As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, if there was one thing that both the Catholic Church and the Church of England had in common in the early nineteenth century, it was “religious indifferentism.” Although it stemmed from different causes in each country, the widespread neglect of religious duties and the belief that all religions are essentially the same was a serious problem in both France and England.
|Félicité de Lamennais|
England’s religious indifferentism had been building up for more than two centuries as ordinary people gradually became alienated from society by the growing concentration of capital ownership and the drift of the clergy away from the people whose spiritual needs they presumably served. That of France had been thrust upon the people by the Revolution. In both cases it paved the way for the adoption and spread of socialism.
This was not obvious at first, especially in France, where the most damaging of the “new things” — “Neo-Catholicism” — began as a program to counter religious indifferentism! It started when after a somewhat checkered path back into the Catholic Church and a somewhat equivocal entry into the religious life, the Abbé Félicité de Lamennais and his older brother, Jean-Marie de Lamennais (1780-1860), also a priest, took as their personal mission the revival of the Catholic Church after the shambles left by the Revolution.
An acknowledged leader of the “Ultramontanes” — people who have a highly exaggerated notion of the role of the papacy — de Lamennais carried even the extreme ultramontane position to extremes, especially after the death of Joseph-Marie, comte de Maistre (1753-1821). What to other Ultramontanes was a deeply held conviction became in de Lamennais a virtual pathology, sometimes crossing over into actual hysteria. He had the goal of conforming the teachings of the Church to the needs of the world, founding a truly universal religion, and establishing a terrestrial paradise under the ultimate rule of the pope as both temporal and spiritual leader of the world.
|Joseph-Marie, comte de Maistre|
Some authorities consider de Lamennais the forerunner, even founder of liberal or social Catholicism. His work did in fact lay the foundations of today’s climate of dissent. It provided many people with the rationalizations they sought to shift away from the traditional mission of the Catholic Church to an exclusive focus on the so-called “social gospel.”
In 1817 de Lamennais published the first volume of Essai Sur l’Indifférence en Matière de Religion — “Essay on Indifference in Matters of Religion.” It was an immediate bestseller, with 40,000 copies sold within a month or so. A number of high profile conversions followed, and de Lamennais became possibly the best-known clergyman in all of France and parts of western Europe.
It would not be too much to say that the attention went straight to his head. Additional volumes of the Essai appeared over the next six years and proved very popular with younger priests anxious to try and integrate French type liberalism and socialism into Catholic theology.
Older clergy proved to be less enthusiastic, especially those who tended toward “Gallicanism,” that is, the belief that civil authority over the Catholic Church is on a level with that of the pope. At the other end of the spectrum from ultramontanism, Gallicanism is similar to the state establishment of religion as in the Church of England but does not go so far as to deny papal authority completely. Strictly speaking, “Gallicanism” applies only to France — Gaul — and goes by other names as well, such as Erastianism, Febronianism, and Josephinism.
The basic problem with de Lamnennais was a complex hypothesis he had developed called “the theory of certitude.” The idea was that truth resides only in the general reason of all of humanity as the result of direct revelation from God. Truths such as the existence of God and the content of the natural law cannot, therefore, be known by the operation of individual reason on the evidence of the senses guided by faith, but only by accepting on faith the authority of humanity as a whole.
The theory of certitude was in essence a restatement of Plato’s error that ideas exist independently of the human mind. It also led directly to the socialist idea that God grants rights to the man-made abstraction of the collective, which then grants them to actual human beings as expedient.
De Lamennais’s contribution to socialist theory — and thus the basis of “social Catholicism” — was to insist on the exaggerated ultramontane belief that the Catholic Church in the person of the pope, not the State, should decide what rights people should have. This belief has continued to pervade various forms of religious socialism down to the present day, with the leaders or prophets of different cults, sects, and faiths substituted for the pope as required. Paradoxically, it also evolved into the idea that Catholic social doctrine should conform to the needs of the modern world, as democratically determined either by the people or their leaders.
|Pope Leo XII|
With a great deal of truth, critics claimed de Lamennais’s thought was not only contradictory, it fostered skepticism by denying individual reason, confused the natural and the supernatural orders, and reduced religious faith to human opinion. Insulted and outraged, de Lamennais whipped out Défense de l’Essai (1823). In 1824 he traveled to Rome, where he presented his case to Pope Leo XII (Annibale Francesco Clemente Melchiorre Girolamo Nicola Sermattei della Genga, 1760-1829, elected 1823).
While in Rome, de Lamennais submitted the Essai for review. Not realizing the implications of the 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 Church.
Even though de Lamennais’s theories were eventually disproved, this does not involve the doctrine of papal infallibility. What even many Catholics misunderstand is that papal infallibility — in reality the infallibility of the teaching office of the pope — relates only to matters involving faith and morals, not science, that is, facts (empirical validity) or reason (logical consistency) — and theology and philosophy are sciences, theology being in Catholic terms “the Queen of All Sciences.”
|Heraclius I, "The First Crusader" (sort of)|
Further, infallibility is a power of discernment, not creation. When speaking infallibly, the pope says something because it is true, it does not become true because he says it.
Thus, it can be very easy at times to “fool” the pope with a complex theological or philosophical theory outside the pope’s personal area of expertise. This is what happened, for example, with Pope Honorius I (625-638) and his hurried approval of the convoluted Monotheletist formula proposed by the Emperor Heraclius I (610-641).
Monotheletism was an attempt to unify the Empire politically by resolving the dispute the Orthodox and Catholics (no real distinction at that time) had with the Monophysites over Christ’s nature. Not unexpectedly, by interfering in religious affairs, Heraclius only succeeded in creating yet one more faction to tear apart the Empire.
In any event, being impressed with de Lamennais’s obvious talents and his extraordinary zeal in opposing religious indifferentism and Gallicanism, Leo XII considered making him a cardinal. He soon realized, however, that de Lamennais’s excitable temperament, immoderate language, and perfectionism would have made his elevation a serious mistake.
As the pope said of de Lamennais, “He is an esaltato, a distinguished man of talents, knowledge, and good faith. But he is one of those lovers of perfection who, if one should leave them alone, would overthrow the whole world.” (Dudon, Lamennais et le Saint-Siège (Paris, 1911), p. 29; quoted in Heinrich Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought: A Treatise in Political Philosophy. St. Louis, Missouri: B. Herder Book Co., 1947, 436n.)
Fortunately, however, Church officials only granted the imprimatur to Défense de l’Essai. This confirmed de Lamennais’s right to express his opinions without judging the opinions.
Evidently under the impression that he had some kind of official sanction for his activities, de Lamennais returned to France. His language and activities became increasingly immoderate, even outrageous in his readiness to accuse anyone who disagreed with him, civil or religious, of heresy or dissent. Now the acknowledged leader of the Neo-Catholic movement, he wrote books and pamphlets, founded a religious order to “Catholicize liberalism” (suppressed by the civil authorities after four years), started a civil organization to act as a watchdog to expose violations of religious liberty, and established the short-lived yet influential journal l’Avenir, “the Future.”
|Charles Forbes René de Montalembert|
De Lamennais’s new magazine demanded complete freedom for the Catholic Church from any form of civil domination or control. It was also dedicated to promoting extreme, atomistic democratic views on civil rights and a socialist economy. As de Lamennais’s lay associate Charles Forbes René de Montalembert (1810-1870) noted later after his break with the renegade priest,
To new and fair practical notions, honest in themselves, which have for the last twenty years been the daily bread of Catholic polemics, we had been foolish enough to add extreme and rash theories; and to defend both with absolute logic, which loses, even when it does not dishonour, every cause. (Montalembert, from his Life of Lacordaire, quoted by John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Note on Essay IV., The Fall of La Mennais,” Essays Critical and Historical. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1897, 173-174.)
Having outraged both liberals and conservatives, and financially exhausted both by normal operating expenses and a series of expensive lawsuits, de Lamennais suspended publication of l’Avenir. De Lamennais’s fellow priest, Jean-Baptiste Henri Dominique Lacordaire (1802-1861), suggested that they journey to Rome to put their case before Pope Gregory XVI (Bartolomeo Alberto Cappellari, 1765-1846, elected 1831). Wanting to present his case in person to the pope, from whom he hoped to obtain an endorsement similar to the one he was under the misimpression he had received from Leo XII, de Lamennais agreed, and the trio set out for Rome in November of 1831.