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Between theological and cultural modernism: the Vatican's oath against modernism, September 1910.


'You know my aversion to Modernism in all forms' T.S. Eliot to John Hayward 27 January 1937 [unpublished letter]

Virginia Woolf's 'assertion ... that on or about December 1910 human character changed' has provided a useful myth for modernist studies, enabling it to declare that modernism was revolutionary with respect to consciousness, that it had an early twentieth-century beginning, and that its trigger was not a particular bounded event and, therefore, not a conventional event as such. (1) The formulation is discursively attractive because the exact cause of change is unspecified, active but hidden within a vague period, some overlooked but potentially seismic incident of the everyday perhaps that passed undetected, at least initially. Because of this imprecision, modernist studies can construct, deconstruct and reconstruct the contents of this myth. It can also acknowledge, with judicious reflectiveness, that, since those we call modernists never called themselves modernists, the term modernism must be a back projection, an exogenous term. Even supposedly early designations from within the modernist period like R.A. Scott-James's Modernism and Romance (1908) and Robert Graves and Laura Riding's Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927) seem to confirm this. Whilst both studies acknowledge the force of new cultural trends, they ultimately refuse, sceptically, to embrace them. They are not, therefore, 'endogenous' nor, in fact, early. Acknowledging that the concept of modernism is a construct, modernist studies is able nevertheless to re-inscribe itself by exploiting uncertainty and redefining its own apparently nebulous terms. (2)

One reason that the term modernism remains problematic is because its usage has come to conceal, I suggest, an intense, internationally extended ideological and cultural conflict round about 1910, which built its discourse around this very term: a conflict in the theological field known as the Modernist controversy. It features in histories of religion, Catholicism or theology in the twentieth century; (3) but is still ignored or sidelined as a matter of course in surveys or anthologies of 'modernism'. (4) The relation between theological and cultural modernism has received only sporadic acknowledgement until its recent appearance within a limited number of closely focused studies that may refer to the modernist controversy as a key context for a general cultural upheaval. (5) Malcolm Bull's observation from 1992 is still pertinent: 'modernism in the arts and modernism in theology ... are rarely discussed in the same context. This is surprising'. (6)

This theological conflictwas, I claim here, as central to the age as those factors usually cited as the contexts of modernity and modernism, including advances in science and technology, the emergence of new disciplines such as sociology, psychology and anthropology and such cataclysmic or momentous events as the First World War, the Easter Rising in Ireland, the Russian Revolution or the Amritsar massacre; not forgetting, of course, the women's movement. As a context, it was both a symptom in its reactions against modernity, and also a cause of further reactions which established substance and perspectives for cultural modernism. 'Modernism' is not, as Perry Anderson declared, an empty category at all. (7) Rather than abandoning this problematic term, its complex usage should be more thoroughly historicised and the particular 'modernist crisis' should be acknowledged and integrated.

This article's overall argument is that theological modernism, as described in four Papal encyclicals issued by Pope Pius X from 1907 to 1910, and its contexts, have been unjustifiably neglected outside religious studies. I suggest that they should play a far larger role in our sense of the contexts of modernist culture. I will briefly describe what theological modernism was, and discuss its roots and relation to the term 'modernism, as it was being variously deployed in Europe in the foregoing period. I will discuss some of its cultural impacts and indicate some of the relations between 'theological modernism' and 'cultural modernisms'. One of these impacts was to give a new impetus in the application of the term to cultural forms. Against the backdrop of this controversy, the term, whose use was already more widespread than is generally recognised, could be used with a sharper set of nuances. (8)

Another impact, though it is beyond the scope of this article to illustrate it extensively, is that cultural practices were affected too: the controversy and its resolution, in which a reactionary institution won a major campaign, sharpened the sense of what was at stake in the on-going conflict between modernism and traditionalism, the secular and the religious, spiritualism and materialism, claims for the absolute and for the relative. This was the case for writers of various political shades, whether anarchists, socialists, liberals, conservatives or nascent conservatives. Cultural forms can be grouped according to their relation to this controversy and its terms, the ripples of which continued well into the 1930s, at least, as the epigram from T.S. Eliot shows. I believe the controversy confirms 1910 as an evolutionary watershed for progressive cultural forms, so that Woolf's intimation was correct, although it seems that she was unaware of the reasons for this. In simplistic terms, progressive secular art prior to 1910 is wedded to realism but perceived mostly to be pessimistic at the prospect of a world without faith. Although this mode doesn't disappear, it is, after 1910, joined by practices which, across a broad front, enthusiastically embrace a variety of forms and attitudes that had been demonized by the antimodernist movement of the Catholic Church (this was not necessarily a coincidence). This is true, for example, within fictional narrative, of the intuitive and subjective modes that were enriching interiority of character. Following a period in which the Church expressed intense hostility to the idea that dogma might evolve and also sought to shore up the absolute sense of its own absolute permanence, the cultural field produced a string of manifestos that acknowledged the contingencies of history and the ephemerality of cultural forms. Ironically, it is no longer compulsory for clerics to declare 'the Oath against Modernism': it is, in a sense, history. The modernist manifestos have, however, endured, even if they too are treated, in a different sense, as history.

The Oath Against Modernism

In December 1910, modernism and the modernists were far from nebulous or marginal terms. On the contrary, they had literally been headline news for some years. What is more, they were perceived to be more coherent and more of a significant threat (to a particular body--the Catholic Church) than ever before or, perhaps, since. If there was a momentous change around December 1910, it was less likely to have been brought about by an art exhibition at the Grafton Gallery in London, exciting as that may have been; the change is more likely to be due to Pope Pius X's encyclical, issued in September 1910, now known as 'The Oath against Modernism'.

This document represented the conclusion of a struggle that had been raging within the oldest global institution and arguably the most significant religious institution in the world--the Catholic Church. Victory would help establish the character of the Vatican for most of the twentieth century. In spite of a brief liberal period in 1967 (when the Oath was rescinded), the Vatican has never compromised on the reactionary positions it established in the 19 th Century. (9) If we are to look for the effect on 'human character' to which Woolf gestured, it may be found within perceptions of the void that opened up between progressive liberal individuals and a reactionary global institution, which has, through these reactionary strategies, survived the nineteenth and the twentieth century more unscathed than any other institution, whether religious or political.

The Oath against Modernism was the last of four encyclicals devoted to an aggressive critique of trends in modern thought. The other three were the Lamentabili Sane of 3 July 1907; the Pascendi Dominici Gregis (On the Doctrine of the Modernists) from 8 September 1907; and the Praestantia Scripturae (On the Bible Against the Modernists) from 18 November 1907. The first of these listed sixty-five erroneous propositions which were to be 'condemned and proscribed'. These included such errors as that God is not in fact the author of the Sacred Scriptures (no. 9); that Church dogma was not a set of heavenly truths but 'interpretations' (no. 22); that 'the Roman Church became the head of all the churches, not through the ordinance of Divine Providence, but merely through political conditions' (no. 56). (10) Pascendi, the second encyclical, nearly 22,000 words in length, was the most significant and impassioned of all four documents, declaring that the modernists 'lay the axe not to the branches and shoots, but to the very root, that is to the faith and its deepest fires.'11 The third raised the stakes by threatening excommunication to any who disagreed with anything in the first two documents. (12) The fourth, in 1910, was the final coup: all 'clergy, pastors, confessors, preachers, religious superiors, professors in philosophical-theological seminaries', had to swear this oath.
   I--firmly embrace and accept each and every definition that has
   been set forth and declared by the unerring teaching authority of
   the Church, especially those principal truths which are directly
   opposed to the errors of this day. I reject that method of judging
   and interpreting Sacred Scripture which ... embraces the
   misrepresentations of the rationalists and with no prudence or
   restraint adopts textual criticism as the one and supreme norm....
   Finally, I declare that I am completely opposed to the error of the
   modernists who hold that there is nothing divine in sacred
   tradition. (13)

Since 1907, the Vatican had established the term modernism as a pejorative label to indicate a heterogeneous set of intellectual groups and individuals within the Catholic Church, whose work, taken as one, constituted 'the synthesis of all heresies'. (14) Unified by this term, the 'modernists' did not themselves exist as a group: individually they were focused on quite different aims, all hoping though that the Church might evolve its dogma or structures so as to come into harmony with diverse progressive ideas. These included evolution, historicised textuality, hermeneutic indeterminacy, socialism, secularism, communism, feminism, and immanentism. These were at that time emerging from various academic disciplines or discursive fields, such as philology and philosophy, social and political science, biology and zoology and also of course theology. The label ignored the heterogeneity of these ideas and the people who promoted them as part of a strategy of containment and eradication.

The Times, on 9 September 1910, broadcast the fact of this document. Two months later (while Roger Fry's Post-Impressionist exhibition was showing) it reported, under the headline 'The Persecution of the Modernists', that 'The Vatican continues to carry on with characteristic pertinacity its war against Modernism, supplying a useful potted history of this 'war':
   It began with disciplinary measures against certain priests, and
   the addition of a good many books to the list of the prohibited;
   ... then severer personal measures, and lastly, two months ago, the
   condemnation of 'Le Sillon'. (15)

'Le Sillon' ['the Furrow'] was a movement in France that was hoping to promote Christian social democracy, and the idea, modelled on certain Republican ideals, that Church hierarchy could evolve as society was evolving. The Times noted also that 'all teaching of natural science' would have to be supervised, and that 'all discussion ... of subjects bearing on the Modernist controversy' would be prohibited. (16)

In 1918, a fascinating summary of what this 'movement' had been, emphasising its philosophical heritage, appeared in a review of Maude Petre's Modernism, by the Dean of St Paul's, William Inge. Petre was a British Catholic nun, sympathetic to George Tyrrell, a leading English modernist priest, who had been excommunicated and refused Catholic burial at his death in 1909. Inge's view overlaps strikingly with certain constructions of the intellectual heritage of cultural modernism:
   It would require an essay to trace its affinities with subjective
   idealism, with post-Kantian relativism, with French fideisme, with
   American pragmatism, and with the philosophy of Bergson. In the
   Pascendi this philosophy is described as 'laying the axe to the
   very root, that is, to faith in its deepest fibres ... they only
   turn Him into a psychological monster.' (17)

Theological and cultural modernism, as the former is constructed here and as the latter is often constructed in accounts of its intellectual inheritance, have certain identical affinities. The most obvious of these is Bergson's philosophy and the attendant interest in knowledge by intuition (which itself has an origin in Pascal's fideisme, also mentioned by Inge); 'subjective idealism' and certain ideas of William James (alluded to in 'American pragmatism') are also shared between them.

During the inter-war period that we have come to think of as 'modernist', theological modernism and cognate terms appeared continually in newspapers and journals. The Times Literary Supplement would describe the outcome in 1919 as 'The Triumph of Anti-modernism'. The crisis of modernism may have been resolved within the Catholic Church, but it also sparked off a crisis in the Anglican Church and in America too in the early 1920s, where debates around similar issues continued especially in Christian fundamentalist circles. In 1926 Bernard Bell's Postmodernism was reviewed in the TLS; (18) and in 1928, T.S. Eliot offered the following patronising explanation for 'why [modernism] is dead':
   And that, I think, is the real point about Modernism, and the
   reason why it is dead. Modernists thought that they were trying to
   reconcile ancient feeling with modern thought and science. If that
   had been what they were trying to do, they might have been more
   successful; but they were really attempting something much more
   difficult--the reconciliation of antagonistic currents of feeling
   within themselves. This is the real issue; and they remain tragic
   not because some of them suffered in the real world, or suffered
   excommunication by the Church: that is a slight matter compared to
   the division in their own hearts. (19)

Between 1907 and 1930 there were over 350 references to the term in The Times: ninety per cent of these refer to the theological context of Modernism; the remainder feature in articles on architecture, music or literature. The word modernism in this period could hardly be used without some echo of this other sense. In 1931, the Contemporary Review could speak of the 'Death of Modernism'. (20) Through a series of repressive measures, the Catholic Church had, effectively, won the war. During a period dominated by war, revolution and the collapse of many European institutions, this survival was exceptional.

A History of the term 'Modernism'

Before giving more local illustration of this impact, I will present shifts in the deployment of the term, an ambivalent term, chiefly during the nineteenth century in Europe, where it moved back and forth between the 'cultural' and 'theological' fields. Just as Frank Kermode said in 1968, that 'somebody should write the history of the word "modern"', so the history of the word 'modernism' needs to be written. (21) This will lead to a clearer understanding of the affinities between theological and cultural modernism and help explain why Pope Pius X chose the word as a banner under which to group the Church's internal enemies.

This history begins with its status as a pejorative term within conservative cultural commentary to designate something 'new-fangled'. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Jonathan Swift using it in this sense in the early eighteenth century and it appeared in this way in Notes and Queries throughout the nineteenth century. To call something a 'modernism' in this publication, was to mark out signifier and signified as unnecessarily new, a sign of bad-taste. The issues to which it attaches itself are trivial and philological: the nonce word 'steel' in Vanity Fair; the second 'o' in London, for instance. (22)

These trivial pejorative associations were augmented in 1853 by John Ruskin to signal an extensive and decadent world-view, as Malcolm Bull pointed out. (23) In a lecture focusing on 'pre-Raphaelitism', Ruskin offensively projected an influential contrast between medievalism and modernism, demonizing the latter: 'Your present education, to all intents and purposes, denies Christ, and that is intensely and peculiarly modernism ... all ancient art was religious, and all modern art is profane.' (24) In Ruskin's wake, the term gradually became more ideologically freighted --a sign that the conception of the 'new' was itself changing, its power of transformation increasing exponentially. There will therefore develop a market of curious consumers, for whom new discourses critically addressing new issues will be on display. The Essays and Reviews controversy of 1860 contributed to this. Benjamin Jowett's call for reform in traditional methods of interpreting the Bible, after the 'Higher Criticism' had questioned its textual condition, led to different degrees of scepticism about faith and dogma. (25)

The debate seems to have been more shrill in post-1848 Europe: Abraham Kuyper's HetModernisme (1871), was a powerful Calvinist indictment of 'modernism' as a secular naturalism which, according to Kuyper, had roots in the French Revolution. (26) Charles Perin, an Ultramontane, titled an 1881 pamphlet based around correspondence of the radical theologian Hugues La Mennais, LeModernisme dans LEglise. Drawing perhaps on Kuyper, he defines the term: 'L'essence du modernisme, c'est la pretention d'eliminer Dieu de toute vie sociale.' He feels the need to explain the novelty of this term within the French language, explaining that its roots lay in Revolutionary movements:
   Le terme de modernisme ... pourrait donner lieu a un reproche de
   neologisme. Le mot est nouveau, j'en conviens; il n'a pas ete
   employe jusqu'ici avec la signification que je lui donne. Pourtant,
   si l'on veut bien remarquer que, suivant le langage adopte par tous
   les ecrivains de l'ecole de 89, les idees modernes resument toutes
   les conceptions, toutes les pretentions politiques et sociales de
   la Revolution, on trouvera peut-etre que l'emploi du terme
   modernisme est suffisamment justifie. On reconnaitra qu'il n'en est
   point qui exprime mieux, en un seul mot, les tendances humanitaires
   de la societe contemporaine.

   [The essence of modernism is the hope that God be eliminated from
   all social life.... The term 'modernism' might prompt the reproach
   that it is a neologism. The word is new, I grant; it has not been
   used before now with the meaning that I am giving it. However, if
   one may grant that, following the language adopted by all those
   writers of the school of 1789, modern ideas resurrect all the
   conceptions, all the political and social ambitions of the
   Revolution, then one might agree that the use of the term
   'modernism' is sufficiently justified.] (27)

Perm's defence captures nicely a contradiction in pejorative uses of the term: as a neologism it is itself a modernism. But needs must where demonization is the driving force. Modernism doesn't only deny Christ, as Ruskin claimed; for Perm, it wishes to eliminate him. According to Bruno Migliorini, the term 'modernisme' soon crossed the Alps from Perin's France, flowering in the Vatican's Civilta Cattolica in 1883. (28)

In England, Thomas Hardy revisited Ruskin's sense of the denial of Christ in Tess of the DUrbervilles, through a vaguer allusion to a general trend. Tess's narrator, focalising through Angel, pompously diagnoses Tess's view of life, as 'an ache of modernism'. Angel, bookish, and a budding cultural critic, thinks he has achieved an understanding of her when he concludes: 'She was expressing ... feelings which might almost have been called those of the age--the ache of modernism.'29 Hardy was soon to be represented as bewailing something about 'the age', diagnosing a pessimism produced by a lack of faith. But he is more precisely revealing something about Angel--who coins the phrase in order to flatter his own critical grasp of the contemporary, and of woman and nature being despoiled by what is presumed to be progress of various kinds. When Tess eventually reveals how Alec had raped her, the flaws in his assumptions are in turn exposed. Hardy is diagnosing those who misdiagnose the 'ache' of 'the age', as being ignorant of the actual experience of women.

Some six years after Tess, the Methodist cultural critic Geoffrey Northcroft adopted Angel's phrase without sensing any ambivalence in it:
   The ache of modernism ... finds us all. We are too much the
   children of the hour to be untouched by it.... To spend a day in
   the public library of any modern city, turning to the shelves
   whereon the army of modern novelists shoulder each other for room,
   is to come inevitably into touch with the ache of modernism. It is
   significant that, in the main, the present day minor prophets are
   men who undervalue or entirely reject the influence of
   Christianity. (30)

Modernism is a symptom of irreligion according to Northcroft. Steeped in literary works by Oliver Schreiner, Guy de Maupassant and George Egerton, he finds it embodied in Grant Allen's The Woman who Did, and in Max Nordau's Degeneration. Culture, in this context, has a religious axis that is essential to it and it is to be judged by its position on this axis. Northcroft's tone is, however, defeatist; it is more resigned than Perin or Kuyper. From the context of theological modernism, Northcroft's list of writers constitute, I suggest, the first phase of cultural modernism, where the secular turn is accompanied, in criticism especially, with a sigh, with fear or anxiety. In the second phase after 1910, the turn is either more indifferent or, outraged by the reactionary tactics of the Vatican, aggressively supportive of theological modernism as a form of liberalism: positive associations of 'modernism' encroach increasingly on the term, which has to shuffle off the religious connotations.

Angel's phrase is picked up in 1908 by the journalist and cultural critic R.A. Scott-James, whose study has been noticed by Randall Stevenson and Astradur Eysteinsson. (31) Like Northcroft, Scott-James sees no irony in Hardy's use of the phrase, but denounces failures of culture from a religious perspective, and sets up modernism in opposition to Romance, just as Ruskin had opposed it to Medievalism. He also follows the tradition of defending usage of the term and must therefore negotiate the Vatican's recent appropriation:
   the first word of my title does not bear the special theological
   meaning which it has lately acquired. Theologians have a knack of
   appropriating words and destroying their value for all other
   purposes than their own. (32)

There is a struggle for domination over this voguish term between institutions of religion and of culture. It has, suitably, become modish and is up for grabs. Getting the association right becomes an urgent matter. The sense Scott-James wishes to project onto it will be distinct from the Vatican and more general: 'there are characteristics of modern life in general which can only be summed up, as Mr Thomas Hardy and others have summed them up, by the word modernism.' (33) His examples are literary, but his ways of framing the fictional narratives and of defining modernism, misrepresent Catholic antimodernism and are closer to the Vatican than he would like to think. He attacks, for example, the way 'modernism' is wedded to the 'Scientific Method':
   There is a scientific method of history, a scientific method in
   literary scholarship; and theology itself, the ancient enemy of
   science, has admitted its methods in the 'Higher Criticism'. (34)

But theology was in fact split in its attitude to the 'Higher Criticism', and the task of orthodox Catholic theology was to expunge the conclusions of 'higher criticism' from all its seminaries. Moreover, the Vatican's focus on the movement is more developed, and projects a sharper sense of its pernicious qualities. At this time, as Malcolm Bull has observed, 'the priority of the religious variety [of modernism was] indisputable'. (35) Once its work was done, however, the Vatican more or less dispensed with the term. Silence and a studied indifference were effective weapons to achieve closure and could be viewed as signs of victory. After Pius X died, in August 1914, the first encyclical of his successor, Benedict XV, urged that any remaining modernism, which was still 'lurking in hidden places', be 'stamped out'. His critique focuses not only on modernism as a set of theological errors, but on something that is a broader cultural trend: 'Those who are infected by that spirit [of modernism] develop a keen dislike for all that savours of antiquity and become eager searchers after novelties in everything'. (36) (This would be the last occasion on which Benedict XV used the term in any encyclicals.) Gesturing beyond its jurisdiction towards culture more generally, the Vatican can pause here, its work for the time being completed. Debates about the term are, from this point on, essentially closed down in orthodox Catholic circles. (37) The term can now evolve in the cultural field in a different direction, paving the way for an eventual counter-appropriation of the term as a positive sign.

The positive counter-appropriation has some precedents which are important to note. In 1890, for instance, in the United States, 'modernism' appears in a faintly comic and secular context with reference to an increased pace of life, and to new communication technologies. The New York Times relayed a frantic chain of events as they had been reported in the Chicago Mail.
   A young lawyer who recently hung out a shingle had an experience
   yesterday which aptly illustrates the haste with which modernism
   scoots along. This young lawyer tried a case before a local
   Justice, was called a liar by a witness, engaged in a fight with
   the vituperative person, was arrested, fined $25 for assault, and
   filed an appeal from his Honor's decision. All this within a single
   hour. Even in the practice of law the stage coach has been replaced
   by the lightning express. (38)

'Modernism' is here associated with technology and the robust quality of characters whose traumas can be alleviated by narrative speed. It is unsentimental. This usage is also devoid of any religious dimension. The story contains a seed for silent slapstick movies to come, a Chaplinesque 'modernism', now a dominant form within modernist studies but, at the time, a rare association. An alternative positive construal of the term appears around the same time, but back in a 'theological' context. In the liberal Review of Reviews from August 1894, an article about Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (1815-1881), the Dean of Westminster, is titled 'The Prophet of Modernism', saying that, 'unlike the medievalist Pusey', he:
   looks onward with serene, happy confiding demeanour, with a joyous
   eager expectancy, with an aspiration and an unfaltering faith ...
   in the well-recognised direction of liberty, independence, justice
   mutual tolerance and love ... The Church of the English nation is
   bounded to be the Pantheon of religious liberalism as well as of
   secular culture and knowledge ... Englishmen ... will never again
   lose their necks to fanaticism or to priestly and sacramental rule.

The positive construal of 'modernism' associates it with liberalism and a scarcely concealed sectarianism with respect to Catholics. Not all cultural flows went down the channel that Ruskin had devised. One last example of a positive spin, from 1908, describes George Meredith, an un-Victorian Victorian:
   From the date of his earliest novels he anticipated what we
   understand to-day by Modernism. The Victorian age was one of
   idealism and spirituality, of sentiment that at its best was
   exalted and noble, and its worst was sentimentality. Religion or
   religious philosophy was an important element. Mr. Meredith reacted
   against nearly every trait of his own times, and in reacting
   towards the past he produced a new type, a future, which has
   already become the present with us.... Sentiment and emotion are
   drawn as weakness and follies; sentimentality is the cardinal sin.
   Instead of idealism he gives us almost scientific naturalism, and
   the love passion is frankly physical. (40)

Both 'scientific naturalism' and a 'lack of sentimentality' are being fused onto 'modernism'. (These associations often surround Flaubert and his 'doctrine' of impersonality.) The attack on excessive pity (and pity as a Christian virtue) is a strategy which chimes with Nietzscheanism. The relatively positive spin on 'modernism' occurs at the colder and more satirical end of progressive and anti-Victorian cultural trends. It is entirely distinct from any of the associations projected onto 'modernism' by the Vatican. But it is not difficult to see how an unsentimental impersonality will have few regrets about seeing the struggles of a decaying institution.

The Impact of Theological Antimodernism

Having amassed various associations around the term modernism, mostly negative but occasionally positive, we have established framing contexts within which we can read the Vatican's deployment of the term, and the cultural reaction to that deployment. These associations either directly influenced the Church (as Kuyper and Perin's almost certainly did) or are merely coincidental, as in the case of those associations that it has with the increasing pace of communication or with anti-sentimentalism. The coincidental associations, however, are important for understanding the subsequent struggles over ownership of the term and the various ideologies at stake. To get a sense of these struggles, we can now return to the impact that the controversy had upon the cultural field. Lacking space for a full account of this impact, I shall limit myself here to indicating how widespread the reaction was. Kinds of impact can be grouped along a spectrum, with explicit responses at one end, and subtler, more indirect consequences at the other. I shall look at specific instances of the first, before concluding with a brief discussion of the latter.

The controversy, as mentioned, received wide coverage in The Times. It featured also in such journals as TheFreewoman, Rhythm, Poetry, and, in particular, The New Age which responded almost immediately after Pascendi Gregis was issued: 'The Encyclical is a wholesale declaration of war against freedom of thought'. (41) In the following week it was predicting 'what will probably be the final battle between the medieval and modern methods of thought'. Taking a pro-modernist standpoint, and seeing a clear cultural politics at stake, it presented the conflict as emblematic of individual freedom against the authority of the state:
   It is this attitude towards divine revelation, the inductive
   conception which goes for religious apologetics to the feelings of
   innumerable human units, instead of deriving them from general
   principles, the acceptance of which was imposed on individual
   units; this attitude which makes the basis of personal religion
   intrinsic, resting on common experience, rather than extrinsic,
   resting on authority, which the Pope has attacked in his latest
   Encyclical. (42)

The article that follows immediately does so seamlessly in terms of its liberal cultural politics. 'The Menace of Censorship' responds to the censorship of Edward Garnett's play 'The Breaking-Point' and then forms a progressive canon from a list of then censored plays such as Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, Maurice Maeterlinck's Monna Vanna, Leo Tolstoy's Power of Darkness, and Oscar Wilde's Salome. England, it declares ought not to 'sweep back ... the tide of dramatic intellect and tragedy that is flowing freshly all over the rest of Europe.' (43) Pascendi Gregis thus helped to define the battle lines and, by making martyrs of 'modernists', cemented the relation of 'modernism' to individual freedom in culture. Over the coming months and years The New Age frequently returned to orthodoxy and heterodoxy, especially in George Bernard Shaw's debates with G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. When John Middleton Murry launched Rhythm in 1911, his editorial 'Art and Philosophy' used the word 'modernism' in a way that seems to consider it purely cultural, and in now familiar terms: 'Modernism ... penetrates beneath the outward surface of the world, and disengages the rhythms that lie at the heart of things, rhythms strange to the eye, unaccustomed to the ear, primitive harmonies of the world.' But the article is also fundamentally a celebration of Bergsonian intuition and, with it, an attack on Religion: 'Religion and morality alike mean for the western world that this life fades away into the colourless intensity of the world to come.... Art is against religion or religion itself.' (44) I would suggest that, containing an allusion to the terms of the controversy, this is an exploitation of those terms for Murry's radical rhetoric.

In The Freewoman of 15 February 1912, a precocious Rebecca West reviewed Mrs Humphry Ward's avowedly pro-reformist novel, The Case of Richard Meynell, sympathetic to theological modernism in its social guise. West mocks Ward's novels for describing 'a movement ... sweeping over the country and turning the hearts of Englishmen to flame. This Modernist Movement is', West then claims:
   alien from, not only the Englishman, but from the human mind. Jesus
   of Nazareth sits in a chamber of every man's brain, immovable,
   immutable, however credited or discredited. The idea of Christ ...
   is as securely protected from 'modernising' as the tragedy of
   'Hamlet.' Ward ... does not understand that the Englishman, having
   discovered something that, whether true or not, is glorious to the
   human soul, is not going to tamper with it. This misunderstanding
   is so typical of her class. (45)

West's lurching criticism of class reflects a complexity in the battle lines, as much as a specific ideology. Within a single publication like The Freewomen, we see currents flowing in different directions. Thus, in a subsequent issue Edith A. Browne writes frothily about seeing The Futurist exhibition, first in Paris then in London, asserting her modern taste and the potential for such radical judgement in the British Public:
   I can most sincerely appreciate the modernist movements in Art ...
   Hitherto, every charge of lack of artistic appreciation that may
   have been brought by the Modernist Painters against the British
   Public has included me among the 'guilty' masses.'

Significantly here, Browne at first feels the need to specify that the modernist movements she is referring to are happening 'in Art', thus qualifying the more widespread contemporary association of the term with theology. Browne is a convert to a new heterodoxy which is revolutionary, and so her pleasures as a spectator are expressed with reference to revolution: 'the spectator is immediately transformed into one of the people vitally concerned in that revolution, and transported into the midst of the scene'. (46)

Returning to The Times, which paid continuous attention to the controversy, we can see the term spread. Here it surfaces during 1913 in the context of the Irish Home Rule Crisis with a sectarian attack on Catholic attitudes:
   History and present-day fact leave us with little doubt on that
   head ... Liberty generates 'modernism,' and 'modernism' is another
   name for intellectual independence and freedom for social progress.

Terminological overlap between theological and cultural modernism is clear also in the following 1914 letter to The Times entitled the 'Battle of Styles in Architecture: Liberty and Convention'. It compares the cultural confrontation to:
   that now raging in another field, in which tradition and authority
   are arrayed against what is understood as Modernism ... No art is
   of any value except so far as it reflects the conditions of its own
   age, and no other. In art, at all events, there is no hope of life
   except in Modernism. (48)

When alluding to 'Modernism,' the writer here, as with Browne earlier, has to single out the context of 'art, at all events' as a contrasting comparison with 'another field' -being theology. The cliche of modernist art that it is an assault on convention takes shape in part from reacting against the antimodernists' attack on those who were assaulting the conventions of dogma. The specific focus on architecture is broadened out to all art forms, via a general principle that one should reflect the conditions of one's age through a 'responsive' modernism. There is a synthesis of all art forms into a single movement reflecting a general trend. The comparison with the theological controversy is vital in helping to define the contemporary, and making it possible to associate art with modernism, liberty and recent discoveries in science.

Chesterton and Shaw, who took up these debates explicitly against each other, help define an obvious place for the polemic. Introducing a volume of journalistic pieces published in 1915, some seven years before he converted to Catholicism, Chesterton considered modernism in general to be a sign of superficial faddishness:
   I have said much against a mere modernism. When I use the word
   'modernism,' I am not alluding specially to the current quarrel in
   the Roman Catholic Church, though I am certainly astonished at any
   intellectual group accepting so weak and unphilosophical a name. It
   is incomprehensible to me that any thinker can calmly call himself
   a modernist; he might as well call himself a Thursdayite ... . The
   real objection to modernism is simply that it is a form of
   snobbishness. It is an attempt to crush a rational opponent not by
   reason, but by some mystery of superiority, by hinting that one is
   specially up to date or particularly 'in the know.' To flaunt the
   fact that we have had all the last books from Germany is simply
   vulgar; like flaunting the fact that we have had all the last
   bonnets from Paris. To introduce into philosophical discussions a
   sneer at a creed's antiquity is like introducing a sneer at a
   lady's age. It is caddish because it is irrelevant. The pure
   modernist is merely a snob; he cannot bear to be a month behind the
   fashion. (49)

As with West, an imputed claim of intellectual superiority is translated negatively as an unjustified and democratically less acceptable claim to social superiority. But just because something is 'up to date' does not mean that it is only of the day and will not have enduring effects. A discovery in science or scholarship will bring about change if it is significant, and is distinct from changes in fashion, which resemble the cyclical non-change of seasons. Chesterton and Shaw tend to be outside the conventional canon of Modernist literature, because of their perceived conventionality with respect to form. As a result there is little direct work on the conflicting ways they responded to the Vatican's 'war'. It also draws attention away from their impact within what has become canonical. One welcome effect of developing a focus on the relations between cultural and theological modernism, would be to help shift this canon.


One could fruitfully explore and illustrate at greater length such direct impacts and polemical issues, the diverse European dimensions and the responses to the many excommunications and book burnings. But turning to less direct impacts in the cultural field could, quite properly, I think, take in the major landmarks of cultural modernism. Offering more appealing material for discussion, it would also require a more thorough analysis to indicate the indirect, subterranean exchanges within the intellectual environment. One uncontroversial example of such an impact is T. S. Eliot's turn in the mid 1920s towards an orthodox form of Anglicanism; far less widely known is Joyce's subtle reference in 'The Dead' to Pope Pius X's very first Encyclical. This included a reform of choral song in Churches that expelled women from choirs, indirectly an attack on the women's movement. This took from Gabriel Conroy's aged musical aunts one of their only sources of pleasure and, indeed, income. (50) The first chapter of Ulysses shows three different ways of being oriented towards theological modernism: Mulligan wishes for a 'new Paganism'; Haines is a follower of Newman, who believes in a personalised relation to God; and Stephen is a 'horrible example of free thought', a modernist avant-la-lettre who has, somehow, gone too far, and provides an echo of the renegade English Jesuit, George Tyrrell. (51) T. E. Hulme's rejection of romanticism and espousal of classicism, constitute a turn towards the necessity of the Absolute that orthodoxy provides, to restrict man's romantic sense of his potential. In 'Romanticism and Classicism, Hulme's allusion to, amongst others, Maurras, the staunch French anti-democrat supporter of Pius X, associates Hulme clearly with the Catholic right. (52) Hulme is thought to have had a significant influence on both Imagism and Vorticism and it is relevant here that May Sinclair in The Egoist finds a Catholicism in the Imagist dogma of literalism: 'The Victorian poets are Protestant. For them the bread and wine are symbols of Reality ... The Imagists are Catholic; they believe in Trans-substantiation.' (53) Looking beyond Great Britain briefly, one finds Heidegger as a young man writing for the antimodernist journal Der Akademiker. (54) What might the relation be between his theological antimodernist training, his career as a philosopher and his critical disposition towards modernity? The whole primitivist strand in painting, dance, sculpture and music relates to a relativism of religious experience, which is thought to be a corollary of modernist theology. (55) J. G. Frazer's The Golden Bough thus contributes to a secular version of theological modernism. The way these art forms provoked the establishment can be compared to the provocations of theological modernism. Perhaps it is time to examine how far the aesthetics of post-Symbolist art movements, which we still understandably associate with attacks on formal conventions, have a political dimension, which, in their occasional resistance to the psychological and the subjective, for example, is informed by the cultural politics of antimodernism. How far did all these isms take strength not simply from questioning tradition in ways that theological modernism was doing, but from the more unified antimodernist texts which--like manifestos had a far more unified sense of mission. Was Pound's characterisation in 1938 of the post-WWI 'rappel a. l'ordre' a belated attempt to appear to have emulated--belatedly also--the Vatican's successful reactionary strategies ?56

It should be clear that I am not trying to show that cultural modernism was the radical cultural wing of 'theological modernism', but rather to provoke a closer look at theological modernism and its imbrications with cultural practice in the modernist era. Once cultural modernism is seen through the lens of theological modernism, new cracks begin to appear in the former; and the old cracks that we have often sensed are there, suddenly have a much clearer explanation. All those we consider to be modernists, and indeed all those writing in the modernist period, have, I suggest, some kind of orientation towards the ideas of those thinkers grouped by the Vatican as 'modernists', and towards the Vatican's war on those thinkers. The orientation may have been one of surprise, contempt, anger, indifference, sympathy, awe or respect. The consequences range from outright rejection to emulation: for the success of the Vatican must have appealed to those considering conversion. Exploring that orientation and imagining the breadth of it leads us to think about the modernist period in a new light that is not only more relevant to that period, but also radically different.

Finn Fordham

Royal Holloway, University of London


(1) Virginia Woolf, 'Character in Fiction' in The Essays of Virginia Woolf: Volume Three: 1919-1924, ed. Andrew McNeillie (London, 1988), p. 21.

(2) Michael Whitworth provides a typical instance of this re-inscription, quoting Perry Anderson's attack on this 'emptiest of all cultural categories', then constructing his own sense of the term: Modernism: An Anthology (Oxford, 2007), p. 3.

(3) See, Darrell Jodock (ed.), Catholicism Contending with Modernity: Roman Catholic Modernism and Anti-Modernism in Historical Context (Cambridge, 2000).

(4) For example, Peter Childs makes no allusion whatsoever to theological modernism nor, shockingly, to religion as a context for modernism in general, in Modernism, 2nd edn. (London, 2008). Lawrence Rainey acknowledges the Vatican's deployment of the term in a theological context, but draws a sharp distinction between the 'predominantly Protestant culture of the English speaking world' and the 'Catholic' and European context of the term's theological application: 'Introduction', in Laurence Rainey (ed.), Modernism: an Anthology, (Oxford, 2005), p. xx. This fails to acknowledge how the theological modernist controversy spread to Protestant churches in both England and the US, nor does it present the controversy as a context for the European avant-garde. Roger Luckhurst observes, quite rightly, that: 'Catholic liberalism ... attracted the kind of outrage the artistic avant-garde could only dream about': 'Religion, Psychical Research, Spiritualism, the Occult', in The Oxford Handbook of Modernisms, eds, Peter Brooker, Andrzej Gasiovek, Deborah Longworth and Andrew Thacker (Oxford, 2010), pp. 433-34. One problem with introductions, surveys and anthologies of literary movements is that, to help build a canon of texts, they pass over contemporaneous documents that would help map counter discourses. The Vatican's 1910 'Oath against Modernism' is a manifesto of sorts, virulent and radical in its way, blasting various features of modern intellectual life, and ought therefore to feature in anthologies alongside canonical modernist manifestos.

(5) For previous discussions of the relation between 'cultural modernism' and 'theological modernism', See Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity (Durham, NC, 1987), pp. 69, 78-9; and Gary Lease, 'Modernism and "Modernism": Christianity as product of its culture', in 'Odd Fellows' in the Politics of Religion: Modernism, National Socialism, and German Judaism (Berlin, 1995), pp. 110-27. For welcome recent studies which explore the potential relationship between the two modernisms in more concentrated detail, see Damon Franke's Modernist Heretics British Literary History, 1883-1924 (Columbus, OH, 2008) and Geert Lernout, Help My Unbelief: James Joyce and Religion (London, 2010). Originally published in 1988, Lease's essay claims convincingly that a threatened Church was reacting against trends of modernity. However, his understanding of modernity and 'cultural modernism' is inaccurately limited to forms of 'anti-representationalism'. In fact, both theological modernism and the early phase of modernist literature shared a scientist's appreciation of objective facts alongside the effects subjective viewpoint has on observation. When the realism of, say, Tolstoy acknowledged subjectivity, it was not being hostile to representation: in such cases, the field of representation was showing that it could stretch to contain perspectivism and interiority and these are not necessarily anti-realist. The possibility and historical fact of evolution within Christian dogma are informed by both a realist and perspectivist point of view.

(6) Malcolm Bull, 'Who was the first to make a pact with the devil?', London Review of Books, 14:9 (14 May 1992), 22. This review article has been scandalously neglected.

(7) Perry Anderson, quoted in Whitworth, Modernism, p. 3.

(8) Developing and proving a theory of this kind has become much easier to illustrate now that magazines and newspapers from the period have been digitized. In researching this article, I have made extensive use of the Modernist Journals Project, the Times Digital Archive, and Periodicals Archive Online. I have also profited from conversations with Erik Tonning and Matthew Feldman and, above all, Matthew Creasy's excellent editorial work.

(9) The Catholic Church is not of course unified in relation to its orthodox and reactionary positions, and so different factions do perceive them differently. Nevertheless, that the dogma of papal infallibility remains intact, that Pope John Paul II effectively expunged liberation theology from Latin America, and that the 1998 encyclical 'Ad Tuendam Fidem' could require an oath of allegiance from theologians, clearly illustrate a continuation of Pope Pius X's strategies.

(10) Pius X, 'Lamentabili Sane' (3 July 1907), Papal Encyclicals Online <http://www.>

(11) Pius X, 'Pascendi Domnici Gregis: On the Doctrine of the Modernists' (8 September 1907), paragraph 3, Papal Encyclicals Online < p10pasce.htm>

(12) 'Praestantia Scripturae' (18 November 1907), Papal Encyclicals Online <http://www.>

(13) Pius X, 'The Oath Against Modernism' (1 September 1910), Papal Encyclicals Online <http ://>

(14) See 'Pascendi', paragraph 39.

(15) 'The Persecution of the Modernists', The Times, 2 November 1910, 11.

(16) Ibid.

(17) William Inge, 'Catholicism and the Future' [Review of Maude Petre, Modernism], Times Literary Supplement (2nd January, 1919), 1.

(18) See TLS (15th July, 1926), 483.

(19) T. S. Eliot, 'An Emotional Unity: The Letters of Friedrich von Hugel', Dial, 84.2 (February 1928), 109-112.

(20) E. J. Dillon, 'Alfred Loisy and the Death of Modernism', in The Contemporary Review, 140 (July 1931), 304.

(21) Frank Kermode, 'Modernisms', in Continuities (London, 1968), p. 27.

(22) See Notes and Queries, 29 August 1874, p. 174; and 4 November 1882, 371.

(23) Bull, 'Who was the first', 22.

(24) John Ruskin, Lectures on Architecture and Painting, delivered at Edinburgh in November, 1853 (London, 1854), pp. 202-4.

(25) See Peter Hinchliff, Benjamin Jowett and the Christian Religion (Oxford, 2000), p. 90ff, and Ieuan Ellis, Seven Against Christ (Leiden, 1980), p. 122ff.

(26) See Abraham Kuyper, Calvinism: Six Stone Lectures (Amsterdam, 1899) and James McGoldrick, God's Renaissance Man: the Life and Work of Abraham Kuyper (Darlington, 2000), p. 53-6.

(27) Charles Perin, Le Modernisme dans l'eglise d'apres des lettres inedites de Lamennais (Paris, 1881), p. 5.

(28) Bruno Migliorini, Storia della Lingua Italiana, 3rd edn (Florence, 1961). Vol. 2, p. 641n.

(29) Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891), ed. Tim Dolin (Harmondsworth, 2007), p. 124.

(30) George Northcroft, 'The Ache of Modernism', Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine 120 (September 1897), 671-3.

(31) For Astradur Eysteinsson, Scott-James 'prefigures a good deal of critical response to modernism as a historical and cultural force': The Concept of Modernism (Ithaca, 1990), p. 18. Randall Stevenson describes Scott-James's use of the term as 'surprisingly early': See Modernist Fiction: an Introduction (Kentucky, 1992), pp. 1-2. But, as this article shows, the term is far from 'early' in 1908.

(32) R. A. Scott-James, Modernism and Romance (London, 1908), p. ix.

(33) Ibid., p. ix.

(34) Ibid., p. 18.

(35) Bull, 'Who was the first', p. 22.

(36) Benedict XV, 'Ad beatissimi apostolorum' (1 November 1914), paragraph 25 <http://>.

(37) Some of those denounced as 'modernists' did continue the debate, like Maude Petre whose Modernism: its Failure and its Fruits (London, 1918) was widely reviewed. Others, such as von Hugel, a correspondent of Petre's, was brought to heel and came round to the orthodox viewpoint. See Kelly (ed.), especially letters from pp. 169-73 where Hugel renounces the terms used in his earlier period when advocating reform.

(38) Chicago Mail reported in New York Times, 11 April 1890, 4.

(39) 'Dean Stanley's Modernism', Review of Reviews, August 1894, 145.

(40) 'Mr Meredith's Modernism', letter to the Editor, Spectator, 29 Feb 1908, 333.

(41) 'Roma Locuta Est', New Age, 1:23 (3 October 1907), 354.

(42) George Pitcher, 'The September Encyclical of Pius X', New Age, 1:24 (10 October 1907), 372.

(43) 'The Menace of the Censorship', New Age, 1:24 (10 October 1907), 373.

(44) John Middleton Murry, 'Art and Philosophy', Rhythm, 1:1 (Summer, 1911), 10, 12.

(45) Rebecca West, 'The Gospel According to Mrs Humphrey Ward', Freewoman, 13:1 (15 February 1912), 249-50.

(46) Edith A. Browne, 'Free Art', Freewoman, 1:17 (14 March 1912), p. 330.

(47) W. L. Watkinson, 'A Reply to Dr Clifford', The Times, 13 November 1913, p. 5

(48) Thomas C. Jackson, 'The Battle of Styles in Architecture', The Times, 21 February 1914, 9.

(49) G. K. Chesterton, 'The Case for the Ephemeral', in All Things Considered (New York, 1910), p. 3.

(50) James Joyce, 'The Dead', in Dubliners, ed. Jeri Johnson (Oxford, 2000), p. 153 and accompanying note on p. 273.

(51) James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Jeri Johnson (Oxford: 2000), pp.3-20. For discussion of Stephen's free-thinking and Joyce's general relation to the modernist controversy, see Lernout, p. 140ff.

(52) T. E. Hulme, 'Romanticism and Classicism', in The Collected Writings of T E. Hulme, ed. Karen Csengeri (Oxford, 1994), p. 60.

(53) May Sinclair, 'Two Notes: II. On Imagism', The Egoist, 2:6 (1 June 1915), 89-90.

(54) John Van Buren, The Young Heidegger: Rumour of A Hidden King (Indiana, 1994), p. 53.

(55) This is implied in the Pascendis attack on 'modern philosophy' which comprises Freud and Kant. Modernists claim that: 'the need of the divine... is first latent beneath consciousness, or, to borrow a term from modern philosophy, in the subconsciousness, where also its root lies hidden and undetected. [Modernists affirm that] our most holy religion... emanated from nature spontaneously and of itself. Nothing assuredly could be more utterly destructive of the whole supernatural order': 'Pascendi', paragraphs 7-10.

(56) Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur (London, 1952), p. 134.

Address for Correspondence:

Finn Fordham, Royal Holloway, University of London, TW20 0EX. Email:
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