Wednesday, 23 November 2011

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

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.
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