Alfred Loisy

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Alfred Loisy

Alfred Firmin Loisy (28 February 1857, Ambrières, Marne – 1 June 1940, Ceffonds, Haute-Marne) was a French Roman Catholic priest, professor and theologian who became the intellectual standard bearer for Biblical Modernism in the Roman Catholic Church.[1] He was a critic of traditional views of the biblical creation, and argued that biblical criticism could be applied to interpreting Sacred Scripture. His theological positions brought him into conflict with the leading Catholics of his era, 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 Vatican,[2] and in 1908 he was excommunicated.[3]

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": Loisy 1902), and he is often taken to have said that with a note of regret (Loisy 1976: 166). But for all his clashes with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, Loisy did think that Jesus intended to form some sort of society or community. It was the aping of civil government ("comme celle d'un gouvernement établi"; Loisy 1902: 152) that he doubted Jesus intended.

Life and work[edit]

Born on February 28, 1857 at Ambrières,[1] Loisy was educated within the Catholic system, from 1874-1879 at the Grand Séminaire de Châlons, and entered the Institut Catholique at Paris in 1878/1879.[1] He was ordained on June 29, 1879. After an illness he returned to the Institut in 1881 as a professor of Hebrew. He published his "Five Theses" which was firmly rejected. The Theses stated that the Pentateuch was not the work of Moses, that the first five chapters of Genesis are not literal history, that the New Testament and the Old Testament do not possess equal historical value, that there has been a development in the religious doctrine in scripture, and that the sacred writings have the same limitations as all other authors of the ancient world. In 1899 he resigned and was appointed lecturer at École Practique des Hautes Études, which was not an ecclesial institution.

In 1902, he started to pay attention to Adolf van 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 wrote 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. He also argued that God intended this and compared his own ideas on this to those of John Henry Newman.

Another controversial thesis of Loisy, developed on 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.[4]

His assertions on Jesus went further than Newman 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 indicated that many of the ideas on consubstantiality came from the Council of Nicaea and would have been unknown to Jesus or his first followers, who saw him largely in Jewish messianic terms.

In July 1907 the Holy Office (after Vatican II renamed as Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) issued a decree, signed by pope Pius X, entitled Lamentabili Sane Exitu[5] (or "A Lamentable Departure Indeed"), which formally condemned sixty-five modernist or relativist propositions concerning 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 confirmed as true his earlier various New Testament interpretations, which he had previously formulated in conditional form.[6] 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[7]

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.[8] 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?[9]

Loisy was excommunicated vitandus the following year, on March 7, 1908.[10] After his excommunication he became a lay intellectual.[11] He was appointed chair of history of religions in the Collège de France. He served there until 1931. He died in 1940.


  1. ^ a b c Wolfgang Weiß (1993). "Loisy, Alfred Firmin". In Bautz, Traugott. Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German) 5. Herzberg: Bautz. cols. 190–196. ISBN 3-88309-043-3. 
  2. ^ Pope, Hugh. "The Condemnation of Four Works by Abbé Loisy," The American Catholic Quarterly Review, Vol. XXIX, 1904.
  3. ^ Reid, George. "Higher Biblical Criticism," The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 4 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908).
  4. ^ Loisy, Alfred and Galton, Arthur (2009). The Religion of Israel. BiblioBazaar, pp. 6-7. ISBN 1-115-38922-X
  5. ^ See Lamentabili Sane Exitu
  6. ^ Ratté, John. "Alfres Loisy". p. 46. 
  7. ^ Cf. Houtin, A.; Sartiaux F. Alfred Loisy, Sa Vie, Son Oeuvre. pp. 121–129. 
  8. ^ Ratté, John. "Alfres Loisy". p. 120. 
  9. ^ Ratté, John. "Alfres Loisy". p. 47. 
  10. ^ Encyclopedia Americana (Volume 17: 1969), pgs 707-708. Article by Francis J. Hemelt of The Catholic University of America
  11. ^ Ratté, John. "Alfres Loisy". p. 123.