Lamennais and The Catholic Church in France
By Christopher Dawson
It is impossible to understand religious and cultural developments in the abstractions of
contemporaneity, without reference to history. "Renewal," "revival," "reform": the whole history of
the Church and Christian culture is involved with such movements; and while they often differ in
purpose and direction, a certain continuity can be seen. They also usually have some common
elements and some important lessons to teach. One such movement is the Mennaisian phase of the
Catholic Revival in France in the early nineteenth century which began with great promise and ended
in failure, a tragedy that is summed up in the ill-starred career of its founder, Robert de Lamennais.
In order to comprehend the modern world at all, one of the first things to remember is the
extraordinary influence exerted by the French culture, above all in the eighteenth century. French was
the common language of all educated people,the language of international politics and diplomacy, of
learning and literature and, above all, of social intercourse and public communication. Hence the
immense importance of the French Enlightenment was due not so much to the intrinsic value of its
ideas as to the wide publicity they enjoyed. This diffusion of French thought probably reached its
climax during the era of the Revolution, so that, as de Maistre said, the lightest opinion of the French
people was like a battering ram with 20 million men behind it.
Now throughout the greater part of this period the international influence of French culture had a
very anti-Catholic character since it became increasingly identified, first with the anticlerical
rationalism of the Encyclopedists and Voltaire, and then with Rousseau and his revolutionary disciples.
When at last the current of opinion changed, the tide of the international diffusion of French culture
had slackened, but enough remained to give the French Catholic revival an exceptional importance in
the development of modern Catholicism.
It may seem difficult to account for the revival at all in the light of the anti-Catholic and anti-
clerical tendencies in France throughout the whole modern period. In fact, or so it seems to me, it was
the persecution that the Church underwent which was largely responsible for its expansion and vitality.
Twice the clergy or religious orders were driven out of the country, but each of these persecutions was
followed by an increase of strength and spiritual activity. For persecution and exile force men to face
reality. Certainly the revival of French Catholicism dates from the darkest period of the Revolutionary
terror when Catholic exiles were scattered all over the world, when the elite of the clergy were rotting
in the prison hulks at La Rochelle or in the swamps of Guiana. In this unprecedented situation a large
responsibility fell upon the laity. It was the Catholic women of France who kept the faith alive in the
time of the Terror and the years of slow persecution that followed. And it was laymen who had to
speak for the Church when the pulpits had been closed and the Catholic colleges and schools of
theology had been dispersed.
The influence of laymen is very conspicuous at the beginning of the Catholic revival. The
ideological change which ended the reign of the eighteenth-century rationalists over the French mind
and restored the intellectual prestige of Christianity was the work of three gentlemen who had little or
no theological education, but who had learned in the hard school of exile that theological principles are
the only ones that matter, that only in their light do history and the science of society become
intelligible. These men were Count Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), his friend Vicomte Louis de
Bonald (1753-1840), and Vicomte Francois Rene de Chateaubriand (1768-1848).
Chateaubriand, a brilliant rhetorician who was able to charm and convince the man in the street or
rather, perhaps, the lady in the salon, was the most immediately influential. He realized that the most
effective form of apologetics was not to engage in sterile arguments with rationalists who could never
be convinced but to go behind them to the general public and arouse their sympathy and emotions.
The other two writers had none of his popular romantic appeal. Bonald was a serious, rather
ponderous thinker who was the real founder of the traditionalist philosophy which had such a deep
influence on Catholic theologians and non-Catholic sociologists during the first half of the nineteenth
century; while de
Maistre was a brilliant and paradoxical writer who despised publicity and popularity,his main works
were published only in the last three years of his life. But he was the most important of the three
owing to the influence exerted on the development of the Ultramontane movement in the nineteenth
century by his book ).
His argument is a very simple one and is sociological rather than theological in character. He
argued, to put it briefly, that there can be no civilization without morals, no morals without religion,
no religion for Europe without Christianity, no Christianity without Catholicism, and no Catholicism
without the Pope. Thus the Papacy becomes the keystone of the arch on which the whole edifice of
Western civilization rests and which unites social order to religious truth. It is the central argument of
the new Ultramontanism which was transmitted to a whole school of writers. There is something in
the clarity and simplicity of the argument that appeals to the French mind, and it is not surprising that
the young generation that came to maturity in the age of the Restoration (1815-1830) should have
found in it the answer to their needs. For it was a time of uncertainty,Napoleon had fallen, the
principles of the Revolution were discredited, the old monarchy had been restored and the younger
Catholics hoped for a return to the ages of faith and the ancient bond between Church and state.
But things were not so simple, and Louis XVIII knew it. The King was no follower of de Maistre,
but a cautious, canny, skeptical politician, who did his best to maintain the uneasy balance between the
old and the new orders. But his ecclesiastical advisers were men of the old regime, like Archbishop
Tallyrand-Perigard, who had not forgiven the Papacy for its concordat with Napoleon and who held to
the Gallican principles,that is, the independence of the temporal power, the denial of the theological
infallibility and of the universal authority of the Papacy,principles which de Maistre and the younger
Catholics held in abhorrence. Thus there ensued a complicated conflict between Gallican royalists,
Ultramontane royalists, liberal constitutionalists, and liberal Bonapartists that was ultimately to prove
so disastrous both to the monarchy and to the Church.
It was in this confused situation that Catholicism found a new champion. He was the young Breton
priest, Felicite Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854). Lamennais began his career as a royalist, a
traditionalist, and an ultramontane. He was to end it as a republican, a liberal, and a rebel against all
ecclesiastical authority. Yet there is a certain consistency in his character and his career, for he was
always a rebel and an individualist in spite of all his successive theories,forever in conflict with the
officials and the powers of this world. He was never a theologian, for though he became a priest in
1816, he did so abruptly, without completing the regular course of clerical and theological studies.
And on becoming a priest his friends forced him (rather against his will, to judge by his letters: a
presentiment of disaster may be seen here) to come forward as a writer in defense of the Catholic
His initial effort in 1817, the first volume of his ,
had an extraordinary success. Like de Maistre and Bonald his approach is essentially sociological,a
demonstration of the necessity of religion for society, of authority for religion, and of the Catholic
faith as the sole ultimate source of intellectual certitude. It was the first time that the new traditionalist
philosophy had been put in a form that could be readily understood by the general educated public. As
Lamartine said, Lamennais thought like de Maistre and wrote like Rousseau. The combination at once
gave him a leading position among French Catholics and a European reputation. During the next
fifteen years he was the idol of the young Catholic intelligentsia and increasingly became convinced
that he had a mission,almost a prophetic mission,to teach the new principles and ideas on which a
general restoration of the Catholic social order should be based.
It was inevitable that such a movement should arouse the opposition of the adherents of the old
order in Church and state, exacerbated by the fact that Lamennais' principles were continually in
process of evolution, each raising a new set of opponents. While de Maistre remained outside the
mélee, Lamennais plunged rashly into the fray and took part in every controversy. Thus he joined the
staff of the ,the new organ of the ultra-royalist opposition to the official royalist
ministry of Décazes. This identification with the extreme royalists was damaging in its own right, and
when his allies came into power with Charles X, he quickly lost their sympathy as well by his attitudes
on Gallicanism and his criticism of the new government for its failure to adopt a frankly ultramontane
The fact is that Lamennais was more of an ultramontane than a royalist and more of a theocrat than
an ultramontane. Thus his book (1825-1826) was a vigorous attack against the government of Charles X on the grounds of its
secularism, its practical acceptance of the separation of Church and state, and above all its continued
adherence to the old Gallican principles. The book held that the universal Church is the only
foundation of social order, since it is the only universal society. The kingdoms of this world cannot
stand by themselves, for they have no principles of spiritual life. If the kingdoms refuse to recognize
the source of their authority, they will go down once more into the gulf of an even more destructive
revolution. And should the nations ever re-emerge, it would be because the Church was still there to
gather the fragments and to rebuild a new, but different, Christian civilization.
It was the first sign of Lamennais' new attitude with regard to the monarchy; up to now he had
been an extreme partisan of the union of Church and state as an ally of the ultraroyalists. His
estrangement from the royalists was greatly increased when the government yielded to the pressure of
the Gallican party and prosecuted Lamennais for his ultramontane propaganda. (It does seem the
height of folly that, while Charles X was becoming more and more unpopular on account of his
support of the Church and his supposed dependence on the Jesuits, his government should launch an
attack on the most brilliant and popular Catholic apologist. The only result, besides a fine of thirty
francs, was to widen the rift in the Catholic ranks, and to convert Lamennais from an embarrassing
ally into a formidable antagonist.) His next book, (1829), calls upon the Church to disassociate itself from politics and renounce its
dangerous alliances with an institution destined to perish. "Be priests, be bishops, and nothing more."
The Church must concentrate its forces on its true mission, above all the intellectual mission of
bringing Catholic teaching and education into relation with the modern mind. "It is the business of the
clergy not to follow, but to direct the progressive movement of human thought. . . . The progress of
the revolution cannot be checked, but the future lies in your hands." When this book was censored by
the Archbishop of Paris, Msgr. De Quelen, a Gallican of the old school, Lamennais answered him in
two vigorous pamphlets in which he dismissed his venerable critic with an unheard of contempt.
There was now an open breach between Lamennais and the authorities, but he remained confident
of Rome's support. In his Breton home of La Chesnaie he surrounded himself with a brilliant group
of young priests and men of letters. Consequently, when the revolution of July 1830 broke out
unexpectedly, Lamennais felt that his hour had come and he proceeded to launch his great campaign
for the reconciliation of the Church and the modern world in the name of God and Liberty. In the
spirit of the age and his own genius he found the organ for his movement in a daily newspaper, the
famous , whose staff was recruited from his disciples at La Chesnaie and from
sympathizers in the new Catholic and liberal state of Belgium.
lasted for little more than a year. Its program was, briefly: separation of Church and
state; a free Church in a free state; freedom of religious education; universal suffrage; freedom of the
press; and freedom of association. But the program was perhaps less important than the spirit in
which it was preached,the extraordinary verve and conviction with which all the leading contributors
wrote. It was great journalism and it owed its success above all to Lamennais' power of infusing his
convictions and ideals into the minds and pens of his collaborators. r made a deep
impression on the mind of Europe, for a new power had arisen, a non-revolutionary liberalism coupled
with a non-reactionary Catholicism. The Mennaisian movement also attempted to develop an
international political arm: the Act of Union announced in 1831 bound liberal Catholics of various
nationalities to mutual assistance in defense of liberal principle. It was this step, even more than the
literary propaganda of , that alarmed the Vatican and led to the eventual condemnation of
When the growing ecclesiastical opposition and lack of funds made it necessary to suspend
in 1831, Lamennais determined to make a personal appeal to the Pope, a decision to
which he gave the greatest possible publicity in the last number of his journal. "If we retire for a
moment from the field of battle it is not that we are exhausted, still less discouraged. . . . Staff in
hand we take our way to the Chair of Peter, and there, prostrate at the feet of the Pontiff whom Jesus
Christ has set as the guide and master of His disciples, we will say: 'O Father, deign to look on some
of the least of your children who are accused of being rebels against your infallible authority . . . even
if one of their thoughts departs from yours, they disavow and abjure it. You are the rule of their
doctrines,never, never have they known another. . . ."
This resounding appeal put both Rome and Lamennais in a false position. It forced the Pope to
make a definite pronouncement on the new doctrines, and it pledged the contributors to
to total submission. Yet nothing should have been clearer than that Rome could never give full
endorsement to the program , and that Lamennais would never disavow his new
There can be no doubt that Lamennais never seriously considered the possibility of a hostile
verdict. But when the three "pilgrims of God and Liberty," Lamennais, and two
associates, Lacordaire and Montalembert, reached Rome on December 30, 1831, they were quickly
brought down to earth. The Rome of Gregory XVI was not the Rome of Leo XII, any more than the
Lamennais of 1832 was the Lamennais of 1824. In 1824 everything had combined to welcome the
brilliant young representative of the Catholic revival; now he had arrived, as a man condemned by his
own bishops as the promoter of dangerous ideas, to a Rome which was profoundly alarmed by the
progress of the Revolution and thoroughly hostile to the whole liberal ideology.
It was not until Lamennais had left Italy that the news of the Pope's condemnation via the encyclical
reached him. He and his friends made an immediate act of submission, winding up
and dissolving the political arm. But Lamennais' submission was only formal. His
correspondence during his stay in Rome shows that he had already begun to despair of the state of the
Church, and he was determined to carry on his mission. Henceforward, however, it should be
directed not to the Church but to the people. And this decision bore fruit in his most famous book,
, written in 1833 in the heat of his disappointment and published the
following year. It caused the final break; for Rome, not unnaturally, was unable to appreciate
Lamennais' distinction between what he wrote for the people and what he wrote for the Church. It
was an apocalyptic work written in biblical language with the authority of a prophet. Lamennais'
prophesying is hard to reconcile with his promise to the Pope to cease writing on Church matters, and
it is explicable only on the grounds that he believed that the Church was no longer capable of
regenerating society,that the work must be done from the outside. He even wrote to the Archbishop
of Paris that he was determined to write in the future only on philosophical, scientific and political
subjects and that the little book of which the Archbishop had heard dealt purely with politics! Rome
did not view it in this light, and the condemnation of the book in the encyclical was
as sweeping and severe as any imaginable. This time there was no question of submission. Lamennais
saw his friends and disciples leave him one after another, but he remained unyielding.
In 1836 he published his classic apologia, , which marks his farewell to the
Catholic Church and to the movement he had led for so many years. He was to live another seventeen
years and to continue to write, but his real life ended when he left La Chesnaie in May 1836. For
nearly 20 years he had been the central figure of the Catholic revival in France; the rest of his life was
a time of tragic disillusionment,a journey into the wilderness, moving farther and farther away from
his earlier faith, without ever finding a spiritual home or a final resting place.
Yet all this time the work he had initiated went on. His former disciples, Lacordaire,
Montalembert, Gerbet, Pere d'Alzon, Dom Gueranger, and the rest, continued to play a leading part in
the revival of French Catholicism, and many of them looked back to their days at La Chesnaie as the
turning point in their lives.
Lamennais was not a theologian, not a saint, not a great philosopher, not a successful man of
action. But he was a man of genius and great influence. He had a rare gift of communicating a new
spiritual vision and a new impetus to a chosen few, and it is impossible to understand the history of
religion and culture unless we take into account these powers of communication that create new cells
and centers of spiritual activity and form new elites. Lamennais' gift was the same one that Newman
possessed at Oxford, at almost the same time. That they both were influential in forming our own
times is apparent.
This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Summer 1995, P.O. Box 332,
Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.