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William L. Portier, Divided Friends: Portraits of the Roman Catholic Modernist Crisis in the United States. Washington, DC:  Catholic University Press, 2013.

Reviewed by Thomas W. Jodziewicz
University of Dallas

It may be that a non-theologian would be at an immediate disadvantage in appreciating William L. Portier’s extraordinary contribution to American Catholic theology (and historiography), Divided Friends.  According to the author, the topic and his own theological vocation “give this history a strong theological flavor... [but while yet] a work of history… this book is also a theologian’s narrative meditation on the relationship between theology and history” (13).  Modern historiography might engage theology as an historical subject, but “meditations” at the intersecting margins of history and theology would most likely elicit a polite stare and a quiet exit. The author, though, is able to combine imaginative and disciplined scholarship in both history and theology, a combination that allows him the credential to thread his work with a “narrative meditation” that is at once balanced and sympathetic, accessible, and more than occasionally personal.

The author’s self-conscious task is to revisit the period between the initiation of the Oath against Modernism (1910) and the close of Vatican Council II (1965), a supposed wasteland moment in American Catholic theology. The reigning neo-Scholasticism was challenged by “something analogous to ressourcement [“return to the sources,” especially the Fathers of the Church] … in the United States.”  Here it was “the recovery of a Catholic past in the United States that would be religiously usable and enriching for the church’s engagement with its time” (368). Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulists, is described as influential in this American retrieval, particularly in the work of Joseph McSorley, one of the “friends.”

Portier does build on the carefully-acknowledged work of others who have suggested real historical connections between “the phantom heresy” of Americanism and the equally condemned theological initiative of “Modernism,” i.e., “the sythesis of all heresies.” In the first instance, a talented and engaged coterie of American Catholic churchmen made their own self-conscious effort to position the circumstances of the Catholic Church in the United States as the modern exemplar of a dawning, progressive and democratic age that would yet be faithful to the Church, its teachings, and its salvific mission.  Despite Catholic suspicions here, and especially abroad, about the potentially damaging effects of a more individualistic and materialistic (Protestant) American ethos and its effects on a hierarchically-situated institution wedded to the authority of tradition; the Americanists celebrated this republican freedom. They found it quite compatible with the authoritative and with authority.

In some ways even more elusive regarding precise definition, “Modernism” was (is?) an effort to adapt (and challenge) traditional Catholic modes of understanding according to the new sciences of the age. Portier offers a simple, but pointed comment here:  “At the heart of the modernist crisis is the focus on the obvious fact that, if there is indeed objective truth, it is only subjects who receive it.”  By the early twentieth century, and specifically regarding the Catholic Church, it would seem that the immediate intellectual adventure was in fact this “subjective” issue: 

        Even the mediation of the church, which the catechism presumed, must be
        subjectively appropriated.  I [Portier] take inquiry into the conditions of the
        subjective appropriation of what the catechism called the “authority of God,”
        whether we conceive those conditions in terms of experience, interpretation,
        liberation, lived practice, action, life, etc., to be the main task of twentieth-
        century Catholic theology from Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan to Henri de
        Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar.  This is our unstable and only partially resolved
        inheritance from the modernist crisis or, in [Étienne] Fouilloux’s words, the
        intellectual matrix of contemporary Catholicism  (xx).

As we have often been reminded, this issue, identified often as “relativism,” is quite alive and well in our own time as well as in the time of these “friends.”

Portier’s own archival exploits and critical imagination add much more to the narrative. He is forceful, and sympathetic, in his own appreciation of the personal and professional costs of those few, visible Catholic intellectuals who contested in some fashion the official and normative, neo-Scholastic grounding of early 20th-century Roman Catholic theology and philosophy. He pairs two sets of clerical friends—Denis J. O’Connell (1849-1927) and John R. Slattery (1851-1926), and William J. Sullivan (1872-1935) and Joseph McSorley (1874-1963)—and traces their intersecting biographical and intellectual journeys  in the midst of the  Leo XIII’s condemnation of “Americanism” (Testem Benevolentiae, 1899) and Pius X’s condemnation of “Modernism” (Pascendi dominici gregis, 1907), and then afterward into the new century. O’Connell and McSorley would remain in the Church while Slattery and Sullivan would both leave, with the latter two claiming the mantle of intellectual courage and integrity over against the formers’ careerism and intellectual passivity.

At the same time, the personal and professional situations and publications of the four men, as well as their connections with prominent figures like George Tyrrell and Alfred Loisy, testify, according to Portier, to a little-noticed maturing of American Catholic theology before and after the twin condemnations. The issues were, as they must be, profound:  epistemological and doctrinal, and touching always and ultimately on salvation and the evangelizing of the Gospel. In the face of a modern, secular “preferential option” for personal, unfettered freedom, the issue of the role and the reality of Church authority was front and center, with the conversation conducted in American and Roman accents. In themselves, these circumstances and questions regarding authority, the subjective and the objective sides of the true, the relationship of  freedom and moral obligation, were not entirely new, of course, but the turn-of-the-century historical, and historicist, context was apparently unique. Not only was the United States and its radical republicanism, political-social-intellectual, apparently on the move onto the global scene, and dangerously so from a traditional European perspective, but also on an even more profound level a progressive American sensitivity confronted the given.

In his celebrated Education, written in the midst of these Catholic flare-ups at the turn of the century, Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of American presidents, surveyed an apparent chaos as to meaning. Favoring the analogical vocabulary of unity and multiplicity, Adams wondered whether there was any objective or transcendent truth, or meaning, readily available in modernity. The various, and at times discomforting, scientific discoveries and technological innovations during his lifetime (1838-1918), along with the evident failures of such previous stalwarts of the real—philosophy, religion, politics, and even now, science—to keep in step, vexed Adams. The medieval synthesis, or unity, centered as he saw it in the Blessed Virgin Mary, was a distant, if yet attractive, alternative to the contemporary unmasking of a universe with evidently no direction or teleology other than mere random forces and energies, multiplicities, in no way beholden to man. The unity or assurance that man was forever seeking… was it after all, both in the quest and in its seeming conclusions, simply a human construct? And, if so, could this be enough for a meaningful existence? 

Or, to rephrase this (and not entirely in an un-Adams way): Had the modern intellectual project of the past few centuries now successfully demolished the assured Christian architectonic foundation of a transcendent, benevolent God and His historical relationship with His creatures? Or, if this deconstructionist project was continuing to make headway, even now within the Church itself, might it not be best to pull up the drawbridge and arm the defenders from the tried-and-true, renewed Thomist quiver? Perhaps this is a bit of a fanciful reductionism, and surely it does little apparent justice to the validity and vitality of neo-Scholasticism, but it is an accurate snapshot of a cultural shift visible to more than a few in Western civilization.  And particularly so in the United States, for many the very model and norm of modern, democratic progress!

Yet perhaps the visibility of an Adams “universe” at the turn of the century serves to underscore the empathy that Portier brings to the extended consideration of his four fellow theologians. Ill-at-ease with a theology, and an institution, that appeared not to take modern, experiential and scientific developments into legitimate account, some American Catholic theologians acted from a sense of an heroic faith that what was true could not be harmed but rather enhanced by an opening to modern intellectual sensibilities that might at first glance appear too dangerous to the traditional faith, a faith that might now be found wanting, or incomplete. Surely, some effort at conversation with this other would be called for, although assuredly not every “new” idea, not every science or technological fashion might prove to be of authentic substance. Then, too, as in any human narrative, naiveté and ignorance, and even pride, were present in these several biographies. Real damage could be done by way of uncritical, undigested embraces of the new. 

But, within his own announced “narrative meditation,” Portier’s principals (particularly a McSorley returning to Paulist embraces of traditional prayer and holiness), might be seen as struggling with St. Peter’s admonition:  “Always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have” (1 Peter 3:15). Whatever one’s own historical circumstances, these few words are yet an invitation to humility and reflection in the face of the question of the relationship between objective truth and our subjective appropriation of it. In Pascendi Pius X wrote that “purely subjective truth…[was] of no use to the man who wants to know above all things whether outside himself there is a God into whose hands he is one day to fall.”  Portier’s emphatic response?  “I am definitely one of those men” (xviii-xix).  And, for good or, in fact, ill, so were his four “divided friends.”

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