An Essay on Modernism by don Pietro Leone

In his book “Athanasius”, Bishop Rudolf Graber, of Regensburg, explains how the Evil One in the course of the ages has attacked the Holy Catholic Church in ways increasingly refined, insidious, and intimate. He began by attacking the faithful through persecutions, but seeing that these lead rather to an increase of the Faith, he adopted another method: that of attacking the Faith itself.

With the heresies of Martin Luther he managed to detach a great number of people from the Catholic Church; with the heresies that comprise Modernism, he has even succeeded at present in contaminating the Faith of a great number of people within the Church Herself.

What is Modernism? Saint Pius X defines it in his encyclical Pascendi as “the synthesis of all heresies”. The Code of Canon Law (CIC. 751) defines heresy as: “the obstinate denial, after receiving baptism, of a truth which is to be believed by Divine and Catholic Faith, or the obstinate doubt concerning it…”

Now, what is defined by the words ‘a truth which is to be believed by Divine and Catholic Faith’ is Catholic dogma. We observe that Modernism has in fact a wider scope than Catholic dogma as here defined, in that it extends to all traditional Catholic doctrines, even if they have not yet been defined as dogmas. In other words, Modernism includes the denial not only of all dogmas, but also of all traditional Catholic doctrine.

For the purposes of this essay we shall understand ‘heresy’ in a wide sense, as the obstinate denial of any traditional Catholic doctrine (or the obstinate doubt in its regard).

First of all, we will present two particular characteristics of Modernism: 1. Ubiquity; 2. Obscurantism.

I The Characteristics of Modernism

1. Ubiquity

Ubiquity concerns the extension of the heresy.

In the past the Church always condemned heresies, and took this opportunity to formulate Her doctrines more profoundly and more clearly. Consequently, the rotten, heretical, branch of the Church was cut off from its healthy trunk; and the healthy trunk, nurtured by a new influx of the light of Truth, was able to flourish yet more gloriously than before.

For the past fifty years, by contrast, the heresies of Modernism have no longer been condemned; or if they have been condemned, they have been but seldom, feebly, and without sanctions. As a result almost the entire tree of the Church has by now been infested by error.

This infestation takes its cue from the Magisterium itself, from the teaching of the Church: of the hierarchy and the clergy. This said teaching constitutes an illegitimate use of the munus docendi entrusted to the Church by Our Lord Jesus Christ: a use illegitimate and therefore a use that also exceeds the competence of those who exercise it: a use that is extra vires.

At this point we observe that we understand the term ‘Magisterium’ as the organ or instrument of the munus docendi of the Church, and we distinguish two senses of the term: a positive sense which refers to its legitimate exercise; and a neutral sense, which is the sense in which we will understand it in this essay, which refers to its exercise simpliciter, without specifying if it is legitimate or illegitimate. That the Magisterium may be exercised in an illegitimate way, will be demonstrated by the examples given below. This is obvious, and may be denied only by an ideologist.

Modernism inside the Church is difficult to combat for various reasons:

-it is difficult to discern inasmuch as it is ubiquitous or omnipresent – Jacques Maritain speaks of ‘immanent apostasy’. This signifies that it has become part of the very fabric of the Church Herself, or, using another image, it has become too vast even to see;

-it is difficult to understand because it is obscurantist (as we shall show it in the next section);
-it is difficult to evaluate since in order to evaluate it, theological knowledge is required which is no longer taught in seminaries or in parishes, or at least not exclusively so taught;
-it is difficult to accept because it requires intellectual honesty and courage, which are necessary to face the doctrinal devastation in the Church today;
-it is difficult to criticize, above all for a priest, because he will be regarded not only as ‘hard’, but also as ‘lacking in piety’ or even ‘schismatic’ (or ‘crypto-schismatic’) towards the Church, the Pope, and the Magisterium (understood in the first sense of the term); and will have to steel himself for some mauvais quarts d’heure with his Superior or Bishop, and perhaps even the loss of his apostolate.

2. Obscurantism

Obscurantism concerns the communication of heresy. Heresy is the obstinate denial, or doubt, of a Catholic dogma. 1.

In the past, heresy was explicit. Examples are Martin Luther’s 95 Theses posted on the cathedral door at Wittenberg. Nowadays, by contrast, in the context of Modernism, the heresy is implicit: it is implied, insinuated, suggested, favoured by obscurantism.

This obscurantism operates in two principal ways: by silence or by equivocation (ambiguity). By silence a given doctrine is no longer taught; by equivocation it is expressed in a way that furthers heresy.

We shall consider each way in turn.

a) Silence

Many doctrines are passed over in silence, i.e. those that are considered “negative”, such as the existence of Hell, Mortal Sin, and sacrilegious Holy Communion.

Let us look at sacrilegious Communion. This doctrine is almost never taught or preached any more. In fact, the passage from Saint Paul that condemns it, which appears in the Old Roman Rite on the Feast of Corpus Christi and on Maundy Thursday, was suppressed in the New Rite.2.

Clearly this silence, as indeed silence on any article of doctrine, is not merely something neutral: the failure to accomplish an act; but something positive: a veritable act, an act of denial. Because if someone is entrusted with a doctrine to preach as a moral principle and does not preach it, the only explanation possible is that he does not deem it necessary for moral conduct, and therefore, for all intents and purposes, he denies it.

If a worker notifies the headmaster of a school that there is a live electric cable in a certain classroom, and cautions him to warn students not to enter for fear of electrocution, but the headmaster omits to warn them, his silence, for all intents and purposes, amounts to a denial of the fact in question.

To the Modernists’s silence on Catholic doctrines, we can apply the declaration of Pope Felix III regarding the Patriarch Acacio in the 6th century: ‘Error cui non resistitur approbatur, et veritas quae minime defensatur, opprimitur: error which is not opposed, is approved, and the truth which is defended only minimally, is oppressed’.

b) Equivocation

The second method of obscuring doctrine is equivocation. Let us put this equivocation in its context.

As for witnessing to the Faith, the Catholic assents to that which a doctrine declares and denies that which it denies: he says yes to yes and no to no, as the Lord Himself teaches us (Mt. 5.37): ‘But let your speech be yea, yea, no, no: and that which is over and above these is of the evil one.’ The heretic of the past, by contrast, says yes to no and no to yes; while the modern heretic, by means of equivocation, says yes and no to yes, and yes and no to no.

As for epistemology, it should be said that if a strength of dogma is its clarity, a strength of Modernism is its confusion. Clarity illuminates the mind to accept the truth, while confusion confounds the mind to accept falsity.

We will proceed to give three examples of equivocation.

i)The Ends of Marriage 3.

Until quite recently, the Holy Catholic Church has always taught that the primary end of Marriage is procreation, and the secondary end the reciprocal assistance, or love, between the spouses. Whereas at the Second Vatican Council, in the new code of Canon Law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and in various recent encyclicals, love is now put in the first place and procreation in the second (without, however, explicitly defining love as “the primary end” nor procreation as “the secondary end”).

Let us ask ourselves the following questions: Was the doctrine of the past true and the doctrine of the present false? Or was the doctrine of the past false and the doctrine of the present true? Or was the doctrine of the past true then but is false now? Or was the doctrine of the past true in one sense and is the doctrine of the present true in another sense? And in this case, why does the doctrine of the present take precedence over that of the past? And answer comes there none.

ii)The Holy Mass

In the final version of Art.7 of the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (n. 27 in the 2000 typical edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal), the official introduction of the Novus Ordo Missae, the Holy Mass is presented in these terms: ‘Missa seu Cena dominica….memoriale Domini seu sacrificium eucharisticum: the Mass or The Lord’s Supper[…] the Commemoration of the Lord or the Eucharistic Sacrifice’. In other words the Holy Mass is identified with the Lord’s Supper in the first instance and with the Commemoration of the Lord in the second. This, however, is an equivocation. The Holy Mass is the Lord’s Supper and the Commemoration of the Lord (that is Calvary) in a certain sense (not essential), but presenting it thus simpliciter, suggests that it is so essentially: which is a Protestant position.4 In other words, to present Holy Mass in terms laden with a Protestant sense, is to present it in a Protestant sense.

iii)The Papacy

Professor Romano Amerio, in his contribution at the Theological Congress “Sì, si, no, no” ‘The Dislocation of the Function of the Magisterium’ cites the following initiative expressed in an official document about ecumenism: ‘to discover a form of exercise of the Papacy, which, while not renouncing anything essential to its mission, opens up to a new situation’ and he comments: “This means: it cannot be renounced, but at the same time it can be renounced. It is an absolute principle, but it is not an absolute principle. The infallibility of the Pope is an immutable rock ‘but’… and when you say the ‘but’ the move has already been made.’

c)The Nature of Obscurantism

In summary, we have given various examples in order to show how Modernism obscures Catholic doctrine: it obscures the Catholic doctrine on sacrilegious Communion; on the order of the ends of Marriage; on the sacrificial nature of Holy Mass; and on the primacy of Peter.

However, it does not only obscure these doctrines, but it obscures them in favour of heresy, since keeping silent about sacrilege is the same as denying it; the reversal in listing the ends of marriage insinuates a reversal of their valuation; presenting Holy Mass in Protestant terms, favours Protestant theology on the Eucharist; and qualifying that which is absolute relativises it.

This obscurantism can be considered as a sort of partial or total eclipse of the Faith. It is partial when it consists of an equivocation which does not amount to a formal contradiction; it is total when it passes over Catholic doctrine in silence, or when it expresses the doctrine in contradictory terms: since the denial of the principle of non-contradiction regarding a given doctrine is the denial of the very possibility of its truth. The result of such denial is a Faith without truth: a Faith determined merely by sentiments and subjective attitudes, which is no longer Faith at all.

II The Consequences of Modernism

If the heresy of the past is like ‘a dagger thrust’ in the words of the Abbé Dulac, the modernist heresy is like a slow poison, in such a way that one can go to bed at night with the Faith and wake up in the morning without it.

Modernism acts like a slow poison inasmuch as, by obscuring a dogma, it weakens the virtue of the Faith: that is to say it weakens the adherence of the will to revealed Truth. In this way Modernism disseminates doubt about all the dogmas of the Faith.

As a result, dogmas are labelled as ‘problems’: ‘the problem of the Resurrection’, ‘the problem of Original Sin’, ‘the problem of Hell’, etc. However, the dogmas of the Faith are not problems: rather they are supernatural Truths 5. They are problems only for those who deny the Faith.

The Faith becomes a problem, then, and is relegated to a place alongside other Religions, or is treated as one theme amongst a variety of others. In this way the Faith is substituted for “fables”: ‘they will refuse to listen to truth and will turn to fables’: a veritate quidem auditum avertent, ad fabulas autem convertentur’ (2. Tim.4.4).

The members of the hierarchy and clergy, then, in an illegitimate exercise of their munus docendi, lend importance to other Christian confessions or religions, or alternatively, abandon in large measure the teaching of the true Faith in favour of subjects such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, or politics. Abandoning definitions and anathemata, they make recourse in their official declarations to cascades of intellectualizing and impenetrable verbiage and in their sermons to stories and jokes

The emptiness of this teaching, once stripped of its sophistication, is manifested all too clearly in the children’s catechesis. What visions of truth and of holiness are given them in the pure days of their childhood to root them in the Faith and in the life of the sacraments and the virtues, and to summon them in the final hours of their life to the embrace of Divine Mercy?6.

Obscuring a doctrine, in particular by denying the principle of non-contradiction, has a further, and even more notable, effect, inasmuch as it not only obscures the Faith in its entirety, but also the very notion of Truth. For Catholic doctrines are Truths, objective Truths, indeed they are absolute Truths, more certain than the truths of the senses; and to claim that at the same time and in the same way they can be both true and false, is to deny the very possibility of Truth.

The further one departs from the conception of objective truth and reality, the closer one draws to that of subjective truth and reality. In so doing, however, one is on the road that leads to madness, because madness is nothing other than embracing subjective reality.

The order of the True yields to the order of the Good. Truth is no longer considered a guide to behaviour, but “love”: love, however that is no longer defined by reality. This love, inasmuch as it is rational, is manifested in humanism, a humanism lightly coloured by Christianity with a tendency towards activism; inasmuch as it is emotional, it is manifested in sentimentalism and the excessive concern for the sensibilities of others.

The objective yields to the subjective, and the river of Modernism flows back into that vast ocean of subjectivism from whence it came.

[MODERNISM: an essay by Don Pietro Leone Monselice. Translation: Contributor Francesca Romana]


1.or, in the wide sense in which we understand heresy in this essay, a Traditional Catholic doctrine.
2.This is a reference to the passage I Cor. 11,23-29 in the Old Rite, where the verses 27-29 have been omitted in the New Rite.
3The Catholic Doctrine on the ends of Marriage is not a dogma, but rather a sententia certa, but as we said above, Modernism extends to all Traditional Catholic doctrines.
4.According to Martin Luther the Holy Mass is the ‘Lord’s Supper’ and a mere commemoration of Calvary, in contrast to Catholic Doctrine which teaches the that Holy Mass is essentially the Sacrifice of Calvary.
5 A number of them are also mysteries, but that does not make them problems either: mysteries are unfathomable to the reason but defendable by it.
6. The merit of the Catechism of St. Pius X, who explains with exemplary simplicity and clarity the central doctrines of the Faith, which was learned by heart by countless Catholics up to two generations ago. In the present times, which are even more dangerous to souls than the past, children are deprived of this most precious assistance for their salvation.

With thanks to