Yesterday we looked at the Catholic Church’s condemnation of “freedom of conscience” . . . which sounds pretty shocking until you find out that “freedom of conscience” as it was being used when Pope Gregory XVI condemned it had about as much to do with religious freedom as “free love” had to do with marriage and family, or “free thinking” had to do with reason. “Free” was just a good-sounding word to stick in front of something to hide its real meaning.
|Abbé Hugues Félicité Robert de Lamennais|
Today we’re going to look at another thing Gregory XVI condemned in connection with his efforts to get the Abbé Hugues Félicité Robert de Lamennais back on track. That’s “Separation of Church and State.”
Again, that’s another thing that sounds really bad . . . until we realize what the pope was condemning. It’s not what you think.
To understand that, we need a little more background about de Lamennais. To begin with, as a boy he left the Catholic Church and espoused extreme radical views. At the same time, he hated the French Revolution.
Soon after his older brother Jean-Marie was ordained a priest in 1804, however, he persuaded de Lamennais to return to the practice of his faith. De Lamennais made his First Communion, and resolved to dedicate his life to the service of the Catholic Church. His rejection of State control of the Church (though not Church control of the State!) and great devotion to the papacy appears to date from this time.
Near the end of 1817 de Lamennais published the first volume of his Essai Sur l’Indifférence en Matière de Religion. An immediate bestseller — 40 thousand copies were sold in a matter of weeks, and it was translated into a number of other languages — it was responsible for many high profile conversions. It made the author the most eminent, or at least the most popular, member of the French clergy.
Three more volumes of the Essai appeared between 1818 and 1824, and were very popular with the younger clergy. The work spawned what became known as the “Neo-Catholic” movement, integrating political liberalism and socialism into orthodox theology.
De Lamennais’s theories however, soon raised a storm of controversy among the older clergy and the French hierarchy, especially those who tended to Gallicanism, the theory that the State should have a say-so in the appointment of bishops and other religious matters. Critics claimed de Lamennais’s thought fostered skepticism by denying individual reason, confused the natural and the supernatural orders, and reduced religious faith to human opinion.
|Pope Leo XII|
In response, de Lamennais composed a reply to his critics, Défense de l’Essai (1823). He went to Rome, where Pope Leo XII (Annibale Francesco Clemente Melchiorre Girolamo Nicola Sermattei della Genga, 1760-1829, elected 1823), more concerned with religious matters than political — he had a poor understanding of world affairs — gave him a cordial reception.
Impressed with de Lamennais’s obvious talents and his extraordinary zeal in opposing religious indifferentism and Gallicanism, the pope considered making him a cardinal. Leo XII evidently realized, however, that de Lamennais’s excitable temperament and immoderate language made him unsuitable for preferment.
De Lamennais submitted the Essai for review. Not realizing the implications of de Lamennais’s “theory of certitude” on which the priest based his philosophical system or the consequences of the socialist trend of his thought, Leo XII formally approved the book for its strong (if ultimately doctrinally unsound) defense of the Catholic Church.
Church officials, however, more cautious than the pope, only granted the imprimatur (official approval) to Défense de l’Essai. This validated de Lamennais’s right to express his opinions, but without judging the opinions.
Returning to France, de Lamennais became increasingly outrageous in his denunciation of even moderate Gallicanism and secular liberalism, and violent in his support of papal authority. Angering both civil and religious officials, in his pamphlet, Religion Considérée Dans Ses Rapports Avec l’Ordre Civil et Politique (1825), he asserted that civil control of religion and secular liberalism were destroying society.
With a number of his disciples, both lay and clergy, and now the acknowledged leader of the Neo-Catholic movement, de Lamennais founded the Congrégation de St. Pierre. (The similarity of names with the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter founded in 1988 is purely coincidental.) This organization, possibly established without canonical (that is, official) approval, had the goal of “Catholicizing liberalism,” to defend the Church, propagate orthodox doctrine, teach, give missions, and offer spiritual direction. Government hostility and the Revolution of 1830 terminated the Congregation after four years, which at one time boasted three houses.
|Pope Pius VIII|
Following a serious illness in 1828, de Lamennais published Les Progrès de la Révolution et de la Guerre Contre l’Église. He had taken his recovery as a sign that his life had been spared in order to be God’s special instrument to restore the Church, the prophet (so to speak) of Neo-Catholicism. In the book de Lamennais rejected all forms of monarchy in favor of socialist democratic theocracy.
Two years later, in 1830, possibly inspired by Traditi Humilitati Nostrae, the one and only encyclical of Pope Pius VIII (Francesco Saverio Castiglione, 1761-1830, elected 1829) on religious indifferentism, de Lamennais started l’Avenir, a journal with the motto, “God and Liberty.” It demanded complete freedom for the Catholic Church from any form of civil domination or control, which de Lamennais considered the source of the problems in the Church . . . but also demanded that the Catholic Church control and dominate the State!
|Charles Forbes René de Montalembert|
In that connection, l’Avenir was also dedicated to promoting extreme, atomistic democratic views on civil rights and a socialist economy. With the help of one of his followers, Charles Forbes René de Montalembert (1810-1870), de Lamennais founded l’Agence Générale Pour la Défense de la Liberté Religieuse, with the mission of exposing violations of religious liberty.
Although de Lamennais would later claim the Church victimized him for his democratic beliefs and his demand for equal political rights, these were consistent with Catholic teaching, as every pope since Pius VII (Luigi Barnabà Chiaramonte, 1742-1823, elected 1800) had insisted. De Lamennais’s understanding of the source of rights and their transmission to civil authority was badly flawed, and he exaggerated his arguments, but that could have been corrected.
Nor were his attacks on Gallicanism an issue of principle, but of application. De Lamennais outraged moderates and others among the French hierarchy by the intemperate manner in which he expressed his views, but the views themselves were consistent with Catholic thought.
Thus, one problem that need not have been an issue was de Lamennais’s views of Church-State relations. Fundamental to his thesis in the Essai was his belief that rationalism necessarily attacks not only the foundations of Christian faith, but the whole of society. There is a great deal of merit in this belief and much to substantiate it, especially in the twenty-first century with the near-total secularization of society and rejection of anything smacking of religion and traditional morality.
|The unpopular Charles X Bourbon|
De Lamennais’s solution was to claim that only a system that reestablished both Church and State on a common set of values could save both. This, too, is unobjectionable. It agrees with the unity of the Intellect that is the fundamental principle of Aristotelian-Thomism. Assuming that all truth is equally true, civil, domestic, and religious society necessarily share the same basic values, although they may be applied in different ways to fit circumstances and the purpose and nature of each society.
The problems were with 1) de Lamennais’s ultramontane (i.e., giving too much power to the pope “beyond the mountains” in Rome) position, 2) his call for the abolition of all civil authority that was not directly democratic, and 3) his advocacy of socialist democratic theocracy. He insisted that, while the State must not control the Church, the only way to ensure a common set of values is to have the Church control the State, rather than to have each restrict itself to its proper sphere, cooperating in matters of common interest.
This, however, could have been resolved with calm and objective discussion. The problem was not with the principle — that the natural law is the general code of human behavior in all forms of society — but in the application of the principle, viz., de Lemannais’s opinions that no non-democratic authority has any legitimacy, and to ensure a common set of values for the whole of society, the Church must have the ultimate civil power.