restricted access The Modernist as Philosopher: Selected Writings of Marcel Hébert (review)
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The Modernist as Philosopher: Selected Writings of Marcel Hébert. Translated by C. J. T. Talar and Elizabeth Emery. Introduced and edited by C. J. T. Talar. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press. 2011. Pp. x, 254. $64.95. ISBN 978-0-8132-1879-3.)

The papal condemnation of Roman Catholic modernism in 1907, the establishment of vigilance committees to ferret out suspected modernists, and the promulgation of the oath against “modernism” (in scare quotes to signal that the reality of the phenomenon was quite other than the Vatican’s depiction of it) did far more damage to the Church than the modernists ever did. Having driven many of its best thinkers out of the Church or underground, the official Church failed to engage the intellectual movements of the time. World War I interrupted the offensive against modernism and allowed everyone to take a deep breath—e.g., Pope Benedict XV dismantled Monsignor Umberto Begnigni’s secretive Sodalitium Pianum (or La Sapinière), named after Pope Pius X—and to begin more soberly to appraise modern thought and the Catholic Church’s posture toward it.

Since the progressive opening of Vatican archives (now open through the pontificate of Pius XI), published works have been appearing based on these archival materials, works that afford an “insider’s” view of events previously known largely only from the outside. At the same time, it has become “safe” to give wider exposure to modernist works that are little known because history had passed them by.

C.J. T. Talar has been a foremost contributor to this latter effort. In the present volume, he and Elizabeth Emery make available in accurate and graceful translation some of the most important contributions of Marcel Hébert (1851–1916), a modernist philosopher in tune with the development of modern thought. Hébert, writes Talar in his superb introduction, “felt the insufficiency of Scholasticism to speak to minds formed by modernity, to formulate an adequate response to the philosophical legacy of Kant” (p. 3), whom church authorities regarded as the principal enemy of Catholic teaching. Indeed, the neo-Scholastic manualists regarded Kant and most other non-Scholastics as enemies to be dismissed without trying to discover why they were non-Scholastics and what truth their systems might contain that could help the Church dialogue with modern thought. This is precisely what Hébert attempted to do, especially with American and Anglo-Saxon pragmatism, which was attracting great interest among European thinkers. His effort took him outside the Church. [End Page 595]

The first half of the Hébert collection covers the period when he was still a priest in good standing and was most “symbolist.” The second half covers 1908, by which time he had left the Church and was engaging pragmatism, but from a surprisingly “conservative” perspective: out of his symbolist belief in ideals and their unchanging eternalist character, he argued that pragmatism downplayed primacy of thought for “primacy of action” and ended in a Platonist or Berkeleyan idealism (pp. 170–71).

One great value of publishing translations of Hébert’s works is that they allow readers to assess his thought and judge for themselves the accuracy of neo-Scholastic characterizations of it. Hébert was indeed a “symbolist, ” but to know what this means requires reading him on symbol and its function in religion. This collection enables readers to give context, depth, and nuance to Hébert’s thought and to see how, had he found hospitality within Roman Catholicism, he might have been part of the effort to accommodate the truths of non-Scholastic thought well in advance of les nouveaux théologiens, who in their turn faced ecclesiastical censure.

This text is highly recommended for graduate courses to demonstrate that, rather than proscribe those who disagree with us, it is far healthier to create a hospitable environment in which to engage what seems “other” and so possibly to “baptize” it into the Church’s mission to preach the gospel to the whole world.

David G. Schultenover S.J.
Marquette University