THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The Pilgrims of God and Liberty

As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, contrary to the common sense approach that the common good should be structured so that people can meet their own needs through their own efforts, the principle of the New Christian Prophet Henri de Saint-Simon was that the whole of society should be dedicated to taking care of people, that simply because they exist, people have an absolute right to everything they need, and sometimes what they want . . . which effectively abolishes private property in both labor and capital.

Gregory XVI condemned the "new things"


Lumping the various theories promoting Saint-Simon’s idea under the heading rerum novarum, Popes Gregory XVI and Leo XIII condemned this principle as contrary to natural law.  It seems it offends against essential human dignity at the most basic level, shifting (as it does) sovereignty from the human person created by God, to the abstraction of “society” (or humanity, the collective, the People, etc.) created by man.

Yet what is consistent with the natural law written in the hearts of all men?  This is found in the principle embodied in Catholic (“Old Christian”) social doctrine, viz., that what everyone has a right to is access to the opportunity and means to meet his own needs through his own efforts.  If someone is in want and can’t take care of himself, others are obliged in charity (not justice) to give alms.  Only in “extreme cases” does distribution on the basis of need fall under justice, and then only if it meets the demands of the principle of double effect.  As Leo XIII explained matters, in refutation of Saint-Simon’s principle —

Private ownership, as we have seen, is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary. “It is lawful,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “for a man to hold private property; and it is also necessary for the carrying on of human existence.” But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used? — the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor: “Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. Whence the Apostle with, ‘Command the rich of this world... to offer with no stint, to apportion largely.’”  True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, “for no one ought to live other than becomingly.”  But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.” It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity — a duty not enforced by human law.  Rerum Novarum, § 22.)

Leo XIII's teachings were hijacked by the socialists.


Yet “enforced by human law” is precisely what proponents of the “new things” demanded and continue to demand.  We won’t get into an extended exegesis of this passage.  We’ll just note that, if (as the socialists insist) it redefines and changes Catholic teaching on private property, natural law, justice, and charity — as well as a few other things — then the Catholic Church’s claim never to have changed a doctrine is a lie, and the Catholic Church has no right to teach anything.

No, we’ll take as a given that our understanding of the passage is correct, and that the Catholic Church has never changed a teaching.  Whether we or anyone else believes that claim is another issue altogether, but understanding what Leo XIII meant in the passage means acknowledging the fact that he, Leo XIII, believed it, or the passage simply doesn’t make any sense.

Félicité de Lamennais


Nor was Saint-Simon the only advocate of the “new things” who drew the attention of Church authorities.  There was also the “tormented, headstrong Breton priest” l’abbe Hugues Félicité Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854). (Philip Spencer, Politics of Belief in Nineteenth-Century France.  London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1954, 39.)

According to the standard — more or less — accounts, de Lamennais was a liberal champion of democracy oppressed by the reactionary Pope Gregory XVI (Bartolomeo Alberto Cappellari, 1765-1846, elected 1831).  As the story usually goes, de Lamennais and two companions, Charles Forbes René de Montalembert (1810-1870) and Jean-Baptiste Henri Dominique Lacordaire (1802-1861), calling themselves “the Pilgrims of God and Liberty” went to Rome to meet with the pope.

There de Lamennai, Montalembert and Lacordaire planned to instruct His Holiness in the principles of liberal democracy.  They would thereby obtain — so they hoped — the Apostolic Blessing for their work in defending the rights of the Church and of man against tyrannical civil rulers and events in the wake of the French Revolution.

Charles Montalembert


Alas.  The three pilgrims were at first denied a meeting.  When they finally obtained one after months of waiting, they were instructed to confine their conversation to non-political matters.  The pope, so they were told, had already been informed of their concerns and a decision would be forthcoming.  After the meeting they could return to France and await the pope’s verdict.  In the meantime, they could continue their efforts to defend the Church, but must tone down their political rhetoric.

Montalembert and Lacordaire eventually returned to France, but de Lamennais, determined to obtain the pope’s blessing for his work, remained.  Finally, horrified by the pope’s betrayal of liberal democracy in condemning the Polish November Uprising, de Lamennais left Rome.  Soon after Gregory XVI issued Mirari Vos, condemning everything liberal and modern.

De Lamennais at first submitted, but then, outraged at the pope’s actions, left the Church.  He then wrote a pamphlet, Les Paroles d’un Croyant, detailing the pope’s and other’s attacks on liberal democracy.  In return, Gregory XVI issued Singulari Nos, condemning de Lamennais.  De Lamennais died twenty years later, mourned by one and all as a great champion of liberty.

Not quite.

Henri Lacordaire


Yes, the facts are “sort of” correct, but a great deal is left out.  For example, the fact that the “Pilgrims of God and Liberty” had to wait months to obtain a meeting with the pope is given much more significance than it deserves.

Gregory had just been elected, and was dealing with civil unrest, rebellion, and a number of hostile foreign powers.  The Pilgrims arrived unannounced and uninvited at a time when the pope (at that time the civil ruler of the Papal States as well as the religious head of the Catholic Church) was trying to organize both a civil and a religious administration in the face of reactionaries and radicals in both Church and State.  The fact that the pope gave their concerns any consideration at all, much less met with them was remarkable, and extraordinarily generous, given the demands on his time and the fact that the Secretary of State had spent a great deal of time with them.

As for the admonition to confine their conversation to non-controversial subjects, Gregory was well aware why de Lamennais and his companions were there.  They wanted an infallible declaration by the pope that their political activities had been decreed by God.

You see, de Lamennais had established his intellectual reputation with his “theory of certitude.”  According to de Lamennais’s theory, “papal infallibility” means that the pope is always right about everything.  Always.  No ifs, ands, or buts — and that interesting concept is what we will take a look at in the next posting on this subject.