Nineteenth-Century French Politicians Attack the Jesuits to Instigate Anti-Catholic Persecution

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Nineteenth-Century French Politicians Attack the Jesuits to Instigate Anti-Catholic Persecution
Church enemies had always fought against the Jesuits. Their slanders always found an echo in certain Catholic circles.

The effects of the Catholic victory in the Chamber of Peers against the education bill were twofold. First, they aroused a never-before-seen opposition. In turn, the strong resistance obliged the rapporteur, Duc de Broglie, to tone down the bill to get it approved. His modifications satisfied neither the stalwart Catholics nor the University system’s supporters. The revised bill was sent to the Chamber of Deputies. Its rapporteur was Adolphe Thiers. He faced a challenging task given the ever-increasing progress of the Catholic movement and its opposition to the State’s University monopoly.

To establish the University monopoly definitively, its supporters had to find a way to divide the Catholic camp.

Although religious congregations were not permitted by law, the French government tolerated the existence of some religious associations. In the drafts of all education bills, ne condition the government always stipulated that a teacher candidate could not belong to such congregations. That included the Society of Jesus, which had not been allowed to own houses in France since the reign of Louis XV in 1764.

Church enemies had always fought against the Jesuits. Their slanders always found an echo in certain Catholic circles. It was well known that the Archbishop of Paris, Most Rev. Denis Auguste Affre, did not look favorably on them. Many leaders of the Catholic Party were also outspoken opponents of the Jesuits.

The disagreement between Louis Veuillot and the Comte de Montalembert at L’Univers led to the compromise in which Veuillot and the Comte de Coux shared the paper’s management. De Coux was a declared enemy of the Society of Jesus. Fr. Henri Lacordaire, a Dominican, and Joseph Foisset were also not far from supporting the anti-Jesuit campaign.

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Thus, the Jesuits face the obstacles of legal suppression, a centuries-old smear campaign, and the ill will of some Catholic leaders. Thiers and the University system’s supporters saw that targeting the society would be a means of dividing the enemy.

Jules Michelet, Edgar Quinet and Eugene Sue revived the old accusations against the Ignatians. Little by little, Thiers shifted the battlefield. This tactic forced Catholics to defend the viciously attacked religious order. That necessity, in turn, caused them to become less concerned about the freedom of teaching.

In the meantime, the Minister of Public Education, Abel Villemain, had a fit of madness and paranoia. He saw Jesuits everywhere, in empty rooms, on cobblestone streets and screamed in horror that they accused him of murdering his wife. The government replaced Villemain with Narcisse-Achille de Salvandy. Meanwhile, King Louis Philippe shelved the projected education bill.

However, the campaign against the Jesuits intensified. The University system’s supporters threw all their resources into the fight. Although hindered by Count de Coux, Veuillot stood out as a champion in defense of the Society of Jesus. He exposed his opponent’s charade and bad faith. For example, commenting on a speech by Victor Cousin, the great journalist wrote:

“Mr. Cousin began with a doleful tone; he was dying and begged his colleagues to have pity and allow him to speak from his place because he was going to faint. His gestures drew smiles from his Peers, officials, and spectators. A boy ran to him with sugar water and told his friends about it; doors were set ajar; from all sides, curious heads stuck out to watch Mr. Cousin’s fainting. When his little act was over, our dying man addressed the subject in a booming voice and, for an hour, spoke in defense of the University with fiery zeal and anger. What did he say? That the Jesuits must be expelled.”

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Despite the zeal of Veuillot and Montalembert, defamation against the priests of Saint Ignatius increased. Furthermore, the division among Catholics became evident. Thiers, Odilon Barrot, and other Chamber leaders decided to take advantage of the situation and proposed dissolving the Society in France. Thiers defended the project with the most refined hypocrisy, calling for the laws on religious congregations to be enforced strictly. He claimed he was defending the “august religion of his parents” by demanding the expulsion of the Jesuits, who he said were probably guilty of creating the tumult over the education monopoly. In vain did Catholic leaders show that his accusations were unfounded. An overwhelming majority approved the expulsion.

The situation became complicated, and the Catholic Party laid out a strategy for resistance. An illustrious Jesuit, Father de Ravignan, would lead the resistance if the law went into force. The Jesuits’ supporters would write a well-founded defense establishing the Society’s rights. If the law was enforced and their houses closed, Father de Ravignan would resist. This would cause him to be arrested. If he remained imprisoned, Pierre-Antoine Berryer, leader of the Monarchist Party and a celebrated lawyer and orator, would defend him. If Father de Ravignan were convicted, he would appeal, and so on. The plans were promising. The Society’s Superior General blessed the idea of resisting, but the continuing split seriously affected the Catholic Party.

Soon after the Chamber’s resolution, an undisputed rumor began to circulate that the Archbishop of Paris wanted the Jesuits’ expulsion, and the law had been a triumph for him. Archbishop Affre opposed resistance, saying that he would strip Jesuits of their power to hear confessions if they did not submit. Montalembert then decided to write a letter to the Archbishop, from which we quote some passages:

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“To believe people who claim to be well-informed, Your Excellency would have decided to take advantage of the government’s radical measures against the Jesuits to reduce them to the role of parish administrators in Paris. Your Excellency is said to be in charge of negotiating with the rest of the episcopate in the interests of the government and to have promised the bishops, as a price for tacitly adhering to the Jesuit ban, to create a large number of new circumscriptions, authorize priests to run a teaching establishment in each diocese, and remodel some cathedrals, first of all Notre Dame of Paris. In short, the Church of France would consent to sacrifice innocence and virtue by its silence. They would pay for this silence with money, and the Archbishop of Paris would be the intermediary in this new-fangled pact between Church and State.”

After saying he did not believe these rumors, Montalembert asked the prelate to come out of his silence. “One sees with sadness how this conduct contrasts with that of all other bishops who have Jesuits in their dioceses and did take a stand. The Archbishop of Rouen, the Bishop of Metz, and the Bishop of Nantes have said their episcopal palaces will house Jesuits expelled from their homes in violation of their freedom. Yet, none of these bishops had approved Jesuit preaching as much as Your Excellency by your presence and authority. None of them presided, as you did, at a retreat with several thousand men preached by a Jesuit. None of them celebrated the greatest feast of this year, 1845, solemnly aided by a Jesuit, giving Holy Communion. In short, none of them had cause to complain against the Jesuits and cannot find, in the laws of worldly courtesy, a good reason not to grant them a patent and generous protection against their present enemies.”

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