Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire

Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire

Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire, Father Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, born on the 12 May, 1802 at Recey-sur-Ource (Côte-d'Or), died on the 21 November, 1861 at Sorèze (Tarn), a French ecclesiastic, preacher, journalist and political activist. Re-established the Post- Revolutionary Dominican Order in France, and is today considered to be one of the founding fathers of modern Roman Catholicism.

Early life and education

The son of a former doctor in the French navy, Henri Lacordaire was brought up in Dijon by his mother, Anne Dugied, the daughter of a lawyer at the Parliament of Bourgogne who was widowed at an early age, when her husband passed in 1806. Henri had three brothers, one of whom was the entomologist Jean Théodore Lacordaire. Although raised in the Catholic faith, he slipped away from it during his studies at the Dijon Lycée. He went on to study law, seemingly destined for a soliciting career. He distinguished himself with his oratory abilities within the Society of Studies in Dijon, a political and literary circle uniting the royalist youth of the town. It was there that he discovered the ultramontane (designating Catholic partisanship of Papal supremacy) theories of Bonald, de Maistre, Félicité de Lamennais. Under their influence Lacordaire was slowly weaned from the ideas of the encyclopedists and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, while still retaining a profound and sincere love of freedom, which is to say Liberalism, as expressed in the revolutionary ideals of 1789.

In 1822 he left for Paris, to complete his legal training. Thanks to the support of President Raimbourg, a family friend, he was able to stay with Monsieur Mourre the Procurer General. Although too young by law to plead, the rule was over-ridden and he successfully argued several cases in the Court of Assizes, kindling the interest of the great liberal lawyer Berryer. However, despite his prospects for a brilliant career, he became bored and felt isolated in Paris, whose distractions scarcely impressed him. At the end of a long period of doubt and questioning, he re-embraced Catholicism in the spring 1824 and soon decided to become a priest.

Thanks to the support of Monseigneur de Quélen, the Archbishop of Paris, who allocated him a scholarship, and despite the strong resistance of his mother and friends, he began studying at the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Issy in 1824. In 1826, he continued this education in Paris, which was of a generally mediocre quality, scarcely suiting his previous development, character and liberal ideas. He wrote later that:

_fr. Ceux qui se souviennent de m'avoir observé au séminaire, savent qu'ils ont eu plusieurs fois la tentation de me prendre pour un fou.

“Those who remember having observed me at the seminary know that they have several times had the temptation of calling me mad.”

This seminary experience inspired Sainte-Beuve’s novel Vopulté.

At Saint-Sulpice, he met with Cardinal Rohan-Chabot, archbishop of Besançon to be, who advised him to join the Society of Jesus, where a liberally inclined and politically engaged intellectual might be more at home than in the diocesan (i.e., secular) priesthood. Finally, due to his own insistence, and after long hesitations by his superiors, he was ordained a priest of the archdiocese of Paris on the 22 September 1827 by Archbishop De Quélen. The archbishop, after considering appointing him to relatively prestigious Paroisse de la Madeleine or to the Paroisse Saint-Sulpice, entrusted to him the modest chaplaincy of a convent of nuns of the Order of the Visitation. In the following year, he was assigned post of second chaplain of the celebrated public Lycée Henri-IV. This experience convinced him of the inevitable de-Christianization of French youth assigned to public education.

Lamennais, Montalembert, "L'Avenir" and liberal Catholicism

In May 1830, he was invited by the Abbot Hughes Felicité Robert de Lamennais, then one of the leading intellectuals concerned with French Catholic youth, to his Breton estate, la Chênaie. Long resistant to the stridency of Lamennais, Henri Lacordaire was finally seduced by his enthusiasm and his liberal ultramontanism (a term referring to Catholics who looked "beyond the mountains" [i.e., the Alps] to Rome, invoking what they saw as the absolute universal authority of the papacy, usually for support against nationalist and secularist ideas).

At that time, Lacordaire had been thinking of going to the United States as a missionary, but the revolutionary events of 1830 kept him in France. With Lamennais, Olympe-Philippe Gerbet, and the young Viscount Charles de Montalembert, who became one of his closest friends, they chose to ally themselves with the July Revolution. Thay demanded the integral application of the Charter of 1830, and voiced support of foreign liberal revolutions in Poland, Belgium and Italy. Together they launched the journal “L’Avenir” ("The Future") on the 16 October, 1830, whose catchphrase was “Dieu et la Liberté!” (“God and Freedom!”) In that largely anti-clerical and revolutionary context, the journal audaciously married ultramontanism (the defense of absolute papal sovereignty and authority over religious doctrine) and liberalism, attempting to synthesize democratic aspirations and Roman Catholicism.

On 7 December 1830, the editors of “L’Avenir” articulated their demands as follows:

"We firstly ask for the freedom of conscience or the freedom of full universal religion, without distinction as without privilege; and by consequence, in what touches us, we Catholics, for the total separation of church and state... this necessary separation, without which there would exist for Catholics no religious freedom, implies, for a part, the suppression of the ecclesiastical budget, and we have fully recognized this; for another part, the absolute independence of the clergy in the spiritual order... Just as there can be nothing religious today in politics there must be nothing political in religion.

“We ask, secondly, for freedom of education, because it is a natural right, and thus to say, the first freedom of the family; because there exists without it neither religious freedom nor freedom of expression.”

Amongst their other demands were the freedom of the press, the freedom of association and the extension of electoral suffrage.

Lacordaire particularly distinguished himself by writing articles asking for freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of education. He was against the government's monopoly of the universities, and opposed Montalivet, the minister of public education and faith. But he was especially vehement in demanding the separation of Church and State. To this end, he called on French priests to refuse the salary which was paid them by the government, advocating for the embrace of apostolic poverty by the clergy. On the 15 November 1830, he expressed himself: “We are preyed upon by our enemies, by those who regard us as hypocrites or as imbeciles, and by those who are persuaded that our life depends on money... Freedom is not given, it is taken." These demands, along with numerous attacks against bishops appointed by the new government, whom he characterized as ambitious and servile, provoked a scandal in the French episcopate, which was largely Gallican (i.e., conciliarist, nationalist, royalist, asserting the authority of the local episcopacy, and opposed to papal absolutism) and conservative. The virulence of “L’Avenir,” and particularly of Lamennais and Lacordaire, provoked the French Bishops to form a tribunal against the editors of the periodical. Lamennais and Lacordaire spent January 1831 before the court, and obtained a triumphal acquittal.

In order to defend the freedom of education, outside of the control of the universities, conforming to their interpretation of the Charter of 1830, the editors of “L’Avenir” founded in December 1830 the General Society for the defense of religious freedom, and on the 9 May, 1831 Lacordaire and Montalembert opened a free school, rue des Beaux-Arts, which was shut down by the police two days later. After a trial taking place in front of the Chambre des Pairs (Chamber of Peers,) where Lacordaire defended himself, but failed to prevent the permanent closure of the school, “L’Avenir” was suspended by its founders on the 15 November 1831. On the 30 December Lacordaire, Lamennais and Montalembert, the “Pilgrims of Freedom,” went to Rome so as to seek the recourse of Pope Gregory XVI, to whom they presented a dissertation composed by Lacordaire. At first confident, they fast became disenchanted by the reserved welcome with which they were received. On 15 August 1832, the Pope, without naming them, condemned their ideas in the encyclical Mirari Vos, most notably their demands for freedom of conscience and freedom of the press. Even before this condemnation, Lacordaire distanced himself from his companions, and returned to Paris where he took up again his functions as a Chaplin at the Convent of Visitations.

On the 11 September, he published a letter of submission to the Pope’s judgment. He then successfully used all his force of persuasion to convince Montalembert, who at first remained recalcitrant, to imitate him in his submission. In 1834 he also challenged Lamennais, who rather than accept what he saw as Rome's reactionary absolutism, publicly renounced his priesthood and published “Les Paroles d’un Croyant” (Words of a Believer,) a vociferous republican polemic against the established social order, denouncing what he now saw as the conspiracy of kings and priests against the people. Pope Gregory responded quickly, calling Lammenais' new book "small in size, but immense in perversity." He promulgated the encyclical "Singulari Nos" (15 July 1834) condemning its contents. Most commentators see this episode as effectively squelching of the open expression of modernist ideas in Catholic circles, until at least the papacy of Leo XIII at the end of the century. Lacordaire, for his part, then further distanced himself from Lammenais, expressed his disappointment at the consequences of the Revolution of 1830, and proclaimed his continued faithfulness to the Church of Rome. He condemned the pride of Lamennais and charged him with Protestantism, accusing him of having wanted to place the authority of the human race above that of the Church.

In January 1833 he met Madame Swetchine for the first time, who was to become a significant moderating influence upon him. She was a Russian convert to Catholicism, running a famous salon in Paris which Montalembert, the Earl of Falloux, and the Abbot Félix also frequented. He developed a friendly filial relationship with her through an extensive correspondence.

A talented preacher

In January 1834, at the encouragement of the young Frédéric Ozanam, the founder the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul (a charitable organization,) Father Lacordaire started a series of lectures at the College Stanislas. This met with great success, even beyond his students. However, his thematic emphasis on freedom provoked his critics, who charged him with perverting the youth. The lectures were therefore suspended.

However, Monseigneur de Quélen, the Archbishop of Paris, confirmed his support for Lacordaire, and asked him to preach a Lenten series in 1835 at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, as part of the Notre-Dame Lectures specially aimed at the catechesis of Christian youth, which had also been inaugurated at the behest of his friend Ozanam. Lacordaire’s first lecture took place on the 8 March 1835, and was met with wide acclaim. Because of this immediate success, he was asked to preach again the following year. Today the Lacordaire Notre-Dame Lectures, which mixed theology, philosophy and poetry, are still acclaimed as a sublime modern re-envigoration of traditional homiletics.

But in 1836 after such considerable success, he was still the object of mounting attacks on his theological stance. Suddenly his mother died. Lacordaire, aware of the need to continue his theological studies and reinforce his hierarchical alliances, retreated to Rome to study with the Jesuits. There, he published his "Letter on the Holy See" in which he reaffirmed with vigor his ultramontane positions, insisting on the primacy of the Roman Pontiff, “the one and permanent trustee, supreme organ of the Gospel, and the sacred source of the universal communion.” This text ran afoul of Monseigneur l'Evêque Quélen, who was a sincere Gallican.

The Reestablishment of the Dominican Order in France

In 1837, seeing the example of Dom Guéranger OSB and his restoration of the Benedictines, Lacordaire overcame his initial reluctance (which was primarily fear of losing his freedom under the rules of a religious order) and resolved to enter the Dominican Order. On entering, he resolved to re-establish the Order in France. This was rather apropros, since the Dominicans (The Order of Preachers) had been founded by the Spaniard Dominique de Guzmán in the south of France in 1215 to preach against the Cathars, and had only been wiped out in France by the Revolution in 1790. Henri Lacordaire chose this medieval order because of his strong affinity to the vocation of the Dominican Order, which is to educate and to preach with the aim of renewing and re-Christianizing society. The suppleness of the order’s constitution with its explicitly democratic order and its “incredible flexibility” had also appealed to him. Finally, belonging to a religious order offered freedom from the French episcopate, allowing him to engage in his quarrels and express his political positions freely, without fearing their censure.

In undertaking the restoration, Lacordaire was supported by Pope Gregory XVI, and by the general master of the Dominicans, Father Ancarani, who had offered him the use of the Roman convent of Santa Sabina, in order to establish the first novitiate of French Dominicans. In September 1838, Lacordaire returned to France to find candidates for the novitiate, as well as financial and political support for his project. He published an eloquent announcement in the journal "L’Univers." Appealing to the French people, and invoking the rights of Man, he requested support of religious freedom and of association, toward the reinvigoration of the Dominican Order in France.

His appeal began:

“My country,

Whilst you pursue with joy and sorrow the formation of the modern society, one of your children, Christian by faith, Father by traditional anointing of the Catholic Church, comes to reclaim from you his part in the freedoms that you have conquered and for which he himself has prayed... I am responsible to an authority which is the Queen of the world, which from time immemorial has proscribed laws, has made others, on which the charters themselves depend and whose stoppages, unaware of a day, end soon or late by executing themselves. It is to public opinion that I ask for protection and I ask for it against itself, if it needs it.”

In order to demonstrate the futility of anti-religious legislation put in place by the French Revolutionaries, Lacordaire underlined the evolution of religious life, showing that in the 19th century, it was from then on inconceivable to enter orders under compulsion, contrary to the practices that had currency before the French Revolution. Moreover, according to him, religious vows were not in opposition to the founding principals of the Revolution. First, for him the vow of obedience is only the highest expression of freedom, as it is simply consent to liberally elected superiors, whose decisions are strictly confined by the statutes of the order, avoiding thereby all abuse of power. The Dominican order has from its inception been governed democratically (as are most monastic & mendicant orders, all in imitation of the original 5th century monastic rule, that of St. Benedict.) This Catholic democratic tradition amongst monastics had existed long before the idea of universal adult suffrage ever crossed anyone’s mind in Europe. As for the vow of poverty, according to Lacordaire it was the radical, practical application of the revolutionary ideas of égalité and fraternité.

On 9 April 1839, Henri Lacordaire took up the Dominican habit at the convent of La Minerva in Rome, and so received the name Dominic. One year later, on 12 April 1840, after a yearlong novitiate at La Quercia near Viterbo, during which he wrote his life of Saint Dominic, he pronounced his vows at La Minerva. He then pursued his theological studies at Santa-Sabina, where his portrait was painted by Théodore Chassériau, a portrait often considered to be one of the most important works by its author. About this work, Lacordaire wrote to Madame Swetchine that: “M. Chassériau, a young painter of talent, has insistently asked me to do my portrait. He painted me in the Dominican habit, under the cloister of Santa-Sabina. I am generally satisfied with this painting, although it gives me a somewhat austere aspect.”

In 1841, he returned to France, in the Dominican habit, which was theoretically illegal according to revolutionary laws. On 14 February 1841, he preached successfully at Notre-Dame. Continuing his preaching in Paris, and throughout all France, Lacordaire undertook the foundation of several convents. The first house of the restoration of the Order in France was established in Nancy in 1834, followed by a novitiate at Chalais in 1844, and, in 1849 he established house of studies in Paris in a former Carmelite convent. At this era, Lacordaire also exerted an important influence on Jean-Charles Prince and Joseph-Sabin Raymond, two Canadians who took the Dominican Order to Canada.

In 1850, the Dominican Province of France was officially re-established under the direction of Father Lacordaire OP, who was elected provincial superior. He quickly met Father Alexandre Jandel, one of his first companions. Indeed, in 1850, Alexendre Jandel was named as general vicar of the order by the Pope Pius IX, admirer of the dynamism and rigor of the French Dominicans. Jandel was favorable to a severe interpretation of Dominican medieval constitutions and was opposed to Lacordaire’s more liberal vision. Conflict erupted in 1852, about the timetable of morning services and the night office in the priories (the Dominicans, as coenobitic monastics, generally pray an abridged form of the Liturgy of the Hours communally) and what some perceived as laxity. According to Lacordaire, who applied extremely severe discipline to himself, monastic life had to be subordinate to the responsibility of preaching and teaching and should not vitiate the freedom of individual friars. In 1855, the pope publicly affirmed his support for Jandel by naming him general master of the Dominican Order, whilst Lacordaire, then retired from administration of the province of France, was re-elected its head in 1858.

Final Years

The end of Father Lacordaire’s life was made somber by these internal controversies of the order and by the disappointments of political life. Indeed, because he was long hostile to the July Monarchy, he supported the Revolution of 1848 with enthusiasm, rallying to the support of the Republican Regime. He launched a new newspaper, with Frédéric Ozanam and the Abbot Maret, entitled "L'Ere Nouvelle" ("The New Era,") whose objectives were “to shore up Catholics’ confidence, and to help them to accept the new regime... [so as] to obtain for the Church the necessary freedoms which have been obstinately refused her for fifty years, arriving finally at a greater social equanimity, by uprooting the exclusive domination of all too preponderant economic, moral, and intellectual classes.” This program mixed traditional Liberal Catholicism (defense of the freedom of conscience and education) and Social Catholicism defended by Frédéric Ozanam.

After a tumultuous electoral campaign, Lacordaire was elected to the Assemblée Nationale as MP for the Marseille region. Favorable towards the Republic, he sat on the extreme left of the Assemblée, but soon quit on 17 May 1848, following workers' riots and the invasion of the Assemblée Nationale by demonstrators on the May 15.

He explained his conduct as follows:

“I saw in the Revolution of 1848 an act of great justice... I thought that a test of the Republican form was possible in France under better conditions that those of 1792. I sincerely accepted this was with this idea that I entered the Assemblée Nationale, and that I sat on the extreme left, so as immediately to give a sign of my adherence to the type of government that the force of things had just imposed on France...The 15 May weakened me to the foundations of my hopes. It brought to light for me the schemes and the passions that unerringly reach toward a Civil War, a profound, unavoidable, fierce fight, in which the extreme left would play a role for which I did not want, for anything on Earth, to take responsibility. The Monarchist parties raised their heads again; I did not want to serve them, I could not without compromising religion. I preferred to retire.”

Disappointed by the Republican regime, and in disagreement with the ever more socialist policies advocated by the “New Era,” he left the leadership of the newspaper on September 2, whilst continuing to support it.

Lacordaire showed himself to be rather favorable to the Italian Revolution of 1848, and by the same token to the invasion of the Papal States, (“We must not at all be too alarmed by the possible fall of Pius IX”, he wrote to Montalembert). He showed little enthusiasm for the Falloux law, voted into being on 25 March 1850, the work of his friend Montalembert, which established the freedom of secondary education, which he judged insufficient, and which had been supported by the Bishop of Orléans, Félix Dupanloup, against whom he held a long enmity. Opposed to the election of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, Lacordaire condemned his Coup d’État of the 2 December, 1851 without reserve, which seemed to him to be an intolerable outrage against freedom and all the values that he defended, in the name of order. He so chose to retire from public life, as he explained in 1861:

“I understood that in my thought, in my language, in my past, in what is left to me to come, I was also free and that my hour had come to disappear with the others. Many Catholics followed another line, and separating themselves from all they had said and done, threw themselves with ardor before absolute power. This schism that I do not want at all to call here an apostasy, has always been a great mystery to me and a great sadness.”

In this quasi-retirement, he dedicated himself up to his death to the education of youth, in the new framework set by the Falloux law, accepting in July 1852 the leadership of a school in Oullins, near Lyon, then another at the school of Sorèze in Tarn, in 1854. Finally, on 2 February 1860, he was elected by 21 voted to the Académie Française, seat 18, replacing the Earl Alexis de Tocqueville, whose eulogy he read. Encouraged by opponents of the Imperial Regime, supported by Montalembert and Berryer, received by Guizot, he agreed that he would not criticize Napoléon III’s radical intervention in Italian politics. Thus Lacordaire’s reception at the Académie was a mundane political event. Despite the opinions of the new Académicien, the reception took place in the presence of Empress Eugénie and Princess Mathilde.

It was during this final subdued act of his career that he uttered his famous epitaph: : "J'espère mourir un religieux pénitent et un libéral impénitent." (“I wish to die a penitent religious and impenitent liberal.”)

Lacordaire only sat once at the Adadémie. He died on 21 November 1861 in Sorèze, where he was buried. He was sixty years old.


*"Entre le fort et le faible, c’est la liberté qui opprime et la loi qui affranchit."
**(Translated: "Between the weak and the strong, it is freedom which oppresses and the law which sets free.")

*"Ce n'est pas génie, ni gloire, ni amour qui reflète la grandeur de l'âme humaine; c'est bonté."
**("It is not genius, nor glory, nor love that reflects the greatness of the human soul; it is kindness.")


Besides his "Eloges funèbres" (Drouot, O'Connell, and Mgr Forbin-Janson) he published:

*"Lettre sur le Saint-Siège";
*"Considérations sur le système philosophique de M. de Lamennais";
*"De la liberté d'Italie et de l'Eglise", "Vie de S. Dominique";
*"Sainte Marie Madeleine" (the two last-mentioned works are of slight historical value).

Mme Swetchune said of him: "On ne le connaítra que par ses lettres" (One only knows him by his letters). Eight volumes of these have been published, including his correspondence with Mme Swetchine and Mme de la Tour du Pin, and "Lettres à des Jeunes Gens", collected and edited by his friend Henri Perreyve in 1862 (tr. Derby, 1864; revised and enlarged ed. London, 1902).

Amongst Lacordaire's major works are his "Conferences" (tr. vol. I only, London, 1851), "Dieu et l'homme" in "Conférences de Notre Dame de Paris" (tr. London, 1872); "Jésus-Christ" (tr. London, 1869), "Dieu" (tr. London, 1870). [ [ "Catholic Encyclopedia" article "Jean-Baptiste-Henri Dominique Lacordaire"]

External link and reference

* Peter M. Batts, Henri-Dominique Lacordaire's Re-Establishment of the Dominican Order in Nineteenth-Century France, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2004.
* Peter M. Batts, "Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire." New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2003.
* T.B. Scannell:. [ "Jean-Baptiste-Henri Dominique Lacordaire"] . The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910.

ee also

* Our Lady of La Salette


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