Thursday, June 5, 2014

Book Review: Romantic Catholics

From the publisher, Cornell University Press:
In this well-written and imaginatively structured book, Carol E. Harrison brings to life a cohort of nineteenth-century French men and women who argued that a reformed Catholicism could reconcile the divisions in French culture and society that were the legacy of revolution and empire. They include, most prominently, Charles de Montalembert, Pauline Craven, Amélie and Frédéric Ozanam, Léopoldine Hugo, Maurice de Guérin, and Victorine Monniot. The men and women whose stories appear in Romantic Catholics were bound together by filial love, friendship, and in some cases marriage. Harrison draws on their diaries, letters, and published works to construct a portrait of a generation linked by a determination to live their faith in a modern world.

Rejecting both the atomizing force of revolutionary liberalism and the increasing intransigence of the church hierarchy, the romantic Catholics advocated a middle way, in which a revitalized Catholic faith and liberty formed the basis for modern society. Harrison traces the history of nineteenth-century France and, in parallel, the life course of these individuals as they grow up, learn independence, and take on the responsibilities and disappointments of adulthood. Although the shared goals of the romantic Catholics were never realized in French politics and culture, Harrison's work offers a significant corrective to the traditional understanding of the opposition between religion and the secular republican tradition in France.

Introduction: Romantic Catholics and the Two Frances
1. First Communion: The Most Beautiful Day in the Lives and Deaths of Little Girls
2. The Education of Maurice de Guérin
3. The Dilemma of Obedience: Charles de Montalembert, Catholic Citizen
4. Pauline Craven's Holy Family: Writing the Modern Saint
5. Frédéric and Amélie Ozanam: Charity, Marriage, and the Catholic Social
6. A Free Church in a Free State: The Roman Question
Epilogue: The Devout Woman of the Third Republic and the Eclipse of Catholic Fraternity

As I mentioned when I previewed this book last month, reading about the post-Revolutionary Catholic laity and clergy working to rebuild the Catholic Church in France reminded me of the parallel history of post-Reformation/Recusant Catholic laity and clergy working to rebuild the Church in England. Both communities had suffered devastation: the French for a short time, the English for a long time. Both communities had to renew their infrastructure and revive their culture after periods of persecution and iconoclasm. In some way, both communities had to deal with the issue of Church authority after their restoration. The old Recusant English laity had been leading and working for the freedom of Catholics for a long time when the hierarchy returned in 1850--after all, they had been the ones building the chapels and paying the priests as chaplains and there was a period of adjustment.

The laity and clergy Harrison writes about in nineteenth century France rejected the Cisalpine tendencies of the Church hierarchy before the Revolution and were thoroughly Ultramontane, but then struggled when successive popes rejected their new model for the Church and society to work in freedom. moving away from monarchy toward republican democracy. As Harrison describes the crucial rejection of Lamennais' L'Avenir by Pope Gregory XVI and later Pope Pius IX's rejection of Lamennais' follower Charles de Montalembert, it seems now clear that the popes lost an opportunity for the Church to lead society forward.

I was surprised to read that Pope St. Pius X's great change in the age of First Communion was unpopular in France in 1910 (Quam Singulari)--First Holy Communion held the place that Confirmation holds now in the United States during a child's life as a Catholic; it was a step toward adulthood. As Harrison depicts the preparation and celebration of First Holy Communion, she notes the importance of children's literature, especially the novel Le Journal de Marguerite in modeling Catholic childhood, its piety, morality, and progress toward holiness. By recounting the First Communions of Leopoldine Hugo, Victor Hugo's daughter, and two other young girls who died young, Harrison notes that the memory of that day, with all its beauty and innocence, was treasured by the parents who lost their children.

Advancing from First Communion to education, Harrison examines the school experiences of the poet Maurice de Guerin at the College Stanislas in Paris, founded by Abbe Claude Rosalie Liautard. She creates a vivid image of this boys boarding school where the students developed strong bonds of fraternity. From the College Stanislaus, Guerin joins Lamennais' all male community at La Chenaie, briefly continuing his studies after deciding that he does not have a religious vocation. Both he and his sister Eugenie wrote poetry, although both of them died before they could publish--friends edited their works, especially Eugenie's journals, to show her great love and support of her brother in his literary career, thwarted by his early death at age 29.

Continuing the exploration of Lamennais' project for the Church to be the ally of modern culture with its emphasis on freedom and social justice, Harrison then writes about Charles de Montalembert and his great friend, Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire, who restored the Dominican order in France in 1850. As the three men wrote and published for L'Avenir they found themselves more and more in conflict with the French hierarchy and then with Pope Gregory XVI and faced the crucial test of their Ultramontanist views--what do you do when the authority you have sworn obedience to tells you to stop what you think is most important for modern culture and the Church? Montalembert and Lacordaire submitted to the pope's instructions, but Lamennais could not.

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter is "Pauline Craven's Holy Family: Writing the Modern Saint" as Harrison describes how Pauline Craven wrote her family's story of suffering and holiness, telling how her brother and sisters died in a powerful and popular memoir, Le Recit d'une soeur.  Readers wrote to Pauline telling her how much her memoir moved them, encouraged them to be better Catholics, and led them to pray for the same holy and happy deaths she depicts. Harrison even notes the connection between St. Therese of Lisieux's L'Histoire d'une ame--the emphasis on holiness in the family, in simple everyday life combined with simplicity of expression and lack of literary pretense.

My favorite chapter, however, was "Frédéric and Amélie Ozanam: Charity, Marriage, and the Catholic Social" with Harrison's examination of Blessed Frédéric Ozanam's great charitable project, The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the lay organization dedicated to charity and contact with the poor. Harrison shows how Ozanam rejected philanthropy with its emphasis on analyzing and solving social ills and instead gathered young men in associations to visit the poor, to help people directly since part of the purpose of The Society of St. Vincent de Paul was to save the soul of the young men, to increase their love of the poor and thus of Jesus, and grow in humility and faith. Harrison also describes Ozanam's great conversion to the virtues of Marriage: he had thought that marriage would call him and other men in the Society away from their work with the poor. When he meets Amélie Soulacroix (what an evocative name!) he realizes that marriage and the family are the true basis of society, that husband and wife can support each other in their efforts to love and serve the poor. Harrison picks up the Lamennain project of establishing a Catholic society with a discussion of how Ozanam opposed the legalization of divorce because of its effects on women, children, and men, creating autonomous individuals and breaking down social bonds. Ozanam dies before he can finish his great work--an answer to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Civilisation au Ve siècle. Amélie Ozanam dedicated the rest of her life to her husband's cause, making sure his achievements and goals were not forgotten--and she was surely rewarded by Frédéric Ozanam's beatification by Pope St. John Paul II in Paris at Notre Dame in 1997--during World Youth Day celebrations!

The final chapter is about French Catholic reaction to the crisis of the temporal sovereignty of the papacy in the midst of the Italian Risorgimento--again Craven and Montalembert struggle with their ultramontane beliefs, even as Papal Infallibility is defined as a doctrine at the First Vatican Council. Once again, with Pope Pius IX, they see their great Romantic Catholic project rejected--and Montalembert even experiences rejection after death when Pope Pius IX cancels his scheduled funeral Mass and moves it to another church without any announcement--which seems supremely petty and uncharitable for a pope. As the last surviving member of the Romantic generation, Pauline Craven is uncomfortable living in the new Rome of the "prisoner of the Vatican".

Harrison concludes her study with the examination of two fictions: the sequel to Le Journal de Marguerite and the political interference of Empress Eugenie (who was the object of slurs and attacks much like Marie Antoinette).

She summarizes her book by asserting the importance of understanding the Romantic Catholic movement:

Restoring romantic Catholics to the story of modern France reminds us that French women and men of the postrevolutionary period saw possibilities other than inflexible church-state conflict. These children of the nineteenth century believed that Catholicism was a model for a society that aspired to be more than an aggregation of atomized individuals. They were eager to demonstrate that Christians tied indissolubly to each other by sacramental bonds constituted a more resilient society than liberal individuals who might occasionally and temporarily enter into contracts with one another. They believed that thy could offer this lesson to their fellow French men and women, and willingness to engage with French society as a whole was the hallmark of Catholic romanticism. Romantic confidence in a dynamic, modern religious faith was not merely a strategy to protect Catholic communities by isolating them from the rest of society and defending them from the rise of secularism.

Although the Catholic romantics Harrison describes were disappointed in the failure of their projects, she notes that they were vindicated by Pope Leo XIII's pontificate, with his great vision of "a political and social agenda that engaged the church with modern republicanism and the social question", summarized in Rerum Novarum (1891). Romantic Catholics is a very important study of Catholics in nineteenth century France--I highly recommend it as well written and imaginative structured as the publisher notes, and sympathetic to the historical figures and their cause.

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