IV. Fall of de la Mennais

[British Critic, Oct. 1837]

{138} M. F. DE LA MENNAIS has given us an account of what passed between him and the Papal See in 1831-1832, in a small volume entitled "Affaires de Rome." It is a curious and instructive work; and, though coming from the pen of an acknowledged partisan, and therefore not implicitly to be trusted, it deals too largely in facts, and has too much the air of truth, not to demand the attention of all Churchmen. That great and ancient power, the Church Catholic, which dates her origin from the first preaching of the Gospel, which was founded by the Apostles, and which claims to be indissolubly connected with its fortunes, has been taken captive by her enemies, blinded, and set to servile employments—to make men good citizens, and to promote the enlightenment and comfort of the world; except when she is brought out of the prison-house on some great pageant, "to make sport," to invest the institutions of earth with something of a religious character, and to pay homage to its mighty men, as her creators and governors. Such at least is M. de la Mennais' opinion; and this is the curious circumstance, that the Roman Church, so high and apostolic, as her champions in these parts would represent her, so voluntary, so law-less, so unshackled, is after all, according to this {139} foreign witness, but an established thing, up and down the countries in which she ought only to sojourn, not less or much more of a Law Church, practically, than our own. Indeed, the main difference between her and ourselves, taking him for our informant, seems to be this; that we have hitherto been well-treated, and Romanists ill-treated by the civil power;—that we have received bread, and have obeyed through gratitude; and they have been robbed and beaten, till they fawned upon their oppressors out of sheer exhaustion. Certainly, of the two, ours has been the better bargain. The consequences are natural; two parties at present wish our downfall; our ill-starred foreign brethren, in order to level us to themselves, and our own masters, to rival foreign spoliations. Whigs and Papists, the high and the low, combine, the one from ambition, the other from envy; the one cry out, "I will ascend into heaven; I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit upon the mount of the congregation:" and the others begin to say, "Art thou also become weak as we? Art thou become like unto us?"

M. de la Mennais's book then is curious and instructive, as setting before us the actual state of the Roman Communion, both ecclesiastically and morally; and, in consequence, as holding out to us some warning of what may come on ourselves. It is curious, moreover, as indicating the existence of a party within it, at variance with the present policy of its rulers, living upon historical recollections and ancient principles, and ripe for insurrection. Moreover, it is curious as exhibiting the principles of this insurgent party, which is faithful to the same mixture of truth and error, right and bad feeling, which has been the inheritance of its church for many centuries. It will be our endeavour to put the Abbé's volume before the reader in some of these various lights. {140}


When good churchmen in England have of late years, in our presence, exclaimed against the various successful encroachments of the State upon that liberty which was their birthright, it has been our wont to counsel them patience, by referring to the state of the Greek Church, in which the Great Turk, a mere heathen, or rather an antichrist, appoints the patriarch; under the feeling that we had no right to complain as yet, when our rulers were appointed, not by pagans, but only by schismatics, latitudinarians, profligates, socinians, and infidels. But the work before us suggests comfort nearer home; the poor Gallican Church is in a captivity, not only doctrinal, which we all know, but ecclesiastical, far greater than ours. M. de la Mennais mentions the following instances of it.

In 1801, Buonaparte, as Consul, negotiated a concordat with the Pope, by which the government had secured to it the right of presenting to the French sees, on the condition of its "professing the Catholic religion." [Note 1] It was stipulated, at the same time, that if the Consuls or their successors ever ceased such profession, a new concordat should settle the mode of nomination. This arrangement was acknowledged and acted on under the Restoration, the kings being, by profession, "most Christian," and guardians of Catholicism. But after the events of the Three Days, the State could no longer fulfil its own part of the compact. Louis Philippe was king "by the grace of the people;" and was obliged, according to one of the fundamental principles of the Revolution, whatever he might be in his own person, to become, at least in profession, of no particular religion. It follows, in our author's {141} words,—that "the government had no longer the right to present to the sees; and the danger was obvious of allowing ministers, who might be Deists, Protestants, Jews, or Infidels, to choose the successors of the Apostles of Jesus Christ." [Note 2] However, the government continues to appoint the bishops as before; and has availed itself of its privilege, to introduce into the hierarchy persons who have justified the fears, with which such a prerogative naturally inspired all pious men [Note 3].

An attempt has been made to encroach upon the rights of the Church in her inferior, as well as her highest appointments. The government has interfered in the appointment of parish priests. On a vacancy in a living the bishop of the diocese nominates the new incumbent; he has been expected by the new government to take his choice out of persons named to the Minister of Religion by the local magistracy. In the diocese of Nimes, instances have occurred of the government's taking the absolute nomination into their hands. One parish went without a clergyman for many months, because the bishop's nominee was opposed by the nominee of a colonel. In another, the appointment was given to the nominee of a Protestant mayor. M. de la Mennais adds: "Since the nomination of canons and vicars-general required the approval of the government, it followed, that the whole hierarchy fell directly or indirectly into the hands of enemies of the Church, who, after having all their life had the vision of her ruin before their eyes, found themselves all at once in a position to give her pastors as many as they chose." [Note 4] It is an edifying {142} comment on this fact that M. Montalivet, when, as Minister of Religion, he had the disposal of all the government Church patronage, avowed it to be his wish so to manage the education of the people as to destroy superstition.

The following acts are instances of interference, with still less regard to law or usage; political necessity being of course in part their excuse. A circular from the Minister of Religion to the bishops, enjoined them to add the name of Louis Philippe in the sentences in the service where "the king" is prayed for, "contrary," says our author, "to the immemorial usage of the Church of France, respected even under Napoleon." [Note 5] By another circular they were ordered to interdict the observance of certain festivals, declared not obligatory by the concordat; with a view of hindering the attendance at church on those days. Another circular ordered the clergy to warm the water used in baptism during the winter. In the dioceses of Lyons and Grenoble, the names of children are demanded for registration before baptism.

On the Abbé Gregoire's death, though he died in separation from the Catholic Church, the government took possession of a parish church, in Paris, and caused a solemn service to be performed over the body by some separatist priests. A like outrage occurred on the death of the Abbé Berthier, who died in schism; and the government intimated its intention, as a matter of right and duty, always so to act in parallel circumstances. Aristotle, if we mistake not, has been represented as inclining to the notion that pity is the long-scented presage of one's own participation in another's misfortunes. We sincerely pity the French Church. {143}

The clergy are paid by the State, by a yearly budget. This salary was originally an indemnity in part of the immense spoliations of the Church at the first Revolution, and was settled by the concordat of 1801. It has ceased to be considered a debt, as might easily be anticipated; and is increased or diminished at pleasure by the government, who claim the right of suppressing it altogether.

Instances have occurred of clergy being refused the bills due to them on the treasury, for their salaries, because the underlings of government have been dissatisfied with their mode of going on [Note 6]. What sets off this proceeding is the circumstance, that according to French law, government cannot withhold a public functionary's pay, without proceeding to displace him: and if he cannot be displaced, without action in a court of law.

Lastly, the parish priests are under the immediate surveillance of the mayors, and for every day's non-residence are fined a portion of their stipend [Note 7].

Such is the condition of the Church under a government which professes no religion; it is paid by the State, enslaved and insulted. No wonder; one is only surprised that it has fared no worse from those who would get religion out of the world altogether, if they could. But what is surprising is, the hard treatment which religion has received from those who are commonly considered its best friends—the Bourbons of the Restoration, and the great Conservative party who attached themselves to them. They retained Buonaparte's concordat of 1801, though formed on those principles of tyranny which he exercised towards all over whom he extended his patronage. The bishops were not permitted a freedom of intercourse with each other, or with Rome; and punishments, {144} up to banishment, were assigned to any priest for corresponding with what is to them the centre of Christendom. In spite of provincial and diocesan synods, and ecclesiastical courts, the Council of State was the sole judge of all disputes relative to religion and conscience [Note 8]. Education was entrusted to a lay body, to the exclusion of the clergy; the religious management, and even teaching in schools, subjected to civil authority; religious fraternities legally permitted, only under a license revocable at pleasure. Much of this might be excused, on the plea that the Bourbon Monarchy did but take what it found established; nay, even might be justified, on the plea of its Christian profession. But what shall we say to the two celebrated ordinances of June 16, 1828, which, though forced upon the reigning prince, attest thereby so much the more strikingly the slavery of the Church, under the system over which he nominally presided? By these all colleges were suppressed which remained in the hands of the clergy, and all ecclesiastical schools were put under the civil authority; the number of candidates for Orders was limited, they were obliged to wear a particular dress, and their masters, having been previously approved by government, took an oath not to belong to any religious society not recognized by the State. Such was the legislative patronage extended by the Bourbons to the Church, in spite of their attachment to it. They did what they could,—did favours, that is, which for the most part were personal only, and came to an end with themselves; or political favours which would come to an end with the civil power. They increased the number of the bishops, gave them seats in the Chamber, increased their stipends, encouraged the ceremonies of religion, favoured its missions (as they were {145} called); they did all but restore to the Church its own proper power—power over itself, over its members, or what, in the case of individuals, is liberty of person.

There is not much to choose, then, for the French Church, between friends and foes; except that friends are better behaved:—but how to account for this unanimity between them? At first sight, it seems obvious to attribute it to the present miserably irreligious state of France, which makes it impossible for its rulers, however well inclined, to do any real service to the Church. But M. de la Mennais has no difficulty in showing that the phenomenon is independent of the age and the place in which it has occurred. In France, it is as old at least as the reign of Louis XIV., and is, as he maintains, the working, not of infidelity, but of Gallicanism; which is, as it would really appear, only the surrender to the king of that illegal power over the Church, which had heretofore been possessed by the Pope. The Gallican principle is the vindication of the Church, not into independence, but into State patronage. The liberties of the Gallican Church are its establishment, its becoming, in Scripture language, "the servant of men." These liberties were solemnly recognized in the articles of the famous council held in Paris in 1682, in which was confirmed the king's claim to exercise in all churches within his kingdom, a right which he possessed but in portions of it, viz., that on a vacancy in a see, he should enjoy its revenues and its patronage till it was filled up. On the Pope's resisting the innovation, and refusing to confirm the bishops nominated by Louis, the latter, zealous of course for his Church's liberty, caused them to be consecrated and inducted into their sees on his own authority. Next, he summoned the council in question, in which it was decreed,—1. That the Pope could not interfere with the {146} temporal concerns of princes, directly or indirectly; 2. That in spiritual matters, he was subject to a general council; 3. That the rules and usages of the Gallican Church were inviolable; and 4. That the Pope's decision in points of faith was not infallible, unless attended by the consent of the Church. It matters little what is the wording of such resolutions, or what their precise doctrinal signification: they were aimed at the assistance afforded to religion by an external power against the pressure of the temporal power within, and they succeeded in making the king the head of the French Church, in much the same sense in which he is its supreme governor among ourselves. On the restoration of the Bourbons, Gallicanism returned with them, and its four articles were made the rule of the government schools. At first the clergy were little disposed to co-operate with the Court; but, a judicial decree in 1826 having declared the articles to be part of the fundamental laws of the kingdom, they were gradually persuaded that resistance was hopeless, and looked about how they might admit them, without committing the Church to the practical consequences.

Such was the cautious course adopted by the Episcopal Bench, tending, however, according to M. de la Mennais, to commit the Church to a position essentially schismatical, and thereby ruinous to its highest interests. It was under these circumstances that he made what seems to have been his first appearance as an ecclesiastical writer; he took up the defence of the Papal claims against the Gallicanism of the higher clergy; and fell forthwith under the animadversion of the police, (indulgent as it then was towards political publications,) for advocating, not any political measure, but certain theological doctrines which had formerly displeased {147} Louis XIV. Thus we see that it is not infidelity, but Gallicanism, which is the real enslaver of the French Church.

Yet even this fails of being the full and sufficient explanation of its captivity; as is plain from the circumstance that the same calamity has fallen upon Italy and Austria, countries apparently far removed from the contagion of Cisalpine opinions. In Tuscany the police exercises a censorship on the pastoral letters and other writings of the bishops; and till lately, if not at present, in Piedmont also. In Venice and Lombardy the Austrian government has the sole control of the promulgation of the Pope's circulars and other acts. At Milan, publications against Roman rights and doctrines are freely permitted; while political works are strictly forbidden. Even in Spain, the crown had the power and the will, during the rebellion of its colonies, to hinder the Holy See for seven years from filling up the South American bishoprics as they fell.

Some deeper cause then exists, according to M. de la Mennais, for the slavery of religion throughout the Roman Communion; and he ascribes it to the fact of the temporal establishment of religion. If the Church is to be free in each of the countries through which it is spread, it must, he considers, have some point d'appui to depend on. Rome, he considers, is this resting-point and centre of Catholicism. Catholics are one everywhere, while they concur and determine in Rome; they become schismatical wherever they set up a separate interest from it. Rome is, in this point of view, the guardian and security of the religious liberties of the whole world, being a court of final appeal between the Church and the local civil government. Hence it is the interest of the civil government, if it would subject its own Church to itself to break it off from its centre of {148} power, or to make it schismatical,—in other words, to establish it. Formal schism is the ultimate state of civil protection. It was realized in England, he says, at the time of the Reformation; it has since been gradually, and is still, maturing in the various countries which remain nominally attached to Rome. Such is, it would appear, the philosophy of M. de la Mennais; a few remarks upon it shall be made presently, but first let us complete our sketch of it.

This dislocation of the Church Catholic has been effected, he considers, by the evil influence exerted upon it by its temporalities. Her local rulers have been bribed or terrified into siding with the crown. In England she bartered her birthright for pottage. The case was, in some measure, the same in France, under the Restoration. The Court party attempted to prove that religion could not exist healthily except under the protection of the State; and liberally offered that protection in return for its submission. "The cry then was," says M. de la Mennais, "'All goes well; there is nothing to fear for God: the king protects Him.' The king, in fact, condescended to allow Him to choose for Himself a certain fixed number of young persons for the service of the altars, always on condition of his own superintendence of their education. His object was to relieve the Episcopate of this charge, fatigued, as it was besides, by its civil functions; for these functions, too, were a mode of making himself sure of it. The bishops laid down their mitres at the door of the chamber of peers; their crosiers at that of the council of state. Gold was lavished in exchange for an unconditional obedience." [Note 9] And a satisfactory exchange it was, compared with what it has been the fate of their Church to undergo, where {149} rulers were not so conservatively or so religiously minded. Bribery is out of date now; and the violences in France, since the revolution of 1830, and in Spain and Portugal during the last year or two, show us that fear rather than hope is now the approved instrument of the civil power in its warfare with religion.

Violence, however, eventually defeats its own purpose; when men have nothing to lose, they have nothing to fear; and recollections and desires of the forgotten spiritual dominion of the Church arise out of the destruction of its temporal. Such might already be the case with the communion of Rome, but for the present state of "the centre of unity" itself which, having been bribed long ago in common with its dependencies, has not yet been called upon to part with its portion of the "consideration." "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" Hence, M. de la Mennais has no hopes for Christendom while the Pope is a temporal prince. To the great disgust, as it would seem, of the Court of Rome, he maintains this to be the root of all the existing evil in the Church. He considers the See of St. Peter as the [pe sto], the fulcrum by which he is to move the world; and he finds it removed from the rock on which it was originally built, and based upon the low and marshy ground which lies beside it. Here, then, two points lie before us for examination, to which we shall apply ourselves, the supposed true position, according to our author's theory of the Papacy in the Church Catholic, and its actual condition at the present day.


It is impossible to determine, and it is useless to speculate, what designs Providence proposed to fulfil by means of the Church, which have not been answered. {150} In the Mosaic law we find an anticipation of a time when the government of Israel should be kingly, yet the actual adoption of that form of polity was, under the circumstances, a sin in the people. In like manner the Papacy, too, may be a human and a rebellious work, and yet, in the divine counsels, a centre of unity may have been intended for the Church in process of time. Such speculations are only admissible as tending to account for the mingled and apparently inconsistent strain in which one is forced in this day to speak of the Papal power as an evil, yet not a pure evil, as in itself human, yet, relatively to the world, divine. Providence carries on His mysterious work by instruments which are not simply His own; as He is now effecting great good in the world by the British power, in spite of its great religious errors, so surely He may, in a dark age also, be represented by a light short of the brightest and purest. And, in like manner, at this day also, in an irreligious State like France, the Romanizing Church there existing may, relatively, be God's minister, as if it were as pure as the primitive. Moreover, we of this generation may be quite unequal to the task of discriminating accurately between what is human and what divine in the system under review, and, except in greater matters, of saying this is Apostolic, this is Popish. This remark must be borne in mind in the following account of M. de la Mennais' system. We do not simply assent to what he advances, yet there is much in it which demands attention. Often we admit his facts and principles, not his conclusions and applications.

It is matter of history, then, that the Latin Church rose to power, not by the favour of princes, but of people. Of course, when the barbarian leaders poured down upon the Roman empire, she made alliance with them, {151} and so far made use of them. In like manner she afterwards availed herself of the Normans. But if we look at the elementary foundation of her power, and the great steps by which she built it up, we seem to discern the acts, not of a parasite, but of a rival of imperial greatness, appealing to the people, maintaining the freedom and equality of all men in the Gospel. The Church, indeed, would have been a specimen of a singular sort of constitution, such as the world has never seen, had it been developed upon its original idea:—an indefinite number of sovereigns elected at a mature age, from and by this respective people, yet not without the necessary approbation and assistance of each other, bound together in districts, absolute within their respective limits, regulated without by fixed laws, and converging to more and more distant points of union, till they terminated in a few, or even a single centre. The waters of this world were not still enough, to allow such a system duly to crystallize; but what we do see from the first, and what actually was fulfilled with whatever divergence from the original direction is, religion throwing itself upon the people, resorting to passive obedience as its legitimate defence, in collision with the temporal powers, and again, victorious over them. The martyrdom of St. Laurence is a singular illustration of what, perhaps, in the Apostolic plan, was intended to be the Church's course of action always in like circumstances. As Archdeacon of Rome, he was in possession of the Church's treasure; the civil power demanded it. Here was the problem of which we are in this day reminded daily. How is the Church to have property, yet not be dependent on the State? If the State guarantees its security, it has a right to interfere. This is instanced at the present time, even as to the miscellaneous and liberty-loving sects of the American {152} Union. There, an Independent or Baptist communion, we believe, cannot expel one of its members without showing cause to the State that the proceeding is equitable. Why? Because the religious body being chartered for the legal possession of property, excommunication is a civil injury to the ejected party, unless he has violated the fundamental rules of the corporation. Profession of certain doctrines may, of course, be made one of the conditions of membership, and, when the case turns upon points of doctrine, the State does not interfere; but the previous question, whether or not it is a point of doctrine that is in dispute, falls, as we understand, under the cognizance of the civil courts. Such is the consequence of accepting the protection of the State; what is the consequence of refusing it? Does it imply the necessity of surrendering or being robbed of the Church's property, when it is demanded by the civil power? St. Laurence answers in the negative. He refuses to give it up, and is burned for refusing. Doubtless, in the long run, the gridiron of St. Laurence would be found a more effectual guarantee of Church property than a coronation oath or an act of parliament. A broiling here and there, once or twice a century, would, on the whole, have ensured to the Church the unmolested enjoyment of her property throughout her dominions down to this day. Public opinion and long precedent would have ultimately protected the persecuted without law.

The opposition made by St. Ambrose to the Empress Justina, affords a second illustration of the successful employment, on the part of the Church, of non-resistance and passive maintenance of the truth, in her dealings with the princes of this world. Such conduct brought the multitude on his side, as by a natural law; and that illustrious bishop, by merely doing nothing, was {153} able to overcome the imperial court, just as the Apostles may be supposed in some cases to have incited the enthusiasm of spectators by their miracles, and to have effected cures involuntarily, over and above their supernatural powers, by the sympathetic influence of the imagination.

Such is the basis on which the Papacy, with whatever corruptions, has been reared. The second and third Gregories appealed to the people against the emperor, in order to establish image-worship. Upon the same basis, as is notorious, was built the ecclesiastical monarchy. It was not the breath of princes or the smiles of a court which fostered the stern and lofty spirit of Hildebrand and Innocent. It was the neglect of self, the renunciation of worldly pomp and ease, the appeal to the people. "The scandals of the tenth century," says Gibbon, "were obliterated by the austere and more dangerous virtues of Gregory the Seventh and his successors; and in the ambitious contests which they maintained for the rights of the Church, their sufferings or their success must equally tend to increase the popular veneration. They sometimes wandered in poverty and exile, the victims of persecution; and the apostolic zeal with which they offered themselves to martyrdom, must engage the favour and sympathy of every Catholic breast. And sometimes thundering from the Vatican, they created, judged, and deposed the kings of the world; nor could the proudest Roman be disgraced by submitting to a priest, whose feet were kissed, or whose stirrup was held by the successors of Charlemagne" (chap. 69). With this great spectacle of the middle ages before his eyes, M. de la Mennais asks, How has this power come to an end? what is the proximate cause of its loss? what was it the power consisted in? History answers him in the spirit of the foregoing {154} passage:—that the power consisted in asceticism; it fell when the Popes condescended to take part in the intrigues of the Italian states as mere temporal princes, instead of ruling by a pure spiritual sway, as might have been, the "luctantes ventos tempestatesque sonoras" of the European world. The temporal splendour of the Popedom has been the ruin of its spiritual empire; M. de la Mennais' scheme accordingly is this, that the present Pontiff should utterly neglect his temporalities, take a high line, exert his spiritual powers, throw off the absolute courts who are his present supporters, and place himself at the head of the democratic movement throughout Europe. He writes most eloquently on this subject.

"What strikes one at first sight in Rome, as it is, is the almost entire absence of action, and her humiliating dependence on temporal sovereignties. Immense questions have been mooted in the world; they take possession of all minds, are agitating all hearts, are fermenting through society, and disquiet it as a raging fever; what has Rome said? Not a word. A deep revolution is in process in the bosom of Christendom, the insurgent people shatter in pieces their old laws, their ancient institutions, call loudly for a new order of things, and, being resolved to establish it, violently overturn the obstacles which are put in their way; what has Rome done? Not a thing. Her power is attacked and defended, her doctrine is questioned, from all quarters voices are raised, suppliant voices, Catholic voices. 'Speak,' they say, 'speak that your children may learn from your mouth what to believe; that they may know what to hold by concerning the faith, concerning their duties, nay, concerning your own rights; what has been Rome's answer, what her sentence? Nothing at all. Her authority is ignored, her jurisdiction encroached on by the powers of the world, who shackle, nay break the intercourse of pastors with people, and by force or fraud commit whole populations to schism; what battles has she fought in behalf of her independence, by way of saving from spiritual death these unfortunate portions of Christ's flock? Not one… {155}

"The Vicar of Jesus Christ, in the exercise of his divine functions, is dependent on the engagements and interests of the temporal prince: obliged, in consequence of his relative weakness in the line of pure politics, to temporize with the most dangerous enemies of the Church, in spite of himself he is carried away into a system of concessions which is ever enlarging and must end in the ruin of Catholicism; concessions in the choice of bishops, concessions on points of discipline;—what shall I say? 'He stretches out his hands, and another binds him, and leadeth him whither he would not.' His children are in fear about every one of his acts, and above all about his speaking. How anxiously do they watch his lips, divinely destined to teach the nations, lips from which could proceed at every instant truth in all its power! He whose voice ought to resound through the whole world with an energy all heavenly, is not free for aught but the silent prayer at the foot of the cross. Have we here, then, the Supreme Pastor, the head of the universal society instituted by Jesus Christ? 'What, then, is our position in it? O Father, whom God has given to guide us in our exile, to show us the way home, if the expression of our grief has in appearance aught of bitterness or rudeness, it is that our affection for you knows no bounds, and that our whole soul is in suffering on seeing that extreme humiliation to which they have reduced you! ... To justify these condescensions, this deplorable subjection of the Eternal See to the thrones which rise in the morning and fall at evening, the interests of Religion itself are alleged. But what interests can she have apart from the liberty of the ministry, the liberty of preaching, of discipline, and of sacraments? forsooth, she will be persecuted, she will be kept down. What! has she not been persecuted from her first start? Was it not in the bosom of persecution, at the stake and on the scaffold, amid the furious cries of the populace and the crafty shackles of edict-makers, that she made her greatest and most rapid advance? Has she not promises which will not pass away, a force which nothing can overcome?"—Pp. 243-246.

This extract is enough as a specimen of the line of argument taken by M. de la Mennais, and his mode of defending it; and whatever be thought of the duty of the Pope under his circumstances, which is another matter, {156} the immediate cause of his pusillanimous conduct. We do not mean that he would forthwith start up a Gregory or Innocent if he gave it up, or that his people to the extremities of the Roman Church would at once recognize in him their rightful sovereign and master. That he is at this day a temporal prince, and that he is on the other hand enslaved in spirituals, are rather joint effects of some deeper and more real causes; still it is true that the Papal monarchy proper so depends upon the renunciation of mere temporal dominion, that while the Pope has the latter, he cannot aspire to the former. And if, as our author considers, a universal empire is an object to be desired, the fashions of the world, the pomp of a temporal court, worldly alliances and engagements, wealth, rank, and ease, certainly must be laid aside.


Full of these ideas, M. de la Mennais wished on the Revolution of the Three Days to have established in France what he would consider a purer ecclesiastical system than the existing one. Believing that the Church Catholic was equal to any emergence or variety of human society, he desired her to throw herself upon the onward course of democracy, and to lead a revolutionary movement, which in her first ages she had created. She had risen originally as the champion of suffering humanity; let her now return to her first position. Times indeed far different had intervened; in the last three centuries especially she had ruled by means of secular influences, and her instruments were of a secular character. The order of Jesuits especially, which had fought her battle, was well suited to the circumstances in which through that period she found herself. They were as well fitted {157} for a smooth, polished, learned, and luxurious era, as the begging friars for the centuries before them. But now that their season is over, they are out of place; and nothing is more to be deprecated for the Church than their not understanding this. A time of revolution is at hand; rougher deeds, more sifting and subtle inquiries, more recondite principles, a stronger mode of action, have to be encountered than suit the Jesuits. The Jesuits have been too much men of the world, have had too little depth, too little originality of mind, and independence of conduct, and romance and grandeur of character, to serve the present exigencies of the Church. They have succeeded, not by immediately acting on the people, but by acting upon rulers and great men. "Under a popular government," asks our author, "what would they be? deprived of their peculiar advantage of secular force, reduced to the influence which mind exerts on mind, they will soon disappear in the crowd." The Church must have instruments according to her need. Liberty is the cry of the day; Christian liberty is the idea which the Church must develop, and on which the society which lies before us is to be built. The cry for liberty he considers to be no irreligious or inordinate feeling; it is the voice of truth, of our best nature; it is a religious sentiment, which acts irregularly and extravagantly only because in the existing system it is not allowed legitimate vent. The popular disorders and violences are but perversions of what is in itself holy and divine.

Now here we seem to see the elementary error of M. de la Mennais, an error fruitful in many others, and which betokens him the true disciple of the Gregories or Innocents of past times. He does not seem to recognize, nay, to contemplate the idea, that rebellion is a sin. He {158} seems to believe in the existence of certain indefeasible rights of man, which certain forms of government encroach upon, and against which a rising is at any time justifiable. Accordingly what we, in our English theology, should call the lawless and proud lusts of corrupt nature, he almost sanctifies as the instinctive aspirations of the heart after its unknown good. Such were the cravings of Eve after the forbidden fruit; some such vision of a summum bonum, unpossessed but attainable, did the tempter suggest to her. But the promise, "Ye shall be as gods," seems in M. de la Mennais' system to be a sufficient justification of rebellion. Hence he is able to draw close to the democratical party of the day, in that very point in which they most resemble antichrist; and by a strange combination takes for the motto of his L'Avenir, "Dieu et la Liberté."

Starting from this beginning, it is not surprising he should practically quite discard the doctrine, that the "many are always bad;" he seems to consider them only mistaken. The excesses, tumults, and waywardness of popular feeling, all that is evidently sinful and irreligious in what are called "the masses," he lays at the door of their rulers; who, by damming or obstructing the current of their instinctive and most laudable desires after something they have not, have caused it to overflow, or to be furious. We almost could fancy he held that the multitude of men were at bottom actually good Christians: certainly he speaks of them with compassion and tenderness, as mistaken children, who mean only to pursue their own good, but know not how. Here again is a clear connexion between his theology and the popular philosophy of the day. He is a believer in the gradual and constant advance of the species, on the whole, in knowledge and virtue, and here he does but faithfully represent {159} the feeling, nay, the teaching of his own Church. They who look at Antiquity as supplying the rule of faith, do not believe in the possibility of any substantial increase of religious knowledge; but the Romanist believes in a standing organ of Revelation, like the series of Jewish prophets, unfolding from time to time fresh and fresh truths from the abyss of the divine counsels.

"Whether one looks without, or retires into one's own soul," our author eloquently says, "to inquire about this mysterious instinct of the future inherent in every creature, everything warns us that a great transformation is in preparation. Life, withdrawing itself into its recesses, palpitates there with vigour; the outward dress which it has worn is withered by the breath of time. A twofold throe of destruction and regeneration, but the latter scarcely apparent yet to those who do not penetrate beneath the surface, is in operation throughout society. Society rejects her old institutions, henceforth dead; she rejects the ideas which animated them, before reason was raised to a more enlarged notion of right, more exact and pure. New sentiments, new views, announce a new era. The voices which issue from the ruins of the past, convey to the ears of the young generation strange sounds which astonish them, vague words which they understand not. Full of ardour and confidence, they make for that point in the heavens where they see the light, leaving behind them the ghosts of what is no more, to creep away and utter their wailings in the night. Go back or stop they cannot, if they would. An irresistible power forces them ever onwards. What matter the perils, the fatigues of their march! They say, like the Crusaders, 'It is the will of God.' Genius too is a prophet. From the mountain height she has descried the land far away, where the people shall repose on getting quit of the wilderness; and our posterity, one day possessed of that happy land, shall repeat from age to age the name of him whose voice cheered their fathers during their journey."—Pp. 209, 210.

In consequence, he has very little sympathy with those who, on principle, resist innovations, whether as thinking the changes proposed intrinsically wrong, or, though right in themselves or desirable, yet forbidden to them, {160} and, therefore, if made, to be made by Providence Himself, not by man's taking the first step. He has a keen perception of the truth that Almighty power has promised empire to the Church; but, like Jeroboam, he cannot bear to wait God's time. He is not content with cherishing the promise and making much of it, but he goes about to fulfil it by his own devices. The Pope may, for him, be acting the part of David under Saul, but gets no credit from M. de la Mennais: or, again, he considers the voice of nations and the visible course of things to be God's voice, and a sufficient warrant for our moving according to them,—the fact that things change and revolutions take place to be a command to take part in change and revolution. It is not wonderful that, with these principles, he cordially approves of what the Roman Church and Mr. O'Connell are doing in Ireland, sympathizes in their struggle, and holds them up for the edification of the Pope and Papal world.

With such sentiments M. de la Mennais ought to profess utilitarianism to be the true philosophy of political action; and he certainly seems to do so, as much so as if he professed himself an infidel. He almost seems to consider that politics do not admit of being made the subject-matter of duty. The French clergy returned with the Bourbons;—one might suppose there were some old recollections of loyalty, or even vows of allegiance, to attach them, and to excuse their attachment, to the sons of St. Louis. Far from it; he measures the unfortunate family only according to their power of advancing the interests of the Church; and considers they may be cast off without pity, if he does but succeed in proving that it is inexpedient to hold by them. The Church is always free and unshackled with pledge or promise; able to take up or put down any {161} power of the earth at pleasure, as if the duty of self-protection dispensed, not merely with the obligation of forming engagements, but of keeping them when formed. "In a country," he says, "where the sovereignty is in dispute, or civil war is threatening, neutrality is the first interest of the Church, unless it be its first duty." [Note 10] This he applies as a guiding principle to the French Church at the present moment. Doubtless it is sage advice; and it may be also honourable; but whether it be honourable or not seems, in his view, an irrelevant question. In like manner, he is not very scrupulous by what means the Church is supported, provided it thrives and has its way. He will allow the clergy to receive their bread from aliens. "It is an error," he says, "to suppose that Catholics only would support the Catholic clergy. In a country where a religion is universally spread, it draws into its service those even who are strangers to it." [Note 11]

In a word, he is thoroughly political in his views and feelings. Quiet, repose, an invariable course of obedience, without object beyond itself, is, to all appearance, in his eyes a slavery. He sympathizes with the feeling of the day in thinking that energy, activity, bustle, extraordinary developments of intellect, are parts of the high and perfect state of the human mind; and that to be a freeman, is to have the power and will to encroach upon others. He divides modes of life into the ambitious and the selfish, as if thereby exhausting the subject.

"Deprived of political rights, of which the very name is unknown, the Roman population has no part, direct or indirect, either in government or administration. Self is the sole object of every one; and, consequently, putting religion out of the question, gain is {162} all in all with some, present enjoyment with others. Repose, laziness, slumber, interrupted from time to time by spectacles which excite the senses, this is the idea of happiness entertained by men who, notwithstanding, possess still a germ of elevated and energetic sentiments. No public life, nothing in consequence to rouse a noble activity, nothing social:—the established regime has a universal influence in the shape of unworthy private interest."—P. 108.

Such is M. de la Mennais' view of the interests and duties of the Roman Church, and we candidly confess we take him to understand it better than the Pope. He lays down, with great truth, the maxim, that of every institution a certain idea is the vital principle, on losing which it dies; and then he proceeds to declare, that popular influence is the life of the papacy. That wonderful power has, indeed, been like some Grecian demagogue, some Dionysius of Syracuse; it has been a tyranny based on democratic institutions. Its aristocratical influences have arisen, not from the framework of its polity so much as from the spirit of its worship, which retains, in great measure, the reverence, sanctity, and highmindedness of the real Gospel. Religious awe has refined and ennobled what else would have been rude and popular. But, while its carriage is aristocratic, the true basis of its power is the multitude; and de la Mennais, like a keen-sighted man, has discovered and zealously inculcates this truth. And of this truth he has been the confessor, and, as far as a man can be in these times, the martyr. He has fallen, as might be expected, under the displeasure of the Pope, is in consequence thrown out of all his means of usefulness, and is shunned by his former associates. Such are the consequences of being wiser than one's generation. {163}


The history of this transaction, from first to last, is the direct object of his writing the work, from which we have been making extracts, and gives life to the speculations of which it is made up; and there is so much curious matter introduced into it as to be worth dwelling on for its own sake. It seems, then, that in 1830, on the Revolution of the Three Days, M. de la Mennais, and his friends, who had already taken the Pope's side against the Gallicanism of the Bourbons, (yet without any intention whatever of exalting thereby the Pope as they found him, but of imposing on him duties,) availed themselves of the unsettled state of the relations between the Church and the new government, to advocate the independence of the former in a periodical which they called L'Avenir. They perceived that the dependence of the Church on the State, or its establishment, was the one thing on which the new French government was set; and they thence argued, independent of their own particular theory and the recollections of history, that independence was the one thing which it needed.

"Though the Catholics," he observes, "had not seen by themselves the evil which had accrued to them, and was accruing, from the union of Church and State, they might have divined it from the language of their adversaries. There was, indeed, but one thing they all desired and sought, the maintenance of that union. Read the government journals, follow the debates in the Chambers, listen to the orators in their hostile remarks upon religion and the Clergy; you will find at the bottom of what they urge but this one view,—the State must name the bishops, and superintend the choice of parish Clergy; it must have a hold over the parties intervening between the bishops and the Pope; it must examine the bulls issued by the Holy See before allowing them to be executed; it must hinder the spread of bad, that is, Roman doctrines; in short, it {164} must preserve the supreme direction of spiritual matters, and, in consequence, it must pay the Clergy, since every Clergy which is not paid in one form or other, becomes sooner or later independent, and places the government under the necessity of respecting such independence, or of destroying itself while persecuting religion by fire and sword."—P. 71.

Here we may observe, by way of corollary upon the doctrine of this passage, that in England the party now in power will ever act towards the Church in the spirit of the policy here explained. We have nothing to fear for the Establishment from them. If any party will fight sincerely and stoutly for it, it is that party. They fear the Church too much to let her go; at present they are but weakening her, as they hope, while they retain her. It is the kind and considerate office you perform to birds when you clip their wings, that they may hop about on a lawn, and pick up worms and grubs. Liberals do but want a tame Church.

But to proceed:—the Avenir commenced in October, 1830, and was continued daily. A month had hardly elapsed when it attracted the attention of government, on occasion of its protesting against the appointment of a liberal bishop. An action was commenced against the editors; and interest was excited in their behalf. A subscription was opened to defray the expenses of the prosecution. When the trial came on, a bold avowal was made of anti-Gallican Romanism on the part of the defendants, and an acquittal followed. This was a promising beginning; the Avenir's fame spread; its circulation extended; it converted liberals and Protestants; the Roman bishops of Ireland, assembled in council, pronounced it to be, as de la Mennais says, "un journal véritablement Chrétien;" "its words found an echo" in England, Belgium, and the New {165} World, from New Orleans to Boston. A society called "L'Agence Générale" seconded its efforts. Similar journals and similar societies began to rise in other cities of France; when, alas! the authors of the movement found that that Power was against them, whose true interests they were desirous most to subserve. The names "heretics" and "schismatics" began to be applied to them. The reading of their journal was forbidden in many dioceses; on the suspicion of being concerned in it, professors were deprived of their chairs, and parish priests of their livings. "Une inexorable et vaste persécution," as M. de la Mennais, somewhat rhetorically perhaps, calls it, was projected against these champions of Romanism in its purest and most primitive form. They were attacked in religious publications; injurious motives assigned to their proceedings; their views misrepresented; even their words misquoted. They were accused, most unjustly surely, of being innovators like Luther [Note 12]. But the remarkable thing was, that amid this disturbance the bishops kept still as the grave; no statements were fixed upon for condemnation; all was vague suspicion, surprise, and uneasiness at what seemed so novel and so chimerical. Next the notion spread, not unreasonable certainly, that not clergy, or bishops, or government, or royalists, alone were displeased at their proceedings; but that the new Pope himself had to be convinced of the expediency and propriety of them. Gregory XVI., the present Pontiff, had just ascended the papal throne; and in the winter of 1831-1832 the {166} conductors of L'Avenir found it necessary to suspend the publication of their journal, after a run of thirteen months, and to repair to Rome for the purpose of vindicating their proceedings.

When they set out, they professed they were only going to ask and to accept the doctrine of truth from the Pope's mouth. "O, father!" they exclaim in their journal, "deign to cast your eyes on some of the lowest of your children, who are accused of being rebels to your infallible and gentle authority. Behold them before you, read their soul; there is nothing there they would conceal. If one of their views, one only differs from yours, they disavow it, they abjure it. You are the Rule of their doctrines; never have they held others, never."

Meanwhile the successor of St. Leo and St. Gregory was engaged in certain diplomatic transactions with the schismatical court of St. Petersburg, which indisposed, if not incapacitated him for exercising impartially the high spiritual functions to which his children made appeal. He was providing for the safety of his temporalities imperilled by the seizure of Ancona by the French, and had no heart for authoritatively deciding any new and delicate question in doctrine. M. de la Mennais came to him as an oracle of doctrine, and found him only disposed to give political directions. Nothing can be more discordant, less capable of a common measure, than a question of abstract religious truth, and a question of practice and matter of fact, in relation to the measures to be pursued by one secular power towards another; as discordant was the position of the Pope with that of the conductors of the Avenir.

The French Revolution in July, 1830, had been followed in no long time by insurrection within the papal territories; Austria intervened to reduce the revolting {167} cities; and France took possession of Ancona to keep Austria in check. These events placed the Sovereign Pontiff between two opposite dangers; his fears from France are intelligible enough; Austria, on the other hand, had always been supposed to covet the portion of the pontifical states on the north of the Apennines; and the suspicion had been so strong in Rome, in 1821, that the government had not allowed the Austrian forces to pass through the city on their way to Naples. Whilst then the Pope was in this unpleasant dilemma, Russia, according to M. de la Mennais, stepped in and offered her aid. She alleged that she could not possibly have any interested views as regards the Italian peninsula, either revolutionary or ambitious, and she offered to place a force at the Pope's disposal to defend him against all emergencies. In return she did but ask, that the Pope would take the part of the Autocrat against Poland, and instruct the Polish Roman bishops accordingly. The offer was accepted on the specified condition.

Such were the matters which occupied the mind of the Supreme Pontiff, during the visit of de la Mennais and his friends. He and they continued there from January to July, and with difficulty obtained an interview with him; the condition being exacted of them, that they would not in the course of it say a word about the matters which brought them to Rome. They then addressed a memorial to him, explaining their views and principles; after some weeks an answer came, in a short note from the Cardinal who had presented it (Pacca), that the Pope's disapprobation of their proceedings continued, but that the inquiry they had asked was in progress. Finding nothing more could be done, at length they determined to depart; and in their way back they received from Cardinal Pacca, together with a copy of {168} the Pope's Encyclical Letter on his accession, which had just been published, his formal decision concerning themselves. The Cardinal was instructed to express the Pope's satisfaction at their dutiful conduct in submitting their doctrines to his judgment; that he undertook the more readily the examination of them, as having been addressed by bishops from all quarters, who desired the solemn decision of the Infallible See on the doctrines of the Avenir, doctrines which had excited so much attention, and occasioned so much division among the clergy; that accordingly he had made mention of them in his Encyclical Letter; that it pained him to see that they brought before the public delicate matters, which belonged to himself to determine; that he condemned their doctrines relative to civil liberty, toleration, and the liberty of the press; that "though, under certain circumstances, prudence tolerates error as the less evil, these things should never be represented by a Catholic as good or desirable in themselves;" lastly, that he was relieved by recollecting the solemn and commendable promise they had made and published, that they would accord "an unqualified submission to the Vicar of Jesus Christ." [Note 13]

Now, at first sight, one might think the whole matter settled; here are Catholics asking the Pope's commands, and they receive them; they represent themselves as his dear and devoted and most afflicted sons, and entreat him to rescue them from the painful state of suspense and indecision which his silence occasions. The Pope at length opens "his oracular mouth;" what remains but to obey? nothing less: a new and large question arises, viz., to decide in what cases and about what things obedience is due to the Pope; and M. de la Mennais, in spite of his contempt for Protestantism, likes his private {169} judgment, and, in spite of his fear of National Religion, almost relapses into Gallicanism, when he finds he must give way, if the Pope does not.

A Roman Catholic is bound to believe the Pope's decision as true in matters of doctrine, and to submit to it as imperative in matters of discipline; but the critical question is, what are matters of doctrine? The Church is supposed to declare "the word of God"—but she cannot declare more than she has received; what are the limits of the revelation, and of her message? Are the questions of civil liberty, the liberty of the press, and the like, included in it? can they in consequence be turned into points of faith? is the Pope's decision concerning them to be believed or obeyed? The Pope says, believed; M. de la Mennais says, obeyed. He offers, that is, to yield in his conduct, he puts an end to his journal, and breaks up his Association. Is not this enough? No; he must receive the Pope's decision with an "interior assent;" he must profess his belief that it is true. He asks, What is the medium by which its truth is recommended to me? if it be doctrine, then indeed I do believe it sincerely; for I know fully well that, in spite of all errors in other matters, in spite of corruption of system, of temporalities, political engagements, and whatever else is wrong in the state of Rome, the Pope is assuredly infallible in points of doctrine. He has the whole message of Divine Truth latent in him; this I believe as piously as the Protestant believes that it is all written in Scripture. I assent to it on the same ground on which he assents to what is Scriptural; but after all, is there not a real distinction, such as no one can mistake, between politics and religion, and am I bound to believe the Pope in the former? am I obliged to denounce, for instance, the Polish revolt, as if in obedience {170} to an article of faith? "Such an engagement," he actually says, "is supremely repugnant to my conscience. If the profession of Catholicism involved the principle of it, I never should have been a Catholic; for never should I have admitted it, never should I have been able. In every case, to subscribe to it without an inward conviction, without belief, would have been a cowardly and odious lie; not the whole world would have persuaded me to it." [Note 14]

M. de la Mennais then, as is very evident, finds himself brought into a worse dilemma than he describes the Pope to lie in between the French and Austrians. Matters which he maintains are purely political, and which he considers to be so declared by previous ecclesiastical decisions, are forced upon him by Rome as if matters of faith. Which way is he to turn? he refuses to accept them, and defends his refusal, as far as we are able to follow him, in the following simple but very observable manner; viz., he thinks that he has the right of interpreting the Pope's words in accordance with his own interpretations of the previous decisions of the Church. This is worthy of attention, because it shows that objections brought by Protestants in controversy against the Roman theory of infallibility, are not so unreal and subtle as Romanists would represent them; who are apt to reply, that the doctrine works well, is easy and intelligible in practice, in spite of abstract difficulties. Now, here we have M. de la Mennais on our side, as an instance in fact, as well as an authority. He seems almost to maintain, that is, as far as he allows himself to think on the subject, that the true sense of previous decisions of the Church may be so clear to the apprehension of men in general, that when a new Encyclical {171} issues from Rome, opposing their interpretation of those decisions in its letter, they are bound to explain it away, rather than to renounce the view of doctrine they have already gained from them. If this be the case, the Romanist is abandoned to his private judgment as well as the Protestant. But let us hear his own words; he thus describes the various feelings of Roman Catholics on the present political position of the Pope:

"One portion of Catholics, in my opinion the most considerable, have hushed their thoughts, repressed the beating of their hearts, shut their eyes, and journey on in silence as moving statues, along the path pointed out to them by the supreme guide. Others comment on his words, and by way of reconciling them with their own views, put on them forced interpretations, inconsistent with each other, and with the simple and clear sense which those words carry with them. They have denied that this sense can be that which the Pope had intended to express; and why? because it appeared to them contrary to doctrines expressly authorized, and shocked their most profound convictions. They said, not the Pope is mistaken in so teaching, but the Pope cannot so teach, for else he would be mistaken. Now is it not really to annul a judgment, to assume the right, in any degree whatever, of forming a judgment on it? In matter of Catholic faith, from an interpretation to a judgment is but one step, and an immediate one. Many have thought to escape from the embarrassment in a more simple manner. We are subject, they have said, to the authority of Rome, but only in things spiritual; else we do not recognize it. Good; but who shall determine what is spiritual and what not? If Rome herself, evidently you obey altogether and always; if yourselves, you only obey as far as you please. In the former case, what becomes of your distinction, founded, as it is, on one of the most solemn maxims of Catholic doctrine? in the latter, what becomes of the authority of Rome?

"When such questions are proposed, it is clear there exists a secret struggle in the conscience itself, leading a man on the one hand to bow before an authority which he reveres, but on the other, succumbing to a view which is sovereign within, and of sentiments which master him."—P. 319. {172}

M. de la Mennais says in this extract that Rome has taken up a position which goes far towards involving a reductio ad absurdum of her claim to infallibility. We agree with him, and should congratulate him on a discovery which is no news to Protestants, did we not fear that he has too unsubdued a mind to take the discovery religiously. He is a powerful, original, and instructive writer; but there is just that ill flavour in his doctrine, which, in spite of all that is excellent in it, reminds one that it is drugged and unwholesome; and the conviction of this makes one tremble lest the same spirit, which would lead him to throw off civil authority, may urge him under disappointment to deny the authority of Religion itself.

October, 1837.

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1. P. 3.
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2. P. 64.
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3. The Abbé mentions M. l'Abbé G., bishop of B.; M. l'Abbé R., of D.; and M. l'Abbé H., of M.
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4. P. 66.
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5. P. 67.
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6. P. 75.
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7. P. 68.
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8. Pp. 46, 47.
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9. P. 301.
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10. P. 59.
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11. P. 78.
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12. M. de la Mennais's account of Protestantism is as follows, being almost terse and descriptive enough for a Dictionary: "Systême bâtard, inconsequent, étroit, qui, sous une apparence trompeuse de liberté, se résout pour les nations dans le despotisme brutal de la force, et pour les individus dans l'égoïsme."—P. 342.
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13. Pp. 155, 156.
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14. Page 167.
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Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
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