The French political writer Hugues Félicité Robertde Lamennais (1782-1854) was a former priest whose liberal political and religious ideas greatly agitated 19th-century France.
Félicité de Lamennais was born on June 19, 1782, into a well-to-do family in the town of Saint-Malo in Brittany. As a bright, sensitive young man, he was deeply impressed by the ideals as well as the horrors of the French Revolution. He gradually became convinced that social revolution must be accompanied by a firm religious faith. In 1816 he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest. Over the next 6 years Lamennais became widely known in Europe for his Essay on Indifference in Matters of Religion, in which he argued that a genuine improvement in man's social condition must be based on religious truth. Since the Roman Catholic Church possessed the fullest expression of religious truth, Europe's hope for a better future lay in accepting that Church's beliefs and structure.
Pope Leo XII invited Lamennais to Rome and offered to make him a cardinal. The passionate and dedicated young priest refused and returned to France, where, with a group of talented and equally dedicated disciples, including the Comte de Montalembert and Jean Baptiste Lacordaire, he started the journal L'Avenir (The Future) in 1830. The group pressed the Church's officials to renounce its connections with the government and take up instead the cause of the people. Lamennais wrote that the Church should support democratic and revolutionary movements wherever they appeared. Most of the French bishops, who owed their positions to an agreement the Pope had made with Napoleon, reacted strongly against Lamennais. His ideas were labeled subversive by the governments of both France and Austria, which joined with the bishops in pressuring the Pope to silence L'Avenir.
In 1832 Pope Gregory XVI issued an encyclical letter, Mirari vos, calling the ideas advocated in L'Avenir "absurd, and supremely dangerous for the Church." Lamennais, bitterly disappointed, submitted. But a year later, after the Pope had publicly supported the Russian Czar in suppressing the Polish peasants, he left the Church. In 1834 he wrote a short, biting book, Words of a Believer, in which he denounced all authority, civil as well as ecclesiastical. In the next decade his thinking moved further and further to the left. He believed in the moral superiority of the working class and foresaw a time when governments would be overthrown and the workers would rule. During his last years he spent time in prison and was also elected to the Chamber of Deputies. After his death in Paris on Feb. 27, 1854, Lamennais was buried without funeral rites, mourned by thousands of intellectual and political sympathizers around the world.
Peter N. Stearns, Priest and Revolutionary: Lamennais and the Dilemma of French Catholicism (1967), a perceptive portrait, is the best book on Lamennais in English. Alexander R. Vidler, Prophecy and Papacy: A Study of Lamennais, the Church, and the Revolution (1954), is an excellent scholarly study. See also W. J. Linton, Biography of Lamennais (1892). William Samuel Lilly wrote a lively essay on Lamennais, "A Nineteenth Century Savonarola," in Studies in Religion and Literature (1904).