The Rise and Fall of a Prideful Man: The Story of Robert Lamennais
By Joanna From Poland
This is the story of a man who could have gone down in history as a splendid Catholic author had he only cooperated with the grace of God and made effort to root out the vice which seemed to have animated all of his activities ever since he was a young man and in the end brought about his fall: pride. Indeed, in the ultimately sad story of the life of Fr. Robert Lamennais the old maxim pride comes before the fall has been realized in a most tragic manner.
My inspiration and one of the references for this post was an article entitled Lamennais – prorok nowoczesnych wolności (Lamennais – the prophet of modern liberties) by a writer bearing the initials T. W. N., published in the bi-monthly periodical of the SSPX* in Poland Zawsze Wierni (January-February 2001),available in the original Polish at this link: https://www.piusx.org.pl/zawsze_wierni/artykul/349. I would also like to give credit to the work by Fr. W. M. Dębicki Anioł upadły: Ksiądz Lamennais (A Fallen Angel: Father Lamennais) published in 1901, as well as other sources as cited in the body of the text. All translation from Polish, bracketed notes, and highlights in bold font are mine.
*The choice of this article is by no means an endorsement on my part of the faulty theological position of the SSPX. While I was doing further research for this post, I realized there are available many pre-Vatican II Catholic sources on Lamennais’ life. Since, however, some portion of this post had already been written by that time with reference to that SSPX article, I decided to keep it as it is.
I did not intend to present in this article an exhaustive portrayal of Lamennais – this has already been done eloquently by Catholic writers such as Fr. Dębicki. For this reason, the details of his philosophical and political doctrines have been largely left out. What I tried to convey in this post was the road that led Lamennais at first to the heights of fame and ultimately into the lowest pits of apostasy, culminating in his final impenitence – there is, I believe, many a lesson to be drawn from this fall, sharp in some regards but really quite gradual in view of his entire life.
Family background and childhood
Born Félicité Robert de La Mennais (much later in his life he would ostentatiously change his name to Lamennais as a sign of his complete breakaway with his past self) on June 19, 1782 into a well-to-do and respected family of French merchants in the town of Saint-Malo, Bretagne, France. His family had been granted nobility by King Louis XVI not long before the bloodthirsty God-hating French Revolution broke out in 1789. Young Féli, as he was affectionately called by his family, experienced the horrors of the ten-year reign of terror, which, at least for a time, instilled in his highly impressionable mind a deep abhorrence of the impious ideals of the French Revolution. His family provided a safe haven in their own house for one of the priests who refused to submit to the rule of the revolutionaries – such clergy were either obliged to flee France or face death at the hands of the new Masonic regime Féli would at times hear clandestine Masses said by the faithful priest at nighttime.
St. Therese of Lisieux candidly admits in her autobiography that had her parents failed to root out the first movements of their little daughter’s pride (which would become manifest in her childish stubbornness and the fondness of praise and flattery), she would have inevitably lose her soul for all eternity. This is hardly an exaggeration on the part of the Saint. Indeed, the very same vices that were successfully eradicated in the Little Flower by the grace of God and the wisdom of her parents, would be left to grow like weed in the soul of Féli.
Having lost his mother at the early age of five, Féli’s education suffered serious neglect – his father occupied himself solely with his business. An intelligent child that he was, young Robert had had no interest in learning until he was entrusted to his uncle’s care. One day the child found himself locked in a richly-stocked library, filled with works of piety, classics of antiquity, among which dangerous books of impious philosophers were placed. One of the shelves was labeled hell – it was full of the works of the 18th cent. philosophers of the so-called Enlightenment. Féli was mesmerized with both the good books and the bad ones. This was the beginning of his passionate interest in philosophy and literature, both modern and classical. Due to this uncle’s influence, at the age of twelve he knew Greek and Latin well enough to read the works of Homer, Horace, and Tacit in their original languages. However, one author for whom he had the greatest admiration was one Jean Jacques Rousseau. The influence of Rousseau’s proto-Revolutionary philosophy upon Lamennais’ adolescent mind cannot be stressed enough. Rousseau’s most popular book, The Social Contract published in 1762, brought to public attention dangerous ideas that had been up to that point in history the object of interest of academics only. The Catholic Encyclopedia writes that “the influence of this book was immense” though the ideas contained therein were not really that original:
“Rousseau owes much indeed to Hobbes and Locke, and to Montesquieu’s Esprit de lois, published fourteen years before; but, by extreme prominence given to the ideas of popular sovereignty, of liberty and equality, and especially by his highly colored style, his short and concise formula, he put within the common reach principles and concepts which had hitherto been confined to scientific exposition. The book gave expression to ideas and feelings which, at that time of political and social unrest, were growing in the popular mind” and Rousseau himself certainly “furnished the French Revolution with its philosophy, and his principles direct the actual political life of France” [see: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04335a.htm]. Naturally, five of Rousseau’s works, including The Social Contract, were duly placed on the Index of Prohibited Books (according to the 1948 edition of the Index).
Lamennais’ biographer, Father Dębicki did not hesitate to assert that Rousseau “exerted a most destructive influence upon Lamennais’ entire life.
“The passionate reading of Cartesian thinkers, coupled with the lack of appropriate discipline in the upbringing of the young Lamennais resulted in his religious skepticism. When the time of his first Holy Communion came, he did not want to receive our Eucharistic Lord, engaging in pseudo-theological disputes with the priest. Years after, full of religious zeal, he would write to one of his priest-friends, describing his past life as full of iniquities which even the most severe and the longest penance could not wash away. Ah, what a misfortune it is to start one’s life so badly! I’m still carrying the effects of my first errors, and how all of this is going to end? God only knows!”
Early Adulthood and Priesthood
Young Lamennais had no precise plans concerning his future life. His older brother, Jean, “a decisive man, bursting with energy, who had just received his priestly ordination and never doubted his own vocation” was instrumental in his younger brother’ gradual return to the Church. Jean’s fervent wish was that his brother should become a priest. Finally, after a long internal battle, Robert Félicité kneeled at the altar rails to receive his first Holy Communion in 1804 at the age of twenty-two. His biographer notes that Lamennais’ decision seemed inspired by the principle of Rousseau – to reach adulthood in order to choose one’s religion freely.
Although Lamennais’ decision to return to the practice of religion was truly his own, his ordination to the priesthood was largely the effect of his older brother’s insistence.
“He still wasn’t thoroughly convinced as to his own vocation and seen the Church as a reactionary institution in many aspects; nevertheless, he would honestly lament the de-Christianization of his country, was outraged by the despotism of Napoleon Bonaparte and his scorn for the Church.”
“In 1809 Lamennais received tonsure, vowed to renounce his pride, and never to write again, but he wavered in his resolutions and believed he was about to choose the wrong path for him.”
He wrote still, attacking the policy of Napoleon who would infringe upon the temporary powers of the Church and, animated with apologetic zeal, sought to demonstrate the fact that only the Pope enjoys supreme jurisdiction over the entire Church, specifically in the appointment of bishops, thus attacking the Gallican tendencies of some of the French clergy. With the overthrow of Bonaparte in April of 1814, Lamennais earnestly hoped for the restoration of monarchy and the Bourbon dynasty, becoming a most ardent royalist. He was compelled to seek exile in England, following Napoleon’s landing in France in March 1815 and his brief re-seizure of power. There Lamennais would dwell in poverty, working as a tutor to children of French emigrants. Finally, when political turmoil in his country was settled, in December of that same year he entered the Seminary of St. Sulpice in France, still amid serious doubts concerning his vocation.
His seminary stay was a short and disappointing one as “he was taken for dull and stupid; at the end of a fortnight he came back to the Feuillantines and the Abbé Carron [his priest-friend from London], and in 1816 he was ordained at Rennes [!]. Lamennais was then thirty-four” [see: translator’s preface to the English edition of Lamennais’ Essay on Indifference in Matters of Religion London: 1895; first edition was published in the original French in 1817, soon after Lamennais’ ordination and brought him fame and appraisal as the leading Catholic apologist in France].
Lamennais underwent no formal seminary training. He never lived the disciplined and orderly life of a seminarian nor was he taught the standard courses in philosophy and theology. His entire seminary education amounted to a few months of moral theology carried out by his priest-friend and four weeks of a solitary reading of theology manuals. His biographer writes:
“The same man who deemed himself called to pose as a restorer of the education of the priest in France, did not undergo any systematic course in philosophy or theology (…) he never seriously studied dogmatics either.”
“A few years later Fr. Lamennais’ friend, while listening to his talk on the Creation and the Holy Trinity, could not hide his astonishment at the author’s ignorance in this matter: the simplest issues, like, for instance, the difference, between nature and grace, were totally alien to him.”
An incident concerning Victor Hugo, Lamennais’ contemporary and his friend, is also quite telling as to the quality of the latter’s priestly vocation. We read in A Victor Hugo Encyclopedia by John Andrew Frey that:
“Lammenais’ spectacular transformation from conservative believer to radical socialist in spirit, if not in name, parallels that of Victor Hugo with whom Lamennais was on close personal terms while he was assigned to the church of Saint Sulpice in Paris. In the end, Lamennais left Catholicism, as did Victor Hugo whose faith was initially more akin to his youthful conservative and royalist leanings. (…) Lamennais was in close contact with Hugo in those early years, as can be seen in Lamennais’ correspondence. (…) On a very personal note, it was Lamennais who helped arrange the religious marriage of Hugo to Adèle Foucher, which took place at Saint Sulpice on October 12, 1822. This marriage in the church would have been almost impossible for the simple reason that there was no record of Victor Hugo’s ever having been baptized. This obstacle was overcome by Hugo’s father who declared that Victor had been baptized in Italy (which is most unlikely given the Voltairian opinions of Hugo’s mother). Assured of this so-called baptism, Lamennais supplied the necessary certificate of baptism [!], and the religious ceremony was thus assured.”
Note that Fr. Lamennais was satisfied with an unreliable statement in a matter concerning sacramental validity and, rather than baptize the man conditionally, chose to issue a baptismal certificate with no credible evidence of the sacrament ever being administered.
Fr. E. J. Quigley notes that neglect of the most basic priestly duties must have contributed a great deal to the gradual falling away of Lamennais. He observes that “the proposition claiming exemption from the [Divine] Office for those engaged in great studies was condemned by Pope Alexander VII. The biographers of Lamennais trace the beginning of his downfall to his exemption from his daily Office.” [see: The Divine Office: A Study of the Roman Breviary by Rev. E. J. Quigley 1920]
Lamennais fell dangerously ill in July of the year 1827. At that time he was still known by his family name de la Mennais and celebrated as a splendid apologist and Catholic publicist. Lamennais – the demagogue and apostate had not yet been born. Father Dębicki writes:
“Having been prepared for his road to eternity by the reception of the Last Rites, he was holding a rosary in his hands, given to him by Pope Leo XII at a farewell audience, waiting for the hour of his death with resignation and Christian peace, the sick man whispered these words of consolation to his brother Jean: I leave you that which is the most beautiful on earth – the apology of the truth.”
“Contrary to all predictions, his condition took a turn for the better and he regained his health. In the conclave that elected Gregory XVI as Supreme Pastor, on December 22, 1830 in his journal L’Avenir Lamennais issued the following wishes and homage to the Head of the Church designated by Divine Providence: To You, who has been by the mysterious rulings of God consecrated since the beginning of time as the Father of all Christians, to You, whom we are yet to know by name, yet our Faith greets You in advance; at Your feet we already make our vows of boundless obedience and unshaken love; it shall be to You – we hope – the solace in your toil and cares which are soon to fall as a heavy burden upon Your dignified head.”
Little did he know that a in a span of merely two years his effusive pledge of allegiance to the Vicar of Christ would be tried only to fail miserably.
--- END OF PART I ---