Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

"Martyr to the Truth": The Autobiography of Joseph Turmel

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

"Martyr to the Truth": The Autobiography of Joseph Turmel

Article excerpt

"Martyr to the Truth": The Autobiography of Joseph Turmel. Translated by C. J. T. Talar and Elizabeth Emery. Edited and introduced by C. J. T. Talar. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock. 2012. Pp. xxiv, 235. $29.00 paperback. ISBN 978-1-61097-837-8.)

French priest and scholar Joseph Turmel (1859-1943) flourished during the Roman Catholic modernist period and beyond and compared himself to the far better known Alfred Firmin Loisy (1857-1940). After a prolonged struggle with the findings of historical criticism of the Bible and the patristic tradition, Turmel dates the irrevocable loss of his faith to precisely "March 18,1886, a little after one o'clock" when he began reading "first vespers of the feast of St. Joseph. The feast brought up the Infancy narratives with their unresolvable contradictions" (p. 23). Turmel abruptly closed his breviary with a firm conviction "repeated several times in an indignant tone: 'Christian dogmatics is based on nothing; it is over; I will no longer recite the breviary'" (p. 23). Turmel never rescinded that profession of unbelief, but he continued even beyond his excommunication in 1930 to serve as a priest "martyr to the truth," determined to enlighten Catholics to what he believed was a tissue of fabrication based on a false understanding of the Bible as inerrant revelation capable of supporting dogmas by proof texting.

This artful translation of Turmel's memoir is expertly introduced and annotated by C. J. T. Talar and capped by a magisterial afterword by Emile Poulat, arguably the leading scholar of the modernist period. The significance of the volume for the history of Catholicism in the post-Enlightenment period is hard to overestimate. But it seems to lie precisely as a window into the heart of the faith struggle provoked by the Enlightenment's effect on Christian belief, which had been based for many centuries on a naive reading of scripture and tradition uninformed by historical consciousness. …

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