Today we present our “Man Bites Dog” feature: what happened when Pope Gregory XVI in the encyclical Mirari Vos corrected the hero of our story, the Abbé de Lamennais. Some authorities consider de Lamennais the forerunner of liberal or social Catholicism (see, e.g., J.W. Burrow, The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848-1914. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2000, 225-226).
|Cardinal Pacca (with a letter)|
Mirari Vos caught up with de Lamennais in Munich. It was accompanied by a letter from Cardinal Pacca chastising de Lamennais in Gregory XVI’s name for publicly discussing matters best confined to the proper authorities, and that should have remained confidential, at least until the situation could be straightened out. While intended as fraternal correction in private, the letter did not soothe de Lamennais's outraged feelings.
Nevertheless, de Lamennais declared that he would cease publication of l’Avenir permanently out of deference to the pope’s wishes, dissolved l’Agence Générale, and returned to La Chênaie, the family estate, where he went into seclusion. At first maintaining a discreet silence, he soon began communicating his anger and bitterness in letters made public by their recipients — a rather shoddy way some people have of manipulating others by making private communications public.
|Pope Gregory XVI (also with a letter)|
Concerned at this turn of events, Gregory XVI sent de Lamennais a letter demanding that he submit to Mirari Vos without qualification. Possibly because he lost his temper at the people who had made his letters public, de Lamennais did so immediately. This convinced the pope that the matter had been settled satisfactorily. As Gregory XVI later recounted,
[De Lamennais’s] response to those things which cause Us so much concern and anxiety was gratefully received. His statement sent to Us on December 11 of last year  distinctly confirmed that he would follow solely and absolutely the teaching transmitted in Our encyclical letter and that he would not write or approve anything which differs from it. In that matter We opened Our heart in paternal love to the son who was moved by Our warnings. We also trusted that he would produce more brilliant writings in time to confirm his compliance in word and deed with Our decision. (Singulari Nos, § 1.)
Ironically in light of what happened next, on Gregory XVI’s receipt of his oath of submission, de Lamennais was in a truly enviable position. He had direct access to a pope anxious to receive proofs of his orthodoxy, and ready, willing, and able to make him the point man in the struggle against indifferentism and Gallicanism — de Lamennais’s principal religious concerns.
|Alexis de Tocqueville (without a letter)|
He chose instead to brood over his wrongs, and began reconsidering the submission he made so quickly and possibly only to spite his correspondents for making his letters public. Within days of sending his submission to the pope, de Lamennais renounced his priesthood, and soon afterwards the profession of Christianity.
As de Tocqueville would comment years later, if de Lamennais could not be the master of something, he would be nothing. He had, the author of Democracy in America declared, “a pride great enough to walk over the heads of kings and bid defiance to God.” (Alexis de Tocqueville, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville. Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Company, 1959, 191.)
Henceforth the universal religion of humanity, a sort of socialist secular humanism, would be the only faith de Lamennais recognized. His creed was the amelioration of the poor, the welfare of the people as a whole, and the defense of human liberty. He would no longer be the Apostle of the Catholic Church, but the Apostle of the People.
|Félicité de Lamennais (with lots of letters)|
His anger boiling over, in May of 1834 de Lamennais in a fury published Les Paroles d’un Croyant. In apocalyptic terms the pamphlet spewed a psychotic rage against what he decided was a conspiracy of kings and priests against the people. Virtually everything he had condemned as a Catholic he now endorsed as a secular humanist, and vice versa. Translated into many languages, the vitriolic denunciation of the established social order enjoyed a huge circulation among anti-Catholics.
Gregory XVI, already shocked at the speed and ferocity with which de Lamennais violated his oath of submission, was now appalled at the former priest (former, that is, according to de Lamennais; the Catholic Church holds that the priesthood is forever) making what was supposed to be a confidential matter so spectacularly — and disastrously — public. A month later the pope issued Singulari Nos, “On the Errors of Lamennais.”
In strong yet measured terms the brief encyclical explained the situation, expressed amazement at de Lamennais’s actions, condemned Les Paroles d’un Croyant (characterized as “small in size, [but] enormous in wickedness”), and warned the hierarchy to be on guard against ideas that undermine truth. It closed with the hope that de Lamennais could be brought to see the error of his ways and be reconciled to the Church.
|Pope Leo XIII (he's got a letter, too)|
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the otherwise obscure encyclical was that Gregory XVI specifically referred to the social and philosophical theories behind the attacks on truth and reason — the theory of certitude that replaces God with man and provides the basis of socialism — as rerum novarum, “new things.” A little over half a century later Leo XIII would hearken back to the term to underscore the continuity of his social thought with that of earlier pontiffs and emphasize the seriousness of the continuing problem of socialism, and what would soon become known as modernism and the New Age.
Scandalized equally by his casting off the Church and the manner of it, de Lamennais’s friends abandoned him. In an effort to justify himself to them and further expose what he claimed was the perfidy of Gregory XVI, de Lamennais published Les Affaires de Rome (1836) a self-serving and biased apologia that took liberties with the facts.
Like a tune with only one note, and with little if any originality, from then on until his death de Lamennais, with one exception, confined his writing to reiterating the themes expressed in Les Paroles d’un Croyant. As if to demonstrate that he had lost his mind as well as his faith, the brilliant career Gregory XVI had planned for de Lamennais degenerated into reiterating humanitarian platitudes enlivened occasionally with softheaded socialist clichés.
The exception among the works that appeared after he rejected Christianity was Esquisse d’une Philosophie, which contained some of de Lamennais’s best writing. Published from 1841 to 1846, the plan of the work and the bulk of the writing clearly date from before de Lamennais’s break with the Church.
|Père la Chaise, where the paths of glory lead, with or without letters|
A comprehensive metaphysical treatise, Esquisse d’une Philosophie looked at God, man, and nature from the standpoint of pure reason. Much of the four-volume work presented opinions fully in conformity with Catholic thought, but some portions were obviously rewritten or added to conform to his new religion of humanity. Rejecting the supernatural order altogether, de Lamennais denied the divinity of Jesus, the fall of man, and the possibility of eternal punishment. He also published a translation of the Gospels, carefully annotated with anti-Christian discussions and notes.
From 1835 on, articles and pamphlets flowed in profusion from the pen of de Lamennais. He also defended the revolutionaries arrested that year for disturbing the peace. In 1840 he published Le Pays et le Gouvernement, which earned him a year in prison. While incarcerated during 1841, he wrote Une Voix de Prison, a jeremiad he published in 1846 written in the style of Les Paroles d’un Croyant.
Determined to be a martyr to humanity, de Lamennais resisted all attempts to bring him back to the faith, despite continual efforts by Church authorities and the friends whom he had alienated. When he died after rejecting the last rites or any other religious ministration, his body was carried on his orders directly to the cemetery of Père la Chaise without religious ceremony, “being mourned by a countless concourse of democratic and literary admirers,” as the Encyclopedia Britannica put it.