Almost Forgotten Heroes
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Catholic intellectuals sought to reconcile their faith with questions posed by modernity that challenged the church’s understanding of the Bible, its history and its relationship with society. These efforts did not sit well with authorities in Rome, who viewed these intellectual endeavors as threatening the foundations of the Catholic faith. Their answer was the encyclical “Pascendi Dominici Gregis,” issued on Sept. 8, 1907, in which Pope Saint Pius X condemned a series of errors labeled Modernism. The encyclical unleashed what has become known as the Modernist crisis. Divided Friends is a study of the effects of this crisis in the United States. William L. Portier, a professor of theology at the University of Dayton, examines the impact of the crisis by focusing on the lives of four prominent Catholic individuals and how it divided friend from friend.
After a brief discussion of American Catholic intellectual life both before and after the condemnation of Modernism, the author turns his attention to the intellectual journeys of two gifted priests, John R. Slattery and Denis J. O’Connell. With a detective’s zeal and the trained eye of a theologian, Portier examines their correspondence, which was widely scattered throughout European and American archives. He even unearthed Slattery’s autobiography hidden in a Paris archive. Throughout the decade prior to “Pascendi,” O’Connell and Slattery continually discussed the incompatibility of medieval Catholicism with modern science and the intellectual implications of the development of doctrine on Catholic dogma. In 1904 Slattery, a Josephite missionary and a priest for 27 years, decided to abandon his priesthood and eventually his Catholic faith. For him Catholicism would soon become, as Portier put it, “nothing more than a human philosophy.”
O’Connell‘s intellectual journey took a very different course. Like Slattery, he was a liberal, modern thinker. But along the way, according to Slattery, he succumbed to the disease of clerical careerism, preferring the bishop’s miter to intellectual integrity. His career path took him from rector of the North American College in Rome in 1885 to rector of Catholic University in 1903. In his 50s, by this time he had distanced himself from Slattery, his intellectual soulmate, and had become a severe critic of Modernist thinking. In 1912 he was appointed bishop of Richmond, Va., where he remained a staunch defender of “Pascendi.” Of Portier’s four main personalities, O’Connell emerges as the most tragic figure.
After a brief discussion of Catholic theological culture in the early 20th century in the United States, Portier turns his attention to two Paulist priests, William L. Sullivan and Joseph McSorley. They both taught at the Paulist seminary in Washington, D.C., where they became friends. But their intellectual journeys changed radically after the publication of “Pascendi” in 1907. Within a year Sullivan had resigned from the Paulists and the Catholic Church. As he later put it, “I discovered that a reform of Catholicism was a hopeless cause.” Soon afterwards he joined the Unitarians, where he became an acclaimed preacher and writer.
Portier devotes a great deal of attention to McSorley. Of the four biographical studies, his is the most engaging and inspiring. Prior to the condemnation of Modernism, McSorley had become the literary agent for George Tyrell, an English Jesuit and prominent Catholic intellectual, whose writings on theology challenged traditional Catholic dogma. McSorley continually worked to get Tyrell’s writings published in American Catholic journals. But once “Pascendi” was issued, Tyrell was doomed, and his criticism of the papal edict led to his excommunication. After destroying all his correspondence with Tyrell, writes Portier, McSorley “devoted a good part of the rest of his life to teaching people to pray.” One of his more famous pupils was Dorothy Day, who considered him a saint.
McSorley is the principal figure who unifies the concluding sections of the book. In 1909 Paulist Press published McSorley’s book, The Sacrament of Duty. Praising it as “the most inspiring piece of writing to come out of the modernist crisis in the United States,” Portier analyzes the significance of the book in great detail. Looming behind all of McSorley’s writings was the figure of Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, and according to Portier “one of America’s truly home-grown religious geniuses.” McSorley spent much of his life promoting “Hecker’s vision of the spiritual life, the Paulists and American Catholicism.”
Underlying the entire book is Portier’s strong belief that despite the condemnation of Americanism in 1899 and Modernism in 1907, American Catholics never stopped thinking. As a result, a vibrant intellectual tradition that emerged in the 1880s continued to flourish throughout the 20th century. The sections of the book on Slattery and McSorley are the most original and rewarding chapters. Not only did Portier rescue McSorley from obscurity, but his splendid study has also rediscovered an important chapter in American Catholic intellectual life.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “Almost Forgotten Heroes,” in the September 22, 2014, issue.