Father of French liberal Catholicism: Felicité de Lamennais by Paulin Jean-Baptiste Guerin
Some years ago, I interviewed a young Frenchman for a lectureship in political theory. He was an honest man and, as we walked around the university's botanical gardens discussing matters of common interest, he told me that, if appointed, he intended to commute from Cambridge to Birmingham during term time. To me this didn't seem a viable long-term proposition and the lectureship went to another candidate. The young Frenchman was called Emile Perreau-Saussine. In 2010 he died, aged only 37.
The loss that this premature death represents can be judged by Perreau-Saussine's posthumously published Catholicism and Democracy (Princeton University Press, £30.95). Not only is this a fine work of scholarship and one that is beautifully written; it also occasions pause for thought on almost every page. Far more than "an essay in the history of political thought", as its modest subtitle suggests, Perreau-Saussine's book seeks to address the complicated relationship of the Catholic Church with modern secular democracy. In so doing, it raises questions that transcend the narrow confines of its French subject matter, inviting us to reflect more generally upon what happens when the activity of politics is freed of the limitations and constraints imposed by an irksome and unwanted God.
It was France, according to Perreau-Saussine, that set the tone for Catholic political thought from 1650 to 1950. This was so because France was at once the eldest daughter of the Church, the birthplace of the nation state and the stage for the revolution of 1789. What was distinctive about French Catholicism was the tradition of Gallicanism. In 1682, with Louis XIV on the throne, the French clergy formally recognised that the French monarchy was not subject to papal authority in temporal matters. Condemned by the Holy See, the theological justification of what became known as Gallican liberty was that an elect nation had no need of papal sanction to ensure that it acted in a Christian manner. In political terms, this assertion of the autonomy of monarchical power marked the subordination of the Church to the state. Nevertheless, the relationship between the Church and an absolute monarchy that saw itself as divinely ordained was one of intimate union. French national identity remained tightly linked to Catholicism.
There were at least three important dimensions to these developments within the French Church. The Gallican acceptance of the independence of temporal power did not mean that there should be no moral and spiritual limits to royal authority. A good political system, as Bossuet demonstrated in his Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Holy Scripture, was a Christian political system. Secondly, the political logic of national autonomy was never strong enough to push Gallicanism into a French version of Anglicanism. The papacy did everything possible to ensure that the Gallican Church did not declare unilateral independence. Thirdly, Gallicanism entailed no diminution in the quest for religious uniformity. Protestantism had no place in France — as was demonstrated by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and the subsequent exodus of 400,000 Huguenots.