1848: L’Ere nouvelle and the "first" Christian Democracy – Charles Vaugirard (2012)

Archbishop Denis Auguste Affre

[A translation of Charles Vaugirard’s 2012 article on the Catholic liberal/democratic journal L’Ere nouvelle.]

It is a fundamental date, even the founding date of Christian democracy: 1848. The Revolution of 1848 is one of the grand pages in the history of France. Poorly known, certainly unloved, it is without doubt the only revolution where the Church has not been vilified. The priests blessed the trees of liberty, men close to the Christian faith or openly proclaiming themselves to be Catholic were among the revolutionaries.

This original situation (forgotten by many Catholics, unfortunately) can be explained by the power of a very Voltarian bourgeoisie under the July Monarchy. The fall of Louis-Phillipe had marked the end of an unloved Catholic regime and the Church had  therefore good reason to welcome this change. The revolutionaries therefore respected this powerful ally. An example: the President of the Constituent Assembly was Dr. Philippe Buchez, a Catholic and convinced republican. 

1848 was for Christian thinkers a perfect occasion to revive certain avant-garde ideas. This is what happened in L’Ere nouvelle

Who is this journal comprised of? Essentially former collaborators of L’Avenir [The Future, Hugues Felicité Robert de Lamennais’s publication]: the economist Charles de Coux, Abbé Maret [Henri Louis Charles Maret], Abbe Lacordaire, [Blessed] Frédéric Ozanam, who became a brilliant professor at the Sorbonne. 

This is therefore the grand return of the ideas of Lamennais’ journal. Except that this time, L’Ere nouvelle had a very clear ideological orientation: democracy. L’Avenir was in effect a journal centered on liberties, whatever position was taken on democracy was a result of some of the authors. On the other hand, in L’Ere nouvelle’s case, democracy was the editorial line taken by the journal in 1848. This editorial line was not without consequence. Charles de Montalembert, who was a liberal and a talented defender of public liberties, but was little favorable to democracy, refused to participate in the new publication. He feared the arrival to power of the illiterate popular masses. And in the name of order he preferred a suffrage censitaire [namely, a system of suffrage based on a tax threshold.] However, this face of liberalism later on became a major opponent of Napoléon III.

Abbé Maret [Henri Louis Charles Maret]

But L’Ere nouvelle does not merely support just any kind of democracy, it supports Christian democracy. “Christian democracy, that’s the future!“ This was exclaimed by Abbé Maret, founder of the journal. This quotation was the title of an editorial and above all a thinly veiled allusion to the journal of 1830.

The journal sought to reconcile Catholicism and democracy, to imbue the new regime with Christian values. Maret, Ozanam, and Lacordaire were conscious of the fact that the monarchy was coming to an end. All originating from legimitism, they hardly liked the monarchy of Louis-Philippe, which had nothing legitimate about it. But the Bourbon family was too shut up in counter-revolutionary ideology…That would not work. So the remaining solution was the Republic, but a Republic relying on the people by universal suffrage.

L’Ere nouvelle, by the pen of Abbé Maret, gives its vision of democracy: “What is therefore this democracy whose destiny seems so high to us? Democracy is for us only liberty and civil and political equality.. Liberty in the civil order is the right to obey only the law or by virtue of the law. No more arbitrary commands; the law will replace the will of man (…) The citizen will have the precious guarantee of only obeying just laws, when he will contribute by himself or by representatives to the formation of the law itself. This noble function will be participation and the exercise of sovereignty, the highest expression of liberty. (…) To these two principles of liberty and equality, she (democracy) added the principle of fraternity, sublime expression of social duties, of devotion and of sacrifice.”

The professor Jean-Dominique Durand in his book L’Europe de la démocratie chrétienne has characterized this process as the desire to reconcile the Church and the ideas of 1789. It is true, but that choice itself is clearly made in the Roman Catholic Church, [and] not without her or against her.  We are not in a revolutionary situation of a constitutional Church in relation to the State and cut off from Rome… No, L’Ere nouvelle gathered together personalities who were faithful to the Pope.

Frédéric Ozanam

Frédéric Ozanam is without doubt one of the best figures from L’Ere nouvelle. Beatified by John Paul II in 1997 during WYD [World Youth Day] in Paris, his life, but also his ideal, are a light for all those who wish to involve themselves in the city. Inside L’Ere nouvelle he wrote much; writing a famous article whose title had crossed the front page of the journal: “Let Us Go to the Barbarians!” This article is an appeal to a social policy, to a preferential option for the poor and above an appeal to democracy, that is to say to the participation of all people in political decisions. “Let Us Go to the Barbarians” made reference to the fall of the Roman Empire where Christians understood and accepted the change of epoch and decided to evangelize the barbarians who were the new masters of Europe. According to Ozanam, 1848 marked the passing of an era where power is held by the princes and the bourgeoisie, to one where it is the people, including those “barbarians” of the suburbs who frightened the bourgeoisie, who is sovereign. 

[Ozanam argued that it was necessary to go] beyond our fears in order to not only assist the most poor, but above all to consider [them] a political and economic partner. For Ozanam and those of L’Ere nouvelle, democracy is the application, and even the accomplishment, of the Gospel. Here we rediscover this key idea of Christian democracy, which will be deepened in the 20th century, notably by Jacques Maritain. A Christian-Democrat deputy, Frédéric Arnaud, launched at the Assembly on 13 September 1848: “Christianity, it is democracy.” He had summed up the thought of the early Christian Democrats.

But the adventure of L’Ere nouvelle will conclude in failure. Certain Catholic personalities will oppose the newspaper. Christian conservatives, be they intransigent like Louis Veuillot and the journal l’Univers (he spoke of the new error…) or even liberals like Montalembert and the periodical Le Correspondant. These last two had been favorable to public liberties, but against  democracy, which they feared would be explosive. Finally, they were also criticized by the left, including Lammenais, who had joined the extreme left and who was in rupture with Rome. 

Subsequently, few of the candidates supported by L’Ere nouvelle had been elected to the constituent. Ozanam was beaten in Lyon, but Lacordaire was elected in Marseille. The voices are more focused on the conservative right (supported by Montalembert and Veuillot) or supported by the socialists. Thus, L’Ere nouvelle, which was situated in the center, had been crushed by the right and the left… The difficulty of the third way.. It ceased publication in 1849.

One of the causes of the failure had been the violent uprisings of June 1848 which had terrorized a part of the population. It was feared that universal suffrage would put into power men elected by a people inclined to violence. The same year, Karl Marx published the Manifesto of the Communist Party. It was the beginning of socialism and communism and also of the conservative reaction to these new ideas. 

The constituent assembly had drawn up a constitution in part inspired by the American constitution. It is a liberal text, democratic but moderate, we are far from the “constitution of year 1”. It allowed the election of the President of the Republic by universal suffrage. The first in the history of France! But this had a harmful consequence for the Republic: The people, frightened by the uprising of June 1848, were afraid of an extremist regime, threw itself into the arms of a “providential man,” guarantor of the social order without being an ultraconservative. This man? Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, a complete nobody, but whose family name recalled the Napoleonic legend.

The conservatives had appealed to vote for him, but not L’Ere nouvelle, who distrusted him. They preferred Cavaignac [t/n: Don’t laugh!], a serviceman but [also a] convinced republican and benevolent to the Church.

We know what happens next, Bonaparte is elected president in 1849, but before the end of his term, unable to prolong because of the constitution, he made a coup on the 2nd of December, 1851. […]

Pierre Létamendia, author of Que-sais-je sur la Démocratie chrétienne, believed that L’Ere nouvelle had less influence than L’Avenir because of the lack of an influential personality like Lamennais. This is true, the force of L’Ere nouvelle had been its clear-cut political position, more than L’Avenir. This newspaper had really launched the notion of Christian Democracy. As much as L’Avenir is the precursor of this family, just as it is the predecessor of L’Ere nouvelle (they had the same editors), so too was L’Ere nouvelle the first Christian Democratic news organization.

This is what made the historian Jean-Baptiste Duroselle say, in his Débuts du catholicisme social, that L’Ere nouvelle is the “first” Christian Democracy.