Henri Louis Charles Maret (Abbé Maret) – The Advantages of Liberty and Legal Separation (1850-51)

Abbé Maret

[Abbé Maret, was a professor of dogma at the Sorbonne (appointed as such in 1841), a Liberal Catholic, a contributor to the Liberal (or democratic) Catholic review L’Ere nouvelle (the successor publication to Lamennais’ L’Avenir), Gallican, and a part of the “anti-infaillibilist” minority during Vatican I.

The following text is an excerpt from his unpublished courses at the Sorbonne on Church and State from 1850-1851. The original French text can be found in L’Eglise et l’Etat: cours de Sorbonne inédit, 1850-1851, edited by Claude Bressolette.]

[…] Indeed, it is liberty, and only liberty, which can restore minds to Catholic beliefs; because these beliefs ought to be the fruit of their spontaneous adherence.

Above all, under the regime of separation, and under the empire of complete religious liberty, the majority of obstacles opposed to the progress of religious truth are removed; and the source of the most formidable prejudices are exhausted. We can say that one of the most active and powerful causes of the religious and philosophical revolutions of the past three centuries has been the opposition to the temporal domination of the clergy. This domination has in it something exclusive, narrow, and often even violent, which makes it frightening to human liberty. It is understandable that peoples had the desire to set it within limits and to liberate themselves from it; you find this sentiment mixed with passions less pure, in the great movements of the 16th and 18th centuries.

People unfortunately allowed themselves too often to be taken far away from the legitimate aims which they pursued[.] […] Nothing like that is to be feared when the clergy, as clergy, become completely estranged from the political order, exercising no power, nor temporal influence; [when it] is no longer exposed to the abuses of riches and has no authority over souls other than its doctrines and virtues. This complete abolition of ancient theocracy is thus favorable to a development of religion. 

As religious liberty spreads itself little by little in the world, how the insurmountable barriers to the progress of truth lower themselves in front of it! The religions of the State, the religions which form a legal and political establishment, will always be an almost invincible obstacle to the religious unity of peoples. I will only name, for example, England and Russia; legal religion links itself in the most intimate way with the established political order; it cannot receive the least attack without the State itself being shaken. Let interests and passions keep guard then so as to conserve what is established. But let this order change, let the regime of religious liberty replace the system of the religions of the State; and one will see how fragile and obsolete these churches were, which are only supported by the secular power. It would be likewise with the religious systems of the East; left to themselves, they would not be able to resist for long the ascend ency of Christian truth. 

The system of separation and religious liberty includes even more precious advantages for the restoration of religious unity. As soon as enemy religions consent to mutual toleration; as soon as they consent to laying down their weapons and renouncing the decrees, the laws by which they banished and desired to destroy each other, prejudices dissipate and hatreds sooth. We comprehend each other, we understand each other, we render justice to each other; all the grievances are erased little by little from memory. We almost love each other. Well! there is no arrangement more favorable to the rapprochement of minds and to the triumph of truth. This is already an immense result of liberty, and this result is obtained for a notable portion of the civilized world, where religious liberty reigns. Over a certain number of years, it has made a complete transformation in religious and philosophical controversies. Violent and narrow prejudices have given place to a more intimate and profound mutual comprehension; we no longer hear the language of hatred and insult; everyone wants to be impartial and just. 


After the cooling of the internal divisions which tore Christianity apart, spending all its force of conquest and assimilation, it will soon recover its ascendant march in this part of the world, still excluded from its law. Religious unity, in the midst of civilization, will radiate throughout the whole world; and religious darkness, which still covers such a notable portion of the earth, will flee when faced with this light. Mohammedanism, Buddhism, Brahmanism, fetishism, will disappear little by little; human unity will be formed once again, and the Word of the God-Man will have its fulfillment: one fold, one pastor.

Liberty, aided by truth and grace, after having accomplished this necessary work, this magnificent work of the reconstruction of beliefs and religious liberty; after having undertaken this moral restoration of our France of the Christian world; after having thus prepared the definitive triumph of religious truth in the whole world, liberty will conserve these blessed fruits of truth, of unity, and of the peace which it will have borne. It would be a grand error to believe that after the establishment of Catholic unity by liberty, we would see the construction of an order similar to that of the Middle Ages, to ancient theocracy. It is an illusion to believe that the past can come alive again; as much as it would be to believe that an adult man could re-enter his cradle. No, it will not form a new legal and political alliance between Church and state. We know how abundant these alliances are in oppression and misery. Religion will reign through its enlightenment and benefits. [It] will inspire private and public virtues, preside over education, form mores, direct opinion, be the fruitful source of the most just laws, [and] of better institutions[.] [It] will lead, finally, men to their eternal destiny. But content with reigning freely over minds and hearts, it will scorn political domination, which can only compromise its true authority. Moral truths, applicable to society, would pass into laws [and] would become their principle, these truths accepted by all. And yet, dogmas would never become laws, because this transformation is not necessary, and it is irreconcilable with the regime of liberty. The official religion matters little, as long as beliefs and sentiments are in the mind and heart! Liberty, therefore, will remain whole; and if new errors rise, we will use against them peaceful discussion, virtuous example, and the practice of charity!

Monsieurs, we have established that the new order of separation and liberty is safe from the criticisms people address towards it; [and] that these principles are legitimate[.] We have come to see at last that, under the empire of liberty such as we have defined it, the moral union between religious society and civil society, between Catholicism and civilizations, this union demanded by the nature of things, by the eternal laws of the divine order, as by the most elevated interests of humanity, was possible[.] [And] that even religious unity, necessary for the world, the salvation of the world, can only be restored through her. If this is so, we must conclude that the new regime, introduced in the midst of such hardship, (and still poorly established, poorly understood, poorly applied) […] is a real progress of humanity, an essential step on the path which leads to God.