The Catholic Offensive Against the France’s Educational Monopoly

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The Catholic Offensive Against the France’s Educational Monopoly
The Catholic Offensive Against the France’s Educational Monopoly

Led by the Comte de Montalembert and supported by Louis Veuillot and L’Univers, the Catholic Party waged a battle against the French government for freedom of education. To understand this battle well, we need to look back a little.

After the fall of Napoleon, all liberal French politicians fought against the government’s education monopoly. As faithful disciples of Romanticism, they all made impassioned speeches praising intellectual freedom. Louis Philippe’s ascension to the throne in 1830 brought those same liberals into power. Curiously, they continued praising intellectual and educational freedom but did nothing to make it happen.

As described in the third part of this series, Montalembert, Henri Lacordaire and Charles de Coux opened a school without permission in 1831. The government immediately closed the school, and the three men were charged with “unlicensed teaching.” This government action reminded the liberals of the need to legislate on the subject. Yet, when Catholic movement leaders had to deal with the government’s shutdown of their paper L’Avenir, the liberals soon abandoned the issue.

In 1836, the government’s Ministry of Public Instruction was led by François Guizot, one of the best-known liberals of the time. At the same time, Montalembert worked on the formation of the Catholic Party. To prevent Catholic forces from rallying, Guizot prepared a bill that met most of their demands. However, Guizot left the education ministry before presenting it to the Chamber. In 1840, Victor Cousin assumed the Ministry of Public Instruction.

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Today, Cousin is remembered as a secondary player in the controversy. His eclectic philosophy has been completely abandoned. However, in the nineteenth century, his influence was enormous. A university professor, his instruction was imparted according to the pathetic rules of Romanticism then in vogue. He began his classes in a low voice, his head bowed, in a humble and suffering attitude. Then, he raised his head suddenly, pierced the auditorium with his eyes, raised his voice and dominated the room. With such oratorical tricks, he created adherents to his inconsistent philosophy. He was a great speaker and a consummate actor. Since the nineteenth was a century of oratory, it is not surprising that he became the virtual dictator of the University (also called the École Normale. He imposed his doctrine on it as official philosophy.

When Victor Cousin was appointed Minister of Public Instruction, his articles and speeches for the freedom of teaching were still recent, so he did not want to contradict himself. On the other hand, Guizot had been able to deal a death blow to Montalembert’s works. Thus, there was no cost to continue studying the issue and delaying any submission to the Chamber as long as possible. Hence, Cousin continued to follow Guizot’s strategy. In so doing, he presented the curious spectacle of the University dictator preparing a law designed to diminish his influence. Of course, no concrete proposal was ready when Cousin left the Ministry of Public Instruction and was replaced by Abel-François Villemain.

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In nineteenth-century French phraseology, Villemain was a perfect honnête homme. A university professor and a good bureaucrat, he meticulously fulfilled the duties of his office. Sincerely faithful to the doctrines of his friends, he could not understand why they criticized him when he carried to the last consequences the principles they ministered to him. As a university student, he supported the State’s educational monopoly but did not understand the game played between François Guizot and Victor Cousin. Hence the preamble of the education bill he quickly prepared and presented to the Chamber read:

“Freedom of education is admitted in principle by the Constitution, but it is not essential to it, and the political freedom’s very character has often been accentuated by the State’s exclusive and absolute influence in youth education.”

Villemain’s projected bill allowed the establishment of free secondary schools under three conditions:

1) Directors and professors must have university degrees, awarded only by the University

2) They must present a certificate of morality.

3) They also had to present a certificate of ability distinct from university degrees.

Furthermore, the religious members of “unauthorized” congregations could not be teachers. Moreover, the bill placed the same requirements on minor seminaries. These had been under the Church’s control and were now subject to the same requirements as secular schools.

Villemain’s biggest mistake was to interfere with the minor seminaries. Faced with the usurpation of their traditional authority, the bishops could not remain silent. They left to the laity the task of conquering the freedom of teaching. Most Rev. Clausel de Montals, Bishop of Chartres, set an example by publicly protesting the bill. He was soon followed by 52 other members of the episcopate. All Catholic newspapers fought the project, publishing pastoral letters condemning it.

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For the first time, Catholic forces were seen to react as a bloc against a bill detrimental to Church rights. Facing such resistance, liberal politicians ruthlessly attacked the bill in the Chamber of Deputies. Indeed, François Guizot and Victor Cousin commanded the attack. Astonished, Villemain watched his own friends combat his ideas, which were also theirs. The projected bill was withdrawn, and Villemain left the Ministry shortly afterward.

It was then that Louis Veuillot became L’Univers’ main editor, and Montalembert returned from the island of Madeira. The episcopate’s collective protest strengthened the Catholic Party. Montalembert and Veillot decided to go on the offensive against the University monopoly. The issue at hand was no longer about getting a license to open Catholic schools. Now, the focus was to fight against the University by showing how its teachings contradicted Catholic doctrine.

Most Rev. Clausel de Montals took the first step in this direction. He wrote a pastoral letter pointing out the errors of Victor Cousin’s philosophy and the dangers it posed for Catholics. L’Univers published this pastoral letter and started a series of articles about the University. Back in the Chamber of Peers, Montalembert gave the signal for combat. In a famous speech, he divided the French into two categories: Catholics, children of the Crusaders, and liberals, children of Voltaire.

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Caught by surprise, liberal politicians tried to avoid fighting. Humbled, Victor Cousin tried to justify himself, as was his habit, by adding explanatory prefaces to his philosophy books. Poet and Member of the French Academy, Charles Augustin Saint-Beuve, called Cousin’s attitude charlatanism. Henri Heine deemed it hypocritical.

This farce was short-lived since the University faced a strong and powerful party. The University’s supporters threw all teachers and their political friends into the battle. In the Chamber of Deputies, referring to Catholics, opposition leader Adolphe Thiers exclaimed, “It is high time we crushed these people with Voltaire’s hands.” The masks had fallen. The well-divided camps would continue to fight until the end of the reign of Louis Philippe in 1848.

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