George Tyrrell

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George Tyrrell

George Tyrrell (1861-1909).jpg
Personal details
Born(1861-02-06)6 February 1861
Dublin, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
Died15 July 1909(1909-07-15) (aged 48)
Storrington, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
DenominationRoman Catholic, Latin Church
  • Priest
  • theologian
  • scholar

George Tyrrell SJ (6 February 1861 – 15 July 1909) was an Irish Jesuit priest (until his expulsion from the Society) and a modernist theologian and scholar. His attempts to evolve and adapt Catholic theology 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.

Early life[edit]

Tyrrell was born on 6 February 1861 in Dublin, Ireland. His father, a journalist, died shortly before Tyrrell was born. George was first cousin to Irish classical scholar Robert Yelverton Tyrrell. A childhood accident resulted in him eventually becoming deaf in the right ear.[1] Limited finances caused the family to move several times.

Tyrrell was brought up as an Anglican, and around 1869 attended Rathmines School near Dublin. He was educated from 1873 at the Church of Ireland Midleton College, although his mother had difficulty affording the fees, and he left early. In 1876, he studied at Trinity College, and around 1877 met Robert Dolling who had a strong influence on him. In August 1878, Tyrrell took a post at Wexford High School, but returned to Trinity in October, on the advice of Dolling, to train for the Anglican ministry.[1]


In the spring of 1879, at Dolling's invitation, Tyrrell went to London to work at a sort of mission Dolling was starting. On Palm Sunday, he wandered into St Etheldreda's Church on Ely place. "Here was the old business, being carried on by the old firm, in the old ways; here was continuity, that took one back to the catecombs."[1] He converted and was received into the Catholic Church in 1879. He immediately applied to join the Society of Jesus, but was advised by the provincial superior to wait a year. He spent the interim teaching at Jesuit schools in Cyprus and Malta.[2] He joined the Jesuits in 1880 and was sent to the novitiate at Manresa House.

As early as 1882, his novice master proposed that Tyrrell withdraw from the Jesuits due to a "mental indocility" and a dissatisfaction with a number of Jesuit customs, approaches, and practices; but he was allowed to remain. Tyrrell later stated that he believed he was more inclined to Benedictine spirituality. After taking his first vows he was sent to Stonyhurst to study philosophy. In 1879, Pope Leo XIII had issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris, encouraging the study of St. Thomas Aquinas. Tyrrell believed that the Jesuits endorsed Aquinas, but as interpreted by Jesuit theologian Francisco Suárez. While Tyrrell admired Aquinas, he rejected Scholasticism as inadequate. Having completed his studies at Stonyhurst, he next returned to the Jesuit school on Malta, where he spent three years teaching. He then went to St Beuno's College in Wales, to take up his theological studies.

He was ordained to the priesthood in 1891. After a brief period of pastoral work in Lancashire, he returned to Roehampton for his Tertianship. In 1893, he spent some time briefly at the Jesuit mission house in Oxford, before taking up pastoral work at St Helens, Merseyside, where he was reportedly happiest during his time as a Jesuit. A little over a year later, he was sent to teach philosophy at Stonyhurst, where he came into conflict with some of the faculty for not adhering to the traditional Jesuit approach to Thomas Aquinas, which was heavily influenced by the work of Francisco Suárez.[2]

In 1896 he was transferred to the Jesuit House on Farm Street in London.[3] It was while at Farm Street that Tyrrell discovered the work of Maurice Blondel. He was also influenced by Alfred Loisy‘s biblical scholarship. Tyrrell first met Friedrich von Hügel in October 1897 and they became close friends. Part of Tyrrell's work while at Farm Street was to write articles for the Jesuit periodical The Month. He had the occasion to review some works by Wilfrid Ward, and for a time, came to share Ward's view of moderate liberalism.

In 1899 he published A Perverted Devotion. The article concerned the concept of Hell. Given "...the essential incapacity of finite mind to seize the absolute end which governs and moves everything towards itself..."[4] Tyrrell recognized that some subjects were matters of "faith and mystery". He "...preferred to admit that the Christian doctrine of hell as simply a very great mystery, one difficult to reconcile with any just appreciation of the concept of an all-loving God".[5] He argued that the rationalist approach of the Scholastics was not applicable to matters of faith. Although reviewed by a number of English Jesuits, Including Herbert Thurston, who found no fault with it, the Father General determined that it was "offensive to pious ears". Tyrrell was assigned to a small mission in Richmond, where he deeply appreciated the peace and quiet. In January 1901, he declined a re-assignment back to St. Helen's.

Between 1891 and 1906, Tyrrell published more than twenty articles in Catholic periodicals, many in the United States.[6] Asked to repudiate his theories in 1906, Tyrrell declined and was dismissed from the Society of Jesus by superior general Franz X. Wernz.

Pope Pius X's 1907 encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis condemned modernism. Tyrrell contributed two letters to The Times critical of the encyclical[3] and was subsequently excommunicated.

The stone erected at the grave of George Tyrrell

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 Liberal Protestant 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."[7]

He argued that the pope should not act as an autocrat but a "spokesman for the mind of the Holy Spirit in the Church".[8]

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]

He was 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 to be expelled by a Jesuit general in the twentieth 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 65 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 Peter Amigo, Bishop of Southwark, as "a minor excommunication" – for his robust criticisms of Pascendi which appeared in The Times on 30 September and 1 October 1907.[9] 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.[2]

In contrast to Alfred Loisy, Tyrrell's case never came up before the Congregation of Index or the Holy Office. His fate rested in the hands of Cardinal Secretary of State Rafael Merry del Val, who collaborated closely with Bishop Amigo.[10]


His last two years were spent mainly in Storrington. 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.[11] A priest, his friend Henri Brémond, 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 Amigo for some time.[12]

A near contemporary account places most of the blame for the disagreement between the modern Catholic philosophers and the Vatican on the then Papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Merry de Val's "irreconciliable and reactionary attitude".[13]

According to Michael Hurley SJ, Tyrrell's views were in large part vindicated by the Second Vatican Council.[3]

Selected writings[edit]



  1. ^ a b c Tyrrell, George. Autobiography of George Tyrrell, 1861-1884, Longmans, Green & Company, 1912, p. 33 This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  2. ^ a b c Rafferty, Oliver, S.J. "George Tyrrell and Catholic Modernism", Thinking Faith 6 July 2009
  3. ^ a b c Hurley, Michael, S.J. "George Tyrrell and John Sullivan: Sinner and Saint?", Thinking Faith, 14 July 2009
  4. ^ Tyrrell, George. Life of George Tyrrell from 1884 to 1909, Longmans, Green & Company, 1912, p. 118 This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  5. ^ Barmann, Lawrence F., Baron Friedrich Von Hügel and the Modernist Crisis in England, CUP Archive, 1972, p. 144 ISBN 9780521081788
  6. ^ Portier, William L. “George Tyrrell in America.” U.S. Catholic Historian, vol. 20, no. 3, 2002, pp. 69–95. JSTOR
  7. ^ George Tyrrell, Christianity at the Crossroads (1913 ed.), pg. 44
  8. ^ Saunders, F.S. (2011). The Woman Who Shot Mussolini: A Biography. Henry Holt and Company. p. 47. ISBN 978-1-4299-3508-1. Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  9. ^ "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.
  10. ^ Claus Arnold, Pius X, Merry del Val and the cases of Alfred Loisy and George Tyrrell. Institutional Aspects of Antimodernism
  11. ^ Fergus Kerr, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians (Blackwell, 2007, p. 5)
  12. ^ Archived 29 April 2005 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Littlefield, Walter. "Indiscretions of Cardinal Merry De Val: Acts of the Papal Secretary of State which have laid him open to Criticism", New York Times, April 10, 1910

Further reading[edit]

  • Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Tyrrell, George" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 27 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  • Inge, William Ralph (1919). "Roman Catholic Modernism." In: Outspoken Essays. London: Longmans, Green & Co., pp. 137–171.
  • Maher, Anthony M. (2018). 'The Forgotten Jesuit of Catholic Modernism: George Tyrrell's Prophetic Theology.' Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press.
  • May, J. Lewis (1932). Father Tyrrell and the Modernist Movement. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode.
  • Moore, J.F. (1920). "The Meaning of Modernism," The University Magazine, Vol. XIX, No. 2, pp. 172–178.
  • Petre, Maude (1912). Autobiography and Life of George Tyrrell. London: E. Arnold.
  • Rafferty, Oliver P. (ed.) (2010). George Tyrrell and Catholic Modernism. Dublin: Four Courts Press, ISBN 978-1-846-82236-0.
  • Ratté, John (1967). Three Modernists: Alfred Loisy, George Tyrrell, William L. Sullivan. New York: Sheed & Ward.
  • Rigg, James McMullen (1912). "Tyrrell, George" . Dictionary of National Biography (2nd supplement). London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  • Root, John D. (1977). "English Catholic Modernism and Science: The Case of George Tyrrell," The Heythrop Journal, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, pp. 271–288.
  • Sagovsky, Nicholas (1990). On God's Side: A Life of George Tyrrell. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Sagovsky, Nicholas. "Tyrrell, George (1861–1909)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36606. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  • Savage, Allan (2012). The "Avant-Garde" Theology of George Tyrrell: Its Philosophical Roots Changed My Theological Thinking. (
  • Schultenover, David G. (1981). George Tyrrell: In Search of Catholicism. Shepherdstown, West Virginia: Patmos Press.
  • Wells, David F. (1972). "The Pope as Antichrist: The Substance of George Tyrrell's Polemic," Harvard Theological Review, Vol. LXV, No. 2, pp. 271–283.
  • Wells, David F. (1979). The Prophetic Theology of George Tyrrell. Chico, CA: Scholars Press.
  • Utz, Richard (2010). "Pi(o)us Medievalism vs. Catholic Modernism: The Case Of George Tyrell." In: The Year's Work in Medievalism, Vol. XXV. Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock Publishers, pp. 6–11.

External links[edit]