Petre, Maude Dominica

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PETRE, MAUDE DOMINICA . Maude Dominica Petre (18631942) is best remembered as the biographer of George Tyrrell, one of the main protagonists of Catholic modernism in England, a Roman Catholic reform movement between 1890 and 1910. The leaders of this movement tried to respond theologically and pastorally to the intellectual developments of modern culture, but they were suppressed by the Vatican. Petre was a participant in the modernist movement as well as one of its first historians and critics who long survived its demise. As a writer, editor, and translator of over a dozen books and more than one hundred articles on a wide range of religious, philosophical, and literary topics (always published under the name of M. D. Petre), she was a prolific theological author in her own right who has never been given the full recognition and critical attention she deserves.

Maude Petre was born, the seventh of eleven children, on August 4, 1863, on the Essex estate of the Petres, an old English Catholic family, resident there since 1539 and prominent in post-Reformation Catholic history. Her father was a younger son of the thirteenth Lord Petre, her mother was the daughter of the earl of Wicklow and a convert to Catholicism. Born on the feast of Saint Dominic, the child was given the middle name Dominica. She grew up in the stern but religious atmosphere of an aristocratic environment, described in detail in her autobiography My Way of Faith (1937). Petre received a wide education at home that included literature, history, philosophy, and several languages, later used in her extensive translation work. In 1882 both of her parents died. Deeply religious, she was nonetheless plagued by recurrent religious doubt. In order to overcome this insecurity in her Catholic belief, she went to Rome in 1885 to study Thomistic theology privately for a year, a decision that her aunt explained as having gone there "to study for the priesthood."

Hesitating between marriage and the religious life, she decided in 1890 to enter the novitiate of the Society of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary (Filles de Marie ), founded during the French Revolution along freer lines than traditional women's orders because members were free to live alone rather than in community and did not wear distinctive dress. Petre became first a local and later a provincial superior of this congregation for England and Ireland. Much involved with practical social work, she promoted orphanages and settlement houses for the poor and instructed converts in Catholicism while at the same time pursuing her own writing, begun in 1895 with essays on literary figures such as Thomas Carlyle and Victor Hugo.

By 1900 Petre had met the Jesuit George Tyrrell at a retreat and had begun corresponding with him and other modernists, namely Henri Bremond and Baron Friedrich von Hügel. On Tyrrell's suggestion she began to keep a diary, and in these personal journals are found "not only the intellectual turmoil of a theological movement, but the personal torment of a great-hearted and deeply spiritual woman as well" (Crews, 1984, p. 11). Petre became so deeply attached to Tyrrell that an intimate personal friendship and correspondence developed and changed the course of her life. Tyrrell was impressed by the freedom of mind expressed in her writings, and their growing friendship led to closer collaboration. They exchanged their manuscripts for mutual criticism, published some texts together, and shared their readings, including some studies of Buddhism.

When Tyrrell left the Society of Jesuits, he found refuge in a small cottage on Petre's property in Storrington, Essex, where he died in 1909. He had appointed her as his literary executor, and it was in this capacity that she posthumously edited some of his writings and letters but especially his autobiographical fragment supplemented by her own account of his life under the title Autobiography and Life of George Tyrrell (1912). This remains an indispensable source for Tyrrell's personal development, although some critics judge it as lacking in distance and objectivity. The Catholic Church soon placed the two volumes on the Index of Forbidden Books, causing Petre further trouble after an earlier controversy occasioned by her Catholicism and Independence: Being Studies in Spiritual Liberty (1907), published at the height of the modernist crisis. This book explored the possible conflict between personal conscience and religious authority, outlining the qualities needed for a genuine reformer of the church. The controversies surrounding its publication made Petre decide to cut all ties with her religious congregation and work independently from then onward.

Petre had a healthy respect for civil and religious authority but was sharply critical of its abuse, especially in the church. She was the only woman asked to take the antimodernist oath, but she refused to do so. Her modernist views motivated her bishop to exclude her from taking Communion in her parish church, a decision she considered an unwarranted "pseudo-excommunication," but she got around this by worshiping in another diocese. After Tyrrell's death, Petre not only dealt with his literary estate but developed new social and political interests through her association with a center of international relations in Pontigny, France, and began to write about democracy, international developments, war and peace, socialism, and fascism. Her book Modernism: Its Failures and Its Fruits (1918) is significant in that it provides one of the earliest histories of this movement from an insider's perspective. Her closeness to the events and people gives it a lively directness without lacking critical analysis and objectivity. She returned to reflections on modernism twenty years later in her autobiography My Way of Faith, a moving account largely motivated by the need to show why she, as a trenchant critic of the church, had remained a loyal believer within it, revealing her love for the sacramental and mystical dimensions of the Christian faith. She published further books on von Hügel and Tyrrell's friendship and on Alfred Loisy, but she died suddenly on December 16, 1942, in London, where she resided during the last years of her life. Her active community involvement until the end was evident from her concern for many social causes, including her volunteer nursing and her work as a nighttime fire warden during World War II in London, just as she had nursed soldiers in France during World War I.

Assessing Maude Petre's full significance remains a scholarly task to be undertaken. With her books out of print and no longer widely read, she is a largely forgotten figure. Yet she was a remarkable, courageous woman of faith and a productive essayist and writer for a wider public, rather than a scholar. She took an active role in the modernist crisis and wrote on the burning issues of her day, whether religious, social, or political, a Christian believer who saw herself as both passionately religious and innately skeptical, offering limited obedience in the face of ecclesiastical pressure. Petre was not only deeply involved with modernism as a force of change in her church, but she responded to the dynamic patterns of a changing society by addressing questions on the changing views of women and on contemporary politics and ideology. Her writings on a broad range of topics from philosophy to theology, spirituality, history, and politics make her difficult to categorize. She wrestled with the great themes of the church in its relationship to modern culture, including questions of spirituality, asceticism, mission, and reform, and ultimately she judged the problems that modernism had tried to address as fundamentally challenges of spirituality and pastoral care that had not yet been met. She saw the need for a fuller and more spiritual Christianity, for a Copernican revolution in religion.

Petre also insisted on the spiritual independence of each person, and she had a deep respect for pluralism. In some ways she anticipated the emphases on reform and renewal proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council, of an ecclesia semper reformanda, but also a church "subservient to the religious and spiritual needs of humanity" (Petre, 1918, p. 67). Ellen Leonard (1991) has rightly seen Petre's theology and spirituality as deeply rooted in her own experience, that of a passionate faith in God, of her involvement in the world, and of the consciousness of herself as a woman. Petre said it had been her ambition when young to become a saint, a philosopher, and a martyr. She became a loyal critic, rebel, and pioneer instead, perhaps even a prophet. She considered religious experience as primary, believed in the separation of faith from certainty, the autonomous realms of secular knowledge, allegiance to the church as largely a matter of choice, and the possibility of salvation and revelation outside the Catholic Church. She even spoke of the possible coming of a new religion and believed fervently in the spiritual unity of humanity, still in search of its social and political embodiment. The rich legacy of her writings invites further scrutiny and study.

See Also

Hügel, Friedrich von; Loisy, Alfred; Modernism, article on Christian Modernism; Tyrrell, George.


Maude Petre's publications date from 1885 to 1944 and cover a wide range of topics.

An extensive, though incomplete, list of her published and unpublished writings is in the first major study on Petre, Clyde F. Crews, English Catholic Modernism: Maude Petre's Way of Faith (Notre Dame, Ind., 1984). Ellen Leonard has made a start in examining Petre from a contemporary woman's perspective in Unresting Transformation: The Theology and Spirituality of Maude Petre (Lanham, Md., New York, and London, 1991), but a comprehensive critical analysis of Petre's significance within a larger framework of gender history and feminist theology is still outstanding.

Only a few of Petre's writings can be listed here, beginning with her first book on the work of the seventeenth-century Jesuit Peter Claver among African slaves in South America, Aethiopum Servus: A Study in Christian Altruism (London, 1896). A significant publication during the height of the modernist crisis was her controversial book Catholicism and Independence: Being Studies in Spiritual Liberty (London, 1907), followed more than ten years later by one of the earliest critical analyses of this movement, Modernism: Its Failure and Its Fruits (London, 1918). As her own life and works have been little studied, her reputation rests primarily on what she wrote on other modernists, especially the two-volume Autobiography and Life of George Tyrrrell (London, 1912), the account Von Hügel and Tyrrell: The Story of a Friendship (London, 1937), and the posthumously published Alfred Loisy: His Religious Significance (Cambridge, U.K., 1944). However, Alec R. Vidler's A Variety of Catholic Modernists (Cambridge, U.K., 1970) lists Petre as a modernist in her own right, and readers can judge this for themselves by studying Petre's autobiography My Way of Faith (London, 1937) and her unpublished journals from 1900 to 1942 (see Maude Petre Papers, Add. MSS 5237279, British Library, London).

Helpful introductory surveys are in Charles J. Healey, "Maude Petre: Her Life and Significance," Recusant History 15, no. 1 (May 1979): 2342; and Clyde F. Crews, "Maude Petre's Modernism," America 144, no. 19 (May 16, 1981): 403406. J. J. Kelly has published The Letters of Baron Friedrich von Hügel and Maude D. Petre (Louvain, Belgium, 2003).

Ursula King (2005)