William PORTIER. Divided Friends: Portraits of the Roman Catholic Modernist Crisis in the United States. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2013. Pp. 403. $39.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8132-2164-9. Reviewed by Michael SKAGGS, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556.


Portier’s Divided Friends narrates the intense personal and professional implications of theological Modernism, that early-twentieth century movement condemned by Pope Pius X in 1907 as the “synthesis of all heresies” in Pascendi Dominici gregis. Between Portier’s “divided friends” John R. Slattery, Denis O’Connell, Joseph McSorley, and William L. Sullivan, two left the Church while two remained, both castigated by their former comrades as dishonest leeches on the Church’s career ladder. Portier’s major contribution is to refute the so-called “phantom heresy” school of thought, which strictly separates Americanism from theological Modernism. Portier argues that the two ought to be considered as discrete but nonetheless connected crests in a single wave of modern thought crossing the Atlantic westward.

    Portier seeks also to “redeem the time between 1907 and 1962 ” for Catholic theology (326) Portier concedes that neo-Scholasticism exerted the most influence on theology during this era, with the dangerous upshot of giving the appearance that theology advanced little until Pius XII opened the field slightly with Divino afflante Spiritu (1942) and the Second Vatican Council vindicated some threads of Modernism. But neo-Scholasticism did not dominate all of theology in the first half of the twentieth century; on the contrary, “something analogous to ressourcement was going on in the United States. (368)

     There is a great deal to commend Divided Friends. As an intellectual history of theological Modernism, it excels with its vivid use of individual lives to untangle the intricate knots of contemporary theology. Portier’s first chapter is a masterful narrative of the rise of integralism, the institutional Church’s response to Modernism. In many ways, integralism characterized most of the Church’s public facing prior to the Second Vatican Council. This was particularly true in Europe, where the institutional Church sought to safeguard “an artificial likeness of a situation that was once culturally normative…that is, the Church’s legally inscribed public role in pre-modern European social and political life.” (9)

Chapter 12, “Holiness and History: From Americanism and Modernism to Vatican II” is remarkable, too, for its deft interweaving of narrative threads that ultimately illustrates a developmental thread running from the turn of the century to the close of the Second Vatican Council. It is here that Portier can speak of Dorothy Day and “Catholic medievalism” in almost the same breath, and in a way that makes total sense. It is here, too, that Portier essentially exposes both the sharp discontinuity but also the subtle continuities − to use two phrases highly politicized in the pontificate of Benedict XVI − between the pre- and post-Vatican II Catholic world. As Portier shows, the post-Vatican II rejection of early twentieth-century integralism was a remarkable about-face executed by the institutional Church. But that rejection was built upon foundations laid by theological Modernists: while perhaps not every brick remained in the foundation, Modernists nonetheless provided the raw material for the Church’s newfound openness to societies unwilling to accord Catholicism an official place in the political order. Because of Portier’s masterful synthesis, this chapter is the  summary heart of the book.

     The single drawback to Portier’s otherwise excellent work is the length of his narrative in some places, especially as pertains to John R. Slattery. On the one hand, using individual lives to illustrate otherwise esoteric theological disputes makes the subject matter vastly more interesting. On the other, one does get the impression that the ultimate thrust of these four lives and their significance to Americanism, Modernism, and the basic goal of theological inquiry could be conveyed in a slightly more concise manner. Especially for readers easily distracted, it is tempting to latch on to the many biographical threads that Portier unspools in regard to his four main protagonists.

This minor complaint notwithstanding, Divided Friends is a major contribution to early twentieth-century Catholic intellectual history. It can, and should, be read alongside landmark work by historians such as R. Scott Appleby (Church and Age Unite!, 1992), Una Cadegan (All Good Books Are Catholic Books, 2013), and Philip Gleason (Contending with Modernity, 1995). The complexity of Portier’s narrative means that graduate students and scholars will benefit most from the book in toto; undergraduates will profit from individual chapters, as well.