The government’s unjust and unwise lawsuits against Catholics who criticized the National University System (called “the University”) strengthened the position of the Catholic Party in nineteenth-century France. The University’s supporters decided to go all out to end the resistance to their teaching monopoly. Their short-term goal was to obtain the Assembly’s approval of a new bill that the Minister of Public Instruction, Abel François Villemain, sent to the Chambers. The bill kept and sharpened the provisions of the previous attempts. It would enshrine the University bureaucrats as the dictators of French education. Anyone wishing to establish a free high school would have to face a complex examination before a panel comprised mainly of University members or supporters.
The University’s supporters took all possible precautions. The project would first be discussed in the Chamber of Peers (or Senate), where the government had almost complete unanimity. Then it would go to the Upper Chamber, which offered no serious resistance. To avoid the Bishops’ objections, minor seminaries were not affected—a key factor that had forced the ministry to withdraw the previous bill.
However, the freedom of education campaign had already provided the Catholic Party with an ecclesiastical leader of great worth—Most Rev. Pierre-Louis Parisis, Bishop of Langres. As a newly elected bishop in 1851, Parisis immediately took an active part in the Ultramontane movement. Thanks to his energetic and decisive attitude, he became one of its leading exponents. An eminent theologian, he consistently supported Louis Veuillot and the French ultramontanes whenever Catholic opinions split.
Followed by many confreres, Bishop Parisis and Bishop Claude-Hippolyte Clausel de Montal of Chartres were the first to protest against the new government coup, which seemed doomed to complete failure.
However, the Chamber of Peers appointed Duc Victor de Broglie as rapporteur for the bill. The Duke was a practicing Catholic but one who put his political convictions above his faith. He managed to get around the situation by deftly polishing the bill’s edges, changing its wording so as not to clash directly with Catholic doctrine. At the same time, the government launched a new campaign against the Catholic Party. Ultramontanes had, the government charged, ‘forced’ it to present a new bill because devout Catholics had attacked the University with such ‘violence and injustice.’
At first, confusion spread in Catholic circles. This maneuver would have been fatal were it not for the vigilance of Catholic leaders and Louis Veuillot’s tireless pen. He severely reprimanded the naivete of many of his companions in the struggle. One of his articles ended thus: “Already weary from a struggle that has just begun, Catholics welcome these vain and merely formal improvements. They take a change of prison as a hope of freedom and see that hope as freedom. They allow themselves to be lulled by beautiful dreams just because the jailer took off their irons, calling them prisoners of violence and injustice. If that were to happen, we would prefer Mr. Villemain’s brutal plan a hundred times: at least he did not hide his desire to break us and would deceive no one. For God’s sake: be victims, but don’t be ridiculous.”
Fortunately, Bishop Parisis, the Comte de Montalembert and Louis Veuillot were strongly united in exposing the Duc de Broglie’s misleading rhetoric. Pamphlets, brochures, and articles against the University multiplied. All Catholic newspapers fought the University on every issue. Leading the movement, L’Univers made possible the cohesion of the Catholic Party around Montalembert, its undisputed leader.
In L’Univers, Veuillot and Montalembert commented about discussions in the Chamber of Peers. It is interesting to note their language, as Montalembert later bitterly criticized Louis Veuillot’s violent words. We will reproduce two excerpts, one by Veuillot and the other by Montalembert.
Commenting on Victor Cousin’s participation in the debates, Veuillot wrote: “[Cousin], a Doctor of Eclecticism, showed himself more as a rhetorician than a politician; a university student more than a rhetorician; a courtier more than a university student; and a comedian more than anything else. At times, Mr. Cousin had tears in his voice praising the University; at other times, referring to the Jesuits, he turned away in horror from the glass of sugar water as if some pious hand had laced it with poison.”
Montalembert, in turn, did not spare Count Louis-Mathieu Molé, who had become a symbol of French politics. Even some in Catholic circles revered Count Molé as a model of balance and common sense. Of him, Montalembert said: “We can also observe the active, noble, dignified, significant and eloquent attitude the Count of Molé has taken in this debate, he who some of our Catholic acquaintances optimistically deem a defender of the bishops’ votes. The most serious, delicate, and essential questions for the Church’s honor and security were addressed daily for three weeks. Everything the bishops most feared and fought against was approved without modification. Did this intrepid champion of religious interests keep silent? No. He rose, composed his majestic self with a haughty air, and asked to speak in an imperious tone. Everyone kept silent and turned their attention to him. The oracle spoke: ‘Mister Chancellor, I ask that subparagraph 3 be voted on before subparagraph 2 of the bill under discussion.’ And he sat down with the calm grandeur of one with a satisfied conscience, who had fulfilled his duty.”
Positively, it is impossible to know which of the two was more combative.
The discussion began in the Chamber of Peers with the Compt de Montalembert’s opposition. Isolated at first, he waged a fierce battle against the Duc de Broglie’s report. Montalembert confronted the biggest names in French politics and the University leaders. Gradually, he gained supporters for the Catholic cause. His performance was so brilliant that his opinions carried the day, 85 votes to 51. Never before had the Chamber of Peers seen such opposition. In this campaign, Montalembert reached his political zenith.
The Chamber of Deputies was supposed to discuss the project immediately afterward. However, the body did not receive the bill before the parliamentary vacation. A period of truce began. During this break, Thiers, the project’s rapporteur in the Lower House, articulated a counter-offensive. Using a tactic that had always been successful in campaigns against the Church. Seeing itself lost, the University attacked the Jesuits. This diversion divided Catholics. Thus, the University system’s supporters were victorious, creating a pause in the Church’s struggle for the freedom to teach in her own schools.
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