Note: I had originally planned to include Tyrell in my upcoming post on the original modernists. However, I decided to give him his own post as he did not fit into any sort of category. Many names mentioned here will be covered subsequently.
Sometimes one can read a work by a man with work condemned by the church and feel great sympathy and regret for him. Origen’s entire extant body of work is excellent except his two bad ideas. Nestorius’ Apology reveals that he was perhaps not as much a heretic as his opponents thought (at the very least, his heresy was more derived out of ignorance than anything else), many of Luther’s 95 theses make excellent points and strike at the heart of the corruption in the church (forcing this author to wonder if Luther could have been a great saint had he not let his vices get the better of him), and the early writings of George Tyrell reveal a man with great faith before it was dashed when he became seduced by the Loisy school of thought.
Tyrell spent much of his early life on the edge of poverty, with his family’s status as an “orange” Irish serving no benefit to them. Religion was practically nonexistent, his brother fell into cynicism, and at some point he wandered into a church of the common “rabble” of the Irish Catholics. He continued to come back until he realized that “there was a world of difference between an altar and a communion table”. He eventually left his old life behind to join the Catholic faith and, quite regrettably, the Jesuit Order.
There were probably many factors that would lead to his restlestness and inability to find any semblance of peace in his life: his Irish temper, his upbringing, his frustration with ultra-scholaticism, the company he found himself with, and the fact that someone of his personality was one of the worst possible fits for the Society of Jesus. Even the doting of his loyal companion Maude Petre (for those who may be wondering, the diaries of the nun reveal that her relationship with Tyrell was not sexual in nature) or his warm-hearted friend Friedrich von Hugel could do little to abate the fires that would torment and ultimately consume him. Through most his priestly life, Tyrell would burn many bridges and lose many an opportunity for a quieter existence. Controversy was an addiction for him and, like a dog to a side of bacon, he could not resist it or back down from a fight.
Yet, in the early days of his ministry there was little indication or foreshadowing of the tragedy that was to follow. The discontent he had from parish work was certainly nothing out of the ordinary for a young priest, especially one as melancholy as himself. He cursorily read bits of the Summa in light of Leo XIII’s encouragements for all Catholics to do so, disparaged Suarez as a “third rate theologian”, and was an avid proponent of Newman in the vein of Wilfrid Ward. His first writings such as Oil and Wine (1902) or External Religion, Its Use and Abuse (1899) are quite excellent, the first being a spiritual and anti-rationalist outpouring of faith that reads like a more accessible Blondel and the second being an apology against many common errors and misconceptions about internal and external religion. Had he never joined the elite circle of intellectual “modernists”, save perhaps Blondel, and retired to a secluded monastery then maybe he could have lived out the rest of his life in some sort of quiet.
However, in a move she would later deeply regret, Maude Petre introduced him to her childhood friend Freidrich von Hugel. The affable German consequently introduced him to others in the fragmented “network” he had pieced together. Hugel’s – and Tyrell’s – lack of discernment in distinguishing a man like Loisy from a man like Blondel would prove to be disastrous. Unlike Laberthonniere, Tyrell did not have the upbringing of a loving family or deep Catholic roots from childhood. Unlike Lagrange or Batiffol, he was too naive to see the dangers of Loisy’s line of thought. Unlike Duchesne or Blondel, he was not a great scholar – however brilliant and full of “raw talent” he was in the field of prose. He quickly adopted the spirituality as his own and consumed the historical criticisms of Loisy. Though the “synthesis of all heresies” moniker is laughably inaccurate as a description for Modernism, Tyrell’s views can quite accurately be described as “the synthesis of all the modernists”.
Rather than devote his energies to the priestly life or to finding a better fit for his personality, he soon flung himself headlong into the storm that erupted following the publication of Loisy’s L’Évangile et L’Église (1903). As the “modernists” soon divided into two camps over the work Tyrell came down emphatically in support of Loisy, putting him immediately at odds with the same Maurice Blondel who he still idolized as a leader of a new wave of thought in the church. This was a fatal threshold he crossed as it set him on path that would lead ultimately to his excommunication.
When the authorities in Rome finally moved against Loisy (after probably spending much time finding anyone of their number even learned enough to understand the issues being debated), it was not long before Tyrell found himself under scrutiny. Lex Orandi incited much controversy with its bold and heterodox assertions and afterwards he had several letters “leaked” and wrote under pseudonyms in an attempt to avert the authorities. So distinctive, however, was his writing style that it did not take much for the censors to realize who was behind it. His provincial, probably knowing he had an intelligent priest on his hands, did everything in his power to keep him and wept for Tyrell when he ended his association with the society. Attempts to be accepted by bishops either fell through due to the trepidation of the bishop or due to a ill-timed writing from Tyrell. Tyrell gave up saying Mass entirely, but continued to read the breviary and sometimes confided that he had a longing to be on the altar again when at Mass.
The encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis finally sealed his fate. Already having alienated practically anyone who could have interceded for him, he was placed under strict censure and not allowed to send even private letters unless they were read beforehand (this was his own fault, as he had falsely asserted that one of his earlier letters was “leaked without his permission”). When he balked the extreme limitations he had accepted, he was issued a minor excommunication in the hopes that he would eventually relent. He did not. Instead he became even more cynical, thrashed against everything and everyone, and even found himself frustrated with the seemingly impossible-to-offend Friedrich von Hugel. While Hugel could question whether doctrines were true and then go off to his daily Eucharistic adoration, Tyrell could not understand Hugel’s attachment to this “Pauline invention”. Tyrell published Medievalism, his final large work in response to Cardinal Mercier which serves quite neatly as a sort of “modernist manifesto”, shortly before he died a protracted and painful death.
“For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
Though he had gone “full Loisy” in rejecting the very Eucharist that had drawn him to the faith in the first place, he was granted conditional absolution and Communion in his final throes. His funeral was a glum affair, attended by few including Hugel and Maude Petre (who had been at his side though the entirety of his final days) before he was transfered to an Anglican cemetery and laid to rest. A priest who stood over the casket and gave a blessing was later severely disciplined (an indication of how far the anti-modernist inquisition had gone). His body is still there beside Maude Petre’s, awaiting the final resurrection where it will be joined again with the soul of its bearer who, God willing, is hopefully and finally at peace.