The Forgotten Founder of Modern Catholicism

An obscure 19th century French Catholic priest was actually the forerunner for today's Catholic liberalism. Looking back on his life can be instructive for the Church moving forward.

What is needed, and what everyone imbued with a truly Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit craves today, is that this doctrine shall be…studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For…truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching are one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else.

When John XXIII spoke these words at the opening of the Second Vatican Council, one particular soul, wherever he may be, must have rejoiced. For whether he knew it or not, St. John XXIII echoed the most important figure in the history of the modern Catholic Church, one who today is all but forgotten. 

Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais was born in Brittany, in Saint-Malo, in 1782. The son of an ennobled merchant, Lamennais read from his father’s extensive library as a child, becoming attracted to Enlightenment philosophy and estranged from the Faith as a result when he was in his teens. His brother Jean, recently ordained, brought him back through study of the works of Louis de Bonald, Joseph de Maistre, Bossuet, and the Bible. 

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Soon after, he undertook to serve the Church through study, and with Jean he turned to writing apologetic works. In between bouts of depression, Lamennais published two works, in 1809 and 1814, both aimed at the religious policy of Napoleon. In these, he argued against Gallicanism and its tradition of state interference and for the freedom for the Church. His confessor urged him to seek the priesthood, and in 1816 he was ordained, never having attended seminary.

Lamennais rose to public acclaim in 1817, when he published the first volume of his Essay on Indifference in Matters of Religion. A work of impassioned apologetics, it attacked rationalism in all its forms. But his primary target was indifference toward religion based on the idea that it was “impossible to discover the truth which it is requisite for us to know.” Instead, he argued that individual reason alone could not attain certainty or truth and that it must be found in society, guided by an infallible authority (i.e., the pope): “since reason has proclaimed itself sovereign one must go straight at it, seize it on its throne, and force it, on pain of death, to prostrate itself before the reason of God.” 

It is impossible to overstate the impact of this work. He captured the French public as no French cleric had since the early 1700s. Even an ecclesiastical critic admitted that “this book could bring the dead back to life.” The Essay caused a sensation, and it became the bestselling work of the Restoration period in France (1814-1830), capitalizing on the Romantic mood of the era.

For Catholics who labored under an intellectual inferiority complex after the traumas of the French Revolution, Lamennais was a godsend, especially for priests, whose inadequate seminary training left them vulnerable to the seemingly unquestionable logic of modern thought. Finally, a champion had emerged to slay the atheist dragon of Revolution with the sword of his pen. 

Young Catholics—especially priests—flocked to Lamennais’ banner. He counted among his followers Fr. Henri Lacordaire, the greatest preacher of the age, and the man who brought the Dominican order back to France, as well as Dom Prosper Guéranger, the reviver of Gregorian Chant and godfather of the modern Liturgical Movement. Such was his success that, for the next decade and a half, Lamennais exercised what one historian called a “spiritual dictatorship over the French Church.” 

Lamennais succeeded because he gave Catholics something to hope for rather than repeated condemnations of the Revolution. Lamennais wanted to abandon old methods of both apologetics and theology, replacing scholasticism with a “Christian philosophy” more plausible to modern society. His goal was nothing less than the reconquest of France for the Church by putting his new philosophy into practice. He coined the term “Catholic Action” to describe his desired reform and re-Catholicizing of society, and he encouraged his followers, lay and clergy alike, to solve the social problems of the day through applying to them the Church’s faith and teaching.

His downfall began when he broke with the restored Bourbon monarchy, which he thought compromised too much with anticlerical republicans. Inspired by Belgian Catholics, who allied with Liberals during the 1820s in the Netherlands to secure legal freedom for the Church, he began to espouse complete separation of Church and State. He had not yet abandoned his ultramontane adulation of the papacy but believed that only when the Church was freed from state control, its divine authority uninhibited, could it then redeem society. 

Lamennais thus preached as a principle what the Belgians attempted out of necessity, and thus Paris newspapers in 1829 began to refer to him and his followers as “liberal Catholics.” This brought him many enemies, as many French bishops remained Gallican in their thinking. But the Revolution of 1830, which brought a “liberal,” constitutional monarchy to power in France, convinced him he was right. An alliance with liberalism was necessary because society had irrevocably changed, and therefore the Church should change. If only the Church would abandon its legal privileges and coercive power, then both Church and society would be regenerated. In his words, the Church must baptize liberalism: “we tremble before liberalism; ah, well, catholicize it, and Society will be reborn.”

In 1830 he founded a newspaper, L’Avenir (The Future), dedicated to spreading his Catholic liberalism, with the motto “God and liberty” on its masthead. It advocated embracing the full panoply of liberal freedoms, including religious freedom, and Lamennais proclaimed in its pages that Catholics and liberals should respect “everybody’s right to do anything that is not against right.” 

But his abrasive manner toward the bishops earned him their enmity, and when he looked to Rome for support, he found only stony silence. Hoping to head off condemnation, he ceased publication of L’Avenir in 1831 and journeyed to Rome to make his case. But though he lingered for ten months, the pope refused him an audience. The only communication he received was a plea from a cardinal to let the matter drop quietly. 

But Pope Gregory XVI, pushed by his curia and great powers like Austria, whom Lamennais had denounced as tyrants, issued Mirari Vos on August 15, 1832. The encyclical never mentions Lamennais, but it plainly condemns ideas that appeared in L’Avenir. Gregory made clear what the Belgian Church did as a necessity was acceptable, but he could not countenance religious liberty as a principle, since it appeared to endorse indifferentism. Lamennais’ insistence on the need for renewal of the Church and its adaptation to modern life sounded like a denial of the Church’s indefectibility to the pope, as if Lamennais’ program were “necessary for her safety and growth, as if she could be considered subject to defect or obscuration or other misfortune.” 

Lamennais duly made submission. But the condemnation crushed him. He put all his hopes in the sublime absolutism of the papacy, hoping through it the Church would conquer the world by changing with it, only to find the pope defended non-Catholic powers like Russia that persecuted Polish Catholics, insisting that “unchanging subjection to the princes necessarily proceeded from the most holy precepts of the Christian religion.”

His enemies in the French Church, now triumphant, forced him to make public submission three more times, and the strain finally broke him. He eventually gave up writing on religious matters entirely. In 1834, he renounced his priesthood and published a work called Words of a Believer, an apocalyptic denunciation of Church and State in Europe, predicting a future in which Christ would liberate the oppressed peoples of the earth. Some have described it as “a lyrical version of the Communist Manifesto.” 

In 1834, Rome issued Singulari Nos, which condemned his book by name, though not Lamennais himself. After this, his friends and followers deserted him, and by 1837, he abandoned the Church altogether. Lamennais spent the last years of his life, aside from a failed run for political office, expounding his humanitarian creed and writing a commentary on Dante. He died in obscurity, refusing the ministrations of a priest, in 1854.

Though his end was tragic, his life remains instructive. There is almost no modern trend after his death which Lamennais did not anticipate. He paved the way for the triumph of ultramontanism, and eventually Vatican I; his plan to replace scholasticism with “a Christian philosophy” was taken up by Maurice Blondel, and later the “nouvelle théologie” before Vatican II. 

Leo XIII’s ralliement tacitly accepted his insight that the Church must make its peace with the modern state; in the 1920s, Pius XI resurrected his idea of “Catholic Action” (in a very different guise) and encouraged the laity to take the Faith into modern public life. Jacques Maritain’s “integral humanism” called for Christianity to reshape society by separating from the state completely, and to “evolve within the movement of history and create something new”—an idea redolent of Lamennais. Even the idea of the “New Evangelization,” with its emphasis on renewal, finds some echoes in his work.

And then there is Vatican II. Dignitatis Humanae saw the Church finally embrace religious liberty, and Gaudium et Spes was its love song to the modern world. But there is no better proof that the ghost of Lamennais hovered over the council than John XXIII’s opening speech. In it, he articulated the principle which Lamennais embodied but never quite enunciated: that if the Church could only find the right adaption to modern society—the right philosophy, the right relation between Church and State, the right presentation of its Faith—its lost children would finally return to her like the Prodigal Son. 

Today, the Church is still looking for a way to “update” its teachings for modern consumption, without much success. One could perhaps argue that if the Church had embraced Lamennais’ vision in the 1830s, history might have played out differently. But I doubt it. Lamennais’ mistake was thinking he had found the master key of evangelizing—adaptation—which guaranteed his success with modern society. Revelation makes clear we have no such guarantee—either in the 1830s, the 1960s, or at any other time. 

For all his spiritual greatness, the Abbé de Lamennais lacked the humility of the saints, who pour themselves into their mission without imagining they are the guarantors of its completion. His fall reminds us that, though human agency is His means for redeeming mankind, it is the Lord alone who can bring such a work to fruition: “except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.”

[Image: Felicité de Lamennais (1826); portrait by Jean-Baptiste Paulin Guérin]


  • Darrick Taylor

    Darrick Taylor earned his PhD in History from the University of Kansas. He lives in Central Florida and teaches at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL. He also produces a podcast, Controversies in Church History, dealing with controversial episodes in the history of the Catholic Church.

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