- “Martyr to the Truth”: The Autobiography of Joseph Turmel translated by C. J. T. Talar and Elizabeth Emery
French priest and scholar Joseph Turmel (1859–1943) flourished during the Roman Catholic modernist period and beyond and compared himself to the far better known Alfred Firmin Loisy (1857–1940). After a prolonged struggle with the findings of historical criticism of the Bible and the patristic tradition, Turmel dates the irrevocable loss of his faith to precisely “March 18, 1886, a little after one o’clock” when he began reading “first vespers of the feast of St. Joseph. The feast brought up the Infancy narratives with their unresolvable contradictions” (p. 23). Turmel abruptly closed his breviary with a firm conviction “repeated several times in an indignant tone: ‘Christian dogmatics is based on nothing; it is over; I will no longer recite the breviary’” (p. 23). Turmel never rescinded that profession of unbelief, but he continued even beyond his excommunication in 1930 to serve as a priest “martyr to the truth,” determined to enlighten Catholics to what he believed was a tissue of fabrication based on a false understanding of the Bible as inerrant revelation capable of supporting dogmas by proof texting.
This artful translation of Turmel’s memoir is expertly introduced and annotated by C. J. T. Talar and capped by a magisterial afterword by Émile Poulat, arguably the leading scholar of the modernist period. The significance of the volume for the history of Catholicism in the post-Enlightenment period is hard to overestimate. But it seems to lie precisely as a window into the heart of the faith struggle provoked by the Enlightenment’s effect on Christian belief, which had been based for many centuries on a naive reading of scripture and tradition uninformed by historical consciousness. But Pope Pius X’s condemnation of modernism (Pascendi dominici gregis, 1907) and the imposition of the Oath against modernism and the establishment of vigilance committees worldwide (1910) were able to put a lid on the effects of this crisis. The effectiveness of this program was aided by the cataclysmic events of two world wars and the Great Depression that focused attention elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Catholics throughout the world continued to believe naively until the post–World War II/Second Vatican Council period, when the Church accepted the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s decision to embrace historical criticism [End Page 162] and its legitimate findings. Many Catholics will clearly recognize the difference between reading scripture before they are educated on the historical nature of the texts and after such education. They will also readily recognize the struggles of Turmel over what to do with his findings. Convinced that the Church had defrauded believers, he felt duty-bound to convey that much of Christian doctrine was a house built on sand, because many beliefs were supported by a false understanding of scripture as a source of proof texts.
A salient feature of Turmel’s memoir is its attention to the author’s subjective state and feelings. This feature, rare among authors of this period, enables readers to relate intimately to his struggles and so to appreciate his self-description as “martyr to the truth.” It also enables readers to sense the costliness of his struggle and know why he felt obliged to take a specific course of action to salvage his integrity.
This volume is strongly recommended as required reading for graduate and undergraduate courses in church history. The expert introduction, erudite notes, and afterword help bring this readable memoir to life without attempting to bias the reader’s interpretation.