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Félicité Robert de Lamennais

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Born at Saint-Malo, 29 June, 1782; died at Paris, 27 February, 1854. His father, Pierre Robert de Lamennais (or La Mennais), was a respectable merchant of Saint-Malo, ennobled by Louis XVI at the request of the Estates of Brittany in acknowledgment of his patriotic devotion. Of the six children born of his marriage with Gratienne Lorin, the best-known are Jean-Marie and Félicité. The latter, though delicate and frail in physique, early exhibited an exuberant nature, a lively but indocile intelligence, a brilliant but highly impressionable imagination, and a will resolute to obstinacy and vehement to excess.


At the age of five Lamennais lost his mother: his father, absorbed in business, was thus obliged to confide the education of Jean-Marie and Félicité to Robert des Saudrais, the brother-in-law of his wife, who had no children of his own. Jean-Marie and Félicité -- or Féli, as he was called in the family -- were taken to live with their uncle at La Chênaie, an estate not far from Saint-Malo, which Félicité was afterwards to make famous. At La Chênaie there was a well filled library in which works of piety and theological books were mingled with the ancient classics and the works of the eighteenth-century philosophers. Félicité was not very docile at his lessons, and, to punish him, M. des Saudrais would sometimes shut him up in the library. The child acquired a taste for the books he found around him, and read voraciously and indiscriminately all that came to his hands, good and bad. He even multiplied reasons for being shut up in the library, abandoned himself there to his favorite reading, and made such rapid progress that he was soon able to read the classical authors without difficulty. The Revolution was then at its height; the proscribed priests had been obliged to leave France, or to continue from hiding-places their sacred ministrations at the peril of their lives. The Lamennais household afforded an asylum to one such priest, Abbé Vielle, who sometimes said Mass at La Chênaie in the middle of the night. Félicité, who used to assist at the Divine services, derived from these early impressions a lasting and lively hatred of the Revolution. At the same time, his unwise reading, especially of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, seduced his ardent mind and prejudiced him against religion. These prejudices found vent in objections which moved his confessor to postpone indefinitely his First Communion.

His father at first intended Lamennais to join him in his business, but the youth obeyed without enthusiasm. Always ill-at-ease in the office, he visited it as little as possible, and gave to reading all the time he could steal from his regular occupation. While he thus succeeded in completing his literary education and acquiring foreign languages, these studies undertaken without teachers or guidance necessarily left gaps in his training, and made him liable to contract dangerous habits of intellectual intolerance. The passions, too, gained a certain mastery over him, drawing him into lapses which he says, not without some exaggeration, in a letter written in 1809 to his friend Brute de Rémur, the future Bishop of Vincennes in Indiana, "the most rigorous austerities, the severest penance would not suffice to expiate". The happy influence of his brother Jean-Marie, who had recently (1804) been ordained a priest, rescued him from this condition. Restored to Christian sentiments, he made his First Communion, and resolved to consecrate himself to the service of the Church. He withdrew to La Chênaie and there gave himself up under his brother's direction to ecclesiastical studies, briefly interrupted (January to July, 1806) to reestablish his threatened health by a sojourn at Paris.

The Church of France was then in a struggling and precarious condition, being deprived of material resources and served but poorly by a clergy either enfeebled by age or inadequately prepared to meet the intellectual demands of the time. The two brothers set themselves to labor as best they could for the relief of the Church. In the common task which they imposed on themselves with this aim, the part that fell to Félicité, as being the better suited to his tastes, was chiefly intellectual and literary. In fact the story of his life is almost entirely contained in his books and articles. The first result of the joint labors soon appeared in a book published in 1808 under the title "Réflexions sur l'état de l'Eglise en France pendant le dix-huitieme siecle et sur sa situation actuelle". The first idea of this work and the materials were due to Jean-Marie, but the actual writing was done almost exclusively by Félicité. After describing the evils under which the Church labored in France, the authors point out the causes and propose remedies, among others provincial councils, diocesan synods, retreats, ecclesiastical conferences, community life, and proper methods in recruiting the clergy. Many of these views were calculated to offend the imperial government; the book was suppressed by the police, and was not republished until after the fall of the Empire. Meanwhile, the two brothers had left La Chênaie for the College of St-Malo, in which they had been appointed professors. Félicité was to teach mathematics; for he had to earn a living now that his father, already financially injured by the wars of the Convention, saw his business ruined by the Continental Blockade, and was obliged to surrender all his property to his creditors. This ecclesiastical college having been closed by imperial authority, Félicité withdrew to La Chênaie, while his brother was called, as vicar-general, to Saint-Brieuc. There Félicité completed another work, in which also he had his brother's collaboration, and which was to have been printed and published at Paris in 1814. In opposition to Napoleon, who wished to transfer the right to the metropolitans, the two brothers vindicated the pope's exclusive claim to the canonical institution of bishops. This work marked the beginning of Lamennais' long struggle against Gallicanism. However, the fall of Napoleon, coming some months before the book appeared, made it no longer appropriate, and it thus obtained only a succès d' estime . Lamennais next published a violent article against the imperial university ; indeed, when Napoleon returned from Elba, the young writer, thinking himself insecure in France, went over to England, where he found a temporary asylum with M. Carron, a French priest who had established in London a school for the children of émigrés . On his return to France after the Hundred Days, Lamennais made M. Carron his confidant and took up his residence near him in Paris. Under the influence of this worthy priest and on the advice of M. Beysserre, a Sulpician, he decided, though not without strong repugnance and some sharp prickings of conscience, to take Holy orders, and was ordained a priest on 9 March, 1817.


Towards the end of the same year appeared the first volume of the "Essai sur l'indifférence en matière de religion". From beginning to end the book was a vigorous attack on that indifference which appears (1) among those who, seeing in religion nothing but a political institution, think it a necessity only for the masses; (2) among those who admit the necessity of a religion for all men, but reject Revelation; (3) among those who recognize the necessity of a revealed religion, but think it permissible to deny all the truths which that religion teaches with the exception of certain fundamental articles. While open to some criticism in regard to the development of its ideas and the force of some of the arguments employed, the "Essai" brought to Catholic apologetics a new strength and brilliancy, and at once commanded public attention. Not content with a defensive attitude in the presence of incredulity, it attacks the enemy boldly, supported by all the resources of dialectic, invective, irony, and eloquence. The clergy and all educated Catholics thrilled with joy and hope, when this champion entered the lists armed as none since Bossuet, for it was indeed with Bossuet and Pascal that this priest, yesterday unknown, was now compared. In the pulpit of Notre-Dame of Paris Frayssinous hailed Lamennais as the greatest thinker since Malebranche. Meanwhile, editions of the "Essai" came rapidly from the press; 40,000 copies were sold within a few weeks, it was translated into many foreign languages, and its perusal effected in some places notable returns, in others brilliant conversions to Catholicism. Some of these converts, such as Mme de Lacan (afterwards, by her second marriage, the Baroness Cottu), Benoît d' Azy, Senfft-Pilsach, thenceforth carried on an uninterrupted epistolary correspondence with Lamennais. These letters, with others published since then or about to be published (addressed to such friends as Mlle Cornulier de Lucinière, de Vitrolles, Coriolis, Montalembert, Berryer, Marion, Vaurin, David Richard), add considerably to our knowledge of his writings, and are not the least interesting part of his works. With their aid we can witness the intimate workings from day to day of a mobile and impressionable mind ; in them we perceive an aspect of his character which so seldom appears in his other works his loving, kind, and tender disposition, lavish in devotion and of a timidity which sought a refuge in outspokenness.

Lamennais was now looked upon as the most eminent personality among the French clergy ; visitors flocked to see him; the press solicited his contributions. He promised his collaboration to "Le Conservateur", a royalist paper of the Extreme Right party, for which Chateaubriand and de Bonald were writing. Lamennais, however, cared much less for politics than for religion, and contributed to "Le Conservateur" only in defense of Catholic interests. For him it was not enough to discredit infidel philosophy : he meant to put something else in its place. He believed that the Cartesian rationalism which had recently attacked the foundations of Christian faith, and therefore necessarily of human society, could be combated by a system which should firmly re-establish both. To this object he devoted the second volume of the "Essai", published in 1820. The philosophic system which he expounded in this volume was based on a new theory of certitude. In the main, his theory is that certitude cannot be given by the individual reason ; it belongs only to the general reason, that is to the universal consent of mankind, the common sense; it is derived from the unanimous testimony of the human race. Certitude, therefore, is not created by evidence, but by the authority of mankind ; it is a matter of faith in the testimony of the human race, not the result of free enquiry. In the last chapters of the book this philosophic system supports an entirely new method of apologetics. There exists, says Lamennais, a true religion, and there exists but one, which is absolutely necessary to salvation and to social order. Only one criterion will enable us to discern the true religion from the false, and that criterion is the authority of testimony. The true religion, therefore, is that which can put forth on its own behalf the greatest number of witnesses. This is the case with the Christian, or rather the Catholic religion. It is in reality the true, the only religion which began with the world and perpetuates itself with it. The result of a primitive revelation, this unique religion has perfected itself in the course of ages without being essentially modified; Christians now believe all that the human race has believed, and the human race has always believed what Christians believe. The last two volumes of the "Essai" (1823) were devoted to this thesis. In these he attempts to prove, with the aid of history, that the chief dogmas of Christianity have been and are still, under various disguises, professed throughout the world. Naturally, these later volumes failed to secure the success which the first had attained.

The philosophic system of Lamennais, like his apologetics, called forth serious objections. It was pointed out that this philosophy and apologetics favored scepticism by denying the validity of individual reason. If the latter can furnish no certitude, how can we expect any from the general reason, which is but a synthesis of individual reasons? It was also a confusion of the natural and the supernatural orders, of philosophy and theology, to base both alike on the authority of the human race ; and, since according to him both alike are based on human testimony, religious faith was at once reduced to human faith. These criticisms and others irritated Lamennais without convincing him of his error ; he submitted his book to Rome and, in reply to his critics, wrote the "Défense de l'Essai" (1821). Rome confined its intervention to giving its imprimatur to an Italian translation of the "Défense de l'Essai". Lamennais himself soon visited the Holy See ; Leo XII received him very kindly and at one time even thought of making him a cardinal, despite his excitable character and exaggerated ideas. On his return to France, Lamennais showed a greater determination than ever to combat Gallicanism and irreligious Liberalism. On the occasion of a ministerial ordinance prescribing the teaching of the famous Declaration of 1682 (see GALLICANISM, VI, 384), he published his "Religion considérée dans ses rapports avec l'ordre civil et politique" (1825), in which he denounced Gallican and Liberal tendencies as the joint causes of the harm done to religion, and as equally fatal to society. Irritated by these attacks, a majority of the French bishops, who were moderate Gallicans, signed a protest against this pamphlet which accused them of leanings towards schism. Lamennais was also cited before the Tribunal of the Seine for attacking the king's government and the Four Articles of 1682 in their character of existing laws. Defended by his friend, the great advocate Berryer, he escaped with a fine of thirty francs. From this incident he conceived a lively hostility to the Bourbons, and was all the more energetic in maintaining ultramontane ideas against Frayssinous, Clausel de Montals, Bishop of Chartres, and other representatives of moderate Gallican principles.

On the other hand, he derived valuable assistance from a certain number of young men, ecclesiastics and laymen, who gradually formed a group of which he was the centre. Of these the best known are Gerbet, de Salinis, Lacordaire, Montalembert, Rohrbacher, Combalot, Maurice de Guérin, Charles de Sainte-Foy, Eugène and Léon Boré, de Hercé. With them Lamennais founded the "Congrégation de St. Pierre", a religious society whose distinctive duty was to defend the Church by the study of theological and other sciences, by propagating Roman doctrines, by teaching in colleges and seminaries, by giving missions and spiritual direction. Hardly had this congregation come into existence when Mgr. Dubois, Bishop of New York, appealed to it to supply teachers to the Catholic University which it was then proposed to found in that city. The Revolution of 1830 put an end to this project. The congregation at one time possessed three houses -- La Chênaie, Malestroit, and Paris -- but it lived only about four years. Obliged to reckon with the demands of the Liberals, whom the elections had returned to the Chamber of Deputies, the government of Charles X had revived (15 June, 1828) former legislative enactments against the religious congregations -- particularly against the Jesuits, eight of whose colleges were closed. Although ill-disposed towards the Jesuits on account of their lack of sympathy for his philosophic system, Lamennais took up their defense in a book published in 1829 under the title "Progrès de la Révolution et de la guerre contre l'Eglise". His attacks spared neither the king nor the bishops, whom he reproached with their Gallicanism and their concessions to the enemies of religion. Here, for the first time, Lamennais openly broke with monarchy, setting his highest hopes upon political liberty and equal rights. "An immense liberty", he said "is indispensable for the development of those truths which are to save the world." This was what he called "catholicizing liberalism ". The work met with enormous success. The bishops themselves protested almost unanimously against the Government's action. Not, however, that they approved of Lamennais' violent language; the Archbishop of Paris in a pastoral charge even condemned the work, and this drew from Lamennais two open letters in which the archbishop's Gallican ideas were unreservedly criticized.

When the Revolution broke out the next year (July, 1830), sweeping the Bourbons away and lifting the House of Orléans to the throne, Lamennais beheld without regret the departure of the one, and without enthusiasm the accession of the other dynasty. "Most people", he writes in his letters, "would prefer a republic frankly declared; I am of that number" Thenceforward he thought only of the defense of Catholicism against the triumphant party, who never forgave it the favor it had enjoyed from the fallen monarchy. While laboring to ward off the danger which menaced the Church, he hoped at the same time to ensure its social triumph by setting up its defense on the basis of equal rights, uniting its cause with that of public liberties. With this end in view he founded the journal "L'Avenir" (16 October, 1830) and his "General Agency for the Defense of Religious Liberty". With Lacordaire, Gerbet, Montalembert, and de Coux, he waged a grim battle in defense of Catholics against the hostility of the government, of Roman ideas against the Gallicanism of the clergy, and of his system of the "common sense of mankind " against rationalistic philosophy. The force of his blows, the boldness of his ideas, his outspoken sympathy for every people then in a state of revolt, provoked new accusations against him and gave rise to suspicion of his orthodoxy. To set himself right in the face of all this hostility, he suspended the publication of "L'Avenir" (15 November, 1831), and went to Rome to submit his cause to Gregory XVI. Though accompanied by Lacordaire and Montalembert, he did not find there the pronounced welcome of 1824. He waited a long time, but received no definite answer: then some days after his departure from Rome, appeared the Encyclical "Mirari vos" (15 August, 1832), in which the pope, without expressly designating him, condemned some of the ideas advanced in "L'Avenir" liberty of the press, liberty of conscience, revolt against princes, the need of regenerating Catholicism, etc. At the same time a letter from Cardinal Pacca informed Lamennais that the pope had been pained to see him discuss publicly questions which belonged to the authorities of the Church.


Having forthwith declared that out of deference to the pope he would not resume the publication of "L'Avenir" Lamennais suppressed the "General Agency", went back to La Chênaie, and there apparently kept silence. In his heart, however, he cherished deep resentment, the echoes of which reached the outer world through his correspondence. Rome was stirred by this behavior, and demanded frank and full adhesion to the Encyclical "Mirari vos". After seeming to yield, Lamennais ended by refusing to submit without reserve or qualification. Little by little, he began by renouncing his ecclesiastical functions (December, 1833) and ended by abandoning all outward profession of Christianity. The amelioration of humanity, devotion to the welfare of the people and of popular liberties, dominated him more and more. In May, 1834, he published the "Paroles d'un croyant", through the apocalyptic diction of which resounds a violent cry of rage against the established social order: in it he denounces what he calls the conspiracy of kings and priests against the people. In this way he loudly declared his rupture with the Church, and set up the symbol of his new faith. Gregory XVI hastened to condemn in the Encyclical "Singulari nos" (15 July, 1834) this book, "small in size, but immense in perversity", and at the same time censured the philosophical system of Lamennais. One after another, all his friends abandoned him, and, as if to break finally with his own past, Lamennais wrote a volume on "Les Affaires de Rome", in which he set forth, very much in his own favor, his relations with Gregory XVI. After this he published only works inspired by his new democratic tendencies, repeating with no great show of originality the ideas of "Les Paroles d'un croyant", the whole foundation of which consisted of a few humanitarian commonplaces, relieved here and there with vague socialism. The Government having in 1835 caused the arrest of 121 revolutionaries in connection with certain disturbances, Lamennais consented to undertake the defense of his new friends before the Peers. Besides some articles in the "Revue des Deux Mondes", the "Revue du Progrès" and "Le Monde", he published a series of pamphlets, e.g. "Le Livre du peuple" (1839), "L'Esclavage moderne" (1839), "Discussions critiques" (1841), "Du passe et de l'avenir du peuple" (1841), "Amschaspands et Darvands" (1843). In these writings he expounds his views on the future of democracy or vents his rage against society and the public authorities. One of his works, "Le Pays et le Gouvernement" (1840) brought down on him a year's imprisonment, which he served in 1841.

Mention should here be made of his "Esquisse d'une philosophie", published from 1841 to 1846. It comprises a treatise on metaphysics in which God, man, and nature are studied by the light of reason only. Many of the opinions maintained in this book remind one that it was begun when its author was a Catholic, but there are many others which betray his later evolution; he denies in formal terms the fall of man, the Divinity of Christ, eternal punishment, and the supernatural order. The portions of the work devoted to æsthetics are among the finest that Lamennais ever wrote, while the general tone breathes a spirit of serenity and calm. To this epoch, too, belongs the translation of the Gospels, with anti-Christian notes and reflections. It was not the first work of piety that Lamennais had published. From 1809 he had devoted his moments of leisure to the translation of the "Spiritual Guide" of Louis de Blois. In 1824 he published a French version of the "Imitation of Christ" with notes and reflections, more widely read than any of his works. Then came the "Guide du premier âge", the "Journée du Chrétien", and a "Recueil de piété" (1828). To spread this pious literature he had become connected with a publishing house, the failure of which led to his financial ruin..

The Revolution of 1848 brought to Lamennais a renewal of hope and celebrity. He was elected a deputy for Paris in the Constituent and in the Legislative Assemblies. His plan of a constitution, however, met with no success, and thereafter he confined himself to silent participation in the sessions. He was not more fortunate in a newspaper, "Le Peuple constituant", in which he made common cause with the worst revolutionaries; its existence ended after four months, through failure to furnish its cautionnement . The coup d'état of 1851 put an end to the political career of Lamennais, who relapsed into misery and isolation. Numerous attempts were made to bring him back to religion and to repentance, but in vain. He died rejecting all religious ministration, and after requesting that his body "be carried to the cemetery, without being presented at any church".

However regrettable his end, it does not efface the memory of Lamennais' great services to the Church of France. When that Church lay bleeding from the blows inflicted on it by the Revolution, and intimidated by the insolent triumph of infidel philosophy, he consecrated to her relief, both absolute devotion and abilities of the highest order. He was the first apologist to compel the attention of unbelievers in the nineteenth century, and to force them to reckon with the Christian Faith. He was the first who dared to attack Gallicanism publicly in France, and prepared the way for its defeat, the crowning work of the Vatican Council. To him also belongs the honor of having inaugurated the struggle which was to issue in freedom of education ( liberté d'enseignement ). Despite his justly blamable excesses, we must trace to him that reconciliation between Catholicism on the one hand and popular liberty and the masses of the people on the other, upon which Leo XIII set the final seal of approbation. If a temper impatient of all restraint and a pride overconfident in its own conceits deprived him of the blessings which he was instrumental in securing for others, this is surely no reason why the beneficiaries should forget to whom they owe their happier condition.

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