Friday, January 15, 2016

HJA Sire on the Recent Church

Bookends of an era look at each other.
Fr. Hunwicke continues to plug for H.J.A. Sire's Phoenix from the Ashes, a book about the decline and aspiring restoration of Western Catholic culture. While the book begins very factually and Eurocentric, it develops a broader and spiritual view of the Church and her influence on the West. I have only recently begun the book, but Sire's comments on the Church's last 120 years demand some reflection:
"When Leo XIII died in 1903, distinct progress had taken place in the intellectual life of the Church. Nevertheless, the revival of Thomism had among some an unintended consequence. These fell into treating St. Thomas's work not as a philosophical system but as a store from which infallible answers were to be extracted on any subject. While some were thus making Thomism the basis for innovative thought, others made it into a system that was unlikely to convince minds not predisposed to accept it. Partly for that reason, the extension of the Thomist approach beyond seminaries and its acquisition of a real influence on contemporary thought was not achieved." (137)
"The integrist frame of mind, now as a hundred years ago, may be defined as follows: its exponents are clericalist in their sympathies, and they were also strongly papalist until events since the 1960s forced them to shift their position. Their outlook is distinctly Western and relatively modern, tending to see the period from 1850 to 1958 as the norm of Catholic practice. They regard popes Pius IX, Pius X, and Pius XII as the models of what a pope ought to be, but (with due respect for their sacred office) really look upon Leo XIII and Pius XI as rather letting down the standards of papal authority. They show little sympathy with political and social pragmatism in the framing of religious policy. In philosophy, they hold to Thomism as the bastion of orthodoxy, to the extent of considering any lapse from the pure word of St. Thomas as inherently unsound." (139)
 "What can be said, however, was that [Pius X's] measures [against Modernism] were over-influenced by conditions in Italy, where Modernism was a pretentious, elusive, and even underhand phenomenon, and where there was, in parallel, a strong need to tighten standards in seminary training. In Italy, his measures may have been successful, but in the world as a whole they must be considered to have had a narrowing effect on the clerical intellect. Theologians need to be lean greyhounds, seeking out heresy and hunting it down; instead they became fat lap dogs, yapping foolishly at the enemy beyond the window. The results of Pius X's policy were seen in the Second Vatican Council, when two thousand bishops who had solemnly taken the anti-Modernist oath at their ordination were unable to recognize Modernism when it jumped up and bit them" (140)
"Journalistic opinion, remembering as always nothing beyond last week, worked to give [John XXIII's] reign the appearance of a new era, a distortion that has imposed itself ever since; but at the time those who remembered Pius XI and Leo XIII would have regarded his pontificate, apart from a certain naive optimism that distinguished it, as a return to a familiar style. Essentially, the reign of John XXIII is in the tradition of the period since 1814." (145)
"Linked with this clericalism was the dominance of a seminary-bound school of theology, losing something of the human fullness of earlier centuries. Thus, in natural theology there was a certain over-intellectualisation of the understanding of God, which lost sight of the potency of love as a divine attribute; akin to it, an over-spiritualisation of the doctrine of the Eucharist, obscuring the reality of physical union with Christ." (147)
Sire is fond of the post-Napoleonic period and even equates it with the revivals of the Middle Ages and Counter-Reformation, but also readily acknowledges that its limitations and drawbacks impeded it from influencing society and the Church in the same way.

The below documentary could be a primary source document for Sire's last observation. Ushaw, sadly, had to close a few years ago for lack of students. It had over 400 when this footage was filmed.


  1. I've just started reading the book over the last two weeks myself.

    I wasn't sure what I was expecting, even with Fr. Hunwicke's and Dr. Kwasniewski's enthusiastic endorsements. But it certainly had some surprises in it, including the narrative you just posted. I was pleased to see him share my view of Leo XIII and Pius XI as the best of the modern popes (and Leo as a truly great one), but also the critical comments about the Syllabus or Errors and the Anti-Modernist campaign - again, not the sort of thing you expect in a typical traditionalist narrative. He's sympathetic to Lefebvre while not being blind to his flaws. His assessment of Pius XII's reforms in the 1950's (p. 234) is mixed extremely terse but mixed; I cannot help the impression that his examination of the liturgy lacks some depth that the book could have profited from.

    Sire's book is getting wide play in traditional circles now. It could we be that we really are starting to see an openness to challenging a longstanding narrative that really needed some adjusting.

  2. "Sire is fond of the post-Napoleonic period and even equates it with the revivals of the Middle Ages and Counter-Reformation, but also readily acknowledges that its limitations and drawbacks impeded it from influencing society and the Church in the same way."

    This quote is what got me regularly looking at this blog. I'd like to know the specifics of how he equates it with those revivals, if you know, as well as what you think on the matter. I'm very curious.

    God bless.