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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 308-310

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Henri-Dominique Lacordaire. Correspondance: Répertoire, Tome 1: 1816-1839. Edited and arranged by Guy Bedouelle and Christoph-Alois Martin. (Paris: Éditions du Cerf. 2001. Pp. lxxvii, 1429. €72.-.)

Jean-Baptiste-Henri (later Dominique) Lacordaire (1802-1861) is known to American and European Catholics (well, at least to priests and seminarians) for one quote:

To live in the midst of the world with no desire for its pleasure;
to be a member of every family, yet belong to none;..
To go daily from men to God to offer Him their homage and petition;
to return from God to men to bring them His pardon and hope,..
Oh God, what a life, and it is thine,
O priest of Jesus Christ.

But the life of this one-time agnostic lawyer turned priest is emblematic of the creative energies and diverse personalities that constructed nineteenth- and twentieth-century French Catholicism. Much of the creativeness went into the new relationship with the Pope's authority, which was diminished by Napoleon relative to the French government but augmented many times over relative to the French church. The Concordat of 1801 had allowed a government voice in church appointments, but it also required the total and absolute submission of French bishops to the Pope. They were all obliged to tender their resignations, so that the différend between the constitutional Catholicism of the Revolution and the Rome-dedicated refractory church could be settled.

In the beginning was Félicité de Lamennais. This high-profile intellectual priest formed around himself a quasi community of younger intellectuals including Lacordaire, by this time a priest for several years, and the Comte de Montalembert, a politically and intellectually engaged young aristocrat. Lamennais wanted to shape a dynamic French Catholicism upon the absolute authority, religious and political, of the Pope; and the journal he founded to promote his program was confidently entitled L'Avenir. Ironically, the Pope and his entourage thought they had more to fear from Lamennais than they did from his opponents and so condemned a number of the propositions of Lamennais and ordered the closing down of L'Avenir. Lacordaire was profoundly disappointed—as were the other members of the Lamennais circle—but led the way in submission to Rome.

Henri Lacordaire's own personal combination of submission to Rome and maintenance of philosophical, or at least literary, originality has become a way-station [End Page 308] along the historical road of modern French Catholicism. His ultramontanism was tempered to greater strength by the condemnation crisis and gave him leverage in problems with French hierarchical authority, chiefly Archbishop Quelen of Paris; his oratorical gifts merited invitation (from this same prelate) to give a high-profile series of sermons in Notre-Dame cathedral; his emotion-fraught relationships were filled with high controversy and, some say, sexual tension; and his combination of humility and self-importance in ecclesiastical renewal bought for him a unique place in French Catholic life in the middle third of the century (he had a major role in the re-establishment of the French Dominicans shortly after a one-year novitiate).

Not that it is easy to "place" Lacordaire in French church history. He is known, glibly perhaps, as a "romantic," as much to dispel suspicions of homosexuality as to situate him on the complex range of literary and artistic romanticisms; known also for high sermonizing but not for spirituality; known as a political liberal but not for a political theology; known for his biography of St. Dominic and for bringing about a revival of the Dominicans in France but not for genuine accomplishments as a historian. Work has gone forward because Lacordaire can be discovered in his dealings with, exchanges with, a collection of equally, if not more, influential figures in French religious and national life: first, Lamennais, so disappointed by his rejection by Rome that he left the Church altogether, and Montalembert, who moved beyond political activism to history of the Middle Ages and philosophical/theological controversy; but also Dom Prosper Guéranger, the...


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