How the Popes and Other Catholic Leaders in the 19th Century Responded to Modernity

The eighteenth-century Enlightenment mounted a severe offensive against the Church, one which combined various malignant cultural and intellectual trends that had gradually come into ascendancy since the Renaissance. “For the most part, the Church did not respond to this attack very well.”[1] However, the nineteenth century saw a change in this, “an immense religious revival, especially in France, after 1815,” which was “conservative in most respects,” as well as “strong in its commitment to evangelize society.”[2]

In order to explain this Catholic response, it is helpful to give a brief litany those malignant trends which define “modernity” as we are using the term; for modernity is not simply the state or condition of living in modern times, it is a sum total of ideas, systems, and movements. The following are some of its constituent parts:

A Rejection of Scholasticism, either in the name of returning to the wisdom of the ancients or pressing forward to new philosophies such as Cartesiansim, Kantianism, Positivism, etc.

Cultural Relativism, which came out of the age of exploration, making western men see the value of other cultures while questioning the relative value of their own. It affected religion and philosophy as well as well as purely cultural matters, thus becoming a greater force for subjectivism and skepticism.

Deism, the notion prominent among such men as Robespierre, Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson, that God is a distant “prime mover” (the “Great Architect” of the Masons) and not a personal God whose Providence governs human affairs.

Democracy, which enshrines a radical equality of all men, governments whose authority comes from the people (and not from God), and the consequent determination of public standards of truth and morals by the opinion of the majority, not by transcendent, objective standards. Religious Liberty, understood as the state’s neutrality in the realm of religion (in such wise as to rule out the confessional state) is implicit in this.

Historical Consciousness, the sense of our living in history or an acute awareness of change as a constant. Hegel, “the first great philosopher of history,”[3] held that all reality (including truth) is in constant development.

Historicism, the theory in which general laws of historical development are the determinant of events. According to this, all things are subject to progressive evolutionary processes. It has spawned such diverse progeny as Darwinism (biological evolution), Communism (dialectical materialism), and Hegelianism (dialectical idealism).

Kantianism, a philosophy which rejects man’s ability to know and reduces all sense impressions to mere “phenomena,” whereas the neumena or ding an zich, (“the thing in itself,” or reality as it is) are ever elusive of our intellectual grasp.

Liberalism, in the eighteenth-century meaning of that word: “certain tendencies in the intellectual, religious, political, and economical life, which implied a partial or total emancipation of man from the supernatural, moral, and Divine order.”[4]

Modernism (not the specific heresy condemned by St. Pius X, but a more generic reality), “the belief that the outlook of modern man is superior to that of medieval and ancient man; and more specifically, the belief that all religion, including Christianity and the idea of God, arises from a preconceptual, subrational religious instinct dominant in primitive man, whose promptings are unacceptable to modern scientific man.”[5]

Naturalism, “the view that the only reality that exists is nature, so that divine grace [and the entire supernatural order] is either denied or ignored.”[6]

Pluralism, the belief that the coexistence of a multitude of diverse and contradictory religious, philosophical, and moral systems is a good thing. This leads to indifferentism, the heresy that all religions are salvific, not only Catholicism.

Scientism, empiricism, or positivism: those errors which embrace the scientific method and empirical proofs as the only sure norm for epistemological certitude.

Skepticism and nominalism, which philosophies express a pessimism about man’s aptitude to know with any certainty.

Rationalism, the error that human reason is the sole reliable source and determinant of truth. There are variations of this (e.g., the “modified rationalism” condemned Pio Nono’s Syllabus) which admit supernatural truths, but only inasmuch as they are “reasonable,” i.e., in conformity to what can be scientifically verified.

Subjectivism, which was born out of Cartesian solipsism and which eventually made the individual intellect the final determinant of truth and the individual conscience the ultimate measure of morality.

These trends found themselves largely condemned (or strongly censured) by a series of pontifical acts from Gregory XVI (1831-1846), Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878), and Leo XIII (1878-1903). It is chiefly these papal interventions, mostly concentrated in Blessed Pio Nono’s long reign, which justify the statement that “the Catholic Reformation had its greatest effects in the nineteenth century.”[7]

Pope Gregory XVI condemned the indifferentism of Félicité de Lamennais in the encyclical Mirari Vos (August 15, 1832) and again in Singulari Nos (June 25, 1834). He also received the submission of a French priest named Louis Eugene Bautain, who had held various errors regarding faith and reason (rationalism). Included in that penitent’s profession of faith were the notions that reason can prove the existence of God, that the miracles of Our Lord are still viable proofs for the Gospel, and that human reason can and should lead us to faith, even though original sin has weakened our mental clarity.

Blessed Pius IX returned to the theme of faith and reason several times in his pontificate, reissuing the condemnations of rationalism while asserting the capacity of the intellect to know truth (against Kantianism and skepticism). The encyclical Qui Pluribus (November 9, 1846), the Syllabus of Modern Errors (December 8, 1864), and Vatican I’s Dei Filius (April 24, 1870) were among the vehicles for this. Pio Nono also condemned rationalism and indifferentism in Singulari Quadem (Dec. 9, 1854) and Quanto Conficiamur (August 10, 1863). In the encyclical, Quanta Cura (December 8, 1864), he condemned Naturalism, Communism, and its close ally, Socialism.

The 1864 Syllabus of Modern Errors, excerpted from thirty-two allocutions, encyclicals, and letters of Blessed Pius, condemned a whole panoply of modernity’s false ideas. As the name would suggest, it is something of a locus classicus for studying the authoritative and authentic nineteenth-century Catholic response to modernity. Some excerpts from this are, therefore, in order:

On rationalism: “All action of God upon men and the world must be denied”[8] (No. 2). “[R]eason is the chief norm by which man can and should come to a knowledge of all truths of whatever kind” (No. 4). On “modified rationalism” (and scientism): “The decrees of the Apostolic See and of the Roman Congregations hinder the free progress of science” (No. 12). On indifferentism: “In the worship of any religion whatever, men can find the way to eternal salvation, and can attain eternal salvation” (No. 16). On religious liberty: “The Church is to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church” (No. 55). On liberalism: “The Roman Pontiff can and should reconcile and adapt himself to progress, liberalism, and the modern civilization” (No. 80).

Pope Leo XIII condemned socialism (Quod Apostolici of December 28, 1878) and further advanced the Church’s social teaching against religious liberty, (immoderate) democracy, and liberalism in Immortale Dei (November 1, 1855) Libertas Praestantissimum (June 20, 1888), and many other works. The beginnings of Biblical Modernism (based on historicism, rationalism, and positivism) were censured in his Providentissimus Deus (November 1893). He denounced a host of errors in mystical theology (which exalted exterior activity over interior contemplation) as “Americanism” in Testem Benevolentiae (January 22, 1899). What most interests us about Americanism is its foundational notion, namely, that the Faith in America could somehow be different than it was elsewhere. This idea was a concentrate of many of the trends we catalogued above, since America was viewed as a very progressive, democratic nation with religious liberty (i.e., liberalism), pluralism, and cultural relativism integrated into its very fabric. The prolific Pope Leo also encouraged a revival of scholastic philosophy in his encyclical Aeterni Patris (August 4, 1879).

While, on the whole, the Popes strongly combated the currents which define modernity, there were Catholic thinkers who were for a more accommodating approach, and not all of these were themselves liberal. Cardinal Newman, who “struggled to take into account whatever was valid in modernity and to reconcile it with [his] faith,”[9] was an “inopportunist” at Vatican I, averring that the definition of papal infallibility was untimely as it could unduly alienate those on the verge of conversion in his native England. (He did gladly submit once it was defined.) Many Catholic intellectuals, including bishops, were of this mind. Others were simply opposed to the dogma on theological grounds.

Thankfully, what won the day was the militant ultramontane theology and philosophy of men like Louis Veuillot, Edouard Cardinal Pie, Dom Prosper Guéranger, Venerable Emmanuel d’Alzon, Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, and Juan Donoso Cortes. It is because of these men and others like them, writing extensively on Christian social principles, that “The nineteenth century saw the beginnings of ‘social Catholicism,’ in which Catholics were encouraged to mount a struggle to bring society into conformity with Christian principles at every level.”[10] Their work did much to lay the foundations of the counter-revolutionary actions of the popes.

The fact that all on this list were French (except the Spaniard, Cortes) agrees with Dr. Hitchcock’s statement that the nineteenth-century Catholic revival was “especially in France.” Recalling that the movement was a spiritual one primarily, we could augment the catalogue with names such as St. Peter Julian Eymard, St. John Vianney, St. Bernadette Soubirous, St. Catherine Labouré, St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, St. Peter Mary Chanel, St. Theophane Venard, and St. Thérèse of the Infant Jesus.


Gruber, H., “Liberalism” in The Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company, 1907. Online Edition by K. Knight, 2003. Online, available from: [accessed 15 June 2006].

Hardon, Rev. John A., S.J., Modern Catholic Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1980.

Harrison, Rev. Brian, O.S., M.A., S.T.D., “Lesson 6: The Philosophical Origins of Historical-Criticism,” in The Roman Theological Forum Study Program (February 1999). Online, Available from: [accessed 15 June 2006].

[1] Notes from Lecture IV “The Church and Modernity (II),”

[2] Ibid.

[3] DVD of Lecture Three: “Two Modernists.”

[4] H. Gruber. “Liberalism” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Company, 1907; Online Edition, 2003 by K. Knight). Online, available at: [accessed 15 June 2006].

[5] Rev. Brian Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D., “Lesson 6: The Philosophical Origins of Historical-Criticism,” (February, 1999). Online; available from:

[6] Hardon, Rev. John A., S.J., Modern Catholic Dictionary (New York, Doubleday, 1980) p. 370.

[7] Notes from Lecture IV “The Church and Modernity (II),”

[8] All Syllabus citations are from Denz. 1700-1780. (Obviously, these propositions were condemned.)

[9] Notes from Lecture IV “The Church and Modernity (II),”

[10] Ibid.