By Criticizing the Count of Montalembert, Pope Pius IX’s Secretary of State Condems “Catholic Liberalism”

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By Criticizing the Count of Montalembert, Pope Pius IX’s Secretary of State Condems “Catholic Liberalism”
Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli, Secretary of State to Pope Pius IX

The Holy Father, Pius IX, distributed an early draft of the Syllabus of Errors to bishops in Rome for the canonization of twenty-six Japanese martyrs in 1862. It was no longer a secret that the Holy See was preparing to officially condemn Catholic liberalism. Alarmed by the project, some governments tried to prevent or delay its publication through diplomatic means. They also assisted their countries’ liberal Catholic movements. The goal was to present the Holy Father with liberalism as a fait accompli.

The meeting of liberals under the leadership of Bishop Felix Dupanloup in the Count of Montalembert’s castle of La Roche-en-Brény was not an isolated event. Liberal ecclesiastical and lay leaders also met in other countries to study the situation and expand their ideas. Thus, by 1863, the Catholic-Liberal campaign had taken on an international aspect.

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In England, Cardinal Wiseman, Wilfrid Ward, and the future Henry Cardinal Manning had formed a powerful, Ultramontane Catholic movement. To counter their influence, Lord John Acton put all his prestige and fortune at the service of liberal Catholicism. His first newspaper, The Rambler, did not resonate with Catholic opinion despite having Montalembert, Bishop Dupanloup, Father Auguste Gratry, Ignaz von Döllinger, and Giovanni Battista de Rossi among its contributors. Not even Father John Henry Newman’s intervention could prevent the Ultramontanes from pulverizing the liberal paper’s sophistry with their arguments. The English episcopate publicly condemned some of its articles in April 1862. The Rambler disappeared the following month, but Lord Acton did not give up. Soon afterward, he launched a new periodical, The Home and Foreign Review.

In Germany, liberal Catholicism presented itself in a different light. Its leaders did not clash with Ultramontanes about great political questions but distinctly theological ones. German liberal theologians had as their chief Ignaz von Döllinger, a prodigy of erudition, full of all the qualities, defects and vices of scientism. Döllinger was desperate to avoid any revival of Scholasticism,1 which as an empiricist, rationalist and scientist, he despised. He organized a conference of Catholic scientists to “trigger a genuine civil war among theologians to concentrate their living forces against the common enemy,” which he labelled as “Scholasticism and the Holy See.”2 In 1863, the conference was held in Munich under Doellinger’s presidency despite the disapproval of the Papal Nuncio and some German bishops.

However, liberal Catholicism’s most significant manifestation of strength and prestige occurred in Belgium. A group of Belgian churchmen and laymen, including Baron Gerlach and Adolphe Deschamps, had the idea of convening a large conference in Mechelen.3 Its stated goal was to bring together Catholic leaders from all countries to present a reasonably accurate description of Catholicism at the time. The meeting’s orientation, however, was utterly liberal. In a letter inviting Montalembert to be one of the speakers, Deschamps stated:

“A most influential tribune is open to you. An auditorium of [lay] Catholics, bishops, priests, religious from all orders, faithful of all works, is preparing to applaud you. You must occupy this platform and use this auditorium to benefit our common cause. It is vitally important that a liberal program emerges from it: Catholicism and liberty. If you are not there, this goal will not be attained.”

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Despite being ill, Montalembert accepted the invitation. He prepared two speeches along the lines of the resolutions of the La Roche-en-Brény meeting. But his combative and fiery temperament carried him beyond accepted limits. He made liberal theses so explicit that his friends disapproved of his submitted texts. Duke Victor de Broglie asked him to cancel or revise some sections. Montalembert refused, claiming it was time to say everything and that his health did not permit further delay.

The French liberals arrived in Mechelen two days after the conference began and headed straight to the sessions. A storm of applause greeted Montalembert as he entered. The assembly, composed of a thousand people, acclaimed him thus: “Long live the son of the crusaders! Long live the Count of Montalembert!”

He delivered his speech at that meeting and gave the second one the next day. He advocated the famous formula “a free Church in a free State.” Count Camillo de Cavour, Prime Minister of the new Italian state, immediately adopted that slogan in his struggle against the Holy See. Except for the Ultramontane Catholics present, who quickly showed their disapproval, the auditorium enthusiastically welcomed Montalembert’s words. His two speeches achieved Dechamps’s goal: the Mechlin conference defined itself as clearly liberal, and the movement acquired an international character.

The Holy See viewed with regret the development of liberal Catholic policies. It could not remain silent, especially in light of the upheaval the news of the preparation of the Syllabus had provoked.

In December 1863, Rome condemned the Catholic Scientists’ Congress and forbade further such meetings. Lord Acton supported it enthusiastically in The Home and Foreign Review and was forced to suspend its publication.

The Mechelen question was even more serious. Montalembert had rendered outstanding services to the Church. He also had the support of French, English, German, and Belgian intellectuals. However, protests against his speech reached Rome unceasingly. Violent disputes about them broke out worldwide. Seeing the gravity of the situation, Bishop Dupanloup immediately went to Rome to defend his friend and prevent his condemnation. But Pius IX had already decided to intervene against Montalembert. However, because of Montalembert’s previous services to the Church, the pope limited himself to having the Secretary of State, Cardinal Antonelli, write a letter condemning his speeches.

When he learned of the letter’s text, the Bishop of Orléans strenuously objected. He said to Cardinal Antonelli, “You will not send this. I want to see the pope. I ask it as a friend of M. Montalembert and, above all, as a French bishop. This question interests France to the highest degree. Who are the judges? Who are the examiners that issued this ruling? I ask to see them, hear them, and discuss with them.”

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Pius IX did not receive Bishop Dupanloup, and the letter was sent to Montalembert. It began by praising Montalembert’s previous services to the Church. Then, the Secretary of State recalled the controversies the speeches provoked and the large number of people who doubted their orthodoxy. Under those conditions, the Holy Father had ordered an examination of the question. Cardinal Antonelli added:

“I am sorry to report that the examination has proved the accusations against your speeches well founded. The latter are reprehensible because they clash with the teachings of the Catholic Church, with documents of many pontiffs, and especially with the teachings of several briefs and allocutions of Pius VI. In one of these, dated September 26, 1791, the pope calls the edict of Nantes—which you lavished praise in your speeches—plane exitiosum et pestilens (downright deadly and pestilential). These teachings are recalled and confirmed in Pius VII’s 1814 letter to Most Rev. Boulogne, Bishop of Troyes; in Gregory XVI’s encyclical of August 15, 1832, which you know well; and in various solemn acts of the reigning Sovereign Pontiff.”


  1. The term scholasticism describes the prevailing philosophical system of the Catholic Church. It was developed during the Mediaeval period and is most closely identified with Saint Thomas Aquinas to the extent that some scholars also refer to scholasticism as “Thomism.”
  2. Döllinger was excommunicated in 1871.
  3. These meetings are also known as the “Malines Congresses.” (Malines is the French form of Mechelen,) The first took place in 1863. Subsequent meetings took place in 1864, 1867, 1891, 1909 and 1936.

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