Thursday, August 23, 2012

Modernism, Phenomenology, Personalism...and TOB

I’m not a philosopher…despite the fact that I hold a Doctor of Philosophy degree. I’ve always been attracted to the field of philosophy, but every time I start to delve into it just a little, I remember why I’ve never pursued it. These quotes sum it up nicely:
In the eye of healthy sense the philosopher is at best a learned fool. --Bill James

Philosophy: unintelligible answers to insoluble problems. --Henry Brooks Adams

Philosophy is an unusually ingenious attempt to think fallaciously. --Bertrand Russell


Still, philosophy is important in understanding the Catholic faith. If we don’t keep our eyes open and try to understand a little about the philosophical wars that have gone on in the Church, we’ll be more likely to be distracted by “feel-good” ideas that are born of misinterpretation of the philosophical schools of thought behind them…or sometimes of the philosophical school itself. I think, in fact, this has occurred with some aspects of Blessed John Paul II’s teaching, particularly his Theology of the Body.

Here’s an important point to keep in mind in this discussion of philosophy: In 1907, Pope Pius X promulgated his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (“Feeding the Lord’s Flock”) which defined and condemned modernism. The oath against modernism was introduced on September 1, 1910, and was in effect until Pope Paul VI did away with it in 1967. I’m particularly interested in the fifth item of the oath, which required the subject to acknowledge that:

Fifthly, I hold with certainty and sincerely confess that faith is not a blind sentiment of religion welling up from the depths of the subconscious under the impulse of the heart and the motion of a will trained to morality; but faith is a genuine assent of the intellect to truth received by hearing from an external source. By this assent, because of the authority of the supremely truthful God, we believe to be true that which has been revealed and attested to by a personal God, our Creator and Lord.

The reason that paragraph interests me is that it seems to point directly at the philosophies of personalism and phenomenology. To the extent that these two schools of thought emphasize personal experience as that which determines reality, they lead us away from true Catholic thought and teaching, away from “the authority of the supremely truthful God”, as Pope Pius X noted. That can’t be good!

So…let’s talk about modernism, phenomenology, and personalism.  Again, I’m not an expert; I’m speaking from my own cursory reading of articles on the internet, and chapters in a few books I own. That said, as far as I have been able to discern, everyone seems to be in agreement that it is difficult to define these philosophies, because there is no single unifying foundation or theorist for any of them. But usually, we can trace a “Catholic” perspective on each.

Wikipedia says that “Roman Catholic personalism” is (italics in original):

A distinctively Christian personalism developed in the 20th century. Its main theorist was the Polish philosopher Karol Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II). In his work, Love and Responsibility, first published in 1960, Wojtyła proposed what he termed 'the personalistic norm': "This norm, in its negative aspect, states that the person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end. In its positive form the personalistic norm confirms this: the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love". This is a first principle of Christian personalism: persons are not to be used, but to be respected and loved. In Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council formulated what has come to be considered the key expression of this personalism: "man....cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself".

It doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Certainly, the idea of the dignity of the human person is fitting, and soundly Catholic. I think the problem comes, though, when we begin to glorify the human person, and it seems to me that that is a weakness of personalism. Secular personalists, for example, find the ideas of Thomas Aquinas (which Wikipedia calls “Realistic Personal Theism”) “inadequate, for they make finite persons dependent for their existence upon an infinite Person and support this view by an unintelligible doctrine of creatio ex nihilo” (see Wikipedia article).  In other words, they take God out of the picture.

Phenomenology is also multi-faceted. Here’s one general definition:

Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view. 

Pope John Paul II was strongly influenced in his thinking by phenomenologist Max Scheler. Wikipedia says:

Max Scheler
…[Scheler]was a German philosopher known for his work in phenomenology, ethics, and philosophical anthropology. … In 1954, Karol Wojtyła, later Pope John Paul II, defended his doctoral thesis on "An Evaluation of the Possibility of Constructing a Christian Ethics on the Basis of the System of Max Scheler."

The article gives a general statement of Scheler’s take on phenomenology (italics in original):

…[T]hat which is given in phenomenology "is given only in the seeing and experiencing act itself." …Phenomenology is an engagement of phenomena, while simultaneously a waiting for its self-givenness; it is not a methodical procedure of observation as if its object is stationary. Thus, the particular attitude…of the philosopher is crucial for the disclosure, or seeing, of phenomenological facts. This attitude is fundamentally a moral one, where the strength of philosophical inquiry rests upon the basis of love. Scheler describes the essence of philosophical thinking as "a love-determined movement of the inmost personal self of a finite being toward participation in the essential reality of all possibles."

It’s easy to see the impact on JPII, certainly in the surface terminology of “love” and “self-giving”.  What about on a deeper level? Wikipedia also notes that

A novel aspect of Scheler's ethics is the importance of the "kairos" or call of the hour. Moral rules cannot guide the person to make ethical choices in difficult, existential life-choices. For Scheler, the very capacity to obey rules is rooted in the basic moral tenor of the person. [my emphasis]

Again, I’m no expert in this area. But do you also see, from the above quotes, how much like moral relativism this sounds? The focus is on the individual’s experience, and I imagine there is some value in that viewpoint when you examine it in the context of carefully defined philosophical terms. Still, the emphasis on personal experience – and I understand that these philosophical schools are really much more nuanced and developed than I am portraying here – leads straight down a slippery slope. It seems to me that phenomenology and personalism sort of go hand-in-hand, but the combination of the two leads the untrained lay philosopher into some serious errors of theology, morality, and logic which can be summed up in the one sentence that epitomizes society today: “It’s all about me.”

Taking a look at Pascendi, we find Pope Pius X distinguishing between the Philosopher and the Believer; he tells us that, according to modernism (my emphases throughout):

…it must be observed that, although the Philosopher recognizes as the object of faith the divine reality, still this reality is not to be found but in the heart of the Believer, as being an object of sentiment and affirmation; and therefore confined within the sphere of phenomena; but as to whether it exists outside that sentiment and affirmation is a matter which in no way concerns this Philosopher. [14]

In other words, modernist philosophy says that “reality” is to be found in the heart, and is not concerned with whether that “reality” exists outside the experience of the believer.  We see this percolating down through secular society as the notion that the only thing that matters is “my experience” of whatever “reality” might be under consideration. In fact, I think this is evident in what Pope Pius X says next:

For the Modernist Believer, on the contrary, it is an established and certain fact that the divine reality does really exist in itself and quite independently of the person who believes in it. If you ask on what foundation this assertion of the Believer rests, they answer: In the experience of the individual. On this head the Modernists differ from the Rationalists only to fall into the opinion of the Protestants and pseudo-mystics. [14]

And he concludes that

…How far off we are here from Catholic teaching we have already seen in the decree of the [first] Vatican Council. We shall see later how, with such theories, added to the other errors already mentioned, the way is opened wide for atheism. Here it is well to note at once that, given this doctrine of experience united with the other doctrine of symbolism, every religion, even that of paganism, must be held to be true. What is to prevent such experiences from being met within every religion? In fact that they are to be found is asserted by not a few. And with what right will Modernists deny the truth of an experience affirmed by a follower of Islam? With what right can they claim true experiences for Catholics alone? Indeed Modernists do not deny but actually admit, some confusedly, others in the most open manner, that all religions are true. [14]

So, even if an oath against modernism is no longer required, it still seems to be a path fraught with peril, leading to moral relativism. Modernism, phenomenology, and personalism all seem to be vulnerable to this fatal problem pointed out by Pius X in Pascendi:

In the writings and addresses they seem not infrequently to advocate now one doctrine now another so that one would be disposed to regard them as vague and doubtful…[I]n their books you find some things which might well be expressed by a Catholic, but in the next page you find other things which might have been dictated by a rationalist. When they write history they make no mention of the divinity of Christ, but when they are in the pulpit they profess it clearly; again, when they write history they pay no heed to the Fathers and the Councils, but when they catechize the people, they cite them respectfully…[A]fter having blotted out the old theology, [they] endeavor to introduce a new theology which shall follow the vagaries of their philosophers.

Unfortunately, these words seem to me to be applicable to John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which was clearly developed in a modernist, phenomenologist, personalist spirit. As Randy Engel puts it,

That the Theology of the Body makes for difficult reading and even more difficult understanding is readily admitted by both proponents and opponents of Wojtyla’s work.

Indeed, a world-wide cottage industry has come into existence, having its sole objective the explanation and popularization of the new theology…[P]erhaps the difficulty…stems from the fact that [TOB writings] are not Catholic, or perhaps it is fairer and more accurate to say that where his writings are original they are not Catholic, and where they are Catholic they are not original.

Seems like a big problem to me.  Stay tuned; more to come…


  1. Even when a philosophy is quite solid and quite coherent, it can still be quite wrong (G.K. Chesterton). Unfortunately, some things are just not that obvious anymore.

    Incoherent is a good word to describe TOB.

    The devil is the master of half-truths, which actually sound believable.

    If you can't convince them, confuse them.

    I'm all for bringing back the Oath Against Modernism. It rings loud and clear!

  2. HSE - yes! I agree; let's bring back that oath! And yes, the devil does work those half-truths, doesn't he? And he redefines words, too (the blatant secular example being the "pro-choice" vocabulary). I think one of the best skills parents can teach their children is logical thinking.

  3. Yes, Vatican II ushered in an era of phenomenology. We, the faithful, have been an experiment. Everything that is True has been denied. The faith has been reduced to one's personal experiences. No one need convert to Catholicism because all faiths contain truth and the path toward God. You analysis is correct, and I am no philosopher. It's best to follow what we know is true, the Faith of Our Fathers, the Church before Vatican II. These are very dark times.


Please be courteous and concise.