Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

VII. Catholic Before All Else

(The Remnant, April 15th, 1991)

“In the islands of Oceania, the savages who fill the offices of priests often indulge the whim of declaring such and such an object to be taboo; that is to say, sacred, and from that point on no one can touch it under pain of sacrilege and death. Are we going to accord the same faculty to the flamines of the ideas of 1789, and will everything that they regard with a pleased eye be taboo for the rest of us mortals?…All revolutionary institutions and their consequences, whatever they may be, taboo! One must be quiet and adore them, or perish! This fetishism is new, at least among Catholics and conservatives.” (Louis Veuillot, Mélanges, vi, 435)
One of the glories of the Roman Catholic Church has been an understanding of government that has kept it free of what we might call Idol Worship: the divinization of any one political system. The Church does, indeed, have very definite beliefs about the nature of political authority and the ways in which it can and cannot be used. Nevertheless, given the diversity of human life, environmental conditions, and changing historical circumstances, she does not feel capable of specifying one form of government as being the sole legitimate system, or even the best one for a precise time and place. Any form of government sufficiently in tune with natural human needs as to make obedience to its authority a necessary means of avoiding regular harm to oneself and to one’s neighbor is legitimate in her eyes and open to transformation in Christ. Historically, she has been able to work with imperial, monarchical, aristocratic, republican, military, and dictatorial systems. Historically, she has seen each of these systems become corrupt under the influence of sin. Thus, she has seen it to be her right and her duty, when opportunities arose, to give her support to whatever feasible political forms offered the faithful the best chance of being “Catholics before all else”. She has understood it to be reprehensible to adulate a system that once had the reputation of being Christian when it actually had begun to dedicate itself to doing the work of the enemies of the Church.

There have always been Catholics who have objected to the Roman approach, placing greater importance upon a given political form than that form’s ability to serve the cause of the Church. Historians of the Restoration Era (1814-1830/1848) are fond of pointing out the way in which Catholic Legitimists have been guilty of this error, while neglecting to indicate the addiction of Liberal Catholics to an infinitely more dangerous Idol Worship in matters of government.

A full understanding of the disease of Liberal Catholicism requires a look at the work of a French priest, apologist, and writer: the Abbé Félicité de la Mennais, known more popularly by the democratized form of his name as Lamennais (1782-1854), who is the true founder of the entire movement.

Lamennais started out as a fervent Legitimist. Sharing the critical spirit of a Joseph de Maistre, however, he became disillusioned with Legitimism when he contemplated the fate of the Church under the Catholic guidance of an actually indifferentist monarch like King Louis XVIII (1814-1824). It became imperative for him to find a way out of the Catholic Legitimist dilemma of praising a Catholic King who seemed to be a hindrance to the spread of the Faith.

An answer lay readily at hand. Christianity, Lamennais claimed, had been so successful in imbedding its truths in the customs, behavior, and very essence of the Catholic Peoples of Europe that they were a sure guide to Tradition and Truth, a fount of living Christian waters, a silent majority of religious sensibility better than any other force. Since the Sauls of Europe—Legitimist Kings and their governments—had proven to be unreliable, the Davids—the People of God—ought to be anointed to do the botched job better. The Catholic Church had to abandon, immediately, her reliance on the support of monarchs and state machinery for protection. What she needed was the buckler and shield of the People, who could not help but be Catholic. Hence, the same error that Lamennais himself had recognized in many Legitimists—the idea that the King’s actions were ipso facto Catholic—he now resurrected with the People in the King’s place. The Idol was changed, but Idol Worship was to remain.

Lamennais was an Ultramontanist. He believed that a definition of Papal Infallibility and a centralization of ecclesiastical power in the hands of the Pope were needed in an age of massive revolutionary attacks upon the Church. It seemed obvious to him that the Pope, the authentic voice of Tradition and Truth in the Church Hierarchy, would bless his vision of Christian Democracy. He did not. He could not. Pope Gregory XVI condemned it (1832) and eventually excommunicated its author (1834).

New deductions were required. Lamennais made them. It was clear to him that the voice of Tradition and Truth in the People had to supercede that of the Pope if Catholicism were to thrive. But since the silent Catholic majority did not appear to be mature enough yet to recognize its charismatic role, its consciousness needed to be raised and guided by a Spokesman in the know. This, needless to say, was Lamennais himself. Hence, the adoption by the excommunicated priest of the role of Prophet of Democracy, and through Democracy, of the God that the official Church had let down.

Here we have the basic features of all forms of radical Catholicism as they will manifest themselves over and over again down to the present day. There is the idea of a Double Magisterium, that of the People being, at least at times, more important than that of the official Church. There is the related notion that the People’s Magisterium requires interpretation by those men who are most mature and aware of the signs of the times. There is the chance to foist upon the world as the true teaching of Catholicism the visions of a charismatic individual or a well-organized clique. These concepts, traced historically up until 1945 by the Abbé Jacques Meinvielle in his excellent work, De Lamennais à Maritain, are the same that we have had the misfortune of seeing in operation at Vatican Two and afterwards. Wherever they play a role, they wrap a veil of confusion around the teaching authority of the Church behind which the mystery of iniquity can continue its work unhindered.

It was the Count Charles de Montalembert (1810-1870) who gave these notions new life in Liberal Catholicism. Montalembert, one of Lamennais’ chief disciples, submitted to the papal condemnation of his master’s work. He spent the 1830’s and 1840’s as the parliamentary leader of the Catholic Party in France, working closely together with Louis Veuillot and l’Univers. Both men sought to use the moderate revolutionary, liberal bourgeois system of constitutional government established in the reign of King Louis Philippe (1830-1848) to beat it at its own game and defend the Church. They felt that they had no other choice, given that the new regime had become an obvious fact of life in the daily world in which they operated.

Problems arose in the collaboration of Montalembert and Veuillot after 1848, when a democratic revolution overthrew the liberal constitutionalism of the Louis Philippe era, and was in turn replaced by the imperial government of Napoleon III. Veuillot, true to the idea of being Catholic before all else, was willing to work with any system in which Catholic goals could be promoted and won. Moreover, he felt, for a time, that the government of Napoleon III offered an infinitely greater opportunity of achieving Catholic ends than any system based on liberal constitutionalism.

But something had happened to Montalembert. Whether his half English and Mennaisian background had come to the fore, or whether the simple effects of working daily in a liberal constitutional framework had taken their toll, he had become an Idol Worshipper. Not only did he begin to argue that constitutional government was the sole form of government that a Catholic in the nineteenth century should seek to establish, but he also indicated that Catholic goals had to be attained in distinctly liberal constitutional fashion. Indeed, liberalism had become for him the political expression of the Catholic Faith, and this he explained in typically Mennaisian ways. Catholicism had imbedded itself in the People. The mature, aware, disciplined segment of the People could speak out and guide the State in the Press and Parliament. The victory of the liberal bourgeoisie, the mature force that had done wonders in England and in the France of Louis Philippe, could not help but be a victory for the civilizing work of Christ.

Veuillot was stunned that his old comrade-in-arms had become an apologist for a mere means of government—and that means, a system guided by an anti-Catholic spirit—rather than the original ends that the Catholic Party had in mind:

We said that the Church had a right to the same liberties they granted everybody else, not that everybody had a right to the same liberties as the Church. We said that all the liberties we demanded were of natural and divine law, good, necessary, legitimate, and holy; not that all the liberties which others were demanding had the same character, the same title, and had to be given the force of law. Never was our liberty that of the liberals, still less that of the democrats, and never were they unaware of this. Whatever the danger of cooling their friendship, when accidentally and for a moment they were our allies; whatever the danger of irritating them as enemies, we—Montalembert and the rest of us—thought that the peril would be infinitely greater accepting or tolerating a single one of their errors. Our conscience demanded this, the interest of our party demanded this. The right tactic for us is to be visibly and always what we are, nothing more, nothing less. We defend a citadel which cannot be taken except when the garrison itself brings in the enemy. Combating with our own arms, we only receive minor wounds. All borrowed armor troubles and often chokes us.” (Mélanges, V, 276.)

Taparelli d’Azeglio joined Veuillot in his astonishment. He wrote to

Montalembert repeatedly, respectfully, publicly dedicating works to the Frenchman’s genius, but reiterating convictions that irritated the Idol Worshipper. For, once more, Taparelli, like Veuillot, was willing to deal with any form of government that the facts of history tossed into the political arena, and was open to the reality that sin and ideology could corrupt them all.

Montalembert and many of his Liberal Catholic (as they styled themselves) followers, who now set up their own journal, Le Correspondant, could not endure such critiques. They, like Lamennais, believed that the Magisterium of the informed, mature People had spoken. It had decreed the necessity and glory of liberal constitutionalism. Hence, with Tertullian-like logic, they rejected even listening to the arguments of Veuillot and Taparelli as those of self-condemned heretics. The reading of many of their answers to Taparelli and Veuillot is basically the reading of invective. The price for serious dialogue was an unquestioning acceptance of the presuppositions of Liberalism as eminently Catholic. Sound familiar?

The Idol Worshipping of the Liberal Catholics of the 1850’s and 1860’s was one of the most important stimuli to the writings of both of our prophets. Thus, it was, in one sense, a felix culpa. It forced them to think through their positions more clearly. And, in doing so, it gave rise to one of the most profound studies of the errors of Liberalism in government that the century produced: Taparelli’s Critical Examination of Modern Representative Systems, about which more in the next article.

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