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Felicite De La Mennais and the founding of L’Avenir

The prayer of the Pater Noster:  “Thy kingdom come.”  As the great French scholar and historian H. Rops reminds us: “Maybe there was much illusion there; perhaps he aimed too high in seeking to bring down the Kingdom of God to earth, and too low in claiming to establish by temporal means that kingdom which had been declared to be ‘within us.’ Yet how exalting and compelling was his theme, born not of intellectual reasoning but of spiritual conflict.”1 

Lamennais was undoubtedly a man of many talents and in many respects did honor to the Church in France.  Like utopians, he visualized a Democratic and liberal Church that would abandon her temporal power and favor the total separation of Church and State, liturgical reform, and the development of biblical studies. He was convinced that the alliance of Church and State was responsible for all that was wrong in the ecclesiastical world of his time. “The French Revolution of 1830 was for him the beginning of a new age.”2

The July Revolution, as it was also called, led to the overthrow of Charles X, the last Bourbon monarch in France, and the ascent to the throne of the more liberal Louis Philippe D’Orléans.  He was known as the Citizen King for his liberal ideas.  His father was Philippe Égalité, the cousin of Louis XVI, who voted for the King’s death during the Reign of Terror and was a sympathizer of the “philosophes,” not excluding Denis Diderot, the co-founder and editor in chief of L’Encyclopédie. In the end, he followed the same fate as his victims: he was guillotined by the revolutionaries he so heartily endorsed.

An admirer of the July revolution of 1830, it was only after Lamennais witnessed the anti-clerical attitudes and actions that were taking place in his native country with the apparent weakness or complicity of the newly Voltairean bourgeoisie, firm supporters of the so-called Citizen King, Louis Philippe D’Orléans, that he quickly changed his mind. He soon became disappointed and frustrated with the Orléans monarchy and the revolution of 1830.  With the collaboration of the political activist Henri Lacordaire and René Montalembert, he founded a new journal with the name of L’Avenir.  His collaborators were to become the spokesmen for the new reformed democratic Church that he envisioned.  Among his supporters, the following French literary luminaries can be mentioned: Lamartine, Victor Hugo, and Alfred de Vigny.  Balzac, Michelet, Alexandre Dumas and other Avant-garde sympathizers can also be numbered among the many celebrities who admired him.

Daniel-Rops summarizes Lamennais’s contribution to the Church by recognizing  that he was undoubtedly a genius whose work would have been more effective if his innermost heart had not been tainted by a lethal pride. He was, writes the French scholar: “arrogant, intolerant and violent in such a way as to be often unendurable. He had the ‘the vanity of a woman and of a poet, says Bernanos; nay rather an almost a satanic assurance that he alone possessed the truth, that he had been entrusted with the task of handing it on to the world. This pride deceived him, prevented him from seeing obstacles, led him to identify his passions with reason.”3 Lamennais was not only a priest but also a polemist: a dangerous combination which he could not handle, lacking the virtue of humility. He was a reformer who was incapable of reforming himself. Activity in his case was not a sign of sanctity as in that of St. John Bosco or the Curé d’Ars.  The real trouble with Lamennais, concludes Daniel-Rops, was the fact that he was not a saint.4

It is generally admitted that the outstanding personality of the French Catholic Church during the Bourbon restoration after the French Revolution was the gifted Lamennais and the spokesmen for his radical ideas. He saw in the alliance of Church and State the major source of all that was wrong in the ecclesiastical world of his time. In fact he firmly believed that the French Revolution of 1830 was, for him, the beginning of a new age: the Church under the new Orléanist Liberal monarchy of Luis Philippe would be free of the State and allowed to exert the fullness of its influence. He wanted to put an end to the alliance between Throne and Altar which, according to him, had failed to rebuild France on Christian foundations.5

With the February Revolution of 1848 which led to the Second Republic, a new era of fraternization between the Catholic Church and the revolutionaries seemed to be in the making. The fact is that France soon became the first socialist State under radical republicans and the guidance of the newly created national workshops. Frédéric Ozaman hopefully believed that the February Revolution was the consecration of political democracy and the initiation of social reform.  The newspaper L’Ère Nouvelle, whose editor was Lacordaire, published a series of articles by Ozaman which criticized the middle class for their indifference to the social question and appeared to favor the workers’ associations. Nevertheless, they offered few, if any, solutions to the problem.

This short period of grandiose and social generosity ended up in the spring with a wave of uncertainty and bloodshed.6 Outbursts of violence and hatred spread all over France as the working classes no longer relied on the good will and the possibility of reaching a better understanding with the middle classes. Frustration prevailed, and socialists organized mass and violent demonstrations going as far as attempting to set up a provisional government. The bloody crisis of 1848 had a negative effect on Social Catholicism. Large majorities of Catholics were furious at the disorders that followed, especially at the numerous anti-clerical abuses that took place. They dreaded chaos and wanted order. The word “social” was identified in France with disorder and the anti-clericalism of the revolutionary years of the past.   Even Montalembert and Ozaman were distressed with the events that were taking place, and the former felt that he had no choice but to take the side of the social conservatives.  However, while Social Catholicism in France was losing many of its active followers, it began to show signs of revival and with great strength in the Habsburg possessions and other European countries.

Perhaps one the best examples of the need for social reform was the young priest Father Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler.  His famous addresses at the Mainz Cathedral under the title “The Great Social Question of our Age” had such a great impact that he was later appointed Bishop of Mainz (1851).  In 1864, he published a book summarizing his ideas entitled Christianity and the Problem of the Working Class, stressing the need for the Church to increase her concern with the wellbeing of the working class.7 He stressed that “the social problem would never be solved without a complete reshaping of society, the purpose of which would be to give back those organic bases which the liberal-capitalist system had allowed to crumble.”8 Leo XIII in his social encyclical Rerum Novarum called him the great precursor of Catholic Social Thought.  It is also fair to state that even though Ketteler had some hard things to say about economic liberalism, he was definitely no supporter of socialism.  He just demanded his audience to fulfill the demands of social justice.

Madrid, for obvious reason, was in great need of paying attention to the warnings of Ketteler with respect to the deterioration of the social question in Spain. Radicalism and anti-religious attitudes were on the upswing which, as is well known, ended up in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). During the period 1868-1875, the country suffered the consequence of all sorts of political systems, not excluding anarchical, which did not hide their hostility towards the Catholic Church and efface all vestiges of Catholicism. The radical republican leftists Pi y Margall and Castelar, among others, did not hesitate to blaspheme the basic beliefs of Catholicism even to the point that the former one dared to claim that in the history of humanity, today’s errors have often become the truths of tomorrow.  Where do you have a so-called infallible principle on the basis of which it is claimed that man errs by not following it?  God is the product of reason.  Thus, Catholicism is dead in the conscience of humanity, in the conscience of the Spanish people.9

However, his continued attempts to reconcile Catholicism with the Revolution aroused bitter opposition.  As Philip Hughes reminds us: “The Bishops of France were seriously alarmed, and when the prophet attempted to gain the favour of the pope – Gregory XVI (1831-1846) – for his solution of a problem that, in fact he oversimplified, the end soon came.  In a famous encyclical, Mirari Vos (August15, 1832), the theories were condemned, though Lamennais was not mentioned by name nor his equally famous collaborators, the Comte de Montalembert and Henri Lacordaire.  For Lamennais the shock of disavowal by Rome was too much.  He left the Church to become its bitter enemy.”10  However, his goal of creating a more democratic Church did not die with his abandonment of the Catholic faith, as the 1848 Revolution demonstrated.

The prayer “adveniat regnum tuum…” of the Pater Noster is still being said but, as many times in history, man is looking not for the celestial paradise of the Christian biblical legacy and the gospels of the risen Christ but for a non-attainable nirvana here on earth, which can often lead to demonic cases such as German Nazism and Soviet Communist Marxism.

During the 20th century, there arose more subtle ways of undermining the fundamental beliefs of political and economic freedoms, including the basic dogmas of Christian faith, under the banner of the so-called Liberation Theology.  It is a movement in Christian Theology which stresses liberation from social, political and economic oppression as an anticipation of earthly happiness free of antinomies and ultimate salvation.11

Liberation theology blossomed in Latin America soon after the end of War II and grew incessantly for a number of years, shaking the very foundations of not only the Catholic Church but, I repeat, the basic structures of political and economic freedoms.  The close connection between Liberation Theology and the collectivist goals of socialism did not take long to appear.12

It must be stressed that In spite of its Latin American growth, the origins of Liberattion Theology can be traced to Europe, primarily to the theologians Joseph Comblin at the University of Louvain in Belgium and to the theologian Johann B. Metz at the Westphalian Wilhelms University in Munster, Germany.  To these European scholars can be added the names of Giulio Girardi at the University of Deusto in the Basque country in Spain and the Dominican Paul Blanquart who taught at the Institut Catholique in Paris.13

Based, among others, on the writings of Gustavo Gutierrez and Hugo Assman, Liberation Theology has influenced large sectors of religious thought including the hierarchy, in spite of the fact that, according to many of its proponents, salvation and social justice can only be achieved through violence and armed revolution. They claim Christ is a revolutionary figure, the “subversive of Nazareth.”  Christians must be involved in political projects such as the Marxist revolution which defends the oppressed people of Latin America and help change the prevailing social system (capitalism).  Thus, the liberationists believe in the validity of Marxist analysis – including class struggle and historical determinism – and justify the use of extreme violence to reach the proposed end (Nirvana).14

Pope Paul II clearly stated in his Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae the following: “Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf Rom 3.8), in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general.”15

To eliminate any doubt about John Paul II’s position on Liberation Theology, let me repeat the words he pronounced on the occasion of the Third General Conference of Latin American Bishops in 1979 (Celam II) taking place in Puebla, Mexico: “whatever the miseries or sufferings that afflict human beings, it is not through violence, power plays or political systems but through the truth about human beings that they will find their way to better future.”16 With respect to private property, Pope John Paul II clearly states that private property is a right “which is fundamental for the autonomy and the development of the person, has always been defended by the Church up to our own day.”17

Let me stress that in times of conflict the application of the moral law applies equally to the governments in power as to the revolutionary guerillas fighting or kidnapping innocent people in the city streets under the banner of social justice in search of a utopian earthly kingdom. There should be no need to remind some Liberation theologians of these basic truths which, simply stated, continue to remind us that “acts that are intrinsically evil, good intentions or particular circumstances may diminish their evil but they cannot remove it. They remain ‘irremediably’ evil acts per se and cannot be ordered to God.”18

Perhaps, as a reminder to contemporary liberation theologians, it would be appropriate to conclude this brief essay with this short provoking quote of the brilliant G.K. Chesterton: “The Riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.” To solve the political and social structures of society through violence, as carried out by the “liberationists” in their search for “nirvana” violates not only the virtue of justice but the very essence of natural law.  Mercy is a wonderful virtue, but so is also the cardinal virtue of justice which applies to both poor and rich, not to the poor alone.19



  1. H. Daniel-Rops, The Church in an Age of Revolution. New York, E.P. Dutton, 1965, p. 164.
  2. Philp Hughes, A Popular History of the Catholic Church, Macmillan Paper Back Editions, 1962, p.247.  With the Revolution of 1830, he gave up his aristocratic name of Feicité De La Mennais to become more in tune with the Revolution and called himself simply Lamennais.
  3. Daniel-Rops ibid. p. 165.
  4. Ibid., p.165.
  5. It is important to emphasize that Lamennais’ appeal to liberty did not mean lawlessness.  He still believed in the supreme and undisputed authority of the Pope and his right to interfere in the affairs of the world. Was this belief a desire of his return to authority? Daniel-Rops op. cit., p. 1658. 
  6. According to Daniel- Rops, Lamennais foresaw, in a lightning flash characteristic of his genius, the dilemma of our own age: the necessity for choosing between the frustrated middle classes and the growing socialist revolutionary movement. See: Daniel-Rops, ibid, p. 168.
  7. See: Daniel -Rops, pp. ,346-351.
  8. Ibid., p.346.
  9. ” No habeis visto en la istoria de la humanidad que el error de hoy ha sido la verdad de manna?  Donde teneis un criterio infallible  por el cual podais decidirque nadie yerracuando  emite una idea?  Dios es product de la razon misma y el catolicismo esta muerto en la conciencia de la humanidad , en la conciencia del pueblo espanol”. See: Marcelino Menendez Pelay, Historia de los Ortodoxos, Volume II, Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos Madrid, MCMLVI,  p. 1125
  10. Philip Hughes, A Popular History of the Catholic Church. New York; The Macmillan Company, Paperbacks Edition,1962,  p.247.
  11. For an excellent study on Liberation Theology see:  James F. Schall, S.J.  Liberation Theolpgy, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1982.
  12. A close analysis of recent revolutionary events that have taken place in Latin America, especially in El Salvador, clearly demonstrate this fact.
  13. “Paul Blanchard accepted not only Marxist methodology but also full cooperation between Christians and Marxists. In Germany it was the Marxist Ernest Bloch who greatly influenced the thinking of the leading Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann and the Jesuit priest J.B. Metz.”  See; Alberto M. Piedra, “Some Observations on Liberation Theology,” World Affairs, Winter 1985-1986, Volume 148 Number 3.S.
  14. Alberto M. Piedra ibid.,
  15. See: Encyclical Letter of Pope Paul VI  Humanae Vita, Paulist Press, 1968, .as quoted by Pope JohnPaul  II in his Encyclical  V eritatis Splendor, 1993, #81.
  16. See John Paul II , Opening address at Puebla,  Third General Conference of Latin American Bishops, Puebla de los Angeles , Mexico, 28 January, 1979.  Reprinted in the Pope and Revolution , John Paul II Confronts Liberation Theology,  Edited by Quentin  L. Orlade.  Ethics and Public Policy Center,  Washington D.C. 1982, pp.49-70
  17. John Paul JJ , Centesimus Annus,  Chapter IV
  18. John Paul II , Veritatis Splendor, The United States Conference of Bishop, 1993. , # 81
  19. See: Joseph Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues, university of Notre Dame Press, 1975.