A Democrat Priest: The Abbé Lemire (2012)

[A short article/biography from the French blog Thomas More (published in 2012) of Jules Auguste Lemire (1853-1928), a 19th century French priest and Christian democrat politician, and one of the “abbés démocrates” — as they were called.]

There was a time where priests were present and even selected in political elections. This has not always been easily accepted, and  relations have sometimes been difficult between certain priests and the hierarchy. Some remember abbé Pierre, who had been a deputy of the MRP [Mouvement Républicain Populaire]. He had a predecessor, [who] was also active in charity, and more engaged in politics in the long-term: the abbé Lemire (1853-1928).

Abbé Lemire was part of those few democrat priests [abbés démocrates] who took seriously Leo XIII’s invitation of ralliement to the Republic. He put into practice the principles of Leo XIII, in what made up the primary bases of the social doctrine of the Church. I have always had great sympathy for this atypical figure of the Belle époque (and a bit later, because he died in 1928). After a small excursion to Hazebrouck, capital of abbé Lemire’s constituency, I could not pass briefly evoking his memory (Association Mémoire de l’abbé Lemire).

To go further, one must read the work of Jean-Marie Mayeur, who dedicated his thesis of history on him (L’abbé Lemire, 1853-1928, un prêtre démocrate, Casterman 1968. … here).

Raymond Saleilles (1855-1912) — a Catholic lawyer

The political trajectory of abbé Lemire is original, in that, unlike the majority of politicians who started their career on the left and finished on the right, or at least, more on the center, our democrat and deputy priest finished his career within the group of the radical Left. He was thus the consequent heir of the social Catholics of the 19th century (much more than the liberals, such as my dear [Raymond] Saleilles, with whom he however often associated himself in practice). He remains, however, an original figure of  (second) Christian democracy. His political life was not always smooth sailing, because he often clashed with his hierarchy (and his bishop above all). The accession of Benedict XV to the throne of St. Peter allowed him to see the sanctions which he was made subject to under Pius X lifted.

Abbé Lemire is known above all for having founded … the workers’ gardens [jardins ouvriers].This movement was from the Ligue du coin de terre et du foyer fondée, founded in 1890 by abbé Lemire (with the legal aid of Raymond Saleilles). He always believed that the connection with the earth was a fundamental need of man, and [that it] permits one to secure a patrimony and some useful fruits for the worker.

Vaillant’s attack on the Chamber of Deputies (December 9, 1893)

His social and political action, however, mostly exceeded this work, to which he obviously remained very attached to. Elected under the Christian socialist label in 1983, he was widely re-elected until his death. In the first weeks of his term, the abbé Lemire was rather gravely wounded in the attack of the anarchist [Auguste] Vaillant on December 9, 1893, in the Chamber of Deputies. Opposed to the death penalty, he launched a petition to obtain mercy for Vaillant, who nevertheless was executed in Feburary, 1894. [Lemire] voted against the death penalty when the question of abolition was posed in 1906-1908. He spoke not so much as a Christian than as a man and a Frenchman, although abbé Lemire always wore a cassock even in the Chamber of Deputies. His remarks were that of a humanist:

I demand, in the name of the rights of humanity, that you respect the person, that you give him the the time to reason with himself, to pull himself together and to […] In place of a society dominated by the sinister bloody scaffold, I would desire a society crowned by the indefinite possibility of remorse, repentance, and expiation.

Attentive to all social questions, he took part in all the major parliamentary debates throughout 35 years! He increased social and political activities. He especially directed a journal, the Cri des flandres. He also won the mayorship of Hazebrouck in 1914.

In the Chamber of Deputies, he spoke in favor of the tax on revenue, for the limitation of work-hours, and especially of child labor. He defended the ideal of small inalienable family property. He also accepted the separation of Church and State. He constantly acted in a spirit of conciliation which was hardly shared by the secularists and intransigent Catholics. With the aid of Saleilles, he proposed compromise solutions to permit the Church to remain free in the midst of a secular State. We know with what failure, unfortunately…