Feast of Pope Pius X (August 21): Christ, Modernism and Teilhard de Chardin

Pope Pius X

Pope Pius X

Teilhard de Chardin

Teilhard de Chardin


A missed opportunity for unity amid the echos of St. Paul:

“The goal is to ‘restore all things in Christ’ so that ‘Christ may be all and in all’.  We need ‘to renew all things in Christ‘.  — St. Pope Pius X (citing St. Paul in setting forth the goals of his pontificate in his initial encyclical E Supremi ) (emphasis added)

“The universal Christ . . . is none other than the authentic expression of the Christ of the gospel. Christ renewed, it is true, by contact with the modern world, but at the same time Christ become even greater in order still to remain the same Christ. I have been reproached for being an innovator. In truth, the more I have thought about the magnificent cosmic attributes lavished by St. Paul on the risen Christ, and the more I have considered the masterful significance of the Christian virtues, the more clearly I have realized that Christianity takes on its full value only when extended . . . to cosmic dimensions” — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (emphasis added).

Today is the feast day of St. Pope Pius X, who died 99 years ago yesterday.  Pope Pius X was a very influential pope whose effects are still being felt today.  We will have a brief biography and then discuss his attacks on modernism and how his writings have been misinterpreted by both his current defenders and opponents.


The future Pope Pius X was born Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto at Riese, near Venice, on 2 June 1835. He was the second of 10 children in a poor family, his father being the village postman.  He was elected the 257th pope in August 1903. He was at first reluctant to accept the post but, after urging from fellow-cardinals and deep prayer, accepted the nomination. He took the name Pius out of respect for his predecessors with this name, especially Pius IX whom he admired.

Pope Pius instituted many reforms that encouraged a deeper spiritual life within the Church. He encouraged more frequent reception of Holy Communion and the admission of children to the Sacrament from the age of seven (an age at which it was felt children could understand the meaning of the Sacrament).  Pius also worked for the reform of Church music, encouraging the revival of Gregorian chant.  He also began the reform of the catechism and Canon Law, as well as the reorganization of the Curia administration of the Vatican.

In 1913 Pope Pius suffered a heart attack from which he never fully recovered.  The outbreak of World War I only worsened his condition and the 79-year-old pope became deeply depressed. He died on August 20, 1914.  In his will he wrote: “I was born poor, I have lived poor, and I wish to die poor.”  In May 1954, he became the first pope to be canonized since Pope Pius V in the 17th century.

Attacks on Modernism

“The church will always be more traditional than the traditionalist, and more modern than the modernist.” — Stephen from the Domestic Monk blog.

No blog devoted to the life of Teilhard de Chardin would be complete without a discussion of Pope Pius X’s decrees against modernism and the effects it had on the Church in the early 20th century that still reverberate today.  I had read about Pope Pius X and his attacks on modernism but until recently I actually have never read any of his encyclicals and other writings of Pope Pius X. Like most areas, the current interpretation of those writings, stacked upon decades of interpretation and seismic changes within the Church, are often very different than the primary texts themselves.

A couple of preliminary items are worth noting.  First, in his initial papal encyclical, E Supremi (On High), Pope Pius stated that the goal of his pontificate was “To renew all things in Christ.”  All of his other actions should be interpreted in light of that purpose.  As stated above, he undertook a number of significant reforms with the goal of orienting intellectual and liturgical life of the Church towards Christ.

Second, there was a strong current in early 20th century philosophy, academia and politics that was hostile to Catholicism. For example, during Pope Pius’ reign, France expelled the Jesuits and broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican.  Rome was operating within an environment where broad culture was hostile to it (a factor which was not helped by some of the appointments of Pope Pius, such as Secretary of State Rafael Merry del Val).

With that context, let us turn to the anti-modernist encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (On the Doctrines of the Modernists) issued in September 1907.  As an aside, I found the style of the encyclical very different than the recent encyclicals of Pope Benedict XVI.  Pope Benedict had a unique gift that stems from his extreme intelligence.  His encyclicals and papal writings and sermons had an academic quality to them but his logic and reasoning were exceptionally sharp and precise, like a fine-tuned knife slicing through tomatoes.  In contrast, Pascendi Dominci Gregis felt more like Pope Pius was smashing tomatoes with a sledgehammer.

Pascendi Dominici Gregis consists of three parts: (i) analysis of modernist teaching; (ii) causes of modernism (which I will not address for purposes of brevity); and (iii) remedies.  The first and by far the longest part was an attempt to articulate a coherent belief system of the disparate aspects of modernism in the areas of philosophy, history, science, theology, politics, biblical interpretations and other areas.  While the attacks take up more than 20 pages, they can be summarized as an attack on any intellectual foundation that strips away the divinity of Jesus and the role of the Church.  Specifically, Pope Pius attacks those who:

  • “assail all that is most sacred in the work of Christ . . . whom, with sacrilegious daring, they reduce to a simple, mere man.” (Section 2)
  • “starting from ignorance as to whether God has in fact intervened in the history of the human race or not, . . . proceed, in their explanation of this history, to ignore God altogether.” (Section 6)
  • “in the person of Christ. . . say science and history encounter nothing that is not human.” (Section 9)
  • “when they write history they make no mention of the divinity of Christ.” (Section 18)
  • “sees in Christ nothing more than a man whose religious consciousness has been, like that of all men, formed by degrees.” (Section 20)
  • “have a double Christ: a real Christ, and a Christ, the one of faith, who never really existed; a Christ who has lived at a given time and in a given place, and a Christ who has never lived outside the pious meditations of the believer – the Christ, for instance, whom we find in the Gospel of St. John, which is pure contemplation from beginning to end.” (Section 31)

Read in light of the goal of Pope Pius to “renew all things in Christ” as set forth in E Supremi, and the general hostility of many European governments and intellectuals towards the Church, is not surprising that he would harshly attack any trend that diminishes the stature of Christ.  The diminishment of the divinity of Christ, as set forth in the criticisms that Pope Pius levels above, is absolutely contrary to the core of Catholic faith.

However, it is in the third part of Pascendi Dominici Gregisthe remedies section, that I believe Pope Pius X went too far and ultimately harmed the Church.  This section established two items.  First, it mandated that scholastic philosophy, as taught by St. Thomas Aquinas, be the exclusive form of theology taught at seminaries.  Now, I certainly believe that St. Thomas Aquinas should be mandatory reading at seminaries (and undergraduate colleges as well, but that is off-topic), but Thomas Aquinas does not have a monopoly on theological insights.  It is worth remembering that the brilliance of St. Thomas Aquinas stems from his ability to “Christianize” Aristotle, which was the secular (to the extent secularism existed in the 13th century) philosophy of Aquinas’ time.  Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas was criticized during his life for being too “modern”.

Second, the last section of Pascendi Dominici Gregis led to the creation of the Sodalitium Pianum (or League of Pius V), an anti-modernist network of informants that censored many theological writings.  Although the motives of the creation of the Sodalitium Pianum may have been noble (promoting the primary of Christ), the imperfection of human beings (e.g. the frequently overzealous and clandestine methods of the Sodalitium Pianum, including opening and photographing private letters, and checking out the records of the local bookshop to see who was buying what), hindered rather than helped the Church’s cause.  This led to the stifling of strong Christocentric theologians (such as Teilhard de Chardin) who could have assisted in the evangelizing against a broad current of intellectual agnosticism in Europe.  It also led to the orthodoxy of many outstanding Catholic scholars being questioned for many years afterwards.

Teilhard de Chardin was a victim of the overzealousness of the Sodalitium Pianum.  The initial quote at the beginning of this blogpost indicates how Teilhard’s theology emphasizes Pope Pius X’s motto to “renew all things in Christ”.  Unfortunately the censors after the death of Pope Pius X focused too much on internal divisions at the great cost of harming the overall mission of the Church.  As Robert Speaight said in his biography of Teilhard de Chardin:

“The tendency of Modernism is to diminish the transcendent stature of Christ: Teilhard’s concern was to enlarge it to cosmic proportions.  So far from inventing a Christ to fit his own ideas, Teilhard had already found him in St. Paul.  It was ‘He in whom all things consist’, ‘He who fills all things’, ‘the Christ who is all in all’, and ‘has ascended high above all the heavens to fill all things with his presence’.  it was the Christus pantocrator of Byzantium, and more particularly the Christ of the Sacred Heart, freed from its popular iconography. Where the Modernist tends to imprison Christ in history at the same time as he questions the historicity of the Gospels which gave him to us, Teilhard adores him when he is transfigured on the mountain, rises from the tomb or is lost in the clouds above the heads of the Apostles. Whatever certain neo-modernists may pretend to the contrary, the opposition could not be more clear.”

Fortunately, Teilhard de Chardin and others have been rehabilitated in recent decades. Unfortunately, some of the same issues of Catholics focusing on minor internal divisions rather than spreading the Gospel message still exist today.


I note with more than a bit of irony, that the schismatic group originally led by excommunicated former Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, has adopted the name Society of Pope Paul X (SSPX).  Despite the valiant attempts of Pope Benedict XVI to bring the SSPX in union with the Catholic Church, the SSPX still refuses the accept the authority of the Pope.  Pope Pius X was a strong defender of the primacy of the papacy and the unity of the Church.

In a bit of Orwellian doublethink, Teilhard and many others who remained loyal to the Church and the Pope are dubbed “modernists” while the schismatic Archbishop Lefebvre and his disciples who followed the footsteps of Martin Luther and broke away from Rome are being called “traditionalists”.  What Pope Pius X said in Pascendi Dominici Gregis to those who substitute their will for that of the Church, I am confident he would say to the SSPX:

“Finally, and this almost destroys all hope of cure, their very doctrines have given such a bent to their minds, that they disdain all authority and brook no restraint; and relying upon a false conscience, they attempt to ascribe to a love of truth that which is in reality the result of pride and obstinacy.” (Pascendi Dominici Gregis, Section 3).

Perhaps it is best to focus on Catholic and Christian unity and avoid labels that are not only unhelpful but are divisive to the Gospel message.

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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7 Responses to Feast of Pope Pius X (August 21): Christ, Modernism and Teilhard de Chardin

  1. irishsignora says:

    Loved the “smashing tomatoes with a sledgehammer!” Thanks for a thought-provoking morning read. Peace be with you -Kelly

    • Kelly, thank you for stopping by. I enjoy reading your experiences with your children. I only have two and they are slightly older than yours (ages 9 and 6) but I can relate to some of your experiences.

  2. And to think it only took almost 400 years for a pardon for the catholic Galileo, as was granted by Pope John Paul II—the Church, just like most of us, eventually tries to make things right 🙂 Hindsight is indeed 20/20

    • Yes indeed. I am sure that our descendants 500 years in the future will lack back at our institutions and culture and ask themselves “what were they thinking?”. As an optimist, I believe we are moving in the right direction, even if the road is slow with a few detours.

  3. Des Farrell says:

    Outstanding piece again. I don’t know where you get the time to write these!
    The recent link to the blog New Wood is much appreciated, I’m following his work on Facebook.

    • Des, thank you for the kind words. This blog is a labor of love and it also helps me. I have all these ideas in my head and I find it beneficial to share with others. I sometimes drive my wife nuts and some of my other friends are helpful so having another outlet to share ideas with people of similar interests in helpful. The fall is going to be very busy so my output may slow down.

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