Modern Culture and science Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, May. 14, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

Third in a series of reflections by Fr. Robert Barron on the life of Cardinal Francis George.

The second major feature of modernity that Cardinal Francis George identified is an extreme valorization of the physical sciences, or in his own words, “the imposing of scientific method as the point of contact between human beings and the world and society into which they are born.”

The founders of modernity appreciated the sciences not only for their descriptive and predictive powers, but also for their liberating potential. Bacon, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Kant, and many others held that the mastery over nature provided by burgeoning physics, chemistry, medicine, etc., would free the human race from its age-old captivity to sickness and the strictures of time and space.

Scientistic attitude

But what this led to -- and I see it practically every day in my evangelical work -- was the development of a "scientism" which, as a matter of ideological conviction, excludes non-scientific or extra-scientific ways of knowing, including and especially religious ways.

The scientistic attitude has also obscured the undeniably theological foundations for the scientific enterprise, namely the assumptions that the world is not God (and hence can be analyzed) and that the world is stamped, in every detail, by intelligibility.

Both of these assumptions are predicated upon the doctrine of creation, which the founders of modern science took in, along with their astronomy, mathematics, and physics, at Church-sponsored universities.

In the measure that the sciences flow from and rest upon the properly theological presumptions that the non-divine universe is well-ordered and intelligible, Catholic theology can involve itself in a very fruitful dialogue with them; but in the measure that scientism comes to hold sway, the Church must resist.

Liberal Catholicism

One of Cardinal George's most memorable remarks is that liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project. It is important that we parse his words here carefully.

By "liberal Catholicism" he means an approach to the Catholic faith that takes seriously the positive achievements of the modern culture. In this sense, Lacordaire, Lord Acton, Lamennais, von Dollinger, and Newman were all liberal Catholics -- and their successors would include De Lubac, Rahner, Guardini, Ratzinger, and Congar.

One of the permanent achievements of the liberal Catholic project, in Cardinal George's judgment, is "restoring to the center of the Church’s consciousness the Gospel's assertion that Christ has set us free, but also for the insight and analysis that enabled the Church herself to break free of the conservative social structures in which she had become imprisoned."

In the 1950's, Hans Urs von Balthasar called, in a similar vein, for a "razing of the bastions," behind which the Church had been crouching, in order to let out the life that she had preserved. This is very much in line with Vatican II's limited accommodation to modernity in service of the evangelical mission.

Liberal Catholicism also took into account the second great achievement of modernity, stressing that certain doctrinal formulations and Biblical interpretations had to be reassessed in light of the findings of modern science.

One thinks in this context of the interventions, made by a number of bishops on the council floor at Vatican II, concerning certain naïvely literalistic readings of the Old Testament.

Signs of exhaustion

All of this assimilation of the best of the modern represents the permanent achievement of Catholic liberalism, and this is why Cardinal George never argued that liberalism is simply a failed or useless project. He said it was an exhausted project, parasitical on a substance that no longer exists.

What are the signs of exhaustion? The cardinal explains that the liberal project has gone off the rails inasmuch as it "seems to interpret the council as a mandate to change whatever in the Church clashes with modern society," as though, in the words of the notorious slogan from the 1960's, "the world sets the agenda for the Church."

If the Church only provides vaguely religious motivation for the mission and work of the secular society, then the Church has lost its soul, devolving into a cheerleader for modernity.

Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at