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The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era [Hardcover]

Thomas E. Woods Jr.
4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 2, 2004 0231131860 978-0231131865 First Edition

As the twentieth century opened, American intellectuals grew increasingly sympathetic to Pragmatism and empirical methods in the social sciences. The Progressive program as a whole -- in the form of Pragmatism, education, modern sociology, and nationalism -- seemed to be in agreement on one thing: everything was in flux. The dogma and "absolute truth" of the Church were archaisms, unsuited to modern American citizenship and at odds with the new public philosophy being forged by such intellectuals as John Dewey, William James, and the New Republic magazine. Catholics saw this new public philosophy as at least partly an attack on them.

Focusing on the Catholic intellectual critique of modernity during the period immediately before and after the turn of the twentieth century, this provocative and original book examines how the Catholic Church attempted to retain its identity in an age of pluralism. It shows a Church fundamentally united on major issues -- quite unlike the present-day Catholic Church, which has been the site of a low-intensity civil war since the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Defenders of the faith opposed James, Dewey, and other representatives of Pragmatism as it played out in ethics, education, and nationalism. Their goals were to found an economic and political philosophy based on natural law, to appropriate what good they could find in Progressivism to the benefit of the Church, and to make America a Catholic country.

The Church Confronts Modernity explores how the decidedly nonpluralistic institution of Christianity responded to an increasingly pluralistic intellectual environment. In a culture whose chief value was pluralism, they insisted on the uniqueness of the Church and the need for making value judgments based on what they considered a sound philosophy of humanity. In neither capitulating to the new creed nor retreating into a self-righteous isolation, American Catholic intellectuals thus laid the groundwork for a half-century of intellectual vitality.

Editorial Reviews


Precociously wise... magnificent.

(Paul Gottfried The American Conservative)

A lucid and accessible book

(Eugene McCarraher A Christian Review)

This book will be a valuable resource...Highly recommended.

(P. J. Hayes Choice)

The Church Confronts Modernity is provocative, well-written, and deserves to be read.

(Margaret Mary Reher Catholic Historical Review)

It is written with great clarity and fluency, making the complex philosophical and theological concepts approachable... This is a very important book which will be indispensable reading for scholars interested in the history of religion.

(Frank Lennon Journal of American Studies 1900-01-00)

It moves briskly and gracefully through the thorny issues confronting the Church during the first two decades of the 20th century... An effective and detailed examination of Catholic intellectual life during a little studied period.

(Thomas G. Guarino Theological Studies)

This book is well worth reading. It is well written, well researched, and the thesis put forth is well argued.

(Patrick W. Carey Journal of American History)

Provocative... Woods thoughtful study casts new light on the Catholic response to the culture of progressivism.

(Michael J. Lacey American Catholic Studies 1900-01-00)

Well written... Worthwhile contributions to the literature.

(Deirdre Moloney American Historical Review)


Though he is writing about the Progressive Era, Thomas Woods deals with issues that are still both timely and relevant. He explores how American Catholics redefined the limits of faith and doctrine in an age of social and intellectual transformation, a time when cherished orthodoxies seemed ever more at odds with secular assumptions. The Church Confronts Modernity is thoughtful, well-written and rewarding.

(Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies, Pennsylvania State University)

Product Details

  • Series: Religion and American Culture
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press; First Edition edition (June 2, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231131860
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231131865
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,218,104 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I hold my master's, M.Phil., and Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and my bachelor's from Harvard. I've written numerous books, including The Church Confronts Modernity (Columbia University Press) and two New York Times bestsellers -- Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse, and The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. My two latest books are Rollback: Repealing Big Government Before the Coming Fiscal Collapse and Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century.

My wife and I have four young daughters and live in Topeka, Kansas.

My full biography can be found at My upcoming appearances, in addition to plenty of free audio, video, and articles, are also available at my website.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
49 of 51 people found the following review helpful
Woods' book is an amazing display of erudition and insight in less than 200 pages. For too long, postconciliar Catholics have been led to believe that the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church in America was intellectually barren, reactively hostile to new ideas, and fully deserving of being labelled a "ghetto." Some scholars, such as historian James Hitchcock, had previously revealed problems with that view. But Woods has gone even further in exploring our not-so-distant past. He has systematically and thoroughly examined the American Catholic response to "Progressivism" and philosophical pragmatism in the early 20th Century and found that the response was cogent, coherent, intellectually sound, and orthodox. Not all Progressivist ideas were bad, and some of its "forms" could readily be assimilated, but the essential "matter" was rejected. The Catholic intellectuals of the time (to include the Jesuits at the magazine America) could tell the difference.

After reading this, one may feel that if the Church as a whole had taken a similar approach during the Second Vatican Council, and not simply kowtowed to modernity so much, the Church would not be in such a mess as it is now.

Put simply, this book is gracefully written, thoroughly researched, sober, and balanced--reminiscent of the great Catholic historian Christopher Dawson. Any American Catholic, seeing the disarray of a Church mired in scandal, dissent, and heterodoxy, and interested in the "old days" should pick this book up and read it. If he does, he may find himself asking at the end: "What happened to make it all go so wrong?"
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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly, Balanced, Timely March 23, 2005
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This precisely written, well researched book compares and contrasts Catholic and Progressive intellectual thought during the early 1900's. On some issues, such as organized labor, Catholics and Progressives reached similar conclusions. On others, such as education, they could not have been further apart. On all issues, a great fundamental difference applied: does man exist to serve man, or to serve God? So, although both sides might settle on similar remedies for social problems, their underlying principles were so different that conflict was inevitable. Progressives viewed dogma of any kind as a social nuisance or something to be dispensed with entirely. Catholics naturally held dogma to be fundamental to a well-ordered society. Progressives (generally) viewed man as a servant of the state; Catholics viewed society as the servant of man. Progressives were primarily concerned with the advancement of the state; Catholics with the salvation of the soul. Woods does a thoroughly excellent job of articulating these and other philosophical differences. In doing so, he gives us a remarkably clear picture of that time in America, as well as allowing us to judge how things have progressed--or regressed--on issues like education over this last century.
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must for every Catholic library April 24, 2005
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have just finished reading THE CHURCH CONFRONTS MODERNITY - Catholic Intellectuals & the Progressive Era by Thomas E. Woods Jr., taking the time to highlight in detail this excellent work for future reference in the fight for the heart and soul of the Church being waged by Catholics who know their faith, as opposed to those who are having it subtly stolen from them. Before I was even a third of the way through the book I had gone through a highlighter, which gives an indication of the importance of what Dr. Woods is saying to what is left of the Catholic world, post the ambiguities of Vatican II, in particular, post the efforts of those who would destroy the Church from within.

To be technically correct, in THE CHURCH CONFRONTS MODERNITY, hereafter referred to as CCM, Woods not only tells it like it is, but how it used to be, and, if the Church is going to survive as a viable institution in serving as the world's repository of Perfect Truth, Who is a Someone, not a something for salvations sake, which is the only reason for the Church's existence, how it must be again. Woods is right to persuasively insist that looking back to how Catholic giants in America confronted the modernists in the progressive era in combating the work of the devil is our only hope of escaping the modern catacombs in order to convert the world to the one true faith, per Christ's admonition to His disciples in the last paragraph of the Gospel of Matthew. THE problem, as Woods so clearly points out, is that "how it used to be," in reference to the Church in America, was orders-of-magnitude better than "how it is now" with the prospects for "how it will be" no better, if the lessons from the past are not learned.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pricey but worth it December 28, 2005
It's a shame Columbia University Press, like most university presses, charges so much for its books. But don't let that dissuade you here. This is a brilliant and important book.

In this book, Professor Woods looks at the Catholic Church in America during the first 20 years of the twentieth century, which roughly coincide with the pontificate of St. Pius X. The book gives you an idea of what it was like to be a Catholic before the deluge of dissent and disaster that afflicted us in the '60s. That in itself is something worth doing.

But Woods does much more here. He shows that the pictures people often paint of the pre-conciliar Church are not accurate. It was not opposed to all new ideas, etc. Catholics engaged with the culture, but unlike today they did not permit themselves to be overwhelmed by it. They even said that America needed to be converted to Catholicism - and other forbidden statements no one will ever hear from an American bishop today.

Now bear in mind, this is a demanding book. If you've read Professor Woods' delightful Politically Incorrect Guide to American History and are expecting something similar, think again. This is a serious scholarly work, as its many endorsements in respected historical journals attest.

At the same time, it is intended not only for academics but also for the educated general public. It shows us a Catholic Church in America in which Catholics actually spoke and acted like Catholics - shocking! Professor Woods is to be commended for this brilliant study.
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