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Lamennais, Hugues-Felicité Robert de (1782-1854)

Lamennais, Hugues-Felicité Robert de (1782-1854), the leading Catholic thinker of Restoration France. He was the first proponent of liberal Catholicism and an early advocate of social Catholicism. His eventual advocacy of a conciliation between Catholicism and liberalism led to a rupture with the church. Lamennais, the son of a prosperous merchant, was born in June, 1782 at Saint-Malo in Brittany. A moody and lonely person, he followed his brother into the priesthood in 1816. Lamennais sought in religion a remedy for the anarchy and tyranny unleashed by revolution. He believed that social chaos and religion were both rooted in the primacy of individual reason and that the church led by the papacy could restore unity and order to society. Early in the 1820s he broke with the Restoration monarchy and devoted himself to the promotion of the independence of the church. For Lamennais the promotion of general freedom became a practical necessity. With the liberty to propagate its message, Lamennais believed that the church would be victorious. By 1827, Lamennais' outlook on revolution had changed. Although still concerned about anarchy, he now viewed positively the revolution's fundamental intention. He began to advocate a new social order based upon an alliance between the church and revolution. Lamennais enthusiastically welcomed the July revolution in France, but rapidly sensed its inadequacy and became a convinced republican and democrat. He subsequently applauded the revolutions in Belgium, where his ideas had gained popularity and where an alliance between Catholics and liberals had been effected, and in Poland.

On October 16, 1830, with Henri-Baptiste Lacordaire, Comte Charles de Montalembert, and others, he launched the newspaper, L'Avenir, to promote religion and liberty. During the thirteen months of L'Avenir existence, Lamennais' social theories became more radical. He called for Catholics to lead the movement for political democracy and economic justice. Lamennais regarded the opposition to L'Avenir from within the Church as part of the opposition of the powerful to the people. The papacy was pressured by the French hierarchy, the French government, and Austria to condemn the paper. Pope Gregory XVI, though thoroughly reactionary, would have preferred not to make an official issue of the matter, but his hand was forced by Lamennais, who suspended the paper and demanded a verdict from the pope on his doctrinal orthodoxy. Lamennais, however, who no longer believed that the pope was competent in political questions , refused to alter his positions after the pope in his encyclopical of 1832 Mirari vos condemned the ideas advocated in L'Avenir.

It was very difficult for Lamennais to break formally with the church. At the end of 1833, while ill, he had signed a submission to papal authority, but he quickly repented this concession to tyranny as a betrayal of his beloved people. Although he wrote Paroles d'un Croyant in 1833, he did not publish it until April, 1834. Lamennais did not advocate revolution, but the book was a revolutionary call for the end of the domination of humans by other humans. Lamennais ignored an explicit condemnation by the pope, and by 1836 completely renounced catholicism.

Lamennais continued to write until his death in 1854, but after his break with the church, he had little impact. He advocated a new socially democratic community, rooted in a purified Christianity. In 1841, he was jailed for a year for his vociferous attack on the policies of the July Monarchy in a pamphlet, Le pays et la gouvernement. He emerged from prison unmoved. He likewise refused the plea of some liberal Catholics to rejoin the church after the election of the supposedly liberal Pope Pius IX.

The revolution of 1848 provided Lamennais with his last public role. His new newspaper, Le Peuple constituant, was published from February 27 to July 11. He received 104,811 votes in the April election, and won the thirty-fourth and last seat allocated to Paris in the constituent assembly. In the assembly, Lamennais chose to sit on the extreme left. Because of his reputation, he was chosen to participate on the committee charged with drawing up the new constitution. Lamennais advocated universal suffrage, universal free education, and a graduated tax. He advocated an end to the monopoly of the university and the separation of church and state. He opposed a strongly centralized government, and called for local liberties. Lamennais was disappointed by the revolution. He was a poor speaker and had little impact in the constitutional committee, resigning from it after two meetings. Though he never advocated violence, he sympathized with the plight of the poor and bitterly opposed the brutal repression of their rising in June. He denounced Eugène Cavaignac's press law, which required a twenty four thousand franc security deposit from newspapers that made the continuation of Le Peuple constituant impossible. Its last issue, printed on July 11, carried Lamennais' denunciation surrounded in black: "Le Peuple constituant began with the republic, now, with it, it comes to an end . . . It is necessary today to have money, much money, to enjoy the right to speak . . . Silence to the poor!" Legal action was taken against Lamennais, and in October the paper was condemned and he was fined. Lamennais joined representatives of the left to support the presidential candidacy of Alexandre-Auguste Ledru-Rollin, and wrote forty-three articles for the democ-soc La Réforme in 1849, before the paper ceased publication on January 12, 1850. The declining and isolated Lamennais condemned the coup of Louis Napoleon. He died in Paris on February 27, 1854. On his deathbed he refused to see a priest, but his remains were escorted by a large crowd of poor people when, as he had requested, he was buried in an unmarked common grave.

Bernard Cook


Boutard, Charles Lamennais, sa vie et ses doctrines 3 vol. (Paris: Perrin, 1913).

J.-B. Duroselle Les débuts du Catholicisme social en France (1822-1870) (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1951).

Rémond, René Lamennais et la démocratie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1948).

Stearns, Peter N. Priest and Revolutionary: Lamennais and the Dilemma of French Catholicism (New York: Harper and Row, 1967).

Vidler, Alexander R Prophecy and Papacy: A Study of Lamennais, the Church and the Revolution (London: Schribner, 1954).

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