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, May 12, 2021

The Renegade Abbé

As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, the “theory of certitude” led its developer, Félicité de Lamennais straight into modernism and socialism.  That is why Charles Perín believed him to be the first modernist, although that is a somewhat dubious honor.  It also explains why Pope Gregory XVI, who is generally regarded by liberals and radicals of both a religious and non-religious stripe as a reactionary monster, was actually concerned about the effect that de Lamennais’s theories would have — and were having — on the meaning of Christianity and even religion itself.


As G.K. Chesterton analyzed the sort of thing that de Lamennais advocated — essentially a theocracy, with the temporal world under the complete control of the pope — it was an entirely new idea of politics and religion, even of faith and reason.  Commenting on the Fraticelli of the Middle Ages who wanted to put the entire world under the direct rule of the Will of God (as interpreted and carried out by the Fraticelli, of course),

The truth is that this incident shows two things which are common enough in Catholic history, but very little understood by the journalistic history of industrial civilization. It shows that the Saints were sometimes great men when the Popes were small men. But it also shows that great men are sometimes wrong when small men are right. And it will be found, after all, very difficult for any candid and clear-headed outsider to deny that the Pope was right, when he insisted that the world was not made only for Franciscans. . . .

St. Francis was so great and original a man that he had something in him of what makes the founder of a religion. Many of his followers were more or less ready, in their hearts, to treat him as the founder of a religion. They were willing to let the Franciscan spirit escape from Christendom as the Christian spirit had escaped from Israel. They were willing to let it eclipse Christendom as the Christian spirit had eclipsed Israel. Francis, the fire that ran through the roads of Italy, was to be the beginning of a conflagration in which the old Christian civilization was to be consumed. (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi, London: Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd., 1923, 174-175)

G.K. Chesterton


Obviously Gregory XVI could not let de Lamennais’s theories go unchallenged, especially after the Abbé, Montalembert and Jean-Baptiste Henri Dominique Lacordaire (who later helped restore the Dominican Order in France), made an uninvited trip to Rome to present their case.  Calling themselves “the Pilgrims of God and Liberty,” they eventually obtained an audience with the pope, although not on their terms.

The audience may have been arranged in part through the good offices of Cardinal Wiseman.  Possibly at the behest of Gregory XVI, with whom Wiseman was on very good terms, the future cardinal and de Lamennais had discussions regarding the disparagement of papal authority among Catholics in England and in France, respectively.  They also shared a common interest in improving the public image of the Church in those countries. (Michael Ffinch, Cardinal Newman: The Second Spring.  London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991, 105, 133.)

Pope Gregory XVI


Prior to the meeting, the pope had already let the Pilgrims know, even though he was not pleased by it, they had permission to continue their political activities as long as they toned down the rhetoric.  (Thomas Bokenkotter, Church and Revolution: Catholics in the Struggle for Democracy and Social Justice.  New York: Doubleday, 1998, 55-56.)  As for de Lamennais’s theological and philosophical theories, a decision would be forthcoming.  Gregory XVI was, in fact, suspicious of de Lamennais’s orthodoxy, remarking later, “That dangerous man deserved to be brought before the Holy Office.” (E.L. Woodward, Three Studies in European Conservatism, 265, quoted by Philip Spencer, Politics of Belief in Nineteenth-Century France.  London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1954, 47.)

During the meeting, impressed with their efforts to defend the Church (but not the manner of it), Gregory XVI confined the conversation to artistic and religious matters.  Afterwards, Bartolomeo Cardinal Pacca, Secretary to the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Inquisition, let them know that the pope preferred to leave the issue of their political activities unresolved.

Jean-Baptiste Henri Dominique Lacordaire 


Although this was effectively permission to continue their political activities as they saw fit, the decision did not satisfy de Lamennais.  Montalembert and Lacordaire tried to persuade de Lamennais to return to France, but he was far from satisfied.  He had not come for permission and a chat, but an enthusiastic endorsement, and would not settle for anything less.

Montalembert and Lacordaire eventually made their way back to France.  De Lamennais stayed, nursing his grudge against the pope and other Churchmen and politicians who refused to see things his way.

Even so, none of the tiny group appeared to appreciate the difficult political position into which they had put the pope.  With philosophical and doctrinal issues not open to debate, and Gregory XVI avoiding a discussion on temporal matters, the situation had degenerated into a contest of wills and thus a question of obedience.

The November Uprising


Gregory XVI was, in fact, under extreme pressure from both the French civil authorities and the Gallicanists in the Church to condemn de Lamennais’s democratic principles, not merely curb his exaggerated and imprudent application of them.  As a condemnation of democracy per se would have been contrary to Catholic doctrine, however, the pope could not anathematize de Lamennais’s work.

At the same time, Gregory XVI had never been out of Italy and spoke only Italian and Latin.  He did not have an adequate grasp of European politics and the growing trend toward recognition of popular sovereignty.  Given his limited understanding of the political situation, he felt it would not be prudent for him to give official approval of democracy.

It was at this point that Gregory XVI appears to have received word of what had happened in Poland during the November Uprising of 1830-31 — and that changed everything, as we will see in the next posting on this subject.