Upon taking possession of the Archdiocese of Paris, Most Rev. Marie-Dominique-Auguste Sibour called himself ultramontane. Almost immediately, however, he began to defend religious liberalism and support the republic. Besides attacking the Church, the Parisian anti-Catholic newspapers published the Archbishop’s pastoral letters, on which they lavished praise. Sibour’s liberal ideas spread throughout France. The only opposition came from l’Univers and its editor Louis Veuillot.
The paper’s influence was far from negligible. It influenced Catholic thought as much as any major newspaper. Naturally, the publication exasperated the prelate. After the failure of his Moniteur Catholique, he could not bear that the only Catholic paper in his diocese kept silent about his orders. It followed a completely different orientation. Thus, the Archbishop longed for an opportunity to impose his will on Louis Veuillot.
The occasion soon arose. The aged bishop of Chartres, Most Rev. Clausel de Montals, had Gallican leanings. Nevertheless, he was a very combative legitimist. The bishop soon grew tired of seeing Archbishop Sibour’s errors gaining ground in his diocese. Bishop de Montals issued a pastoral letter against them and sent it to Veuillot with an express order to publish it. After consultation, Thomas-Marie-Joseph Cardinal Gousset of Reims declared that the publication could and should be done. L’Univers printed the pastoral letter with a short introduction by Bishop Clausel de Montals.
The same evening, the two secretaries of the Archbishop of Paris contacted Veuillot. They communicated an order to publish a decree by Archbishop Sibour, which denounced the Bishop of Chartres to the next Council of Paris. Veuillot and his associate, Melchior Du Lac, were summoned to the episcopal palace the next day. In the presence of three priests, the prelate warned them that, under penalty of excommunication, l’Univers was forbidden to publish anything on the subject, no matter where it came from. That warning carried, the Archbishop said, the penalty of excommunication. The apostolic nuncio to France, Msgr. Raffaele Fornari intervened with Pope Pius IX on Veuillot’s behalf. The case was closed, but the threat of punishing the newspaper remained in the air.
In 1851, a controversy between l’Univers and Émile de Girardin gave Archbishop Sibour another occasion to manifest his antipathy toward Veuillot. Girardin was a leading Parisian journalist and the editor of La Presse. Several other secular newspapers took La Presse as their standard. Girardin preached unabashed liberalism, including matters that were virulently anti-Catholic and anti-clerical.
When the polemic reached a head, Archbishop Sibour decided to intervene. He summoned Veuillot, who later reported the conversation.
On Monday, September 29, 1851, the Archbishop wrote asking me to look for him at St. Sulpice Seminary. I was punctual and found him with a priest who, if I am not mistaken, was Msgr. Ravinet. Msgr. Buquet entered a little later.
With great hesitation and searching for words, the Archbishop, as is his custom, began by speaking of his tender heart as bishop and father and his duty to give me advice. He even added some compliments on the newspaper and other exaggerated compliments about me.
“But,” he said, “these qualities are not without blemish, and the way you use them is not without danger. You have much ardor but lack charity. We Catholics must suffer everything from our adversaries and never speak except with gentleness and moderation, as Saint Augustine did.”
I understood what he was getting at. He was quick to add, cheering up a bit, that the polemics of the last few days with socialist and republican newspapers were deplorable, ominous, etc., and considerably harmed religion among the masses. I asked him if we should keep quiet when people mocked the Holy Infant and the Medal. He replied that we should answer slanderers but limit ourselves to re-establishing the facts. I pointed out that this was exactly what we did: we re-established the truth with great gentleness against people who had covered us and religion with insults and kept slandering us despite our rectifications. The bishop abandoned these two controversies and spoke about the current one against Girardin. He said:
“This [controversy] is especially deplorable. It deeply irritates our friends, who think you have gone beyond all measure and harms the masses. Mr. Girardin greatly influences them, and his newspaper is ubiquitous. The masses take sides with him, and the exasperation this polemic causes them has reached its maximum. I have received shocking reports. You do not know what is happening and cannot predict what may happen. The greatest dangers threaten us, and I, who have to defend the lives of my priests and protect religious buildings, must warn you of the dangers you are making us run. When danger comes, you can put yourself in safety…”
I answered, “No, Your Excellency, I have a wife and five children, which is not easy to move, so that I will stay.”
He continued, “Finally, the clergy is in trouble. Religious buildings, churches, everything is in the hands of the people, who will turn their rage against those who seem to think as you do, and I must warn you of the evil you do. If this continues, I will again be obliged to publicly separate the cause of the Church from these excesses that compromise it.”
Convinced that the Archbishop greatly exaggerated Girardin’s influence on the people and the danger that controversy caused, I listened to this speech with more astonishment and disgust than emotion. I answered that I had wished to fulfill my duty and did not believe I had exceeded the measure of right and justice concerning Mr. Girardin. In my opinion, this man was a public enemy, and I considered him mad; I supposed that I had given him every possible excuse by speaking of his madness.
I added that I was most likely to be threatened by their furor as I was the daily object of direct calumnies. As for the Archbishop, Girardin had already detached him from our cause by praising his pastoral letters’ eloquence, strength and charity and quoting them to support his doctrines.
By the way, upon finishing (I was anxious to do so because the bishop kept interrupting me), I said, “I regret this polemic has incurred Your Excellency’s disapproval. Still, I am pleased to announce that it is over. By this morning, I intended not to continue it. Given that Your Excellency so wishes, I will cease it most willingly.”
That statement seemed to satisfy him, but he wanted more. After trying to express his thoughts for a long time, he gave me to understand that he wished me to apologize publicly to Girardin. I shook my head in disagreement. He insisted.
“No, Monsignor,” I said.
“But you could say that I asked for it and say: yielding to an intervention of our well-loved prelate…obeying his express wish and remarks…recognizing we used some very strong words in the heat of the polemic…”
I interrupted him.
“No, Monsignor. I would cause great harm if I did that. Those wretches might be happy, but Christians would be much more dismayed than you can imagine.”
He saw he shouldn’t insist and didn’t. He proceeded to give general advice on moderation and charity. I told him that a straightforward way to end polemics was for him or one of his Vicars General to take up the pen and restore the truth of the facts whenever a newspaper presented them falsely and in a way hostile to religion.
“So,” I said, “if such a letter had immediately repelled the slanders of the République about the Holy Infant and the Holy Medal, we would not have needed to intervene.”
Smiling, he replied that this would not be enough. He intended to publish a series of pastoral letters on various controversial questions, taking care to employ only weapons that had earned him some popularity.
I replied that he needed to do it as soon as possible and that no other voice would have his authority. However, our enemies knew how to hypocritically and perfidiously use the beautiful things he wrote while trying to refute them. The conversation then dropped into generalities.
In the evening, Veuillot went to l’Univers and found a copy of Avènement, Girardin’s satellite newspaper. It contained an article faithfully summarizing Veuillot’s interview with the Archbishop. Veuillot wrote Archbishop Sibour to inform him that, under these conditions, he could not cease writing about the controversy as he had promised. Since the Archbishop could not publicly take sides with Émile de Girardin, the articles continued. Despite the Archbishop’s warnings, nothing happened to the priests or the religious buildings of Paris.
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