- The Story of Father Marie-Joseph Lagrange: Founder of Modern Catholic Biblical Study
The story of Père Lagrange (1855–1938) is a chronicle in cameo of the birth pangs of modern Catholic biblical scholarship. Divino Afflante Spiritu and Dei Verbum have provided the ecclesiastical freedom and encouragement that contemporary Catholic biblical scholars enjoy. Marie-Joseph Lagrange suffered the travail and restriction that preceded recognition of Catholic biblical scholarship as a legitimate enterprise.
Lagrange's espousal of the historical-critical method, whose primacy in biblical studies is acknowledged in the Pontifical Biblical Commission's The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Vatican City, 1993), was frowned upon and often rejected by Roman authorities who failed to appreciate what he was doing and why he was doing it. Caution and sometimes brakes were applied to his work by his religious superiors who feared for the reputation and standing of the Order of Preachers. Supported by the friendship of some members of the Company of Jesus, he fell victim to the vitriol and plots of men such as Belgian Jesuit Alfonse Delattre and German Jesuit Leopold Fonck.
Notwithstanding this opposition and the climate of suspicion created by the "modernist" crisis, Lagrange's legacy to biblical scholarship is enormous. His publications number almost 2000. He founded the Biblical School in Jerusalem; the École biblique; the Revue biblique; and the Études bibliques, a scholarly series of biblical commentaries and monographs. No small part of his legacy is the work of his students such as Félix-Marie Abel, François-Marie Braun, Paul Dhorme, Eugène Tisserant, and Hughes Vincent, who have left their own mark on the history of biblical scholarship. What remains regrettable is that Lagrange's most cherished work, a commentary on the Book of Genesis, has not yet been published, so powerful has been the censorship imposed upon it. [End Page 839]
Bernard Montagnes is a Dominican from Lagrange's home province of Toulouse. Prior to writing this book, he had published forty essays on Lagrange. What distinguishes this work from previous biographies of Père Lagrange is the author's abundant use of archival material and Lagrange's correspondence. What emerges is a portrait of Lagrange that almost seems to come from the man himself.
The reader experiences the trauma of opposition and misunderstanding that Lagrange suffered. In Lagrange, there was a passion for the truth with a conviction that the historical-critical method is necessary to the attainment of that truth. His love for the Church, espousal of the Dominican way of life and fidelity to Thomas Aquinas, and loyalty to the Holy See provided constraints sometimes as powerful as those imposed from outside. In Lagrange, there was a lifelong and deep-seated desire to allow the Word of God to be understood and appreciated by the people in the world in which we life. The memory and challenge of his passion and desire may well be Lagrange's most important legacy.