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In his recently published address, Benedict XVI deals with a topic that has engaged Catholic theologians for many years

The de-hellenization of Christianity: Benedict XVI, Adolf Harnack and Alfred Firmin Loisy

In the lecture which Benedict XVI planned to deliver at La Sapienza, Romeís university, he explored a topic that has engaged Catholic theologians for many years. Among the earliest and perhaps most cogent expressions of that engagement is Alfred Firmin Loisyís LíÉvangile et LíÉglise (1902) which was written as a reply to Adolf Harnackís Das Wesen des Christentums (1900). Harnack argued that the Catholic Church with its doctrines and cultus represented a perversion of the original Gospel message taught by Jesus, a message which he summed up as the Kingdom of God and its coming, God the Father and the infinite value of the human soul and, finally, the higher righteousness and the commandment of love. He explained the process he discerned by employing a pomological metaphor to distinguish between the kernel which was Jesusís Gospel message, and the husk, Catholic Christianity, by which it had become encased and, as a consequence, obscured.

Loisy on the other hand argued that Christianity would have died had it remained in the form in which it was taught in 1st century Palestine and that its development into a church with a centralized papacy, doctrines and a cultus was part of a necessary process of adaptation as it spread and was taken up by the Gentile world. In other words, Loisy assigned to Christian doctrine an evolutionary dynamic which ensured that it adapted itself to the prevailing culture. Although Loisyís book contains echoes of John Henry Newmanís An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), which he had read, it is difficult to say how far he was indebted to it. While initially praised, by among others, Cardinal Sarto (the future Pius X) as a valuable work of apologetic, Lí Évangile et LíÉglise was condemned by a minority of the French bishops in January, 1903. Rome remained silent but followed suit in December of the same year when five of Loisyís books, including LíÉvangile et LíÉglise, were placed on the Index. Loisy was excommunicated in 1908 and took up a chair at the Collège de France. He accepted Romeís verdict on his project and ceased to be a Catholic and, by extension, a Catholic Modernist.

Roger Turner

31 January 2009

Version: 31st January 2009


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