The following is an unpublished article by Neil McCaffrey II (d. 1994, seen above right) on the power of an encyclical by Pope St. Pius X (above left.) I am good friends with Neil McCaffrey III, who kindly gave me copies of many of the treasures of his father’s writings. Below, you will find that most of the italicized words belong to Pope St. Pius X.
Breathes there a beleaguered Catholic today who hasn’t had recourse to Pius X’s epochal encyclical on Modernism? Pascendi Gregis was issued in 1907 – and I suggest that there isn’t a papal document extant that is more contemporary, or more consoling. It is directed against the Modernists who had surfaced in the Pope’s day – and their heirs all around us today.
Perhaps you’ve put off reading it because you find the mock-Ciceronian prose of latter-day papal documents impenetrable. Not to worry. Pius X writes directly, bluntly, sometimes with a bite that will make you blink. Hardly a page passes that you won’t want to mark, maybe memorize. To give you a sense of what’s in store, let me offer a handful of quotable passages. But I offer them with one caveat: for everyone here, there are literally a dozen more, just as choice in the encyclical. In fact, you’ll undoubtedly find at least a dozen that you like better than my own favorites.
Before quoting some of the Saint’s own words, let me cite parts of the encyclical wherein he quotes from other popes and councils. First, from a decree of Vatican I:
…that sense of the sacred dogma is to be perpetually retained which our Holy Mother the church has once declared, nor is this sense ever to be abandoned on the plea or pretext of a more profound comprehension of the truth.
He quotes from Singulari Nos, that neglected 1834 encyclical of Gregory XVI:
A lamentable spectacle is that presented by the aberrations of human reason when it yields to the spirit of novelty, when against the warning of the Apostle it seeks to know beyond what it is meant to know and when, relying too much on itself, it thinks it can find the truth outside the Catholic Church, wherein truth is found without the faintest shadow of error.
To condemn those who sneer at the church of yesterday and genuflect before the spirit of change, he cites the condemnations of two general councils, including Nicea II:
For Catholics nothing will remove the authority of the second Council of Nicea where it condemns those who dare, after the impious fashion of heretics, to deride ecclesiastical traditions, to invent novelties of some kind…or to endeavor by malice or craft to overthrow any one of the legitimate traditions of the Catholic Church…
As befits the head of a Church grounded in tradition, Pius X often invokes his predecessors. But most of the encyclical is original with him. Does this passage strike you as dated?
It remains for us now to say a few words about the Modernist as reformer. From all that has preceded, it is abundantly clear how great and how eager is the passion of such men for innovation. In all Catholicism there is absolutely nothing on which [Modernism] does not fasten. They wish philosophy to be reformed, especially in the ecclesiastical seminaries. They wish the scholastic philosophy to be relegated to the history of philosophy and to be classed among obsolete systems, and the young men to be taught modern philosophy which alone is said to be true and suited to the times in which we live….Dogmas and their evolution, they affirm, are to be harmonized with science and history. In the Catechism no dogmas are to be inserted except those that have been reformed and are within the capacity of the people.
Regarding worship, they say, the number of external devotions is to be reduced, and steps must be taken to prevent their further increase….They cry out that ecclesiastical government requires to be reformed in all its branches, but especially in its disciplinary and dogmatic departments. They insist that both outwardly and inwardly it must brought into harmony with the modern conscience, which now wholly tends toward democracy; a share in ecclesiastical government should therefore be given to the lower ranks of the clergy, and even to the laity, and authority which is too much concentrated, should be decentralized. The Roman Congregations, and especially the Index and the Holy Office, must be likewise modified.
The Pope calls Modernism “the synthesis of all heresies,” then goes on to analyze why people succumb to it. He finds three reasons, but one stands out:
It is pride which exercises over the soul incomparably greater power to blind it and lead it into error, and pride sits in Modernism as in its own house, finding sustenance everywhere in its doctrines and lurking in its every aspect. It is pride which fills Modernists with that self-assurance which puffs them up with that vainglory which allows them to regard themselves as the sole possessors of knowledge, and makes them say, elated and inflated with presumption, We are not as the rest of men, and which, lest they should seem as other men, leads them to embrace and to devise novelties even of the most absurd kind.
What must the hierarchy do when they confront this spirit? The Pope addresses the bishops of his day in impassioned words; how many of their successors are now heeding them?
It will be your first duty to resist such victims of pride, to employ them only in the lowest and obscurest offices. The higher they try to rise, the lower let them be placed, so that the lowliness of their position may limit their power of causing damage. Examine your young clerics most carefully…when you find the spirit of pride among them, reject them for the priesthood without compunction. Would to God that this had always been done with the vigilance and constancy that were required!
It is worth noting that the papal Saint made no exceptions for a shortage of priests, or any other reason. No, his order is delivered in the imperative, with no hedging: “reject them without compunction.” Period. We can be sure that Pius was not indifferent to shortages of priests; but he was a saint, not a clerical bureaucrat. He understood that God is not thwarted by (temporary) shortages.
The Pope pauses to note the hatred that Modernists pour on the orthodox. Anyone who has seen today’s breed in action will have to conclude that nothing has changed:
There is little reason to wonder that the Modernists vent all their bitterness and hatred on Catholics who zealously fight the battles of the Church. There is no species of insult which they do not heap upon them, but their usual course is to charge them with ignorance or obstinacy. When an adversary rises up against them with an erudition and force that render him redoubtable, they seek to make a conspiracy of silence around him to nullify the effects of his attack. This policy towards Catholics is the more invidious in that they laud with an admiration that knows no bounds the writers who range themselves on their side, hailing their works (which exude novelty on every page) with a chorus of applause.
For them the scholarship of a writer is in direct proportion to the recklessness of his attacks on antiquity, and of his efforts to undermine tradition and the ecclesiastical magisterium. When one of their number falls under the condemnation of the Church the rest of them, to the disgust of good Catholics, gather round him, loudly and publicly applaud him, and hold him up in veneration as almost a martyr for truth. The young, excited and confused by all this clamor of praise and abuse, some of them afraid of being branded as ignorant, others ambitious to rank among the learned, and both classes goaded internally by curiosity and pride, not unfrequently surrender and given themselves up to Modernism….
What efforts do they not make to win new recruits! They seize upon professorships in the seminaries and universities, and gradually make of them chairs of pestilence. In sermons from the pulpit they disseminate their doctrines, although possibly in utterances which are veiled. In congresses they express their teachings more openly. In their social gatherings they introduce them and commend them to others. Under their own names and under pseudonyms they publish numbers of books, newspapers, reviews…It is also a subject of grief to us that many others who, while they certainly do not go so far as the former, have yet been so infected by breathing a poisoned atmosphere as to think, speak, and write with a degree of laxity which ill becomes a Catholic. They are to be found among the laity, and in the ranks of the clergy, and they are not wanting even in the last place where one might expect to meet them, in religious communities. If they treat of biblical questions, it is upon Modernist principles; if they write history, they carefully, and with ill-concealed satisfaction, appear to cast a stain upon the Church.
Under the sway of certain a priori conceptions they destroy as far as they can the pious traditions of the people, and bring into disrespect certain relics highly venerable from their antiquity. They are possessed by the empty desire of having their names upon the lips of the public, and they know they would never succeed in this were they to say only what has always been said by all men. Meanwhile it may be that they have persuaded themselves that in all this they are really serving God and the Church. In reality they only offend both, less perhaps by their works in themselves that in all this they are really serving God and the Church. In reality they only offend both, less perhaps by their works in themselves than by the spirit in which they write, and by the encouragement they thus give to the aims of the Modernists.
Pius understood that it wasn’t enough for a pontiff to instruct and even exhort. (What, after all, would we say of a parent who periodically quoted the tenets of the moral law to his children, pleaded for their obedience, but refused ever to discipline them?) The Pope knew that words weren’t enough. He must act. Pius X did just that; and I think we may see in his determination one mark of that heroic sanctity that earned him the saint’s crown. He certainly laid it on the line to the bishops:
We exhort and abjure you to see to it, in this most grave matter, that no one shall be in a position to say that you have been, in the slightest degree, wanting in vigilance, zeal, or firmness.
Plain enough? Yet the Pope doesn’t stop there. He has a program. He acts. He “strictly ordains that scholastic philosophy be made the basis of the sacred sciences”; and, following Leo XIII and indeed the whole of Catholic tradition, all the arts and sciences are to “serve [theology] and want upon it after the manner of handmaidens.”
But that’s still not all. This saintly Pope understands that there must be sanctions aimed at those who rebel against Catholic teaching – sanctions that…are to be kept in view whenever there is a question of choosing directors and professors for seminaries and Catholic universities.
Anyone who in any way is found to be tainted with Modernism is to be excluded without compunction from these offices, whether of government or of teaching, and those who already occupy them are to be removed. The same policy is to be adopted towards those who openly or secretly lend countenance to Modernism either by extolling the Modernists and excusing their culpable conduct, or by carping at scholasticism and the Fathers and the magisterium of the Church, or by refusing obedience to ecclesiastical authority in any of its depositaries; and towards those who show a love of novelty in history, archaeology, biblical exegesis; and finally towards those who neglect the sacred sciences or appear to prefer the secular to them. In all this question of studies, Venerable Brethren, you cannot be too watchful or too constant…Equal diligence and severity are to be used in examining and selecting candidates for Holy Orders. Far, far from the clergy be the love of novelty!
Next come a series of papal edits that give liberals the shakes. What would their soul brothers in the American Civil Liberties Union make of all this?
It is also the duty of the Bishops to prevent the writings of Modernists, or whatever savors of Modernism or promotes it, from being read when they have been published, and to hinder their publication when they have not. No books or papers or periodicals whatever of this kind are to be permitted to seminarists or university students. The injury to them would be not less than that which is caused by immoral reading – nay, it would be greater, for such writings poison Christian life at its very fount. The same decision is to be taken concerning the writings of some Catholics, who, though not evilly disposed themselves, are ill-instructed in theological studies and imbued with modern philosophy, and strive to make this harmonize with the faith, and, as they say, to turn it to the profit of the faith. The name and reputation of these authors cause them to be read without suspicion, and they are, therefore, all the more dangerous in gradually preparing the way for Modernism…We order that you do everything in your power to drive out of your dioceses, even by solemn interdict, any pernicious books that may be in circulation there.
But isn’t all that hopelessly out of date? What would enlightened types say if they saw bishops behaving that way? The Pope, it seems, had anticipated the public relations problem – or what the spiritual writers used to call the temptation to human respect:
We will…that the Bishops, putting aside all fear and the prudence of the flesh, and despising the clamor of evil men, shall – gently by all means, but firmly – each do his own part in this work…Let no Bishop think that he fulfills this duty by denouncing to us one or two books, while a great many others of the same kind are being published and circulated. Nor are you to be deterred by the fact that a book has obtained elsewhere the permission which is commonly call the Imprimatur, both because this may be merely simulated, and because it may have been granted through carelessness or too much indulgence or excessive trust placed in the author, which last has perhaps sometimes happened in the religious orders.
Finally, leaving nothing to chance, local option, ecumenism, or public relations, the Pope spells out still more specifically the steps that must be taken to defend Catholic doctrine and protect the faithful. Again he addresses the hierarchy, and again he doesn’t hesitate to give them their marching orders:
Of what avail, Venerable Brethren, would be all our commands and prescriptions if they be not dutifully and firmly carried out?…We decree, therefore, that in every diocese a council of this kind, which we are pleased to name the “Council of Vigilance,” be instituted without delay….They shall watch most carefully for every trace and sign of Modernism both in publications and in teaching, and to keep it from the clergy and the young they shall take all prudent, prompt and efficacious measures. Let them combat novelties of words, remembering the admonitions of Leo XIII: It is impossible to approve in Catholic publications a style inspired by unsound novelty which seems to deride the piety of the faithful and dwells on the introduction of a new order of Christian life, on new directions in the Church, on new aspirations of the modern soul, on a new social vocation of the clergy, on a new Christian civilization, and on many other things of the same kind.
Does this give you the flavor? It does; but it’s only a taste. To get the full impact of a Pope who speaks – and acts – as one having authority; who cares nothing about his reputation among the worldly, and everything about the souls of his flock, you must read the whole, great document.
Read it now.
—Neil McCaffrey Sr.