Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Thomas C. KohlerAugust 17, 2009

The already elderly Pope John XXIII—elected only weeks earlier primarily to sit as a “placeholder” on the chair of Peter—startled the church and the world 50 years ago last January by announcing his intention to convene an ecumenical council. Since the moment of its announcement, heated quarrels over the advisability, meaning and fruits of the council have gone on unabated—a sort of Fifty Year (and counting) War—leaving many of us who have few memories or none at all of the Second Vatican Council to wonder how and why it all came about in the first place.

Major events typically have deep and tangled historical roots. John XXIII said that the idea for a council came suddenly to him, as a “heavenly inspiration,” and bloomed like a flower “in an unanticipated spring.” Of course he and the council fathers had predecessors who helped set the conditions for what would occur there. This anniversary year provides an occasion to remember one of them: Félicité Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854). Although he died over a century before the council took place (1962-65), Lamennais anticipated some of its most significant developments. Even now, his ideas and concerns have a remarkably modern ring to them. An acquaintance with his life and work may provide an appreciation for some of what the council addressed and why.

Largely unknown today, Lamennais played a larger than life role in the church and world of his time. Even the American press widely took note of his passing. “A notable death belongs to the French news,” reported Harper’s Magazine in the “Editor’s Easy Chair” section of its June 1854 edition. “It is that of the strange old man, the Abbé Lammenais [sic].” “He was a strange French compound of saint and sinner,” the editor continued a bit luridly, “being full of humanity” and “indulging in grand conceptions about faith and immortality, and yet (as we ordinarily use the language) irreligious and infidel; he was intensely intellectual, and yet, at times, in his long life, sensual—to a crime.”

Little about Lamennais’s rigorous life betrays sensuality of any sort. Paradox, however, filled it. Prodigiously intelligent and hardworking, deeply principled and courageous, he also could be impatient, unyielding and, when convinced of the rightness of his views, tragically headstrong. If a prophetic voice possessed him, a prophetic personality afflicted him as well.

Despite this, Lamennais’s work and character drew a large and accomplished circle to him. Pope Leo XII (d. 1829) was said to have admired Lamennais so much that he kept a portrait of him in his chambers and considered raising him to the cardinalate. Lamennais’s circle included Dom Prosper Guéranger (who refounded the Benedictine Abbey at Solesmes and reintroduced Gregorian Chant); Emmanuel d’Alzon (founder of the Augustinians of the Assumption); Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire (the celebrated preacher and reorganizer of the Dominicans in France); as well as people like Franz Liszt, George Sand, Victor Hugo (who made his first confession to Lamennais) and Adam Mickiewicz (poet, Polish revolutionary and favorite of Pope John Paul II), to mention but a few. Like many contemporaries, Alexis de Tocqueville was well acquainted with his work.

Apostolate of the Pen

Lamennais was born in 1782 at Saint-Malo, on the Brittany coast, just doors away from the house in which Chateaubriand had been born 14 years earlier. Lamennais’s mother died when he was 5, after which an uncle took charge of his education by locking the boy in the uncle’s well-stocked library and letting him read whatever suited him. Lamennais lost his early religious ardor, but with the guidance of his older brother, Jean, a priest, he returned to the faith and received his first Communion at the age of 22.

For the next several years, Lamennais taught mathematics at a college where Jean taught theology. There he engaged in intensive studies under Jean’s direction. After some indecision, Lamennais was ordained in 1816. Although he once promised himself to stop writing, as a means of suppressing pride, the intellectual apostolate formed the core of his life. His pen never lay far from his hand. Lamennais wrote what he personally experienced. Political revolution, religious persecution and social upheaval seared and suffused the experience of his times. The renewal of the church and civil society, developing the principle of solidarity, promoting authentic self-rule through subsidiarity and responding to social questions of the day represent key themes in Lamennais’s work.

His 1817 work Essay on Indifference in Matters of Religion, catapulted Lamennais to fame. There he argues “without religion, no society.” The declaration of self-sovereignty and the sufficiency of one’s own reasoning abilities that lie at the heart of both Protestantism and modernity, he contends, corroded the basis of religious and temporal authority alike. The essay did more than present a head-on challenge to Cartesian skepticism and the Reformers’ claims. Whatever its shortcomings, in the essay Lamennais also built a systematic argument for “absolute truth.” In his view (later called “traditionalism”), truth reveals itself through general reason (sensus communis)—that is, in the ideas and understandings universally assented to by people through time. The communal basis of our knowledge supported Lamennais’s arguments for our innate sociality.

Lamennais’s strong ultramontanist views and his insistence on church-state separation put him at odds with much of the French hierarchy. Their Gallicanism posited that temporal authority limits papal primacy, and that a general council of bishops is superior to papal teaching authority. This, Lamennais argued, made the state the supreme judge of morals and belief and subjected the bishops to state control, while curbing the pope from carrying out his responsibility to act as the “defender of justice and the rights of humanity.” Any alliance between church and state, he adamantly maintained, injured both while putting individuals at risk.

Renewal represented more than a matter of theory to Lamennais, who always joined his words with action. Convinced that renewal demanded new forms of priestly activity, he founded the Congregation of St. Peter, whose special task would be the analysis of the old and the building up of the new society. Training put an emphasis on communication with the culture. Studies included mastery of at least three languages, mathematics and the natural sciences and the writing of pieces for the popular press on contemporary issues. Seeing laymen as indispensible collaborators in any revitalization, Lamennais opened his house of studies to them. Earlier than perhaps anyone else, he understood that the hour of the laity truly had struck.

Lamennais’s influence in the church reached its zenith with the founding in 1830 of the first daily Catholic newspaper, L’Avenir (The Future), which carried the programmic motto “God and Liberty” on its masthead. In an early issue he summarized its doctrines: religious liberty, liberty of education (“the first liberty of the family...without which religious liberty has no point”), liberty of association, liberty of the press (“the most active instrument…to hasten the progress of general intelligence”), universal suffrage and the abolition of political centralization in favor of the “right to administer ourselves.”

In a good example of his ability to foresee historical trends, Lamennais early recognized that a democratic future implied a multicultural future, and with it, the problems of social unity that association could reduce if not fully resolve. “Imagine,” he wrote in one essay, “a house inhabited, in its different stories, by a Jew, a Muslim, a Protestant and a Catholic; certainly, their beliefs and their obligations are too opposed to make a true society among them.” Nevertheless, out of “fear that fanatics not come to set ablaze the roof that covers them all,” the inhabitants of this house should unite to prevent persecutions against any of them. Association goes beyond security. It “would create between them relations of benevolence” and promote peaceful “discussions of doctrine on the points that divide them. In any case, they will have lived and lived in peace.”

In a remarkable essay, What Catholicism Will Be in the New Society, Lamennais made an urgent appeal for the reunification of science and religion. They constitute “two modes of knowing” that are “united by a natural and indissoluble bond.” The world stood waiting for a “Catholic science,” a science yet to be created that would provide “a general system of explanation, a true philosophy conformed to the needs of the time” and “founded on the constitutive laws of intelligence.” Sixty years before the first social encyclical, Lamennais also foresaw the responsibility the church would have in addressing problems of work, proper economic arrangements and the laboring poor. The “principle of association” among workers, he noted, would have an important role here. An “immense career” also was opening for priests “called to serve in new ways” this new and rising class.

L’Avenir was a sensation, its articles translated and widely reprinted throughout Europe and even in the United States. The voice of a liberal Catholic movement, the newspaper championed the efforts of Catholics and liberals for Belgian independence, led a petition drive to gain French governmental support for Polish freedom and raised large sums for the relief of victims of the Irish famine.

Opposition and Distance from Rome

Prophets rarely meet a happy end. While very influential, L’Avenir failed as a business enterprise and ceased publication in late 1831. Lamennais’s hopes for papal approval of his liberal Catholicism were met by Gregory XVI’s 1832 encyclical, Mirari Vos. It never mentions Lamennais by name, but it censured numerous doctrines announced in L’Avenir, including liberty of the press (“harmful and never sufficiently denounced”), liberty of conscience (an “absurd and erroneous proposition”) and “associations and assemblages” that combine Catholics with members of other religions. It also termed “absurd and injurious” any notion that the church stood in need of “restoration and regeneration.”

Gregory also condemned “the plans of those who desire vehemently to separate the Church from the state” and warned against “writings which attack the trust and submission due to princes;” through their influence, “the torches of treason are being lit everywhere.” Citing Scripture and the example of the early Christians under Roman rule, Gregory admonished that “both divine and human laws cry out against those who strive by treason and sedition to drive the people from confidence in their princes and force them from their government.”

Lamennais and his L’Avenir collaborators quickly made their submission to the pope, and Lamennais told friends and colleagues that in the future, he “would speak as a Frenchman and not as a Catholic.” When rumors and reports called his intentions into question, an exhausted and dispirited Lamennais made a second, unqualified submission. With it, he announced that he would refrain from all priestly functions.

Considering himself free to write on temporal and political issues, in 1834 Lamennais published the pamphlet Words of a Believer. Apocalyptic in tone and image, the work decried political tyranny and the economic exploitation of the peasant and working classes. It called on the poor to organize, but also counseled respect for property and the rights of others, and reminded readers of the duty of charity.

The book was a spectacular hit—but not with the pope, who condemned it in his 1834 encyclical, On the Errors of Lamennais (Singulari Nos). The encyclical also marked the end of Lamennais’s remarkable role in the life of the church. One contemporary mournfully wrote to him that in learning of the encyclical, “it seemed to me that I had heard the beating of the wings of a falling angel.” Others described him as “Robespierre in a surplice” or as an “infidel.”

Never excommunicated, Lamennais was never reconciled with the church. His departure, however, came incrementally. As late as 1836, the Archbishop of Paris was told that Lamennais still heard Mass.

For the remainder of his life, Lamennais remained active in publishing and in political affairs. In the wake of the Revolution of 1848, he and Alexis de Tocqueville were elected as delegates to the Constituent Assembly and appointed to write a draft of a proposed constitution. Lamennais submitted a draft whose preamble began, “In the name of God, in the presence of humanity in which all the people of the world are united in solidarity as members of the same body....” The suggestion that the drafters begin from the level of the communes, the level of government closest to the people—in accordance with the doctrines of L’Avenir—was supported by Tocqueville and others, but rejected by the majority. Sensitive as ever, Lamennais resigned, and Tocqueville could not convince him to return.

As he lay dying in late February 1854, Lamennais stoutly refused the last rites and was unwilling to have his confession heard. At his insistence, he was buried in a pauper’s grave, without priest, ritual or a memorial of any kind. An admiring essay entitled, “An Hour With Lamennais,” published in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine shortly after his death, described Lamennais as “saddened but not subdued by disappointment.”

The “what if” question surrounds the tragic life of Lamennais. Had he not been so temperamental, had Gregory XVI been better at scrutinizing the signs of the times, had the political situation the pope faced been less fraught..... However one might answer these hypotheticals, whatever one thinks of the parties involved, the issues that preoccupied Lamennais make clearer some of what lay behind John XXIII’s apparently impetuous decision to call an ecumenical council and puts into perspective some of the matters the council fathers eventually addressed.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Ryan Toomey
14 years 8 months ago
A visionary for his times indeed, especially in his prediction of future cultural trends.    The logic behind 'without religion, no society' remains as persuasive today in our self-sovereign and multicultural society as it was in 1817.

The latest from america

Elizabeth Cullinan's literary output was not prodigious—but her memorable characters and close attention to the Irish-American culture in which she lived made her a prominent fiction writer in the '70s and '80s.
James T. KeaneApril 16, 2024
Pope Francis and his international Council of Cardinals continued their discussions about the role of women in the church, listening to women experts, including a professor who spoke about how culture impacts women’s roles and status.
For Bonaventure, to eat spiritually is to approach eating the Eucharist both with faith and ultimately with the affection of charity in one’s heart.
Being a member of the “I don’t know club” means you will be attacked by both sides. It does not mean you have nothing to say.
Thomas J. ReeseApril 16, 2024