Divided Friends: Portraits of the Roman Catholic Modernist Crisis in the United States

Divided Friends: Portraits of the Roman Catholic Modernist Crisis in the United States

by William L. Portier


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On September 8, 1907, Pope St. Pius X brought the simmering Roman Catholic Modernist crisis to a boil with his encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis. In Pascendi's terms, recent biblical, historical, scientific, and philosophical attempts to take seriously subjective mediations of God's revelation led only to subjectivism and agnosticism. Pius X condemned these as "Modernism" and the "synthesis of all heresies." This Modernism threatened the very human capacity to know and believe in God as a reality apart from human consciousness. Prior to 1907 no Catholic thinkers had used the term Modernism to designate the theological or biblical work they were doing. Pascendi , with its provisions for diocesan vigilance committees and censorship of books, combined with the subsequent Oath against Modernism (1910), created a climate of suspicion and fear.

In two sets of intertwined biographical portraits, spanning two generations, Divided Friends dramatizes the theological issues of the modernist crisis, highlighting their personal dimensions and extensively reinterpreting their long-range effects. The four protagonists are Bishop Denis J. O'Connell, Josephite founder John R. Slattery, together with the Paulists William L. Sullivan and Joseph McSorley. Their lives span the decades from the Americanist crisis of the 1890s right up to the eve of Vatican II. In each set, one leaves the church and one stays. The two who leave come to see their former companions as fundamentally dishonest. Divided Friends entails a reinterpretation of the intellectual fallout from the modernist crisis and a reframing of the 20th century debate about Catholic intellectual life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813221649
Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
Publication date: 11/08/2013
Pages: 408
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

WILLIAM L. PORTIER is the Mary Ann Spearin Chair of Catholic Theology, University of Dayton and is the author of Issac Hecker and the First Vatican Council.

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Portraits of the Roman Catholic Modernist Crisis in the United States


The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2013 The Catholic University of America Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8132-2164-9



Nothing so violent or drastic as the recent curial document has appeared on the part of the Vatican authorities since the days of the Inquisition. I can compare the crisis to nothing but a cyclone during which people must simply make for the cellar, or in other terms it resembles the recent financial panic in N.Y.

James F. Driscoll wrote these words to his friend Charles Augustus Briggs on December 8, 1907. The "recent curial document" to which Driscoll referred was Pascendi dominici gregis. Pascendi appeared three months to the day before Driscoll wrote to Briggs. By that time, the ecclesiastical whirlwind had crossed the Atlantic and hit the shores of the United States.

Driscoll was president and rector of St. Joseph's Seminary, Dunwoodie, Yonkers, New York. Briggs was a Protestant biblical scholar of international stature who taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York and had invited Driscoll to speak at Union. During Driscoll's years as rector, beginning in 1902, such cooperation between Dunwoodie and Union had become common. Now Driscoll was telling his friend that it had to cease. He went on to say that St. Joseph's Seminary

has for some time been looked upon by certain invidious heresy hunters in the Catholic Community as a brothel of liberalism or as it is now called Modernism; furthermore The New York Review, edited by myself and a couple of confreres is looked upon in the same light and it has been more than once denounced to Roman authorities.

Now my sympathy with Modernism is pretty well known as well as my intimate friendship with several of the most noted of its promoters and so with all this you can readily understand that the Archbishop tho very well disposed towards me and some of my views is at present anxious lest he may be obliged to remove me from my present position and suppress the publication of the Review.

Within a year, Archbishop Farley of New York did indeed remove Driscoll as rector and appointed him pastor of St. Ambrose Parish in Manhattan. The New York Review, a journal devoted to joining the "ancient faith and modern thought," announced that it was being discontinued due to financial difficulties. There is considerable evidence that it was suppressed. Driscoll's metaphors say a lot about the effects of Pascendi in the United States. The image of "invidious heresy hunters" denouncing a seminary as a "brothel of liberalism" suggests the vehemence of the post-Pascendi crackdown. Summoning pictures of seminary professors hiding in a storm cellar or brokers running scared on Wall Street, Driscoll likens Pascendi's effects to a cyclone or a New York financial panic.

Noteworthy too is Driscoll's sense that the term Modernism is an innovation. It refers to attitudes and positions that Driscoll identifies as "liberalism." His letter highlights the need to move back behind Pascendi and its aftermath in order to reconstruct historically, as best we can, what he and others like him thought they were doing between 1899 and 1907. It does not take Driscoll long to slip into using the term Modernism as a description of his own thought. But for a moment, the novelty of the term flashes before us.

As Driscoll's metaphors convey, the modernist crisis ripped through Catholic intellectual life like a tragic storm. But its havoc cut to a level deeper than the merely intellectual. Pascendi forced people to take sides. Agonized personal decisions put colleagues at odds and set friend against friend. Censured priests questioned fellow clergy or pious laymen who escaped censure. Subsequent historical and autobiographical writing apportioned the inevitable praise and blame.

This is a story about two such pairs of "divided friends." Taken together, these four priests represent the first two generations of American Catholics to feel the full impact of critical historical scholarship with its attendant philosophical difficulties. Each generation meets in the seminary. Later they will live and work together in the comradery of priestly culture, but the modernist crisis divides them. In each set of friends, one leaves the church and one stays. The two who leave come to see their former companions as fundamentally dishonest. To scholars trained to look first for ideas, the personal and ethical dimensions of the modernist crisis may appear forbidding and elusive. Yet they fuel the drama of the crisis and help to account for its continuing power. By intertwining two sets of biographical portraits, this book brings to life the human complexities of the modernist crisis.

John R. Slattery and Denis J. O'Connell

John R. Slattery (1851–1926) and Denis J. O'Connell (1849–1927) met as college seminarians and remained close friends in later years. Superior General of the American Josephites, Slattery was American Catholicism's premier evangelist to African Americans and a widely published spokesperson on the race question. But as a missionary, he grew increasingly disillusioned with the church's lack of support for his work. As a seminary rector who taught church history, he eventually found the results of critical history impossible to square with the church's contemporary understanding of itself. By 1904 he had lost his faith. He publicly renounced the priesthood in 1906.

O'Connell was a protege of James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore. Gibbons sent him to Rome where he served as rector of the Pontifical North American College and an unofficial representative of the American bishops. Both Slattery and O'Connell were partisans of the liberal reform movement known as Americanism. From his Roman post, O'Connell promoted Americanist causes during the 1890s under Pope Leo XIII. Through O'Connell's international network of liberal Catholics, Slattery made his transatlantic connections with Alfred Loisy, the French biblical scholar, and Albert Houtin, the first historian of the modernist crisis. He corresponded with Loisy, visited him whenever he passed through Paris, and even offered to have Loisy's L'Evangile et l'Eglise (1902) translated into English. Slattery collaborated with Houtin on various projects and his autobiography is preserved only in Houtin's papers.

O'Connell took a different path. As anti-modernist rector of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., under Pope Pius X, he battled biblical scholars as energetically as he had earlier pursued reform. Recalling their travels together in Europe and what he termed their "common crisis," Slattery pronounced O'Connell's perfect orthodoxy "feigned." In 1903 Pope Pius X made O'Connell a bishop. Slattery went on to become a wealthy attorney. Looking back on the difficult years of 1902 and 1906, Slattery recalled that, among all his friends, only the Paulist Walter Elliott had remained loyal.

William Laurence Sullivan and Joseph McSorley

As young men, William L. Sullivan (1872–1935) and Joseph McSorley (1874–1963) both joined the Paulists, a religious congregation founded by Isaac Hecker (1819–1888) with the hope of converting America to Catholicism. While McSorley and Sullivan were still seminarians, the writings of the Irish Jesuit George Tyrrell began to appear in the United States. Tyrrell affected both young Paulists deeply. McSorley served as Tyrrell's literary agent in the United States, arranging for the publication of his articles in U.S. Catholic journals. Eventually Tyrrell was excommunicated for his open opposition to Pascendi. Despite his close association with Tyrrell, McSorley avoided censure at the time of the modernist crisis.

When he was only twenty-seven years old, the Paulists named McSorley their novice master. Sullivan, two years older, served as his assistant. During the heady years between 1902 and 1907, they taught together at St. Thomas College at Catholic University. Both were heavily involved with the Paulist organ, Catholic World, founded by Isaac Hecker in 1865 and edited during most of the period under discussion by Paulist John J. Burke. Both McSorley and Sullivan contributed to the short-lived The New York Review. In 1907 the Paulists abruptly removed McSorley as novice master and Sullivan resigned his teaching post. Two years later, Sullivan left the Paulists.

Sullivan published an anonymous set of Letters to His Holiness Pope Pius X by a Modernist (1910), and an autobiographical novel, The Priest, A Tale of Modernism in New England (1911). A few months before Sullivan's Letters appeared, McSorley published his own indirect response to Pascendi, The Sacrament of Duty (1909). He carried on his life as a Paulist. Sullivan married and became a Unitarian minister. McSorley continued to write and publish but had broken off contact with Tyrrell who died in July 1909, months before The Sacrament of Duty appeared. Sullivan remained convinced that "the illustrious McSorley" had abandoned Tyrrell and betrayed his own Modernist beliefs. McSorley lived to see the Second Vatican council. He died on July 3, 1963, a month after the death of another near casualty of the modernist crisis, Pope John XXIII. McSorley outlived Sullivan by almost thirty years.

As the narrative to follow makes clear, Slattery and Sullivan claim a certain moral superiority over O'Connell and McSorley. But as their stories unfold, the high ground Slattery and Sullivan have staked out appears increasingly hard to hold. This is especially true in the case of Sullivan's indictment of McSorley. McSorley is the key character. Despite the ethical ambivalence of his own life, it does challenge the inevitability of the choices that Slattery and Sullivan made. McSorley's emphasis on holiness and history defined his path through the modernist crisis. It was a path not unlike that of his slightly younger Italian contemporary, Angelo Roncalli. Both McSorley and the future Pope John XXIII were young seminary professors at the time of the crisis. Both felt the sting of ecclesiastical exile and found a certain safe harbor in church history. Both had spiritual and emotional constitutions that allowed them to continue moving, however obliquely at times, toward the unsuspected ways in which their youthful visions would be fulfilled.

Political Dimensions of the Modernist Crisis

These four American priests were implicated in a larger drama that pitted Catholicism against modernity. This conflict was fought out in Europe. But even as they experienced a different modernity, Catholics in the United States felt the reverberations of this conflict.

After 1789 the Catholic church in Europe engaged in prolonged combat with liberalism as embodied in modern secular states. In a self-conscious act of intellectual anti-liberalism, Pope Leo XIII launched a revival of Thomism in 1879. Aquinas redivivus would supply the intellectual resources necessary to restore epistemological and political order to the chaos of a post-Kantian, post-revolutionary Europe. With its massive objectivity, the neo-Thomism of Leo's Aeterni Patris would counter the turn to the subject in modern philosophy. In his contributions to Catholic social teaching, especially Rerum Novarum (1891), Leo began to articulate an alternative social and political order in traditional terms of goods and ends. From a contemporary vantage point, it is well to keep in mind that Aeterni Patris and Rerum Novarum were written by the same Pope as part of the same overarching project.

Since the sixteenth century, emerging nation-states in Europe had been marginalizing the church as a social and political agent. This process of differentiation eventually produced many undeniable goods. But it was not the unambiguous good that a dominant Enlightenment narrative of universal emancipation from the power of an oppressive church taught us to expect. Expansion of the states' powers led to an increasingly sharp disjunction between the public and the private, thus confining "religion" to the private sphere. Because of our historical distance from this conflict, Americans often find it difficult to appreciate what was at stake.

At issue was the modern political ideal of liberty as expressed, for example, in freedom of religion and freedom of inquiry. In his many writings, Pope Leo XIII reflected on the nature of true liberty in church and state and its relation to the authority of the church in teaching revealed truth. Testem Benevolentiae, his 1899 censure that put an end to controversies over "Americanism" in France and the United States, warned specifically against introducing a certain liberty into the church in imitation of contemporary secular civil societies.

Pope Leo's Thomist revival was part of a larger cultural resistance to developments that, in the name of liberty, quarantined the church and its truth to the private sphere. But it too was deeply ambivalent. The Roman question, involving the ultimate fate of Rome and the Papal States in a united Italy, was not resolved until the Vatican's concordat with Mussolini in 1929. Between 1870 and 1929, the Roman question dominated Vatican policy and functioned as the primary lens through which the Vatican viewed theological issues. In addition, the Thomist revival, itself a modern phenomenon, too often succumbed to the rationalist excess that it opposed in modern philosophy.

However, this ambivalence should not blind contemporaries to the fact that devotion to the pope and the accompanying centralization of church life on Rome that we have come to call ultramontanism, however alien it may appear to later Catholic sensibilities, was a popular religious movement and part of a transnational protest against the dominance of the church by modern European states. The enormous circulation of Louis Veuillot's rabidly pro-papal newspaper L'Univers testifies to this popularity. Widely embraced by lower clergy and people, ultramontanism involved more than a displaced hierarchy's will to power. Something of a sacramental church's incarnational role in ordinary life was at stake in its gradual banishment from the newly created public sphere. Anti-clerical political rulers were not the only ones who literally "secularized" church property and money during this long struggle. Catholic kings and princes were also responsible. This cultural conflict not only set the church's face against modern liberal states but also divided Catholics among themselves.

After 1907 the anti-modernist strategy that many church leaders adopted to deal with this issue is often called "integralism." They sought to enlist coercive civil power in the service of religious truth. With a century's hindsight, this integralism and its anti-modernist repression appear as the death throes of a doomed order. Integralists tried to establish out of time an artificial likeness of a situation that was once culturally normative in Europe, that is, the church's legally inscribed public role in pre-modern European social and political life. Within fifty years of the anti-modernist campaign, the church in 1965 solemnly repudiated integralism and coercion in the service of the truth. Modern states, cynics will say, dragged the church kicking and screaming to this belated embrace of the emancipative ideal.

From the breach of Rome's Porta Pia by the Piedmontese army in 1870 and the pope's subsequent self-imposed status as "prisoner of the Vatican" to the French separation laws of 1905 abrogating the Napoleonic Concordat and the privileges it gave to the church, developments leading up to the modernist crisis left the church increasingly marginalized as a public presence. It is often claimed that as modern states stripped the church of its "political" pretensions, popes and bishops claimed increasing control over the interior lives of Catholics. This is one way to look at it.

Another is that the popes and bishops were responding, however, awkwardly, to the introduction of a drastic disjunction between the public and the private realms. This meant that the intellectual battles of this culture war would be waged on a field of religious interiority now publicly proclaimed as "private." The stakes could be defined procedurally in terms of limitless freedom of inquiry rather than substantively in terms of the pursuit of the true and the good. The church could not on principle accept the former terms without qualification. The arguments leading up to the Declaration on Religious Liberty at Vatican II recapitulate this struggle. Learning how to promote the pursuit of the true and the good without recourse to coercion or intimidation would be difficult. The fate of those denounced as Modernists in the years after 1907 is a chilling reminder of how difficult a lesson it was. The fact that no one had used the term Modernist to describe themselves before 1907 meant that after Pascendi, anyone was fair game.


Excerpted from DIVIDED FRIENDS by WILLIAM L. PORTIER. Copyright © 2013 The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Acknowledgements xiii

Introduction xvii

Part 1 The Roman Catholic Modernist Crisis in the United States

1 The Cyclone of the Modernist Crisis 3

2 Who Are the Modernists? 16

3 The Burden of the Dead 38

Part 2 Slattery and O'connell: A Common Crisis?

4 John R. Slattery, 1851-1901: From Attorney to Presbyter 61

5 John R. Slattery, 1901-1904: Between Presbyter and Attorney 90

6 "Theological Privateer": Slattery s Denis O'Connell 121

7 John R. Slattery, 1904-1926: From Presbyter to Attorney 153

Part 3 McSorley and Sullivan: A Change of Immense Import Coming Over the Face of Catholicism

8 A Catholic Theological Culture in English, 1899-1907 199

9 George Tyrrell and Joseph McSorley 228

10 William L. Sullivan's Fictions 159

11 McSorley's Response to Pascendi 290

12 Holiness and History: From Americanism and Modernism to Vatican II 325

13 McSorley's Ressourcement: Saving the Hecker Tradition 347

14 Finding a Place to Stand 362

Selected Bibliography 371

Index 387

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