Yesterday we looked at the errors made by the Abbé Hugues Félicité Robert de Lamennais and why they were wrong. This is important because the errors de Lamennais made eventually became the foundation of what many people think is authentic Catholic social teaching — and they are wrong.
|Abbé Hugues Félicité Robert de Lamennais|
The problem was that de Lamennais’s errors were not the only problem — and they may have been the least part of the trouble. The fact was that de Lamennais had an excitable personality and impressionable mind, so much so that it verged at times on hysteria.
He was also stubborn past the point of pertinacity. Once he set himself on a course of action, he could rarely be persuaded to change his mind, even if it was in his own best interest. He tended to act precipitously and then refuse to reconsider, however inimical his actions to himself and others.
For example, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that during the French constitutional debates of 1848, de Lamennais and the Fourierist Victor-Prosper Considerant, “little worse than chimerical visionaries,” (Alexis de Tocqueville, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville. Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Company, 1959, 186.) were the only radical members of the constitutional committee. De Lamennais had published a version of his ideal constitution, and insisted that the committee first consider his proposals for regulating local government.
|Alexis de Tocqueville|
De Lamennais’s position — with which de Tocqueville agreed — was that individual rights must be the basis of national sovereignty, and that a strong and centralized national government tended to undermine individual rights. The committee decided to discuss other issues first. Rather than accept the decision, de Lamennais resigned from the committee the next day. As de Tocqueville related the incident,
Under the circumstances, an occurrence of this sort was annoying. It was bound to increase and [deepen] the prejudices already existing against us. We took very pressing and even somewhat humble steps to induce Lamennais to reconsider his resolve. As I had shared his opinion, I was deputed to go and see him and press him to return. I did so, but in vain. He had only been beaten over a formal question, but he had concluded from this that he would not be the master. That was enough to decide him to be nothing at all. He was inflexible, in spite of all I could say in the interest of the very ideas which we held in common. (Ibid., 190.)
|Victor-Prosper Considerant (no accent; he insisted)|
The fact was de Lamennais tended to turn trivialities into major incidents whenever possible. This made dealing with even extremely minor problems virtually impossible, to say nothing of trying to correct fundamental errors, or even identify them through the barrage of de Lamennais’s hysterical and self-serving accounts of his alleged persecution by religious and civil authorities.
. . . and this was the man to whom the pope had to try and deal out a little fraternal correction. . . .
On August 15, 1832, a few days after de Lamennais had left Rome in a snit, Gregory XVI issued the encyclical Mirari Vos, “On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism.” Without naming de Lamennais, Mirari Vos opened with a cautious acknowledgement of his efforts to defend the Church against Gallicanism, other State encroachment into religious affairs, and reason cut off from faith. At the same time, however, it made it clear that the end does not justify the means; the desirability of securing the freedom of the Church did not excuse unsound or exaggerated doctrine or tactics.
|Pope Gregory XVI|
Mirari Vos made it clear that de Lamennais’s enthusiastic partisanship for his version of democracy, however much it outraged Catholic royalists, should be toned down, and he should respect duly constituted civil authority. This was something of a moot point, as he had already suspended l’Avenir.
What de Lamennais took as a slap in the face was that Gregory XVI, a far better scholar than politician, identified the error in de Lamennais’s philosophy: the theory of certitude, the heart of Neo-Catholicism. As far as the pope was concerned, this struck directly at what it means for something to be true.
To correct de Lamennais’s error, the pope reminded people that they must be careful not to reject reason in their anxiety to be faithful Catholics. The primacy of the Intellect, something that all subsequent pontiffs would stress in their struggles against the “new things” of the modern world, must be maintained. As he explained, “the discipline sanctioned by the Church must never be rejected or be branded as contrary to certain principles of natural law.” (Mirari Vos, § 9.)
In particular, Gregory XVI condemned the idea that truth is determined by the general consensus of humanity and accepted on faith, instead of individual reason guided and illuminated by faith:
[I]t is obviously absurd and injurious to propose a certain “restoration and regeneration” for [the Church] as though necessary for her safety and growth, as if she could be considered subject to defect or obscuration or other misfortune. Indeed these authors of novelties consider that a “foundation may be laid of a new human institution,” and what Cyprian detested may come to pass, that what was a divine thing “may become a human church.” (Ibid., § 10.)
|Sheen: Religion must be God-centered, not man-centered.|
As Fulton Sheen would point out nearly a century later, this reorients religion to be man-centered instead of God-centered. This was the same error into which Saint-Simon, Fourier, and other socialists had fallen, and which is the principal error of modernism and the New Age as well.
Developing this theme, Mirari Vos addressed various problems associated with Saint-Simonianism, Fourierism, and other schools of religious socialism, as well as secularism and rationalism — the latter two being problems de Lamennais also worked to counter. Gregory XVI clearly attempted to steer de Lamennais back to orthodoxy, but without singling him out or embarrassing him by chastising him publicly. Mirari Vox comes across as a stern but fair warning that, laudable as efforts to defend the Church might be, they must adhere to correct principles and doctrines or the defense could end up being worse than the attack.
Unfortunately, de Lamennais took immense pride in his theory of certitude and his position as leader, even prophet of the Neo-Catholic movement. These were, respectively, the philosophical breakthrough he believed best demonstrated his genius, and the position that gave him his status and power. They were the cornerstones of his defense of the Church and of his political philosophy.
That is why, perhaps inevitably, what Gregory XVI intended as a kindly correction of someone whom he viewed with favor and affection, de Lamennais took as a vicious attack and a betrayal of his life’s work.
. . . and then things really got ugly. . . .