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A historical-charismatic survey

Acts of the International Seminar
on "Jesus, the Master"
(Ariccia, October 14-24, 1996)

by Eliseo Sgarbossa ssp



In the first report on the Institute submitted to the Holy See in view of the Institute’s approval, Fr. Alberione explained How the idea of the Pious Society of St. Paul was conceived. He started with the following circumstances: "In the years 1902-1904, one could clearly see what worst doctrines were widespread in society and in the souls of many writers, propagandists of socialism and of modernism. From here came the desire to oppose the spread of these errors." I underline the words "worst doctrines" and "the spread of errors",(1) and I would like to note that these same words were textually taken at the start of the first "Historical notes" on the Pauline Family, written for the Pauline Cooperators starting from February, 1923.(2) These refer us to that starting point which appeared as the dark scenario from where the luminous figure of the Divine Master had to emerge. (summary)

1. The "worst doctrines" and the bad masters

The years 1902-1904 were marked by the passage from the pontificate of Leo XIII to that of St. Pius X and they brought about in the cleric Alberione some determining experiences(3) which sharpened his awareness of the frontal counterpositioning between atheistic or dissident culture and Christian culture.

The last encyclical of Pope Leo XIII was for him a denunciation of the anti-church struggle by the Freemasonry,(4) and this Pope’s last official act was the institution of the Pontifical Bible Commission in response to the theses of Modernism.(5) The pontificate of Pius X, since its start (4 August 1903) was marked by a drastic stand against doctrines and movements that threatened the integrity of Catholic orthodoxy.(6)

More than the official acts, however, some pastoral letters of the episcopacy help us to understand what could be those "bad teachers" and the "worst doctrines" then. Two examples among all these: the letters of the Bishop of Alba, Msgr. Francesco Re, and those of the then Cardinal of Venice, Giuseppe Sarto, the future Pius X. We examined the text of both of them regarding the state of the clergy, and surprisingly we have seen that the principal preoccupation was that of waking their priests from "sleep" by warning them of the traps often unnoticed laid by the laicist and modernist culture of the time.(7)

In reality, who were the "malevolent and the seducers" to whom the bishop of Alba alluded and about whom he was warning the clergy? Fr. Alberione identified them from among "many writers and propagandists of socialism and of modernism."(8) Later he would mention names and widen the range as he spoke of liberalism, Freemasonry and Americanism (cf. AD 49).

Liberalism was then represented in Italy by theoreticians and politicians bound to the Risorgemento and to the struggles for national unity, supporters of a laicist vision of politics (be this republican or monarchical) and opponents of whatever form of temporal power of the Church.(9) The radical wing of liberalism was formed by movements and secret societies bound to the militant Freemasonry, which, after having incited the occupation of the Pontifical State by the Piedmontese army and the annexation to the State of all the Church properties, stood in opposition to the Holy See also on the level of pronouncement of principles.(10)

While the liberal theories were shared also by members of the Catholic laity and by the clergy, the Masonic opposition was detested for the virulence of its attacks to institutions and for the worst reputation of some of its representatives, like Michele Coppino of Alba, then minister of Public Instruction, author of unjust laws against Catholic schools.(11)

On the opposing side, the socialists stood, no less sectarian and aggressive.(12) The works of theoreticians – utopians, anarchists, Marxists – were already widely circulated in the schools.(13) But the field of struggle from where came the most aggressive attacks on the Church was the periodical press.(14) Anticlerical invectives and blasphemous expressions alternated with appeals and proposals for a new, lay and Marxist vision of society.

From among the pages of literary appendices, storytellers, playwrights and poets of the libertine, naturalist or "immoralist," socially involved or bohemian, were giving lessons which were equally desecrating religious and family values. Their writings documented the moral decadence which ruled in their respective circles and, more in general, in the laicist culture of their time.(15)

With this climate, it is not surprising that the newly-elected Pope Pius X should start his pontificate with an other than optimist vision of his own pastoral role. His vision of the Church as "a warship" sailing in the sea with raging winds proclaiming the first global conflict is symptomatic.(16) - (summary)

2. The drama of the "new teachers"

The propagandists of socialism and of Masonic liberalism were declared adversaries and were easily recognizable: they were attacking the Church from without. But what if the struggle were within the ship of Peter, when it seemed that some officers would mutiny against the Captain? This was the case, a tragic one, of the "modernist" crisis that burst between the end of the 1800’s and the start of the 1900’s, due to a series of equivocal situations which provoked failure and personal tragedies well beyond anyone’s expectations.(17)

Today, a century away, we can judge with adequate objectivity the decades, from 1890 to 1910 as a period full of ferment and of promises, especially for the Catholic intellectuals and the young clergy. But at that time the prospects were not that clear or the judgments that neat. A malaise was building up putting the old against the young generation, impatient of venturing into new opened roads of modern sciences, whether it concerned the critico-liberal German theology,(18) or in historical and archaeological research,(19) or in biblical studies;(20) or encouraged by the new experiences of German and American Catholicism,(21) involving themselves in social and political action. Finally, new sciences like positive psychology and scientific sociology,(22) promised to the clergy new instruments for the renewal of seminary formation and of pastoral action.

This fervor for research was not free from risks. If scholars of great experience and wisdom, like the former professor of Oxford, John H. Newman, and more recently the historian Duchesne, knew how to prudently open the entrance to historical criticism in the study of Catholic tradition, others, like the ex-Calvinist George Tyrell who turned into a fervent Jesuit, were less equipped with pastoral sense and theological culture so that they opened doubtful paths. Others still, like the brilliant professors Loisy, Hebert, Turmel, Haoutin, persons responsible of prestigious professorial chairs in different fields of ecclesiastical studies, raised worries either with their manner of exposition done with excessive security or with "a Voltairean smile," as some noted it.(23)

At the death of Leo XIII (1903), the air was therefore not calm. Already the deviations of positivist priests, like Renan and Ardig˛, alarmed some bishops. In 1888 the polemics between scholastic theologians and the "noveltists" were resolved with the condemnation of the forty propositions of Rosmini and the recall of a prophetic work of his.(24) The social struggles Marxist by inspiration had made suspect even the idea of "democracy" which, although bearing good fruits in politics, was also being invoked in the structure of the Church. Because of this, Americanism, another element remembered by Fr. Alberione, was condemned (cf. AD 49).(25)

In Western Europe, the renewal ferment abounded especially on the occasion of the Holy Year 1900 when numerous young priests decided to move to action, either on the religious level or the civil and political. Distinctions were established among the moderate (reformers) and the radical ("evangelicals" or "Franciscans") and, in politics, among liberal Catholics and the socialist sympathizers. These groupings, not always defined, very much varied, often artificially defined, came into being after the stand of the Holy See that culminated with the encyclical Pascendi and the condemnation of what was then called Modernism.(26)

In Italy, meritorious professors in pontifical universities like Msgr. Duchesne and Father Genocchi, or young priests like Romolo Murri, and lay persons of some moral stature like von Hugel, Fogazzaro, Gallarati Scotti and Ms. Giacomelli-Rosmini, found themselves involved in a theological-disciplinary controversy which they did not consider serious but they were instead surprised to be called "modernists."(27)

What could have been precisely the central ideas, the creative ones and which were "heterodox" in the renewal movement, was not easy to establish also because not all authors saw themselves within the framework described by the condemning documents. It was not a "unified" system in fact, as it was presented by the anti-modernist publishers and commentators among whom was the authoritative Fr. Enrico Rosa, SJ, editor of the CiviltÓ Cattolica.(28) Neither could one say that modernism as a whole were "heterodox" as it was defined also by well known personalities of Catholic culture.(29)

From among the protagonists of the movement themselves, there were positions diametrically opposed, either with regards to principles or with regards to practice, ranging from the most undiscussed doctrinal and disciplinary fidelity to crises of rebellion and of drastic rejection.(30) And a well-known antimodernist, Msgr. Benigni, spoke of "two souls of modernism" as an acquired and evident given: the theoretical soul (Biblical-exegetical historicism) and the practice (Christian-democratic politics), both, in his opinion, worth condemning because they were born of the same root: the rejection of the past because it was past and the sympathy for what was new because it was new. "Philosophical-historical modernism" and "political modernism" were thus defined.(31)

The indiscriminate condemnation of the modernists, without the due distinction between the orthodox and the heterodox (among moderates and radicals) defined a dual reaction: on one hand, a flight from the advance posts of research and of action, on the other hand, a radicalization of the rejection to the point of total break from the Church. This was the case of Ernesto Buonaiuti and of the Roman radical group.(32) And all these brought about an undeniable impoverishment of Catholic culture in Italy which, for some decades, could have been "rich above all of muted personalities" because of the difficult conditions wherein they had to work.(33)

But these are today’s judgments. What was the attitude of the young Alberione towards the modernist movement? Under the light of what we shall soon state, and by his own testimony, the reply is one: seminarian Alberione was perfectly aligned with the Pope, with his own Bishop and with the official position of the Piedmontese bishops of whom Msgr. Francesco Re was the spokesman.(34) It was the obedience and the unquestionable faith of a young "convert" that brought him beyond whatever dispute, and led him to a decided mental assent, although his heart was with all the honest promoters of renewal.(35)

It has been affirmed that in the whole dispute about modernism, "the great absentee was faith."(36) Giacomo Alberione gave a positive contribution of his own,(37) consisting in a faith without reservations, in a renewed fidelity to the Roman Pontiff (cf. AD 56), passion for historical studies (cf. AD 66), in reevaluation of authentic Thomism (cf. AD 89-90), and in the effective execution of the most lively causes on the pastoral level.

This does not remove the fact that that Church crisis had been deeply suffered by him, too. In his mature memoirs, Fr. Alberione summed it up in this short synthesis: "From 1895 to 1915 there were numerous deviations in social, theological, ascetic matters, in such a manner as to shake the foundations of every truth and of the Church; more so, to try to destroy it." And as an "impressive example," he cited the case of Antonio Fogazzaro, Catholic interpreter of modernism, with the novel, Il Santo (cf. AD 89).(38) Many were the unfortunate consequences of those deviations: the division among the clergy into opposing currents face to face with the "advance of socialism" and with the "yoke of the dominant Freemasonry"; the cultural and moral love for what came from abroad; the "great disturbance and the disorientation" of spirits,(39) social and political conflict, the sectarian use of the new means of information and of the school.(40) - (summary)

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