I have made it no secret about my admiration for Studio Trigger’s 2017 fantasy series, Little Witch Academia. On the storytelling end, it’s an endearing, fun show about Akko’s journey to becoming a witch accompanied by many fancy moments – be it her time in Sucy’s schizophrenic mental world, the rivalry with prodigy classmate Diana Cavendish, or when she and Constanze built a giant magic Gundam knockoff. But these alone are not the major reason why this show has risen so far to the ranks of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Digimon Adventure, Hyouka, or Your Name in my eyes. It is Little Witch Academia‘s message, which I was surprised, and delighted to find traces of anti-Modernist sentiments within, which complements its wonderful story – and have called it such at times.
Unsurprisingly, on occasion I’ve been asked to justify this label. In response to a Twitter user asking me thus, I responded: “The central philosophy that LWA lauds is based on objectivity, admiration of supernatural, and tradition, which protagonist Akko embraces. In contrast Prof. Croix’s system rejects these and replaces it with a rationalistic/subjective foundation that eventually collapses.” (No, I did not intend that rhyme) I believe this to be very prevalent, especially when you see the hostility some characters hold towards Luna Nova’s staunch moderate traditionalism, and the existence of neutral parties who disdain anything remotely supernatural; some of the very things central to Modernism. I can only imagine that if this is the treatment magic gets in this universe, how much more barren can the churches be with all the rampant secularism?
For a long time I have contemplated writing a series aiming to demonstrate the show’s latent anti-Modernism, an attitude best exemplified in Pascendi Dominici Gregis, a papal encyclical released 115 years ago by the great Pope St. Pius X which laid out, and castigated each and every bit of Modernist thinking. True, Little Witch Academia is not – and never will be – a religious work, but given how the show combatted its principles, I think a case can be made that such parallels between these two exist. In each post of this new series, I will explore one of Modernism’s tenets, analyze how it’s propagated, and eventually refuted in the anime; with the hope that one can better understand its dangers, and ultimately denounce it.
Modernism: What It Is – And Isn’t
First, let’s start off with some examples of what Modernism isn’t:
- Advocating for technological progress
- Relaxing Church disciplines for the convenience of the faithful (e.g. reducing the Eucharistic fast to one hour)
- Liking modern architecture, literature or anime
- Using guitars at liturgical services
- A misnomer for “anything I don’t like and am too mentally challenged to understand”
The real Modernism, from a theological perspective, refers to a movement which, beginning in the 19th century, attempted to revise Christianity to make it more appealing for the modern mind by incorporating modern philosophies, especially those that in essence contradict with the Faith, to explicate its fundamental ideas. On 8 September 1907, the full essence of Modernist thought would be studied, and wholly exposed in Pope St. Pius X’s Pascendi Dominici Gregis, where it was termed “the synthesis of all heresies”. In this encyclical, the saintly Vicar of Christ identifies its three main components, some which were condemned by Popes Gregory XVI, Pius IX or Leo XIII: rationalism (everything that is true must be explainable by the human mind), subjectivism (truth is dependent on a subject’s feelings rather than reality) and agnosticism (denial, or at least positive doubt, of God and the supernatural). In doing so, aficionados start diddling with ideas such as dogmatic evolution (Catholic dogma can, and ought to evolve, and even contradict earlier teachings) and vital immanence (something is true based on its adaptability), eventually resulting in the distrust of religion, as why bother with Catholicism if what is true for the Apostles and subsequent saints is not the case anymore?
To begin with, I will examine the first root cause, rationalism, and how it’s personified in the exploits of the de facto series antagonist, Professor Croix Meridies.
Professor Croix Meridies: Character Analysis
At the outset of Little Witch Academia, Luna Nova, once a lively educational institution for training witches, has fallen on hard times. With the advent of science rendering magic obsolete, and student enrollments at an all-time low, faculty members struggle to maintain magic’s significance without worldly compromise. That attitude takes a 180-degree turn when episode 14 introduces Croix Meridies, the newly appointed professor of modern magic. Her prowess is first seen when she ends a dispute between the educational staff and its labour force, who had shut off the edifice’s magical supply, the Sorcerer’s Stone, by introducing a modified leyline system allowing them to use magic without being on-campus. This gains her the admiration of both students and faculty alike, and the school upgrades itself according to her techno-magical advances.
Akko, the series protagonist, begins to look up to her, shilling her ideas enthusiastically – possibly exceeding those of her mentor, and Croix’s fellow colleague and rival, Ursula Callistis – after learning of her friendship with her idol, Shiny Chariot, back in her schooling days. Unbeknownst to her, beneath her magical proficiency, intelligence and vibrant charisma lies a deceiving heart with dark intentions. In her youth, she desired to attain the ultimate world-changing power of the Grand Triskelion, and became bitter when she was slighted in favour of Shiny Chariot. Holding that bitterness to the present day, she throws all her anger to subverting the current magical climate, and replacing it with a new methodology that would supplant the very system she felt had betrayed her years ago.
To do this, she determines that her discipline must be subject to science and progress, rejecting anything that is unappealing to modern thought. This brings her to conflict with some within Luna Nova, including its local radical traditionalist Professor Finnelan, the only staff member vehemently opposed to the fusion of magic and science; Diana Cavendish, who is unfazed with her modernist ideals; and of course, Ursula Callistis, who we learn to be a revamped Shiny Chariot. Even minor characters like Amanda O’Neill are skeptical as to how her ideas will not abandon magic’s identity. Croix’ perpetuations reek, and shares several commonalities with the rationalism the Church combatted in the lead-up to the Modernist crisis of St. Pius X’s day.
Modernist Components #1: Rationalism
In modern philosophy, rationalism upholds human reason as the sole arbiter of truth; it stands opposed to empiricism which esteems human experience. It dates back to Rene Descartes, who coined the famous phrase it is defined upon: “I think, therefore I am”. Members of this school include mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, Baruch Espinoza, and Immanuel Kant, under whose influence rationalist thought gradually leaned more secular. Rationalist tendencies became prominent within theological circles in the 19th-century, particularly in Protestant Germany and England – and would later be integrated in the Modernist program of Catholic dogmatic studies.
For these scholars, humanity has evolved, and understands things differently than in ages past. Sacred Scripture, which they regard as loaded with errors and contradictions, and dogmas involving Christology or the nature of the Sacraments are rejected as being out-of-touch, needing to be reinterpreted from the POV of secular history, humanism, and scientific advancements, and be rewritten accordingly. Any claim to their supernatural influence must be disdaned, and isolated from them whatsoever, making faith subject to reason, and reason incapable of explaining it; yet, since they are independent of one another, the Modernist will say no contradiction between them exists. St. Pius X writes thus:
For faith occupies itself solely with something which science declares to be unknowable for it. Hence each has a separate field assigned to it: science is entirely concerned with the reality of phenomena, into which faith does not enter at all; faith on the contrary concerns itself with the divine reality which is entirely unknown to science. Thus the conclusion is reached that there can never be any dissension between faith and science, for if each keeps on its own ground they can never meet and therefore never be in contradiction. And if it be objected that in the visible world there are some things which appertain to faith, such as the human life of Christ, the Modernists reply by denying this. For though such things come within the category of phenomena, still in as far as they are lived by faith and in the way already described have been by faith transfigured and disfigured, they have been removed from the world of sense and translated to become material for the divine. Hence should it be further asked whether Christ has wrought real miracles, and made real prophecies, whether He rose truly from the dead and ascended into heaven, the answer of agnostic science will be in the negative and the answer of faith in the affirmative – yet there will not be, on that account, any conflict between them. For it will be denied by the philosopher… considering Christ only in historical reality; and it will be affirmed by the believer… considering the life of Christ as lived again by the faith and in the faith.Pope St. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907), pgph #16
Rationalism: A Danger To Reason
We will now see in what manner Professor Croix accentuates a Modernist perspective of thinking, by paralleling her words and deeds with theirs. Regarding Modernists, St. Pius X describes their craftiness, as well as the methods by which they present the Faith:
In their writings and addresses they seem not unfrequently to advocate doctrines which are contrary one to the other, so that one would be disposed to regard their attitude as double and doubtful. But this is done deliberately and advisedly, and the reason of it is to be found in their opinion as to the mutual separation of science and faith. Thus in their books one finds some things which might well be approved by a Catholic, but on turning over the page one is confronted by other things which might well have been dictated by a rationalist. When they write history they make no mention of the divinity of Christ, but when they are in the pulpit they profess it clearly… they take no account of the Fathers and the Councils, but when they catechize the people, they cite them respectfully. In the same way they draw their distinctions between exegesis which is theological and pastoral and exegesis which is scientific and historical. So, too, when they treat of philosophy, history, and criticism, acting on the principle that science in no way depends upon faith, they feel no especial horror in treading in the footsteps of Luther and are wont to display a manifold contempt for Catholic doctrines, the Holy Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils, and the ecclesiastical magisterium; should they be taken to task for this, they complain that they are being deprived of their liberty.Pope St. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907), pgph #18
Croix parlays the same attitude towards her discipline as a Modernist would towards Catholicism. In externals she maintains an affable belief in magic; in practice, she disdains its heritage, desiring to change everything to fit her philosophy:
- In episode 14 she is the first person to mutually confirm Akko in her distaste for Professor Finnelan’s rebuke of her Sorcery Solution System for conserving magical energy: “You can’t blame them (Luna Nova’s traditionalist staff). It takes courage to accept the new and unfamiliar.”
- The following episode, she openly attacks Luna Nova’s magical scholasticism as a thing of the past, stating in her first class: “Outdated magic, burdened by their dark history are quickly falling out of relevance in today’s world. I firmly believe that magic must reinvent itself to retain its place in our times.”
- In episode 17, when asked by Akko and Amanda if she knew a thing or two about the role of tradition, which is needed to unlock the fifth Word of Arcturus, she dismisses them, quoting: “Modern witches tend not to be well-read in ancient methods of magic.”
- Episode 22 brings to light her true intentions of wanting to wield the Grand Triskelion: “For the past few years, magic has been in decline worldwide. If we do nothing, one day it will disappear entirely. Therefore, a new method of generating such energy was needed. Don’t you see how great it would be if we could harvest human emotions for this?… They’ll all see magic in a new light!”
- In that same episode, Croix’s new magic system reveals itself as built entirely upon humanistic grounds, causing it to be chaotic and unstable, while Akko’s magic is steady and controlled, regulated via the immemorial principles formulated in the Seven Words of Arcturus.
- Never once is she seen using the same methods as the students of Luna Nova, or referencing the works they study. Her wand is a tablet, and she makes use of technical motifs (nuclear warheads, vacuums and microchips) instead of nature as the others do. This is completely consistent with her worldview, where magic is subject to science, divorced from the methods of ages past.
She shares the same contempt for her field’s patrimony and a utility for new, yet incompatible philosophies to explain its survival to modernity, as one Alfred Loisy: a former French Jesuit priest who attempted the same with his own. His detestable 1902 book, The Gospel And The Church, makes heavy use of historic, scientific and humanistic criticism to this end, causing him to conclude some extremely heretical theses regarding:
- The impermanence of dogma: “Though the dogmas may be Divine in origin and substance, they are human in structure and composition. It is inconceivable that their future should not correspond to their past. Reason never ceases to put questions to faith, and traditional formulas are submitted to a constant work of interpretation…” (Alfred Loisy, The Gospel And The Church (1902), pg. 211)
- No life after death: “It would be far from easy to prove by clear and authentic texts that the kingdom of God is purely a religious benefit, union with God; and the chief experience of a man consisting in the remission of his sins.” (Ibid, pg. 65)
- Christianity has no divine origins: “Jesus announced a kingdom, and it was the Church that came; she came, enlarging the form of the gospel, which it was impossible to preserve as it was, soon as the Passion closed the ministry of Jesus.” (Ibid, pg. 166)
- Christ was not Divine: “Jesus did not say openly in Jerusalem, any more than in Galilee, that He was the Christ, the Son of God.” (Ibid, pg. 101)
- Christ was not omniscient: “According to the logic of Reason… Jesus suffered on the cross because He avowed Himself, and believed Himself to be the Messiah; not because He knew the goodness of the Heavenly Father, nor because He wished to demonstrate it by His death… such is the Christ of history… only a man under condition of belonging to one branch of humanity” (Ibid, pg. 118)
As Croix denies the permanence of certain long-held propositions, Modernists declare that God is irrelevant, and dogma doesn’t matter. When discussing anything Catholic, they are wont to esteem their own understanding, independent of what the Church teaches, rarely citing certified authorities like the Church Fathers, previous dogmatic definitions, or traditional theologians to prove their thesis. Their dislike for the supernatural is evident: since it goes beyond human understanding, they do what they can to downplay its empirical role – or at least, employ mental gymnastics to explain it away, albeit unconvincingly. Loisy’s book (which I have read – and do not recommend), does this all too well. Is it any wonder several Popes have warned against rationalism being a flawed system of one contradiction after another, wrought from the imperfection of human thought?
And having struck at this root of immortality, they proceed to disseminate poison through the whole tree, so that there is no part of Catholic truth from which they hold their hand, none that they do not strive to corrupt. Further, none is more skilful, none more astute than they, in the employment of a thousand noxious arts; for they double the parts of rationalist and Catholic, and this so craftily that they easily lead the unwary into error; and since audacity is their chief characteristic, there is no conclusion of any kind from which they shrink or which they do not thrust forward with pertinacity and assurance. To this must be added the fact, which indeed is well calculated to deceive souls, that they lead a life of the greatest activity, of assiduous and ardent application to every branch of learning, and that they possess, as a rule, a reputation for the strictest morality.Pope St. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907), pgph #3
Thus Says LWA: Reason Alone Is Not Enough
Ultimately, the strength of Croix’s rationalism crumbles when, in episode 25, she succeeds in forcing her way to obtain the Grand Triskelion, which is just a wooden wand. Unable to justify this discovery, she despairs, as every last bit of her ill-conceived beliefs are shattered before her eyes – causing her emotion-absorbing device to go haywire and go into apocalypse mode – an outcome she never anticipated. It takes Akko, who, guided by the standards of the Seven Words of Arcturus, to activate its power and destroy her discombobulated menace. Thus is order restored, along with people’s perception of magic. Then does Croix realize some things are above human comprehension, and returns to magic’s age-old roots: “A believing heart… I never expected that to be the origin of magic. It seems it has a greater existence than I gave it credit for.”
Similarly the Church, against Modernists like Loisy, have always maintained that God is the arbiter of truth, and it is by His gracious assistance that man can come to understand the universe’s intricacies. Relying on either human reason or emotions by itself, magnificent as their observations can be at times, is insufficient given how often people and their fallible ideas fluctuate with time – as opposed to an eternal, perfect Being bearing unchanging principles no matter what the circumstances may be. No such thing as a discord between faith and reason exists; rather, by faith do we assent to the mysteries and truths God has revealed to us, and our reason the means by which He guides us to these, and demonstrates them to us. The works of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose concepts inspired the Vatican Council of 1869-70’s exposition concerning this dual relationship (excerpted at the end of this article), for example are testament to this harmony.
Professor Croix proves herself to be Little Witch Academia‘s true wolf in sheep’s clothing. Her contempt for Shiny Chariot leads her to despise Luna Nova’s magical scholasticism, and in her tenure she hopes to get students to abandon the institution’s long-held practices, regarding them as obstacles with the signs of the times. She desired the haughty esteem of the populace, and an egotistical admiration as an innovator, unlike Akko or Diana who loved the underlying essence of their craft. Nothing is sacrosanct for her; no matter how dearly people cherish the revered ways, that link must be severed, and its branches poisoned, until it withers and is abandoned to the dustbin of history. Ironically, this backfires on her, while Akko’s faith-reason dynamic paves way for the restoration she sought.
Whereas Croix abandoned rationalism, Loisy died in 1940, clinging obstinately to his theological delusions, unrepentant and unreconciled to Christ and His Church. He never saw the subversion of traditional Catholic faith and morals he fostered grow to prominence thanks to St. Pius X, who solemnly excommunicated him, and set up a commission to out his disciples, and expunge their theories from the Church’s public domain. He eventually left the priesthood, and apostatized, moving to say “If I am anything in religion, it is more pantheist-positivist-humanitarian than Christian”. From then on he professed belief only in one part of the Nicene Creed: that Christ died, just as his life with Him died long ago. I shudder to think what his eternal outcome may be.
Don’t get roped into reconciling Christianity with rationalism. Heed St. Paul’s exhortation: “As therefore you have received Jesus Christ the Lord, walk ye in him:… Beware lest any man cheat you by philosophy and vain deceit, according to the tradition of men,… the elements of the world and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:6,8) Learn the Faith from approved pre-Vatican II catechisms and moral/dogmatic theology manuals. Study the Scriptures alongside the mind of the Church. Read what the saints wrote regarding the spiritual life, and strive to nurture it by prayer, penance, and virtue. These will be your sure, clear path to Heaven: no strings attached whatsoever!
Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement…, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason.
God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever be in opposition to truth. The appearance of this kind of specious contradiction is chiefly due to the fact that either the dogmas of faith are not understood and explained in accordance with the mind of the Church, or unsound views are mistaken for the conclusions of reason.
Not only can faith and reason never be at odds with one another, but they mutually support each other, for on the one hand right reason established the foundations of the faith and, illuminated by its light, develops the science of divine things; on the other hand, faith delivers reason from errors, protects and furnishes it with knowledge of many kinds.First Vatican Council, On Faith And Reason, points 5-6, 10