Alfred Firmin Loisy
28 February 1857
|Died||1 June 1940 (aged 83)|
|Occupation||Priest, professor, theologian|
|Known for||Founder of Modernism in the Roman Catholic Church|
|Title||Chair of History of Religions in the Collège de France|
|Alma mater||Institut Catholique de Paris|
|Institutions||Collège de France|
|Notable works||(See list below)|
Alfred Firmin Loisy (French: [lwazi]; 28 February 1857 – 1 June 1940) was a French Roman Catholic priest, professor and theologian generally credited as a founder of modernism in the Roman Catholic Church. He was a critic of traditional views of the interpretation of the Bible, and argued that biblical criticism could be helpful for a theological interpretation of Sacred Scripture. His theological positions brought him into conflict with the church's authorities, including Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius X. In 1893, he was dismissed as a professor from the Institut Catholique de Paris. His books were condemned by the Roman Curia, and in 1908 he was excommunicated.
Loisy's most famous observation was that "Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church" ("Jésus annonçait le Royaume et c'est l'Église qui est venue." L'Evangile et l'Eglise).
Born on 28 February 1857 at Ambrières, Loisy was put into the ecclesiastical school of Saint-Dizier at four years old. He decided for the priesthood and was educated from 1874 to 1879 at the Grand séminaire de Châlons-en-Champagne; he entered the Institut Catholique de Paris in 1878/1879. Prior to his ordination to the subdiaconate, he had experienced doubts regarding the soundness of the Catholic faith. After an illness he returned to the Institut and was ordained a priest on 29 June 1879. Initially assigned parish work, in 1881 he requested to be reassigned to the Institut to complete his baccalauréat in theology. That autumn he became instructor in Hebrew. He took additional courses in Hebrew with Ernest Renan at the Collège de France. He was also influenced, as to biblical languages and textual criticism, by the Abbé Paulin Martin, and as to a consciousness of the biblical problems and a sense of form by the historical intuition and irony of Abbé Louis Duchesne. He took his theological degree in March 1890, by the oral defense of forty Latin scholastic theses and by a French dissertation, Histoire du canon de l'ancien testament, published as his first book in that year. By the time he took a course at Saint-Sulpice in scriptural interpretation, he was already disillusioned with the church's belief in the virgin birth and resurrection.
Some of his work appeared in the bi-monthly L'Enseignement biblique, a periodical written throughout and published by himself. In November 1893, Loisy published the last lecture of his course, in which he summed up his position on Biblical criticism in five propositions: the Pentateuch was not the work of Moses, the first five chapters of Genesis were not literal history, the New Testament and the Old Testament did not possess equal historical value, there was a development in scriptural doctrine, and Biblical writings were subject to the same limitations as those by other authors of the ancient world. This resulted in Loisy's dismissal from his teaching position. A few days later Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Providentissimus Deus, which indirectly condemned Abbé Loisy's and Mgr d'Hulst's position, and rendered the continued publication of consistently critical work so difficult that Loisy himself suppressed his Enseignement at the end of 1893. He was subsequently appointed chaplain to a convent in Neuilly, a post from which he resigned in 1899, to be appointed lecturer at the École pratique des hautes études, a secular academic institution.
In 1902, he started to pay attention to Adolf von Harnack's Das Wesen des Christentum. Harnack believed that the essence of Christianity was the relationship between individual and God, making an organized church a largely unnecessary creation. Loisy disagreed with the idea that the organized church was unnecessary, but the nature of his disagreement brought him controversy. From 1901 to 1903 he published several works that would be condemned by the church. These include La Religion d'Israël, Études évangéliques, L'Évangile et L'Église, Autour d'un petit livre, and Le quatrième Évangile. His 1908 Les Évangiles Synoptiques would cause his excommunication. In his works he argued against Harnack, trying to show that it was necessary and inevitable for the Catholic Church to form as it did. In doing so, Loisy implicitly accepted the consistent eschatology of Johannes Weiss: Jesus thought the coming of the Kingdom was imminent, so there was no point in founding a Church. Only after his death and resurrection his original proclamation of the Kingdom was transformed in this sense by his disciples, and legitimately so, as Loisy pointed out against Harnack's conception of Christianity:
It is certain, for instance, that Jesus did not systematize beforehand the constitution of the Church as that of a government established on earth and destined to endure for a long series of centuries. But a conception far more foreign still to His thoughts and to His authentic teaching is that of an invisible society formed for ever of those who have in their hearts faith in the goodness of God [Harnack]. We have seen that the gospel of Jesus already contained a rudiment of social organization, and that the Kingdom also was announced as a society. Jesus foretold the 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, as soon as the Passion closed the ministry of Jesus. There is no institution on the earth or in history whose status and value may not be questioned if the principle is established that nothing may exist except in its original form. Such a principle is contrary to the law of life, which is movement and a continual effort of adaptation to conditions always new and perpetually changing. Christianity has not escaped this law, and cannot be reproached for submission to it. It could not do otherwise than it has done.
The second part of the quotation echoes Cardinal Newman's theory on the development of Christian doctrine which Loisy had studied in his time at Neuilly. Although L'Évangile et L'Église in particular was condemned by Cardinal Richard, Pope Leo consistently refused to interfere directly. It was his successor, Pope Pius X who would later condemn these works.
Another controversial thesis of Loisy, developed in La Religion d'Israël, is the distinction between a pre-Moses period, when the Hebrews worshipped the god El, also known by the plural of this name, Elohim, and a later stage, when Yahweh gradually became the only deity of the Jews.
His assertions on Jesus went further than Newman's and caused more controversy. He argued that Harnack had been partly correct that an organized church was created in a way unrelated to any plans by Jesus. Loisy argued that Jesus lacked a conscious understanding that he was consubstantial with God the Father and therefore Jesus did not know how the Catholic Church would "transform". Loisy also argued that, since the articulation of ideas on consubstantiality came from the period surrounding the Council of Nicaea, such notions would have been unknown to and unthinkable by Jesus and his first followers, who saw him largely in Jewish messianic terms. Regardless of who Jesus actually was, he could not have claimed to be what the church taught him to be.
Cardinal Sarto became Pope Pius X on 4 August 1903. On 1 October, Loisy published three new books, Autour d'un petit livre, Le Quatrième Évangile and Le Discours sur la Montagne (a fragment of a proposed enlarged commentary on the Synoptic Gospels). Autour consists of seven letters on different topics addressed to church leaders and friends. Reacting on pressure from the Parisian Archbishop Cardinal Richard, Pius X transferred the censuring of Loisy's books, which had already been started under Leo XIII in 1901, from the Congregation of the Index to the Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office. Already on 23 December 1903, Loisy's main exegetical works (Religion d'Israël, L'Évangile et l'Église, Études évangéliques, Autour d'un petit livre and Le Quatrième Évangile) were censured. On 12 January 1904 Loisy wrote to the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Merry del Val, that he received the condemnation with respect, and condemned whatever might be reprehensible in his books, whilst reserving the rights of his conscience and his opinions as an historian. Since the Holy See was not satisfied, Loisy sent three further declarations to Rome; the last, dispatched on 17 March, was addressed to the pope himself, and remained unanswered. At the end of March Loisy gave up his lectureship, as he declared, on his own initiative. In April 1907 he returned to his native Lorraine, to Ceffonds (near Montier-en-Der), and to his relatives there.
Already in 1904 the Holy Office began to prepare a syllabus of errors contained in the works of Loisy. Due to ongoing internal resistance, especially from the Master of the Sacred Palace, the papal theologian Alberto Lepidi OP, this Syllabus was published only in July 1907 as the decree Lamentabili sane exitu (or "A Lamentable Departure Indeed"), which condemned sixty-five propositions from the field of biblical interpretation and the history of dogma. They concerned the nature of the church, revelation, biblical exegesis, the sacraments, and the divinity of Christ. This was followed by the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis (or "Feeding the Lord's Flock"), which characterized modernism as the "synthesis of all heresies". The documents made Loisy realise that there was no hope for reconciliation of his views with the official doctrine of the church. He made a comparative study of the papal documents to show the condemned propositions in his own writings. He also asserted as true various of his earlier New Testament interpretations, which previously he had formulated in conditional form. In his journal he wrote:
Christ has even less importance in my religion than he does in that of the liberal Protestants: for I attach little importance to the revelation of God the Father for which they honor Jesus. If I am anything in religion, it is more pantheist-positivist-humanitarian than Christian.-- Mémoires II, p. 397
His Catholic critics commented that his religious system had as its residue a great society, which he believed to be the continuation of the church of which the past had been so glorious. For many, the attitude of Loisy and his followers was incomprehensible. What troubled modernists was, How can the Church survive?, while for Pius X the question was, How can these men be priests?
This did not deter Loisy from publishing three further books. Les Évangiles synoptiques, two large volumes of 1,009 and 798 pages, appeared in January 1908. This contains a detailed commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, combining the ecclesiastical tradition, modern criticism, the Gospel narrative, and the tradition of the text and the previous commentaries. The commentary gives also a careful translation of the texts. Loisy recognizes two eye-witness documents, as utilized by all three Gospels. He traces a strong Pauline influence, especially in the Gospel of Mark. Yet the great bulk of the sayings remain substantially authentic; if the historicity of certain words and acts is here refused with unusual assurance, that of other sayings and deeds is established with stronger proofs; and the redemptive conception of the Passion and the sacramental interpretation of the Last Supper are found to spring up promptly and legitimately from Christ's work and words. The third book, Simples Réflexions sur le décret Lamentabili et sur l'encyclique Pascendi, 277 pages, was published from Ceffonds a few days after the commentary. Each proposition of the decree is carefully tracked to its probable source, and is often found to modify the latter's meaning. The study of the encyclical concludes: "Time is the great teacher ... we would do wrong to despair either of our civilization or of the Church."
The ecclesiastical authorities were not slow to act. On 14 February 1908 Mgr Amette, archbishop of Paris, prohibited his diocesans to read or defend the two books, which "attack and deny several fundamental dogmas of Christianity," under pain of excommunication. Loisy was excommunicated vitandus on 7 March 1908.
After his excommunication he became a secular intellectual. He was appointed Chair of History of Religions in the Collège de France in 1909 and served there until retiring in 1931. In that post, he continued to develop his philosophy, describing the Christian religion as a humanist system of ethics rather than divine. He also developed his studies of early religions and their influence on Christianity. He never recanted, and died in 1940 in Ceffonds.