Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Le Sillon, Modernism, and Catholicism as Democracy

(The Angelus, September, 2020.)

Le Sillon, Modernism, and Catholicism as Democracy

Eugène de Rastignac is a principal character in that series of novels dealing with the Restoration and July Monarchy (1815-1848) Era that Honoré de Balzac linked together under the title of La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy). He first appears in Le Père Goriot (Old Man Goriot, 1835) as a sympathetic, young, poor student from the provinces who nevertheless wants to “make it” in Parisian high society. While he does indeed turn down an offer of direct help from the devil, incarnated in another recurring figure of the series by the name of Vautrin, Rastignac flees from this satanic temptation, but only to pursue the same goal by other means. “A nous deux, maintenant!” (“It is between you---i.e., Paris---and me now!”) he proclaims at the end of the novel as he confirms his quest for “conquest” of the city through his own personal sell-out to its moral corruption.

Far be it from me to suggest any exact comparison of Rastignac with Marc Sangnier (1873-1950), the founder in 1894 of the movement called Le Sillon (The Furrow). Even though the all too hagiographic discussions of Sangnier’s life almost make one want to find in him some hidden personal flaw, it is clear that he, like Rastignac, also never made a direct deal with the devil. Moreover, Sangnier did not even share the moral weaknesses of Balzac’s fictional nineteenth century social climber. He was too much of a practicing believer for those flaws. Still, he, too, did not abandon his dangerously obsessive goal---that of a Catholic marriage with modern democracy---but pursued it though the use of other tools: in his case, dubious and ultimately blinding “intuitive” ones.

It was in the crypt of the College Stanislas in Paris in 1894 that the polytechnic student Sangnier, born into a Catholic family wealthy enough to allow him eventually to dedicate himself entirely to his apostolic labors, first founded Le Sillon. Designed for the promotion of Leo XIII’s program of political and social engagement as expressed in Rerum novarum (1891) and Au milieu des sollicitudes (1892). The Furrow’s first “study circle” rapidly expanded in number, bringing into its orbit not just students, but also priests, seminarians, and office and industrial workers, both in the provinces as well as throughout Paris. By 1905, after a good number of cardinals and bishops had given Sangnier’s efforts their blessing, following pilgrimages to Rome where he and his followers were welcomed by two popes, and having established fruitful friendships with a variety of other Catholic activist organizations, Le Sillon claimed as many as 10,000 participants in 640 study circles.

Nevertheless, only one year later, in 1906, when internal debates had revealed some serious differences of opinion among its members, Sangnier decided to transform the movement he had created into something “new”, now giving it the name of Le Plus Grand Sillon: “The Greater Furrow”. But anyone familiar both with the personality of the man as well as the modus operandi of the organization’s meetings and militant actions cannot really be surprised by the “development of doctrine” characterizing this supposedly new course. For Sangnier and Le Sillon had from the very outset exuded that overheated embrace of the importance of an irrational “vitality” as the prophetic key to Catholic Teaching promoted earlier in the century by the highly influential but eventually excommunicated Abbé de Lamennais’ (1782-1854); an approach that in the case of both men ended in confounding Catholicism with a passionate, energetic, “vitalist” commitment to democracy.

François Mauriac’s 1913 novel, L’Enfant Chargé de Chaines (Young Man in Chains) described his experiences while temporarily under the spell of Le Sillon, later summarizing Sangnier’s cultivation of “vitality” very succinctly: “Everything about him was intuition, aspiration, and movement of the heart”. (See Hughes Petit, L’Eglise, le Sillon, et l’Action Française, Nouvelles Édtions Latines, 1998, p. 128, also for the material below). Jeanne Caron, author of another useful book on the movement, underlines his anti-rational, charismatic, Lamennais like character still more clearly, indicating that he “made his choices with the light of intuition, inventing his path as he went along…The modes of his action made reference to an interior certitude most often without passion for the mediation of discursive thought” (Ibid., 128).

Henry du Roure (1883-1914), one of Sangnier’s closest lieutenants, gives an explanation as to why both the ordinary members of the movement as well as the activists known as the Jeune Garde breathed with “one common spirit in one common goal”. This was because, although the discussions at the study circles appeared to observers to be free flowing, unguided, and almost anarchistic in character, all his devoted followers felt “the necessity to believe in Marc’s providential vision and vow to him an absolute and unconditional confidence.” (Ibid., p.17). For as with Lamennais, the vision of the prophetic leader dominated all, and neither of the two men was particularly willing to treat favorably disagreement from anyone else.

Deeper implications of Sangnier’s unsurprising “development of doctrine” were very much emphasized by members of an organization with which he had at first had quite friendly relations: l’Action Française (French Action). Charles Maurras (1868-1952), its founder, responded to his “new course” criticism in a book entitled Le Dilemme de Marc Sangnier (The Dilemma of Marc Sangnier, 1906). Here, Maurras rejected the Plus Grand Sillon’s argument that Catholic social justice and modern democracy with its conception of the need to “free the individual” from “authority” were necessary partners, along with its attack on l’Action Française for its failure to recognize this indisputable truth by preferring the governance of the traditional French Monarchy. He noted that Sangnier reached his conclusions by completely overturning the movement’s hierarchy of values. Democracy and liberty in the modern revolutionary sense of the terms had become his supreme guides as to what was defined as “Catholic” and “socially just”: even though an historical study of what those pilot lights had actually accomplished since the 1700s proved that they destroyed the well-being of people at large for the benefit of a small elite that hypocritically waved the banner of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Maurras predicted that Sangnier---who to him appeared to spout off all too disputable slogans rather than logical thoughts designed for rational discussion, somewhat in the manner of Flaubert’s “Dictionary of Received Ideas” in Bouvard et Péchuchet---would find that was “easier to agitate democratically than to get a Catholic result from it.” (Ibid., p. 145). And referring to one of the most important new features of Le Plus Grand Sillon, the opening of its ranks to Protestants, Free Thinkers, and Socialists alongside believing Catholics, another Action Française supporter, Mgr. Anatole De Cabrières (1830-1921), the Bishop of Montpellier, perceived it as already having embraced heretical principles:

the novelties, the unclear formulas, the chimerical hope of baptizing and canonizing even opinions that are far removed from the true Faith; that entire complex of confused notions in the bosom of which the intelligent minds of our times struggle, that modernism, in one word, that elusive Proteus of multiple forms, must profoundly disquiet us because they menace religion with the greatest peril. (Ibid., p. 158).

Catholic Social Justice teachings, all critics of Sangnier insisted, were based upon the Kingship of Christ and Natural Law, and were in no way tied to any specific form of government, least of all one that had a tainted record with regard to openness to any supernatural and even rational guidance whatsoever. Yet Le Plus Grand Sillon took it for granted as a given that the morally good and just order emerged not from obedience to Christ and the world that conformed to and corrected itself according to His unchangeable message, but from democratic structures whose “passion” and “vital action” constituted the actual and sanctifying grace that moved men irresistibly heavenwards and in changing ways as well. Heresy? Impossible! For their democratic fervor on its own would prevent its Catholic followers from falling into doctrinal error, even though they seemed to be altering traditional definitions of human nature, liberty, and the meaning of “progress” along the way. Its goal, as the journal of “social action”, Democratie, that the movement began raising funds for creating in 1908 was designed to promote, was the development in France of a “truly” democratic republic, where individuals were freed from all oppressive authority, and this as the clear fulfillment of the will of Christ. For, as Sangnier himself said:

A man rose up who, working against political barbarism, allowed the democratic regime to prevail; a doctrine was founded which every day made oppression and nature herself back off before the Holy Liberty of souls; that doctrine is the Christian Doctrine…that man is Christ Jesus, our God! He alone founded, He alone maintains the democratic principle. (Ibid., p. 201).

Two immediate effects of the creation of Le Plus Grand Sillon alarmed bishops who had once been friendly to and even quite active in their support of Sangnier’s movement. One was the abandonment to their own devices of those study circles that were most closely connected to their particular dioceses and not prepared for a union with non-believers and even anti-Catholics through the fraternal glue supposedly provided by the grace of a common vital commitment to democracy. The other was the enthusiasm for the “new course” shown by a number of priests and seminarians who, utilizing the arguments provided through the movement, criticized episcopal efforts to dissuade them as the sort of oppressive authoritative behavior that would soon be discredited as anti-Catholic anyway under the development of doctrine desired by the Divine Founder of Democracy.

Opposition in both France and Italy rapidly mounted, with friends and foes of both Le Plus Grand Sillon and l’Action Française fueling the ever more public debate. But given the anti-Modernist campaign in Rome, it was inevitable that Pope St. Pius X would intervene in this clash of vitality and Tradition on the side of the opponents of Sangnier. His assault came with Notre Charge Apostolique (Our Apostolic Duty) on August 25, 1910, just as the movment’s standard bearing journal Democratie had finally appeared on the scene. While praising “the happy days” of the original Sillon and urging a return to its path, Pius went on to condemn the principles of its “greater” successor along exactly the same lines we have already indicated above. True liberty, equality, and fraternity, he explained, do indeed come from Our Lord, but at the end of the process of obedience to natural and supernatural laws and not through the mediation of an ever more democratic liberation of individuals from authorities that will remain valid until the last days; through transformation in Christ and not through some new form of democratic libertarian “grace” superior to that initially offered by the Savior. For St. Francis of Assisi was not somehow less of a model of the holy, free, charitable Christian man because he lived in a society that did not possess the tools of sanctification only unleashed through democracy.

Yes, it is true that Charles Maurras and l’Action Française were not without serious problems of their own vis-à-vis Church teaching. Nevertheless, their practical defense of the Catholic Faith at this time period was undeniable, and their particular critique of Le Grand Sillon was spot on. While the l’Action Française was, to begin with, an association “of non believers which, because it had taken up the defense of the Church in a number of circumstances, found itself joined by a number of Catholics to such a degree that these latter then occupied the key posts within it”, Sangnier’s group was one “founded among Catholics that opened up to unbelievers, and which, by that fact alone, gave proof of a certain softness in the fight versus anticlericalism”. (Ibid., p. 152).

Once again, Sangnier himself was devoted to the Catholic Faith. His real dilemma, contrary to the one that he posed to Maurras regarding the sole compatibility of social justice and an order of things accepting the principles of 1789, was that his utter faith in modern political democracy blinded him to the battles between the two. He was a man who suffered from what St. Cyril of Alexandria called dypsychia, the possession of two souls leading in opposite directions, as this great Eastern Church Father saw all too vividly among Christians of his own day still also bound to pagan practices.

The founder of Le Sillon did, indeed “submit” to Pope St. Pius X’s condemnation of his “new course”. He did so, however, not by returning to its earlier “happy days”, which always contained the seeds of its further development within them anyway. Instead, dissolving Le Plus Grand Sillon, he dedicated himself in 1912 openly to politics as such, through a movement called Jeune République, totally democratic in its aspirations. But Sangnier’s star began to rise again, especially from the late 1920s onwards, closely connected with the intensification of the problems of l’Action Française with respect to the Church---which we should return to here some day---mentioned above. We, to our misfortune, have lived to see the way in which Sangnier’s political modernism, basically canonized by the mainstream Church in our own time, has so overturned the hierarchy of values that the Democratic Catholicism preached around us today would most certainly offend the believing Catholic psyche of the founder of Le Sillon himself, whatever his dypsychia might have been. For “Paris” in the form of Democracy has today conquered “Rastignac” in the figure of Sangnier and Le Sillon, and seemingly the Catholic world as a whole, and the battle is now “between us and this monster from hell”. It is a battle through which that monster can do a great deal of damage to souls, but one that in the final analysis it cannot win.

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