The “Modernist Movement”: The Historians from France

Though most Traditional and Traditionalist Catholics associate the word “modernism” with the likes of Teilhard de Chardin, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Hans Kung, and Karl Barth, there was an earlier “batch” whose names are all but swept into obscurity and what they believed is even less remembered.  Go to a Latin Mass church and a good number will know that Pius IX/X promulgated both the “Syllabus of Errors” and an encyclical against “modernism”, but in my experience most cannot name a single member of the movement or what they believed.   In order to do away with generalizations and blanket statements it is necessary to dissect the individual members of the “movement”.  In so doing, some may be surprised to find that:

  1. There were – in fact – men who were heterodox, heretical, misled at best, and adherents of dangerous ideas symptomatic of the philosophical trends of the time.  These men actively worked to either change the Church in their own image and in accordance with their conclusions, or kept to the shadows and quietly undermined it as best they could.
  2. There were quite a few men unjustly punished as modernists by the Benigni-led inquisition simply because they did not agree with the ultra-rationalistic neoscholastic theology of the establishment.  Worse yet, some of these men had been the first to raise the metaphorical banner against the first category to defend traditional belief and Church doctrine while the neoscholastic theologians reeled and sputtered about in utter confusion.
  3. The encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis is an inaccurate and poorly-written diatribe that missed the mark and the essence of the threat completely along with the witch-hunt it spawned.  To those who may be scandalized that I am impugning upon St. Pius X, do not fret.  He did not write it any more that John Paul II wrote Orientale Lumen.

If we must begin somewhere it must be at the source and of the entire controversy: the field of historical criticism.  In the 19th century amid a hustle and bustle of scientific discoveries, rationalism replacing common sense, and bad philosophy emanating from Germany, the field of historical criticism emerged.  Its goal was to question everything taught in history by reading through the ancient sources to question them and utilizing the new field of archaeology to uncover any physical evidence of the stories.  Unfortunately, the primitive nature of the archaeological science led many to question things that later and more refined 20th century archaeology appears to confirm, such as the very existence of Jesus Christ or Pontius Pilate.  Meanwhile, liberal German protestants like Adolf von Harnack attempted to deconstruct Christianity, especially the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, to reveal what the historical Jesus “really taught”.

Against this environment, the educational system of the Vatican found itself woefully unprepared.  In the seminaries where students cheated the transparent tests and barely learned Latin from professors who themselves barely knew Latin, a brilliant young student was likely to find himself very frustrated and disillusioned.  It was only a matter of time before they dropped out, became wooed by the new ideas of the secular systems, sought to counter the zeitgeist their own way, or gravitated towards any professor who happened to stand out from the pack.

And it will be one such professor who will be our first case study.

Louis Duchesne

What is notable about Louis Duchesne is how intact he and his reputation remained before, after, and throughout the entire affair.  His contributions to history and liturgical scholarship are quite immense, and he is referenced often in Adrian Fortescue’s works. This is for good reason as well. If one ever reads some of his writings they will likely be amazed by the breadth, depth, and accessibility of his writings. Multifaceted issues and complex topics are written in a way so that even the most beginning of novices can read him and learn something about liturgy or the early church.

However, the devil is in the details. It will take a reader much effort to find errors in the works of Duchesne, but they are there nevertheless. I have read through a good bit of Volume I of his indexed “History of the Early Church” and, yes, there are a few definite problems in a mountain of excellent scholarship. There are hints that Duchesne took “doctrinal development” a bit far in order to conclude that – while the episcopate is ancient – it was not from the apostles. Also, there is definite proof in the text that the author considers the Eucharist as celebrated in the ancient days as some sort of a  “mysterious memorial meal” rather than the Sacred Mystery of the Body and Blood as mentioned by Christ himself in scripture.

Now, Duchesne was rather subtle about all this and managed to avoid any censure for quite some time. Even when the hammer of the Anti-modernist inquisition came down, all that happened to him was the indexing of the three published volumes of his “History of the Early Church”. This was because he had made a good many friends in his time as a scholar as well as a few enemies with his very few forays into controversy.

There are only two instances of such controversies. The first was when he and Albert Houtin challenged certain French bishops on the histrocity of their dioceses’ “Apostolic Origins” (many French bishops had invented such myths over the centuries in attempt to give their diocese some veneer of prestige). It accomplished little and earned him the ire of most the French episcopate. The second was when he claimed that there was no real belief of the Trinity in the early church until the Council of Nicea conjured it up. Understandably, this prompted theologians to come after him until a “referee” was sent from Rome, at which point Duchesne appeared to revise his position and appealed to “doctrinal development”.

This was to be Duchesne’s modus operandi through the entirety of the crises. He never officially joined von Hugel’s little club though he kept in contact with most its members (indeed, at least a couple of the members were former students of his). In the heat of the crisis he quietly took a boat to Egypt to meet with an archaeological expedition then in progress. When asked what he was doing in Egypt his response was, “You see, my dear fellow, I am waiting for Herod to die.”

Unlike some of his students and compatriots, Duchesne never officially left the church, lost his position, or was excommunicated. Others more orthodox and heterodox than him fell, but he continued on unhindered.

Alfred Loisy

“The Prodigy from Champagne” was born and raised in the east of France where the remnants of the Gallican spirit still lived on in the face of rising ultramontanism. Loisy was a physically stunted but mentally gifted young man who was inspired to join the priesthood and left for Paris, where he found himself severely disappointed by all the professors save one: Louis Duchesne. According to his private correspondence, his disillusionment and doubts concerning certain dogmas had already begun around the time of his ordination to the subdiaconate (one wonders how much of this was frustration with the laziness of the current system or the cynical influence of the only teacher he respected). After a stint of parish work he returned to the educational system to further pursue his studies.

Even before Pius X ascended to the Papacy, Loisy had stirred up trouble with his opinions against Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and that scripture was inherently flawed and limited. These radical positions were but the tip, for he had privately also dispensed with belief in the virgin birth and the Resurrection. When Friedrich von Hugel formed an elite “scholar’s club”, Loisy was the most prominent member and impressed both Hugel and Tyrell with his brilliance and bold assertions.

Loisy would ultimately be both the instigator and the centerpiece of the Modernist crisis when he published his L’Évangile et L’Église. In this “little red book”, he challenged the assertions of the liberal Lutheran Adolf von Harnack who argued against any form of organized religion for it was not what Christ intended. Loisy countered by saying that the formation of an organized church was inevitable though Christ – not knowing he was divine or consubstantial with the Father (Loisy’s words, not mine) – could not have foreseen it. Conclusively, Loisy argued that the Catholic Church was the best “vehicle” for Christ’s message despite all its flaws.

The book elicited a firestorm and was hailed by some as utterly destroying Harnack’s arguments. Loisy soon found that the ones to first take up the cause against his book were not in the academies in Rome, but among the very elitist group of scholars and exegetes with whom he shared company. Pierre Batiffol, Wilfrid Ward, and Maurice Blondel came down hard against it, Lagrange dismissed it, and Laberthonniere distanced himself from it. A schism emerged in the modernist “movement” with Loisy, Tyrell, Houtin, and Turmel on one side and Lagrange, Laberthonniere, Blondel, and Batiffol on the other (Friedrich von Hugel tried to mend the irreconciliable chasm while Duchesne watched on passively). In the midst of all this, Loisy politicked behind the scenes for an episcopal see in Belgium or a remote area of France.

Even before the sweeping condemnations of Pascendi dominici gregis, Loisy’s condemnation and excommunication were assured. When it came in 1908 he took it very stoically, stating: “Now, the secularization of my life begins.”

He would continue to write in secular circles until his death in 1940. He never returned to the church or took up the priesthood again.

Marie-Joseph Lagrange

Also a student of Duchesne from eastern France, Marie-Joseph Lagrange became the most prominent biblical scholar in the Dominican order. He left his mark in history when he founded the biblical and archaeological school: the École Biblique (perhaps most famous for their later unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls). The school attracted scholars who were better read and equipped to tackle the historical questions than either the deconstructionist and clearly biased liberal protestants or the Roman neoscholastics who were stuck in their narrow box spinning worn out wheels. As a prominent and highly educated scholar of church history, it was inevitable that he would be involved in the contemporary controversies. Indeed, it was his duty to involve himself in them. As modernists like Tyrell, Loisy, and Houtin bemoaned the initial documents condemning modernism, Lagrange welcomed them at first as a safeguard against the excesses of men like Loisy going too far with their creativity. This did little to spare him from the inquisition.

It is here that we must address his most controversial conclusion: the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. While he left room for the possibility that Moses was among its authors, his opinion was that it was too expansive and covered too much for one man to have been the sole author. This position stirred up ire from more conservative figures who insisted on absolute Mosaic authorship and soon an official document was released stating that current biblical scholarship did not have the necessary evidence to refute Mosaic authorship. Lagrange agreed, for he did not dispute that Moses had written some or most of it, but held on to a theory that Genesis in particular could have been compiled from other earlier lost books (it does, after all, cover a huge span of time). This “middle ground” found him at odds with both Loisy who absolutely denied any Mosaic authorship and the hardliners who refused to accept any authors but Moses.

As a result of this and another issue involving Pierre Batiffol (see below) his school was temporarily shut down by the Vatican and he lost his position. His commentary on Genesis was absolutely forbidden to be published. Fortunately for him, Pius X was aware of Lagrange’s talent and intervened to find him a new position. The pope encouraged him to devote his energies into something less controversial. The result was what many consider his masterpiece: a commentary on the four Gospels.

He would maintain a position of prominence well into his late life after the worst of the anti-modernist reaction had abated. He grew old alongside Loisy and continued to work counter him while never going after him directly. Lagrange would end up vindicated and revered in some circles as a sensible man of faith who weathered the storms of modernism and extreme anti-modernism, a scholar and exegete devoted above all else to the truth.

Pierre Batiffol

Monseigneur Batiffol, Toulouse, 1898 © Compagnie des Prêtres de Saint-Sulpice

Yet another student of Duchesne, Pierre Batiffol was a close associate of Lagrange and a specialist in the history of dogma. The two of them founded the magazine Revue Biblique which published articles for exegesis of the scriptures. He became the head of the Institut catholique in Toulouse and was the first major figure to go after Loisy for L’Évangile et L’Église. This was especially poignant as Batiffol was not among the intransigent neoscholastics, who were caught completely unprepared by Loisy. Like Lagrange, he also welcomed the first condemnations of modernism but still lost his position for being labeled a “modernist”.

The source of the dispute lay in the subject of Eucharistic theology. Batiffol asserted that the early Christians did not hold a scholastic understanding of transubstantiation, though they fully believed in the Real Presence. This is anathema to neoscholastics, but is nevertheless true. The Eucharistic understanding of the Miaphysites and the Assyrians – since both never adopted Latin or Byzantine theology – places no real emphasis on when the change happens but that it happens. There is no attempt to dissect the particulars and those who receive do so in full faith that they are partaking of the Lord’s Body and Blood (“The Mystery of faith! The Sacrifice of praise!”). This is the simple understanding of the early christians: We say the prayers and exhort Christ to make Himself present in the bread and wine. He deigns to do so then we give thanks and eat of Him.

Batiffol fell from his seat and submitted to the Vatican’s decision to demote him. Unlike Lagrange, he never achieved a comparable status to that he had held before the crisis.

Albert Houtin

Albert Houtin was a French priest who originally considered the life of a Solesmes Benedictine monk before entering the academic field of historical criticism. His first foray was a joint venture with Duchesne to challenge the “apostolic origins” of certain French episcopates, which earned him many enemies among the French bishops. He made contact with the rest of von Hugel’s “network” around 1900 and published La Question biblique chez les catholiques de France au XIXM in 1903, which was promptly placed on the Forbidden Index alongside Loisy’s’ L’Évangile et L’Église. Unlike Loisy, who gradually and calmly separated himself from the church, Houtin tried to reconcile the assertions of Loisy with Catholicism for a while before throwing it all aside in 1912. By then he had already lost his ecclesiatical and academic positions. He would later write a scathing and vindictive biography of Loisy which would turn many of his fellow modernists against him. He is normally barely remembered as a petty and overshadowed character in the movement, a man without anything particularly distinct that he contributed to make him stand out from the pack. This reputation is largely deserved.

Joseph Turmel

The anti-modernist inquisition set up by Umberto Benigni in the aftermath of Pascendi dominici gregis would proceed to bring down many an orthodox theologian like Batiffol for the slightest suspicion of “modernism”. Like the encyclical itself, the witch-hunt addressed its boogeyman in the most general and inacurrate terms (Can anyone who has studied the many contradictory and diametrically opposed heresies imagine that there could ever be a system of thought that “synthesizes” them into a cohesive oneness? What an absurdity!). The result was that innocents would fall as collateral damage while quite a few truly dangerous men would survive relatively unscathed. The overall sloppiness and ineffectiveness of this campaign is no more evident than in the case of Joseph Turmel.

Joseph Turmel was appointed professor of dogmatic theology at the Seminary of Rennes in 1882, the same year of his ordination. In 1886 he rejected the faith in private but – unlike Loisy who gradually left or Houtin who stormed off in a huff – kept it secret as long as he could. He followed the general line of Loisy with regards to the Pentateuch and the “unreliability” of scripture. A priest he knew introduced him to Alfred Loisy who proceeded to publish Turmel’s work under various pseudonyms. Turmel was identified in 1903 and was forced to resign his position to become a lowly parish priest.

In this role Turmel had more time to write than ever before. Unlike Tyrell, he learned from his prior mistakes and learned to better disguise his writings. Starting in 1909 he wrote many works under fourteen pseudonyms for the cause of historical destruction and deconstruction. For over two decades he played the double life of a humble parish priest and a writer against the church. He was finally uncovered and excommunicated in 1930, many years after Benedict XV had dismantled the inquisition.

Information on Turmel is sparse or nonexistent from many Catholic sources, especially those of the partisans and romanticists of the “glorious years” of Pius X. Most of the useful information on Turmel comes from secular and anti-Catholic sources who label him a “martyr for the truth”.

Turmel is a good case study for many reasons. He demonstrates both how poorly executed and haphazard the anti-modernist reaction was, and that the fear of a priest offering invalid sacraments while actively working against the church is more than simply paranoia. Modernism was a genuine threat, a threat that Anti-Modernism failed to address with the surgical precision and intellectual prowess that was required.


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