Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Louis Veuillot: Icon and Iconoclast

Louis Veuillot (1813-1883), the man whom Pope St. Pius X called a model for the Catholic laity, came back to the Faith of his birth through a life-changing conversion experience on a visit to Rome. The Eternal City provided the setting for an intellectual and spiritual awakening of analogous importance for me as well, and one that was to a large degree inspired by the thought of precisely this all too maligned and forgotten essayist, satirist, devotional writer, and newspaper editor.

My admiration for Veuillot was, due to historical circumstances, a nuanced one from the very outset, with some of my objections actually becoming still sharper over the years. Nonetheless, the basic jolt that he and his allies gave to my way of viewing the modern world has remained as stimulating and formative as when first administered. A cynic might argue that that I was merely overwhelmed by the writing of someone whom the great nineteenth century literary critic, Sainte-Beuve, considered to be one of the master stylists of his day, but I do not believe that Veuillot’s facility with words adequately explains his effect on me. It was not simply of question of how the man said things, but what his comments offered: a clear reflection of Catholicism, both contemporary and perennial, and, through that Catholic message, a devastating assault on false religious and political images that desperately wanted to be worshipped for what they were not. I shall leave it to the reader to decide about Veuillot’s greatness from what he learns in the discussion of his life and work to be found in this book. What I wish to do here, in its introduction, is to treat of him as he moved me: as a Catholic icon and iconoclast.

When I say that Veuillot was an accurate image or icon of contemporary Catholicism, I do so primarily in order to make reference to my chief criticisms of his work, those engendered by historical circumstances. I came to the editor of the Parisian daily l’Univers via study of the Roman, Jesuit journal, La Civiltà Cattolica, and their joint combat against anti-Catholic, revolutionary developments. My years of study were those of the 1970’s, when the counterrevolutionary positions that Veuillot and his friends had supported, with Pius IX and many prelates behind them, had come to be openly reviled by the Papacy itself. I was doing research in a city in open and destructive revolution against its own past. Ultramontanism, that movement for the clearer delineation of the contours of papal authority, and the construction of the machinery that would allow for a more effective Roman administration of the Universal Church, was a force whose errors and limitations I could not help but be very much aware of and suffer from. The apparent failure of men like Louis Veuillot to recognize the potential consequences of the exaggerations of that nineteenth century ultramontanist vision which they enthusiastically represented could not help but stand out in my eyes as somewhat problematic, to say the very least. I was put on guard against following them as though they were flawless guides.

Ecclesiastical revolution in the 1970’s also led me to view Veuillot’s attempts to judge what ultimately involved delicate theological issues by appealing for the support of the readership of a daily newspaper as being misplaced. In fact, such nineteenth-century, popular, ultramontanist campaigns could be seen to be, on the one hand, a continuation of Lamennais’ effort to found Catholic doctrinal formulation on the testimony of a "silent majority" moved to action by energetic, charismatic leadership, and, on the other, a prelude to the ambiguous goals of later Christian Democratic movements and their party propaganda. Veuillot’s desire to be orthodox was unquestionable, but he seemed to me to have helped, however unwittingly, to forge both the mentality that would accept willful edicts emerging from Rome as Gospel Truth, as well as the journalistic modus operandi that could be used on behalf of heterodox, populist rejection of the just commands of legitimate papal authority.

Nevertheless, exaggeration and misplaced activity aside, I think that one must note even in this flawed aspect of Veuillot’s work an accurate icon of perennial Catholicism which raises him far above many of his contemporary and later critics. His ultramontanism and journalism were part and parcel of a zealous modern defense of that eminently traditional and proper distinction of the spheres and personnel of Church and State which lies at the heart of a sound Christian understanding of political and social life. Veuillot’s exaltation of the Papacy and lay activism were inevitably dictated by his other labors on behalf of Catholic liberation from the restrictive policies under which the Church suffered at the hands of all early nineteenth century states: that "regalism", both absolutist and constitutional, which most local prelates, historically susceptible to immediate governmental pressures, showed little, if any, willingness to contest. The editor of l’Univers had not experienced the "flip side" of centralization when he began his innovative labors on behalf of the perennial tradition, and cannot be judged with the same severity as those who had knowledge of its problems, and yet moved forward along this pathway all the same.

Moreover, some of Veuillot’s statements regarding the lofty character of the Popes, which have been emphasized by his enemies to illustrate his creation of a personality cult around the figure of Pius IX, were, while perhaps tasteless, actually part of the gradual rediscovery and reinvigoration of a Christian vision obscured by years of Catholic subservience to naturalist, Enlightenment sensibilities. To read them merely as examples of an unacceptable hero-worship is to miss their deeper testimony to the supernaturally elevated status of every office within the Mystical Body of Christ, and of every person striving for a closer relationship to Christ. Similar sentiments, expressed much better theologically, can be found in Cardinals Pie, Manning, and Dechamps, as well as in the spiritual writings of the vast number of nineteenth-century traditionalists innovatively recapturing the entirety of the badly neglected Catholic devotional and mystical heritage.

Prominent among the men missing Veuillot’s imaging of more profound themes of perennial Catholicism were his Liberal Catholic opponents, Charles de Montalembert and the writers of the journal, Le Correspondant. Such figures were perhaps more responsible than any non-Catholics for bequeathing to us the picture of Veuillot as an intransigent, crude, and even cynical obscurantist. Anyone listening to their attack on the editor of l’Univers would certainly be directed to undeniable statements and actions which the greatest admirers of Veuillot might themselves regret. But a student who stopped there, and failed to read Liberal Catholic arguments on behalf of their own specific ideology and causes celébres would be guilty of prematurely abandoning an indispensable education in just how closed-minded supposedly "open" modern men can be.

It is in discussing this seeming paradox that I arrive at the Veuillot who most awakened me from my own dogmatic slumbers, the man whom I feel happy to join St. Pius X in recommending as a permanent model for the activist laity: Veuillot, the Catholic Iconoclast. As smasher of false "sacred" images, the editor of l’Univers excelled beyond most others. He understood the modern world, born with the Renaissance and Protestantism, and developed through the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, to be guided almost entirely by such erroneous idols. These were all the more dangerous in that they were presented not as the terrifying fetishes that they really were, but as the latest sensible constructions of sane, rational men. While depicting itself as the first era in human history truly eager for founding its institutions on the basis of scientific observation and intelligent debate, revolutionary Modernity pridefuly offered its peoples the most extensive collection of irrational, iron-clad credal formulations that the world had ever known; dogmas which no free spirit or open mind was allowed even to begin to criticize:

"In the islands of Oceania, the savages who fill the office of priests often indulge the whim of declaring some specific object to be…taboo, that is to say, sacred, and from that point on no one can touch it under pain of sacrilege and of death. Are we going to accord the same faculty to the priests of the ideas of 1789, and will everything that their eye has viewed with pleasure be taboo for the rest of us mortals?…All revolutionary institutions and all their consequences, whatever they may be, taboo! One must be quiet and adore, or perish!" (Mélanges, vi, 435)

"Ferocious pride is the real spirit of the Revolution. This pride has so established itself in the world that it has exiled reason. It has a horror of reason. It gags it. It hunts it. And if it can kill it, it kills it…It has placed a blindfold of impenetrable sophisms on the face of European civilization. It cannot see the heavens or hear the thunder." (Mélanges, x, 45-46).

Veuillot the Iconoclast ignored these taboos, striking at the whole panoply of false modern fetishes through a rationally grounded satire. Contemporary certainties concerning science, education, freedom, progress, and—a topic which ought to be of special importance to Americans--the unprecedented glories of the New World, all suffered from his merciless sting. And in each of his assaults he emphasized the central, pathetic reality manifested by the irrationality of the supposed men of Reason discussed above: the fact that revolutionary Modernity as a whole is an enormous fraud, its erroneous principles producing everywhere the very opposite of what they promise to people, with its supporters smugly, arrogantly, refusing to admit the obvious contradiction. This is why Liberal Catholics, who unceasingly preached a message of political openness, eagerness for fresh initiatives, and liberation from harsh authority, could blithely promote a program that blatantly belied their cherished image of themselves. Hence, their demand for an absolutely unquestioning faith in the necessity of modern constitutional government, with a non-traditional definition of separation of Church and State, which placed the final judgement regarding abuse of spiritual power firmly in the hands of the government ; their bitter rejection of the innovative, "insubordinate" activism of Veuillot and his school; their encouragement of joint ecclesiastical and political intervention to bring these upstart lay rascals to heel. Start with a revolutionary modern principle, Veuillot insisted, and you can be sure that you will end with a brutal violation of everything that it claims infallibly to guarantee. It was bad enough that sincere non-Catholics embraced such self-destructive axioms. Significantly more horrendous was the attempt by Catholics to interpret Church doctrine in line with "the ideas of 1789" , thereby lending the most sublime teachings for the exaltation of man and society to the cause of a pathetic crippling of the human condition. Here lay the reason for the primary direction of his satire towards his fellow believers, their salvation from a secular abyss being a precondition for conversion of those outright enemies of Christianity who would be all the more certainly lost through their apostasy.

A man’s inconsistencies are certainly open to critique, though I find criticism of some of those "contradictions" which have been identified in Veuillot to be cheap and cynical, merely pinpointing the difficulties faced by anyone trying to live a life in conformity with his principles in a world guided by quite opposing rules. Belly laughs at the expense of the anti-modern, Romanophile Veuillot’s frenzied hunt in the Eternal City for the necessary equipment required to transmit his press reports seem to me to be utterly beside the point. One might just as well ridicule the frustration of an individual who detests a society of constant movement for complaining about the lack of proper amenities on the interstate highway that his job forces him to drive up and down each week in order to ensure his survival.

He who reads the writings of Louis Veuillot does not encounter an infallible guide to religiously and politically correct opinion. But what he does have opened to him is a brilliant critique of a fradulent, self-deluding world built on anti-Christian and anti-natural sophisms; a summons to respond vigorously to modernity’s diabolically appealing message through openness to a fully Catholic life. It was both of these aspects of the man’s work that affected me. To paraphrase what the editor of l’Univers himself once said about the great counterrevolutionary writer Joseph de Maistre, "when I went to Rome, Louis Veuillot blew the trumpet and I heard it". I have never regretted having done so, since I believe that it has helped mightily to free me from the grip of those rationalist lies that most of our contemporaries seem to take for granted as the self-evident, common sense basis for a fully human life.

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