The Religious Sense: Heretical or Not? You Decide.

Msgr. Giussani founded the lay Catholic ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation (CL), similar to the Neo-Catechumenal Way, Foculare, and Opus Dei. Msgr. Giussani's works are read at CL's "schools of community" worldwide. His text I treat here was translated from this website (English translation), on which this page is based. There are other books by Giussani on which I could focus, but The Religious Sense is his most popular. For how his other works harbor Modernism, check out this site, if you can read Italian. Click here for more resources on Modernism.

Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.'s The Principles of Catholic Apologetics: A Study of Modernism Based Chiefly on the Lectures of Père Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.'s «De Revelatione per Ecclesiam Catholicam proposita» Adapted and Re-Arranged contains a very good criticism of the "New Apologetic" (p. 28, 42-43) used by Msgr. Giussani:

The method of Immanence…in human nature presupposes an exigency for the Supernatural

Before proceeding to note how the advocates of this new Apologetic regard criteria external and internal, the reader will distinguish [cf. Pascendi §19] between (i), the doctrine of "immanence," i.e. God's intimate presence in His creation of which the complementary truth is God's transcendence—acknowledged teaching of Catholic philosophy, and (ii), the doctrine of "immanence" in apologetics which accepts the internal religious sense as the only valid criterion of religious truth [cf. infra, The Religious Sense p. 15]—one of the fundamental tenets of Modernism.

Criticism of the New Apologetic
1.— It is founded on Semi-Agnosticism, vis., the untrustworthiness of speculative reason. [Giussani: "The summit of the conquest of reason is the perception of an existing, unreachable unknown." (infra, The Religous Sense p. 155-6)]
2.— It is founded also on an aspect of the doctrine of immanence. If Catholic Faith is demanded by our nature, that Faith is not in truth the supernatural. In truth the Supernatural is above not only the powers but the exigencies of human nature. These Apologists fail to see that it is natural happiness arising from the natural knowledge and love of God that our nature strives to attain. [cf. Feingold's The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas and His Interpreters and this The Thomist review of it]
3. — The formal motive of Faith consists in the authority of God who reveals, and not in religious experience.


Mgr. Giussani - Il senso religioso pag. 15

And so, let us ask ourselves: Where do we find the criterion that permits us to judge what we see happening in ourselves?

There are two possibilities: either the criterion on which we base our judgement of ourselves is borrowed from the outside, or it is to be found within ourselves.

If we pursue the first possibility, we shall slip into the alienating situation described earlier. Even if we had undertaken an existential enquiry, and therefore, refused to turn to investigations carried out by others, the result would still be alienating if we drew from others the criteria for judging ourselves. Our meaning would still depend on something outside of ourselves.

At this point, you could object intelligently that since man did not exist before he came into this would, it is not possible that he can, by himself, provide a criterion for a judgement. In any case, this criterion is "given." Now, to state that this criterion is inherent within us is not to argue that we alone provide it. Rather, it is to assert that it is drawn from our nature, it is given to us part of our very nature (where the word nature evidently implies the word God, a clue to the ultimate origins of our "I").

Only this then can be considered a reasonable, non-alienating alternative method. In conclusion, the criterion for judging this reflection on our own humanity must emerge from within the inherent structure of the human being, the structure at the origin of the person.

[John E. Zucchi's translation]


39. [...] Now the doctrine of immanence in the Modernist acceptation holds and professes that every phenomenon of conscience proceeds from man as man. The rigorous conclusion from this is the identity of man with God, which means Pantheism.


14. [...] In the religious sentiment one must recognise a kind of intuition of the heart which puts man in immediate contact with the very reality of God, and infuses such a persuasion of God's existence and His action both within and without man as to excel greatly any scientific conviction. They assert, therefore, the existence of a real experience, and one of a kind that surpasses all rational experience. If this experience is denied by some, like the rationalists, it arises from the fact that such persons are unwilling to put themselves in the moral state which is necessary to produce it. It is this experience which, when a person acquires it, makes him properly and truly a believer.

How far off we are here from Catholic teaching we have already seen in the decree of the Vatican Council. We shall see later how, with such theories, added to the other errors already mentioned, the way is opened wide for atheism.

Blessed Pius IX - "DEI FILIUS"

3. If anyone says that
  • divine revelation cannot be made credible by external signs, and that therefore
  • men and women ought to be moved to faith only by each one's internal experience or private inspiration:
let him be anathema.


4. If anyone says
  • that finite things, both corporal and spiritual, or at any rate, spiritual, emanated from the divine substance; or
  • that the divine essence, by the manifestation and evolution of itself becomes all things or, finally,
  • that God is a universal or indefinite being which by self determination establishes the totality of things distinct in genera, species and individuals:
let him be anathema.
Mgr. Giussani - Il senso religioso pag. 16

All of the experiences of my humanity and of my personality are filtered through the sieve of a primordial "original experience" that constitutes my identity in the way I face everything. Each man has a right and a duty to learn that it is always possible to compare every proposal with this "elementary experience." It must also become his habit

What constitutes this original, elementary experience? It can be described as a complex of needs and "evidences" which accompany us as we come face to face with all that exists. Nature thrusts man into a universal comparison with himself, with others, with things, and furnishes him with a complex of original needs and "evidences" which are tools for that encounter. So original are these needs or these "evidences" that everything man does or says depends on them.

These needs can be given many names. They can be summarised with different expressions (for example, the need for happiness, the need for truth, for justice, etc.). They are like a spark igniting the human motor. Prior to them, there is no movement or human dynamism. Any personal affirmation, from the most banal and ordinary to the most reflected upon and rich in consequences, can be based solely on this nucleus of original needs.

[John E. Zucchi's translation]

Mgr. Giussani - Il senso religioso pag. 19-20

That is why the fundamental criterion for facing things is an objective one, with which nature thrusts man into a universal comparison, endowing him with that nucleus of original needs, with that elementary experience which mothers in the same way provide to their children. It is only here, by affirming this common identity, that we overcome anarchy. The need for goodness, justice, truth, and happiness constitutes man's ultimate identity, the profound energy with which men in all ages and of all races approach everything, enabling them to an exchange, of not only things, but also ideas, and transmit riches to each other over the distance of centuries. We are stirred as we read passages written thousands of years ago by ancient poets, and we sense that their works apply to the present in a way that our day-to-day relations do not. If there is an experience of human maturity, it is precisely this possibility of placing ourselves in the past, of approaching the past as if it were near, a part of ourselves. Why is this possible? Because this elementary experience, as we stated, is substantially the same in everyone, even if it will then be determined, translated, and realised in very different ways—so different, in fact that they may seem opposed.


The most audacious challenge to that mentality that dominates us and touches us at every point—from our spiritual life to our clothing—is to become accustomed to making a judgement about everything in the light of our primary "evidences" and not at the mercy of our more occasional reactions.

[John E. Zucchi's translation]

Pope John Paul II - "DOMINUS IESUS"

For this reason, the distinction between theological faith and belief in the other religions, must be firmly held. If faith is the acceptance in grace of revealed truth, which "makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently", then belief, in the other religions, is that sum of experience and thought that constitutes the human treasury of wisdom and religious aspiration, which man in his search for truth has conceived and acted upon in his relationship to God and the Absolute.

This distinction is not always borne in mind in current theological reflection. Thus, theological faith (the acceptance of the truth revealed by the One and Triune God) is often identified with belief in other religions, which is religious experience still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God who reveals himself. This is one of the reasons why the differences between Christianity and the other religions tend to be reduced at times to the point of disappearance.


13. [...] For amongst the chief points of their [the Modernists'] teaching is this which they deduce from the principle of vital immanence; that religious formulas, to be really religious and not merely theological speculations, ought to be living and to live the life of the religious sentiment. This is not to be understood in the sense that these formulas, especially if merely imaginative, were to be made for the religious sentiment; it has no more to do with their origin than with number or quality; what is necessary is that the religious sentiment, with some modification when necessary, should vitally assimilate them. In other words, it is necessary that the primitive formula be accepted and sanctioned by the heart; and similarly the subsequent work from which spring the secondary formulas must proceed under the guidance of the heart. Hence it comes that these formulas, to be living, should be, and should remain, adapted to the faith and to him who believes. Wherefore if for any reason this adaptation should cease to exist, they lose their first meaning and accordingly must be changed. And since the character and lot of dogmatic formulas is so precarious, there is no room for surprise that Modernists regard them so lightly and in such open disrespect. And so they audaciously charge the Church both with taking the wrong road from inability to distinguish the religious and moral sense of formulas from their surface meaning, and with clinging tenaciously and vainly to meaningless formulas whilst religion is allowed to go to ruin. Blind that they are, and leaders of the blind, inflated with a boastful science, they have reached that pitch of folly where they pervert the eternal concept of truth and the true nature of the religious sentiment; with that new system of theirs they are seen to be under the sway of a blind and unchecked passion for novelty, thinking not at all of finding some solid foundation of truth, but despising the holy and apostolic traditions, they embrace other vain, futile, uncertain doctrines, condemned by the Church, on which, in the height of their vanity, they think they can rest and maintain truth itself.


5. [...] As for the meaning of dogmatic formulas, this remains ever true and constant in the Church, even when it is expressed with greater clarity or more developed. The faithful therefore must shun the opinion, first, that dogmatic formulas (or some category of them) cannot signify truth in a determinate way, but can only offer changeable approximations to it, which to a certain extent distort of alter it; secondly, that these formulas signify the truth only in an indeterminate way, this truth being like a goal that is constantly being sought by means of such approximations. Those who hold such an opinion do not avoid dogmatic relativism and they corrupt the concept of the Church's infallibility relative to the truth to be taught or held in a determinate way.

Mgr. Giussani - Il senso religioso pag. 55

Each one of us is born into a certain tradition. Nature casts us into the dynamic of existence, arming us with this complex instrument with which we can confront our surroundings. Every man and woman faces his or her external reality endowed by nature with elements that one finds in oneself as given, already offered. Tradition is that complex endowment with which nature arms us.

We do not possess tradition in order to become fossilised within it, but to develop it, even to the point of profoundly changing it. But in order to transform it, we must first of all act "with" what has been given to us; we must use it. And it is through the values and richness which I have received that I can become, in my own turn, creative, capable not only of developing what I find in my hands, but also changing radically both its meaning, its structure, and perspective.


When this critical principle is omitted, the subject is either alienated by or fossilised within his tradition or, sold into the violence of his environment, he will end up abandoning it. As is the case for most people concerning their religious consciousness, this is all the more true: the violence of their surroundings decides for them.

I insist then upon this point: using tradition critically does not mean doubting its value — even if this is what is suggested by the current mentality. Rather, it means using this incredibly rich working hypothesis by filtering it through this critical principle which is inherent within us: elementary experience. If tradition is critically used in such a manner, then it becomes a facet of our personality, the material for a specific face, an identity, an identity in the world.

[John E. Zucchi's translation]

Condemns the following assertion

63. The Church shows that she is incapable of effectively maintaining evangelical ethics since she obstinately clings to immutable doctrines which cannot be reconciled with modern progress.

Pope John Paul II - "DOMINUS IESUS"

7. [...] This distinction is not always borne in mind in current theological reflection. Thus, theological faith (the acceptance of the truth revealed by the One and Triune God) is often identified with belief in other religions, which is religious experience still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God who reveals himself. This is one of the reasons why the differences between Christianity and the other religions tend to be reduced at times to the point of disappearance.


15. But this doctrine of experience is also under another aspect entirely contrary to Catholic truth. It is extended and applied to tradition, as hitherto understood by the Church, and destroys it. By the Modernists, tradition is understood as a communication to others, through preaching by means of the intellectual formula, of an original experience. To this formula, in addition to its representative value, they attribute a species of suggestive efficacy which acts both in the person who believes, to stimulate the religious sentiment should it happen to have grown sluggish and to renew the experience once acquired, and in those who do not yet believe, to awake for the first time the religious sentiment in them and to produce the experience.

Mgr. Giussani - Il senso religioso pag. 62

I understand what a seed is once it has developed into a tree. Standing in front of the tree I will say, "This is a poplar tree." And, knowing what the poplar is, I will be able to analyse better the seed. This process has been repeated, so that today a botanist can say at first sight, This is a poplar seed." What a man is can only be apparent in an actual mature development of the factors which constitute him. One understands better what a man is in Socrates or Dante than in the uneducated masses.

[John E. Zucchi's translation]

Pope John Paul II - "DOMINUS IESUS"

Thus, the Encyclical Redemptoris missio calls the Church once again to the task of announcing the Gospel as the fullness of truth: "In this definitive Word of his revelation, God has made himself known in the fullest possible way. He has revealed to mankind who he is. This definitive self-revelation of God is the fundamental reason why the Church is missionary by her very nature. She cannot do other than proclaim the Gospel, that is, the fullness of the truth which God has enabled us to know about himself". Only the revelation of Jesus Christ, therefore, "introduces into our history a universal and ultimate truth which stirs the human mind to ceaseless effort".

6.  Therefore, the theory of the limited, incomplete, or imperfect character of the revelation of Jesus Christ, which would be complementary to that found in other religions, is contrary to the Church's faith. Such a position would claim to be based on the notion that the truth about God cannot be grasped and manifested in its globality and completeness by any historical religion, neither by Christianity nor by Jesus Christ.

Such a position is in radical contradiction with the foregoing statements of Catholic faith according to which the full and complete revelation of the salvific mystery of God is given in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the words, deeds, and entire historical event of Jesus, though limited as human realities, have nevertheless the divine Person of the Incarnate Word, "true God and true man" as their subject. For this reason, they possess in themselves the definitiveness and completeness of the revelation of God's salvific ways, even if the depth of the divine mystery in itself remains transcendent and inexhaustible.  The truth about God is not abolished or reduced because it is spoken in human language; rather, it is unique, full, and complete, because he who speaks and acts is the Incarnate Son of God. Thus, faith requires us to profess that the Word made flesh, in his entire mystery, who moves from incarnation to glorification, is the source, participated but real, as well as the fulfilment of every salvific revelation of God to humanity, and that the Holy Spirit, who is Christ's Spirit, will teach this "entire truth" (Jn 16:13) to the Apostles and, through them, to the whole Church.


20. [...] All Christian consciences were, they [the Modernists] affirm, in a manner virtually included in the conscience of Christ as the plant is included in the seed. But as the shoots live the life of the seed, so, too, all Christians are to be said to live the life of Christ. But the life of Christ is according to faith, and so, too, is the life of Christians. And since this life produced, in the courses of ages, both the Church and the Sacraments, it is quite right to say that their origin is from Christ and is divine. In the same way they prove that the Scriptures and the dogmas are divine. And thus the Modernistic theology may be said to be complete. No great thing, in truth, but more than enough for the theologian who professes that the conclusions of science must always, and in all things, be respected.

But let us see how the Modernist conducts his apologetics. The aim he sets before himself is to make the non-believer attain that experience of the Catholic religion which, according to the system, is the basis of faith. There are two ways open to him, the objective and the subjective. The first of them proceeds from agnosticism. It tends to show that religion, and especially the Catholic religion, is endowed with such vitality as to compel every psychologist and historian of good faith to recognise that its history hides some unknown element. To this end it is necessary to prove that this religion, as it exists today, is that which was founded by Jesus Christ; that is to say, that it is the product of the progressive development of the germ which He brought into the world. Hence it is imperative first of all to establish what this germ was, and this the Modernist claims to be able to do by the following formula: Christ announced the coming of the kingdom of God, which was to be realised within a brief lapse of time and of which He was to become the Messiah, the divinely-given agent and ordainer. Then it must be shown how this germ, always immanent and permanent in the bosom of the Church, has gone on slowly developing in the course of history, adapting itself successively to the different mediums through which it has passed, borrowing from them by vital assimilation all the dogmatic, cultural, ecclesiastical forms that served its purpose; whilst, on the other hand , it surmounted all obstacles, vanquished all enemies, and survived all assaults and all combats. Anybody who well and duly considers this mass of obstacles, adversaries, attacks, combats, and the vitality and fecundity which the Church has shown throughout them all, must admit that if the laws of evolution are visible in her life they fail to explain the whole of her history - the unknown rises forth from it and presents itself before us. Thus do they argue, never suspecting that their determination of the primitive germ is an a priori of agnostic and evolutionist philosophy, and that the formula of it has been gratuitously invented for the sake of buttressing their position.

Mgr. Giussani - Il senso religioso pag. 55

No matter how obscure, enigmatic, nebulous, and veiled this "Other" may be, still it is undeniably the ultimate destination of the human impulse, the goal of the human dynamic.

Let us summarise our itinerary. Reason, which is to comprehend existence, to be coherent with its very nature, must admit that something incomprehensible, Something (a quid) structurally beyond the possibility of understanding and measuring ("transcendent") exists.


In the course of its adventure, reason reaches an ultimate pinnacle where it intuits the existence of this comprehensive explanation as something it cannot grasp on its own: this is mystery. It would not be reason if it did not imply the existence of this ultimate quid. Just as eyes on opening cannot but recognise colours and forms, so too the human person endowed with reason, which is set in motion by his impact with things, affirms the existence of an ultimate, all-encompassing "because," an unknown quid, the unknown God. Do not let the word "god" confuse us because it is the term used, in universal religious language, to identify this absolute quid. In a billion centuries, whatever frontier the human person will have reached, still "that is not it" [...].

[John E. Zucchi's translation]

Mgr. Giussani - Il senso religioso pag. 191

But would not God, translated into comprehensible terms, be idolatry? Although he is translated into human terms, the result of the revelation must be the deepening of the mystery as mystery. Its result should not be a reduction, as if the man can say: "I understand!", but a deepening of the mystery. So you know and you know it more and more as mystery.

[Google machine translation with my corrections]

Mgr. Giussani - Il senso religioso pag. 155-156

Reason is the need to comprehend existence; namely, reason is the need for an adequate explanation, the whole of existence. The answer exists, because it screams through the constitutive questions of our being, but it is not measurable by experience. No one who knows what it is. [...] The summit of the conquest of reason is the perception of an existing, unreachable unknown, to which all human movement is intended, because it depends on it. It is the idea of mystery. Mystery is not a limit to reason, but it is the greatest discovery that can arrive at the reason: the existence of something incommensurable with itself. The preceding reasoning could be summarised this way: reason is the need to comprehend existence; in live this is not possible; therefore fidelity to reason forces us to admit the existence of an incomprehensible.

[Google machine translation with my corrections]


The same conclusion follows from the distinction Modernists make between science and faith. The object of science they say is the reality of the knowable; the object of faith, on the contrary, is the reality of the unknowable. Now what makes the unknowable unknowable is its disproportion with the intelligible - a disproportion which nothing whatever, even in the doctrine of the Modernist, can suppress. Hence the unknowable remains and will eternally remain unknowable to the believer as well as to the man of science. Therefore if any religion at all is possible it can only be the religion of an unknowable reality.

Return to my Modernism page.