Rather than Reconcile with Louis Veuillot, the Dying Count of Montalembert Preferred Continued Conflict

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Rather than Reconcile with Louis Veuillot, the Dying Count of Montalembert Preferred Continued Conflict
Rather than Reconcile with Louis Veuillot, the Dying Count of Montalembert Preferred Continued Conflict Photo: © Henry Maull & George Henry Polyblank, CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

In 1866, news began to spread about Pope Pius IX’s initial steps to convene an ecumenical council, which convened in 1869. Some Catholic leaders, including Gaspart Mermillod, Auxiliary Bishop of Lausanne and Geneva, thought the time was ripe to attempt a general reconciliation. They saw the necessity to unite Catholic forces. After all, the political horizons were becoming ever more threatening against Pope Pius IX’s temporal power.

Louis Veuillot and the Count of Montalembert were France’s most influential Catholics. Naturally, the priority would be to reconcile these two. United, they could inspire the Catholic movement to see once again the glory days of the 1830s when they fought on the same side to defend the Church’s freedom to teach its children. Théophile Foisset initiated the idea. Foisset was soon seconded by Bishop Mermillod, a mutual friend of the two men, who took the initiative to address Veuillot and Montalembert as a mediator.

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Louis Veuillot was pained to see Montalembert, his former chief, wholly distraught and fighting the very thing he once defended. Veuillot often dreamed of reconciliation. He thus hastened to answer Bishop Mermillod’s entreaty.

“Yes, every circumstance is suitable for restoring the union; today, this is more timely and urgent than ever. For my part, I dare to say before God, and from the depths of my soul, that I am willing. But in what field should one remake the union, Your Excellency, and who will delimit the terrain? Were there only difficulties of a personal character, I am convinced they would be as easily and completely erased as they have been in my heart. The long and still dangerous illness of one of our brothers has left me in real distress, and I feel unspeakable torment at the thought that he might die without my having shaken his hand. I despised nothing that discretion permitted me to let him know: I don’t know if he has learned of it.”

The sick man was Montalembert, who had been suffering from kidney disease for several years. In 1866, he was at death’s door after an unsuccessful operation. From then on, he was permanently bedridden. The disease gradually consumed the Count’s strength for four years. He eventually succumbed to the illness on March 13, 1870.

Montalembert was probably aware of Veuillot’s earlier letter. His response to Bishop Mermillod was pitiful and inconceivable, and even his most enthusiastic biographers found it difficult to defend him. Father Edouard Lecanuet reproduced some excerpts in his three-volume biography of Montalembert.

“In my opinion, such reconciliation is impossible and undesirable. It is not a question of forgiving insults. I hope I am right with my conscience on this point, but it is first of all about honor, of which contemporary Catholics have learned to take too little notice; then, it is about the Catholic cause, at least as I have understood and served it up to now.

“I have no reparation to make to Mr. Veuillot. I have combated his doctrines and influence on the Church without ever attacking his person directly or indirectly. His name was found only once in my pen and even then to protest the exceptionally arbitrary measure of which he was the victim.

“On the contrary, he insulted me personally. He then slandered me unworthily for several years in a series of articles in l’Univers, which he reproduced in the twelve volumes of his ‘Mélanges,’ thus lacking the ridiculous excuse of heated polemics but not his pride as a man showered with praise by the pope and the Episcopate. In Odeurs de Paris, he again wrote, ‘I neither excuse nor accuse myself of anything.

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“If Mr. Veuillot were to publicly retract the insults and slanders he has hurled at me, I still would not cease to consider him the most dreadful enemy of Religion the nineteenth century has produced. I could and should have toward him the attitude prescribed by courtesy to people in good standing. But as long as he does not make this retraction, I will consider him a slanderer and public insulter. Respect for my good name precludes all relations with him under pain of tacitly accepting his accusations or insinuations against me.

“You tell me, my friend, that no one wants to fight anymore. I still want and will want it for as long as I breathe. I may suffer the hindrances and limitations that circumstances impose, but I will never absolve the traitors and madmen who brought us to where we are! They can prevent me from speaking or writing. Still, I shall never say or write a word not directly or indirectly protesting against the spirit of which Mr. Veuillot is the baleful personification among us.”

One of Montalembert’s most recent biographers does not see any petty or bitter arrogance in this rejoinder letter. Unfortunately, that is the usual attitude of liberals when dealing with Ultramontane Catholics.

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