George Tyrrell

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Fr George Tyrrell

George Tyrrell (6 February 1861–15 July 1909) was a Jesuit priest (until his expulsion) and a Modernist theologian and scholar. His attempts to evolve and adapt Catholic teaching in the context of modern ideas made him a key figure in the Modernist controversy within the Roman Catholic Church in the late 19th century.


Tyrrell was born in Dublin, Ireland and brought up as an Anglican. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1879. Joining the Jesuits in 1880, Tyrrell was ordained to the priesthood in 1891. He argued that the Pope must not be an absolute autocrat but a "spokesman for the mind of the Holy Spirit in the Church", the "Base Community" as he termed it, of the laity.

Tyrrell argued that most biblical scholarship and devotional reflection, such as the quest for the historic Jesus, involves elements of self-conscious self-reflection. His famous image, criticising Adolf von Harnack's human view of Scripture is of peering into a well, in which we see our own face reflected in the dark water deep below:

"The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of "Catholic darkness", is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well."[1]

Tyrrell was disciplined under Pope Pius X for advocating "the right of each age to adjust the historico-philosophical expression of Christianity to contemporary certainties, and thus to put an end to this utterly needless conflict between faith and science which is a mere theological bogey."[citation needed]

Tyrell was expelled from the Jesuit order in 1906, suspended from the sacraments the following year and finally excommunicated in 1908. He died the following year, still considering himself to be a devout Catholic.

With the condemnation of modernism, first in the sixty-five propositions of the decree Lamentabili Sane Exitu in July 1907 and then in the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis in September 1907, Tyrrell's fate was sealed. He was deprived of the sacraments – described by Bishop Amigo as "a minor excommunication" – for his robust criticisms of Pascendi which appeared in The Times on 30 September and 1 October 1907.[2] In his rebuttal of Pius X’s encyclical, Tyrrell alleged that the church’s thinking was based on a theory of science and on a psychology that seemed as strange as astrology to the modern mind. Tyrrell accused Pascendi of equating Catholic doctrine with scholastic theology and of having a completely naïve view of the idea of doctrinal development. He furthermore asserted that the encyclical tried to show the "modernist" that he was not a Catholic, but all it succeeded in doing was showing that he was not a scholastic.[3]

He was given extreme unction on his deathbed in 1909, but as he refused to abjure his modernist views was denied burial in a Catholic cemetery.[4] A priest, his friend Henri Bremond, who was present at the burial made a sign of the cross over Tyrrell's grave, for which Bremond was temporarily suspended a divinis by Bishop Peter Amigo of Southwark for some time.[5]

Selected writings[edit]



  1. ^ George Tyrrell, Christianity at the Crossroads (1913 ed.), pg. 44
  2. ^ "The Pope and Modernism", Father Tyrrell's Articles, at The West Australian (Perth, WA), 2 November 1907, p. 2. Also available at Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 5 November 1907, page 1.
  3. ^ George Tyrrell and Catholic Modernism, by Oliver P. Rafferty SJ, 6 July 2009, @
  4. ^ Fergus Kerr, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians (Blackwell, 2007, p. 5)
  5. ^

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]