Did Reno Get It Right?

Laudato Si in Its Centuries-Long Context

I read with enthusiasm R.R. Reno’s First Things essay “The Return of Catholic Anti-Modernism” and, as always, appreciated his many insights. He helpfully pointed out some ways in which Pope Francis’s recent papal encyclical Laudato Si embodies a bold critique of Modernity. I think these insights have been lost on many of Francis’s readers, with the general exception of those who read and referenced Reno’s fine contribution. Some problems remain with Reno’s analysis. Here, I hope to add a few points helping contextualize Laudato Si and my problems with Reno’s essay in the broader history of the papacy’s often conflictual relationship with Modernity, or more properly, with modern states, Modernity’s engines. I really do think Reno’s essay contains many important points (e.g., his critique of superficial readings of Laudato Si). Thus, I’m not going to highlight those helpful parts of Reno’s text, which you should read for yourself. Instead, I’m going to focus on the points with which I disagree.

First, the title. In the world of Catholic theology and Catholic history, both “Modernism” and “Anti-Modernism” refer to the time of Pope St. Pius X (reigned 1903-1914). The first time Magisterial documents employ the term “Modernism” is in 1907 in St. Pius X’s condemnation of Modernism as “the synthesis of all heresies” in Pascendi Dominici Gregis. Certainly the trends identified (and solemnly condemned) as Modernist pre-date Pascendi. Occasionally, scholars date the Modernist Crisis to 1893, marking the publication of Pope Leo XIII’s papal encyclical on Scripture (the first ever) Providentissimus Deus. Leo’s encyclical had in mind chiefly the work of Alfred Loisy, who was removed from his teaching post at the Institut Catholique in Paris that year, and whose book on Job was then being investigated by those responsible for the Index of Prohibited Books. Eventually, Loisy would have several books placed on the Index, Pius X would promulgate Pascendi with Loisy in mind, and excommunicate him in 1908. As a former student of William Portier, I subscribe to the school of thought that the Modernist controversy relates to the (formally) earlier controversy over Americanism (which was also, in part, a French affair).1 Americanism had little to do with national pride, and more to do with attributes like modern individualism, and separation of church and state, which Leo feared were present among some American bishops. Leo XIII formally censured Americanism in his 1899 apostolic letter, Testem Benevolentiae. The Modernist Crisis is typically dated as ending in 1914, with the death of Pius X, and his replacement with Pope Benedict XV, in part, because Benedict was himself suspect of being a Modernist, and because he suppressed the infamous Sodality of Pius, an organization devoted to eradicating Modernism. Nonetheless, some of the anti-Modernist measures put in force during Pius X’s rule remained in force, like the 1910 Oath against Modernism, which would not disappear until Vatican II.

The Church’s formal anti-Modernism erected a very specific and juridical infrastructure. Just one example of this is the concept of councils of vigilance that Pascendi mandated would be set up in every diocese to sniff out any Modernists and report on their activities. Laudato Si lacks any evidence that Francis has any such “anti-Modernism” in mind. To be fair to Reno, he makes no references to St. Pius X, but rather to Blessed Pope Pius IX. Regarding Laudato Si, Reno writes, “this is perhaps the most anti-modern encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors.” That’s part of the problem with his title; it evokes the time of St. Pius X, not Blessed Pius IX.

But what about Blessed Pius IX and his 1864 Syllabus of Errors, which is, not precisely, a papal encyclical, but which was attached to Pius’s papal encyclical, Quanta Cura? It is crucial to understand the contexts for these documents. First of all, the audiences envisioned by these texts are vastly different. Quanta Cura, to which Blessed Pius’ Syllabus is attached, is explicitly addressed to “Our Venerable Brethren, all Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, and Bishops having favor and Communion of the Holy See.” By “Our Venerable Brethren,” Pius does not mean all of the faithful. This is an encyclical (with attached Syllabus) directed at those with disciplinary ecclesiastical authority. There’s nothing about “all men and women of goodwill,” as has become increasingly common in modern papal encyclicals. Contrast this with Francis, who, for the first time in Church history addressed his encyclical to … well, everyone, apparently, whether of good will or not: “I wish to address every person living on this planet” (no. 3). Francis is conscious of this being unique—notice how he contrasts this with Pope St. John XXIII’s 1963 Pacem in Terris, which, likewise, addressed a threat affecting the whole globe (nuclear weapons). Blessed Pius IX could have no idea in 1864 that his Syllabus would reach as wide an audience as it eventually did. He could have no idea that almost a century later, in 1960, an American presidential candidate would have to defend himself to an audience of primarily Baptists in Houston, Texas, when, after his address, he was questioned about Pius IX’s Syllabus. Nor that John F. Kennedy would take up the presidency of the United States as its first, and, so far, only, Catholic president, having distanced himself from Pius’s teachings in response to that question. Francis, in contrast, knew his audience would be incredibly large, perhaps the largest ever for an encyclical. This difference is by no means unimportant.

Certainly both Blessed Pius IX and Francis have some negative things to say about Modernity, or the modern world, if you will. But so did Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, e.g., just read John Paul’s 1995 Evangelium Vitae on the culture of death, or Benedict’s 2006 address at the University of Regensburg with his “critique of modern reason.” But Reno is aware of this and writes as much in his essay. Moreover, as Reno correctly points out, both St. John Paul and Benedict had optimistic and positive comments for aspects of Modernity. This seems to be where he prefers Francis’s two most recent predecessors’ approach over Laudato Si. Reno fears, “If Francis continues in this trajectory, Catholicism will circle back to its older, more adversarial relationship with Modernity.” Yet, even Gaudium et Spes, which Reno acknowledges has an openness to the modern world, contains paragraphs 22, 24, and numerous others which call into question, and seriously challenge, key aspects of Modernity. As just one example, take paragraph 37:

Thus, it happens that the world ceases to be a place of true brotherhood. In our own day, the magnified power of humanity threatens to destroy the race itself. For a monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world, and will continue until the last day, as the Lord has attested.

In Reno’s statements that Francis rejects the sort of hopeful engagement with Modernity of Vatican II, St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, I demur: Laudato Si is far more hopeful than Reno seems willing to concede. At the same time, Francis’s immediate predecessors are more in continuity with their more remote predecessors than Reno acknowledges. I don’t think it’s completely arbitrary that St. John Paul II was the pope who beatified Pius IX, or that Francis is the Pope who canonized John XXIII and John Paul II, and who beatified Blessed Pope Paul VI. In order to clarify all of this, I need to turn back to the broader historical context.

I would maintain that one of the keys to understanding the 21 Ecumenical Councils that the Catholic Church recognizes is the concern for evangelization and sanctification. Certainly these concerns are not typically explicit. Among scholars, it’s become standard to read Councils against one another, especially Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II. At root, these Councils have the same goal, but they have different (albeit, genealogically related) challenges or obstacles to overcome. At Trent, one of the largest obstacles was the mass exodus of baptized Catholics, i.e., the first Protestants. From the perspective of the council fathers of Trent, all of these Protestants who had been Catholic were still governed by Catholic Church law. This is part of the reason for all the anathemas, and the ecclesiastical juridical language, in the conciliar canons. By the time of Vatican I, with Blessed Pius IX, things had changed drastically.

The 19th century began with no pope. Pius VI had died, less than five months before the turn of the century, in a French prison, after Napoleon had him kidnapped. His successor, Pius VII, would likewise be “arrested” and carted off to French prison. It is difficult to overestimate the impact this had on Catholic bishops across the globe. By Catholic reckoning, the Apostle Peter was the first pope and, since tradition has the Roman Empire executing him by crucifixion (upside down), you could say that papal and state relations have always had some tensions. This is not to say that popes and state rulers never cooperated. Pius VII, after all, crowned Napoleon emperor. But such instances of cooperation often contain ambiguities. Pius VII reinstated the Jesuits that had been suppressed in the previous century by his predecessor Pope Clement XIV. This fact relates to this present discussion, not so much because Pope Francis was a Jesuit, but rather in the fact that Clement’s suppression had something to do with the duress he was under from modern European states (read Portugal and Spain), and that Pius VII, released from French captivity, and spared the fate of his immediate predecessor, was in part, at least,  making a move against Modernity … that is, against modern states.

When American academics think of Modernity, they think of academic freedom, and disembodied intellectual ideas. We fail to understand the history of the modern papacy if we think of Modernity solely in those terms, as if “separation of church and state,” religious voluntarism, etc., were universal human phenomena. These are quite recent creations, more recent even than the modern category of “religion” itself, coterminous with the rise of modern centralized states in the 17th and 18th centuries, à la Talal Asad, William Cavanaugh, Ernst Feil, et al.2 The popes had specific conflicts with specific state rulers, and these impeded their task of evangelization.

For much of the Church’s history, bishops were appointed by state rulers. States often had veto power, or initial selection power, over bishops in their realms through concordats they had orchestrated with the papacy. Thus, all of the regions, like France and Spain, that had such concordats limiting papal authority in their realms (episcopal appointments, curtailing papal taxes, etc.) prior to the Reformation, remained Catholic after the Reformation. The Protestant Reformation was a numerical success only in regions like Scandinavia and the Germanic realms, where no such agreements with the papacy existed.3 Moreover, and significant for Vatican I, by the time of Blessed Pius IX, the majority of bishops were appointed by heads of state. Even in the 20th century, the skeptic prince of Monaco submitted Loisy’s name as a candidate for the episcopacy of Monaco (which the pope turned down),4 and the man who became John Paul II was selected as archbishop of Krakow, Poland, (and wasn’t even on the first two lists of candidates), because he was the only candidate that the Communist leaders wouldn’t veto.5

Religious orders circumvented these secular authorities because they were outside the jurisdiction of state appointed bishops. This is the proximate context for Blessed Pius IX. The Papal States, which 19th century popes saw as their one guarantee of spiritual autonomy over their Church, was the last remaining obstacle to Italian unification. Why would the popes place so much importance on the Papal States? Perhaps because two of them had been kidnapped by a European ruler (Napoleon), and because most of their bishops were appointed by increasingly hostile rulers. In part, to free the papacy from the control of wealthy Italian families, the papacy moved to Avignon, France, in the 14th century, and we know how that ended. The papacy went from a pawn in Italian politics, to a pawn in French politics. Thus, you can see the attraction of the Papal States.

When Blessed Pius IX solemnly defined Mary as conceived without original sin, European leaders were enraged. How dare the pope imply that they were born in original sin, and that they need God or the Church? They were capable of governing by themselves! This is the context for the Syllabus of Errors. Blessed Pius IX might not have known in 1864 that, within six years, Vatican I would be interrupted, and have to end early because the Piedmontese revolutionaries would capture the Papal States, and Pius would famously become the prisoner of the Vatican. But when Pius released his Syllabus (dated to the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), he knew that the enemies at the gate were only kept out by the French troops, who would leave during the Council to fight in the Franco-Prussian War.

The problems Leo and St. Pius X would face, especially with Modernism, were certainly related. Leo’s Thomistic revival (Aeterni Patris), concern for social justice (Rerum Novarum), and work on Scripture (Providentissimus Deus) all can be seen as a unified response to these threats which he viewed as more than simply intellectual. St. Pius X’s war against Modernism, his lowering the age of First Communion, and his attempt to increase reception of the sacraments among the faithful, were, likewise, a unified response to the threats he perceived.

One important part of the history leading up to Vatican II concerns the stories of those who were committed to keeping the stringent, anti-Modernist infrastructure in place and active, and those who were, in some way, ready to shed the infrastructure, and search for a new approach to dealing with Modernity. Vatican I’s decrees were juridically binding. They addressed a number of topics, including the pope’s freedom to communicate directly with his bishops. Increasingly, secularized states were prohibiting the pope from directly communicating with his bishops. Unlike Trent, the problem was no longer baptized Catholics who had left the Church. The problem at Vatican I, 300 years later, was the post-Enlightenment states with designs prohibiting the pope from pastoring his flock in their realms. Thus the exile of religious orders which circumvented their state appointed bishops. No Jesuits allowed = no pope wanted here.

Vatican II was different, and its evangelistic voice much easier to hear. Part of what happened is tied up with St. John XXIII’s biography. In short, Angelo Roncalli was suspected of being a Modernist. When he was appointed pope, he was completing the editing of the account of St. Charles Borromeo’s implementation of the reforms of Trent in his home diocese of Bergamo. It’s too much of a coincidence that, upon completing that account of that reforming Council, and being appointed pope, St. John XXIII announced he would launch a new reforming Council as a new Pentecost.6 Nor do I think Francis’s choice of dates for Laudato Si was Pentecost is a mere coincidence. Holy Trinity Sunday is more proximate, and his encyclical is explicitly Trinitarian. Francis is linking Laudato Si with the work of Vatican II. Unlike St. John Paul and Benedict, Francis was ordained after the Council had ended. Francis assumes the Council; it is his starting point. Francis is not hearkening back to the 19th century papal conflicts with Modernity, which were tied up with the aggressions of 19th century European states after the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution. Nor is Francis returning to the Magisterium’s early 20th century anti-Modernism, a continuation of those 19th century conflicts. His concerns are so clearly different. Other than relativism, he’s not concerned with the problems St. Pius X confronted.

Reno finds this encyclical “dark,” and in many places, when addressing our present situation, it is. It is dark and grave, as is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in recounting the threat of Mordor’s forces. But, like Tolkien’s books, Laudato Si is profoundly hopeful. Francis is trying to evangelize the culture, the peoples of the world. His document is about the interconnectedness of created reality, what he calls “integral ecology.” I read Laudato Si as hopeful and bright; and he ends the encyclical this way as well. Near the conclusion, Francis writes:

We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. … Saint Therese of Lisieux invites us to practise the little way of love, not to miss out on a kind word, a smile, or any small gesture which sows peace and friendship. An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation, and selfishness. … Love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, is also civic and political, and it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world. Love for society, and commitment to the common good, are outstanding expressions of a charity which affects, not only relationships between individuals, but also “macro-relationships, social, economic, and political ones.” That is why the Church set before the world the ideal of a “civilization of love.” … a community can break out of the indifference induced by consumerism. These actions cultivate a shared identity, with a story which can be remembered and handed on. In this way, the world, and the quality of life of the poorest, are cared for, with a sense of solidarity which is, at the same time, aware that we live in a common home which God has entrusted to us. (nos. 229-232)

Francis thinks we can make a difference. His trenchant critique of Modernity is aimed at conversion. He is evangelizing. Yes, this encyclical is ecumenical, as evidenced by his comments on Patriarch Bartholomew. Yes, it is interreligious, as reference to a Sufi mystic indicates. Yes, it is collegial—I can’t think of a papal encyclical which cites so many local bishops’ synods. But ultimately, Laudato Si forms part of Francis’s evangelistic program, which he articulated in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Francis wants to stir up believers and unbelievers alike, to care for the world around us, including, especially, our brothers and sisters in our own families and neighborhoods. His vision is cosmic. It reveals the beauty of creation, and underscores how creation puts us in contact with God, our loving Father. Indeed, for Francis, the Trinity has left its mark on creation, and creation is lovingly ordered to our sanctification. In commenting on St. Francis, Pope Francis writes, “Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise” (12). Our care of creation, including human communities, is part and parcel of this task, as he spells out throughout his document. He is thus calling those of us who have ears to hear, to imitate the Saints, like St. Francis, but in the concrete circumstances of our own lives. He is not laying down a clear social or political program that must be followed. Rather, he is taking the conversation further, relying especially upon the foundation laid by Vatican II, St. John Paul, and Benedict. He knows things can change, and that we can act to change them; he says as much explicitly throughout the encyclical (e.g., 13). What he is attempting here is to initiate “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet” (14). In this, I think he will be, and to some degree, already has been, successful.

  1. See, e.g., William L. Portier, Divided Friends: Portraits of the Roman Catholic Modernist Crisis in the United States (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2013), especially 24-28 and 31-34. The French context is obvious in the case of Loisy and the Modernist Crisis. Although less obvious in the Americanist controversy, one of the events which precipitated the Americanist controversy was Felix Klein’s French translation of Walter Elliott’s The Life of Father Hecker, as La Vie du Père Hecker (the translation of which was published in 1897). As Portier points out, Leo XIII “singled out the French version” when he censured Americanism a mere two years later (Ibid., 24).
  2. See, e.g., Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); and Ernst Feil, Religio, 4 vols. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1986, 1997, 2001, and 2007).
  3. See, e.g., William T. Cavanaugh, “‘A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House’: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State,” Modern Theology 11, no. 4 (1995): 397-420.
  4. Marvin R. O’Connell, Critics on Trial: An Introduction to the Catholic Modernist Crisis (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1994), 236-251; and Marvin R. O’Connell, “The Bishopric of Monaco, 1902: A Revision,” Catholic Historical Review 71, no. 1 (1985): 26-51.
  5. Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, His Holiness: John Paul II and the History of Our Time (New York: Penguin, 1996), 86-88 and 99-101.
  6. Portier, Divided Friends, 42-44.
Dr. Jeffrey Morrow, Ph.D. About Dr. Jeffrey Morrow, Ph.D.

Dr. Jeffrey Morrow is an associate professor at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University, located in South Orange, New Jersey. He also serves as a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Dr. Morrow is a Jewish convert to Catholicism. He resides in northern New Jersey with his wife and five children.


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Surprised you did not mention that Francis, Bishop of Rome, is not European. His hope in part comes from experience with the poor of Argetina.

  2. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Interesting article.
    The several hundred years of history meticulously summarized is then dumped at the end when you point out that Frances seems to be specifically ignoring it and starting as a ‘post Vatican II’ Prelate.
    His nos. 229 – 232 is a beautiful summary of a call to personal action by all people of the world to follow ‘The Two Great Commandments’. Focused primarily on these the encyclical could have been a clarion call to action for all peoples to be personally involved and moved to action. However you, as all other supportive commentators have done, ignore substantive portions of the encyclical that address areas of expertise that are no more his than any of us. Namely political, economic, social, scientific, etc. opinions, criticisms, and recommendations that seem to have been drawn from a series of meetings and discussions with some of the most virulent anti-Catholic, anti-life, pro-abortion/contraception, radical environmentalist activists of the day combined with his socialist/populist South American dislike of North America. The Encyclical, though in parts truly moving, is a muddle in need of serious editing before publishing.

  3. “He is not laying down a clear social or political program that must be followed. Rather, he is taking the conversation further…”Since are Popes conversation facilitators. Search the NT in vain for such a profile. This is nothing but more gibberish to say the Pope tap dances to advance the social gospel. Show me where he convincingly calls for conversion as much as he does public policy and welfare. I just don’t hear it.


  1. […] I read with enthusiasm R.R. Reno’s First Things essay “The Return of Catholic Anti-Modernism” and, as always, appreciated his many insights. He helpfully pointed out some ways in which Pope Francis’s recent papal encyclical Laudato Si embodies a bold critique of Modernity. ….Read More […]