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100 years ago: Death of a caustic French priest

by
29 April 2022

April 28th, 1922.

ON THE death of Mgr. Duchesne the Church of France loses the most distinguished of her clergy. Like Renan a Breton by birth and, also like Renan, the possessor of a very critical mind, he never found the pursuit of science incompatible with the profession of faith, though more than once he came into collision with the authorities of the Church. In his younger days, when he was a professor at the Catholic Institute of Paris, under Mgr. d’Hulst, he gave great offence in some quarters by his treatment of certain legends concerning the origins of the Church of France, and, years later, when he had become director of the French School at Rome, he had the mortification to see the Italian translation of his “Histoire ancienne de l’Eglise” put on the Index. Had he exercised greater control over his pen and over his witty tongue he might have become a cardinal, but his failure to attain ecclesiastical honours was doubtless atoned for, in his eyes, by his success in obtaining what is the highest ambition of every French author, namely, a chair in the French Academy. His caustic remarks were constantly being repeated — “Have you seen the latest Bull, Digitus in oculo,” was one of them — and he spared nobody, not even Popes, in his sarcasm. No doubt many such sayings were attributed to him which were not his, but, as Anatole France said about him, they are only attributed to those who deserve them. There were two men in Mgr. Duchesne: the devout priest and the man of science, and he was once happily defined by a brilliant Frenchman as combining a religious soul with a sceptical intelligence. That was the explanation of his career.

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