The Roots of Liberal Theology

This essay was written by Rev. Thomas Slater, S.J. and published in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, January, 1907.

One who has been brought up in the old system of theology, and whose reading has for the most part been confined to its accredited exponents, is puzzled and distressed when he opens a volume of the new liberal theology. He had been taught that theology is a deductive science, and that in the drawing out of theological conclusions from the divinely revealed premises, great weight must be given to the authority of the Church, to whose safe keeping the deposit of religious truth was entrusted by God.

The new liberal theology shows scant courtesy to tradition, it criticises the teaching Church, and it appeals for its warrant in so doing to scientific convictions, to religious consciousness, and religious experience. It proclaims aloud that the human mind is necessarily progressive, that to live is to move, while the theologians stagnate in the ever recurring round of barren logical deductions from the same worn out formulas. Those formulas did well enough for the time when they were framed, they satisfied a want of the human mind, but a new age like ours must re-interpret for itself in language that it can understand the ever-living truths of religion. The old apologetic, with its elaborate proofs from miracles and prophecies, was framed on wrong lines, more calculated to produce a religious sceptic than a believing Christian. Religion is not so much a matter of the intellect, nor is it susceptible of demonstration, it belongs rather to the affective part of our nature, to the feelings and to the will. Hence the new interest in mysticism which we see manifested on all sides.

These are some of the characteristics of the new liberal theology, whose main object is to re-interpret Christian truth in the light and for the needs of the present day. In the books and magazine articles where liberal Catholics give expression to these views there is no attempt made to establish them, or even to indicate clearly the grounds on which they rest. The effect produced on the reader is one of uneasiness and bewilderment. The truth is, that the hidden principles on which those views rest are antagonistic to Catholic truth. They are drawn directly or indirectly from a new science which in its principles and in their application is subversive of Catholic doctrine. This new science has received various names, but in England it is commonly called the Science of Religion or Religions.

I propose in this paper to sketch in outline the main features of this new science, and then we shall be better able to form a correct estimate of Catholic liberal theology. We shall be able to view it in its native surroundings, in its environment, and thus we shall be able to form a better judgment concerning its nature and tendencies.

According to its votaries, then, the Science of Religion is an exact science, just like the physical sciences whose method it employs. The physical sciences owe the marvellous progress which they have made to the employment of the inductive method of reasoning. They begin by laboriously collecting facts bearing on the subject-matter of the science, these facts are studied and compared with one another, then hypotheses are formed and verified, and finally, we arrive at a body of laws containing the truths which the science has discovered. This scientific method is adopted by the new science of Religion. It glories in the fact that it is empirical, and by empirical methods it hopes in time to be able to show results comparable to those achieved by the physical sciences. Indeed, it boasts that within the few years of its existence it can already show a large body of notable results obtained. The new science has already a very large literature devoted to it, chairs to teach it have been founded in many of the Universities, and its influence, direct and indirect, is already very considerable.

The subject-matter of the new science is Religion, and by Religion it does not understand God. God and His dealings with men constitute the subject-matter of the traditional theology, but these high matters are not the objects of our observation, experiment, and verification; they cannot be the subject-matter of an empirical science. By Religion is here understood ‘the conception of a superior authority, whose potency man feels himself constrained to acknowledge and invoke.’ (1) Or, according to Professor James, Religion is “the feelings, acts, and experiences, of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatsoever they consider the divine.” (2) So that Religion is something subjective, ‘the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men,’ and it has its seat rather in the affective part of man’s nature than in his intellect.

When we survey the whole field of Religion [writes Professor James] we find a great variety in the thoughts that have prevailed there; but the feelings on the one hand and the conduct on the other are almost always the same, for Stoic, Christian, and Buddhist saints are practically indistinguishable in their lives. The theories which Religion generates, being thus variable, are secondary; and if you wish to grasp her essence, you must look to the feelings and the conduct as being the more constant elements. (3)

Again, the religious sentiment is

asthenic affection, an excitement of the cheerful, expansive, dynamogenic order which like any tonic freshens our vital powers. In almost every lecture, but especially in the lectures on conversion and on saintliness, we have seen how this emotion overcomes temperamental melancholy and imparts endurance to the subject, or a zest, or a meaning, or an enchantment and glory to the common objects of life. The name of ‘faith-state,’ by which Professor Leuba designates it, is a good one. It is a biological as well as a physiological condition, and Tolstoy is absolutely accurate in classing faith among the forces by which men live. The total absence of it, anhedonia, means collapse. We saw examples of this in those sudden raptures of the divine presence, or in such mystical seizures as Dr. Bucke described. It may be a mere vague enthusiasm, half spiritual, half vital, a courage, and a feeling that great and wondrous things are in the air. When, however, a positive intellectual content is associated with a faith-state, it gets invincibly stamped in upon belief, and this explains the passionate loyalty of religious persons everywhere to the minutest details of their so widely differing creeds. Taking creeds and faith-state together, as forming ‘religions,’ and treating these as purely subjective phenomena, without regard to the question of their truth, we are obliged, on account of their extraordinary influence upon action and endurance, to class them amongst the most important biological functions of mankind. (4)

Mr. Jordan writes : —

As the result of prolonged and varied studies [the Science of Religion] has reached certain definite conclusions, which it now offers to all who are willing to examine them. It teaches that the earliest and fundamental revelation which God makes of Himself to man is an inner revelation — a revelation in conscience, a revelation that has its seat in the very being of man. Accordingly, Religion does not reveal itself merely in the chance ejaculation of the lips; it is the natural and necessary outcome of the very life which throbs within a man’s breast. Religion is not a matter of mere heredity; it is rather a personal exercise by the soul of those abilities which belong to its separate and responsible self. Religion is not a speculation — a mental abstraction in which the secluded mystic may find recompense for his withdrawal from the world, it is in all cases a life, varying in its intensity, but invariably real and practical, and ever willing to expend itself in the service of others. Religion is not an abnormal or accidental experience, but one that is fundamentally characteristic of the human race. The various faiths of the world are but the evolution of an original constituent principle of humanity. Religions are diverse; but Religion itself, like the air which man inhales, and which everywhere enswathes him, is one. It is just because of the existence in man of this basal and all-pervasive sentiment that, everywhere and always, he has striven to satisfy the cravings of his distinctly religious emotions. No objective supernatural revelation is required in order that man should exhibit the propensities of a profoundly religious being; for, wholly independent of such a revelation, he cannot live without making at least some response to that unmistakably religious instinct which has been begotten within him. A man can no more help being religious than he can help eating or breathing. Principal Fairbairn puts the case very strongly when he writes : ‘Religion is so essential to man, that he cannot escape from it. It besets him, penetrates, holds him even against his will.’ Religion is for man and hence for all men a psychological necessity : it is universal. Religion is not a perishable commodity. The religious sentiment is an inextinguishable sentiment an element of human nature as universal, as ineradicable, as the fact of sex. The Science of Comparative Religion has helped to diffuse a clearer understanding of what religion really is. It is the central, essential, and eternal thing in human life. It is the deepest, strongest, and most universal interest of man. It accompanies him from the cradle to the grave. (5)

It is not necessary to point out how widely and essentially different in this theory of the nature of Religion from that of Catholic theology which teaches that it is a moral virtue by which we pay due worship to God, our Creator and Lord. Not that the Science of Religion leaves out of consideration the divine element in Religion. Some conceptual idea of the divine is necessarily present in the mind when religious sentiments are evoked. But that concept may be of the vaguest and most indefinite. Often it is no more than an uneasy feeling of something being wanting, a dreamy longing for the infinite. A perception of the grandeur and power of nature in the starry sky, or in a storm at sea, or in an earthquake is quite sufficient. Religious experiences are indeed, as Professor James tells us,

only psychological phenomena. They possess, it is true, enormous biological worth. Spiritual strength really increases in the subject when he has them, a new life opens for him, and they seem to him a place of conflux where the forces of two universes meet; and yet this may be nothing but his subjective way of feeling things, a mood of his own fancy, in spite of the effects produced. (6)

If the philosophic student of the Science of Religion is asked whether any objective reality different from the subject who feels them is the cause of religious experiences, so that from them we can logically conclude to the existence of a God : —

Dogmatically to decide this question [says Professor James] is an impossible task. The cultivator of this science has to become acquainted with so many grovelling and horrible superstitions that a presumption easily arises in his mind that any belief that is religious probably is false. The consequence is that the conclusions of the Science of Religions are as likely to be adverse as they are to be favourable to the claim that the essence of religion is true.

In another place, the same author adds : —

It is in answering these questions [concerning the reality and the nature of the objectively divine element of religious experiences] that the various theologies perform their theoretic work, and that their divergences most come to light. They all agree that the ‘more’ really exists; though some of them hold it to exist in the shape of a personal god or gods, while others are satisfied to conceive it as a stream of ideal tendency embedded in the eternal structure of the world. They all agree moreover that it acts as well as exists, and that something really is effected for the better when you throw your life into its hands. It is when they treat of the experience of ‘union’ with it that their speculative differences appear most clearly. Over this point pantheism and theism, nature and second birth, works and grace and karma, immortality and reincarnation, rationalism and mysticism, carry on inveterate disputes. (7)

The utmost that the scientific student of religions can do is to make hypotheses, more or less satisfactory, which will largely represent his own personal overbelief, while partially accounting for the phenomena; but however helpful they may be to himself, he cannot impose these hypotheses on others. According to Mr. Jordan, the Science of Religions ‘does not regard as ultimate and absolute, the results which it is able to announce : its conclusions are admittedly relative. The goal of this science, as of all sciences, lies ever in the future.’ (8)

The discovery [he says in another place] that the non-Christian religions have aims and resources and excellences which were hitherto undreamed of, suggests that a deliberate comparison of Christianity with the various members of this group is by no means a fruitless task. Some Religions, all are agreed, are better than others; some one of them, it is most probable, is superior to all its contemporaries; but which Religion is actually the best? Such a question, soberly and truthfully answered, will mean an invaluable gain to a man. upon whomsoever the query may be pressed; for such a one will thereafter ground his beliefs upon firmer and more enduring convictions. In many a case, as one cannot but believe such enquirers will be led deliberately to purify a Religion which, while they felt themselves incapable of surrendering it, they now discern to be unquestionably outdistanced in various particulars by several other Religions — Religions of which they have known all too little, and which accordingly they have all too lightly esteemed. As a consequence a progressive type of faith will take the place of empty formalism, whether Christian or non-Christian. (9)

There is no necessity on the principles of the Science of Religion for this progressive type of Religion to be the same for all men. Rather the contrary. Professor James puts and answers the question : —

Ought it to be assumed that in all men the mixture of religion with other elements should be identical? Ought it indeed to be assumed that the lives of all men should show identical religious elements? In other words, is the existence of so many religious types and sects and creeds regrettable? To these questions I answer ‘No,’ emphatically. And my reason is that I do not see how it is possible that creatures in such different positions and with such different powers as human individuals are, should have exactly the same functions and the same duties. No two of us have identical difficulties, nor should we be expected to work out identical solutions. The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions. Each attitude being a syllable in human nature’s total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely. So a god of battles must be allowed to be the god for one kind of person, a god of peace and heaven and home, the god for another. (10)

Indeed, on the principles of the Science of Religion, polytheism may, after all, be true. Professor James says on this point : —

The ideal power with which we feel ourselves in connection, the ‘God’ of ordinary men, is both by ordinary men and by philosophers endowed with certain of those metaphysical attributes which in the lecture on Philosophy I treated with such disrespect. He is assumed as a matter of course to be ‘one and only’ and to be ‘infinite’; and the notion of many finite gods is one which hardly anyone thinks it worth while to consider, and still less to uphold. Nevertheless, in the interests of intellectual clearness, I feel bound to say that religious experience, as we have studied it, cannot be cited as unequivocally supporting the infinitist belief. The only thing that it unequivocally testifies to is that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union, find our greatest peace. (11)

Evidently we must not expect that the new Science of Religion will solve for us the deeper problems of theology. Still, Mr. Jordan puts to its credit some notable achievements. Religion has at last, he says, been made a subject of exact study, a clearer understanding has been reached as to what Religion really is, the legitimate place of mysteries in Religion has been recognized and conceded, a more adequate interpretation has been put upon the various forms, alike Christian and non-Christian, which Religion has been found to assume, an improved conception of the Supreme Being and of His essential relation to man has been gained, a conspicuous enlargement of charity and toleration for those who profess forms of Religion different from our own is a most beneficial result, together with a new Apologetic and a sounder Dogmatic. (12) Whether, in fact, these results have been obtained, and what should be our estimate of their value, will of course depend on the point of view which is adopted.

The foregoing analysis of the nature, method, aim, scope, and results, actual and prospective, of the new Science of Religion is chiefly set forth in the very words of two of its most representative and accredited exponents. Professor James and his Gifford Lectures need no introduction to the reader. Mr. Jordan has for many years been a student of the Science of Religion. He has a thorough acquaintance with the voluminous literature of the subject, and he has travelled over the world in order to obtain a first-hand knowledge of the principal religious systems. His book is furnished with an appreciative introduction by Principal Fairbairn. The exposition of the subject which I have given in the words of two such representative writers will serve the chief purpose of this paper. That purpose was to lay bare the roots of liberal theology, especially of the liberal theology of that small school of Catholic writers who have been so much in evidence of late years. They are indebted for their terminology, for their ideas, and for many of their principles to the new Science of Religion. Where the ordinary Catholic speaks of ‘feelings of devotion,’ the liberal Catholic writer will speak of ‘religious experiences,’ or of ‘mystical raptures,’ making use of that profane novelty of words which has always been suspect in the Catholic Church. But when we see writers not content with a new and heterodox phraseology, boldly proclaiming the necessity of re-interpreting religious truth in the terms of modern thought in order to make the Christian religion acceptable to the modern religious consciousness, accepting the principle of evolution of doctrine, girding at approved theologians for their obstinate and blind adhesion to traditional dogmas, ridiculing the received Apologetic of the Catholic Church, explaining revelation as an inner experience of religious geniuses, we know that they are writing not as Catholics should write, but according to the empirical and naturalistic principles of the Science of Religion. Such language and such ideas are out of harmony with the Catholic system; they form part of a consistent theory in the Science of Religion. It is not necessary to point out in detail how false those ideas and principles are, the above exposition will be sufficient for the Catholic reader. I may, however, be permitted to make one or two observations before concluding.

The first stage in the formation of an empirical science is the collection and arrangement of specimens or facts. For more than thirty years innumerable workers in all the countries of Europe and of America have been engaged in collecting and sorting the religious experiences of mankind. The monuments of the early history of the East, the Greek and Roman classics, the Corpus Inscriptionum, travellers’ records of the beliefs and customs of barbarous tribes, modern folk-lore, and other sources of information, have been laid under contribution to furnish the material for the new science. One of the results of this process has been to bring into prominence a certain superficial resemblance between the religious experiences of mankind in very different stages of civilization, living widely apart under different religious systems, and in wholly different conditions. Many of the writers on this branch of knowledge, take a pleasure in using the religious terminology of the Catholic Church in their descriptions of the similar sacred rites and ceremonies of barbarous and heathen nations. The implication is that the Catholic religion is a mere synthesis of pagan superstitions and practices. Sometimes these writers are not content with hinting at this conclusion, they boldly express it.

I will take an example of what I mean from Dr. Frazer’s recent book entitled, Adonis, Attis, Osiris. The learned author therein describes a very widespread custom among barbarous and primitive peoples of holding a festival towards the end of every year, at which the souls of departed kindred were supposed to be present and regale themselves. He suggests that this custom is the origin of the Catholic feast of All Souls, and among other survivals of primitive custom in connexion with the feast, he mentions the following : —

A very common custom in Belgium is to eat ‘soul-cakes’ or ‘soul-bread’ on the eve or on the day of All Souls. The eating of them is believed to benefit the dead in some way. At Dixmude and elsewhere they say that you deliver a soul from Purgatory for every cake you eat. At Antwerp they give a local colour to the soul-cakes by baking them with plenty of saffron, the deep yellow tinge being suggestive of the flames of Purgatory. People in Antwerp at the same season are careful not to slam doors or windows for fear of hurting the ghosts. (13)

Dr. Frazer’s authority for these details are certain German books which he cites in a foot-note. There is, of course, no a priori impossibility in such superstitions. Primitive customs die hard, and all sorts of curious survivals are met with all over the world. The Church, of course, cannot be held responsible for superstitions which endure in spite of her condemnation. It is merely a question of fact. When I showed the above passage to a friend, a native of Antwerp, who has lived almost all his life in Belgium, he burst out laughing, and said : ‘Stuff and nonsense; I never saw or heard of anything of the sort.’ This suggests the necessity of using the critical faculty in the testing of material for the Science of Religion furnished by travellers and folklorists. By the cultivators of that science the unsupported tales of such witnesses are received without question, while the Gospel narrative is subjected to the most searching criticism.

Of course the existence of a certain superficial similarity between Catholic doctrine, rites, and ceremonies, and those of other religions, is no new discovery. It was a difficulty urged against the first apologists of the Christian faith as it is urged against the Church to-day. A satisfactory answer is not far to seek. Catholics willingly allow that there is some truth in all religious systems; religious feelings and certain ways of giving vent to them are natural to man, and the Church never hesitated to use a rite or a ceremony in the worship of the true God if it suited her purpose, even if it was also used by idolaters. The Fathers called this process ‘spoiling the Egyptians.’ The Church, without doubt, instituted certain Christian feasts, and celebrated them on the days which were sacred to pagan deities, in order to wean the people from the worship of idols. The essence of Catholicism does not lie in such matters, but in the great body of true doctrine which it teaches, and which is partly attainable by natural reason, partly the gift of divine revelation.

Besides a want of criticism in the selection of material for the Science of Religion in some cultivators of that science, I may point out a certain inability to interpret Catholic religious facts correctly. My first example of this shall be taken from the same work of Dr. Frazer. He there draws a parallel between the lofty primitive ideals of Christianity and Buddhism, and the subsequent decline in both cases. On this subject he writes : —

But the austere ideals of sanctity which they inculcate were too deeply opposed not only to the frailties, but to the natural instincts of humanity, ever to be carried out in practice by more than a small number of disciples, who consistently renounced the ties of the family and the state in order to work out their own salvation in the still seclusion of the cloister. If such faiths were to be nominally accepted by whole nations or even by the world, it was essential that they should first be modified or transformed so as to accord in some measure with the prejudices, the passions, the superstitions of the vulgar. This process of accommodation was carried out in after-ages by followers who, made of less ethereal stuff than their masters, were for that reason the better fitted to mediate between them and the common herd. Thus as time went on, the two religions, in exact proportion to their growing popularity, absorbed more and more of those baser elements which they had been instituted for the very purpose of suppressing. Such spiritual decadencies are inevitable. The world cannot live at the level of its great men. Yet it would be unfair to the generality of our kind to ascribe wholly to their intellectual and moral weakness the gradual divergence of Buddhism and Christianity from their primitive patterns. For it should never be forgotten that by their glorification of poverty and celibacy both these religions struck straight at the root not merely of civil society but of human existence. The blow was parried by the wisdom or the folly of the vast majority of mankind, who refused to purchase a chance of saving their souls with the certainty of extinguishing the species. (14)

It is obvious that, with regard to the Christian doctrine, Dr. Frazer fails to make the important distinction which is clearly contained in the Gospels between the Commandments which were imposed by Christ on all, and the Counsels of Perfection which He well knew would be followed only by the select few, and without any danger of extinguishing the species.

I cannot refrain from taking another example of inability to explain Catholic religious facts from Professor James. In his Varieties of Religious Experience, this writer gives what he conceives to be the explanation of the saintly character. He finds the gist of the explanation in emotional excitement, which has the effect of inhibiting the lower and baser propensities of human nature. One of the characteristics of the saintly character is the total self-surrender of the saint into the arms of the higher power. This leads him to self-renunciation, self-sacrifice, and the practice of asceticism. Under this head Professor James treats of the vows of religious life, and tries to explain how it is that some people do such very unnatural things as bind themselves to obey another, and renounce the right of ownership of property. I have only space for what he says about obedience :

I confess [he writes] that to myself it seems something of a mystery. Yet it evidently corresponds to a profound interior need of many persons, and we must do our best to understand it. On the lowest possible plane, one sees how the expediency of obedience in a firm ecclesiastical organization must have led to its being viewed as meritorious. Next, experience shows that there are times in everyone’s life when one can be better counselled by others than by one’s self. But leaving these lower prudential regions, we find, in the nature of some of the spiritual excitements which we have been studying, good reasons for idealizing obedience. Obedience may spring from the general religious phenomenon of inner softening and self-surrender and throwing one’s self on higher powers. So saving are these attitudes felt to be that in themselves, apart from utility, they become ideally consecrated; and in obeying a man whose fallibility we see through thoroughly, we, nevertheless, may feel much as we do when we resign our will to that of infinite wisdom. Add self-despair and the passion of self-crucifiction to this, and obedience becomes an ascetic sacrifice, agreeable quite irrespective of whatever prudential uses it might have. (15)

It is not difficult to see that here Mr. James has missed the whole gist of the matter. The merely subjective reasons for religious obedience which he lays down probably never decided a single religious vocation. The true explanation of religious obedience is the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. He proposed His own example of obedience, even unto death, as the model which all Christians were to follow in matters which are of precept for all, and a model which those who were called to the practice of the counsels would follow in the pursuit of perfection. The true explanation of the very difficult practice of religious obedience lies in the example, love, and desire to imitate Jesus Christ.

The foregoing examples of gross credulity and failure in the obvious interpretation of religious phenomena, taken from the very élite of the cultivators of the Science of Religion, — and they could easily be multiplied, — suggest the following observation. Here we are concerned with the very foundations of the new science. The worth of any conclusions which may subsequently be drawn, depends entirely on the accuracy of the facts recorded, and on the correct interpretation of those facts. And yet we find these eminent pioneers of the science blundering in questions of fact, which are capable of easy verification, and which belong to a religious system which is flourishing under their very eyes. What probability is there that the explanations which they give us of the religious beliefs and practices of primitive peoples represent anything more solid than the dreams and fancies of learned pedants?


1. L. H. Jordan, Comparative Religion, p. 217, 1905.
2. The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 31, 1902.
3. Ibid, p. 504.
4. Professor James, op. cit. pp. 505, 506.
5. Comparative Religion, pp. 335, 339, abridged.
6. Op. cit. p. 509.
7. Op, cit. p. 490, abridged.
8. Ibid, p. 510.
9. Op. cit. p. 408.
10. Op. cit. p. 486.
11. Op. cit. p. 524.
12. Op. cit., chaps, x., xi.
13. Op. cit. p. 249.
14. Op. cit. pp. 202, 203.
15. Op. cit. p. 311.

This entry was posted in Catholic Culture, Catholic Moral Teaching, Church Teachings, Devotion, Ecumenism, Heresies, Mysticism, Sacraments, Spiritual Life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to The Roots of Liberal Theology

  1. bishopbasher says:

    I am reminded of the power struggles in the early Church, the victor being the branch called the Church of Rome. I am reminded too of the suppression of the Celtic church, commented on by none less than the Venerable Bede, who of course stuck the boot into the Celtic lot.

    I think Darwinism could help us here.


  2. Gertrude says:

    Thank you Shane for this. It is amazing how, an essay written in 1907 can be as relevant in 2011 as when it was originally written. There is much to digest and many thought provoking points.


  3. toadspittle says:

    Toad strongly suspects he will regret this, but…

    …Is the writer, T.Slater, SJ, citing the Pragmatist philosopher William James, as a proponent of “Catholic liberal theology,” when James was not a Catholic, particularly liberal, or a theologian?

    If, so Toad, thinks this rather odd. But he is open to persuasion.

    Slater quotes Frazer (presumably ‘The Golden Bough’ man) as stating..
    “A very common custom in Belgium is to eat ‘soul-cakes’ or ‘soul-bread’ on the eve or on the day of All Souls.”
    Slater himself then writes:
    “When I showed the above passage to a friend, a native of Antwerp, who has lived almost all his life in Belgium, he burst out laughing, and said : ‘Stuff and nonsense; I never saw or heard of anything of the sort.’ “
    Is it legitimate to wonder what Slater might think if he got the same answer from an Englishman regarding hot cross buns? Possibly not.


  4. manus2 says:

    What interests me most here is the particular line of theories that are offered, and how they are the product of a particular period. I understand that around 1910 science was particularly bullish – it was yet to suffer its nervous breakdown arising from quantum physics. Chesterton, of course, offers the perfect antidote to the over-reach of science throughout this period. This, for example, from an essay entitled “The Collapse of Materialism” in the collection of essays “The Well and the Shadows”, dated 1935:

    “If there are two staring and outstanding facts about science and religion at this particular moment, they are these. First, that science is claiming much less than it did to show us a solid and objective reality. And second, that religion is claiming much more than it did (at least for centuries past) that its miracles and marvels of mystical experience can be proved to exist as a solid and objective reality.

    On the one side, the Atom has entirely lost the objective solidity it had for the nineteenth-century materialists. On the other side, the Ascension is accepted as a case of Levitation by many who would not accept it as an Ascension. On the one hand, the science of physics has almost become a science of metaphysics. For it is not merely, as is often said, that the Atom has become an abstract mathematical formula; it is almost as true to say that it has become a mere algebraic symbol.

    For the new physicists tell us frankly that what they describe is not the objective reality of the thing they observe; that they are not examining an object as the nineteenth century materialists thought they were examining an object. Some of them tell us that they are only observing certain disturbances or distortions, actually created by their own attempt to observe. Eddington is more agnostic about the material world than Huxley ever was about the spiritual world. A very unfortunate moment at which to say that science deals directly with reality and objective truth.

    On the other hand, on the other plane, the plane of historical and practical argument, it is the very moment at which religion really is appealing to reality and objective truth. The Church throws down the unanswered challenge of Lourdes; the Spiritualists positively claim to prove their new religion by experiments, like a thesis in chemistry or electricity; and a vast number of independent intellectuals, who are neither Catholics nor Spiritualists, have begun to show an entirely new interest in the logical, or even the legal case for some of the great historic miracles. For instance, there have been two or three books following on the line of the brilliant but strictly scientific book called Who Moved The Stone; and the tendency of the most detached writers is to admit more and more that the evidence for such events has been underrated. The youngest school of Catholic apologists, such as Father Knox
    and Mr. Christopher Hollis and Mr. Arnold Lunn, attack almost entirely with the weapons of proof and practical evidence; and it is no longer pretended that they always have the worst of it. A very unfortunate moment at which to say that religion deals only with pleasant fancies and imaginations.”

    Fashionable fads are answered in every generation. I’d guess there are always those who wish to use whatever counts as science as a means to undermine established thinking – including established religion – for fun or profit; there are also those who wish to use the latest investigative tools to further knowledge as an end in itself, or indeed for the glory of God and salvation of mankind. We can only trust the promise that the Spirit will protect the Church from being led astray.


  5. Brother Burrito says:

    Great post Shane, and welcome aboard. I expect a good discussion on this one.

    The Barque of Peter has suffered considerable damage during the storm of modernism, has taken on much water, and lost many passengers and crew. Repairs are under way and the wet stuff is being bailed out, during Captain Benedict’s watch.

    The ‘new evangelisation’: what will it be? I propose a return to simplicity. The Franciscan and Carmelite charisms attract me greatly. (I must confess to having difficulty keeping up with Jesuits and Dominicans in full flood, though I stand in awe of their mental powers). Jesus, while He walked the earth, attracted followers by His combination of kindly, numinous, simplicity. St Francis imitated this, and thereby rebuilt the Church of his time. The Carmelite mystic saints are also very lucid and accessible, and have helped lead many souls to Heaven. That’s my guess.

    The great thing about being a Catholic is having 2000 years of holy predecessors to learn from. Shane, you will do great good here by bringing to light more spiritual sustenance from your archives. Thanks again.


  6. shane says:

    toadspittle, Professor James and his methodology is cited there in terms of the Science of Religion, not liberal Catholic theology.

    Thank you Brother Burrito. I completely agree with you that “the great thing about being a Catholic is having 2000 years of holy predecessors to learn from.” One of the great things about Catholicism for me is the diversity of the charisms. I have to say I find Ignatian spirituality very attractive, but the Jesuits of today are not a patch on their predecessors.


  7. toadspittle says:

    “the great thing about being a Catholic is having 2000 years of holy predecessors to learn from.”

    True enough, and the great thing about being a Muslim is having 1489 years of holy predecessors to learn from.

    And the great thing about being a Jew is having, well Toad doesn’t know how many years of holy predecessors, etc.

    As to being a worshiper of Osiris, well…

    That’s the numbers game! Everybody wins!


  8. shane says:

    “I propose a return to simplicity. ”

    Brother Burrito I just put up a pamphlet on “Simplicity of Life: From the Writings of St Francis de Sales” from 1936. I think you will like it. (as always just click cover to upload pdf)


  9. toadspittle says:

    “I propose a return to simplicity. ”

    We could just all worship the sun.


  10. toadspittle says:

    “On the other side, the Ascension is accepted as a case of Levitation by many who would not accept it as an Ascension.”

    Says Manus.

    The difference, apparently, is subtle.

    The destination, also apparently, is the same: Up. To Heaven. Which is clearly ‘up.’ But where? The Crab Nebula, then make a left?

    This strikes Toad as being very un-Manus like.


  11. joyfulpapist says:

    Toad, that was Manus quoting Chesterton mocking the new age believers of his day.


  12. toadspittle says:

    Toad blunders again!

    Hopeful62 was right!

    And it is a great comfort to know that Manus has not gone off his head.
    Toad foolishly took GKC to be only the first paragraph. But Chesterton’s essay, as I now see it in its entirety, seems an odd mixture. Is “The Church throws down the unanswered challenge of Lourdes; “ also to be taken as mocking satire?
    And…“For instance, there have been two or three books following on the line of the brilliant but strictly scientific book called Who Moved The Stone;”
    More GKC mockery?

    But, since Toad has raised/levitated/ascended the point about the Ascension, what about it? Why ‘ascend?’ Why not just vanish on the spot?


  13. joyfulpapist says:

    Actually, the idea of him levitating or rising upwards may be an assumption. Only Luke mentions the Ascension at all, in both his books.

    Luke says: While he blessed them he was parted from them and carried up into heaven.
    Acts says: After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

    You could read this to mean that he just disappeared and they assumed the rest.


  14. Brother Burrito says:

    Toad @06:39,

    Have you never risen above the raucous mess around you, and glimpsed it all for what it is? ‘Heaven’ is being permanently like that. When the world, the flesh and the devil have finally been vanquished, then by the Grace of God, the soul will enter into that state, even here on earth: ‘ecstasy’.

    Thin facsimiles of Heaven are provided by mind altering drugs that supply a temporary shortcut to this state of dissociation, though accompanied by loss of faculties and competencies. ‘Bad trips’ are the result of entering dissociation while harbouring some inner weakness or stain on one’s conscience (sin). Schizophrenia can result from such bad trips. My understanding of this is that return to mundane reality is aborted, and the victim remains in orbit with their ‘demons’.

    On many occasions, I have administered ketamine*, a powerful dissociative anaesthetic, to patients. Children love it, universally. Many adults do not, and have terrible nightmares and hallucinations on emergence. I think the children are protected by their innocence. Those patients with the worst emergence symptoms, in my judgement, tend to be those who are a bit ‘dodgy’ to start with, as it were.

    The strait and narrow path is the only safe and permanent route to Heaven.

    *Ketamine has limited everyday use, but is a real lifesaver in situations where there has been major blood loss, and where conventional anaesthesia cannot be used eg: amputation to release somebody trapped under a train. You can saw off somebody’s leg with them looking at you! Their airway reflexes and breathing are unaffected. It even raises the blood pressure, unlike every other anaesthetic.


  15. manus2 says:


    You kind thoughts regarding my sanity are much apprecated. Full bodily ascension is one thing – merely for one’s head to come off is quite another.

    And thanks JP for batting on my behalf.

    The main purpose of the quotation was to point out that Orthodoxy was defended by contemporary apologists with cheery vigour. I’m not suggesting that Chesterton’s arguments match the state of play today, but I’m quite sure he’d come up with their contemporary equivalents after a quick flip through the tabloids.

    As for Lourdes, Toad, I think you are far too selective in your cynicism. I’m sure you are perfectly capable of being cynical about scientists, except, it seems, in the context of religion. There are certain events for which there are no adequate scientific explanations, however much non-specific bluster is generated. We have previously discussed Alexis Carrel, the 1912 Nobel Prize winner for Medicine, who witnessed a miraculous cure at Lourdes and who subsequently (and eventually) became a believer. His accounts “The Journey to Lourdes” is still available, now with an introduction by my hero Stanley Jaki, but I’m still trying to get a copy from across the Atlantic. And don’t get me started on Fatima.

    But again, the really interesting point for me is the form the arguments take: Chesterton was far too good an apologist (and indeed journalist) to make completely ridiculous claims without acknowledging them as such. His statement that the challenge of Lourdes is unanswered is, I would guess, a bold but fair statement for the time. And while I haven’t read up the history of the cures at Lourdes and science over the last century, my guess would be that today they are just shrugged off as being inherently incredible, rather than actually explained, just like you are doing, eh Toad?


  16. Brother Burrito says:

    Thanks Shane. I am devouring it avidly!


  17. Brother Burrito says:

    Toad 6/1/2011 18:01,

    You are wasted in retirement Toad:

    You should be marking exam papers at Valladolid!


  18. Frere Rabit says:

    Burro, you are indeed very perceptive, for Toad should indeed be marking exam papers at Valladolid. My impression is that the pre-seminarians doing their year in Valladolid are in very great need of the kind of realism provided by the Toad. They are all completely up in the air! Valladolid helps promote that unfortunate spatial, geographical, cultural and spiritual disorientation. It would be a marvelous idea to introduce a Toad into the Valladolid programme. (It will never happen, of course: this is the Catholic Church.)

    As the perceptive among you may realise, Rabit is heading back down the long road to rediscover Liberation Theology. He has been kicked about in the church for so long that it finally makes sense again… None of the so-called traditionalists ever said anything as gentle as the words I heard from all those advocates of the Gospel of liberation. Jesus called the just to focus on the poor.


  19. Brother Burrito says:

    Re Liberation Theology,

    Tread boldly but carefully, dear friend. I am wary of anything with such an outwardly friendly and helpful name.


  20. omvendt says:

    ‘Liberation Theology’ is a disaster movie. It’s a species of Marxism.

    For those who are interested in an orthodox Catholic analysis of the ‘movement’, I recommend Piers Paul Read’s essay ‘Catechists and Commissars’ , which you can find in his splendid book, ‘Hell and Other Destinations’.

    In a lengthy discussion of the impact of Liberation Theology on El Salvador he notes the following:

    “It was in this classic case of an unjust society that the progressive priests and their catechists went to work in the late 1960s, organising workers and peasants into unions, staging protests, and inculcating in students their duty as Christians to work for a better world. In this they were opposed not just by the army and the police, but at times by their fellow clergy in what came to be known as the ‘traditional Church’. These included not just prelates who preferred the company of landowners to that of the unwashed poor, but also conscientious pastors who felt that their flocks were being led astray. Many of the diocesan priests had had grave misgivings about Liberation Theology. They may not have had doctorates from European universities, nor have been able to argue with erudite Jesuits like Jon Sobrino or Ignacio Ellacuria, but they resisted the progressives all the same because of their TEMPORAL AND MATERIAL CONCEPT OF SALVATION.” (Sorry about the ‘caps’; can’t do italics or bolding ;-). )

    Read also notes re the “gentle words” of the “advocates of the Gospel of liberation” that:

    “The most common charge levelled at the progressive Church, by traditional Catholics and sects alike, was that it preached hatred of their enemies when Christ had said that evil should be overcome by love. ‘If you attack someone you, cannot convert him, I was told by a pious lady who lived in the elegant suburb of Escalon where the guerrillas had dug in during the offensive. ‘If the bishop Rosa Chavez wants the rich to help the poor, castigating them is not the way to go about it. God told us to love, and to forgive, our enemies. One must hate sin, but love the sinner. He who has not sinned, let him throw the first stone … We have only to change people’s hearts, and the injustice of society will disappear.’
    She was particularly bitter about foreign journalists who came to El Salvador with their minds made up in favour of the FMLN. It was foreign priests, too, who incited the gullible campesinos to rebellion. No wonder so many Catholics were joining the Pentecostalist sects. They left Mass agitated and angry: the sermons of the sects brought peace to their hearts.”

    Read should be read.

    I now await charges of being an apologist for poverty and oppression of the downtroddden. 😉


  21. Frere Rabit says:

    Don’t worry, Burrito: my idle thoughts and comments in a passing new year perusal of CP&S are of no consequence.

    Too many people take themselves too seriously on these blogs. That’s the beauty of Toad. He has far more common sense than most contributors here, and a lovely way of making his point without even alerting the pompous to the ridiculousness of their pomp, as they often miss his point entirely! By the way, when will some original writings be appearing here again…?


  22. omvendt says:

    “Don’t worry, Burrito: my idle thoughts and comments in a passing new year perusal of CP&S are of no consequence.”



  23. shane says:

    omvendt, got it in one!

    And he did claim to ‘do’ lunacy so at least he’s honest. Even if it’s simply stating the obvious.


  24. manus2 says:

    This is all getting a little bit gratuitous, isn’t it? I mean, suggesting Toad is beautiful, really. And I’m not sure the taxing issues surrounding Liberation Theology and other modernisms can be solved solely by the quality of insults being thrown around; if they were, I’d have searched Damian’s blog for the answer.


  25. Frere Rabit says:

    I would not expect any of you on CP&S to be up to speed on liberation theology in 2011, so it is not surprising that the best you can manage are references to Nicaragua and El Salvador. (The latter was best known for the martyred Archbishop Romero, a conservative who died in a hail of gunfire having realised the need to proclaim the Gospel of the Poor.) But no, liberation theology in 2011 is not what it was in 1985. WAKE UP. Get up to date, people. I am no longer with your traditionalist agenda: I have moved on. But if you do not know the present issues, and are stuck in the world of thirty years ago, there’s no debate!


  26. omvendt says:

    “Get up to date, people. I am no longer with your traditionalist agenda: I have moved on.”


    Maybe you can explain to us how the ‘2011 version’ of “Liberation Theology” differs from the version of thirty years ago.

    I look forward to that.

    You mention Archbishop Romero.

    Piers Paul Read makes a few observations about Archbishop Romero in the masterly essay I cited earlier. He points out that progressive Jesuits had grasped:

    ” … the importance of having a bishop, or better still, an archbishop sympathetic to their point of view. Their opportunity came with the appointment of Mgr Oscar Arnulfo Romero to the see of San Salvador. He had hitherto been considered a conservative pastor but there were traits to his character which gave the progressives reason to believe that they might convert him to their cause. According to the Bishop of Santa Ana, Mgr Marco Rene Revello, on the very day his appointment was announced, a meeting was called of forty progressive priests, led by Ignacio Ellacuria and Jon Sobrino (and including the diocesan priests Fabian Amaya and Ricardo Urioste), to ‘analyse’ the appointment of Mgr Romero. A list was drawn up on a blackboard of his strengths and weaknesses. In his favour it was agreed that he was an honest man, a man of the Church, a man of prayer and a charitable man. Against him, they wrote that he was ambitious for power (he was said to have admired both Mussolini and Pius XII while studying in Rome); that he was an insecure man who was afraid to stand alone; and that he was an inflexible man who, once he had made up his mind, would not change it.

    They selected a committee of five diocesan priests to ask for ‘a dialogue’ with the newly appointed archbishop. They met with him the day after his appointment, and insisted that the officials of his episcopal curia should be sent away. Two nuns stood at the door to make sure they were not interrupted. Mgr Revello, the Bishop of Santa Ana, who had got wind of what was happening, came to warn Mgr Romero, but was not admitted. In his view, Romero decided that his diocese would be ungovernable if he did not throw in his lot with the progressives.

    Thereafter, every Monday, the Jesuits Ignacio Ellacuria and Jon Sobrino, would meet with the diocesan priests Jesus Delgado, Fabian Amaya and Ricardo Urioste to decide which of them would contribute what to the Archbishop’s sermon on the following Sunday. On the Thursday they would meet again to put the different sections together, and on the Friday the homily would be given to Mgr Romero. This was not only preached from the pulpit, but broadcast throughout the country on the Catholic radio. On 24 March Romero pronounced that ‘no soldier is obliged to obey an order to kill if it runs contrary to his conscience’. The next day he was killed.

    Today, ten years later, the division between the progressive and the traditional Church remains as pronounced as ever. To the progressives Mgr Romero is the archetypal martyr of the modern age, ‘the greatest figure in the Latin American Church’, a Jesuit told me, ‘for half a century’. The Bishop of Santa Ana, however, sees Romero not as a Christian martyr but ‘as a hero who died for a cause’. To the current Archbishop of San Salvador, Mgr Arturo Rivera Damas, and his coadjutor Bishop, Mgr Rosa Chavez, Romero was certainly a martyr and they continue to speak out against the abuse of human rights. Mgr Rosa Chavez warned me, however, that I should distinguish between the homilies of a pastor and the opinions of a theologian. Ellacuria had been killed for his opinions, Romero for performing his duties as a priest.”

    A tree is known by its fruits. And the ‘fruit’ of “Liberation Theology” is pretty rotten so far as I can see.

    But maybe Rabit will show stick-in-the-mud conservatives just exactly how their take on “Liberation Theology” is all wrong.

    Anyone interested in perusing Read’s essay can find it here:

    And here:


  27. manus2 says:

    So, Rabit,

    I know very little about modern Liberation Theology, though I have some fairly mixed impressions from the mid to late eighties. On the one hand I heard Gutierrez give several talks in Boston – he was impressive. On the other hand I recall a very strange version of the Our Father which enthused about machine guns (I kid you not!) but which seemed to go down surprisingly well with some Catholic students.

    So what has happened in the meantime? What sources would you suggest?


  28. toadspittle says:

    “This is all getting a little bit gratuitous, isn’t it? I mean, suggesting Toad is beautiful, really..”

    Says Manus. Well, Toad is beautiful. In his way. It’s not easy being green.

    However, Omvendt, in his self-appointed role as glove puppet for Piers Paul Read, while apparently trying to denigrate Archbishop Romero, manages instead to endow him with the respect he clearly deserves.


  29. omvendt says:

    Not denigrating, Toad – simply providing context and information.

    I would be most grateful if you could tell me where Read has got it wrong.

    Perhaps, you would be gracious enough to demonstrate this, rather than confine yourself to sneering assertions – although I realise that is your speciality.

    You frequently quote Pascal (always a good policy 🙂 ), but that is not being a glove puppet for him.

    Course not.


  30. omvendt says:

    ‘Scuse the lousy punctuation.


  31. toadspittle says:

    “I would be most grateful if you could tell me where Read has got it wrong.”

    Says Omvendt.

    Toad doesn’t suppose for a minute that Read has got it wrong, so he can’t oblige. Toad would not suppose that admiring Pius Xll, or ‘dying like a hero for performing his duties as a priest’ would be considered objectionable by many on CP&S, for example.

    From reading Read above, one can surely only admire Romero the more?

    Anyway, here’s a nice, pithy, short thought from Pascal, (via Toad, his glove puppet.)
    “Nothing fortifies scepticism more than the fact that there are some who are not sceptics; if all were so, they would be wrong.”

    Which really hasn’t got much to do with the case, Toad agrees. Still.


  32. manus2 says:

    Well now at last, a little ray of sunshine from Mr Toad. Deep down he knows he is beautiful, and is even prepared to say so. And surely he can’t suppose that such a characteristic is unique to himself. So there’s hope for us all, even in Toad’s heart. That’ll cheer me up all day.


  33. omvendt says:

    “From reading Read above, one can surely only admire Romero the more?”

    I know very little about him, Toad.

    He was surely an extremely brave man.

    Incidentally Toad, as the inimitable Mandy used to say: “Ooh, you are awful … but I like you!” 😉


  34. toadspittle says:

    To be slightly serious for once, Toad who, back when Romero was killed, was paying scant to no attention to whatsoever to religion – remembers being extremely impressed by the whole worker priest business, and thinking this was a very promising development for Catholicism.

    Didn’t actually do anything about it, of course.

    Toad can’t remember what programme Omvendt’s Mandy was on. “Take it from here?”

    And Toad agrees with Manus, that we are all beautiful. But some are more beautiful than others, unfortunately. That’s where the trouble starts.

    (However, Toad is off to Belgium for a few days, to spit at the Flems. Unfortunate image there.)


  35. omvendt says:

    ‘Toad can’t remember what programme Omvendt’s Mandy was on. “Take it from here?”’

    Mandy was one of the late Dick Emery’s comic creations, Toad.

    Bon voyage!


  36. joyfulpapist says:

    David Allen, wasn’t it?


  37. joyfulpapist says:

    Apologies, Omvendt. You’re absolutely right. Dick Emery it was.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s