“Tyrrell continued to see in a reinterpreted Catholicism the ideal of a universal Christian society which could gather together the fragments of a shattered Christendom. While Christianity would see itself as the highest expression of the religious instinct of humanity, it would also recognize the right of other religions to exist. Absolute truth belongs to the future and lies outside history. The ideal of one universal religion must be as ‘the thought of a land to which we ever journey, without hope of reaching it’. The spirit of Christ is not limited to Christianity, nor to a visible Church. As the true light that enlightens every one of us who comes into the world, the spirit of Christ speaks to each person ‘in the mysterious whisperings of conscience’ ” [Ellen Leonard, George Tyrrell and the Catholic Tradition, p.90].
George Tyrrell advocated a reorganisation of Catholicism. He wanted it to get away from rigid dogmas and to return to its essential message of religion as life-affirming, spiritual and mystical. Tradition was greatly valuable but the truths embedded within tradition had to be sifted from accidental accretions. As Ellen Leonard comments:
“Tyrrell had a deep appreciation for the rich Catholic tradition, although he seems to have preferred to refer to it as ‘life’ rather than as ‘tradition’. He was convinced that the new had to be made out of the old, and yet the past should not be imposed as a dead burden on the present. It must constantly be criticized in order to retain what is essential and to discard what is accidental. Tyrrell opposed any theory which would accept tradition en bloc. Tradition contains truth of all sorts, as gold in the ore. It must be continually sifted and corrected. He insisted that “… the attitude of the Modernists, however critical, is one of attachment to, not detachment from, the Church’s tradition’ “.
[George Tyrrell and the Catholic Tradition, pp.77-78]
A number of important twentieth century commentators expressed similar views. I deal with them in my forthcoming book Intellectuals and the Decline of Religion.
George Tyrrell believed that the Church was based upon the principles of faith and diversity of form, suitable for all peoples and cultures:
“To speak to each person, each class, each people, each age, in its own language, on its own presuppositions – scientific, historical, philosophical, nay, even religious – so far from being contrary to, is altogether consonant with, the democratic spirit of the Gospel. The truth spoken is the same, and the whole endeavour of accommodation is inspired by the wish to speak it as fully as the hearer can hear it” [Oil and Wine, 1902}.
Tyrrell was a leading English Catholic Modernist who was ultimately banished by his church for heretical reforming ideas:
“The latter part of Tyrrell’s life (1861-1909) was dominated by a struggle against negative aspects of Catholicism which Tyrrell considered to be abuses of true Catholicism. He had been attracted to Catholicism as a dogmatic religion, a religion of authority, but he soon experienced the misuse of the principle of authority. He observed how Catholicism as a way of life easily deteriorated into ritualism, sacerdotalism or legalism. The Catholic stress on tradition and continuity, instead of acting as a principle of life, could lead to decay and death… The real error of the day for Tyrrell was not ‘modernism’ but ‘medievalism’, the refusal to face contemporary problems, and the binding of Catholicism to sixteenth-century thought-forms. Through his writings he tried to expose these abuses of true Catholicism in order to awaken the Church to the need for renewal” [Ellen Leonard,George Tyrrell and the Catholic Tradition, 1982, p.32].
Many of Tyrrell’s ideas were to be incorporated into Vatican II in 1965.
George Tyrrell, an important writer on the spiritual life, prophesied this five years before the First World War:
“At present the world that is heard and seen in public, elated with the success of science and the triumphs of invention, confident that what has done so much will do everything, is blind to the appalling residue of human misery and to the insoluble problems that are coming up slowly like storm-clouds on the horizon”
Christianity at the Crossroads (1909).