Twentieth Century Catholicism

THE CHURCH CONFRONTS MODERNITY. Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era. By Thomas E. Woods, Jr. (Columbia University Press, 61 West 62nd St., New York, N.Y. 10023, 2004), 228 pp. HB $29.50.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, American intellectuals moved away from a Christian view of the world and opted for a secular philosophy of Pragmatism and empiricism. Two of the main figures of the day were William James and John Dewey. They embraced a relativistic philosophy that rejected all Christian dogma and the ability of the human mind to attain absolute certitude on any point. Professor Woods refers to this period as “the Progressive Era.”

Influenced by the great successes of science in the 19th century, these thinkers accepted practical results as the final criterion of truth. Because of this they are called “Pragmatists.” One of their goals was to do away with theological disputes between the different Christian churches—and the disagreements on ultimate questions between various religions. They strove to establish a secular creed that all Americans could embrace and that would unite all Americans in one democratic state.

Most Catholic books on the period stress the physical and material growth of the Church during the first two decades of the 20th century. Professor Woods is concerned about the intellectual response to the growing Pragmatism of the age. That is indicated in the subtitle of the book, “Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era.”

A main point of the book is that Catholic thinkers did not go along with James and Dewey. In fact, they opposed them vigorously in the few Catholic publications available at the time. It was during the time that the Jesuits founded America magazine. It became a leading organ in the defense of Catholic doctrine and morals. The main center of resistance, however, was The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. The outstanding figures were all priests: Frs. Thomas Shields, William Kirby, Edward Pace, and John A. Ryan.

These Catholic thinkers tried to find what was good in the new science, but they also rejected the old philosophical errors found in Pragmatism, relativism and empiricism.

In the first chapter Professor Woods sets the stage for the intellectual climate in America from 1900 to 1920. In the following three chapters he spells out progressive thinking in the areas of sociology, education and economics. In each case he shows how the Catholic Church differed from American Pragmatism. In the Epilogue the author offers some comments on the developments in Catholicism since the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965.

What strikes the reader is that the Catholic Church really did “confront modernity” during the early decades of the 20th century. There was no identity crisis among Catholics—all the way from bishops to laity. The Church strongly condemned the intellectual flabbiness of Pragmatism and empiricism; she did not apologize for her dogma and her strict moral teaching. Church leaders believed and said that the Church is the true Church of Jesus Christ and that all America should be converted to the true faith.

In the last chapter Professor Woods contrasts that strong position with the weakness of the Church since Vatican II. Rarely do we hear anyone say that the Catholic Church is the only true Church of Jesus Christ, that Protestants and orthodox should return to the true Church, that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. The Church has not changed her teaching, but most Church leaders seem to be reluctant to confront modern American culture with the truth of Catholicism and to condemn it where it is in error

The author has given us a good summary of American thinking in the early 20th century that is still dominant today. It is a fine work of intellectual history. It also helps explain how we arrived at where we are today—a Catholic Church in America that is weak, divided and uncertain of itself.

Kenneth Baker, S.J.
Ramsey N.J.

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