George Tyrrell

George Tyrrell (1861-1909) was an Irish-English Jesuit priest best known for his contributions to the Catholic "Modernist" movement that sought to revise traditional views of revelation and church teaching so as to bring out better their historical dimensions.

George Tyrrell was born February 6, 1861, in Dublin, Ireland. He was raised as an Anglican, but he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1879 and joined the Society of Jesus, a Catholic religious order devoted to teaching, in 1880. Following lengthy studies, he was ordained a priest in 1891 and assigned to teach at Stonyhurst, a Jesuit college in Lancashire, England. Intellectually, Tyrrell was influenced by John Henry Newman, Maurice Blondel, Baron Friedrich von Hugel, and other Modernists who had proposed departing from the scholastic forms of theology dominant until that time so as to allow for more historical development in the interpretation of both scripture and doctrinal theology.

The Modernists were repudiated by Popes Leo XIII and Pius X, to whom the notion of historical change in church teaching was anathema. Tyrrell himself was roundly attacked for his views in 1901 and expelled from the Jesuits in 1906. In 1907 Pope Pius X issued an encyclical letter, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, that condemned Modernism, which it (erroneously) presented as a coherent movement and theological outlook. Tyrrell denounced the encyclical and was in consequence excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He refused to retract his positions but to the end of his life continued to consider himself a Catholic and to write explanations of the Modernist outlook.

Inasmuch as Modernist positions have entered the mainstream of late 20th-century Catholic theology, Tyrrell may be seen as a precursor of views that later became taken for granted. Especially, the majority of Catholic theologians have come to agree with Tyrrell that church teachings always have an historical dimension. They arise at a given moment, within a given cultural horizon, and ever afterwards their formulations bear the marks of their origins. The Scriptures themselves are expressions of given historical assumptions.

More clearly than Tyrrell, however, most present-day Catholic theologians argue that this historicity need not mean that either the Scriptures or official church teachings do not come from God as divine revelation. It simply means that all human formulations of divine revelation occur in time and so are historically conditioned. Just as Christian doctrine considers Jesus himself to be fully human as well as fully divine, so mainstream contemporary Christian theology considers both biblical interpretation and church teaching to be fully human (historically conditioned) as well as inspired by God's spirit.

Tyrrell and the other Modernists sought to explain Christian faith in light of the understanding of human historicity that had arisen by the end of the 19th century. They were convinced that a static, unhistorical, universalist explanation of Christian teaching, such as prevailed among scholastic theologians at the time, rendered it incredible to modern intellectuals, for whom both change in nature and historical development in human culture had become standard assumptions. Books by Tyrrell, namely Religion as a Factor in Life (1902) and The Church and the Future (1903), argued for this position with some elegance.

The intellectual violence with which their scholastic opponents attacked the Modernists assured that Catholic scholars would become polarized. When the Roman authorities took the side of the ahistorical scholastics and branded the historicism of the Modernists heretical, an era of intellectual repression swept over Catholic culture. Theologians were required to swear an oath of loyalty against the Modernist positions, and to be held suspect of Modernism was to fall into considerable disfavor.

Tyrrell's disfavor wore heavily upon him and contributed to his relatively early death on July 15, 1909, at Storrington, England. Students of his life debate whether he was wise to refuse to accommodate to the demands of his superiors, but it seems clear that he considered maintaining his positions a matter of intellectual integrity. He was far from standing alone, but many who held positions similar to his did trim their sails and avoid excommunication. Few analysts now consider Tyrrell as substantial a thinker as Blondel or von Hugel, let alone Newman, but he was an effective apologist in his day and so one of the major factors in the overall victory that the Modernists finally won.


Further Reading on George Tyrrell

Gabriel Daly, Transcendence and Immanence: A Study in Catholic Modernism and Integralism (1980), and A.R. Vidler, A Variety of Catholic Modernists (1970), tell well the story of the movement that gave Tyrrell his significance. M. D. Petre's Autobiography and Life of George Tyrrell (1912) and Letters (1920) suggest the contemporary flavor of the struggles that absorbed Tyrrell.

Additional Biography Sources

Sagovsky, Nicholas, On God's side: a life of George Tyrrell, Oxford England: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Leonard, Ellen, C.S.J., George Tyrrell and the Catholic tradition, London: Darton, Longman, and Todd; New York: Paulist Press, 1982.