Claude Tresmontant – Intégrisme, Progressivism and Modernism (1977)

[Originally published in La Voix du Nord, October 2, 1977.]

These [words] are the insults that Christians throw at each other’s faces, and it is barely possible to hope for a precise definition to be found for them. They are vague, a bit like those pies that comic actors at the turn of the century liked to throw at each other to amuse […] people. But there nevertheless must exist some grains of substance in this vagueness. The intégriste is usually a man of the right, a conservative, but this is not always the case, and it is not absolutely necessary, because there exists some on the right in politics who are modernists in theology. There exists some on the left in politics who are very conservative in theology.

The intégriste is a man who wants, who claims to integrally conserve the content of the Christian faith, and in this, he is right. The trouble is that too often they do not see well that the Christian tradition, which is not only the past of the Church’s thought, is also its future. Said differently, the living tradition of the Church is not finished, it continues. Again […] the Church has not finished, it has not explicitly finished realizing the content of its treasure, which it guards faithfully, the Revelation which is entrusted to it. She takes new things from her treasury each day and illuminates them. And this is what we call, since the great Cardinal Newman, dogmatic development. The intégriste has a tendency to not understand dogmatic development. He mistrusts it, and he is incorrect, because this is the living thought of the Church which grows in science and wisdom. The intégriste has a tendency to think that perfection is in the beginning, and not the end. Yet, the Church thinks that her perfection, her plenitude, her achievement, is in front of her, in the future, during the Parousia, and not in its past. Moreover, the intégriste very often does not perceive that in this progressive development of her own thought, the Church leaves behind, during the course of the centuries, like dead bark, representations which are henceforth deciduous.

Example: the great Augustine, at the end of the 4th century, thought that a singular individual called Adam had introduced physical death into the world which, in Augustine’s eyes, was only some thousand years old. So that before this Adam, there was no physical death in nature. We know nowadays that physical, or more precisely physiological, death is inherent in compound, multicellular organisms since they have existed in nature, that is to say, at least since a billion years. […] This is not a punishment, it is not a delayed chastisement, it is a necessity in their nature and man has nothing to do with it since he just come to appear in the natural history of the species. Modern man, Homo sapiens, is some tens of thousands years old. What does that say about geological time? Moreover, we know from Herbaic philology that in Hebrew adam is not a proper name designating a singular individual, but a common name which quite simply signifies: Man. Thus, here is a representation, familiar to Saint Augustine, that we had to rethink.

Augustine believed that a child brought to baptism and who dies on the way is damned. Our theologians today no longer think this.

Thus, certain representations fall away, like dead bark. Our intégristes have an unfortunate tendency to cling to these representations from the past, to attach themselves to them and, to confuse the dead bark with the living sap of the growing tree. We must pay attention, because sometimes the dead bark hinders the growth of the tree. The old representations could indeed choke the young tree, which is the Church in its development.

On the progressivist side, in general, one does not encounter these difficulties because for some generations already we have increasingly tended to lose interest in theology, that is to say, the content of the thought of the Church[.] We are fascinated by politics, we bring back, we reduce everything to politics, as if the ultimate end of Christianity was politics. We manifest a certain propensity to identify the kingdom of God and the ideal society of which we dream. This is a heresy almost as old as the Church, the millenarian heresy. We increasingly ignore the mystical dimension of Christianity. The French who have an automobile know some basic mechanics. Our Christian progressivists, more often than not, no longer know anything of the doctrine which they are supposed to profess, and they even go on repeating that there is no doctrine, no content. Let us note, in passing, to be exact, that it is not at all necessary to have undergone the influence of Marxism to think in this way. It is a general tendency in present-day humanity.

We must render justice to the intégristes: it is sometimes found among them those who have a good, classical, theological formation, and in general they respect theology. We must render justice to our Christian progressivists: often, they have evangelical sense, a sense of the poor, of the oppressed, of justice, and they deeply live the spirit of the Gospels, even if they no longer know theology. On the intégriste side, one can sometimes discern an opposite tendency: to obey theology but to forget the Gospel spirit. This tendency cynically expresses itself in one of the gurus [maîtres à penser] of the Catholic right, Charles Maurras, who dared to congratulate the Roman Church, who had put certain Gospel texts into Latin, says Maurras, so as to attenuate the venom. Maurras was thinking, for example, of the song of Mary, who rejoices because God has put down the powerful and raised the humble. On this point Nietzsche and Maurras were in agreement: evangelical Christianity is subversive, it contains within itself a revolutionary leaven. That is what Maurras and Nietzsche could not forgive in Christianity.

There would be a solution: our Catholic integralists could give some theology lessons to their Christian progressivist brothers, for example, evening classes. In exchange, Christian progressivists could re-read to the Catholic right certain pages from the New Testament which are somewhat neglected.

But modernism? The epithet of modernism is used today time and time again, by partisan of Mgr. Lefebvre for example, to address, of course, their opponents. To know what this epithet means exactly, we must make reference to the great doctrinal crisis which took place in the Church at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th. It was an impressive crisis of belief. Eminent men of science and courage were engaged in this battle of giants. The sciences, philosophy, and politics, found themselves confronted with Christian theology. The few persons who know what they’re talking about when they employ the epithet of “modernist” know that in this this great crisis, the fundamental problems of theology were rethought. To write the history of this crisis would require, as Saint-Beuve did for Port-Royal, several large volumes. We will say a few words about it next time.