A response by a minority of Catholic intellectuals to the French Revolution and nineteenth century European liberalism, liberal Catholicism may be seen as a chapter in the history of reform Catholicism which has long contended with the majority, conservative, and authoritarian tradition within Roman Catholicism.
The characteristics of liberal Catholicism are best exemplified in its chief exponents. The pioneer of the movement was the passionate French priest and prophet H F R de Lamennais (1782 - 1854), who developed a new apologetic for Catholicism. The Catholic religion, he maintained, is not evidenced chiefly by miracles and fulfilled prophecies but by its capacity to perpetuate those beliefs which mankind has found essential to an ordered social life: monotheism, the difference between good and evil, the immortality of the soul, and reward or punishment in a future life. Testifying to these beliefs is the sensus communis or general reason, the collective judgments derived from custom, tradition, and education. Hence society is the vehicle of revelation, a belief of great democratic potential. Lamennais's apologetics led to politics. His mission was to promote the social regeneration of Europe through the renaissance of Catholicism. The Catholic church should break with all royalist and absolutist regimes; the papacy should be the guardian of liberty and the champion of democracy; and the people, in whom was hidden the Word of God, should be sovereign.
In a daily newspaper, L'Avenir, with its motto "God and Liberty," Lamennais advanced his revolutionary program: freedom of conscience and religion (necessitating the abolition of concordats between the papacy and civil governments and the stopping both of state payment of clergy and of state intervention in the appointment of bishops); freedom (not a monopoly) for the church in education; liberty of the press; freedom of association; universal suffrage; and decentralization of government.
C R F de Montalembert (1810 - 70), historian and publicist, entered the French Parliament in 1837, seeking to catholicize liberals and to liberalize Catholics. His greatest political victory was the passage in 1850 of the Falloux law, which allowed the development of a Catholic secondary education system independent of the state system.
The commitment by liberal Catholics to education was accompanied by an emphasis on preaching, then unusual in the Roman Catholic Church. The greatest liberal Catholic preacher was the Dominican J B H Lacordaire (1802 - 61), who attracted vast crowds especially to his Lenten conferences at Notre Dame Cathedral, where his impassioned sermons combined the call for liberty in church and state with ultramontanism (centralization of papal authority in matters of church government and doctrine).
The majority of liberal Catholics remained orthodox, seeking to modernize the church through the political emancipation of the laity and the separation of church and state. A later generation of liberal Catholics, including Lord Acton (1834 - 1902) in England and J J I von Dollinger (1799 - 1890) in Germany, advocated autonomy for the laity in doctrinal matters.
The currents of liberal Catholicism led at the beginning of the twentieth century to the much stormier waters of Catholic modernism, which tended to be antidogmatic and anthropocentric. The leading Catholic modernists, Alfred Loisy, George Tyrell, Baron Friedrich von Hugel, Edouard Le Roy, Maurice Blondel, and Ernesto Buonaiuti, were concerned to reconcile traditional Catholic doctrine with the results of critical scriptural exegesis.
The papacy has consistently criticized and frequently condemned liberal Catholicism for its rationalism and naturalism. Lamennais's political liberalism was condemned by Gregory XVI in the encyclical Mirari vos of 1832. In 1834 in Singulari nos Gregory condemned Lamennais's doctrine that the evolution of truth was part of the progressive evolution of the people (a view later called immanentism). Montalembert concluded that it was not possible to be a Catholic and a liberal after Pius IX's encyclical Quanta Cura and the Syllabus of Errors (both 1864). Acton and Dollinger withdrew their active support of Rome after the promulgation in 1870 of the dogma of papal infallibility. Modernism was condemned in 1907 by Pius X in the decree Lamentabili and the encyclical Pascendi gregis.
Lord Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays; J L Altholz, The Liberal Catholic Movement in England; E E Y Hales, Pio Nono: A Study in European Politics and Religion in the Nineteenth Century and Revolution and Papacy, 1769 - 1846; D Holmes, The Triumph of the Holy See: A Short History of the Papacy in the Nineteenth Century; T M Loome, Liberal Catholicism, Reform Catholicism, Modernism: A Contribution to a New Orientation in Modernist Research; J N Moody, ed., Church and Society: Catholic Social and Political Thought and Movements, 1789 - 1950; B M G Reardon, Liberalism and Tradition: Aspects of Catholic Thought in Nineteenth Century France; A R Vidler, Prophecy and Papacy: A Study of Lamennais, the Church and the Revolution.