As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, in November 1831, calling themselves “the Pilgrims of God and Liberty,” de Lamennais, Montalembert, and Lacordaire set out for Rome to present their case to the pope. Much to de Lamennais’s annoyance, the trio was not granted an audience immediately, although that should have been expected in light of the fact that they showed up in Rome without warning.
|Bartolomeo Cardinal Pacca|
Years later Montalembert declared the whole project to have been a serious mistake, a conclusion Lacordaire reached while they were still in Rome. After allowing them to cool their heels for a couple of months, Bartolomeo Cardinal Pacca (1756-1844) informed the three Frenchmen in February 1832 that the pope’s judgment would take time, and that they were free to return to France — a less than subtle, if polite dismissal.
Pacca also informed them that while the pope was not pleased with their political activity, His Holiness agreed that they had every right to their political opinions and to ask the pope for his opinion of them — which he had just conveyed to them. Clearly Gregory XVI was trying to get rid of de Lamennais without stirring up controversy. De Lamennais, however, insisted on an audience with the pope and eventually got one, although not on his terms.
|Pope Gregory XVI|
It turned out later, in fact, that the pope was extremely suspicious of de Lamennais and his methods as well as his theories. Perhaps alerted by de Lamennais’s exaggerated ultramontane deference for the papacy, as well as his own efforts to revive the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Gregory remarked, “That dangerous man deserved to be brought before the Holy Office [i.e., the Inquisition].” (E.L. Woodward, Three Studies in European Conservatism, 265, quoted by Spencer, Politics of Belief in Nineteenth Century France. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1954, 47.)
It was at this time that de Lamennais met Nicolas Patrick Stephen Wiseman (1802-1865), who occupied an important position in Rome during this period, and who was later to work with John Henry Newman after the latter’s conversion to Catholicism. Gregory XVI, with whom Wiseman was on very good terms, may have asked the future cardinal to have a talk or two with de Lamennais. They had discussions regarding the denigration of papal authority among Catholics in England and in France, respectively. The audience that the Pilgrims eventually got may have been arranged in part by Wiseman as a personal favor to de Lamennais, or possibly the other two members of the little group with whom he shared similar views.
|Nicolas Patrick Stephen Wiseman|
Before the meeting, Pacca — no doubt acting on his suspicion that de Lamennais intended to try and obtain a more favorable decision — instructed the three men not to raise any political matters. Much to their surprise (and confirming Lacordaire in his opinion that they had made a fatal mistake to try and force the pope’s hand), Gregory received de Lamennais, Lacordaire, and Montalembert in a kindly, even friendly manner in his private office. He pointedly ignored politics and confined the conversation to artistic and religious matters.
Later, Pacca let them know the pope preferred to leave the issue of their political activities unresolved — effectively permission to continue their political activities as they saw fit. De Lamennais, however, had not come for permission, but for an endorsement, the more glowing, the better.
A letter from Pacca written on Gregory’s instructions chastising them for publicly discussing private matters did not help matters. Lacordaire attempted to reason with de Lamennais to get him to return to France but was ignored. De Lamennais had already decided he would remain in Rome until the pope changed his mind and gave the answer de Lamennais wanted. Lacordaire left for France, while Montalembert stayed, perhaps thinking he could continue to work on de Lamennais and bring him around to a more reasonable frame of mind.
|Jean-Baptiste Henri Dominique Lacordaire|
What brought finally brought matters to a head was Gregory XVI’s admittedly ill-advised condemnation of the Polish November Uprising, November 29, 1830 to October 21, 1831. Outraged, de Lamennais finally left Rome in August 1831. A few days later, August 15, 1832, Gregory XVI issued Mirari Vos, the encyclical “On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism,” the bulk of which addressed European type liberal doctrines de Lamennais himself condemned.
Without naming him, the encyclical cautiously acknowledged de Lamennais’s efforts on behalf of the Church but noted they should be toned down. It was made 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.
This was bad enough, since de Lamennais could only accept adulation and not criticism, regardless how well merited. What eventually led to de Lamennais’s break with the Catholic Church, however, was the fact that Gregory rejected the theory of certitude, the one thing above all others that de Lamennais believed displayed his genius and ensured his place as the leader and prophet of the Neo-Catholic movement. As the pope 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.)
Specifically, Gregory 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.
Expanding on this theme, Mirari Vos also addressed various problems associated with Saint-Simonianism, Fourierism, and other schools of religious socialism, as well as secularism and rationalism. Mirari Vos 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 sound doctrines or the defense could end up being worse than the attack.
Mirari Vos caught up with de Lamennais in Munich. There by chance they met Lacordaire, who had gone to Germany to spend time in “studious seclusion.” Enraged and feeling betrayed, de Lamennais returned to his family’s estate accompanied only by Lacordaire. At first silent, he soon began airing his grievances in letters made public by some of the recipients.
|Alexis de Tocqueville|
Horrified at de Lamennais’s attacks on the Church, Lacordaire cut all ties with his “master and father.” Even though both were to serve at the same time in the National Assembly during the brief Second French Republic along with Alexis de Tocqueville (who had a very low opinion of de Lamennais), Lacordaire never again spoke to de Lamennais.
Learning of de Lamennais’s activities, Gregory XVI sent him a letter demanding that he submit to Mirari Vos. De Lamennais did so, and the pope assumed the matter was settled. Within days of sending his submission to the pope, however, de Lamennais renounced his priesthood, and soon afterwards the profession of Christianity.
As de Tocqueville commented 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.” (De Tocqueville, Recollections, op. cit., 191.)
From this point on a sort of socialist secular humanism would be the only faith de Lamennais recognized. His creed was the amelioration of the lot 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 Neo-Catholic Church, but the Apostle of the People.
Even that was not enough, however. De Lamennais’s wounded pride demanded revenge against the papacy he had so recently venerated in so exaggerated a manner but that he now decided was the enemy of the human race. In May of 1834 he published Les Paroles d’un Croyant, a pamphlet spewing psychotic rage against a presumed conspiracy of kings and priests against the people.
|Charles Forbes René de Montalembert|
Montalembert, who had been trying to talk de Lamennais around to a more reasonable frame of mind, now cut off communication. Shocked at the behavior of the man whom he had hoped to single out for favor and advancement once he accepted correction and guidance, Gregory XVI issued Singulari Nos, “On the Errors of Lamennais.”
In Singulari Nos, the pope 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. The most interesting thing about the encyclical for people today is that Gregory XVI referred to the theories of socialism as rerum novarum, “new things.” A little over half a century later Leo XIII would use the term in his 1891 encyclical 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.
The reason for spending so much space on de Lamennais is that not only Newman, but the socialists themselves credited him as the key individual in the development of Christian socialism. This is despite the fact that de Lamennais completely and violently rejected not merely Catholicism, but all forms of Christianity. To Newman as well as to other members of the Oxford Movement, de Lamennais represented everything they regarded with particular horror. Even Orestes Brownson was — with justification for a change — outraged at his behavior.
For the Christian and democratic socialists, however, especially Charles Kingsley, de Lamennais held a permanent place in the pantheon of Christian socialism and the cause of the more radical forms of liberalism. As devastating as the inroads of socialism and modernism were to become, however, what triggered the Oxford Movement was not religious liberalism, but political liberalism, as we hope to demonstrate in the next posting on this subject.