JMC : Modernism / by Cardinal Mercier

Modernism and Science.

Catholics and Neutrality.


Christians, priests, and even Bishops, too often drift in practice into a neutrality they would condemn in theory. It is indeed unquestionably true that neutrality is sometimes necessary. Problems of physics, chemistry, biology, and of social economy are never to be studied with the pre-conceived object of finding in them a confirmation of our religious beliefs.

To consider an object scientifically it must be mentally isolated if it is to be examined in all its bearings, and if its significance is to be grasped with precision and clearness.

Whenever the progress of thought (conditioned by the present division of labour) has called forth from the pêle-mêle of empiric observations a new science, it is because some man of genius has brought to light, from the disorderly mass in which others have been groping, a new aspect of a truth until then unperceived. The older scholastics called this distinct aspect, which is the object of a new science, the "formal" object of this science. Hence, to consider a science from any point of view other than that of its "formal" object, is to consider it with an attention divided between this object and some problem involving another principle, or between this object and apologetics; and to reason thus is to disregard the essence of scientific speculation, and recede from that progress that every seeker of truth should follow.


The Pope, in his Encyclical letter Pascendi Dominici Gregis, quite rightly reminds us that most recent writings on biblical criticism and the history of our Faith are due to a philosophical inspiration which certain seekers after truth have too blindly obeyed, and which had an a priori influence on their use of historical documents.

Those who feel most the point of this objection protest that they have honestly searched for truth without pre-supposing any system of philosophy in their scientific work. They forget a subtle distinction that the Holy Father has not overlooked: that is, that the intention which is known only to the supreme Judge, and will never be revealed until the last day, is one thing; and that the action that is subject to the judgment of authority and criticism, is another. One French critic, for example, studies and examines the Bible under the influence of Kant's teaching; another pious apologist unconsciously wears agnostic spectacles, as Molière's Jourdain spoke unconsciously in prose: like the Rector of a University, who was so fascinated by his system of Evolution, that he made it a scientific romance rather than a treatise on science.

Modernists have fed upon the philosophy of Kant and on agnosticism, and rashly assimilated English and German writings that are filled with infectious microbes. Victims of the contagion, they have had recourse to that fictitious remedy, "the philosophy of immanence," which only poisons and disintegrates the moral tissue. We do not blame Modernists who are in good faith for catching infection; but we are justified in requiring them not to reproach the physician of souls for his antiseptic precautions, but to thank him. This is the least that can be expected of those who value immunity from contagion.

Because they cannot see the bacillus of Immanence with the naked eye, they accuse the physician of making a false diagnosis. Imprudent men, read again, I beg you, the Riposta you have irreverently addressed to the Supreme Authority. In the first paragraph you try to prove at length that your criticism is independent of your philosophy. Look, farther on, at these significant admissions: "We accept," you say, "the criticism of pure reason made by Kant and Spencer, but our apologetics are an effort to rid ourselves of their agnosticism. Therefore, to scientific knowledge of phenomena and to philosophic knowledge that has for its object the interpretation of the universe, we oppose religious knowledge which consists in an actual experience of the divine which operates within us." This experience of the divine you describe thus: "It occurs in the most obscure depths of our inner consciousness, and gives us a special understanding of supernatural realities." Lastly, this is your conclusion: "It is true that our premises are drawn from the principles of Immanence because they all pre-suppose vital immanence"; but, you ask, "Is the principle of 'vital immanence' as noxious as the Encyclical supposes?" If this is not a priori reasoning, then there is no such thing.


Gentlemen, it is just because the philosophy that forms our intellectual environment so easily influences our whole being that it is so important that the student and seeker after truth should be equipped with a sound philosophy. Yes, a philosophy that grips facts and holds fast to them when it is brought into play in the domain of metaphysics, where it soars to the absolute. The philosophy of Aristotle, developed and defined by St. Thomas Aquinas, has pre-eminently the characteristic of healthy, sound realism.

At first sight the interests of the Church would apparently incline her rather to the authority and the ideas of Plato, which make communion with the invisible more natural and easy; but as we are formed of body and soul, she perceived that we must live on earth, and that experience alone can provide us with our intellectual equipment. You, too, who are Professors of Theology, have had to practice the objective method more rigorously and to study facts more calmly than any one else, and thus you have preserved your "Alma Mater" from the snares of Modernism, while securing for her the advantages of modern methods. You have been a great example to those who have wrongly identified their philosophy with science, and to those timid souls who sit quietly in the chimney corner while others more courageous bravely run the risk of burning their fingers in bringing them hot chestnuts to be cracked.

Pioneers of science, be on your guard against the a-priorism of the one and against -- what shall I say? -- the excessive caution of the others.


Whatever superficial unbelievers who understand nothing of the certitude of our religious beliefs may say of it, it is undoubtedly true that, in proportion as the Christian's faith is sincere, in like measure is he or she free from the uncertainties that disturb the mind and paralyse the will.

The Catholic scientist is sure of the truth of his faith. Those who do not share his faith will perhaps say he is wrong: the fact remains that the Catholic is certain his faith does not deceive him, and that it cannot deceive him, and this certainty is fortified in proportion as his faith grows stronger. He is also certain, unquestionably certain, that the discovery of a new fact will never contradict his belief; therefore the Christian scientist who is disturbed as to the eventual future of science is lacking either in faith or in scientific knowledge, or in both.

The unbeliever, on the contrary, who has founded his philosophical and religious theories on the shifting sands of personal speculation or human authority, has no guarantee that they will not be destroyed by the next discovery. If his theories are sincere, so will be his desire to confirm them, his zeal to protect them, and hence all the stronger will be for him the a priori element that troubles the serenity of the scientific mind. And unbelievers, do not say that you have no system of philosophy; for every man who thinks has one, and I will not do you the injustice of believing that you will not allow yourselves to think.

I have recently glanced through the sometimes melancholy, and sometimes humorous, reflections of the English thinker, Harrison, who is intimately connected with the Positivist and Agnostic movement, latterly represented in England by Spencer, John Stuart Mill, Huxley, and Lewes. All these men, he observes, had their own religion. Have they not even defined the Unknowable?

The unknown multiplied by X, infinity, is the basis on which Spencer dares to say faith and science will be reconciled.

Oh! X, protect us, assist us, grant that we may become one with thee.

We will pass on, Gentlemen, repeating the words of St. Paul: Evanuerunt in cogitationibus suis. "They became vain in their thoughts." And by contrast we can better appreciate our privilege in possessing the certitude of faith.


I return to you, dear Professors of Theology, who valiantly follow the true path, digging each day your furrow, even though at the end of your career you will find you have only prepared the ground; leaving to those who come after you, not only to sow the seed of hope in your soil, but even to gather in the harvest. We look to you to point out the way of Religious science to the Catholics of Belgium and even beyond our frontiers.

In the Academic solemnities you walk at the head of the professional corps; the other faculties look to you: and the students in turn have their eyes fixed on their masters. All of you will continue to bear bravely and magnanimously the responsibility of example, for man is something more than a pure intelligence in the silence of the laboratory or the library, abstracting with labour a "formal object." In addition to the hours devoted to intellectual exercises, some time must be assigned to the harmonious development of all the powers of humanity, and of the still higher powers of the Christian soul. You would like to live to the full your Christian life: a life of piety, of charity, and of edification for Belgium and the Christian world! Moreover, your hearts have moral aspirations, and having received in baptism the principles of a superior life, Providence imposes upon you the law of acting in accordance with this belief.

You have also your duty to society, but the neutrality which scientific research imposes upon you would become culpable should you be so misled as to apply it to your practical life. To acquire science is not an end in itself. Duty ever comes before speculative reasoning; and the more a man increases his knowledge, the more is he responsible for his moral and social obligations, and for perceiving with pre-eminent clearness the true ideal of life. This ideal, Gentlemen, is none other than the one conceived for us by God; and we are proud to see how nobly our Professors have realised it.

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