Note on Essay IV

{173} THE foregoing article commences with the remark that the "Affaires de Rome," as "coming from the pen of an acknowledged partizan," is not "implicitly to be trusted;" and it ends by determining that "powerful" as is the writer, "there is just that ill flavour in his doctrine as to make one tremble, lest, under disappointment, he should be led to deny the authority of religion." This apprehension, as is well known, was fulfilled in the event. M. de la Mennais lost his faith and withdrew from Catholic communion; his two travelling companions, celebrated men, Montalembert and Lacordaire, happier and more consistent than he, accepted the Pontifical decision, which they had themselves invoked, and kept their promise of unconditional submission, to which they had by anticipation bound themselves.

To put the matter in its true light, I think it well to make an extract from Montalembert's Life of Lacordaire.

"The checkered career of the Avenir was drawing to a close. The ardent and generous sympathy called forth by it, was more than counterbalanced by the violent repugnance evinced towards it both by the partizans of democratic absolutism and the tried friends of monarchical authority. The ever-growing distrust of the Episcopate was a much more serious obstacle. To new and fair practical notions, honest in themselves, which have for the last twenty years been the daily bread of Catholic {174} polemics, we had been foolish enough to add extreme and rash theories; and to defend both with that absolute logic, which loses, even when it does not dishonour, every cause.

"The giving up of the pecuniary indemnity stipulated for the clergy by the Concordat between Pius VII. and Napoleon, was one of the vagaries of this logic, precisely similar to that which today urges certain men to cry for the abolition of the Pope's temporal power, out of love for his personal freedom.

"Our task was further compromised in the eyes of the clergy, on the one hand, by M. de la Mennais' philosophical system on Certitude, which he pretended to make the basis of his politics, as well as of his theology; and, on the other, by the excessive Ultramontanism of that great writer, and his first disciples; for it is well to add, for the information of those who have not sounded the depths of French fickleness, that at that time Ultramontane ideas were quite as unpopular with the large majority of the clergy as Gallicanism is today.

"Finally, our material resources, exhausted not only by a daily paper, but by so many different lawsuits and publications, ran short.

"We were consequently condemned to silence, at least for a time. But at the same time that we announced the discontinuance of the paper (November 15, 1831, thirteen months after its first appearance,) we announced the departure of its three chief editors for Rome, for the purpose of submitting to the Sovereign Pontiff, questions debated between our adversaries and ourselves, promising beforehand absolute submission to the papal decision. This idea originated, I believe, with Lacordaire …

"No one evinced the least desire to stop them; and it was really a pity, for this journey was a mistake. To {175} force Rome to pronounce upon questions which she had allowed to be discussed freely for more than a year, was, to say the least, a singular pretension.

"To be other than infinitely grateful to her for her silence, was to mistake all the exigencies and all the advantages of our position.

"Such a mistake can be accounted for in young men without any experience of the things of the world, and of the Church; but how account for it, and above all excuse it, in an illustrious priest, already formed by age, as was the Abbé de la Mennais, who was at that time over fifty, and who had already lived in Rome, where Leo XII. had received him with great marks of distinction?

"From the moment of our arrival at Rome, the cautious reception everywhere given us showed us plainly that we should not get the answer we were expecting. After having been asked for an explanatory memorial, which was drawn up by Lacordaire, we remained two months without hearing anything. Then Cardinal Pacca wrote to M. de la Mennais, that the Pope, whilst mindful of his services and his good intentions, had been pained to see us moot questions and put forth opinions at least dangerous; that he would submit our doctrines to examination, and that, as the examination might be long, we could return to our country. Pope Gregory XVI. then consented to receive us; he treated us with that kind familiarity which was natural to him; he did not reprove us in the slightest; but he did not allude, even remotely, to the business which had brought us to Rome.

"The solution was certainly anything but brilliant and flattering, but it was undoubtedly the most favourable we had a right to expect. {176}

"Lacordaire was quite prepared for it. He rightly looked upon it as nothing but a paternal warning, the most delicate imaginable, one that left the least trace, which decided nothing and compromised no one. During this residence of two months and a half in the Eternal City, a great peace and light had risen upon his soul ... With the penetration that accompanies faith and humility, he pronounced upon our pretensions the verdict, since borne out by time, that great auxiliary of the Church and of truth ...

"In the meantime, the great writer, who had been called in the tribune the last of the Fathers of the Church, the eloquent and renowned doctor, the aged priest crowned for the last twenty years by the admiration and confidence of the Catholic world, was struggling with all his might against good sense and evidence, as well as against his duty as a Catholic and a priest. The youth had understood all; the formed man, the man of genius, wanted to ignore everything. Prudence, clearsightedness, dignity, and good faith, were all on the side of the disciple, and they became in his mouth so many solemn and pathetic warnings addressed to his cherished master. Vain and powerless attempt! Far from listening to the tender and respectful, but withal firm and honest voice of his young follower, the master foolishly gave way to his temper, and daily broke away further from his antecedents, from everything which ought to have restrained and enlightened him. He listened to none but two or three covert enemies of the pontifical authority; he was already meditating the unnatural alliances which lost him. Faith began to make way for sorry fancies in his soul. After Cardinal Pacca's letter, and the papal audience, Lacordaire resolutely put the following dilemma to him: 'Either we ought not to have come, or we must submit {177} and keep silence.' M. de la Mennais would not agree to this, and answered, 'I will push matters, and urge for an immediate decision; I will wait at Rome, and then make up my mind.' The real priest then took his determination: without overstepping the bounds of the most respectful deference, and distracted, as he himself told me, 'by the agonies of conscience battling against genius,' he announced his resolution of returning to France, and awaiting there in silence, without remaining inactive, the decision of authority:—'Next to speech,' he said, 'silence is the greatest power in the world.' …

"Before, as well as after his departure, this faithful friend made the most persevering efforts to deliver me as he had himself. Scarcely had he returned to France, when he wrote to me ... 'If he carries out his plan, remember that all his oldest friends and his most attached colleagues will abandon him, and that, driven by the false liberals into a course in which success is out of the question, there is no language sad enough to tell what will happen ... Let us not yoke our ideas and our hearts together, for the ideas of man, like the clouds which flit across the sun, are bright and fugitive like them.' ...

"The sequel is well known. M. de la Mennais, after waiting four months, blind to the fact that this long delay was, at the same time, the safeguard of his honour and of his future, lost patience, and left Rome, publicly announcing his intention of returning to France, in order to continue, without any further formality, the Avenir.

"Upon hearing this, Lacordaire determined to go into Germany, and spend some time there in studious seclusion.

"We too took in Germany on our way back to France. Providence threw all three of us together at Munich {178} where we were overtaken by the famous encyclical letter of the 15th of August, 1832, which had been directly evoked by the last threat of the Abbé de la Mennais, and in which, although he was not named, his new doctrines were, for the most part, manifestly condemned."—(Pp. 54-64, Trenor's translation.)

As to de la Mennais, "no one but an Angel or a Priest," said Madame Swetchine, "could have fallen so low." "Prayers," says Montalembert, "went forth during twenty years from a multitude of souls, who hoped against hope, but in vain. No token of reconciliation, no sign of repentance, came to the consolation of those who would have given a thousand lives for the life of that soul. No other shelter has remained for their trust, but the impenetrable immensity of Divine Mercy. Still M. de la Mennais, in plunging deeper and deeper into the abyss, did not drag down with him a single individual. Unless I mistake, he is the only example in the history of Christianity, of a man, who, possessed of everything that goes to the formation of the most formidable heresiarch, did not succeed in tearing away from the centre of unity the humblest of her children."

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