This book is more than an intellectual biography of Alfred Loisy's Catholic career. It provides invaluable background to the century old modernist controversy - that wound to the Roman Catholic Church's intellectual life, which Vatican II failed to heal and that John Paul II's pontificate has reopened and allowed to fester. Dr. Hill's study traces the intellectual formation of Alfred Loisy from childhood through his career at the Institut Catholique, and examines closely the steps that led to his alienation from the Church and excommunication. Making extensive use of archival resources, Hill provides a more intimate look at Loisy's deconversion than any other study in English.
The structure of Dr. Hill's narrative places Loisy's life in a developmental pattern familiar to scholars of Newman and his loss of faith in Anglicanism. As a devote youth, he pursued priesthood and desired to serve the intellectual life of the Church. Aided by patrons and mentors, Loisy not only gained the best theological formation the French Church could provide, but was also permitted to venture into the dangerous territory of the state controlled University of France. His initial combat was with the spirit of modernism. He hoped to find a middle way between the dogmatic certainty of the Church and the modern imperative that scholarship should be guided by objective empirical analysis of data. He studied under Ernest Renan and hoped to refute his assertion that "there is one thing a theologian can never be ... an historian." By example and advocacy, Loisy also hoped to lay to rest a Roman Catholic fear, summarized by Leo XIII when he said "the art of the historian has become a conspiracy against truth." While Loisy's agenda for intellectual reform in the Church was articulated in diaries and reflections dating back to the 1880s, well into the 1890s he remained under the guidance and inhibiting direction of mentors like Maurice D'Hulst, who hoped to protect him from censure.
Yet his hope that the Catholic Church might some day accommodate the modern spirit of intellectual autonomy stood in opposition to Leo XIII's encyclical Providentissimus Deus, which prescribed Thomism as a form of doctrinal positivism meant to combat the secularizing positivism of the day. Loisy's reforming principles, finally published under his name at the turn of the century, received an enthusiastic private welcome from other Catholic scholars and public reception by the Church's political enemies in France. His publications met with systematic censure from the Catholic hierarchy. Pressed to recant in 1904, Loisy attempted to accommodate Church authority. Yet his submission was qualified; for he explained, "I would have failed in the duty of sincerity if I had not expressly reserved my opinions as a historian and critical exegete." (171) He wrote directly to Pius X and offered to abandon his teaching and publishing, and even made an unqualified repudiation of errors identified by the Holy Office. Yet when pressed to affirm the authority of the Church above the right of conscience, Loisy refused to submit. Though he remained in the Church for four more years, he abandoned his hopes for reform.
Loisy allowed himself to be used by the Church's political enemies in France and became the poster child for Pius X's campaign against the modern spirit, which he called the "synthesis of all heresies." In the wake of Lamentabili sane exitu and Pascendi dominici gregis, Loisy openly attacked the papal campaign against modernism, and was finally solemnly excommunicated on the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas 1908.
As a historical theologian teaching at a Roman Catholic university, I find myself marveling at the progress of Catholic academic theology toward goals Loisy cherished. What he hoped might someday be tolerated, is now the norm in Catholic theological scholarship. Historical principles have replaced the Thomist methodology prescribed by Loe XIII. Yet Church authority versus intellectual autonomy in matters of dogma and magisterial teaching remain areas of tension.
The day before writing this review I received a letter from the ordinary of the Archdiocese of Saint Louis. It contained an invitation to apply for a mandatum under terms all too familiar to Roman Catholic theologians teaching at Catholic universities and colleges. Diplomatically worded, it contained language so subtle that a first read might lull the uninitiated into unreflective acceptance of its terms. In it the archbishop assured me that, "The mandatum does not restrict the exploratory function of theological inquiry, which includes both the assessment of the limits of doctrinal definition and an investigation into possible new avenues of meaning where no previous limit obtains." Anyone who cannot find the subtext in this sentence must read Harvey Hill's insightful monograph.