Montalembert, Charles Forbes René de
MONTALEMBERT, CHARLES FORBES RENÉ DE
Catholic liberal, politician, publicist, historian, and orator; b. London, April 15, 1810; d. Paris, March 13, 1870. His father, Count Marc René de Montalembert, joined the French Revolutionary émigrés and then served in the British army. His mother, Eliza (Forbes) de Montalembert, was an English Protestant who became a Catholic
in 1822. When the parents returned to France (1814), they left Charles in England with his grandfather James Forbes, a well–known author and a devout Protestant, who instilled in the boy a religious piety and a zeal for learning that remained throughout his life. Under his mentor's influence Montalembert developed also an admiration for the British parliamentary system as the epitome of sound liberal government. When he returned to France in 1819 to continue his education in Paris at the Lycée Bourbon and later at the Collège Ste. Barbe (1827), he was shocked by the bitterly antireligious spirit evident among professors and students behind their façade of religious practice enforced by the restoration government. The classmates of Charles were equally surprised to find him a pious Catholic who was ardently liberal in politics. From an early date, therefore, Montalembert confronted the problem that absorbed his energies throughout life: the reconciliation between political liberalism and Catholicism.
Historical Writings. In 1828, during a stay in Stockholm, where his father was ambassador, Montalembert was introduced to the works of Joseph von gÖrres and others in the Munich school of romantic philosophers. Their frankly Catholic spirit and enthusiasm for the Middle Ages stirred the youth's interest in the medieval period and inspired him to write his chief historical works, Histoire de Sainte Elisabeth de Hongrie (1836) and Les Moines de L'Occident (7 v. 1860–77). Both his life of St. Elizabeth and his history of the monks of the West, now outdated, were translated into English and were once widely read.
When bourgeois liberalism triumphed over both throne and altar in the revolution of 1830, Montalembert was traveling in Ireland, where he was attracted by Daniel o'connell and his victorious campaign to win religious and political emancipation for Catholics. While there, he learned that Hugues Félicité de lamennais and a group of young Catholic liberals planned to publish in Paris a newspaper, L'Avenir, dedicated to the cause of "God and Liberty." Montalembert hurried to Paris and offered his services. Along with lacordaire he became one of the most dedicated and enthusiastic collaborators of Lamennais. When gregory xvi condemned the teaching of Lamennais, Montalembert strove to prevent the Breton priest from leaving the Church. The association between the two men ended in 1836. In that year Montalembert married Elisabeth de Mérode, daughter of Felix de Mérode, a Catholic leader in the movement for Belgian independence.
Montalembert gained fame as a politician who used his outstanding oratorical and journalistic talents in defense of the Church's rights, but he merited permanent significance as one of the most forceful voices seeking a reconciliation between the Church and the new type of society that emerged from the french revolution. Much as he disliked many of the ideas and institutions that dated from 1789, he believed that the Church must learn to live without special privileges as one of several religious groups operating under laws applicable equally to all of them.
Ideological Position. When he entered parliament (1837), Montalembert struggled on two fronts. He tried to persuade liberals that Catholics could be loyal to the new regime and that the Church, therefore, should be granted freedom to operate its own secondary schools as promised in the charter of 1830. Second, he sought to disabuse Catholics, including most of the higher clergy and influential laymen, of their yearnings for a return of the ancien régime; he aimed also to train them to win their rights in and through parliamentary processes. Montalembert also advocated the outlawing of slavery by legislation, French colonial expansion, the independence of the states of the church, the rights of the Poles, Irish, and other oppressed peoples, and the rights of the French parliament. He held that recognition of the Church's right to operate secondary schools was the touchstone of liberal sincerity and an essential to the Church's progress, which required the development of an enlightened laity. Freedom of education was also the one cause capable of uniting Catholics of all political persuasions. This was the program that enabled Montalembert to organize a Catholic party that elected 140 deputies pledged to support Catholic schools (1846). Before these representatives could press their advantage, the Revolution of 1848 ended the regime of Louis Philippe. Under the Second Republic (1848–52), Montalembert won the cooperation of bourgeois politicians, who feared revolution more than religion, and secured the passage of the Falloux Law, which permitted the Church to operate secondary schools.
The fall of the July Monarchy in 1848 did not please Montalembert because it deprived him of his favorite forum in the House of Peers and because the rising popular demands for social reforms under the succeeding regime frightened him. He used his influence with Catholic voters to inaugurate the Second Empire under napoleon iii in order to provide France with a strong government. Before long, however, the emperor's authoritarianism deeply embarrassed and disillusioned him, but he was unable to persuade Catholics to break with Napoleon III. Louis veuillot, a talented journalist and an ardent advocate of authoritarian government, replaced Montalembert as the outstanding Catholic leader. In matters concerning France, Veuillot, a leader of French ultramontanism, was also more influential with Pope Pius IX, who became more conservative after 1848 and who was forced to depend on Napoleon III for the preservation of the States of the Church. Montalembert remained in the national legislature until his defeat in 1857, when many Catholics voted against him. Thereafter he grew increasingly isolated and impotent politically, but he continued to contribute to Le Correspondant, the liberal Catholic review started in 1855. He also addressed the French Academy, to which he was elected in 1851.
Montalembert's last great effort to reconcile the Church and liberal society was made at the international Catholic congress in Malines, Belgium (1863). His two speeches there caused a stir in European Catholic circles by urging Catholics to Christianize democracy and not to fear it. He also advocated that the Church accept the principle of religious freedom for all beliefs as a practical necessity in modern society. For his sentiments he received a reproof from Rome. When the encyclical quanta cura and the syllabus of errors appeared (1864), Montalembert interpreted these papal strictures on liberalism as indictments of his own position and became still more isolated and embittered. News of the convocation of vatican council i pleased him at first, but then alarmed him because he feared the growing power of the papacy. He opposed a definition of papal infallibility and dreaded the possibility that Veuillot, W. G. ward, and other extremists might influence the synod to turn the propositions in the Syllabus of Errors into doctrinal definitions. While the Council was in session Montalembert died. At no time did he contemplate leaving the Church.
His Vision and Its Limitations. History has demonstrated the essential soundness of Montalembert's intuition concerning the need and the possibility of a political rapproachement between the Church and liberal society. He was correct in insisting that where constitutional government prevails, the interests of the Church and its members are best protected by laymen exercising their political rights as citizens. Unfortunately, his vision was too exclusively political and too narrowly liberal. He ignored almost completely the issues of social justice raised by advancing capitalism; indeed, he won his great victory on the education question, the Falloux law, by siding with property owners and capitalists against the working class. His vision of an ideal political society always remained paternalistic; it was modeled, as is evident in his L'Avenir politique de l'Angleterre (1856), on Britain's constitutional monarchy, which was based firmly on a landowning class of nobles and gentry.
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[j. c. finlay]