Magisterial Teaching on Experience in the Twentieth Century: From the Modernist Crisis to the Second Vatican Council

Author: Allesandro Maggiolini

From the Modernist Crisis to the Second Vatican Council

Allesandro Maggiolini

While the Modernist affair had led to an attitude of caution and a more careful consideration of the issue, it did not cause the Fathers simply to set aside the vocabulary of experience.

"Experience" is one of those categories that have "boomed" in post-conciliar theology. On the one hand, theologians, for different reasons and in different ways, have repeatedly appealed to experience. On the other hand, the term has been so loaded with diverse meanings that it has become "highly suggestive, but conceptually vague."[1] At the beginning of his philosophical investigation of experience, Gadamer has this to say: "Paradoxical as it may sound, it seems to me that the concept of experience has to be reckoned among the least clear that we have."[2] It might seem flippant to apply Gadamer's words to recent theological work on experience, but the impression of "unruliness" in the treatment of the question and of a consequent uncontrolled plurality of meanings appears neither exaggerated nor oversimplified. Above all, the development of the theme in theology after Vatican II is something of a surprise when we compare it with what immediately preceded the Council. The preconciliar period is marked by the heated controversy surrounding Modernism and, following the clear-cut magisterial condemnation of the movement, by decades during which experience received scant, if any, treatment from theology and the Magisterium. This period, to which we will be devoting our attention in the following article, lasted until the rehabilitation of "experience" at the Second Vatican Council.

In a certain sense, Jean Mouroux's <L'experience chretienne> (1952) brought these facts to light and thus anticipated the Council. It is generally acknowledged that Mouroux's book broke the silence that had descended on the question of experience after Modernism.[3] The French theologian begins his work by stating why the subject of experience merits attention, then goes on to state in detail the difficulties involved in treating it.

<L'experience chretienne> opens with the following words: "Every philosophy of religion and every theology is forced to deal with the problem of experience. This problem is, in fact, the fundamental problem for the religious man, who wants to enter into contact with God, to see him, touch him and feel him.... But there is no doubt that the Christian"—the man who believes in the <incarnate> God—"is most acutely aware of the problem."[4] Not only theology but also contemporary culture makes the treatment of this problem an urgent task. "Today," notes Mouroux, "experience is king, because we live in the age of experiences.... And when modern man turns to Christianity, he does so in order to ask 'what truly valid experience can you give me?'."[5] However, the importance and urgency of experience do not diminish the obstacles facing anyone who would undertake a treatment of it. These obstacles are historical in origin: they derive from the perennial need to deal with ambiguous uses of the term that are not wholly in accord with its meaning as the Church understands it. Thus, "no matter how you approach it, Christian experience seems to be ruled out; and even before asking what it is, one is obliged to ask whether it is possible and whether the word is meaningful for a Catholic."[6] Mouroux refers in particular to some of the most serious crises that have beset the Church in the modern period and links them to the concept of "experience": "The crisis of Protestantism and the experience of justification; the crisis of Jansenism and the experience of delectation; the crisis of Quietism and the experience of purity of spirit; the crisis of Traditionalism and the reaction of 'experience against reason'; the crisis of Modernism and the experience of 'the heart against the head."'[7]

This observation brings us back to the starting point of our historical survey: Modernism. It was Modernism, the last link in this chain, that made the term "experience" highly suspect, casting over it a shadow that would reach at least as far as Vatican II. It is therefore hardly surprising that Walter Kasper, after taking a new look at the whole question in the period immediately following the Council, should affirm the necessity of "critically reconsidering the issues at stake in the nineteenth century debates. The problem of experience was right at the center of Protestant liberal theology and Catholic Modernist theology. Unfortunately, the question was dropped in the first half of this century. Both dialectical theology and Neo-scholasticism ignored it in favor of a one—sided positivism and a dogmatic—biblicist supernaturalism."[8] If we limit ourselves to Catholicism, our examination of experience from Modernism to the Council seems to require an explanation of this "freeze" (<blocage>),[9] this "interruption" that was due in part, perhaps the largest part, to the Magisterium's condemnation of Modernism. It thus becomes important to understand what was condemned and why. Having done this, we can throw into relief the significance of, not to mention the obstacles to, the Magisterium's retrieval of experience at the Second Vatican Council. This retrieval has been one of the principal factors in the explosion of experience in postconciliar theology.

I. Religious experience according to George Tyrrell

In order to sketch, at least in outline, the role played by "experience" in Modernism, we now turn to "undoubtedly one of the most authoritative exponents of Modernism. Indeed, for what concerns the subject at hand, he is perhaps the most authoritative."[10] As a matter of fact, Tyrrell's thought presents a sustained and tightly constructed reflection on experience that enables us to glimpse the concerns that would lead the Magisterium to censure and qualify it.[11]

The introduction to <Christianity at the Cross-Roads>, probably Tyrrell's last written work,[12] opens with a statement of the goal and the hope of his entire scholarly work: "The hope of a synthesis between the essentials of Christianity and the assured results of criticism is very widespread nowadays, and those who share it are commonly called Modernists or Liberals."

In order to achieve this end, it is necessary to avoid attributing too much to either one of the terms of the problem, for "religion cannot be the criterion of scientific truth, nor science of religious truth."[13] Official Christianity has ended up adopting the first approach, liberal Protestantism the second. Nevertheless, it is the first position that most engages Tyrrell's attention and that is therefore most interesting from the point of view of the present study. Tyrrell's carefully researched debate with official "Scholasticism" allows us a proper understanding of his notion of "religious experience." The starting point is the idea of revelation connected with Tyrrell's notion of experience. Once we have understood this idea of revelation, we see clearly that the contrasting viewpoints are alternative options.[14] In fact, Tyrrell, referring to revelation, suggests the need to clarify whether this revelation consists "in certain divine statements, or in certain spiritual experiences about which <man> makes statements that may be inspired by those divine experiences, yet are not divine but human statements" (<RE>, 130). In the same context, Tyrrell observes that we must ask how revelation occurs: "By way of statements, or by way of experience?.... Does God, disguise himself as one who thinks in human categories and speaks in human words; or has he some proper and natural mode of communication, some way of affecting the soul, moving the will, kindling the heart, that reveals him as the sun is revealed by its heat and brightness?" (<RE>, 131-32). The work of expressing revelation in statements falls to the "plain man," to "common sense," and, therefore, to Scholasticism, which "is just a philosophy of common sense" (<RE>, 133). On closer inspection, however, Scholasticism turns out to be radically deficient. Tyrrell's well-crafted examination of Scholasticism seems to give particular prominence to two motifs. The first is the incommensurability of human words and thoughts, indeed of everything human, with the reality of God, hence, their incapacity to reveal God as he is. Refusing to acknowledge this incapacity, Neo-scholasticism strives to understand the primordial form of revelation propositionally. But the only result of this effort is an infinite regress from proposition to proposition. "Altogether," concludes Tyrrell, "I do not think that the idea of a divine statement directly addressed to the prophet's intellect is quite coherent or thinkable. Such a statement needs a supplementary revelation as to its divine origin and content, and this supplementary revelation cannot be a statement without raising the same problem" (<RE>, 135). It becomes necessary to break the circle by conceiving of the <primordial> revelation as an experience. The second principal motif of Tyrrell's critique has to do with the absolute character that propositions would have if they were understood as a "direct revelation" of God. For Tyrrell, this absoluteness is problematic, indeed, "untenable." "Divine truth I still think is revealed to us not as a statement but as a thing—just as beauty or love is revealed to us. We may utter it in statements or receive it through a statement, but what we apprehend is not a statement but an experience" (<RE>, 138).

Together with these <negative> criticisms, the core of Tyrrell's <positive> conception of revelation also emerges. The heart of this conception is precisely Tyrrell's interpretation of revelation as an "interior" and personal experience to which every "exterior" factor, whether historical or theological, is subordinate. "In other words, the teaching from outside must evoke a revelation in ourselves. The prophet's experience must become experience for us. It is to this evoked revelation that we answered by the act of faith, recognizing it as God's word in us and to us. Were it not already written in the depths of our being, where the spirit is rooted in God, we could not recognize it." Therefore, "without personal revelation, there can be no faith, nothing more than theological or historical assent. Revelation cannot be put into us from outside. It can be occasioned, but it cannot be caused, by instruction."[15]

Tyrrell repeatedly alludes to the fact that this experience is a total one: "It is very important to remember that, strictly speaking, revelation consists in the total religious experience, and not simply in the mental element of that experience."[16] He also insists upon its specificity: it is irreducible to "merely moral or ethical experience. I think it is far more than that; that it is a religious and mystical experience" (RE, 143). Thanks to this experience, man encounters God, the God "who is not a statement or an idea, but a thing, a term of action, of obedience, worship and self-sacrifice, about which we more or less spontaneously form ideas and statements" (<RE>, 144). These statements bring out more clearly the alternative mentioned above and spotlight the theological issue behind it, that is, the issue of how we understand God. Tyrrell differs from the official theology over whether God is to be understood as "primarily a term of action and secondarily an object of contemplation and statements; or conversely: Is God primarily an idea, or a truth deduced from experience, and subsequently a term of action" (<RE>, 143). These words bring us back to the alternative already mentioned several times above, where we find a tension that is of central importance for the interpretation of Tyrrell's theology. On the one hand, this theology makes propositions subordinate to the "heart" of revelation. This is a fate they share with every "symbol" or "form." For, as Hulshof points out, according to Tyrrell "theology and dogma have only a certain external function in the process of the appropriation of revelation."[17] On the other hand, doctrinal statements are never ruled out in principle; indeed, "new" understanding of revelation calls for a more authentic interpretation of them. On this point, the interpretation of Tyrrell is "indeed difficult."[18] We will have to return to this point later.

II. <Pascendi> and the condemnation of Modernism

It is well-known that the encyclical <Pascendi> was the most articulated condemnation of Modernist doctrine and, as a disciplinary measure, probably the most decisive factor in the decline and dissipation of the movement.[19] Pius X's text is composed essentially of three parts: the first is dedicated to the analysis and interpretation of the Modernist position; the second attempts to discover the causes of Modernism; the third suggests remedies against it.[20] The term and the theme "experience" (<experientia>) appear chiefly in the first part where the Modernist is described from the point of view of his religious belief.[21] Experience is obviously supposed to be logically connected with the concept of "religious feeling" (<census>), which the section immediately preceding explains in the course of pinpointing the philosophical root of Modernism. The encyclical understands "religious feeling" primarily as a fruit of the principle of "vital immanence," which is the positive side of the position whose negative principle is "agnosticism." "Vital immanence" is the attempt to locate in man the source of every phenomenon, even the phenomenon of religion, as if it were rooted in a "need," in a "feeling." Thus, the encyclical continues, "faith, the beginning and foundation of all religion, must rest upon a certain inner feeling born of the need for the divine" (<Pasc.>, 598). This feeling itself lies in the "subconscious" (<subconscientia>). What is more, the category of revelation itself is eventually reduced to this root: "is not the religious <feeling> that arises in our consciousness revelation, or at least the beginning of revelation? Is not revelation God's act of manifesting himself to our spirit, albeit confusedly, in that same religious <feeling>?" (<Pasc.>, 598-99). Revelation is thus identified with religious feeling, from which the statements of faith then develop. These statements are those propositions that, when sanctioned by the Church's Magisterium, can also be called dogma. However, "in order to be true, and not just intellectual speculations, <religious statements> must be vital, sharing the same life as <religious feeling>" (<Pasc.>, 603).

Passing from the consideration of the Modernist qua philosopher to the Modernist as believer, the encyclical identifies the element that characterizes and specifies this "second figure":

The believer, on the other hand, holds with undoubted certainty that the divine <reality> actually exists in itself and does not depend in any way upon the person believing. If we then seek to determine upon what foundation this assertion rests, the Modernists answer: individual <experience . . .: religious feeling> must be regarded almost as a kind of intuition of the heart. This intuition puts man in immediate contact with God and infuses in him such certainty of God's existence and activity, whether inside or outside man, that it far surpasses all conviction based on scientific reasoning. (<Pasc.>, 604)

It is therefore through experience that we acquire certainty of God's existence and enter into contact with him. In consequence, "supposing that a man has attained it, this <experience> is what makes him a believer in the true and proper sense" (ibid.). At least two further important consequences follow from this identification of faith and experience, consequences that the encyclical presents in a highly negative light. The first is the interpretation of tradition as the communication of the original experience through intellectual statements—an interpretation that destroys tradition as the Church has hitherto understood it. The second consequence has to do with the formal independence of faith and science (including history). Although in principle science acknowledges that it cannot know the object of faith per se, faith is in fact reduced to an inferior status.

The propositions that bring the first part of the encyclical to a close likewise deserve mention. Following upon the analytical account of Modernism, these propositions are devoted to a synthetic critique that itself comes immediately before the encyclical's etiology of Modernism. In this passage <Pascendi>, after having given its famous definition of Modernism as the "jumble of all the heresies" (632), underscores Modernism's radical agnosticism, which closes every intellectual access to God and opens the door to a subjectivist approach centered on sentiment and action. Indeed, the Modernists appeal to experience, but experience is incapable of radically correcting feeling and its inherent drift. This is why, the encyclical concludes with decision, "the vast majority of mankind firmly holds and shall always hold that feeling and experience alone, without the guidance and light of the intellect, can never lead to the knowledge of God" (<Pasc.>, 633).

Despite its brevity, our exposition of Tyrrell's thought, which symbolizes Modernist "experience," and of the magisterial position expressed in <Pascendi> allows us to make a few critical observations; let us then try to formulate precisely some of the issues raised by Modernism, as well as to understand the reasons for the Magisterium's sweeping censure of experience.

In the first place, notice how Tyrrell's critical confrontation with "Scholasticism" brings to the fore the problem of the relationship between the experience of faith and the statements that express it, among which Tyrrell counts theology and even dogma. While Tyrrell's proposal forcefully reopens the issue, it does not seem entirely free of difficulties. In particular, it appears to create a dubious rupture between faith and doctrinal statements. Schillebeeckx, referring to Tyrrell, explains that "[t]he conceptual aspect of faith serves simply to protect experience. The concepts of faith are thus nothing more than a sort of reminiscence that translates the experience of the apostles. In addition, these concepts have a kind of power of evocation that allows us to awaken in ourselves an experience analogous to theirs." In this way, Schillebeeckx concludes, the two aspects of the act of faith—the experiential and the conceptual—remain "totally separate. The conceptual element is just an extrinsic safeguard (with a symbolic and pragmatic value) of what is, properly speaking, the kernel of faith."[22] Latourelle expresses a similar judgment: "It is in the name of the dissociation of revelation experience from theology, a dissociation which Tyrrell further exacerbates, that he takes every liberty in doctrinal matters.[23]

Latourelle's observation indicates how we may understand, from this point of view as well, the reasons why the Magisterium charged Modernism with agnosticism and dogmatic relativism. The fact that every proposition is decidedly "outside" the core of revelation, which is experience, can in fact easily be read as implying a depreciation of all conceptual expression in theology and dogma in order to exalt the reality of God and of his revelation. Modlhammer substantially concurs. Modlhammer states that in Tyrrell's system "the prepositional character of revelation is overpowered by its character as event and experience."[24] The result is a considerable disregard for the verbal nature of revelation itself. Nor does it seem right to describe Tyrrell's thought as the expression of an extreme negative (but not agnostic) theology. Rather, what becomes abundantly clear is that Tyrrell, despite his intentions to the contrary, could not admit that our statements about God have an authentically analogical character. In this way, <Pascendi's> charge of agnosticism does indeed apply to Tyrrell.

Now that we have focused what several observers have identified as the "heart" of Tyrrell's thought, we can broaden the field to include the anthropology and theology behind it. This will enable us to state with greater precision why it was that Tyrrell came into conflict with "official theology."[26] Let us first of all consider Tyrrell's insistence on the comprehensiveness of experience, or—as we would say today—on the totality of the person involved. The experience of revelation is the complete and total experience. Latourelle comments that "Tyrrell frequently underlines the total character of the experience of revelation, as well as the emotional factors that it implies. Nevertheless, his insistence poorly masks a certain mistrust regarding the properly intellectual factors."[27] This mistrust, which, according to the contemporary judgments to which we have just referred, effectively led to agnosticism, would necessarily sound all the more problematic given the "intellectualism" of official theology at the beginning of this century, an intellectualism which also governed the official conception of man. It thus becomes clear, at least according to G. Colombo, "that the tendency to rule out experience at work in turn-of-the-century Catholic theology is, in the final analysis, anthropological in character. That is to say, Catholic theology professed—more or less consciously, but in any case by tendency—a Platonic, or more generally 'Greek,' anthropology. Properly speaking, this is an anthropology that, 'abstracting' man from the reality of experience, resolves him into his intellectual capacity. This capacity, however, is understood in a purely formalized sense, hence, in abstraction from man's historical condition. Man's historical condition is effectively considered to be purely accidental, hence, fundamentally 'extrinsic,' to his essence."[28] Within such an anthropology there is no room for an adequate consideration of experience. Indeed, this anthropology spawns a deep suspicion of experience and the dimensions that it entails, such as "sentiment." This is especially true given Tyrrell's rather ambiguous initial elaboration of the subject.

On this point we can discern a continuity with subsequent magisterial statements that are directly or indirectly connected with experience. For example, this anthropological conception noticeably underlies the fifth article of the <Anti-modernist Oath>, which reads: "I most certainly hold and sincerely profess that faith is not a blind religious sentiment bursting forth from the obscure depths of the subconscious [<caecum sensum religionis e latebris subconscientiae erumpentem>] by an impulse of the heart or by the inclination of the morally formed will, but is a true assent of the intellect to a truth received from the outside through hearing, by which assent, on the basis of the authority of God, who is supremely truthful, we believe the truth of all the things that the personal God who is our creator and Lord has said, attested and revealed."[29] Echoes of the same anthropology can also be heard in statements touching the two best known and most significant instances of "theological crisis" immediately preceding Vatican II: the case of Chenu and Charlier in the thirties and the episode of the "<nouvelle theologie>" in the fifties. As to the first case, there is P. Parente's semi-official justification for the placing of Chenu and Charlier on the Index. Parente, a member of the Holy Office, charges these theologians, among other things, with having followed Mohler and, more radically, the Modernists, in belittling the value of reason and privileging religious feeling (<sensus religiosus>) and experience (<experientia>).[30] In the second case, we can refer to the encyclical <Humani Generis>. After having said that the "innovators" reproach the "philosophy of our schools" for "attending to the intellect alone in the process of thought and neglecting the function of the will and the affections of the spirit [<affectuum animi>]," the text goes on to dismiss the charge. The document explains that it is one thing to acknowledge the role of these dispositions in knowing the truth, and another thing to assert the power of the will and of sentiment to the detriment of <ratio>, in order to diminish its role.[31]

This anthropological perspective, which not only undergirded the rejection of Modernist "experience," but was also taken up and confirmed by subsequent documents, is tied to a fundamental theological option. Correlative to the above-mentioned anthropology, this option dominated the "official theology" of the early part of this century. I am referring both to the latter's intellectualist understanding of revelation, which identifies revelation with truths to be believed while downplaying its historical character, and to its way of expressing God's transcendence. Regarding this second aspect, the opposition "results in a polarization over the notion of revelation, more precisely, over its transcendence. Catholic theology expresses this transcendence in terms of 'exteriority,' whereas Modernist theology, which rejects 'exteriority,' speaks in terms of 'immanence."'[32] And if theologians would later perceive on the one side a certain risk of "materializing" transcendence, on the other side "it was not at all evident that the Modernist theology of 'immanence' succeeded in expressing the transcendence of revelation without prejudice to orthodoxy."[33] This is evident from the fundamental incapacity of Tyrrell's thought to recognize the unicity and absoluteness of the revelation of Christ.

These last observations bring out how the specific question of "experience" calls into play the entire theological system of the early twentieth century. Therefore, in order to reopen a renewed discussion of the particular issue of experience, there had to be some change in the horizon of theology. In particular, what was needed was the more adequate horizon for understanding revelation that <Dei Verbum> would promote. If we take into account the various connections just mentioned, this new horizon proves to be of decisive importance for the theme of experience.

III. <Dei Verbum>: Revelation and experience

A quick linguistic analysis warrants the affirmation that "in its sixteen documents, the Second Vatican Council employed this language rather sparingly: the noun <experientia> is used thirty-two times and the verb <experior> appears seventeen times."[34] Although the term appears most frequently in <Gaudium et Spes>, the most significant context for our purposes is <Dei Verbum>. Particularly important is n. 8, which has to do with the progress of tradition. Indeed, <Dei Verbum> n. 8 is a key text in the Council's "redemption" (<riscatto>) of the term and the topic of experience. The final version of this text reads as follows: "This tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study [<contemplatione et studio>] made by believers who treasure these things in their hearts, through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience [<ex intima spiritualium rerum experientia quam experiuntur intelligentia>], and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth." <Dei Verbum> thus lists three factors in the progress of tradition: theology, experience and the Magisterium. Regarding the second of these, notice the "finely distilled"[35] statement, which hints at a painstaking, carefully considered process of elaboration. In what follows, we shall briefly attempt to describe this process, though we cannot of course review, even in outline, the entire history of the Constitution.[36]

Let us concentrate our attention above all on the text presented and debated in the conciliar <aula> between 30 September and 6 October 1964.[37] This text differs from the final version in two fundamental respects. In the first place, it makes no mention of the Magisterium, which will appear only after the last modifications. We will say a word about these modifications later. In the second place, only the first two of the three above-mentioned factors appear, and that in a different statement: theology is referred to only in terms of <contemplatio>, whereas the text expresses the dimension of experience with the phrase <ex intima spiritualium rerum experientia>—a much simpler version, to be sure, than the one finally adopted.[38] Concerning the first factor, the addition <et studio> seems to originate with certain Fathers who were concerned to emphasize the value of the enterprise of theology, as well as to furnish a more precise definition of its task. The word <contemplatio> already adequately describes this task, at least if we keep to Scholastic terminology. However, there is a danger that the more strictly intellectual side of this task may be ignored and, at worst, identified with the other component, namely, experience. Regarding this latter element, both the oral and written interventions clearly evidence a number of concerns that mostly harken back to the issues that had surfaced during Modernism. Indeed, this period was explicitly referred to in connection with experience during the conciliar debates. First of all, some objected that the statement was insufficiently clear and therefore lay open to subjectivist interpretations. Without further qualification, the statement could give rise to an ambiguous idea of experience and of its role in the progressive knowledge of tradition. It might suggest that tradition was made known mainly by subjective criteria, or that dogmatic truths could originate within man's consciousness. The interventions of Cardinal Browne and Cardinal Ruffini, to whom other Fathers also refer with a certain frequency, express these misgivings with a particularly authoritative ring. Browne queries the meaning of the expression and advises that it either be dropped or explained further. His proposal arises precisely from the fear that experience may suggest, albeit without the explicit intention of the Fathers, the Modernist period, when the issue of experience, of "religious experience" (<experientia religiosa>), and of the "experience of the religious" (<experientia religiosi>) was very much alive. Cardinal Ruffini expresses a similar opinion, underscoring the limitations of the statement, inasmuch as the "<intima spiritualium rerum experientia> hardly differs—at least in appearance from the <religiosus animi sensus> which that stalwart defender of the faith, Pius X, rejected in the encyclical <Pascendi Dominici Gregis.>"

The outcome of this debate, insofar as it affected the terms in which the document referred to the theological enterprise, was a statement that would remain in the final version. A further important modification would be introduced during the final touching-up of <Dei Verbum>, which took place immediately before the definitive approbation and promulgation of the document. I mean, of course, the reference to the Magisterium, which is expressed in the language we now read in the promulgated text. Turning our attention to this text, which we cited at the outset, and to its historical evolution, which we briefly reconstructed in our investigation, we can now propose a few general considerations.

It seems that the Magisterium did not appropriate the theme of experience by chance, but was fully aware of the "difficulties" that recent history had piled upon it. In this sense, the reference to the Modernist period is intentional. It is thus significant that, while the Modernist affair had led to an attitude of caution and a more careful consideration of the issue, it did not cause the Fathers simply to set aside the vocabulary of experience. True, they qualified this language of experience and secured it against possible misunderstandings, but they adopted and emphasized it all the same. A first, almost obvious, qualification results from the simple fact that <Dei Verbum> lists experience alongside the other factors in the progress of tradition—a safeguard against a possible absolutization of experience. A second qualification has to do with the text's explicit reference to the intellectual dimension alongside the dimension of experience. In fact, there is perhaps some justification for regarding this complementarily less as a "corrective" to <experientia> than as an implication following from the text's own presentation of theology. If so, we would have before us two dimensions that must be present simultaneously both in theology <and> in Christian experience. After all, the document not only speaks of theology in terms of <contemplatione et studio>, but also places the term <intelligentia> (which we cannot help reading as a conscious attempt to avoid the ambiguities and dangers that had emerged in the interventions regarding the preceding version)[39] alongside the verb <experior> in its discussion of experience. As Kothgasser observes, "we could therefore speak of a quasi-tautology. In fact, both modes of knowing, the experiential and the more intellectual, operate in both instances."[40] If, however, we wish to read the two factors—which seems logical to do—as implicating the priority either of the intellectual dimension (theology) or of the experiential dimension (experience), then "concrete experience has, in a certain sense, priority with respect to theological investigation. The lived realities precede their formulation into doctrine, rather than being a proportionate application of the statement."[41] Without forcing the text, this commentary reads it as an important vindication of the value of experience.

It would, of course, be reductive and naive to attribute to <one> conciliar text the "boom" of experience in post-conciliar theology, even if that text is one in which the Magisterium, on the basis of a positive understanding of experience, appropriates it and substantially validates it. However, it is equally simply pointless to deny the importance of the text. The theme of experience, as has already been suggested, is linked to a broader theological horizon. It is therefore important to point out that the reference to experience occurs within a document whose understanding of revelation sets the context for the theology of the succeeding decades. I mean—though it is a matter too well-known to linger over at any length—the breakthrough to the historicity of revelation and the overcoming of the intellectualist conception of revelation and the anthropological reduction associated with it. Geffre remarks that "the merit of the constitution <Dei Verbum> is that it enabled the reconciliation of revelation and history and also pointed the way to overcoming the alienation of man's consciousness on account of the heteronomy of revelation. This alienation had been the starting point of the Modernist crisis."[42] It is on this "way" that the term "experience" finds its proper place and, perhaps, its chief task.— Translated by Andrew Matt and Adrian Walker


1 A. Bertuletti, "II concetto di 'esperienza,"' in <L'evidenza e la fede>, ed. G. Colombo (Milano: Glossa, 1988), 112. Bertuletti's article begins by recalling how theology appeals to experience in manifold and disparate ways. It then goes on to state the two main points of view from which the appeal is made: the viewpoint of pastoral theology and of fundamental theology, respectively. Finally, adopting the second perspective, Bertuletti maps out the trajectory of contemporary theology in terms of the concept of experience. In this way, he is able to document the considerable diffusion and importance of the topic.

2 H. G. Gadamer, <Wahrheit und Methode. Grundzuge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik> (Tubingen: Mohr, 1960), 329. The same problem is mentioned at the beginning of the editorial introducing the issue of the Italian edition of <Communio> on "Faith and Experience"(<Fede e esperienza>). The author of the editorial notes that "it is extremely difficult to pin down in a rigorous manner the content of the term 'experience' in a way that everyone can agree on" ("Editorial," <Communio> 6 [1972]: 1).

3 J. Mouroux, <L'experience chretienne. Introduction a une theologie> (Paris: Aubier, 1952). "In the climate of silence that had formed in the period between Modernism and the Council, one of the few theologians who ventured to reopen the discussion was Jean Mouroux" (S. Ubbiali, "La teologia dell' esperienza cristiana nella riflessione di Jean Mouroux," <La Scuola Cattolica> 106 [1978]: 505). Although it falls chronologically within the period we are considering, we will not explicitly discuss Mouroux's work. For one thing, this work did not provoke any reaction on the part of the Magisterium. Above all, the reception of Mouroux's theology is "late," occurring only in the post-conciliar period (cf. F. Nuvoli, <II mistero della persona e l'esperienza cristiana. Saggio sulla teologia di Jean Mouroux> [Milano: Jaca Book, 1989], 12-13). For an exposition and critical evaluation of Mouroux's book on experience, we therefore refer to Ubbiali's essay as well as to chap. 4 of Nuvoli, who expounds the whole of Mouroux's thought and also provides an ample bibliography (157-202).

4 Mouroux, <L'experience chretienne>, 5.

5 Ibid., 6. "It is worth noting," points out Ubbiali, "that, as Mouroux goes on to elaborate his ideas about Christian experience, he in fact drops the appeal to these reasons, inasmuch as he avoids any engagement with the 'contemporary mentality' and omits any hint of apologetics in his discussion of Christian experience" ("La teologia dell'esperienza," 506, n. 7).

6 J. Mouroux, <L'experience chretienne>, 37. Balthasar, by way of introducing his OWn study of experience, alludes to the necessity of treating it, as well as to the difficulty in doing so: "Regardless of how problematic the concept of experience has become in the history of theology, in heresiology, in Catholic and Protestant theology and, finally, in polemical theology, it nevertheless remains indispensable when faith is understood as the encounter of the whole person with God. And it is precisely the whole man that God desires to have before him" (H.U.v. Balthasar, <The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics I: Seeing the Form> [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985], 219; on "The Experience of Faith," 219-425).

7 J. Mouroux, <L'experience chretienne>, 5. G. Moioli sketches the same "background": "Without rehearsing the entire history of Christian spirituality, we need only mention the still relatively recent episode of Modernism to realize why talk of experience inevitably gives rise to suspicion, or at least to serious questions. Nevertheless, we can go even further back in history and reread Protestantism in terms of a reductive approach to experience" (<L'esperienza spirituale. Lezioni introduttive>, ed. C. Stercal [Milano: Glossa, 1992], 4142).

8 W. Kasper, <Glaube und Geschichte> (Mainz: Matthias Grunewald, 1975), 121. We find a similar judgment in R. Marle, <La singularite chretienne> (Tournai: Casterman, 1970), 161-63.

9 D. Dubarle, "Modernisme et experience religieuse," <Le Modernisme> (Paris: Beauchesne, 1980), 184.

10 G. Colombo, "Esperienza e rivelazione nel pensiero di George Tyrrell (1978)," in <La ragione teologica> (Milano: Glossa, 1995), 475.

11 Given the aim and the limits of the present work, we will attempt to do no more than bring into focus the (dubious) core of Tyrrell's approach to experience. We will be referring especially to Tyrrell's "Revelation," in <Through Scylla and Charybdis or the Old Testament and the New> (London, 1907), 264-307; and "Revelation as Experience: A Reply to Hakluyt Egerton," published by T.H. Loome, "'Revelation as Experience': An Unpublished Lecture of George Tyrrell," <Heythrop Journal> 12 (1971): 130-49. This latter text is Tyrrell's response to the critique mounted by A. Boutwood (1864-1924), an Anglo-Catholic layman who, under the pseudonym of Hakluyt Egerton, published a series of writings on the "new theology" entitled <Father Tyrrell's Modernism> (London 1909) (cf. Loome, "'Revelation as Experience,"' 120). It would take a much more far-ranging study to reconstruct satisfactorily this basic category of Modernism: "It is well-known that despite the variety of its referents, the term 'experience' is fundamental to Modernism. On the other hand, given the numerous difficulties involved in pinning down the precise meaning of the notion of 'experience" the observation that scholars have yet to subject it to an adequate analysis is hardly surprising, indeed, it is quite understandable" (Colombo, "Esperienza e rivelazione," 475). J. Hulshof, "La crisi modernista: Alfred Loisy e George Tyrrell," <Concilium> 14 (1978): 428-42, sketches a brief comparison between Tyrrell and Loisy on the subject of experience. Hulshof's study yields the conclusion that "It is not very meaningful to speak of a Modernist conception of revelation and experience. There are, in fact notable differences between the two authors" (440). For Baron von Hugel, see W. Huber, "Religiose Erfahrung bei Friederich von Hugel," in <Der Modernismus>, ed. E. Weinzierl (Graz-wien-Koln

Styria, 1974), 83-103. See also P. Neuner, <Religiose Erfahrung und geschichliche Offenbarung> (Paderborn: Schoningh, 1977), in particular the second part (79-343). In this section of the book, Neuner presents what could be called "a highly nuanced, well-constructed phenomenology or logic of 'religious experience',, (K.-E. Apfelbacher, "Religiose Erfahrung im 'Modernismus,'" <Stimmen der Zeit> 196 [1978]: 128). Reflections on the theme of experience in Blondel can be found in G. Colombo, "La nozione di 'esperienza' e la teologia Cattolica d'inizio secolo," <Teologia> 5 (1981):[183]-88.

12 Cf. Loome, "'Revelation as Experience,"' 126.

13 G. Tyrrell, <Christianity at the Cross-Roads> (1909) (London: Allen & Unwin, 1963), 19.

14 For this companson, see G. Tyrrell, "Revelation as Experience" (=<RE>), 130-41.

15 Tyrrell, "Revelation," 305-6.

16 Ibid., 285.

17 J. Hulshof, "La crisi modernista," 439.

18 J. Modlhammer, "Offenbarung und Erfahrung. Anmerkungen zur theologischen Relevanz der Erfahrung im Hinblick auf Anliegen von George Tyrrell," in Der Modernismus, 60.

19 Together with <Pascendi> (8 September 1907), we must mention the decree of the Holy Office, <Lamentabili> (3 July 1907), and the <motu proprio> of Pius X, <Sacrorum Antistitum> (1 September 1910), which includes the <Antimodernist Oath>. The texts of these documents can be found, in the order of their citation, in ASS XL (1907): 593-650; ASS XL (1907): 470-78, and AAS II (1910): 655-88 (669-72 for the text of the <Oath>).

20 For a presentation of the encyclical, see P. Neuner, "'Modernismus' und kirchliches Lehramt. Bedeutung und Folgen der Modernismus-Enzyklika Pius X," <Stimmen der Zeit> 190 (1972): 249-62; and, above all, G. Colombo, "La nozione di'esperienza' nel magistero antimodernista," <Teologia> 4 (1979): 297-313, which gives special treatment to experience.

21 The first part examines the movement analytically, presenting the Modernist as philosopher, believer, theologian, historian and critic, apologist and reformer. This part of the encyclical concludes with a summary of the principles inspiring Modernism: agnosticism, symbolism and immanentism. Cf. <Pasc>., 596 634.

22 E. Schillebeeckx, <Offenbarung en Theologie> (Bilthoven: H. Nelissen, 1964), 283ff.

23 R. Latourelle, <Theologie della Revelation> (Bruges-Paris: Desdee de Brouwer, 1963), 289.

24 Modlhammer, "Offenbarung und Erfahrung," 59.

25 Cf., ibid., 62-63. Modlhammer takes particular pains in his essay to bring out how this limitation affects other insights of Tyrrell that seemingly anticipate Vatican II, and are therefore capable of an orthodox development.

26 For what concerns the philosophical background, it could be interesting to pursue in greater depth the suggestion of Dubarle, who approaches the conflict between <Pascendi> and Modernism on the subject of experience as a conflict between an Aristotelian-Thomist and a fundamentally Kantian conception of experience (which would explain the latter's agnostic outcome). Cf. Dubarle, "Modernisme et experience religieuse," 181-213.

27 Latourelle, <Theologie de la Revelation>, 285.

28 Colombo, "'Esperienza' e la teologia Cattolica," 181-85.

29 <Sacrorum Antistitum>, 670.

30 P. Parente, "Annotationes," <Periodica de Re Morali Canonica Liturgica> 31 (1949): 186. Parente's statement is prefaced by the text of the decree, which affected M.-D. Chenu, <Une e'cole de the'ologie: Le Saulchoir> (Tournai, 1937), and L. Charlier, <Essai sur le probleme theologique> (Thuillier, 1938),[184].

31 Cf. <Humani Generis> (12 August 1950), AAS XXXXII (1950): 574. The point at issue runs remarkably deep if, as G. Angelini says, "the problem of putting together the instinctive and emotional and the rational and ethical aspects of human behavior commands the whole history of knowledge in modernity" (Angelini, "Molteplici significati dell'appello all" esperienza' nella teologia morale," <Teologia> 5 [1981]: 137). It also has a decisive importance for the theological elaboration of experience, since "the multiple aberrations of the theology of experience and of life derive in every case from the fact that feeling is too exclusively thought of as an isolated act alongside the intellect and the will, and too little understood as the integration of the person's whole life" (Balthasar, <The Glory of the Lord> 1:245). To a certain extent, this question has been settled: the reductively intellectualist position of the past has been overcome, and we are now aware of the task before us. However, the question may still have to wait a long time for a satisfactory elaboration.

32 Colombo, "'Esperienza' nel magistero antimodernista," 311.

33 Ibid.

34 G. O'Collins, under "Experience," in <Dizionario di teologia fondamentale>, ed. R. Latourelle and R. Fisichella (Assist: Citadella, 1990), 404.

35 T. Alvarez, "Experiencia cristiana y Teologia Espiritual," <Seminarium> 36 (1974): 96.

36 The documentation pertaining to the elaboration of the Constitution is found in <Concilii Vaticani II Synopsis. Constitutio dogmatica de Divina Revelatione Dei Verbum,> ed. F. Gil Hellin (Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993). We will cite <Dei Verbum> from this volume, using the initials <SDV>. The <Synopsis> (1-175) displays the four principal versions of the text drafted after the interruption of the debates on the schema <De Fontibus Revelationis (On the Sources of Revelation).> (This schema had been drafted by the preparatory theological Commission and discussed during the first session of the Council, 1421 November 1962.) The <first> of the versions appearing in the <Synopsis> was drafted by the mixed Commission; though not presented in the assembly, it was the object of numerous written <observationes> by the Council Fathers. The <second> on which the Fathers likewise made observations, was debated from 30 September to 6 October 1964. The <third> text was presented and voted upon in the general assembly (20-23 September 1965). The <fourth> version is the final text which incorporates some of the <modi> proposed by the Fathers after the text had already been approved. For a detailed and precise reconstruction of the itinerary of the document, see U. Betti, "Storia della Costituzione dogmatica 'Del Verbum,"' in <La Costituzione dogmatica sulla divina Rivelazione> (Torino-Leumann: Wile Di Ci, 1967), 11-68. For the history of chapter II (which includes number 8), see Betti's <La Rivelazione divina nella Chiesa. La trasmissione della Rivelazione nel capitolo II della Costituzione dogmatica Dei Verbum> (Rome: Citta Nuova, 1970).

The synopsis of the passage of <DV> n. 8 that we are considering here is found in <SDV>, 62-67. For a reading of this passage from the point of view of the <sensus fidei> and the development of dogma, see M. Kothgasser, "Dogmenentwicklung und die Funktion des Geist-Parakliten nach den Aussagen des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils," <Salesianum> 31 (1969): 43145; and Z. Alszhegy, "II senso della fede e lo sviluppo dogmatico," in <Vaticano II: Bilancio e prospettive venticinque anrii dopo (1962-1987)>, ed. R. Latourelle (Assist: Citadella, 1987), 1:136-51. J.W. Modlhammer, for his part, compares this text of Vatican II to the theology of Tyrrell ("Offenbarung und Erfahrung," 70-76).

37 This text (the <second>), unlike the preceding version, lists the factors of tradition. This "significant addition" finds its way into the text drafted by Congar during the work of the Subcommission that had been established by the doctrinal Commission to rework the schema (see betti, <La Rivelazione divina nella Chiesa>, 92-106, for the work of the Subcommission; 104, for the specific point in question; Betti also cites Congar's text in n. 37).

38 The proposal to revise the statement about the two factors in the progress of tradition and to modify it in the direction that was eventually adopted came especially from the interventions of some of the Fathers. These interventions, together with arguments for the proposal (we refer to these arguments briefly in what follows) can be found in <SVD>: Cardinal Micara (523); Cardinal Browne (544); Costantini (549); Jager (550); Cardinal Ruffini (560); Temino (582); Calabria (594-95); Fernandez (634 45); Sauvage (680); Cornelis (690).

39 Cf. the <nota> that accompanies the <third> text of <Dei Verbum> and as a justification for the modifications introduced: <SDV>, n. III, 64-65.

40 Kothgasser, "Dogmenentwicklung," 442.

41 Betti, "La trasmissione della divine rivelazione," in <La costituzione dogmatica sulla divina Rivelazione>, 237. Analogously, Kothgasser, "Dogmenentwicklung," 443.

42 C. Geffre, "La rivelazione e l'esperienza storica degli uomini," in <Gesu Rivelatore. Teologia Fondamentale,> ed. R. Fisichella (Casale Monferrato: Piemme, 1988), 167.

This article was taken from the Summer 1996 issue of "Communio: International Catholic Review". To subscribe write Communio, P.O. Box 4557, Washington, D.C. 20017-0557. Published quarterly, subscription cost is $23.00 per year.