As Preparations for the First Vatican Council Took Place, French Liberals Struggled to Organize Themselves

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As Preparations for the First Vatican Council Took Place, French Liberals Struggled to Organize Themselves
William Monsell (Lord Emly): was an Angle-Irish landowner who converted to Catholicism in 1850

When Pius IX published the bull Aeterni Patris convening the First Vatican Council in 1868,1 Ultramontanism was practically victorious in France. The Catholic movement had received a vigorous boost from the apostolate of the nineteenth century’s early Ultramontanes. Throughout the century, it advanced and remained steadfastly orthodox despite some leaders’ attempts to divert it from the purity of its principles.

On the eve of the Council, the movement was a powerful force, absolutely faithful to the Holy See, fighting for all Church interests energetically and uncompromisingly.

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Thoroughly defeated, the old heresies, like Gallicanism and Jansenism, no longer held any sway. Their last adherents had taken refuge in the ranks of so-called liberal Catholicism, the only redoubt where they thought their propaganda could be successful. Thus, transformed into an agglomeration of all the opponents of orthodoxy, liberal Catholicism lost contact with the mass of the faithful. This minority remained standing thanks only to its leaders’ prestige and the unfailing support of liberal politicians.

At this point, liberal Catholics were generals without an army and conscious of their errors. Their only logical course was to adopt Bishop Felix Dupanloup’s policy of avoiding controversy altogether. In this way, they could use the absence of open debate on the most burning issues as an argument against the need for definitions from ecclesiastical authorities.

Sick and isolated, the Count de Montalembert could not understand his friends’ prudence. Referring to the revolution that had dethroned Queen Isabella II of Spain (1874), he wrote a violently liberal article for the Correspondant. Its editorial board unanimously refused to publish the Count’s rantings. In his biography of Montalembert, Father Edouard Lecanuet summarized the reasons for their refusal: “To resurrect the doctrines of the Mechelen Congress at this time would be a sovereign imprudence. Do you want to provoke a new encyclical that would not spare our people this time? Do you want the definitive ex-communication of liberty and the condemnation of the Correspondant, which you rebuilt in 1855? Do you want to end your glorious career on the Index [of Forbidden Books]?”

Unconvinced, Montalembert broke with his friends, demanding that this break be made public. Count Frédéric de Falloux implored him to at least keep the rupture under wraps. “I beg you with joined hands, dear friend: do not insist that I make official a separation against which I protest more than anyone else, against which my whole heart revolts, along with all my fidelity of thirty years and all that the common action and services we still can have in a future which Providence, now more than ever, seemingly does not prevent us from hoping for.”

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Montalembert’s mortal illness blunted what would have been a blow to liberal Catholicism. His failing health made it impossible to insist on a public rupture.

About the same time, an article in Civiltà Cattolica announced that the Council would deal with papal infallibility and the Syllabus. This development made Bishop Dupanloup’s strategy completely impractical. The Ultramontanes welcomed this discussion with such jubilation that the liberals felt forced to take a stand. At first, Bishop Dupanloup limited himself to anonymously publishing a series of articles in Le Français, of which he had become the owner. However, the public debate soon became widespread. The liberals had to break their silence and openly join the melee. They decided to publish a manifesto in the Correspondant and met in Orléans to draft it. No one is better qualified than Count de Falloux to reveal what happened at this conspiratory meeting. He described it in his Mémoires d’un royaliste.

“At that moment, Mr. Montalembert was struck by the cruelest sufferings, so we asked for the Bishop of Orléans’ hospitality. The bishop, Mr. de Broglie, Mr. Cochin, Mr. Monsell, and I were present at the meeting. By chance, a Spanish prelate arrived at the same time as us. He did not speak our language well enough to participate in the work but felt at least as much concern for Spain as Bishop Dupanloup did for France. Mr. Monsell, later Lord Emly,2 a Catholic as zealous as he was erudite, had the same apprehensions about England. The Bishop of Orléans showed us a curious and instructive correspondence he received from important members of the clergy or eminent laymen from both worlds. These letters demonstrated superabundantly that our point of view was neither isolated nor rash.

“At the same time, Pius IX announced a serious innovation. He did not call the ambassadors of Catholic powers to the Council. Therefore, political and civil society would not have official representatives at most conciliar assemblies, as they had until then. However, someone had to defend this dual society and this dual interest in the nineteenth century. Accordingly, the Correspondant believed it could be heard like anyone else. It neither claimed any other right nor desired to go beyond it.

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“In Orleans, each writer contributed his share of ideas to compose the article, and the final writing fully corresponded to our intentions.

“We chose a subject not aggressive toward Ultramontanism in general nor the infallibility issue in particular. With all the sincerity of our hearts, we neither could be nor were concerned with anything but the opportunity. We not only did not fight Ultramontanism but expressly stated: ‘Today, everyone is Ultramontane.’ This starting point was one of our arguments. We added: ‘Why disturb and compromise a movement no one refuses at this time? Do you want to resurrect many suspicions gratuitously, provide pretexts, favor hostilities outside Catholicism, without gaining anything other than what you have already possessed for over half a century?’”

Liberal Catholics and most of their allies adopted the attitude promoted in Correspondant. They no longer discussed any [papal] thesis as such. They claimed to accept it but argued that its definition was untimely. Bishop Dupanloup, an expert in such distinctions, had thus imposed himself. From then on, he would be one of the leaders of the current Veuillot called “opportunistic”—a name later consecrated by the contemporaries of the Council and by history.


  1. During this period, there were two Papal documents that bore the title Aeterni Patris (Eternal Father). The first, issued by Blessed Pope Pius IX on June 29, 1868, convoked the first Vatican Council. Pope Leo XIII issued the second on August 4, 1879. It promoted the continued prominence of Scholastic philosophy and, particularly, the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
  2. William Monsell, after 1874 First Baron Emly, was an Angle-Irish landowner who converted to Catholicism in 1850. He served in a number of British Cabinet positions under Viscount Palmerston, Earl Russell and William Gladstone.

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