How Intransigent Liberals Created Disastrous Division Amongst the French Catholic Forces

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How Intransigent Liberals Created Disastrous Division Amongst the French Catholic Forces
How Intransigent Liberals Created Disastrous Division Amongst the French Catholic Forces
Photo: © George Peter Alexander Healy, CC BY-SA 4.0

Unfortunately, the Catholic Party’s ever-increasing prestige and successive victories did not prevent differences between its leaders. Indeed, these became sharper and deeper over time. This lack of much-needed cohesion severely hampered the campaign for freedom of education in nineteenth-century France.

The Party contained Catholics of all shades and political tendencies. Thus, it could not maintain itself without its members renouncing normal partisan politics. Unfortunately, members wanted the campaign to develop without jeopardizing their political preferences. Whenever they saw their position criticized by an article, speech, or pamphlet, they immediately began to complain and criticize the Party’s orientation. France’s Catholic politicians failed to be exclusively Catholic.

The Party leader, Compt Charles de Montalembert, had been stung when Pope Gregory XVI criticized L’Avenir in 1832. His religious convictions were solid but already tainted with liberal impulses, to which he gave himself body and soul a few years later. His indecision was such that the Minister of Public Education, François Guizot, referred to Montalembert as “a man who often changed his fixed ideas.” Furthermore, Montalembert was intensely proud and vain. He believed that he alone should guide the entire movement for the freedom of teaching. His ideal was that he direct, write and execute everything. At the same time, he was an indecisive chief whose political ideas had at least tinges of liberalism.

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Naturally, the Party’s internal disagreements most often targeted Louis Veuillot. He was exclusively Catholic and had to fight daily through L’Univers. He encouraged his companions and responded to the attacks of the secular press. His sustained polemics bested the campaign’s opponents. As such, he could not avoid criticizing political parties or previous regimes. Often, the Church’s opponents deliberately provoked Louis Veuillot to take such stands, knowing that would increase dissent in the Catholic Party. At the same time, his outspoken positions put Veuillot in difficult situations vis-à-vis his allies. Deep down, his opponents hoped to get Veuillot removed as the editor of L’Univers, thus breaking the mainstay of the movement.

The situation worsened considerably with the appearance on the scene of Msgr. Felix Dupanloup. Throughout his life, Msgr. Dupanloup acted in contradiction to the principles he claimed to possess. In politics, he declared himself a legitimist but, in practice, was a liberal. He claimed to be an ultramontane but was the real founder of religious liberalism in France. A Catholic pedagogue, he defended and established classical teaching in the schools he directed. Posing as an infallibilist, he led the network of bishops that fought against papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council. Appearing zealous for hierarchy and authority, he often resisted the wishes of Pope Pius IX. He was an intelligent man with an incalculable capacity for work. Skillful, devious and a good speaker, he possessed to an eminent degree, the power to induce others to do what he wanted.

The first serious clash between Montalembert and Veuillot occurred as soon as Father Dupanloup appeared on the scene. Without any notice or prior exchange of ideas, Montalembert sent word to L’Univers that the newspaper would be directed by a committee consisting of Father Dupanloup, Father de Ravignan, Henri Lacordaire, Charles Lenormant, and himself. Once in place, this committee would appoint its editor-in-chief. This bombshell communication led to Louis Veuillot’s resignation.

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Legally, Montalembert no longer had any rights to the paper. The loan he had made to it had been paid off. Most of its shares belonged to Eugene Taconet. However, L’Univers was an organ of the Catholic Party. Montalembert believed, as party head, that he could direct its management.

Both Veuillot and Taconet deserved far better treatment from the Party. Veuillot had rendered many services to the cause. If nothing else, he had spent a month in prison on its account. (see link). Taconet was, after all, the newspaper’s owner. In a spirit of conciliation, they were willing to deal with the committee to resolve the situation. They wanted to show that the paper could not be managed by a committee without hurting its political orientation effectiveness. Fathers Dupanloup and de Ravignan were legitimists; Lacordaire, a Democrat; Lenormant, a supporter of Louis Philippe; and Montalembert, an aristocrat. However, this argument was rejected. Only Veuillot and Taconet were allowed to be part of the committee.

The editors were indignant and decided to send Melchior du Lac to talk to Montalembert. The interview was stormy. It ended with Montalembert’s declaration that his intervention in the newspaper was to be accomplished with the right of brute force.

Given the Party leader’s intransigence, Taconet and Louis Veuillot made a proposal in the spirit of reconciliation. They argued that forming a new, more homogeneous committee would not hurt the newspaper. They suggested as members, Montalembert, the Viscount of Carné, a former director—Father Hiron, Frederic Ozanam, along with two shareholders, de Lavan and E. J. Bailly. Montalembert angrily refused, accusing L’Univers of treason and trying to kill the Catholic Party.

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A few days later, the Archbishop of Paris sent a letter criticizing the newspaper’s staff for their attitude. Louis Veuillot and Taconet sought him out and explained how things had happened. Subsequently, the archbishop partially justified them against Montalembert. The committee idea was out. In a move planned to maintain the Party’s cohesion, Veuillot relegated himself to the background. The Count de Coux, a former companion of Lacordaire and Montalembert in L’Avenir, was chosen as editor-in-chief.

These events happened during the Chamber of Peers’ vacations. Those same vacations had interrupted the discussion of the bill on the education monopoly. This first serious disagreement among the heads of the Catholic Party had immediate and evil consequences. When parliamentary debates on the monopoly resumed, Prime Minister Adolphe Thiers shifted attention away from the problem by attacking the Jesuits. This strategy divided the staff of L’Univers. Count de Coux was an enemy of the Society of Jesus. He, therefore, attempted to prevent Veuillot from presenting a defense of the heroic soldiers of Saint Ignatius.

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