June 1978 Print

The Church & the New Order, Pt. 3

Part III

Kent Emery, Jr.

Revolution: Lamennais

La Mennais . . . discerned the Christian future with astonishing clarity: papal infallibility, abandonment of the temporal power, acceptance by the Church of democracy and liberalism, separation of Church and State, together with liturgical reform, development of biblical studies, widening pastoral methods. . . . All or nearly all of what the Church has achieved in our own times is to be found in La Mennais. —Henri Daniel-Rops, The Church in an Age of Revolution, 1789-1870, trans. J. Warrington (N. Y., 1967), I, 215.

These words of praise, written in 1965, reveal all. If Lamennais was rebuked in his own time, he is celebrated today as the herald of the glorious reforms of Vatican II which have brought the Church, and western society, to their current happy condition. St. Bernard, recapitulating the tradition of the Church Fathers, stated that one must possess personal sanctity in order to attain and preach religious truth. One would infer that the converse is also true. Daniel-Rops, however, seems oblivious to such considerations when he adds one modest qualification to his praise of Lamennais: "He was undoubtedly a genius, a genius whose work would have been more effective if his innermost heart had not been tainted by a lethal pride" (Ibid.).

Lamennais thrived during the decade 1820-1830. At first he confined his attack to the social order, but soon this attack broadened to include the French Church, which Lamennais accused of supporting a decadent regime. By arguing vigorously for the independence of Catholic schools, Lamennais gained support from many of the devout. Eventually he concluded that the ills of French society and the French Church could be cured by the application of one principle: liberty. Founding his program of reform on this principle, Lamennais joined forces with proponents of the Revolution.

The regime of Charles X fell in 1830, replaced by the bourgeois republic of Louis-Phillipe. Lamennais was delighted, feeling that his prophetic vision had been confirmed. Later, however, Lamennais became as disenchanted with merchants and shopkeepers as he had been with the monarchy. Nevertheless, Lamennais took advantage of the more liberal climate and founded a new journal to propagate his ideas more widely. The journal bore the brave name, L'Avenir, "The Future". Lamennais was surrounded by a small coterie, the chief members being two young men, Vicomte Charles de Montalembert (1810-1870) and Henri Lacordaire (1802-1861). Montalembert and Lacordaire were destined to play important roles in the history of revolution in the Church. A direct line connects Montalembert, Jacques Maritain's "integral humanism" and the policies of Paul VI.

The ideas put forward in L'Avenir seem rather tired and dreary today, but they were pretty spiffy in their time. The motto of the journal was "God and Liberty". Lamennais believed, as reformers have been believing ever since, that the West was in "the flood-tide of transformation", undergoing an "irresistible evolution". This "evolution" was bringing about the total emancipation of all mankind. The Church, in the face of this "irresistible" change, had no choice but to flow with the tide, and declare herself the champion of liberty. Lamennais's devotion to progress and the future may appear contradictory to his earlier theories of tradition. We must remember, however, that Lamennais employed the word tradition in the fashion of Orwell's Newspeak. By tradition Lamennais certainly did not mean the preservation and careful cultivation of ancient customs and ideas. Rather, in Lamennais's usage, the word tradition meant the progressive course of human sentiment and the ever-changing excretions of religious experience. The spiritually acute were those persons able to anticipate the next mutation of the spirit of the times.

In order to carry out the necessary adaptation Lamennais proposed a threefold liberation. Firstly, the Church should liberate herself from the support of temporal governments. She should negotiate no more concordats and refuse economic aid. Lamennais urged a complete separation of Church and State. Today his dream has come true even in the last bastions of Catholic civilization, Spain and Italy, where separation has produced marvelous pastoral fruits. It is ironic that Lamennais thought separation entailed freedom from economic support of the State. In our country, the exemplar of separation of Church and State, Catholic bishops deny that government support of Catholic schools violates the sacred principle.

Secondly, free from the contagion of temporal governments, the Church would be free to pursue her true mission, "the liberation and advancement of peoples", or the progressio populorum. As Paul VI continually repeats, "mission today means development." To achieve their advancement, peoples must, as has happened in modern Africa with the blessing of the Church, "rid themselves of foreign oppression." Peoples must be free in the political, social, and economic spheres. Such freedom, Lamennais taught, is a religious imperative. "Democracy is the new legitimacy." "Where the people is, there is Christ. Their struggle is Christ's struggle." Vatican II's teaching on the missions and the liberation theology were born in the pages of L'Avenir.

Finally, to reciprocate the State, the Church must divest herself of all temporal claims and interests. Lamennais would have approved Paul VI's many gestures in this regard: the shedding of papal Juridical insignia, the reduction of the Swiss Guard, the selling of religious art, the return of St. Mark's relics to the Copts, the return of the standard of Lepanto to the Turks, the kissing of the feet of schismatic patriarchs, the bestowing of a papal ring on the Archbishop of Canterbury, the almost weekly, virtual apology for the teaching of Unam Sanctam.

Lamennais, like our liturgical reformers, hoped that the Church would return to the ethos of the early Church. He never noticed a fundamental contradiction in his thought. How could the world be governed democratically by a pure Pope, whom Lamennais called the "father of human kind" and the "dictator of Christian conscience", when Christians would either be martyred or holed-up in catacombs? The answer is simple: like modern reformers Lamennais never for a moment took the shibboleth of the early Church seriously, but used it as an instrument to relieve the Church of temporal authority and attachment to its medieval past.

Lamennais never proved to be a very good martyr. Most Catholics, as well as bona fide liberals, recognized his ideas as nothing more than the Revolution sprinkled lightly with holy water and certainly not purged with hyssop. Thus, Lamennais faced violent, or worse, sneering criticism. Sore wounded, Lamennais, ever the ideologue, acted according to his theory. He decided to seek approbation from the Pope, the father of the people, who, Lamennais was confident, would see the future as he did. In 1831 Lamennais, Montalembert, and Lacordaire embarked on pilgrimage to Rome.

Like Gromyko, Janos Kadar, African tribal chieftans, Walter Mondale, Betty Friedan, and other emancipators of the human spirit, Lamennais would have been received warmly in the Rome of today. However, as modern historians universally agree, Gregory XVI, reigning in Lamennais's time, was blind to the spirit of the age, and unable to discern the true worth of Lamennais's vision. One would have thought that Gregory XVI might have had some understanding. As a former Camaldolese hermit, he might have known something of the spirit of the early Church. As an ardent and precise student of St. Thomas Aquinas, he might have had some idea of the proper relation between the spiritual and the temporal. Strangely, in the audience he granted to the three pilgrims, Gregory did not seem to comprehend the urgency of their plans. Instead, he talked about the bells of St. Peter, reminisced about Montalembert's mother, and offered Lamennais a pinch of snuff.

Gregory XVI's opinion of L'Avenir became apparent later. A year after he had returned disappointed from Rome, Lamennais received, at a banquet celebrating his good works, a copy of Gregory XVI's encyclical, Mirari Vos (15 August 1832). This encyclical has been a scandal to progressives ever since. It is not reprinted by the Daughters of Saint Paul. In Mirari Vos, Gregory condemns, among other things, separation of Church and State, liberty of the press, liberty of conscience, revolt against princes, collaboration with liberals of "good will", and the need to regenerate Catholicism. This encyclical is not often cited in the documents of Vatican II.

After making a grand gesture of submission, Lamennais began to sulk. He rationalized that L'Avenir was not the object of the Pope's condemnation, and that anyway, the encyclical was only the exercise of juridical authority. The rationalizations could not withstand the obdurate quality of reality. In 1834, Lamennais left the priesthood, blaspheming the Pope, "the dictator of Christian conscience", as he went. Henceforward he lived by his literary talents. He immediately published a book, Paroles d'un croyant ("words of a believer"), in which he apposed the people, God's beloved, to their "oppressors and executioners", the legions of Satan, priests and kings. Gregory XVI had continued to watch with concern Lamennais's progress. In another encyclical, Singulari Nos (15 July 1834), Gregory condemned Paroles, which he called a book "small in size, but immense in perversity". In the encyclical, Gregory took the occasion to condemn once again the whole notion of liberal Catholicism.

Singulari Nos ended Lamennais's life as a Catholic. He continued to write raving books about the coming age of the Demos. He died in 1854, virulently unrepentant.

Lamennais's program, however, lives on. His disciple Lacordaire remarked of the master: "If he had been humble and submissive, or even merely shrewd and farsighted, he would have found himself again, in 1841, head of the liberal Catholic school, leader of a fresh crusade, greater, stronger and more respected." From Lamennais's fate Catholic liberals learned a cardinal tactic: do what is necessary to stay juridically within the Church. It was Lacordaire himself who carried the torch of revolution into the next generation.


Dr. Emery is Professor of History at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina.