Lamennais: A Liberal Catholic

Only in a free political society, declared Lamennais and his followers, could nineteenth-century Catholics hope to evangelize the new age. Complete religious liberty, with disestablishment of the Church, freedom of education and of the press, and the decentralization of governmental authority, writes J.B. Morrall, were among the aims they advocated. His views having been condemned by the Vatican and himself denounced by conservative critics as “Robespierre in a surpliceLamennais at length abandoned the faith to which he had devoted so much talent and energy.

Once upon a time, the story goes, a child of eight years old was walking with his nurse on the coast of Brittany while a heavy storm was raging. Many people were watching the turbulent sea, and the child also watched it for some time. Then he turned to his nurse and said:

“They are looking at what I am looking at, but they do not see what I see.”

The child was called Félicité de Lamennais.

As in the case of many good stories, there is some doubt about the truth of this anecdote. But, true or false, it epitomizes Lamennais’s career from his birth in 1782, in the closing years of Europe’s Ancien Régime, to his death in 1854, when the contours of our contemporary world were already taking shape.

All his life Lamennais remained, privately and publicly, the odd man out. This is not surprising when we consider the network of antitheses and inconsistencies that made up his personality.

Reserved and shy to an extreme, he could yet provide hours of conversation, even of mimicry, for the few with whom he felt at ease; a miserable speaker, with a voice that could barely be heard, he was one of the most eloquently rhetorical of modern French writers; full of idealistic fervour for the spiritual and bodily salvation of his fellows, he could descend to the coarsest and most vindictive personal abuse when speaking of those who opposed him; a chronic invalid for most of his life, he could display the most amazing physical activity at times, swarming like a cat up tall trees in his middle age and walking, swimming and running his friends off their feet.

Even in his intellectual history we meet similar discrepancies. Individualist to the point of eccentricity, he preached a gospel of universal solidarity; an aristocrat by title and temperament, he ended as a lone voice crying for a Republic; the leading Catholic apologist of his time, he died outside the Church.

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