Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Leo XIII, Loisy, and the "Broad School": An Early Round of the Modernist Crisis

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Leo XIII, Loisy, and the "Broad School": An Early Round of the Modernist Crisis

Article excerpt

Many Catholics at the beginning of the twentieth century feared that their Church was becoming increasingly anachronistic, and they therefore sought to update its teachings. Alfred Loisy (1857-1940) was one of the most important people engaged in this task. As the first step in his program of modernization, Loisy tried to bracket theological considerations and to claim an independence from the supervision of the hierarchy, at least in his activity as an historian of religion. When his specific historical conclusions challenged contemporary church teaching, however, the hierarchy re-asserted its authority, eventually condemning his efforts, as well as the efforts of many others, as "modernism" and excommunicating the most prominent modernists, including Loisy. For his part, Loisy welcomed his excommunication in 1908 and renounced any remaining allegiance to an institution that he had come to consider hopelessly outdated. These events constituted the "modernist crisis."1

Although Pope Pius X condemned specific modernist propositions and then what he took to be the modernist philosophical system,2 the issue in the crisis was not only particular historical or philosophical claims that the Vatican found objectionable. At stake in modernism were different ways of construing the relationship between modern academic work, the theological tradition of the Church, and ecclesiastical authority. Modernists like Loisy celebrated human autonomy, particularly intellectual autonomy or academic freedom. In Loisy's view, the value of academic freedom significantly qualified the authority of the Church over scholarship. The Vatican, on the other hand, insisted on the vital role of the Church in maintaining orthodox teaching, including in institutions of higher learning.

Concerns about the fundamental question of Church authority appear in the modernist and anti-modernist writings from the beginning of the twentieth century, but they are obscured to a certain extent by divisive political events as well as by the fact and extent of the papal condemnations. These concerns appear more clearly in an earlier conflict, which already contained all of the major elements of the modernist crisis except the final dramatic denouement. In January, 1893, Maurice d'Hulst (1841-1896), the rector of the Institut catholique de Paris, published an article on "la question biblique" in which he explained how one might combine commitment to the tradition of the Church and the independent historical criticism of the Bible.3 Loisy, then a promising young biblical critic at the Institut, publicly distanced himself from d'Hulst's most radical claims, but advanced controversial claims of his own about the value of scholarly analysis independent of ecclesiastical oversight.4 Pope Leo XIII responded with the encyclical Providentissimus Deus, condemning the positions set forth by both d'Hulst and Loisy on the independent historical analysis of the Bible and instead emphasizing the role of theology in biblical interpretation. The issue uniting these three in "conversation" was the relationship between doctrinal or theological claims and critical historical work, an issue that took on a particular urgency given the rapid development of the historical study of religion in the nineteenth century. But the importance of this issue transcended purely theological or historical considerations because it had such significant implications for how one conceived of and exercised authority in the Church more broadly at a time when church authority was hotly contested.5 For all three figures, then, the question standing behind their writings on biblical interpretation concerned the proper relation of ecclesiastical authority to intellectual autonomy, especially for scholars of religion.

1. Answering "La question biblique"

The nineteenth century was not good for Catholic education in France, particularly at the highest levels. At the beginning of the century, Napoleon brought together educational institutions of every level to form the new Imperial University, under the direct supervision of the state. …

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