After the French Revolution and Napoleon, French Catholic Leaders Emerge in the Nineteenth Century

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After the French Revolution and Napoleon, French Catholic Leaders Emerge in the Nineteenth Century
After the French Revolution and Napoleon, French Catholic Leaders Emerge in the Nineteenth Century

In the first chapter of his book, Des interêts catholiques au dix-neuvième siècle (Catholic Interests in the Nineteenth Century), describing the situation of the Church in 1800, the Count of Montalembert saw ruins and persecutions everywhere. In that vast shipwreck, he did not see the slightest sign that would justify any hope the Holy Church would see better days. A contemporary witness, Joseph de Maistre, responded to a letter from a French marquis thus: “You ask me to open my heart on one of the greatest questions that can interest a sensible man today and expound my thoughts on the current state of Christianity in Europe. I could answer in three words: look and cry.”

Indeed, all seemed lost. Having overthrown one of the strongest and most glorious thrones in Christendom, the Revolution believed it was done with the first part of its program and began a new phase. With Napoleon’s imprisonment of the Holy Father, the source and lifeblood of Catholic civilization, the Church’s weakness was evident to all. Albeit without the horrors of the early times, the Revolution now spread its ideas to a panicked world that wished to believe in a supposedly peaceful conversion of the revolutionary monster and thus not fight it anymore.

On the other hand, traditional monarchies, eager not to lose their thrones, went in one of two different directions. Some sought to conform to the new principles. Others tried to resurrect old regalist errors, imagining absolutism could oppose the Revolution better. To compound the calamity, Pius VI died in Valencia. The Church entered the new century without a Pastor. The Sacred College of Cardinals was scattered and prevented from returning to Rome. Never had the Church faced greater difficulties in convening to elect a new pontiff.

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Early in the Revolution, the French Chruch reacted in a staggered and weak manner, sacrificing everything that was humanly possible so as not to face it. Later, however, Catholics courageously endured martyrdom when the Revolution demanded more than they could give. Their firmness in defending Catholic principles would transform the face of a century that began so badly. Although few saw it, the sufferings and bravery of Catholics during the Revolution produced a thriving Catholic renaissance.

This Catholic revival was universal. Daniel O’Connell in England, Jaime Luciano Balmes, Donoso Cortés in Spain and Baron Ludwig von Windthorst in Germany led movements to restore Catholicism in their countries. Of course, France, where the revival was born, saw the fiercest battles between the Church and the Revolution throughout the nineteenth century. Everyone followed those clashes with interest and eagerness. The outcome would indicate the course mankind would follow. Thus, studying the French Catholic movement will give us an overall view of nineteenth-century Catholicism.

Two men started this movement; one is deservedly famous and has universal renown, while the other was unjustly forgotten: the philosopher and lawyer Joseph de Maistre and Fr. Bourdier Delpuits.

Justifying the old saying that God writes straight through crooked lines, one of the great, if not greatest, indirect benefits of the Revolution was to have led Joseph de Maistre to write his famous books. He was a senator for Savoy, living peacefully when the Revolution broke out. Forced to emigrate to Turin, he decided to fight the Revolution due to the spectacle of devastation he witnessed. His broad vision of the future led him to warn humanity of the dangers of following revolutionary principles. He pointed out the abyss where society would inevitably fall if the Revolution were to win. His books became classics of French literature, including the famous Du Pape (On the Pope), which made him the leader of new Catholic generations.

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Du Pape was a veritable hymn to the papacy that reestablished its true place in history. It spells out its rights and prerogatives. The book gave new impetus to the doctrine of the Sovereign Pontiff’s infallibility, a dogma later promulgated by the First Vatican Council in 1870. Du Pape heavily influenced nineteenth-century Catholics. From then on, those who followed his ideas became known as ultramontanes.

Since many French Catholics tended toward Gallicanism, the ultramontanist position was controversial. The republican newspaper, Le Siècle called the movement a new sect. The journalist Louis Veuillot rightly responded that being Catholic and ultramontane were perfectly synonymous. Except for the Gallicans, all French Catholics should declare themselves ultramontanes.

Father Bourdier Delpuits joined the Society of Jesus at a very young age. When the Jesuits were expelled from France in 1762, he had not yet pronounced his last vows. Thus, he joined the secular clergy. During the Revolution, he was arrested and exiled but returned to France before the fall of Robespierre. Despite the dangers he faced as a refractory priest, he deemed it his duty to exercise the sacred ministry in France. He was concerned about the situation of young people, primarily university students. On February 2, 1801, taking advantage of the freedom of worship Napoleon had granted, he founded the Marian Sodality Sancta Maria Auxilium Christianorum, known in French history simply as “The Congregation.”

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This Marian Sodality gave genuine religious formation to youth who had grown up under the Revolution. From it came the century’s great Catholic names: Duke Mathieu de Montmorency, the Cardinal Prince of Rohan, and Félicité de Lamennais. Its members were tireless in the service of the Church. When Napoleon started to fight openly against the Church, the congregants published the Emperor’s ex-communication bull in Paris. When Napoleon arrested the pope in 1809, he also prevented communication between the cardinals. The Congregation evaded the best-organized police of that time and served as messengers among the members of the Sacred College in France. The Congregation was the first target of the revolutionaries, who systematically persecuted it and later closed it, thanks to the weakness of Charles X. However, by then, the seed had been sown: numerous conversions took place. Lamennais led one of the most auspicious Catholic movements ever to have appeared in France.

Napoleon was not deceived by the Church’s apparent defeat at the beginning of the century. He pretended to withdraw, seemingly giving it some freedom while trying to subordinate it to the State. After Napoleon’s fall, the Restoration proved incapable of rebuilding the old French monarchy. Taking advantage of all Napoleonic institutions, Louis XVIII and Charles X tried to adapt to the new ideas and restore state absolutism in religious matters. Their ecclesiastical policy sought to resurrect Gallicanism. If France did not become a Gallican country, it was primarily due to Félicité de Lamennais.

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Lamennais combined a brilliant intelligence with an exceptional gift to proselytize. A disciple of Joseph de Maistre, he gathered around him a plethora of the great names in Catholicism, forming them and spreading ultramontane ideas. At La Chênaie, his headquarters, one might find Dom Prosper Guéranger, the restorer of the Roman liturgy; Father Salinis, later a cardinal that would become one of the first Catholic journalists; Father Réné François Rohrbacher, the best Church historian in the nineteenth century; Father Gerbert, whom Louis Veuillot considered one of the masters of French literature; Jean-Baptiste Henri-Dominique, Count of Lacordaire, Charles Forbes René de Tryon, Count of Montalembert, and many others who developed under Laemennais’s tutelage. Even wayward figures like Alphonse de Lamartine and Victor Hugo were influenced by Lamennais.

From La Chênaie, his followers combatted Gallicanism. They fought its errors, denounced its plots, and promoted the true principles of Catholicism. They published books, newspapers, new editions of Joseph de Maistre’s books, and works of the apostolate. After Chateaubriand opened the doors of Le Conservateur to Lamennais and his disciples, the theses dear to Joseph de Maistre appeared in the best newspaper of the time. Lamennais badgered the Most Rev. Frayssinous, Bishop of Hermopolis, Grand Master of the University, and head of Gallicanism. The Inquisition, the League, and the Guises were exalted. To the great scandal of some Gallicans, Fr. Salinis published articles in honor of Saint Gregory VII.

With the fall of Charles X, all this promising work was almost lost when this leader made a sudden about-face. From one moment to the next, Lamennais, an ultramontane and legitimist leader, began to defend the errors of the Revolution. At this time, the newspaper L’Avenir appeared, pretending to “reconcile the Church with freedom.” Lamennais was its standard-bearer, and the high level and brilliance of the paper’s editors ensured it a substantial early success. Little by little, however, as its orientation became clear, Catholics turned away from it. L’Avenir gradually lost subscribers until it was forced to close in 1832.

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Lamennais’s end is well known. When the newspaper closed, he went to Rome with Lacordaire and Montalembert to ask the Church to make a pronouncement on the theses of L’Avenir. Gregory XVI received them coldly but sought to employ every means to avoid casting a condemnation on the former champion of infallibility. Lacordaire and Montalembert saw the game was over and left the city. However, Lamennais, seized with satanic pride, persisted. When he finally decided to withdraw, he challenged the Holy See. He announced to the Internuncio in Florence that he would reopen L’Avenir, and that, since Rome did not want to judge him, he considered himself absolved. Gregory XVI then condemned all theses of L’Avenir with the Encyclical Mirari vos. Lammenais submitted and stopped his revolt, only to apostatize shortly afterward.

Giuseppe Mazzini, the well-known Italian agitator, wrote around that time: “Napoleon, by imprisoning the pope, dragging him to Paris, threatening him and politically compromising with him, discredited and demeaned him. Once the giant fell, political inertia allowed the rebirth of philosophical and peaceful studies. There arose spiritualism and eclecticism, schools that, although not denying religious sentiment, no longer considered the papacy necessary. Nothing was left for the pope but Joseph de Maistre in the Catholic world.”

Mazzini’s claim to victory was premature. In fact, with his L’Avenir adventure, Lamennais seriously compromised the Catholic movement in the nineteenth century. His school broke up. Lacordaire, Montalembert and others spread the bad tendencies of the second phase from the newspaper’s period and later took the side of liberal Catholics. Others, like Dom Guéranger, Father Rohrbacher, and Father Salinis, preserved the old formation. Like Lamennais in the early times, a successor to Joseph de Maistre as a papal defender would soon emerge—Louis Veuillot, the greatest Catholic journalist of all time.

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