Bishop Dupanloup’s “Masterpiece of Eloquent Obfuscation” Throws French Catholic Liberals a Lifeline

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Bishop Dupanloup’s “Masterpiece of Eloquent Obfuscation” Throws French Catholic Liberals a Lifeline
Bishop Dupanloup’s “Masterpiece of Eloquent Obfuscation” Throws French Catholic Liberals a Lifeline

The publication of Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors upset all governments and provoked incidents in many places. Some incidents were trivial; others were extremely serious. All of them revealed the hatred of the revolutionaries. In Naples and Palermo, they burned copies of the document in the public square.

However, demonstrations of support were also numerous and enthusiastic. In Turin, 15,000 Catholics gathered to express their gratitude to the pope. In Vienna, Father Clemens Schrader launched a collection of books titled Der Papste und die modernen Ideen (The Pope and Modern Ideas). In it, he defended the Syllabus. Its acceptance showed that a majority of the Austrian clergy adhered to the guidance of the Holy See. From 1865 to 1869, “Stimmen aus der Maria Laach” (Voices from Maria Laach) published articles propagating and explaining papal teachings.1 In Spain, the publication “Pensamiento Español” (Spanish Thought) adopted as its motto the contrary of Pope Pius’s 80th condemned proposition: “The Roman pontiff can and must reconcile and compromise with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”

Eternal and Natural Law: The Foundation of Morals and Law

The struggle spread to all countries. On one hand, it was impossible to unite all faithful against the common enemy. On the other, the environment created by the Ultramontanes prevented most liberal Catholics from entering into open and declared revolt.

One telltale episode occurred in Munich. Fr. Ignaz von Döllinger, interpreting the doctrinal thinking of the school he headed, wrote a violent booklet against the Syllabus. Realizing how untimely the work was, his friends stopped its publication. We only know it today because Doellinger published it after his apostasy.

The spread of the Syllabus made it clear that, while liberal Catholicism had conquered certain elites, the vast majority of Catholics would not follow these adventures against the Holy See.

At this point, all attention should naturally turn to France. The liberal Catholics organized there, its leaders lived there, and the movement’s major offensives started there. Bewildered by the condemnation and feverishly seeking a way to rebel, liberals anxiously awaited a pronouncement of the French Catholic leaders on the matter. Bishop Dupanloup’s book, The September 15 Convention and the December 8 Encyclical, was that pronouncement. It threw a lifeline to which the liberals could cling to avoid permanent shipwreck.

Bishop Dupanloup interpreted the Syllabus using his own famous distinction between thesis and hypothesis. This distinction is sometimes legitimate but can only be applied with the utmost care. In this case, the thesis is the immutable truth in all its purity. The hypothesis—the thesis’ concrete application—takes into account the conditions of society. At a given moment, the hypothesis can be tolerated as a concession imposed by the facts, but it can never replace the thesis. It is only reluctantly accepted as a lesser evil. A Catholic is obliged to work to end the conditions preventing the application of the thesis. Bishop Dupanloup turned liberal theses into hypotheses, even though they negated the Catholic theses.

The Count of Montalembert praised Bishop Dupanloup’s work as “a masterpiece of eloquent obfuscation.” Albeit weak, the book was the only escape route. It served only to encourage the Bishop of Orléans’ followers. They were forced to moderate. They renounced any attempt to present the Holy See with a fait accompli. They could only remain on the level of hypothesis. As a result, they gradually lost what little influence they still had in Catholic circles.

The newspaper Correspondant was the mouthpiece of liberal Catholic leaders. Thus, it occupied the center of events, gaining greater visibility by becoming a target of universal curiosity. People were anxious to know its reaction. However, its most conscientious editors knew that their position was untenable. The paper failed to sway those Catholics it should have most influenced.

On the other hand, disagreement among the editorial staff was rife. Duke Victor de Broglie, Augustin Cochin and others recommended moderation. At the same time, Montalembert, consistently fiery, wanted to resume forcing events at all costs. The magazine staff was obliged to refuse one of his articles.

Most liberal Catholic movement sympathizers did not simply occupy the middle ground as Bishop Dupanloup advocated. Some, like the Jesuit-run journal Études, moved closer to the Ultramontanes. Others gathered around Bishop Henri Maret, who went even further than the liberal Catholics. He considered his thesis as contingent, presenting his liberal postulates as a happy result of the progress of human reason. In a final effervescence of Gallicanism, there were also adherents of ecclesiastical groups who openly fought and criticized the Holy See.

The small group around the Correspondant could not avoid being discredited before public opinion. One of the first consequences of Bishop Dupanloup’s “masterpiece of eloquent obfuscation” was a general debate over the distinction between thesis and hypothesis. In the tangle of discussion, liberal Catholics were forced to acknowledge subtle differences. People aptly summed up their thoughts with the jocular phrase that spread: “The thesis is to burn Mr. Rothschild; the hypothesis is to dine with him.”2

Prophecies of Our Lady of Good Success About Our TimesLearn All About the Prophecies of Our Lady of Good Success About Our Times

Bishop Dupanloup’s book only softened the blow struck on liberal Catholicism. The Syllabus alerted the movement’s sympathizers. Some moved closer to Ultramontanism. Others abandoned the untenable position of the Correspondant, taking its errors even further and placing themselves clearly under the Holy See’s condemnation. In his Histoire réligieuse de la France contemporaine (Religious History of Contemporary France), Adrien Dansett, after narrating ecclesiastical resistances to the Syllabus, concludes with a very true statement.

“One must not be deceived about the very limited efficacy of these ecclesiastical resistances. Pius IX inflicted on liberal Catholicism a defeat from which it will take more than twelve years to get back on its feet. The power of Rome keeps on extending. The sweeping breeze that exalts papal authority and leads the Church from Gallicanism to Ultramontanism will soon lead the papacy to an apotheosis—the Vatican Council.”

Nonetheless, the publication of Bishop Dupanloup’s work saved so-called Catholic liberalism by allowing it to resurface, as it did years later.


  1. Maria Laach is an abbey first founded in 1093. It is considered to be a masterpiece of German Romanesque architecture. It was dissolved by Napoleon in 1802. The Jesuits purchased the property in 1820. The Jesuits were forced out of the abbey by Bismarck’s Kulturkampf (Culture Struggle) during the 1870s. The Benedictines took it over in 1892, and it remains a Benedictine house to this day. It is open to the public.
  2. The Rothschilds were a family of European financiers. This reference is probably to James (Jakob) Meyer Rothschild, who directed the family’s Paris operations until he died in 1868.

Related Articles: