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A long forgotten, misunderstood Jesuit


Book Launch of Anthony M. Maher's The Forgotten Jesuit of Catholic Modernism: George Tyrrell's Prophetic Theology. Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, 11 September 2018

It is a daunting honour to be asked to launch Anthony M. Maher's book The Forgotten Jesuit of Catholic Modernism: George Tyrrell's Prophetic Theology. Tyrrell was an English Jesuit — born in Dublin but as Anthony opines: 'Tyrrell's thought evolved within a very English cultural and linguistic ecclesial context, an important nuanced distinction the Roman Curia could not comprehend. (292) He died on 15 July 1909 aged only 48, having published numerous books and articles. He was expelled from the Society of Jesus in 1906 having been fighting incessantly with his superiors since 1900 when the Joint Pastoral Letter of the 15 English bishops was secretly drafted in Rome and published in their name. He was denied a Catholic burial.

Anthony M. Maher's The Forgotten Jesuit of Catholic Modernism: George Tyrrell's Prophetic TheologyIn this handsome tome published by Fortress Press, Anthony describes first the life of George Tyrrell before exploring at length his theology and then placing his life and writings in the modern context by praising Tyrrell's legacy. Anthony is an unapologetic fan of Tyrrell whose 'life and work represent an attempt to foster hopeful dialogue with the modern world.' (368) Irish Jesuit and Boston College professor Oliver Rafferty in his foreword says that 'For Tyrrell, the main point was that Catholicism was not so much a set of propositions, but rather a lived experience of Christ and of faith in him.' Rafferty opines that 'the issues that Tyrrell raised are as pertinent today as they were in the late nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century. One difference, however, is that we live at a time and in a church that is willing to go some way down the road of facing the challenges of the age in which we live.' I hope he's right. I have no doubt that some of our leaders like Pope Francis are wanting to take the Church that way, but there is still considerable resistance, inertia and lethargy. Anthony is very spirited in his description and defence of modernism in the church of the 19th and early 20th century setting out the various moves in the ecclesial power struggle which went on between thinkers like Tyrrell and Loisy and the Vatican officials. Modernists constantly ran into trouble with Vatican hierarchy because they favoured what Tyrrell's executor, Maude Petre, described as 'a fuller recognition, on the part of the Church, of the social, historical and scientific demands of the modern mind'. (20) Though Tyrrell was given much leeway by his Jesuit superiors in the British province, the Spanish superior general of the Jesuits, Luis Martin, and the Holy See's secretary of state Merry Del Val were oppressive. Anthony's description of Pascendi, the 1907 papal encyclical condemning modernism and all her pomps is unrelenting: 'From today's perspective, Pascendi's vitriolic language, personal threats, and the projected images of narrow-mindedness represent the death rattle of Neo Scholasticism, and signposts the twentieth century demise of the church's influence in secular life.' (48) I do think Anthony gets a touch carried away when he concludes that 'it is not unreasonable to hypothesise that Pius X and Merry del Val would have excommunicated the entire Vatican II Church, and perhaps most dramatically, Pope Francis.' (357) But come to think of it, that seems to be the position of some of the cardinals who published their dubia after Pope Francis published the post synodal document Amoris Laetitia on the family. And it's clearly the position of the erstwhile nuncio to the USA who never did get the red hat, Archbishop Vigano.

The book has already had its Australian launch by visiting Oxford Jesuit scholar Nicholas King. I could not pretend to hold a theological candle to our distinguished author and the initial launcher. So I presume I am invited to offer some observations here in the national capital as a contemporary Jesuit who remains exercised on how the church can relate intelligently with the modern world and how the learning and sense of morality of those outside the church can help those of us in the church chart our way of proclaiming the good news in season and out of season, particularly in the wake of the recent royal commission and the cascading revelations of abuse and cover-ups across the globe.

A year before his death, Tyrrell published what Maher calls his 'polemical masterpiece' Medievalism which was written in response to the 1908 Lenten Pastoral letter condemning Modernism by Cardinal Mercier, the Primate of Belgium. Mercier specifically referred to the 'English priest (and former Jesuit), Father Tyrrell'. Medievalism written in just six weeks asked Mercier rhetorically, 'Do you imagine that by allying yourself against the people with all the decrepit props of absolutism, crowned or discrowned, you will be able to stand against the social revolution which is pressing towards us with the slow irresistible might of an advancing glacier, avenging itself on every obstruction'? Tyrrell had no time for Mercier's medievalism which represented 'the category of mechanism — government by machinery, truth by machinery, prayer by machinery, grace by machinery, and [ultimately] salvation by machinery'. Tyrrell had a very different vision of church being 'the guardian or that spirit of truth and truthfulness; of patience and self-abnegation, and of all those affective dispositions of the heart with which science must be pursued for the glory of God [and] the good of mankind. I mean that her mission is to the heart and not to the head; that the gospel is primarily power and strength and inspiration for the will, that it convinces by ideals, not ideas; by revelation of a coming kingdom and a new life set before the imaginative vision and kindling a fire of enthusiasm.'

I called to mind Pope Francis's words to the Vatican Curia this past Christmas when he said:

'[A] faith that does not trouble us is a troubled faith. A faith that does not make us grow is a faith that needs to grow. A faith that does not raise questions is a faith that has to be questioned. A faith that does not rouse us is a faith that needs to be roused. A faith that does not shake us is a faith that needs to be shaken. Indeed, a faith which is only intellectual or lukewarm is only a notion of faith. It can become real once it touches our heart, our soul, our spirit and our whole being. Once it allows God to be born and reborn in the manger of our heart. Once we let the star of Bethlehem guide us to the place where the Son of God lies, not among Kings and riches, but among the poor and humble.'

Tyrrell was adamant that theology always needed to square with the facts and 'when it begins to contradict the facts of the spiritual life, it loses its reality and its authority; and needs itself to be corrected by the lex orandi.' (87)

Maher acknowledges that Tyrrell owes much to John Henry Newman particularly his Grammar of Assent. He also states that Newman and Tyrrell 'aroused equal suspicion in Rome', 'but unlike the politically naïve Tyrrell, Newman could keep his adversaries at arm's length and calculate a defensive strategy' moving 'with dexterity around the political-theological chessboard, appearing to adopt nuanced strategies requiring patience, whereas by contrast, Tyrrell began to lose sight of his own pastoral objectives'. One of my great teachers was the late Valentine Moran who is footnoted occasionally in Maher's book but not much quoted. Val was one of those educated Irishmen with a profound sense of understatement and quizzical knowledge of the human condition. Val once wrote, 'Tyrrell was never wrong; deceived, yes, and misunderstood, but not wrong.' He concluded one article on Tyrrell saying, 'When dealing with some Modernist personalities, one is liable to find oneself torn between exasperation at the childishness of the Modernist and annoyance at the narrowness and severity of the authorities'. Of Tyrrell, Moran said, 'One finds oneself faced on successive pages with a very attractive and a very unattractive adolescent, but one who was always combative and brilliantly clever.' Anthony does concede that 'in extreme times, Tyrrell sought compromise. He simply was not very good at it. Early personal acrimony with nearly all of his superiors removed his ability to think dispassionately. His life became a personal campaign with all the incumbent dangers this brings.' (361)

Anthony is very forgiving of the personality deficiencies of his subject and sees much in common between Tyrrell and Pope John XXIII who wanted to throw open the windows of the Church at Vatican II. He even sees Tyrrell as a precursor to some of the great twentieth century Jesuits like Karl Rahner and Pedro Arrupe. Quoting Tyrrell's observation that Jesus 'did not preach the advantages of hunger and sickness, (but) he fed the hungry and healed the sick', Anthony enthuses: 'Today, in advocating the preferential option for the poor, the Society of Jesus may have crossed the Rubicon and while Tyrrell was no Arrupe or Rahner, he was profoundly Ignatian in outlook, method and conclusion.' A century later, Anthony says, 'one can but ponder the possibility that in the modern Society of Jesus, Tyrrell may well have found the home that he spent a lifetime seeking'. (340) No doubt given the treatment he received from Fr Martin, Tyrrell did confide to Baron Friedrich von Hugel that the Ignatian 'system of flexible spiritual government was being transformed into a closely knit and ultra-conservative organism, with the Spiritual Exercises were becoming petrified by the prevailing lack of mysticism'. (342) Anthony does seem to find the seeds of all that's best in post-Vatican II theology and praxis in the writings of Tyrrell. He concedes that 'throughout Tyrrell's work, no system can be found, for his theological activities were eclectic, personal, antinomian, and prematurely curtailed'. (355) But he thinks that all Tyrrell's thought 'leads to one practical conviction: Catholicism is a school of life rather than a school of thought.' (355-6)

As the Australian Church comes to terms with the awful findings of the royal commission and tries to engage the faithful with the proposed 2020 Synod, Anthony affirms the declaration of Nicholas Lash that 'the Church needs to acknowledge the pastoral and intellectual damage done to Catholic life by the paranoia of Pius X's thought police' and recalls Tyrrell's mantra that 'to suppress variation would be to suppress growth', (367) We might recall the more recent work of the thought police in this country resulting in the so-called resignation of the very pastoral Bishop William Morris. There's no way he would be sacked today. Sadly, there's no way he will ever receive an apology either.

Maybe, the cardinals and archbishops who have expressed their public upset with Pope Francis in recent times have done us all a favour. There is no getting away from the fact that Francis sees conscience having more work to do than simply determining church teaching and applying it to the case at hand. Each of us is called to form and inform our conscience and to that conscience be true. This is how Pope Francis explains the threefold role of conscience as we make our objective assessments, generous responses, and prayers for mercy:

'[First] conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel.

'[Second, conscience] can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God and

'[Third, through conscience we can] come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one's limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.

'In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realised.'

Francis says that a person can be living in God's grace while 'in an objective situation of sin', and that the sacraments, including the Eucharist might help, because the Eucharist 'is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak'. Francis demands that pastors and theologians not only be faithful to the Church but also be 'honest, realistic and creative' when confronting the diverse reality of families in the modern world. Just as he discounts those who have 'an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding', so too he dismisses those who 'would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations'. I think Tyrrell, the forgotten Jesuit of Catholic Modernism, would have gone along with most of this from our Jesuit pope. Pius X, Merry del Val, Mercier and Martin would have been deeply troubled by these recent papal statements. As Nicholas King says, this book 'is a warning of the terrible price we shall pay if we do not follow Pope Francis' leadership.'

I am one contemporary Jesuit who is very grateful that Anthony Maher has done so much to prompt the memory and restore the standing of a long forgotten, much misunderstood Jesuit, who at times (like most of us) was his own worst enemy. It's with great pleasure that I now launch The Forgotten Jesuit of Catholic Modernism: George Tyrrell's Prophetic Theology here at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture by the shores of Lake Burley Griffin.



Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Anthony M. Maher, Pope Francis, George Tyrrell'



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