The classic definition of Protestant modernism came from J. Gresham Machen in Christianity and Liberalism. He understood that modernism was an apologetic strategy — a way to save Christianity in the face of modern intellectual and social developments. That strategy involved explaining away certain doctrines as the mere husk of Christianity (deity of Christ, virgin birth, infallibility of Scripture) and properly locating the kernel of Christian teaching (the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the vicinity of Boston). What modernists did and still do is historicize the faith. Christians believed truth X once upon a time but we now understand how X was the product of a historical moment. The modernist looks beneath the exterior of Christian belief, which is historically situated, and finds the universal truth to which it points.
The classic definition for Roman Catholic modernism came from Pius X (hence the Society of Saint Piux X) who in 1907 wrote:
These rebels profess and repeat, in subtle formulas, monstrous errors on the evolution of dogma, on the return to the pure Gospel—that is, as they say, a Gospel purified of theological explication, Council definitions, and the maxims of the moral life—and on the emancipation of the Church. This they do in their new fashion: they do not engage in revolt, lest they should be ejected, and yet they do not submit either, so that they do not have to abandon their convictions. In their calls for the Church to adapt to modern conditions, in everything they speak and write, preaching a charity without faith, they are very indulgent towards believers, but in reality they are opening up for everyone the path to eternal ruin.
And now traditionalist Roman Catholics fear that the Synod of Bishops who are discussing the nature of marriage, that these church authorities are dabbling in modernism. Even some on the left side of the Roman Catholic spectrum seem to agree (even if taking encouragement from such dabbling) though they prefer the phrase “development of doctrine” to modernism (who wouldn’t?):
Let’s look at this issue of developing doctrine and changing pastoral practice as it relates to the “homosexual agenda” which has +Burke so exercised. For years, for centuries, the Church shared the biases of the ambient culture. Homosexuality was the sin that dare not speak its name and gay people were ostracized and worse. There was little in the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family that was crafted with even a thought to the existence of LGBT people and no obvious congruence between that teaching and the lived experience of gay Catholics. But, what the Church neglected for all those years was a core, foundational doctrine: All human persons are made in the image and likeness of God. This doctrine is, I dare say, even more foundational than the Church’s teaching on marriage, indeed, the Church’s teaching on marriage and all ethical issues is built upon the imago dei, but nobody, until our lifetimes, thought to apply this doctrine to the pastoral care of gays and lesbians.
What changed? First, the experience of HIV/AIDS. In the same way that the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin demonstrated to all the suffering and horror of slavery to people who knew little about it, the AIDS epidemic called forth the most basic Christian, humane sensibility: compassion. . . .
There is an old joke that when the Church announces a change, the document always begins, “As the Church has always taught….” This is usually cited as a way to suggest that the Church is a bit cynical, even hypocritical. But, in fact, this is how change happens in the Church. “The Church has always taught” that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, we just forgot to apply that to gays and lesbians for a few centuries. The Church has always taught that Communion is the food of mercy, essential to the on-going conversion of all Christians, not just the divorced and remarried. No one is going to “change doctrine” at this synod, but the synod fathers are trying to retrieve lost insights, recalibrate the way our doctrines are applied in real pastoral praxis, discern new ways to proclaim the Gospel. The synod is evidence that the Church is alive and still attentive to the Holy Spirit, not only to the treatises on canon law. Those who are afraid of this synod – and of this pope – and the ones of little faith.
It’s hard to know how to argue against a view that says “we have always believed this even though it didn’t look like it.” But then arguing against experience as opposed to debating a proposition (yes, I’ve invoked the bogeyman of propositional truth, language speaker than I am) is like making a case against second-hand smoke. And yet, following experience instead of doctrine appears to be precisely what the cardinals are doing in Rome:
Unlike in the past, when bishops or theologians would deduce theology from general, sometimes idealized notions of God or humanity, the prelates at the Synod of Bishops on the family are using inductive reasoning to instead examine theology in the reality of families today, Canadian Archbishop Paul-André Durocher said.
“What’s happening within the synod is we’re seeing a more inductive way of reflecting, starting from the true situation of people and trying to figure out what’s going on here,” said Durocher, who leads the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The prelates, the archbishop said, are “finding that the lived experience of people is also a theological source — what we call a theological source, a place of theological reflection.”
“I think we’re learning to use the Harvard case study method in reflecting theologically on the lives of people,” continued the archbishop, who also heads the archdiocese of Gatineau in Quebec.
“And we’re only, in a sense, starting to learn how to do this as church leaders,” he said. “And this is going to take time for us, to learn to do this and together to come — as we reflect on this — to find what is the way that God is showing.”
When the bishops do eventually figure out how to use the experience of people to construct theology, will Jason and the Callers follow suit? So far the answers from the Callers have been all out of a Pius X framework. They have yet to enter or accommodate the modern world that Vatican II embraced (not to mention missing all the lessons of twentieth-century Protestant history that produced separate communions like the OPC and the PCA).