Monday, January 12, 2015

Vital Immanence Revisited

We've been here before....
Regular readers of this blog will recall an article published here some days ago entitled Change We Can Believe In? In it, I provided a very brief account of the historical origins of Pentecostalism, the general condemnation of the notion of a 'New Pentecost' issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1897, and the gradual acceptance of that same movement by modern Catholics in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Either by mutual enrichment or by chance, the matter of this New Pentecostalism was subsequently treated by fellow blogger S. Armaticus over at Deus Ex Machina in an article which ended with the following observation:
The fascination that Bergoglio and the neo-modernists have with evangelical Pentecostalism is likely grounded in the fact that, since their neo-modernist theology is a purely negative thesis, with no attractive force of its own, and the adaptation of this negative theology is causing the death of their ecclesiastical structure, they are attracted to the evangelical Pentecostalism due to its "positive" i.e. "attractivistic contents". [...] These Pentecostal ideas are not correct, but at least they say something substantial. Or, in the worst case scenario, Pentecostalism says something more substantial than neo-modernism.
That paragraph stuck in my mind, as it echoed something I remembered having read somewhere before, but I couldn't quite put my finger on the source. Regular readers will have picked up by now that this kind of thing happens to me quite often.

A few days later, blogger Stefan Schwarz directed my attention to a video of a presentation given by Fr. Paul Scalia entitled The Errors of Modernism. At about the 17 minute mark, I remembered whence the original observation regarding the negative and positive content of Modernism came - Pope St. Pius X's encyclical Pascendi:
However, this Agnosticism is only the negative part of the system of the Modernist: the positive side of it consists in what they call Vital Immanence.
Suddenly, everything I had been suspecting regarding the role of the "New Pentecost" and its most avid proponents fell into place: I was staring into the new face of Vital Immanence.

It was, of course, Pope St. Pius X who alerted the Catholic world to the heretical doctrine of Vital Immanence and its central role in Modernist thought. Many definitions of this doctrine have been formulated over last century following the publication of Pascendi, but that proposed by Salusbury F. Davenport is perhaps the most relevant to the heresy's present manifestation:
[Vital Immanence] is the wholly psychological process of the human consciousness unfolding itself, which has not the remotest likeness to the presence of a transcendent reality abiding within us. God as transcendent is lost to sight; no room is left for any kind of revelation; God is the permanent possibility of progress, He is ever projected as the ideal in advance of each successive stage of evolution and changes as the advance proceeds. (Immanence and Incarnation, p. 68)
Replace "God" with "Holy Spirit," and we have before us the (logically) positive element of the New Pentecost viewed objectively: the Holy Spirit is the agent of change and reform. As Fr. Peter Knott, S.J., a proponent of the "Holy Spirit, God of Surprises" theology, remarked in his book, The Keys to the Council:
Authentic reform and renewal will always be a response to the promptings of the Spirit in ever-changing historical and cultural contexts.
Unsurprisingly, one of Pope Francis' favorite homiletic themes is that of the Holy Spirit as the Divine agent of change:

  • The Holy Spirit upsets us because it moves us, it makes us walk, it pushes the Church forward. [...] The Spirit pushes us to take a more evangelical path, but we resist this. [...] Submit to the Holy Spirit, which comes from within us and makes go forward along the path of holiness. (16.04.2013)
  • This is the temptation to go backwards, because we are 'safer' going back: but total security is in the Holy Spirit that brings you forward, which gives us this trust - as Paul says - which is more demanding because Jesus tells us: "Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law." It is more demanding! (06.12.2013)
  • The Holy Spirit is the living presence of God in the Church. He keeps the Church going, keeps the Church moving forward. More and more, beyond the limits, onwards. The Holy Spirit with His gifts guides the Church. You cannot understand the Church of Jesus without this Paraclete, whom the Lord sends us for this very reason. And He makes unthinkable choices, but unimaginable! To use a word of St. John XXIII: it is the Holy Spirit that updates the Church: Really, he really updates it and keeps it going. And we Christians must ask the Lord for the grace of docility to the Holy Spirit. Docility in this Spirit, who speaks to us in our heart, who speaks to us in all of life's circumstances, who speaks to us in the Church's life, in Christian communities, who is always speaking to us. (12.05.2014)

Subjectively viewed, however, the positive element of Vital Immanence - the New Pentecost - is a personal experience of the Divine, hinted at by Pope Francis above in his description of the Holy Spirit as that "which comes from within us." Fr. Paul Scalia describes it as follows:
Religion, for the Modernist, is nothing more than a manifestation of this presence of the Divine to each person. It is radically individualistic. It is the presence of the Divine in each one of us which stirs up and makes some sentiment felt. This is what Cardinal Newman calls a "sentiment" and a "taste." Vital Immanence makes religion - in the words of Fr. John Hardon - "a kind of motion of the heart, hidden and unconscious, [...] a natural instinct belonging to the emotions, a feeling for the Divine that cannot be expressed in words of doctrinal propositions because it has no intellectual content to express, [...] an outlook of spirit that all people naturally have but some are more aware of having."
Pope St. Pius X describes the same with characteristic clarity:
For the Modernist Believer, [...] it is an established and certain fact that the Divine Reality does really exist in itself and quite independently of the person who believes in it. If you ask on what foundation this assertion of the Believer rests, they answer: in the experience of the individual. On this head the Modernists differ from the Rationalists only to fall into the opinion of the Protestants and pseudo-mystics. This is their manner of putting the question: In the religious sentiment one must recognize a kind of intuition of the heart which puts man in immediate contact with the very reality of God, and infuses such a persuasion of God's existence and His action both within and without man as to excel greatly any scientific conviction. They assert, therefore, the existence of a real experience, and one of a kind that surpasses all rational experience. If this experience is denied by some, like the rationalists, it arises from the fact that such persons are unwilling to put themselves in the moral state which is necessary to produce it. It is this experience which, when a person acquires it, makes him properly and truly a believer. (Pascendi, §14)
It should now be clear why Pope Francis regularly chastises certain segments of his flock for "lacking faith," for "failing to respond" to the "promptings of the Holy Spirit," for lacking "docility" to the Spirit which "speaks to us from within", "driving us forward" and "demanding" that we "abandon the false security" of things like defined dogma and adherence to Church law. He rails against them because they are holding fast to notions of God, Revelation, and Church which are simply incompatible with the New Pentecost. They are, after all, Catholics.


  1. Once you put Fluffy the cat into the equation, and start telling little Jimmy that they will meet in heaven, you have arrived at the progressives religious utopia.

    But in fact, you have regressed to animism.

    But they are aren't smart enough to figure that out.


  2. God is the permanent possibility of progress, He is ever projected as the ideal in advance of each successive stage of evolution, and changes as the advance proceeds.

    Which sounds an awful lot like “change we can believe in”, as taught by Barack Obama.

    By the way, “Vital Immanence” is briefly described in the second essay of your series on Modernism from Fr. Joseph Bampton: An individual has an interior experience. He puts his interior experience into exterior words, called “dogma”. It is provisional, subject to change with new experiences. He compares his dogma to other dogmas, and associates with matching dogmas, and this association forms a Collective Conscience, called a Church. (I’m leaving a little bit out.)

  3. Dear Tamsin,

    I'm glad to see someone is reading those essays - particularly the ones dealing with the philosophy of Kant and Vital Immanence (particularly Modernism and Catholicism). I considered linking to it in this article, but worried I might be belaboring the point. Thanks for pointing it out, though.

  4. Have no fear, RC, we are reading. Lots to assimilate though, and lots of thinking to be done. Please keep it coming.

  5. Excellent, that we really helps me understand the modernists, like Pope Francis. He seems so irrational that I once suspected he suffered from dementia. But there is a plan to his madness. But as St. Pius X wrote,
    "It is one of the cleverest devices of the Modernists (as they are commonly and rightly called) to present their doctrines without order and systematic arrangement, in a scattered and disjointed manner, so as to make it appear as if their minds were in doubt or hesitation, whereas in reality they are quite fixed and steadfast."

  6. Excellent analysis. How does one tell where Vital Immanence is coming from: yourself, God or the devil?

    It would appear that long ago some in the Church concluded that Christ's message would be more palatable and appeal to more people if it didn't require sacrifice, didn't involve guilt, guaranteed salvation and featured emotional highs. "Many are called and few are chosen" is just too off putting for the modern era where everyone needs to be a winner.

    Michael Dowd


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