, or whatever savours of Modernism or promotes it… No books or papers or periodicals whatever of this kind are to be permitted to seminarists or university students” (12).

Moreover, censors and the Council of Vigilance were to meet secretively in each diocese to “watch most carefully for every trace and sign of modernism both in publications and in teaching” (13). A secret international organization, the Sodalitium Pianum or Sapiniere, was formed in 1909 to combat the heresy of modernism. This group anonymously attacked those suspected of modernist ideas or unorthodox doctrines and would destroy the careers of many Catholics. Lester summarizes these conflicts as follows,

“So violent has been the conflict between “modern culture” and the Roman Catholic church that Pope Pius X condemned “modernism” in 1907 as the “synthesis of all heresies.” The full force of the Roman hierarchy was mobilized in an effort to destroy the “modernist movement” within the church. The Holy Office, successor to the Inquisition, placed numerous modernist books on the Index of Prohibited Books (1930). Careers of Catholic clergy were ruined by Rome in order to punish and deter those labeled modernist heretics. An antimodernist oath was administered to all clergy. A secret international organization (the Sapiniere) and diocesan vigilance committees were instituted to detect and report heresy throughout the church. Count-less individuals were harassed and censured, relieved of their posts, and stripped of their credentials” (14).


1. Kurtz, R. Lester. 1983. “The Politics of Heresy.” American Journal of Sociology 88(6):1085-1115.

2. Kurtz, R. Lester. 1983. Ibid. p. 1094.

3. Kurtz, R. Lester. 1983. Ibid. p. 1109.

4. Kurtz, R. Lester. 1983. Ibid. p. 1099.

5. Kurtz, R. Lester. 1983. Ibid. p. 1094.

6. Pius X. 1908. “Pascendi Domini Gregis.” In Modernism: The Jowett Lectures, translated by C. A. Miles, 231-348. London: T. Fisher Unwin. p. 232.

7. Kurtz, R. Lester. 1983. Ibid. p. 1096.

8. Pius X. 1908. Ibid. p. 234.

9. Pius X. 1908. Ibid. p. 234.

10. Pius X. 1908. Ibid. p. 234.

11. Pius X. 1908. Ibid. p. 235.

12. Pius X. 1908. Ibid. p. 330-331.

13. Pius X. 1908. Ibid. p. 340-341.

14. Kurtz, R. Lester. 1983. Ibid. p. 1091.


Let me know your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s