More Than a Biblical Critic: Alfred Loisy's Modernism in Light of His Autobiographies

By Hill, Harvey | Anglican Theological Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

More Than a Biblical Critic: Alfred Loisy's Modernism in Light of His Autobiographies


Hill, Harvey, Anglican Theological Review


At the beginning of the twentieth century, Pope Pius X defined and condemned a heresy that he called "modernism," and he excommunicated leading "modernists," including Alfred Loisy (1857-1940). Like many of the figures implicated in modernism, Loisy responded by publicizing his own version of his story, particularly the part relating to his career as a Roman Catholic modernist. Loisy first commissioned a confidante, Albert Houtin, to write his biography in 1907, the year that Pope Pius X pronounced the condemnation of modernism and the year before Loisy's excommunication. Shortly thereafter, he decided to undertake the task of telling his story himself, and he published Choses passees as a series of articles in L'Union pour la Verite in 1912 that were then published integrally the next year. Loisy returned to this task in 1930 and 1931, when he released his threevolume Memoires pour servir a l'histoire religieuse de notre temps, again in 1937 with "From Credence to Faith" (published in English translation), and yet again in 1939 with Un mythe apologetique. To these might be added a volume of letters that he published in 1908 and autobiographical sections in other works, such as the introduction to Autour d'un petit livre, released in 1903. Even apart from this additional material, Loisy's autobiographical output totaled well over 2000 pages and covered the most significant periods of his Roman Catholic career in exhaustive (and exhausting!) detail. The quality and quantity of his autobiographies makes them an exceptionally valuable resource for students of Loisy's role in Roman Catholic modernism.

In his autobiographical writings, Loisy offered his readers a careful representation of himself and of his religious and intellectual evolution that has served as the starting point for all subsequent interpretations of his work.1 Loisy presented himself as a disinterested student of history and biblical criticism. Pursuing his research with intellectual integrity and courage led him to the realization that many of the foundational claims of the Roman Catholic Church of his day had little or no grounding in historical fact. This realization troubled him, but he continued to put his historical and biblical scholarship at the service of the church. Unfortunately, an intransigent and short-sighted hierarchy, blinded by its theological blinkers and/or its ambition for dominance, resisted his efforts and finally drove him from the church, thus proving Roman Catholicism unable to adapt to modern scholarship. This was the version of his story that Loisy sought to propagate.

There was certainly an element of truth in Loisy's self-presentation and his interpretation of the events that culminated in his excommunication in 1908. But Loisy's version of these complex events was also one-sided, even apart from his picture of the church hierarchy. Loisy emphasized his disinterested biblical and historical scholarship, but careful analysis of his two most important autobiographical writings, Choses passees and the Memoires, shows that Loisy was more than a biblical critic. Despite his own claims to the contrary, formulating a distinctively modern theology, including addressing the contemporary political situation, also played a large role in Loisy's intellectual life.

Personal Apologetics

Before we examine Loisy's stated reasons for writing, we should first note what he claimed not to be doing; in both Choses passees and the Memoires, Loisy insisted that he was not writing an "apologia." He claimed that he "passe[d] no final judgment upon himself, and [that] he [was] incline[d] to question the right of others to sit in judgment upon him. He [was] aware of no need for self-defense." He "scorn[ed] certain defamatory estimations that he [would only] signal briefly in their place."2 Loisy did not, it seems, seek to write a defense of himself or of his beliefs.

At the same time, Loisy stated that both of his autobiographies sought to set the record straight against those who misrepresented his motivations or those of the modernists more generally.

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