Stoning the Prophets

        As Pius IX once said: "St. Peter's vessel is guaranteed, but not so the crew."

        Throughout history most of the crew have remained faithful. Some have rocked the boat. Even the captain of the ship may have taken a wrong turn. In these days of controversy over the weight of various statements from church leaders, it is good to step back and learn from history.

        Official statements from Rome over the centuries have provoked a variety of responses. During the Reformation a Protestant battle cry was that "Papal decretals are the Devil's excretals." Yet many of the great encyclicals of this century, on the contrary, have evoked world-wide admiration. Still there remain a few formal papal pronouncements that would be a source of embarrassment if anyone were to read them today. Any Catholic, for instance, who reads Benedict XIV's encyclical on the Jews (A Quo Primum, 1751) would want to run and hide for shame. It encapsulates much of the rabid anti-Semitism in the church at that time. No wonder, then, that we do not find such a document ever quoted or even referred to in official church statements today. But was it not a definitive pronouncement?

        When, for instance, have we last read a citation from the two encyclicals of Pope Gregory XVI, Mirari vos (1832) and Singulari nos (1834)? Not many priests in our day have had two encyclicals directed against them. Yet in the last century one priest in France was the subject of both these pronouncements - the Abbé Lamennais. In considering the papal condemnations of Monsieur Lamennais one must remember that these documents make up part of the "ordinary and authoritative teaching of the church," albeit not infallible, which, as the new Catechism states, "the faithful are to adhere to with religious assent." Today, these encyclicals are troubling to read, just as they were a great source of pain and divisiveness when they first appeared.

        The tragic life of the Abbé Félicité Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854) is most relevant today, both for those who labor in the vineyard of the church and for those who exercise authority over them. What did this simple, yet brilliant, Breton priest do to deserve such a clobbering from Rome? What did this "saintly" but flawed Abbé, whose "great services to the Church of France" even The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1910 had to acknowledge, do to incur the condemnation of Rome? (1) Why did he have to suffer the loss of faith and friends, and an eventual unhappy death without the sacraments and outside the church he had served?

        If we pause to contrast some of Lamennais' main ideas with those in the official response of Pope Gregory XVI in his two encyclicals we may be led to ask which of the two positions is more in line with the church's thinking today. Consider the following examples.

 On freedom of conscience:

Lamennais: Freedom of conscience is primordial. Error should have the right to exist. The church should not try to win over people by force, but by a free competition of ideas. "Those who persecute in the name of Jesus, who probe people's consciences with the sword, who torture the body in order to convert the soul, who make tears flow rather than wipe them do not have the spirit of Jesus. (2) A champion of religious liberty, Lamennais wrote, "Liberty should be equal for all, or it is assured for no one." (3)

Gregory XVI: It is an "absurd and erroneous proposition ... that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone." "Freedom of conscience ... should be thoroughly condemned." (4)

On freedom of the press:

Lamennais: Freedom of the press and freedom from censorship are essential rights even if it means the freedom to attack the church.

Gregory XVI (once censor librorum for the Holy Office in Venice): Freedom of the press is a "fatal liberty which cannot be sufficiently feared." To reject censorship of books is "false, brash, insulting to the Holy See and harmful for the Christian people."

On church and state:

Lamennais: Separation of church and state is healthy for both the church and the state. It is central to the idea of religious freedom. Government is a bad support for religion, which should have its strength elsewhere, namely, in itself. Union of church and state in the past, together with special favors to the church, did more harm than good.

Gregory XVI: "The union of church and state leads to a mutual harmony....which has always been so favorable and so salutary to the interests of both religion and of civil authority."

On the rights of the governed:

Lamennais: People have the right and even duty to rebel against injustice. For instance, he championed the cause of Belgian, Polish, and Irish independence. Lamennais had strong words for those who abuse authority. "You have but one father who is God, but one master who is Christ. When people speak to you of those who have great power and say: ëBehold you master!' Don't believe it. If those in authority are just, then they are your servants; if they are not, they are tyrants. Everyone is born equal: no one coming into this world carries with him the right to command."

        Of royalty he wrote, I've seen an infant crying and drooling in the cradle, yet surrounded by old men bending the knee in veneration, saying, "My Lord." It was then that I understood the total misery of mankind... In the eternal balance of things your will carries more weight than that of kings, for it is the people who make kings and kings are made for the people, not the people for kings." (5)

Gregory XVI: "Divine and human laws oppose those who try to shake the loyalty to princes and cast them from their thrones." Those who proclaim "doctrines which shake the loyalty and submission owed to princes and which spark the spirit of revoltÖ.are inflamed with an immoderate zeal for rash liberty." (Note that Gregory did not even support the struggle of Catholic Poland for independence from Orthodox Russia.)

On relations with non-Catholics:

Lamennais: Through his publication, L'Avenir, he urged mutual cooperation with Protestants, Romantic agnostics, and non-believers in order to attain the liberal goal of freedom for all peoples.

Gregory XVI: There is a great danger that lies "in associations and meetings in which common cause is made with people of every religion, even false ones."

On the death penalty:

Lamennais: "The last remnants of barbarism are gradually disappearing from legislation. No more torture and soon, one may hope, no more death penalty. (6)

Gregory XVI: As temporal ruler and head of the Papal States before the unification of Italy, Pope Gregory permitted the death penalty to be carried out in his realm. Charles Dickens has left us graphic description in that period of the public beheading in Rome of a man who had killed his wife. (7)

        What brought forth this revolutionary firebrand in 19 th century France? The world into which Lamennais was born was turbulent. He was only a child when the French Revolution came to a end. His family, like most Bretons and people from the neighboring Vendée region of France, were staunch Catholics and loyal to the monarchy. The vengeance of the Revolution, therefore, fell heavily on these regions. In Brittany, in the Department of Morbihan alone, 24 priests went to the guillotine, 22 were assassinated, and 18 were deported.

        The Concordat of 1801 between the pope and Napoleon ended the violent persecution of the church, but Pius VII had to yield to many severe and humiliating limitations on the rights of the church in France. All existing bishops at the time had to resign and the French government was given the right to nominate new bishops. The following year further provisions controlled the number of papal documents allowed into France, government regulation of clerical dress, stipends, parish boundaries, etc. The restoration of the monarchy after Napoleon, moreover, did nothing to end these traditions in France that have come to be known as Gallicanism.

        Gallicanism was essentially a doctrine that held that the Roman Catholic Church, especially in France, should be completely free from the ecclesiastical authority of the papacy in Rome. Gallican doctrine had prevailed in France since the Middle Ages and the popes authority had become extremely limited over the centuries. This concept of an almost national church was gradually embraced by most of the French hierarchy.

        Lamennais saw Gallicanism as harmful to the whole church. As a highly respected cleric he began to speak out against the abuses of Gallicanism. His efforts to restore authority to Rome received little support from the most of the French hierarchy that by now was quite content with the status quo. For Lamennais the church needed its independence from the state and its authority restored to the pope. Thus he initially supported the doctrine known as ultramontanism (literally, "on the other side of the mountains" i.e. the Alps). This theory favored the total centralization of authority in Rome as opposed to the Gallican position. In his opposition to Gallicanism Lamennais found himself in league with the Jesuits who would in time turn against him as he became more radicalized. At this stage, however, as a leader in France for the restoration of papal authority, he was viewed as a positive force by Pope Leo XII who praised him and nearly made a him a cardinal.

        Lamennais, however, began to champion the idea that if the church were to be free, everyone must be free. There should be complete religious liberty. His motto became: "God and liberty. He also attacked censorship. There should be a free marketplace of ideas. He reasoned that if the church were to be free to educate in its own schools and seminaries, there must be freedom for others as well. There must be freedom of the press, freedom of conscience, freedom for error to exist. He also advocated universal suffrage and the separation of church and state. It was this kind of evolution in his thinking that would get him into trouble with Rome and the new pope, Gregory XVI.

        Lamennais wanted to bring the church into the modern world and thus began to attract young writers, artists and philosophers, even atheists and free thinkers, who had been alienated from the church. Liberal- minded priests like the great Dominican preacher, Lacordaire, and the Catholic historian, Montalembert, were drawn to him. In 1829, even the bishop of New York requested that he send his followers to America to spread his ideas. These ideas were the force behind the independence movement in Catholic Belgium against Protestant Dutch rule. His home at La Chênaie became a Mecca for intellectuals with thoughts of freedom of conscience and universal suffrage similar to his own. Romantics such as Victor Hugo, Lamartine, Sainte-Beuve, and George Sand were also sympathetic to his ideas. Franz Liszt, for example, made a three week pilgrimage to La Chênaie in 1834 where he discussed theology and art with the "Breton saint" as he was called. We are told that Liszt even accompanied the priest's meditations at the piano as he spoke. (8) Liszt wrote of Lamennais in 1834:

        "Truly he is a wonderful, prodigious, and quite exceptional man. So much genius and so much heart. High-mindedness, piety, passionate ardour, perspicacity of mind, a wide and profound judgment, the simplicity of a child, sublimity of thought, and power of soul - in him can be found everything which makes a man in the image of God. Never yet have I heard him say the word 'I' ." (9)

        Lamennais founded a short-lived but influential newspaper, L'Avenir, and through it promoted his ideas on liberty. God works in the world, he felt, through terrestrial realities. The past was dying. Linking church and state had nearly ruined the church. Therefore, no more privileges for the church, no more concordats. Better for the church to be poor than privileged. "In the City of God, all are equal, no one dominates, for justice alone rules there together with love. (10)

        His intense faith in the people and their common sense was considered dangerous. He wrote that the gap between the rich and the poor should be greatly diminished. For Lamennais it is not rule by force that joins mankind, but rather love that links people together. "And in fact there is within Catholicism a principle of inexhaustible, immense love: love, the summary of the Law, is the whole life of the Christian, his life in time and his life in eternity. (11)

        Lamennais was not just a theorist. During the famine in Ireland, for instance, he and his followers raised 80,000 francs for the relief of the victims. On another occasion he championed the cause of some priests in Marseilles who were brought to court for teaching Latin to children without state permission. He preached that workers have the right to organize long before the great social encyclicals saw the light of day.

        One of the teachings that got him into serious trouble with both the state and the church was that people have the right and duty to rebel against tyranny. "Soldier boy, where are you going? To fight for the deliverance of my brethern, to break their chains and the world's chains! Then blessed be your arms, soldier boy! Soldier boy, where are you going? ëTo fight for the poor, to overturn the barriers that separate people.' Then blessed be your weapons, soldier boy." (12)

        In trouble with the monarchy for his democratic ideas and with the French bishops for his rejection of their Gallican ideas, Lamennais appealed to Pope Gregory XVI. The pope at this time was feeling pressure not only from the Bourbon monarchy but also Prince Metternich and the Austrian government, without whom he could not hold the Papal States together. The movement for the independence and unification of Italy was under way and only the Austrians were preventing the Papal States from disintegrating.

        In 1831 Lamennais went to Rome with Lacordaire and Montalembert to plead his cause. There he saw poverty and prisoners in chains. He was not impressed with either the pope or Rome. The latter he called "a great tomb where one finds only bones." The following year he was condemned in the papal encyclical Mirari Vos. Although he recanted several times his heart was obviously not in it. He now was at a crossroad in his spiritual pilgrimage. In 1834 he published his famous Paroles d'un Croyant (Words of a Believer). In it there is no direct mention of the pope or the church. It is rather a paean to liberty and the brotherhood of man, rich in parables and a scathing condemnation of the abuse of power. It calls all people to solidarity in the fight against tyranny. "Though admitting the authority of the Church in questions of faith, he denied it in the sphere of politics. In apocalyptic language he presented a picture of the ideal community in which production and consumption were harmoniously balanced." (13)

        The book was condemned in 1834 by a subsequent encyclical of Gregory XVI, Singulari nos. Gregory called Paroles "slight in its volume but immense in its perversity." He accused Lamennais of promoting absolute liberty of conscience ("a completely condemned liberty"). Lamennais is accused of trying to "break all the bonds of loyalty and submission to princes." Gregory was particularly incensed that Lamennais had used scripture throughout his work in attempt to support his ideas ("an impious use of the Word of God").

        Fear of excommunication led his followers, such as Lacordaire, to abandon Lamennais, to recant and submit. The Abbé, on the other hand, remained headstrong. In his obstinacy, he eventually left the priesthood and the church. It is not for nothing that the French have the expression, tête de Breton, (Breton head) - hard and as unyielding as the granite rocks of the Breton coast. In all, seven works of Lamennais were placed on the Index of Forbidden Book, including a new translation of the Gospels with notes and a commentary. (14)

            His last years were spent in championing the working class, becoming increasingly radicalized and marginalized. In his later years he also worked on a translation of The Divine Comedy. It is sad that, in the end, he died refusing to see a priest and finding no reconciliation with his church. Lamennais did not live to see many of his ideas vindicated at the Second Vatican Council, such as his teachings on freedom of conscience and religious liberty. So it is that much of what he wrote may not seem so radical today.

            In the words of the New Catholic Encyclopedia, "he supplied a new impetus to Catholic     apologetics, demonstrated the need for an improved plan of clerical studies, and did more than anyone else... to weaken Gallicanism among the French clergy."(15) How ironic, then, that in later years "his notions of liberty were utilized by the Church later in its struggle for emancipation." (op.cit.) Finally, Lamennais was surely years ahead of his time in promoting social justice, the rights of workers, and a church that is itself poor with a preferential option for the poor.

        The late Cardinal Suenens in our own day once warned that the church must "not have another Galileo case." Yet even today there are some who have not learned the lessons of the past. Were he alive today the Abbé might say, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." (The more things change, the more they remain the same)


1. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. VIII. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910.

2. Lamennais, F. Paroles d'un Croyant, XXVIII. Paris: Garnier Frères, Libraires-Editeurs, 1834.

All translations from Paroles d'un Croyant are by the present author.

3. LAvenir (10/16/1830). All three citations from L'Avenir are from Peter N. Sterns, cf. note 4.

4. Citations from Mirari Vos and Singulari Nos can be found in an excellent source which also contains passages of Lamennais' writings used in this paper, Priest and Revolutionary: Lamennais and the Dilemma of the French Church by Peter N. Stearns. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1967. For the complete text of the encyclicals in another translation, see The Papal Encyclicals 1740-1878 . Claudia Carlen, IHM, ed. McGrath Publishing Company, 1981.

5. Paroles d'un Croyant , XIV.

6. L'Avenir (6/30/1831).

7. Charles Dickens, Pictures from Italy. New York: Coward, McCann & Georghegan, 1974.

8. For a description of Lamennais' influence on Liszt and other Romantics of the period, see Franz Liszt: the Virtuoso Years1811-1847 by Alan Walker. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987. See also Franz Liszt: An Artist's Journey, translated and annotated by Charles Suttoni. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

9. Letter quoted by Adrian Williams, Portrait of Liszt. Oxford: Clarenton Press, 1990.

10. Paroles d'un Croyant, XXXIV.

11. L'Avenir (6/30/1831).

12. Paroles d'un Croyant , XXXVI.

13. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974 edition.

14. Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Rome: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1938.

15. The New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VIII. New York: McGraw-Hill Company, 1967.