Comte de Montalembert

The French political writer Charles Forbes, Comte de Montalembert (1810-1870), was a Roman Catholic layman who wrote and spoke widely in favor of democratic government and vigorously opposed the union of church and state.

Charles de Montalembert was born in London on April 15, 1810, while his father, who had left France after the Revolution, was serving in the English army. His father returned to France in 1814, when the monarchy was restored, and was raised to the peerage, but Charles stayed behind in the care of his Protestant English grandfather. From this independent and outspoken gentleman Charles absorbed a religious spirit and a zest for learning that he retained for the rest of his life.

Charles was a liberal and could not support the government of Louis Philippe on religious grounds. As a student in France in the 1820s, he began to see more clearly that the Church should be free and on the side of the people rather than under the control of the kings. Much of France's trouble, he felt, came from the close association of the Roman Catholic Church with the French government. In 1830 he collaborated with Félicité de Lamennais, a liberal priest, and Jean Baptiste Lacordaire, an articulate preacher, in publishing a journal called L'Avenir, dedicated to "God and Liberty." The journal argued that the Church ought to cut itself off from the government's support. The opposition to L'Avenir from conservative French bishops brought Montalembert, Lamennais, and Lacordaire to Rome in 1831 to argue their case before Pope Gregory XVI—unsuccessfully, as it turned out. Most of L'Avenir's doctrines were condemned in two encyclicals by the Pope: Mirari vos (1832) and Singulari vobis (1834). Montalembert sadly submitted.

Montalembert continued to speak and write, however, and he began a newspaper, Correspondant, to provide a public forum for his ideas, which were a mixture of Catholic belief and liberal politics. Over the years he consistently taught that the Church should live without special privileges and that it should support democratic movements. He said that slavery should be outlawed and was opposed to the French colonial empire. He also worked hard to establish Catholic schools so that the government would not have a monopoly on education. In 1837 Montalembert was elected to the French Parliament; after the Revolution of 1848 he sat in the Chamber of Deputies; and in 1851 he was honored by being named to the French Academy. He was recognized as a formidable opponent of the empire.

An international congress in Malines, Belgium, in 1863 heard Montalembert's memorable speech calling for Catholics to embrace democracy rather than fear it. But his hopes for his Church were crushed a year later, when Pope Pius IX declared in his Syllabus of Errors that it was wrong to say the Pope should "reconcile himself … with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization." Montalembert died in Paris on March 13, 1870.

Further Reading on Comte de Montalembert

An account by Montalembert's contemporary Margaret Oliphant, Memoir of Count de Montalembert (1872), is a somewhat dated but interesting personal study. The best book in English on Montalembert is James C. Finlay, The Liberal Who Failed (1968). Charles S. Phillips, The Church in France, 1848-1907: A Study in Revival (1936), contains a helpful assessment of the contributions of Montalembert and his associates.