PERENNIALISM: MODERNISM TAILORED FOR TRADITIONAL CATHOLICS
The Le Floch Report has discussed the Perennialist ideology and many of its material manifestations. These manifestations such as the rejection of technology, the treatment of women as mindless, and the concept that Catholics must return to the land, all give the impression that Perennialism is the opposite of Modernism. In fact, the two ideologies are so similar that much of the encyclical Pascendi can be applied to the Perennialists as well as to the Modernists.
Pope Pius X began his encyclical Pascendi with a description of the Modernists which is perfectly applicable to Catholic Perrenialists.
Though they express astonishment themselves, no one can justly be surprised that We number such men among the enemies of the Church, if, leaving out of consideration the internal disposition of soul, of which God alone is the judge, he is acquainted with their tenets, their manner of speech, their conduct. Nor indeed will he err in accounting them the most pernicious of all the adversaries of the Church. For as We have said, they put their designs for her ruin into operation not from without but from within; hence, the danger is present almost in the very veins and heart of the Church, whose injury is the more certain, the more intimate is their knowledge of her. Moreover they lay the axe not to the branches and shoots, but to the very root, that is, to the faith and its deepest fires. And having struck at this root of immortality, they proceed to disseminate poison through the whole tree, so that there is no part of Catholic truth from which they hold their hand, none that they do not strive to corrupt. Further, none is more skilful, none more astute than they, in the employment of a thousand noxious arts; for they double the parts of rationalist and Catholic, and this so craftily that they easily lead the unwary into error; and since audacity is their chief characteristic, there is no conclusion of any kind from which they shrink or which they do not thrust forward with pertinacity and assurance. To this must be added the fact, which indeed is well calculated to deceive souls, that they lead a life of the greatest activity, of assiduous and ardent application to every branch of learning, and that they possess, as a rule, a reputation for the strictest morality. Finally, and this almost destroys all hope of cure, their very doctrines have given such a bent to their minds, that they disdain all authority and brook no restraint; and relying upon a false conscience, they attempt to ascribe to a love of truth that which is in reality the result of pride and obstinacy.
The real similarities and differences between Modernism and Perennialism can be easily seen when one reads through Pascendi and compares the two ideologies.
Agnosticism, Vital Immanence, and the Evolution of Doctrine: The Modernist
As St. Pius X explained in paragraph 6 of Pascendi, the Modernists do not believe that the intellect can obtain certain knowledge concerning immaterial things through the use of reason. The Modernists believe that the mind can only grasp “phenomena” (the materially sensible). Since the Modernists do not believe the reason can grasp true understanding from the outside world, the idea that Our Lord could have truly revealed religious truth to the Apostles is thrown into doubt. This agnostic approach caused a problem for the Modernists because they claimed to be fervent Catholics. It became necessary for them to explain their religious “faith.” This conflict lead to the concepts of Vital Immanence and the Evolution of Doctrine.
In paragraphs 8 to 11 Pope Pius X explained that the Modernists believed that religious knowledge was not revealed from the outside world to the reason but rather came from within, this concept is called Vital Immanence. The Modernists did not say that no revelation was made to the Apostles, rather they argued that this revelation was much more vague and simple than it is today. These vague and simple truths were accepted by the early Christians (and people of other faiths.) As time went on, the inner need for some contact with the divine lead people to further develop and express their beliefs concerning the simple truths which were at one time revealed. This development of doctrine throughout history constitutes the concept of the Evolution of Doctrine. This evolution has continued since the origin of the Church and is always improving and making “progress.”
Agnosticism, Vital Immanece, and the Evolution of Doctrine: The Perennialist
The Perennialists also have an agnostic approach to knowledge of immaterial things. They believe that it is pointless to apply one’s reason to find it. They believe that rational debate and argumentation which has been the hallmark of the West is an actual degradation of Society. This mentality goes to such an extent that they reject as evil the human reason’s attempt to understand the natural order as typified by modern science. Perennialists do not believe that knowledge of immaterial or spiritual things is impossible but rather that it can be found in the traditions of all faiths which have come in contact with the perennial wisdom sophia perennis. The cultures which had the original revelation have passed it down through the ages and it is through these traditions that spiritual truth can be found.
The Perennialists, like the Modernists, do not believe that the reason is a tool used to find immaterial or spiritual knowledge from the outside world. The Perennialists even go further than the Modernists, by rejecting as evil the mind’s attempt to grasp material or scientific knowledge from the outside world. The Perennialists have their own version of Vital Immanence. Where the Modernists believe that the need for the divine and an understanding of the Divine come from inside the individual person, the Perennialists believe that religious truth is found in the entire culture which expresses and lives the sophia perennis. In short, a sort of Collective Vital Immanence is created. The Perennialists also believe that the sophia perennis was originally the same in all cultures and the manner in which different cultures expressed these truths accounts for the different doctrines that various religions and cultures maintain.
The Nature of Doctrine
In Chapter 12 of Pascendi the Holy Father explained how Agnosticism, Vital Immanence and Doctrinal Evolution all lead to a false concept of what doctrines were. Modernists believed that people, moved by an internal yearning for the divine (Vital Immanence) formulated doctrines and dogmas as expressions of their understanding of the original, simple revelation. Doctrines were, in effect, nothing more than symbolic expressions of the original truth. In short, dogmas are symbols of truth and not objective truth itself.
The idea that dogmas are merely symbols of the original revelation distilled and expressed through a living culture is also a major tenet of Perennialism. Perennialists hold that there are exoteric and esoteric teachings. The exoteric teachings are equivalent to doctrines and are particular to a given religion, such as the teaching that God the Father sent His Son to the world. An esoteric teaching is the “meaning” of the doctrine and is part of the original teaching or the sophia perennis. The Perennialist might attribute to the Incarnation the “meaning” of divine influence upon the world.
The Love of Novelty
St. Pius X in paragraph 48 and throughout the encyclical in general, explained how the Modernists often looked for a novel or new approach to circumstances or difficulties found within Catholic life. They would often do this by looking to some material action performed by early Christians who were closer to the source of the true revelation. This can be seen in the introduction of the New Mass. During the changes it was often argued, “In the early Church, the Mass was always in the vernacular”, or “In the early Church there were always Deaconesses” etc. On the surface, this aspect appears to be the opposite of that of the Perennialists. Is it not true that the Perennialists of the SSJ want to go back to the medieval village and the Distributists want to go back to the land? This appears to be the opposite of the love of novelty.
Although the material actions of the Perennialists may be different, their approach is as novel as the Modernists. The Perennialists, as the Modernists before them, wish Catholics to look to some previous cultural practice in order to cure the modern world. The Perennialists and the Modernists created their own version of what the early Church was, in order to disconnect Catholics from the teaching of the Popes and eventually from Our Lord Himself. The Perennialists are doing the same thing today. They wish to distract Catholics from the Faith, the great encyclicals and Fatima, all of which will truly repair the world. In the place of Our Lord, Our Lady and the Popes, the Perennialists present us with a return to the land, Distributism, or the medieval village.
This article has only scratched the surface of the commonality between Modernism and Perennialism. It is necessary to read Pascendi until it “seeps into one’s blood.” The Masons and the enemies of the Church were nearly completely successful with making Protestants out of practicing Catholics. There is no reason to think they would change their tactics now.
J. Christopher Pryor
February 18, 2006