Fr. Vincent Maumus, O.P. – Preface to Les Catholiques et la liberté politique (1898)

Fr. Vincent Maumus, O.P.

[Fr. Vincent Maumus was a Catholic priest and Dominican, supporter of Dreyfus, liberal in the tradition of Lacordaire and Henri Didon, critic of the modernism of Loisy et al., and republican who — according to the “intégriste” Catholic Charles Maignen — “bleat[ed] the principles of 1789.” It should also be noted that, due to his support of Dreyfus, Fr. Maumus was, as Pierre Pierrard puts it, “one of the bêtes noires of La Croix and above all of La Vérité.” In this text, Fr. Maumus puts forward a defense of religious and political liberty, against those Catholics in France at the time who intransigently attacked it, outlining the various practical and theoretical benefits which would result from a reconciliation of Catholicism and liberty.]

The interests of the Church require Catholics, and above all of the clergy, to fully notice the new situation which, for 100 years, the ideas, habits, and mores of our times have made on Catholicism.

During those centuries, the Church has occupied in France an exceptional and privileged place: the clergy was a political body and the first Order of State, the King was the bishop of the outside [évêque du dehors], protector born of the Church whose laws often became laws of the State. Whereas other cults were merely tolerated, the Catholic religion was the official religion, the intimate union of throne and altar was like a politico-religious dogma on which the entire world agreed. 

These ancient relationships between the two powers were broken; any nostalgia would be unnecessary, the ancient order of things will not be resuscitated.

The question which is posed is therefore this one: in the face of such profound changes in the relationship of the Church with civil society, what must be the attitude of Catholics with regard to modern societies?

Must they curse and attempt to go back to the past? must they claim that the life of the Church is impossible in a milieu which refuses it a position and privileges which it has enjoyed for so long and which are absolutely necessary to it?

This would make its existence depend on certain changing circumstances of time and of place, like all that is human, and the Church, which has the promise of immortality, knows very well that it can live in all times and in all countries. To think that the Church is condemned henceforth to a precarious and shaky life because she no longer has the exclusive support of the secular power, is to doubt the words of Christ and of the power of the Cross; no Catholic would want to merit the reproach: “O man of little faith why did you doubt me?”

I have already responded, in part at least, to the question which I treat again today; I have tackled some points of doctrine which appear to separate the Church and modern France and I have proposed solutions capable of preparing a useful and desirable accord (1). I will not return to the fundamental distinction which I have established between the relative, the ideal and the reality, the principles and their application; and I suppose it has been learned, and I ask the reader to not forget it. Today I go one step further and invite men of good will who still challenge the tendencies and intentions of the Church to sign a definitive peace on this basis: liberty for all.

Liberty! This word turns up often in these pages; I have no intention of concealing the profound love which it inspires in me. Civil and political liberty is one of the most grand benefits of Christianity, for according to the words of Fr. Lacordaire: “it is Jesus Christ who has introduced in this world civil equality, and with it political liberty, which is only a certain participation of each people in its own government.” Yes, Christianity, in restoring the dignity of man so strangely unknown by paganism, has prepared the way for the principle of the equality of humanity and the liberty of the citizen. 

Far, therefore, from being in opposition to these religious beliefs, a Christian in love with equality and liberty is, on the contrary, faithful to the spirit and fundamental maxims of their faith.

If these ideas appear new and perhaps bold, it is because our Christian and national traditions have been suffocated under the weight of this enormous and disproportionate edifice which we call the ancien régime. It has passed down to us the harmful doctrine of the omnipotence of the State which our fathers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries had not the slightest notion.

Liberty was intense in those communes, unruly no doubt, but full of life with these great and powerful maxims of public law: “The nation has the right of electing its own leader; no tax could be raised save with the consent of the taxed, no law was valid unless accepted by those who would owe obedience to it.” These principles, often opposed, always reappear, our Estates General proclaim them, and ‘89 found them under the debris of the ancien régime. This is the national and Christian tradition, and the novelty is the negation of liberty (3).

Nothing is more capable of making us measure the scale of the revolution consummated by the ancien régime, and the perturbation which has taken place in the realm of ideas, than the prejudice against which all Catholics must never cease protesting: [that] the Church is the natural ally of despotism, and she has the instinctive fear of liberty. The exact opposite is true. 

The Church, as we will see in the body of this study, has had much to suffer from despotism to not prefer the regime of liberty.  To say that she is the enemy of the political liberty of peoples is to be unaware of her spirit, her history, and the element which is most favorable to her development. 

No people is today more free than the American nation and no part of the Church is more prosperous under the shelter of such a liberal constitution imbued with Christianity: “The Constitution which governs the Republic of the United States is eminently Christian,” said a priest (4) very capable of knowing and appreciating her.    

Catholics have nothing to fear for their faith in pronouncing resolutely in favor of liberty. Let them know as well that this resolution is the grandest service they can render to the Church and their countries.

They cannot, in good conscience, be disinterested in the struggle engaged between champions of liberty and the followers of radical-socialist despotism, and, in order to triumph with the former, they must, above all, be docile to the instructions of the Supreme Pontiff. Any other attitude would lead to new defeats and new misfortunes.

The experience which they’ve had of sterile and hopeless opposition has taught them that, even apart from deference to the counsels of Leo XII, the only possible politics is the sincere acceptance of a legal government: they will, in this way, foil the odious and hypocritical tactics of the enemies of the Church. When, indeed, the power is among the hands of moderate men who declare that they have no desire to make war on the religious idea, our adversaries accuse them of making a deal with the enemies of the Republic, as if we were ready to profit from religious liberty [so as] to conspire against political liberty. These accusations are the veil behind which hides the disappointed ambitions and secret hopes of politicians without scruples; the duty of Catholics is to rip off this mask. They [Catholics] will succeed if their attachment to these current institutions is above all suspicion, and they help in this way, in their difficult task, the moderates who, supported by the liberal majority of the country, will be [more able] to arrest the progress of socialism and make triumph the political and religious liberty menaced by radicalism. 

(1) L’Église et la France moderne. Paris, Victor Lecoffre.
(2) De la liberté de l’Italie et de l’Eglise.
(3) Voir Aug. Thierry , Histoire de la formation du Tiers État. — Duruy, Histoire de France, introduction et 1er vol.
(4) M. l’abbé André, de la Congrégation de Saint-Sulpice, L’ambassadeur du Christ, par le Cardinal Gibbons; introduction .