International Catholic University

Catholic Modernism

James Hitchcock

V -- Alfred Loisy

The first, and in some ways the most important, of the Catholic Modernists was a French priest named Alfred Loisy. Born into a pious family, he demonstrated intellectual brilliance and was sent to study in Paris during the 1880's. There he fell under the influence of the famous sceptic Ernest Renan, whose work sought to discredit the historical reliability of the Gospels.

Although Catholic Modernism has sometimes been equated with Liberal Protestantism, there were significant differences, especially in the thought of Loisy. Convinced by Renan that the quest for the "historical Jesus" was futile, Loisy thought that the Catholic emphasis on Tradition offered an alternative. It was unnecessary to ground faith in an infallible Scripture, because the Holy Spirit is always present in the Church, guiding and directing it towards truth.

Loisy's use of seemingly orthodox language (a trait characteristic of the Modernists) masked the fact that he was not talking about the same things as orthodox Catholics. It is doubtful whether, in refering to the Holy Spirit, for example, he meant the Third Person of the Trinity as professed in the creeds. Rather he meant something closer to the "spirit of the age," a distinctively modern idea dating from the philosopher G.F.W. Hegel in the early nineteenth century.

For Loisy, Tradition was merely the Church's way of expressing its beliefs in each new age, guided primarily by that spirit. Loisy was a radical historicist, in that he did not believe it was possible to transcend the limits of one's own historical period and that attempts to do so were illusory. For that reason, the historic creeds and other doctrinal statements could not remain permanently valid, reflecting as they do the times in which they were formulated.

Loisy was, paradoxically, more Catholic than the Church, in his willingness to dismiss entirely the Protestant claim that the Bible alone offers divine truth and his consequent willingness to rely entirely on the Church. He regarded the Church as, historically, "the mother of cultures" and seems to have hoped that the "problem" of hierarchical authority, and its adherence to the historic creeds, could be overcome, so that the Catholic Church would become the unique vehicle for expressing underlying spiritual truths in the language of each new age.

For a while, when Loisy's work was under attack and he was suspended from the priesthood, his supporters insisted that he was misunderstood. Years later, however, he admitted that at the time his work was controversial he believed nothing in the Nicene Creed except the statement that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate.

Following the definitive condemnation of his works in 1907, he spent many years writing, without having any profound impact. He died in 1940.

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