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]

Tyrrell was expelled from the Jesuit order in 1906 by superior general Franz X. Wernz, 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. Tyrrell was the only Jesuit really to be expelled by a Jesuit general in the 20th century, until the Spanish father general Pedro Arrupe expelled Huub Oosterhuis in 1969. Modernism played a major role in both cases.

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]

  • Hard Sayings: A Selection of Meditations and Studies, Longmans, Green & Co., 1898
  • External Religion: Its Use and Abuse, B. Herder, 1899
  • Lex Orandi: or, Prayer & Creed, Longmans, Green & Co., 1903
  • Lex Credendi: A Sequel to Lex Orandi, Longmans, Green & Co., 1906
  • Through Scylla and Charybdis: or, The Old Theology and the New, Longmans, Green & Co., 1907
  • A Much-Abused Letter, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907
  • Medievalism: A Reply to Cardinal Mercier, Longmans, Green, and Co. 1908
  • The Church and the Future, The Priory Press, 1910
  • Christianity at the Cross-Roads, Longmans, Green and Co., 1910
  • Autobiography and Life of George Tyrrell, Edward Arnold, 1912
  • Essays on Faith and Immortality, Edward Arnold, 1914


  • "The Old Faith and the New Woman", The American Catholic Quarterly Review, Vol. XXII, 1897
  • "The Clergy and the Social Problem", The American Catholic Quarterly Review, Vol. XXII, 1897
  • "The Church and Scholasticism", The American Catholic Quarterly Review, Vol. XXIII, 1898


  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]

  • Petre, Maude. Autobiography and Life of George Tyrrell. London: E. Arnold, 1912
  • May, J. Lewis. Father Tyrrell and the Modernist Movement. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1932
  • Ratté, John. Three Modernists: Alfred Loisy, George Tyrrell, William L. Sullivan. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1967.
  • Root, John D[avid]. English Catholic modernism and science: The case of George Tyrrell, Heythrop Journal 18/3 (1977): 271–288.
  • Schultenover, David G. George Tyrrell: In Search of Catholicism. Shepherdstown, West Virginia: Patmos Press, 1981.
  • Sagovsky, Nicholas. On God's Side: A Life of George Tyrrell. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.
  • Richard Utz. "Pi(o)us Medievalism vs. Catholic Modernism: The Case Of George Tyrell." The Year's Work in Medievalism 25 (2010), 6–11.
  • Wells, David F., The prophetic theology of George Tyrrell, 1978.
  • Wells, David F., The pope as antichrist : the substance of George Tyrrell's polemic, 1972?

External links[edit]