The Liberal L’Ami de la Réligion Tries and Fails to Supplant the Ultramontane L’Univers

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The Liberal L’Ami de la Réligion Tries and Fails to Supplant the Ultramontane L’Univers
The Liberal L’Ami de la Réligion Tries and Fails to Supplant the Ultramontane L’Univers

While the revolutionary tendencies of Napoleon III’s government were becoming increasingly apparent, his attitude towards the Holy See gradually changed. At the beginning of the Second Empire, France protected Pius IX against the Italian Carbonarians. However, after Orsini’s attempted assassination of the Emperor in 1858, the situation changed. Sure of having captured the sympathies of Catholics definitively, the Emperor took off his mask. He directed his foreign policy functionaries to support the unification of the Italian Peninsula openly.

L’Univers had initially shown confidence in the Empire, given its good dispositions toward the Church. However, seeing the abyss into which Napoleon III was plunging, the paper began to fight him vigorously. Since l’Univers was the undisputed leader of French Catholics, its opposition seriously undermined the government’s plans. Thus, the government strove to create a Catholic newspaper to counter Louis Veuillot. We have shown how several attempts in this direction had already failed. However, toward the end of 1858, that goal almost succeeded.

In 1854, the liberal Bishop Felix Dupanloup had put Father André Sisson on the editorial staff of L’Ami de la réligion. The priest continued his association with the paper after the bishop severed his ties with it. Before long, Father Sisson became its sole owner and decided to turn it into a daily. At that time, such changes depended on governmental authorization. He also requested that the paper’s name be changed.

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To entice the government, Father Sisson promised to transform L’Ami de la réligion into a faithfully Gallican paper. He also pledged that it would present itself as an exclusively ecclesiastical admirer of the Minister of Worship. As if this were not enough, he added: “L’Ami de la réligion will endeavor only to defend the conservative principles of society, which the imperial government protects so firmly and steadfastly. In keeping with its title and the mission it proposes, it recognizes and praises the imperial government, whose services to France and Religion undoubtedly entitles it to the recognition and adherence of good people.”

The license for the paper to become a daily was granted, but not the name change. This was a significant detail. The government preferred having a traditional mouthpiece of the Catholic movement at its service. A new newspaper could not create the desired effect of confusing the faithful.

Father Sisson’s projects received great publicity, and he began to carry them out. However, his hopes for L’Ami de la réligion were short-lived. Catholics continued to follow l’Univers. The failure was such that the episode would not ordinarily even deserve mention had it not given rise to a letter from Gustave Rouland, the Minister of Religious Affairs, to his colleague at the Interior Ministry. It aptly summarized the religious situation in France and showed the importance and success of Louis Veuillot’s apostolate. Here it is, in its entirety:

“For many years, the religious stance of L’Ami de la réligion has been satisfactory for its moderation in ideas and discussions. Above all, this newspaper represented French traditions against l’Univers, which preached Ultramontane claims excessively. However, the same was not true of L’Ami de la réligion’s political tendencies. Its owners and leaders were Legitimists and Orleanists, so they aimed at a so-called fusion, carefully avoided adhering to the imperial government, and made hostile allusions to it. Consequently, the paper only managed to obtain the support of a few bishops, as most of them did not want, in religious discussions, to rely on a paper reputed to be contrary to men of the Empire.

“That state of affairs seems to have changed, which does not surprise me. As is well known, some French bishops bear with impatience the role of ‘lay papacy’ played by l’Univers. They figure the invasion of Italian doctrines and practices destroys the episcopate and its authority over the lower clergy. As a result, they would like to have a moderate but firm mouthpiece that the government could accept for its sincere political opinions. I believe these numerous bishops helped Father Sisson to become the sole owner of L’Ami de la réligion to disentangle the paper from inconvenient or harmful political patronage.

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“Father Sisson came to see me and gave me the most positive assurances. Your Excellency will be able to call on him in turn and appreciate his statements’ loyalty and energy, in which I have complete confidence. Indeed, dear minister and colleague, in the present state of religious affairs, I do not hesitate to consider useful the daily publication of L’Ami de la réligion established on these new bases. It is a powerful aid offered to the French episcopate to free itself from the heavy yoke of l’Univers. Faithful to French traditions, the prudent clergy, friendly to the imperial government, will have a mouthpiece, and all our young priests, so excited by the seductions of a universal theocracy, will learn to reflect and to obey.

“The religious press has no reason to exist, but since it exists in a bold, fiery, and often dangerous newspaper, counterbalance and contradiction become indispensable. For these reasons, I would be happy to see Your Excellency give Father Sisson the authorization he requests.”

Note from the editor: The move backfired. When the government’s involvement in L’Ami de la Réligion became public knowledge, the information smashed the paper’s credibility. In 1859, its circulation was one-third of that of l’Univers. L’Ami de la Réligion published its last issue on June 14, 1862. 1

Photo Credit:  © Vlastimil Šestá


  1. See “The Rise and Fall of L’Ami de la Religion: History, Purpose, and Readership of a French Catholic Newspaper” by M. Patricia Dougherty, O.P. in The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 77, No. 1 (January 1991),

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