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Alfred Firmin Loisy (28 February 1857, Ambrières, Marne – 1 June 1940, Ceffonds, Haute-Marne) was a French Roman Catholic priest, professor and theologian generally credited as a founder of Biblical Modernism in the Roman Catholic Church. 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 Church's conservatives, 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, 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": 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.
Born on February 28, 1857 at Ambrières, Loisy was educated within the Catholic system, from 1874-1879 at the Grand séminaire de Châlons-en-Champagne, and entered the Institut Catholique de Paris in 1878/1879. Prior to his ordination to the sub-diaconate, 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 June 29, 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. 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.
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. 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 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.
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 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.
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 (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 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?
Loisy was excommunicated vitandus the following year, on March 7, 1908. After his excommunication he became a lay intellectual. He was appointed chair of history of religions in the Collège de France. He served there until 1931. He died in 1940.