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06 Feb

Catholic Modernist: George Tyrrell

George Tyrrell

In a previous post I argued against the idea that there were no Irish theological thinkers of note. Another example is the 19th and 20th century thinker George Tyrrell, whose ideas were received very differently by the Catholic Church. He was dismissed from the Society of Jesus in 1906 due to his modernist ideas.

George Tyrrell was born on 6 February 1861 at 91 Dorset St, Dublin. Born into an impoverished Church of Ireland family, he converted to Roman Catholicism in London aged eighteen and entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1880. He took his first vows in 1882, and studied philosophy in Stonyhurst College and theology in St Beuno’s College in North Wales (following in the footsteps of Gerard Manley Hopkins a decade earlier). He was ordained in 18911.

During his novitiate, he became interested in the theology of Thomas Aquinas, and adopted the idea that Aquinas should be studied in his own terms rather than through the commentaries of the 17th century Jesuit scholastic, Francisco Suarez. While this was in line with Catholic thought in general at the time, it ran counter to trends within the Jesuit order. When he returned to Stonyhurst as a teacher after ordination, this view led to conflict with other professors within the seminary. Judged too disruptive, he was removed from teaching in 1896 and was assigned as a staff writer on the Jesuit journal, The Month2.

It was during this period living in London that he came became concerned that the doctrine of the time was not meeting the intellectual and spiritual needs of the time. He also came into contact with Catholic intellectuals such as Baron Friedrich von Hügel and Maude Petre, and through them the ideas of Maurice Blondel, who accepted the limits on human reason put forward by Kant and later modern thinkers but sought to reconcile this with faith3.

Tyrrell embraced the modernist movement’s attempt to reform the church through criticism of scholasticism and of the church’s traditionalism and conservatism. Tyrrell viewed modernism as a belief in “the possibility of of a synthesis between the essential truth of…religion and the essential truth of modernity” (Christianity at the Crossroads, p. 5). He criticised scholasticism for privileging rational theology over religious experience and “ecclesiasticism” for privileging authority and dogma over personal faith. He argued that faith had all too often been used as a method of control, by “gripping men by what is deepest in them — their conscience” (Christianity at the Crossroads, p. 219). Tyrrell instead wanted a personal heartfelt religion which made the believer “a bird free on the wing” (Christianity at the Crossroads, p. 219), and that replaced deference to priests with a more democratic conception of God4.

These ideas were at odds with the scholastic tradition of the Jesuit order and the Catholic Church. The issue came to a head in 1899, when the Weekly Register published an essay by Tyrrell on hell, called ‘A Perverted Devotion’. Expressing the view that in some respects the church’s view on Hell was cruel and unjust, and fitted badly with the idea of an all-forgiving God, the suggestion that “temperate agnosticism” might be required for intelligent faith was the last straw. The General Superior of the Jesuits, Fr Luís Martín, insisted that Tyrrell write only for The Month and be rigorously censored. Tyrrell was sent to live in Yorkshire at his request, and started to write anonymously and pseudonymously. The publication of his views in an Italian newspaper in 1906 led to his dismissal from the Society of Jesus5.

George Tyrrell’s gravestone Wikimedia/Public Domain

Tyrrell was was deprived of the sacraments (‘a minor excommunication’) for criticising the encyclical Pascendi, which condemned modernism, in two articles published in The Times on 30 September and 1 October 1907. Ill with Bright’s Disease, he died after a bout of flu on 15th July 1909 in Maude Petre’s house in Sussex. Maud Petre edited and the Autobiography and Life of George Tyrrell published in 19126.

It was said of him: “He did not really advance the cause of reform. First because his expressions of protest were too extreme putting off the ordinary Catholic; secondly because he too distorted the facts”7. At Vatican II, he was called ‘the prince of the Modernists’ and the ‘apostate priest’ by Cardinal Ruffini. But the Council arguably vindicated Tyrrell’s position8:

as David Schultenover, on the last page of his critical study of Tyrrell’s thought, writes: ‘Anyone who has studied both him and the documents of Vatican II will recognise his principles reborn on nearly every page’.

George TyrrellFeatured Image: George Tyrrell, Wikimedia/Public Domain

Further Reading

Oliver P. Rafferty SJ (2012) “George Tyrrell and Catholic Modernism” in Thinking Faith (online)

Michael Hurley SJ (2009) “George Tyrrell and John Sullivan: Sinner and Saint?” in Thinking Faith (online)

Anthony Carroll (2012) “Modernism: The Philosophical Foundations” in Thinking Faith (online).

Wesley Wildman (1994) “http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/bce/tyrrell.htm” in The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology (online).

Owen F. Cummings (2007) Prophets, Guardians, and Saints: Shapers of Modern Catholic History, Paulist Press, pp. 188-9.

References

  1. Michael Hurley SJ (2009) “George Tyrrell and John Sullivan: Sinner and Saint?” in Thinking Faith (online). Thomas Duddy (2004) “Tyrrell, George (1861-1909)” in Thomas Duddy (ed) Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, Thoemmes, pp. 347-8
  2. Oliver P. Rafferty SJ (2012) “George Tyrrell and Catholic Modernism” in Thinking Faith (online)
  3. Anthony Carroll (2012) “Modernism: The Philosophical Foundations” in Thinking Faith (online). Wesley Wildman (1994) “http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/bce/tyrrell.htm” in The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology (online). Owen F. Cummings (2007) Prophets, Guardians, and Saints: Shapers of Modern Catholic History, Paulist Press, pp. 188-9.
  4. Duddy (2004)
  5. Rafferty SJ (2012)
  6. Rafferty SJ (2012). Cummings (2007), p. 147.
  7. Meriol Trevor (1969) Prophets and Guardians: Renewal and Tradition in the Church quoted by Cummings (2007), p. 147
  8. Michael Hurley (2012)

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