The Catholic Right and the Triumph of French Liberalism

In September 2010, Emile Perreau-Saussine, age 37, was rushed to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, UK, with chest pains. The junior physician on staff misdiagnosed his condition and thus failed to prevent his death hours later of a massive heart attack. This tragic incident is much more than a sad commentary on the quality of socialized healthcare in England; it ended the promising career of a popular professor whose sharp mind, immense learning, and gentlemanly disposition had, by all accounts, made a lasting impression on his students and colleagues.

Perreau-Saussine was a student of distinguished French political theorist, Pierre Manent, and the author of a well-received intellectual biography of Alasdair MacIntyre. By the time of its publication in 2005, he had become a lecturer in history and political thought at the University of Cambridge. His second and posthumously published work examines the difficult process the French Catholic Church underwent in its transition, from an intimate association with the Gallican monarchy before the Revolution, to final acceptance of liberal democracy in the twentieth century.

Broadly speaking, Catholicism and Democracy is a defense of French republicanism against its Catholic counter-revolutionary critics. It argues that the modern Catholic Church came to enjoy greater independence and spiritual influence only after it embraced the principles of political and religious pluralism. This realization had set in by the late nineteenth century when Church leaders came to see the defense of the confessional state by legitimist ultramontanes as a political dead end but saw the elevation of the papacy by spiritual ultramontanes as an effective defense of Catholic liberties against attacks by anti-clerical liberals.

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Perreau-Saussine disapproves of the “laicist” form of liberalism that sees the state as a vehicle for the emancipation of the individual from moral constraints and religious superstition. By claiming that laicism was “not really liberal,” he intends to reclaim an authentic, anti-statist, liberal tradition from the numerous pseudo-liberal frauds, republicans like Gambetta and Waldeck-Rousseau, whose rank hypocrisy discredited a noble ideal. Like their revolutionary forebears, these late nineteenth-century radical laicists never doubted the need for state control of religion.  The author nonetheless defends the “moderate” laicism of Jules Ferry even after questioning his decision, as Minister of Education, to expel the Jesuits from France. Once the French Church came to accept the permanence of the republican order and decided to abandon any hope of a restoration of the monarchy, a compromise became possible that allowed Catholicism to flourish unimpeded by the secular state.

Manent located the roots of modern liberalism in the Renaissance where the secular power fought to secure the autonomy of the temporal sphere from political interference by Church officials. As the offspring of Renaissance liberalism, Gallicanism upheld French sovereignty against papal interventions into domestic political and religious affairs. This is why the author believes Gallicanism is particularly valuable as a focal point in discussing the development of the modern secular state. France had embarked upon a modern political trajectory well before most European nations. The process of secularization begun before the Revolution and accelerated afterwards affected the Catholic Church in profound ways.

In order to empower the people, the Revolution deprived the national Church of her privileged status. The Constituent Assembly sought to accomplish this, in part, by drafting a Civil Constitution of the Clergy that allowed the people to appoint priests based upon their citizenship rather than their religious affiliation. By unilaterally imposing unwelcome ecclesiastical reforms, the revolutionaries revealed their unwillingness to grant the Church the liberty to govern herself free from state control. Perreau-Saussine concludes that the abolition of state support for religion by the revolutionaries led the French Church to take up the legitimist ultramontanism of Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821). Republican blunders drove French Catholics into the arms of the Holy Father and the Bourbon pretenders.

Maistre’s initial reaction to republican government was to call for a “robust authoritarianism.” Only divine right monarchy could overcome human depravity. However, Napoleon caused Maistre to reconsider his approval of absolutism. By the 1810s, Maistre had rejected what he called the “vile and abominable system of Machiavelli” in favor of a central role for the Church whose spiritual authority could provide a basis for social order and a check against political tyranny. His rejection of Gallicanism revealed him to be a “radical” innovator—at least in the French context—not “a nostalgic reactionary yearning for the Ancient Regime.” It was clear to Maistre that the republicans and their Gallican allies intended to retain the prerogatives of the pre-revolutionary confessional state by denying the Catholic Church the benefits of religious liberty. Before the Revolution, French Catholics could accept the Gallican principles of 1682 over papal objections because the Most Christian King was expected to play the role of pope by defending the interests of religion in his realm. This arrangement appealed to political Gallicans because it prevented papal interference in French temporal affairs. After the Revolution, Bousset’s defense of Gallicanism was no longer plausible as the Church saw its status lowered by a regime hostile to Christianity.

There are times when Perreau-Saussine’s sincere attempt to describe events accurately and characterize opponents fairly undermines his liberal polemic against French counter-revolutionary thought. The religious attitudes of the revolutionaries serve as an example. The author agrees with Tocqueville who thought the revolutionaries did not “at first” oppose Christianity. This denial of a standard counter-revolutionary charge is contradicted later in the book when the author freely admits that the revolutionaries “felt it imperative to find a substitute for Catholicism.” This pattern is repeated when Perreau-Saussine admonishes Maistre for invoking in Considérations sur la France “notions of providential chastisement and satanic intervention when the logic of events makes sense perfectly well in human and political terms.” Yet Maistre’s appeal to providence to explain the Revolution was unremarkable among counter-revolutionaries, as Jacques Godechot and Paul Beik have documented. It was so unremarkable, in fact, that even Perreau-Saussine admits in a separate passage that Chateaubriand, Tocqueville, and Michelet, “felt obliged to interpret it in religious terms.”

His liberal critique of the French Right leads him to the provocative conclusion that totalitarianism “was the dead-end destination of all French antiliberalisms,” beginning with Maistre. This tired liberal cliché does not conform to the author’s own narrative of Maistre since his call for the liberty of the Church reveals “a core of liberalism at the heart of ultramontanism.” Furthermore, an advocate of unlimited state power would not write in Du Pape, “No government has the power to do whatever it pleases.” Just because atheist and monarchist Charles Maurras claimed Maistre as a mentor should not give Perreau-Saussine permission to exaggerate the intellectual inheritance. On his alleged continuity with Action Française, John Courtney Murray rightly observed that, “on many essential points…Maistre contradicts their doctrines.”

We are told that the scholastic revival sparked by Pope Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris (1879) confirmed how much Maistre was “utterly out of step with Catholic tradition” because he is said to have blurred the distinction made by Thomas Aquinas between the temporal and spiritual jurisdictions. Maistre’s “utopian” version of papal infallibility rejected by the First Vatican Council (1869-70) would have led “to caesaro-papism in the temporal sphere.” He is said to have “linked infallibility to the medieval notion of the papal plenitudo potestatis (fullness of power).” In Perreau-Saussine’s treatment of Maistre’s legacy, the liberal polemic overwhelms his customary sense of fairness.

Maistre’s discussion of papal jurisdiction in Du Pape does not call for plenitudo potestatis but something closer to Bellarmine’s “indirect power” described by Perreau-Saussine as a power “used only in exceptional circumstances, in cases of heresy…on the part of princes, necessitating their excommunication and deposition.” Like all the late scholastic political theorists who favored the indirect power, Maistre follows Aquinas in recognizing the autonomy of the temporal and spiritual jurisdiction. For him, the “jurisdiction of the pope” extends only to the mind and “is confined within the limits of the Apostle’s Creed.”  When Maistre defends the pope’s spiritual authority to excommunicate “the princes who were guilty of certain crimes,” he was following Aquinas himself who wrote in the Summa Theologica how fitting it was that excommunicated princes “should be punished by being deprived of the allegiance of their subjects.…”

Perreau-Saussine can claim a victory for political Gallicanism at the Council since it did abandon the deposing power favored by Maistre. But he cannot in fairness simultaneously assert that the political views of the Savoyard departed radically from Catholic tradition since distinguished theologians over many centuries favored monarchy over the aristocratic and republican alternatives. The resurgence of anti-clerical liberalism after the Council, along with the looming threat of socialism, caused French Catholics to abandon the confessional state. Perreau-Saussine is also right to say that ultramontanism was the product of secularization and that the papacy ultimately benefited from the separation of Church and State.

Secularization, however, cannot be defined as liberal benevolence toward religion. Because the revolutionaries and their liberal heirs retained the Gallican controls, it took a persistent campaign against these anti-clerical measures to force republican regimes to define with greater exactness what they meant by freedom. The liberal tradition he defends may have ushered in the secular age, but it has neither removed us from the shadow of Leviathan, nor has it immunized us from the social consequences of religious doubt. Still, Catholicism and Democracy contains a great deal of truth about the value of religious liberty and political pluralism. Despite its weaknesses, Perreau-Saussine’s insightful, and sometimes provocative, study is worthy of serious reflection.

This book review first appeared in the October 2012 print edition of Chronicles Magazine and is reprinted with permission. The image of Joseph de Maistre above was painted by Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein (1788-1868).


  • John M. Vella

    John M. Vella served as editor of Crisis Magazine from 2012 to 2019. For over a decade, he was the managing editor of Modern Age: A Quarterly Review published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). Before arriving at ISI, John served as publications manager at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. His essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of secular and Catholic publications including Chronicles, Chesterton Review, Modern Age, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, New Oxford Review, and University Bookman. He earned his Master’s in history at Villanova University in 2010.

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