History of the Church: Later Modern Times - Notre Dame

The Catholic Revival in France

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I. Return of the Ancien Regime

The restoration of the Bourbons in the person of Louis XVIII. was an effort made by the French royalists to bring back the state of things which had existed before the Revolution. Nothing could have been more delusive. The infatuated supporters of the monarchy fondly imagined that it was possible to bridge over the mighty chasm wrought by the furious torrent of anarchy, and their folly became evident to themselves only when they were once more swept off their feet and cast adrift among its raging billows. For a moment, indeed, the destructive forces at work had been arrested by the strong hand of Napoleon, when he restored order and religion by the Concordat of 1801. Yet, however great his strength, he had failed to grasp the truth that no temporal power is secure unless its foundation rests upon the firm rock of the one unchangeable Church. That rock was meant to be a refuge and a stronghold, never a mere stepping-stone for ambition. Louis XVIII., Charles X., and Louis-Philippe were successively the victims of revolutionary rage; a Pius, and a Leo, and a Gregory could fear no downfall, for it is written that "the gates of hell shall not prevail."

The Church is progressive, and, while monarchs go and come, she sits serene upon her throne, and adapts her attitude to the ever-changing times. Never in haste, she may be accused of lagging behind the busy world, but she can well afford to wait, for the centuries are all her own. Her work is to save souls from the wreck and chaos around her. She has not forgotten that the fisherman's craft is a school of patience. She knows that she will be allowed to fill her nets, and that, when they are filled, time shall be no more. Empires and kingdoms shall pass away, but her kingdom must endure, for it is Christ's, and therefore "not of this world."

If we bear in mind Napoleon's tyrannical interference in ecclesiastical nominations, we shall not be surprised that the clergy in France were not in the most perfect hierarchical condition. Not a few dignitaries, as in the case of the "Red" Cardinals, had attained their position by pandering to the Emperor's wishes, while, on the contrary, many a noble and saintly ecclesiastic had been relegated to an obscure post that he might not obtrude his presence on the despot. The majority of the clergy were either Bonapartist or Legitimist. In either case they were not in sympathy with the democratic principles of revolutionized France.

The spirit of Liberalism was in the air, and had taken possession of the younger generation. There was no resisting it; surrender to it was, in the end, inevitable. The first impetus towards meeting the new movement could not, for obvious reasons, come from a clergy pledged to old traditions or to imperialist policy. Yet the Church, as is her wont, must be all to all to gain all to Christ. With an alacrity perhaps unparalleled in history, a noble body of laymen came to her assistance. De Maistre and Chateaubriand, Bonald and Montalembert, led the way, and were followed by Ozanam and Veuillot, and many another eager in the cause of truth and righteousness, all of them overstepping at times the bounds of prudence, but ever devoted and loyal to the great mistress and mother of the nations. The clergy soon took heart, and worked with a will at the regeneration of France.

II. Pioneers of the Revival

The most ardent defender of religious liberty was first in the field. Joseph de Maistre, elder brother of the well-known witty and amiable author of a Voyage autour de Ma Chambre, adopted the doctrine of Ultramontanism in its widest acceptation. Ultramontanism was a reaction against Gallicanism in all its forms, including Josephism and the later opposition to Papal Infallibility as defined by the Vatican Council. It was the assertion of the principle of unity in government as opposed to the disruptive tendencies of anarchy. Papal and royal sovereignty—nay, absolutism—were to extreme Ultramontanists the only restraints to be depended upon in the universal struggle for liberty threatening to destroy the modern world. De Maistre's incisive logic, his brilliant rhetoric, his sound philosophy and deep learning, were all devoted to the task of convincing his readers that the Catholic Church alone could teach true religion, and that, as a natural consequence, the Pope was the infallible exponent of the law of God to the nations, and to their sovereigns, whose right to rule came also from God. This recognition of the Divine origin of all authority could not fail to lead to true liberty, while the rejection of it involved the tyranny of the irresponsible and many-headed multitude. So thought De Maistre, and the treatise, "Du Pape," with the unfinished "Soirees de St. Petersbourg," are the exponents of his views on the subject.



A less serious writer, but one who, for that very reason, was more widely read, was Chateaubriand. His object was to show that from an aesthetic and poetical standpoint the Catholic Church had absolute claims upon the human race, and that outside of her pale there was no hope of true freedom or of substantial progress. The novel Atala  struck the keynote of this pleasing philosophy, and was afterwards incorporated in the more serious and voluminous work, the "Genie du Christianisme." The writings of Chateaubriand were in harmony with the literary movement of romanticism, and obtained a wide circulation even outside Catholic society. They roused enthusiasm for the unfading beauty of the one true Church among a class of readers who were anything but religious, and this first impulse often led to deeper questionings and to true conversions. Here, again, the note of liberty was touched, for romanticism was a revolt against the restraint of classical forms in literature.

Bonald was another ardent supporter of freedom based upon papal and monarchical principles. He was less famous than his friend, De Maistre, though his philosophy was more profound, and, perhaps, through its influence on the Abbe de Lamennais, made a deeper mark. Under the name of "Traditionalism," it affected the teachings of theologians far on into the nineteenth century, and was not always a safe guide, especially in the case of the unfortunate Abbe de Lamennais.

III. L'Avenir and its Editors

The mention of this name leads us from the lay to the clerical, or partly clerical, movement towards liberalism. The Abbe de Lamennais is a deplorable example of those who, beginning with good intentions, end by wishing to advance more quickly than the Church, and in consequence find themselves entangled in the maze of heterodoxy. They lose their way, not because they have separated themselves from their guide, but because they are impatient of her apparent inertia, forgetting that she must order her march to suit the slow and the feeble as well as the active and vigorous of her flock.

Lamennais was advanced in life when he took up arms in favour of Christian liberty. His previous career had been chequered by seasons of doubt and even loss of faith, a fact which may go far to explain his subsequent errors. With all the vehemence of his impulsive nature, he adopted the principles of Joseph de Maistre and the Vicomte de Bonald, with the difference, however, that whereas they advocated a papal and monarchical State, he put forward the new theory of the Papacy ruling a democratic world. Fired with ardour for the propagation of his views, he began a periodical which, under the name of L'Avenir, soon made him famous, if not, indeed, notorious. His first colleague was a young priest who was destined to be one of the greatest powers in the Catholic Revival.

Lacordaire did not become a Dominican till 1839, but he was ordained as a secular priest in 1827. The genius of Lamennais was, as it were, the lodestone which led Lacordaire to devote his brilliant literary gifts to the new liberal Catholic journal. There was much poetry mingled with the philosophy of the young Abbe, and this was probably the secret of his future oratorical eminence. Lamennais and he, notwithstanding the disparity of their years, contracted a deep and sincere friendship, in which a third, in the person of Montalembert, soon took part.

Montalembert, the son of a French exile residing in England, was already prepared by the vicissitudes of his early life for the acceptation of liberal doctrines. He had pondered long over the question of the reconciliation of faith with freedom—how to serve God and yet be free—and now it seemed to him that he had reached the goal of his aspirations. He joined the staff of L'Avenir  and worked manfully shoulder to shoulder with his newfound friends. He and Lacordaire have been called with justice the two lieutenants of the veteran Larnennais.

Serious misgivings were felt from the first with regard to the excessively Ultramontane journal, whose advanced doctrines were so well expressed in its title, L'Avenir. The articles it contained waxed more and more "incandescent," until they became so evidently subversive of all authority save that of the sovereign people, that further publication was prohibited. Lacordaire and Montalembert, still under the spell, accompanied their beloved master to Rome, to lay their case before the Pope. Gregory XVI. did not personally interfere, but the opinions of L'Avenir  were authoritatively declared to be untenable. From that moment dated the miserable lapse of the gifted defender of Papal prerogative into the abyss of infidelity. Cardinal Wiseman describes how, during this journey to Rome, Lamennais told one of his companions that he felt a demon in his heart which would one day drag him to perdition—the demon of pride and disappointed ambition. Yet up to this point he had been guilty of no outward disloyalty. It was not want of orthodoxy, but haughty refusal to abide by Rome's temporary decision, that ruined him. But however deeply we may lament his fall, there is some satisfaction in the thought that he fell alone. Indeed, one of the most admirable points in his character was his delicate care to preserve his enthusiastic young disciples from following him too far.

Lacordaire, in alarm at the precipice yawning before him, turned and fled from his erring master, seeking refuge first in solitude and then in the religious life. Montalembert, with all the confidence of youth, clung to his friendship with Lamennais, sure of bringing him back to reason. He could not believe that so great a genius should continue obstinate in error. He implored Lamennais at least to remain silent.

"The ideas we have defended," he argued, "must be either good or bad, true or false, heavenly or earthly. If they are earthly and false, we ought to thank God for preventing us from defending them any longer. If they are true and heavenly, what more certain guarantee of their triumph can we have than the sanction given to them by the practice of humility and Christian resignation?"

So spoke the zealous young layman to the erring priest, but all in vain. We may well believe that these words of Montalembert were chronicled in his tears under the date March 1, 1854:

"I have just learnt the terrible end of the Abbe de Lamennais, who died the day before yesterday in final impenitence, after twenty years of infidelity to the faith he once so eloquently glorified. He was my first master! He decided the course of my life! What a lesson! What an example!"

IV. A New Phase

The twenty years spent by Lamennais in infidelity had seen good work done by both his former disciples. Their return to public life, after the discouragement and distress consequent on his desertion, was due to the stimulating influence of a very remarkable woman. Madame Swetchine was a Russian convert to Catholicism, who in her young days had been a fervent admirer of the philosophy of Joseph de Maistre. Having settled in Paris, she presided over a "salon "frequented by men of the highest intellect. Montalembert, smarting under the attacks made against him on account of his connection with L'Avenir, and Lacordaire, similarly affected by his first great failure, were roused to further exertions by the eloquent words in which Madame Swetchine pointed out to them that their talents should be employed in the service of religion.

The admission of Montalembert into the French House of Peers, on the death of his father, gave him the opportunity of making a noble defence of Catholic education, endangered by the attacks made against it during the reign of Louis Philippe. He accepted the Revolution of 1848 and continued to fight for the Church until Napoleon III. came to the throne; but the second Empire, being absolutely contrary to his liberal principles, found in him one of its most unflinching opponents. The year 1870, which saw its fall, saw also the death of Montalembert.

A later friend and colleague of Montalembert was the brilliant lecturer on history who founded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Frederic Ozanam ranks high on the list of zealous laymen who devoted "the chivalrous swords of their militant faith "to the regeneration of their country. The world-wide organization for the relief of the poor, of which he was the originator, is a living testimony to his genius and to the indomitable ardour with which he promoted good works on the most approved lines of truly Christian liberalism.

Born in the same year as Ozanam, but fortunately destined to a much longer life, Louis Veuillot "brought remarkable wit and a faculty of slashing criticism, not often equaled, to the service of his party." Veuillot was a journalist whose youth had been passed in anti-Catholic surroundings, but, once converted, he became the most unswerving of Ultramontanists. As editor of the Catholic journal L'Univers, he did splendid work, though too frequently he inclined to violent invective, and more than once found his publication suppressed by the Government and himself in danger of fines and imprisonment.

Such were the men whom God raised up to fight the battles of His Church. They were men of goodwill, though not infallible, nor indeed impeccable, but, taking them all in all, the Church of France may well be proud of them. They were the champions of truth engaged in the great war against error, Ranged against them were men, possibly of equal power and genius, of whom we have not space, even if it were advisable, to speak. But, fighting with them and for them, were many, both clergy and laity, who owned them for their leaders, and stood by them in serried phalanx to the end. They were the initiators of what has been called the Neo-Ultramontane Movement, with the broader aspects of which we have yet to deal. In considering the European and especially the Roman phase of the question, we shall meet again with Montalembert and Lacordaire and Louis Veuillot, and shall, after this brief acquaintance, recognise and appreciate their position and opinions.

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