How the Ultramontane Newspaper L’Univers Was Founded in France

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How the Ultramontane Newspaper L’Univers Was Founded in France
How the Ultramontane Newspaper L’Univers Was Founded in France

The Count of Montalembert learned much from his experience in the first battle for the freedom of education. One lesson was that defending Church interests required unified action. Such unity was difficult since the Catholic public was completely disoriented.

France’s various forms of government between 1789 and 1830 had given rise to Legitimist, Bonapartist, and Orleanist Catholics. These factions, consciously or unconsciously, placed political ideals above their religious convictions. Lamennais’s mistakes complicated the situation by creating a current of democratic Catholics. These competed in their zeal to reconcile the Church with the principles of the Revolution.

By contrast, Ultramontane Catholics, filially devoted to Rome, became more numerous by the day. They were hardcore Catholics who completely accepted the traditional doctrine of the Church and put their lives at the service of Religion. Montalembert attempted to forge the much-needed union around this core after his failed adventure at l’Avenir.

Organizing a Catholic Party required enormous sacrifices. Many tasks faced Montalembert. First, he needed to awaken a fighting spirit among Catholics. Then, he needed to guide everyone out of the tremendous post-Revolution confusion. On a more practical plane, he had to establish contacts, organize activities and make newspapers available. Finally, it was necessary to convince the bishops of the need for all this activity. Montalembert’s family connections, industriousness and constant travels throughout France and Europe allowed him to resolve most of these difficulties. However, he still had no newspaper and lacked the support of the episcopate for any such venture.

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The bishops of France should have been the party’s natural leaders. However, with few exceptions, they were either Gallicans or friends of conciliation. They loathed fighting in the Church’s interests. Moving all the members of the episcopate to defend Church interests was a superhuman and almost impossible task. Unfortunately, Rome gave the French government the right to present candidates for vacant bishoprics. Montalembert’s work in this field was limited almost exclusively to using his influence as a peer of France to secure the appointment of Ultramontane bishops.

Finding a newspaper to replace l’Avenir and help promote the Catholic Party’s campaigns was another almost insoluble problem. Montalembert knew the enormous difficulties that would arise with founding a new newspaper. It was a task made more difficult because it was impossible to predict how the Catholic public would receive an ultramontane paper. Some periodicals, such as L’ami de la religion et du clergé and the Journal des villes et des campagnes were unofficial organs of Gallicanism. Almost all others were Legitimists. Only one small Paris newspaper was left: L’Univers. It had a most curious history; but it was, nonetheless, the one Montalembert turned into the new party’s mouthpiece.

Many felt the need for an exclusively Catholic newspaper, and there had been countless attempts to found one. In 1834, Fr. Jacques-Paul Migne decided to launch two newspapers simultaneously. According to prospectuses, “Catholic France’s two religious opinions” would guide these newspapers. It was all very vague, and neither of the two opinions was well defined. The two, Spectateur and L’Univers religieux were launched with pompous articles in aggressive tones, promising everything but delivering little. Fr. Migne later became known with the publication of Patrology.

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Father Migne’s daring launching of two Catholic newspapers in an environment that had received all others with indifference or hostility actually ensured his success from the very beginning. Shortly before him, Emmanuel Bailly, the founder of the Société des Bonnes Etudes (Society of Good Studies), had launched Tribune Catholique without much success. Seeing the appearance of two more competitor newspapers, Bailly as the Tribune Catholique’s proprietor proposed to Father Migne that the three papers be merged into one, giving rise to l’Univers. All of Lamennais’ former disciples soon contributed to it. Melchior du Lac stood out for his sound doctrine and dedication to the newspaper. He headed its editorial board and spent his entire life at l’Univers.

Bailly and Melchior du Lac financially supported l’Univers for four years. Bailly had bought Father Migne’s share of the paper but was not rich enough to cover its growing deficits. Despite the wealthy merchant Eugène Taconet’s help and mergers with small Catholic newspapers, the publication had difficulty staying afloat. In addition, Melchior du Lac, the soul of the editorial board, wanted to be a priest. He was only waiting to solve some family issues to enter the Abbey of Solesmes, which the great Dom Guéranger was rebuilding. Therefore, the newspaper’s future was not promising.

In 1838, the situation became untenable. L’Univers had a monthly deficit of 1,000 francs and already owed 26,000. Montalembert decided to turn it into an organ of the Catholic Party. He paid off the paper’s debt and took care of its monthly deficits, aided by donations from his friends. He practically became the paper’s owner and placed a trusted friend, Alexandre de Saint-Chéron, in charge of its political orientation. He then got all the great names of European Catholicism to write for it.

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Despite everything, the newspaper was still in bad shape. The contributions of Rio, Ozanam, Montalembert, Lacordaire, Father Rohrbacher, and the future Cardinal Wiseman were not enough to interest Catholic opinion. An Ultramontane journalist was needed who would fulfill the paper’s founding purpose: to be exclusively Catholic.

The leaders of the Catholic party were concerned with the paper’s future. Montalembert’s greatest merit was to have saved l’Univers by placing an indispensable man on its editorial board. Around 1839, in a letter to Montalembert, Saint Chéron spoke of a young and energetic writer whom he wanted to attract to the newspaper: “His collaboration will be very precious, but he is very poor, and we even more than he. He will be entirely ours the day we can pay a little for his articles.” Montalembert took an interest in the energetic young writer, and soon Louis Veuillot was part of l’Univers.

The son of humble workers, Veuillot received no religious education in childhood, growing up absolutely faithless. With little studies, he left his hometown at the age of fourteen for Paris to try his hand at life. Within a few years, the Orleanists recognized his developing talent. Despite his youth, they entrusted him with the management of their newspapers, initially in the provinces and later in Paris. In his first Paris job at the law firm of Fortuné Delavigne, Veuillot came to know Gustave Olivier. The two men established a solid friendship. Having converted to Catholicism, Olivier ardently desired his friend’s conversion but always hit an unbreakable wall of indifference.

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One day when Veuillot was convinced he had to rest, Gustave Olivier proposed they take a trip to Rome and the Orient. Veuillot accepted. Gustave decided to take advantage of the trip to try to convert his friend. He asked the nuns of the convent “Des Oiseaux” to pray for him throughout the trip. In Rome, Veuillot converted, exchanging his trip to the East for a retreat with Jesuits in Fribourg. He returned to Paris ready to dedicate his life to the service of the Church. Figuring that as a Catholic, he could not remain on their editorial boards, Veuillot abandoned the Orleanist newspapers and began writing books.

His initial contacts with l’Univers were unexceptional. His first publication consisted of a letter defending General Bougeud, which was the occasion of his relationship with Saint Cheron. One day he sent the newspaper an article about a ceremony at “Des Oiseaux” convent as he was deeply grateful to the nuns for their prayers for his conversion. His employers asked him to go to the office to revise the ready-to-print proofs. Eugene Veuillot, his brother and biographer, faithfully described that first visit:

“L’Univers” came out in the morning. Its editorial office was located on Rue des Fossés-Saint Jacques, a narrow street in a poor neighborhood. From the outside, number 11 looked disheartening; inside, it looked even worse. Louis was told he would have the proofs at ten o’clock at night. At the appointed time, he went to the newspaper, and I followed him. There was no light at the entrance and no doorman to announce us.

“We pushed open a door and entered the newsroom. It was a small, poorly lit room with only a straw seat and a table full of newspapers. Two editors worked in silence: one of them, in a cassock, was Melchior du Lac, who rose slightly responding to our greeting; the other was Jean Barrier, a layman. He was very gravely gluing different news items with both thumbs on a large gray sheet. ‘You will have the proofs within five minutes,’—he tells us. Indeed, they soon arrived; Louis proofread them and we left, having exchanged fewer than ten words with the editors. They interrupted their work only to take snuff, often and abundantly.

“As soon as we reached the street, laughing, we both exclaimed at the same time: ‘What do you think about it?’   

“After a short silence, Louis said, ‘This newspaper is really poor, but it is worth much more than the others. The laconic young clergyman, whose large nose absorbs his entire face, has a very intelligent countenance; he must be a good man.’

“‘Yes, and the other must be a good boy.’

“Not yet convinced, I added I would not like to see him as editor of such an unknown newspaper that certainly lacked resources.

“‘Well, my brother,’ he said, ‘if I go back to journalism, it will certainly be here.’

“‘You’re quite capable of that.’

And we moved on to another matter.”

Saint Chéron’s letter to Montalembert dates from this period. On January 24, 1840, Saint Chéron announced: “Mr. Veuillot’s collaboration is guaranteed.” More than his donations, Montalembert’s interest in securing Louis Veuillot’s services saved the newspaper l’Univers and endowed the Catholic Party with a great mouthpiece.

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