In any movement of ideas, one must distinguish between doctrines, on the one hand, and ideological tendencies and affective leanings, on the other. Doctrines consist of a body of principles. They are consistent with one another and are spelled out in formulas of crystalline clarity. Ideological tendencies are vague ideas that cannot be translated into clear, well-expressed terms. Affective tendencies are deep aspirations of the soul for certain things to be a certain way. High aspirations powerfully help the mind to comprehend the objective, complete and immaculate truths of the Church. In contrast, low aspirations quickly cloud one’s vision. As such, they lead to imagining that truth exists where there is error and good where evil exists.
In so-called “liberal Catholicism,” one needs to distinguish at least in some currents) its often orthodox doctrines from its tendencies, which are generally heterodox. Its leanings are almost always oriented toward a proud and envious mentality that fights against asceticism, restraint and authority. In short, it is the spirit of the Revolution. These facts must be considered to understand the profound meaning of the rough and turbulent history of so-called liberal Catholicism.
The current’s liberal principles explicitly and radically clash with Catholicism. As such, they must not be spread among Catholics. In nineteenth-century France, these ideas spread in a larval form under the guise of tendencies that led Catholics to accept any pretext not to oppose the times’ profoundly liberal ideas. Thus, they led comfortable and peaceful lives in a society that moved further away from the Church every day.
Until 1848, “liberal Catholicism” practically lived on mistakes. Its leaders avoided stating their tenets clearly to avoid condemnation by the Holy See and rejection by prevailing Catholic opinion. But complacent and conciliatory tendencies in many Catholics allowed liberalism to infiltrate their ranks. Simple formulations took root when the moment was favorable. Powerful reactions from Catholic opinion or condemnation from the Holy Father indicated temporary retreats.
The 1848 establishment of the Second Republic seemed a favorable moment for the movement to win. Its propaganda, until then done covertly and uneasily, became open. Liberals carried their principles to the extreme. But government missteps and Frederic Ozanam’s L’Ère Nouvelle unveiled the liberals’ excesses. The reaction was tremendous. Despite the lamentable support of the Archbishop of Paris, L’Ère Nouvelle died, starved for readers.
Convinced of his mistake, the vacillating Compt de Montalembert, one of the great names of “liberal Catholicism,” raised hopes for a healthy about-face. However, what played a role in his downfall was that Father Felix Dupanloup ideas of “thesis and hypothesis” emerged. Dupanloup was convinced of the incompatibility between liberalism and Catholicism. He also realized how strong the liberal tendency in Catholic circles was. In that light, he gave up advancing liberal doctrines that were explicitly and directly contrary to Catholicism. At the same time, he kept promoting liberal tendencies already widespread among the faithful. This subterfuge gave “liberal Catholicism” the chance to gain ground among Catholics much more easily.
Father Dupanloup was a curious character. Theoretically, he was an Ultramontane, a fervent supporter of the legitimate monarchy, and opposed to Gallicanism. He taught a Catholic could not depart from Ultramontanism’s perfectly true and eternal principles without incurring apostasy. Gallicanism was deemed completely erroneous. Joseph de Maistre’s pro-monarchist ideas were irrefutable, etc. For Dupanloup, all this was perfectly and theoretically true and constituted what he called the thesis.
However, Dupanloup erred in saying that you have to make distinctions. Although the abovementioned thesis was perfectly valid, society was far removed from the Church. Therefore, he taught that a Catholic could legitimately fail to observe all Church doctrines fully, even if Ultramontane. In mid-nineteenth-century France, defending the Inquisition, the pope’s infallibility and the traditions the 1789 Revolution had destroyed was dangerous. Such ideas, he argued, alienated many souls from the Church. A Catholic must be Ultramontane in theory but must also accept society as it was. In practice, a “good” Catholic must be a liberal.
This disconnected moral stance was Father Dupanloup’s famous distinction between thesis and hypothesis. It has a legitimate basis, but the supporting logic was twisted and disfigured. Father Dupanloup abusively employed it to promote “liberal Catholicism.” His theory kept the liberal Catholics from dispersing while placing everything in a theoretical realm that kept it safe from doctrinal attack.
The Catholic Party, however, denied Dupanloup’s claims. Fighting on principle, it had won by uniting Catholics and imposing itself on a society unwilling to recognize it. Thus, Father Dupanloup’s first fight was against the Catholic Party, which had won its high position through Montalembert’s and Louis Veuillot’s diligent labors.
Father Dupanloup could obviously not count on Montalembert. The Compt’s personal misery and Dom Prosper Guérenger’s efforts showed him his previous errors. Montalembert had, after all, been the leader of a party that opposed Dupanloup’s liberalism. Montalembert could not easily disown so many years of struggle to defend precisely the positions he had so often attacked. Father Dupanloup also knew he could not count on Louis Veuillot. A spotless Ultramontane, Veuillot did not admit Dupanloup’s distinctions as rules of conduct.
Father Dupanloup needed to find a respected layman to carry his ideas among Catholic Party leaders. He found that leader in a young and upcoming parliamentarian, Count Alfred de Falloux. Still young, he was practically starting his political life. He was a Deputy for the Vendee, the region of France covered in glory for its resistance to the 1793 Revolution. He was also an Ultramontane and a Legitimist leader. He had inaugurated his public life during the reign of Louis Philippe. Still, He had yet to distinguish himself in parliamentary life before 1848, apart from writing a history of Louis XVI and a life of Saint Pius V. In his biography of the Counter-Reformation Pope, he openly professed his Ultramontane faith. He tenaciously fought revolutionaries in the Republican Assembly. These activities all earned him significant and growing influence.
In his notes, the English ambassador to France refers to the young Count thus:
“Amid the wreckage of so many reputations suddenly cast into the murky waters of Revolution, only one at this moment weathers the storm. No one would have expected that the Count of Falloux—unknown in the previous Chamber except as a fervent legitimist, amiable and distinguished in his manners—would conquer the position he now occupies in the republican Constituent Assembly so quickly. He displayed calmness and energy that ensured his ascendancy even among those not previously sympathetic to him.”
The chronicler of the Revue des Deux Mondes said: “He can go very far; he is measured, tactful, cold-blooded, and his great countenance has the air of a son of crusaders.”
The Count of Falloux had not participated in the struggles for freedom of education. However, he quickly achieved great political standing. He was, therefore, the ideal man to carry out Father Dupanloup’s projects. Dupanloup’s first job was to bring him closer to Montalembert. Then, the liberal priest launched him to solve the continuing impasse over the freedom of education.