The French preacher Jean Baptiste Henri Lacordaire (1802-1861) was a Roman Catholic priest known for his liberal social ideas. He reestablished in France a group of priests known as the Dominican order to carry on his intellectual work.
Jean Baptiste Lacordaire, born a Catholic in the eastern French town of Récey-sur-Ourse on May 12, 1802, lost his religious faith during his student years in Dijon. As a bright and articulate young lawyer, he continued searching for something that would give meaning to his life, and when he came to see that an intelligent belief in God was necessary for him, he left his law practice and entered a seminary.
By the time Lacordaire was ordained a priest in 1827, he had begun to apply his religious ideas to politics. He became convinced that the Church ought to disengage itself from the government so that it could be a stronger force for people's freedom. He also believed that adequate social reform, which he saw was so necessary in France, could come about only when people lived the full Christian truth. For a while he was part of a group of energetic French Catholic intellectuals led by the Abbé de Lamennais who argued these ideas in the journal L'Avenir, and he was bitterly disappointed when some of Lamennais's positions were condemned by Pope Gregory XVI in 1832.
Over a period of several years Lacordaire preached a series of clear and forceful sermons at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, which attracted many of the best minds in France to hear his provocative ideas. At the same time he was searching for the most effective vehicle to carry out the educational, social, and political reforms he knew were necessary. This, he finally decided, would be a religious group which had been suppressed in France since the Revolution. It was a fraternity of priests known as the Order of Preachers or Dominicans (after their 13th-century Spanish founder, St. Dominic), who were devoted primarily to an intellectual pursuit of truth.
Lacordaire went to Rome in 1838, joined the Dominicans, and spent several years in Italy learning their ideals and traditions. When he returned to Paris in 1841 and began preaching again at Notre Dame, his popularity was great enough to win the government's approval for the reinstatement of all religious orders. At one point Lacordaire was elected to the French National Assembly. When he died on Nov. 21, 1861, he was acknowledged as a man who had contributed greatly to France by his preaching and personal integrity and by establishing a dedicated group of men who continued his work.
The essay by Philip H. Spencer in Politics of Belief in Nineteenth Century France: Lacordaire, Michon, Veuillot (1954) is a vivid sketch of Lacordaire and his times. A more complete study, written by a member of Lacordaire's Dominican order, is Lancelot C. Sheppard, Lacordaire: A Biographical Essay (1964). See also M. V. Woodgate, Père Lacordaire: Leader of Youth (1939). □