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Mercier, Désiré Joseph


MERCIER, DÉSIRÉ JOSEPH (18511926), a leading figure in Roman Catholic neoscholastic philosophy at the end of the nineteenth century and Cardinal Primate of Belgium (19061926). Born November 21, 1851, in Braine-l'Alleud, near Waterloo, Mercier studied philosophy and theology at Malines and earned a licentiate in theology at Louvain University (1877). Subsequently, he studied psychiatry in Paris.

Ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1874, Mercier became a staunch supporter of Pope Leo XIII's call for a revival of Thomistic thought in the encyclical Aeterni patris (1879). Initially a professor of philosophy at the Malines seminary in 1877, Mercier then became the first holder of a new chair for Thomist philosophy at Louvain University in 1882. He soon sought papal approbation for a new institute at Louvain, and in 1889 Leo XIII approved the Institut Supérieur de Philosophie with Mercier at its head. Calling former students together from around the globe, he assembled an international group of disciples.

Working in opposition to Mill's positivism, and above all to neo-Kantian idealism, Mercier became a major figure in the development of Roman Catholic neoscholastic thought, which sought to mediate between modern natural science and traditional Thomistic metaphysics. While neoscholastic thought of the nineteenth century was concerned mainly with questions of epistemology and the soul-body relationship and locked its responses to these problems into a rigid anti-Kantian tradition, Mercier strove to make Thomistic philosophy dependent upon the thought of his time: to see the "new" in the "old." His main area of concentration was psychology, and in 1892 he founded the first experimental laboratory at his institute in that discipline; later laboratories, emphasizing his regard for experimental methods, followed in cosmology, chemistry, and physics.

In contrast to most Roman Catholic thinkers of his time, Mercier saw philosophy as distinct from theology, and above all as an enterprise that should be free of all apologetics. Without abandoning all tradition, he sought to imbue philosophy with the same ethic of investigation that marked other university disciplines; philosophy must address the people, their times, and their problems. Even when dealing with such questions as truth and certitude, Mercier appealed to human experience. This led to his system of "illationism," which admitted that truth and certitude came from intellectual reflection, but that the content of such abstract thought always had its origins in concrete experience. Though this direction produced much controversy in neoscholastic circles, it was unable to sustain itself as a "school" at Louvain University. Mercier gave expression to his thought in a series of textbooks (his Course in Philosophy ) that dealt with logic, psychology, metaphysics, and the criteria for truth and certitude (18921899). In addition, he founded the influential Revue néo-scolastique de philosophie (1894), in which many of the movement's most important debates were carried out.

Appointed archbishop of Malines in 1906, Mercier was created a cardinal by Pius X in 1907. Though never a leading figure in the controversy of modernism that rocked the Roman Catholic church at the beginning of the twentieth century, he did issue a famous Lenten pastoral letter in 1908 against the work of George Tyrrell (18611909), a prominent Irish modernist thinker; his letter prompted a vitriolic but brilliant rejoinder by Tyrrell in his Medievalism (1908). As a pastorally concerned leader of his diocese, Mercier was deeply involved in the spiritual life and development of both his clergy and the laity; indeed, he sought greater cooperation between both groups as well as advances in social justice. Though Mercier never became a strong political figure in Belgiumhis attachment to French culture hindered his understanding of the Flemish and their problemshe did become a figurehead for the Belgian people during the German occupation of World War I (19141918), strengthening their morale through sermons and pastoral letters. This proved so effective that the Germans placed him under house arrest, which earned him great prestige among the Belgian people and much praise from the Allies after the war.

Mercier's final years after World War I were dedicated to more universal problems, particularly those of church reunion. He founded the Institute of the Monks of Union at Chevetogne in Belgium in order to further reunion and reconciliation with the Eastern churches and made perhaps his most influential and lasting effort in hosting and participating in the famous "Malines Conversations" (19211925). Suggested by Lord Halifax (Charles Lindley Wood, 18391934), these meetings were concerned with aiding the mutual understanding and relations between the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. Mercier's most famous moment came in the fourth session when he presented his paper on "The English Church United Not Absorbed," in which he proposed that the archbishopric of Canterbury be made a patriarchate, that the Roman code of canon law not be imposed in England, that England be allowed its own liturgy, and that all of the historical English sees be left in place while the newly erected Roman Catholic sees (1850) be suppressed. These suggestions generated much controversy and opposition in Rome, and Mercier's death on January 26, 1926, in Brussels effectively meant the end of the "Conversations."


Works by Mercier

Mercier's main work, the Cours de philosophie, 4 vols. (Louvain, 18941899): vol. 1, Logique (1894); vol. 2, Métaphysique générale, ou Ontologie (1894); vol. 3, La psychologie (1899); and vol. 4, Critériologie générale, ou Théorie générale de la certitude (1899), represented his sequence of philosophy courses given at the Higher Institute for Philosophy at the University of Louvain. Many of Mercier's writings and public utterances were collected in the Œeuvres pastorales (Brussels and Louvain, 19111929), in seven volumes. Finally, his famous exchange of letters with the commandant of the German occupation forces during World War I appeared as La correspondance de S. E. cardinal Mercier avec le gouvernement général allemand pendant l'occupation, 19141918, edited by Fernand Mayence (Brussels, 1919); in English translation as Cardinal Mercier's Own Story (New York, 1920). The most complete bibliography of Mercier's published writings should be consulted in the commemorative volume Le cardinal Mercier, 18511926 (Brussels, 1927), pp. 341372.

Works about Mercier

Of the several biographies of Mercier, one may profitably consult John A. Gade's The Life of Cardinal Mercier (New York, 1934). A full-scale and scholarly biography of Mercier, taking advantage of the many particular studies that have appeared since his death, and which would place him more accurately in the troubled and multifaceted context of his time, still must be written. Among the most important of these investigations are Alois Simon's major studies, particularly Le cardinal Mercier (Brussels, 1960), which provide an assessment of Mercier's contributions both to renewed scholasticism and the general philosophical conversation at the turn of the century in Europe. For new information concerning Mercier's ecumenical activities, one should consult Roger Aubert's "Les conversations de Malines: Le cardinal Mercier et le Saint-Siège," Bulletin de l'Academie Royale de Belgique 53 (1967): 87159; and R. J. Lahey's "The Origins and Approval of the Malines Conversations," Church History 43 (September 1974): 366384.

Gary Lease (1987)

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