A New Political Party Forms to Advance “Liberal Catholicism”

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A New Political Party Forms to Advance “Liberal Catholicism”
A New Political Party Forms to Advance “Liberal Catholicism”

Napoleon III lost the support of the great majority of Catholics between 1864 and 1867 over the Italian unification question. The Emperor abandoned his “wolf in sheep’s clothing” disguise in this matter and likewise sought to do his revolutionary work in France. After 1860, he oriented his policies ever closer to liberalism. In 1867, he finally established the so-called liberal Empire.

Throughout these years, Rome was preparing a document condemning liberalism. As early as 1852, Louis Veuillot received a confidential letter from the Holy See asking him to collaborate in a study that the Holy Father had ordered on the state of society. This work was done under strict secrecy. It looked into the most common dogmatic errors of the times and their connections with the moral, political, and social sciences. The letter came with a list of twenty-nine false propositions to serve as guidelines for the answers. That document was the prototype for Pope Pius IX’s famous Syllabus of Errors, released in 1864.

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Thus, a new crisis was emerging between the Church and Napoleon III. This was even much graver than the unification of Italy. This time, the Emperor would no longer face the unanimous opposition of both clergy and laity. By this time, French Catholicism was definitively divided. In this new phase of the battle, he could count on the support of liberal Catholics.

The ultramontanes had no mouthpiece during the seven years of preparation that preceded the liberal Empire. L’Univers had been officially suppressed in 1860 and reappeared only in 1867. Its owner, Eugène Taconet, obtained permission to found another newspaper, Le Monde, in which some former editors of l’Univers collaborated. However, extreme censorship curtailed that paper’s activity. Taconet received authorization to publish it only if he did not print anything by Louis Veuillot. An ultramontane newspaper without Veuillot could never muster even half the prestige that l’Univers had achieved.

Veuillot did not abandon the fight. After losing his daily newspaper, he tried to influence events by publishing books, which the intellectual elite eagerly sought. However, his true vocation was journalism. Newspapers influence public opinion in a way that no book can. Thus, in those decisive years for the future of the Church in France, Veuillot could not apply his full talents.

Everything seemed to contribute to a significant growth of liberal Catholicism. Veuillot was unable to do combat with his accustomed efficiency. Napoleon III’s new policy (preparing the public to accept Bishop Felix Dupanloup’s tricky distinction between thesis and hypothesis) enabled the movement’s leaders to reorganize. It gave Count Alfred de Falloux’s and Duke Albert de Broglie’s liberal newspaper Le Correspondant a new momentum. Soon, it would be the leading mouthpiece of the emerging party.

In 1862, Pius IX summoned all bishops to Rome to attend the canonization of a group of Japanese martyrs. His goal was to impress the world with the cohesion of Catholic ranks in defense of the Supreme Pontiff’s temporal rights. On that occasion, he communicated to them the Syllabus project, which had already grown to 61 false propositions and was still under preparation in the greatest secrecy.

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The liberal Bishop Felix Dupanloup was among his confreres and heard the news from the pope’s lips. Back in France, he immediately wrote the influential Count of Montalembert: “I have an extreme desire and need to see you. Unfortunately, I am in the last degree of fatigue.” Montalembert went to see him. Given the gravity of the situation, Dupanloup decided to gather the leaders of liberal Catholicism in Montalembert’s castle, La Roche-en-Brénil.

For four days, Bishop Dupanloup, Montalembert, the Count of Falloux, Augustin Cochin, and Théophile Foisset discussed the problems of the liberal Catholic movement. They considered possible means to prevent the Holy See from publishing the Syllabus. Failing that, they wanted, at least, to mitigate its effects. Unable to attend, Prince de Broglie sent his friends the speech he would give at his reception into the French Academy as successor to the Count of Lacordaire, who died shortly after being elected.

No one knows precisely what they resolved at that meeting. R.P. Lecanuet, Montalembert’s biographer, says that the five heads of Catholic liberalism spent those days in a wide-ranging discussion. Topics included the Church, the Roman question, Le Correspondant, parliamentary opinion, the coming elections and the Syllabus. Lecanuet ends his treatment of this event by quoting Montalembert: “The Bishop, Monsieur de Falloux, and I form a bundle which only death can break if God wishes to preserve us as we are.”

On the last day, Bishop Dupanloup, celebrating Mass in the castle chapel, gave a sermon urging his friends to remain united. A few months later, Montalembert had this Latin plaque (composed by Foisset) placed in that chapel:

“In this oratory, on October 12, 1862, Felix, Bishop of Orléans, distributed the bread of the word and the bread of Christian life to a small group of friends who, long accustomed to fighting together for a free Church in a free homeland, renewed their pact to dedicate the rest of their lives to God and freedom. Present were Alfred, Count of Falloux, Théophile Foisset, Augustin Cochin, and Charles, Count of Montalembert; absent in body but present in spirit was Albert, Prince of Broglie.”

The liberal Catholic Party had been founded. Bishop Dupanloup had finally achieved the old goal he had dreamed of since the 1840s. For twenty years, he tried by all means to dissolve the Catholic Party that had been born from the struggles for the freedom of teaching in 1832. This meeting at La Roche-en-Brény castle became known only in 1871, making it possible to adequately explain the history of liberal Catholicism in the nineteenth century.

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From now on, a real and organized liberal Catholic party would act. Its program was to prevent the Holy See from working against the Revolution.

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