Louis Cardinal Billot (1845-1931), a native of Lorraine in France, joined the Jesuits early in life and soon was appointed teacher of theology in France. In 1885 he was summoned to Rome by Pope Leo XIII to teach dogmatic theology at the Gregorian University. For 26 years (1885-1911) he was the unchallenged teacher of generations of ecclesiastical students, future bishops, and cardinals.
Leo XIII already had had to fight against those who wished to remove Father Billot from Rome. To keep him at the See of Peter, in 1909 St. Pius X appointed him as a consultant of the Holy Office, and in 1911, prevailing over the Jesuit tradition of not accepting dignities, nominated him Cardinal Deacon.
On February 12, 1922, Pope Pius XI was crowned. The cardinal deacon who should have placed the tiara on the head of the new pontiff was ill and Cardinal Billot was appointed to replace him. When receiving the tiara from Cardinal Billot, Pope Ratti had no idea that, five years later, he would have to take back from those same hands the cardinal’s hat.
In 1927, Cardinal Billot “retired” so as “to prepare himself for death.” These words accorded to the official statement, although the real reason lay elsewhere, as we shall presently see. But, this was no sinecure for the octogenarian. He was occupied with the re-publication of his works, retaining up to the end his intellectual vigor, as evidenced by his correspondence of that time and his talks with those who would visit him. This “passionate lover of God, the Church and Christ the King of France,” as he was graciously called, died in the Jesuit novitiate of Galloro at age 86.
Father Henri Le Floch, who had been rector of the French Seminary in Rome for twenty-three years, a position he resigned three days after the resignation of Cardinal Billot, wrote a tribute to him, man of the Church, theologian, professor, patriot, and defender of truth against the errors of Liberalism, Modernism, and Sillonism. The title of his book reveals its tenor: Le Cardinal Billot, Iumière de la théologie”—Cardinal Billot, Light of Theology.
Pius XI, who wished to resume the work of the previous Council, consulted his cardinals on the suitability of convening a council for the conclusion of Vatican I. According to the investigations of Father Giovanni Caprile, 26 responses are preserved in the Vatican archives. Only two responded negatively: Austrian Cardinal Andreas Frühwirth (1845-1933) and Cardinal Billot. The latter reasoned that, because of their difficulties and dangers, the era of ecumenical councils seems to have definitively ended, especially the danger that the Modernists would take advantage of the Council “to make a revolution, a new 1789, the object of their hopes and dreams.”
Being French, Billot could not but be very much upset by seeing the turn of events in the France of the 1920s. The papal nuncio in Paris seemed to have supported the Masonic left-wing coalition of Herriot-Blum. Some days later, in a papal audience, Pius XI complained bitterly to Cardinal Billot:
“Your Eminence, your French have voted very badly.”
“Your Holiness, your nuncio has done everything that was needed for that.”
“My nuncio? My nuncio? He follows my orders! It is my politics, my politics, my politics...”
On another issue, some pages of Charles Maurras, leader of the monarchical movement Action Française, had the enviable privilege of being reproduced in the treatise of Cardinal Billot, De Ecclesia, regarding relationships between religious authority and secular authority. It is worth quoting Maurras on his view of the democratic rule.
“We have too much respect for the nation to tell it: It is enough to count the incompetent voices so as to resolve questions of a very general interest which require long years of study, of practice or meditation. It is enough to collect and add the suffrages of the ignoramuses to succeed in the most delicate choices...The government by the number tends to the disorganization of the country. It destroys by force everything which tempers it, everything which naturally differs: religion, family, traditions, classes, organization of all types, etc.”
Cardinal Billot had a firsthand knowledge of Action Francaise, which he described as “esteemed by the good and feared by the wicked.” He had to face Cardinal Gasparri, Secretary of State, on the eve of the condemnation of the movement. This unfortunate meeting saw the duel between two great minds, arguably the greatest theologian and the greatest canonist disputing over a political movement. The canonist only invoked “the higher will”. There is little doubt that, in the trial of Action Française, the pagan works of Maurras were not ruffling feathers so much as his sharp counter-revolutionary spirit. In a letter, Billot expressed his thoughts: “It’s not so much the Chemin de Paradis or Anthinée they hate, but his anti-liberalism, anti-democraticism, and anti-republicanism.”
On September 19, 1927, Cardinal Billot was divested of the purple that he had only accepted in order to obey his venerated Pius X, receiving in exchange a small statue of the Virgin; and then he retired. The cardinal, who had never been consecrated bishop, returned to being Father Louis Billot of the Society of Jesus.
Pius XII was no sooner elected than he lifted the excommunication which had weighed heavily upon the Action Française and all its affiliated members.
On October 1, 1939, in a special audience, Father Le Floch presented his work on Cardinal Billot to Pius XII, who showed much appreciation for it. Likewise, in his allocution on the fourth centenary of the Gregorian University, October 18, 1953, Pius XII had a moving reminiscence of the Cardinal, the only teacher explicitly mentioned among all those of his youth:
“For those of you who are older, let us gladly recall our teachers such as Louis Billot, to name one, who, with spiritual distinction and intellectual acumen, incited us to venerate the sacred studies and love the dignity of the priesthood.”
The doctrinal influence of Cardinal Billot in Rome lasted many years after his death. Here is a random example: The Letter of the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Boston, dated August 8, 1949, against Fr. Feeney on the baptism of water, literally reproduced an article of the cardinal’s which had been published in Etudes.
Cardinal Billot was one of the theologians who saw more clearly the intrinsic wickedness of neoliberalism which emerged from the Revolution. Speaking about the Sillon, the Christian political movement which was finally condemned by St. Pius X for its ideological principles, Billot explains: “The Christianity of the Sillon is always based on their Democratism, and that Christian Democratism in its revolutionary ideology is a distortion of the Gospel.”
No one gave a clearer judgment of Liberalism, the Revolution’s offspring, than the “iron theologian”. When analyzing its intrinsic discrepancy with the principles of hierarchy and authority, he puts in full light its divisive social consequences. In his book on the De Ecclesia, especially the section on the relation of Church and State, Cardinal Billot strikes at the essence of the French Revolution, quoting President Clemenceau: “Since the Revolution, we are in a state of revolt against the divine and human authority, which we finished off with one stroke on January 21, 1793 [date of the murder of Louis XVI].” A longer text explains the historical setting of this Herculean struggle.
“Without a doubt, religion had spread thoroughly through the whole body of society, from the soles of its feet to the top of its head. Our civilization arose entirely from Christianity, and clergymen everywhere obtained a prominent and exalted place in the political structure, so that everywhere civil and religious institutions could be seen to interpenetrate each other in a remarkable manner....It can now be seen why the anti-religious rage of the impious fomenters of Revolution brought with it as a necessary consequence a hatred of social institutions, since the nature of the latter was such that it was wholly impossible to divorce them from religious faith....So they decreed that they should be razed to the ground and completely destroyed, so that the field was clear for a new social and political order, which was fitted to the primary and principal goal of destroying all religion.”
“The pretext for installing this new social order was liberty; its code was the social contract; its method was demagoguery; and its ultimate rationale was the creation of a colossal atheistic State...with absolute dictatorial power to prescribe what is allowed and what is forbidden. Under this State, the reviled name and worship of God would be abolished forever.....This is the end to which everything else is ordered as means. This is the reason for the destruction of the family; this is the reason for the destruction of the corporations; this is the reason for the destruction of the liberties of municipalities and provinces—so that there will finally be left one remaining authority, that of the impious State.....This is the objective that is aimed for, not civil liberty. Liberty is a pretext, liberty is an idol to seduce the people...an empty god behind which Satan is preparing to reduce the nations to a far worse slavery than that in which he held the ancient world with the physical idols of paganism.”
Therefore, Cardinal Billot thought that the most urgent task was to combat the Revolution that had infiltrated Catholics, the fruit of which are “Jacobin anticlericalism and pseudo-Catholic liberalism.” His solid doctrinal formation not only prevented him from baptizing the compromises of “Catholic” Liberalism, but moreover considered it necessary “to fight this great evil of the present time that is pretending to please God without offending the devil or, to put it better, to serve the devil without offending God.”
He scorned Catholic liberalism as a “perfect and absolute incoherence.” This type of “Catholic” professes both his catechism, in which he believes that man is made to serve God in all things, and at the same time the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, placing man as utterly independent of God, separating civil and religious life. The Catholic liberals are incoherent, too, in that they admit the Catholic principles but refuse to put them into practice. They add that, in principle, the union of Church and State is good but, in practice, it is always harmful to the Church. In their mind, liberty is always the last instance, and we know all too well that liberty, left to itself, leans to the side of evil and impiety. That which is presented as the great remedy is the cause of all evil.
One example will suffice to illustrate the method of these Catholic Liberals: Regarding religion, the Catholic position is that there is only one true religion and that the State must adopt it. The liberals, on the contrary, profess an open indifferentism, to the effect that all religions are equal. They conclude that religious pluralism is the ideal condition for the State. The liberal Catholic, in a weak spirit of conciliation, admits that the Catholic religion is true and that it must direct individuals and families, but refuses to conclude that the State should be subject to it, and professes openly religious liberty.
The Catholic Liberal, subject of The Liberal Illusion (the title of Louis Veuillot’s book), in struggling with this incoherence, ends up being despised both by God and by men. He realizes within himself the dualism mentioned by Sacred Scripture: “When one buildeth up, and another pullet down, what profit have they but the labor? When one prayeth, and another curseth, whose voice will God hear?” (Eccles. 34: 28).