As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, it was pretty obvious from the very beginning that in most cases what became known as socialism was being presented as an alternative to traditional Christianity. The problem was with those that, intending to or not, concealed the socialism under the guise of orthodoxy. This was the case with l’Abbé Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais.
While the Saint-Simonian organization (but not its influence) eventually faded away, there were other prophets and proponents of the Democratic Religion that concerned the pope. To name only a few, there was the Associationism of François Marie Charles Fourier, the Icarian communism* of Étienne Cabet, the Fourierism of Fourier’s disciple Victor Prosper Considerant, the Universal Catholicism and magic of Alphonse-Louis Constant (who on becoming a ceremonial magician changed his name to Éliphas Lévi Zahed**), and the proposals of the English industrialist Robert Owen, who founded the utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana in the 1820s.
* This is invariably referred to as socialism today, but Cabet insisted he was a communist, not a socialist. See Julian Strube, “Contested Christianities: Communism and Religion in July Monarchy France,” Socialist Imaginations: Utopias, Myths, and the Masses. New York: Routledge, 2018 (preprint), 1-2.
** Lévi’s Baphomet, intended as a symbol of Universal Catholicism, is today widely considered a representation of Satan. Lévi influenced the development of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s version of theosophy until she became impatient with Western mysticism and took up residence in India for a time.
|The New Harmony Parallelogram (never built)|
Formerly called simply “Harmonie,” Owen purchased the town from the Rappites who wanted to return to Pennsylvania. Owen outraged Americans by delivering a speech in New Harmony on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of American independence, “A Declaration of Mental Independence,” in which he called for the abolition of private property, organized religion, and marriage and family. Fulton Sheen may have been alluding to Owen’s speech in his Declaration of Dependence (1941).
As far as Gregory XVI was concerned, however, the greatest danger came from the “novelties” promoted by de Lamennais. The “Neo-Catholicism” of this “tormented, headstrong Breton priest” was based on changing fundamental Christian doctrines to justify and conform to socialism.
As a result, Charles Périn, a professor at the University of Louvain who appears to have been the first to define modernism in today’s Catholic sense, regarded de Lamennais as the first modernist. In Le Modernisme dans l’Église d’après les lettres inédites de Lamennais (Paris, 1881), Périn defined moderate modernism as “liberalism [of the radical French or European variety and the moderate or conservative English type.] of every degree and shade,” and extreme modernism as “the ambition to eliminate God from all public life.”
|Pope Leo XII|
Unfortunately, de Lamennais was a true genius. His errors were of such incredible subtlety that to this day even in many otherwise orthodox circles he is regarded as the unjustly persecuted founder of liberal or social Catholicism. (See, e.g., George Weigel, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. New York: Basic Books, 2019, 33-37; W.G. Roe, Lamennais and England: The Reception of Lamennais’s Religious Ideas in England in the Nineteenth Century. London: Oxford University Press, 1966; Peter N. Stearns, Priest and Revolutionary: Lamennais and the Dilemma of French Catholicism. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1967.)
At one point, impressed with de Lamennais’s obvious talents and his extraordinary zeal in opposing religious indifferentism and Gallicanism, Leo XII considered making him a cardinal. The pope’s better judgement, however, stopped him from giving the red hat to the “unhealthy, unkempt little bourgeois.” As he characterized 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.”
|Alexis de Tocqueville|
Decades later Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville agreed with this assessment. After a run-in with de Lamennais during the constitutional debates of the Second French Republic over a procedural issue too trivial to mention here but which threatened to disrupt the entire convention, de Tocqueville expressed his disgust. In his Recollections, he declared de Lamennais had “a pride great enough to walk over the heads of kings and bid defiance to God.”
De Lamennais’s principal error, and the one from which all his other errors derived, was to believe that the ideas he created in his own mind had a higher level of existence independent of the very mind that created them. Thus, he worshipped the People, but quarreled incessantly with people, idolized the papacy but despised every pope. As Fulton Sheen would later put it, commenting on the error itself, and not connecting it with de Lamennais, de Lamennais confused Mind with Being.
This, however, was nothing more than other socialists had done and would continue to do. What made de Lamennais more dangerous than the others in Gregory XVI’s eyes was the way the Abbé mixed truth, falsehood and nonsense to form a superficially consistent synthesis of socialism and Catholic doctrine based on his “theory of certitude.” This transformed Neo-Catholicism from an ultramontane sect that asserted papal claims against the rising secularism of radical liberalism, to a Catholicized version of the Democratic Religion: a Catholic socialism supported by modernist theology.
And what that means is what we will look at in the next posting on this subject.#30#