Liberalism, as with most words containing the suffix -ism, is one of the most misunderstood words of the vocabulary of any language that uses it. A century after the era of the Romantics, there was a similar movement called Modernism, which, in the words of Fr Tyrrell, opposed Liberalism. There is surely a change in the meanings of words. This is what creates the frustration in the present-day dialogue des sourds.
I have often been provocative in my own use of words like liberalism, modernism, anarchism and humanism. They are used to describe noble aspirations as much as ideologies described by four-word slogans and the vulgar protagonists of our own times. When I was at university, we had an excellent series of church history lectures and a seminar led by Fr Bedouelle OP on Liberalism. I wrote a little paper on Fr Felicité de Lamennais (1782-1854) and sought to understand his thought as of that of many thinkers inspired by the Romantics and disappointed with the devastation left behind by the French Revolution and Robespierre’s Terreur. Many of the seeds of the Revolution were contained in the old regime that had failed in its duties to humanity and the French population. It is bad psychology to want to roll back and resume a former status quo. Something new had to be found.
On visiting the Chateau of Toqueville (a village very near where I am presently on holiday), I was introduced to Alexis de Toqueville (or rather to his philosophical and historical work) who was a great humanist and political philosopher. I intend to read his work on American democracy (as it was then) and his contribution to the Liberal movement of his time. He sought a new way for France, from the Scylla of the Royalists and Napoleon and Charybdis in the form of the ravages of the Terror. France has never recovered from that era, and the flaws are to this day implicit in the French Republic. For today, I will concentrate on what I still remember from my study of Lamennais.
The life of Lamennais can be found anywhere. He was one of the first to seek a new way of thought based on a humanist vision of human dignity and freedom. His main area of contention was the separation of Church and State. The question seems sensible enough: How can the Church retain its integrity when married to an atheistic or hostile political system? Would not the Church be better off free in a secular state tolerating all opinions and religious beliefs?
One unfortunate offshoot of Liberalism was ultramontanism: better to have a tyrant a thousand miles away in Italy than on your own doorstep in the person of the diocesan Bishop. The hypertrophy of the Papacy was thought to be an antidote to hostile and corrupt secular politics, conducive to the independence of the Church. This would be an idea we would find later, in a different form, in the works of Russian philosophers like Soloviev, Khomiakev and Berdyaev. It was during my time at Fribourg that I noticed a certain similarity between France and Russia, the latter living through the drama of France but a century later. Ultramontanism proved to be a mistake of the Liberals, especially in the form that was assimilated in the mid nineteenth century by reactionary elements in Italy. The man who become Pope Pius IX (Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, 1792-1878) rode on this wave of Roman Catholic triumphalism, and the effects are still with us today.
Like Modernism a century later, Liberalism was not a plot to destroy faith and piety, but an attempt to find a balance between hostile elements and ambitions to return to the old regime. It was based on a humanist vision, the nobler ideals of the Enlightenment philosophers and – I believe – that of Christ. Without Robespierre and the horrors of the 1790’s, the declaration of human rights was a milestone of true progress. These are ideals to which the Church can and should adapt, and see as implicit in the Gospel message of love.
Lamennais got into bad trouble with Rome and Gregory XVI. From 1830, he had formed a small group of thinkers. In particular, there was Lacordaire who re-founded the Dominicans in France and Comte Charles de Montalembert among others. They set up a journal called L’Avenir, the equivalent of their time of blogging. Lamennais led the movement of Christian socialism that would later be espoused by the Anglo-Catholic slum priests of the 1860’s. Yes, Anglo-Catholicism was never a reactionary movement for the privileged classes, but for the poor and unfortunate. This is a fundamental difference between the kind of Christianity I grew up in and the traditionalists of the SSPX, Msgr Wach and others. The Lamennais group opposed unbridled capitalism and fought for democracy and freedom.
Lamennais’ work was a first attempt, an imperfect prototype founded on weak intellectual principles. His condemnation by Pope Gregory XVI was based on a complete misunderstanding of what he tried to achieve, as ham-fisted as the condemnation of Modernism in 1907 by Pius X. Lamennais naively appealed to the Papacy, put his head on the block and got it chopped off. This first attempt was thus founded on many fallacies and naive beliefs, which would discredit the deeper aspirations. If we look at these aspirations finely and with subtlety, we will find that he did not seek a revolution in the Church, but an end to the domination of people by other humans. He did seek an end to the corrupting collusion between the Papacy and the powerful of this world when they ignored or crushed the needs of humanity. This is surely the noblest aspiration of liberal Christianity.
The Liberals sought many things we take for granted today: voting for all, free education, income-based taxes, a free Church is a secular state, liberty for journalists, freedom for people to form associations. These can only be good things even if they can be abused by those with perverse intentions. This is the kind of Liberalism I uphold, and why I would like to see traditional spirituality and forms of worship emancipated from the stranglehold of traditionalists and conservatives.
What can Liberalism bring us on a spiritual level? I bring up this point because I am not a politician. It is not what so-called “liberals” call for today like the ordination of women, a general laxity of sexual morals and suchlike. It is an aspiration for something profound, an adhesion to God and a spiritual life founded on freedom and love. These ideas are what enamoured me to Berdyaev and Soloviev in their Russian perspective of a universal human issue. Surely, we would do to others as we would have them do to us. Is that not one of the teachings of the Gospel?