Born in London in 1810 to am émigré French nobleman serving in the British Army, Charles Forbes René, comte de Montalembert was raised largely by his English grandfather, James Forbes. Although a devout Protestant, Forbes encouraged Charles in the Catholic faith of his father.
In 1819, the young Montalembert returned to France for school, and received his degree in Paris from the College Ste. Barbe in 1828. In the fall of 1830, at the suggestion of Father Félicité Robert de Lamennais, he joined the editorial board of L'Avenir, the fledgling journal dedicated as the organ of liberal Catholicism in France until 1832, when Pope Gregory XVI condemned some of the doctrines it embrace and it ceased publication.
In 1835, Montalembert succeeded to his father's seat in the Chamber of Peers, and was an active member until it was dispersed in the 1848 Revolution. Although offered a position as an advisor to Napoleon III, Montalembert broke with the regime when it confiscated the property of the Orléans family. At a noted Catholic congress in Malines, Belgium in 1863, Montalembert gave two long addresses on Catholic Liberalism, including “A Free Church in a Free State.” From this point on, Montalembert was increasingly isolated-both politically and by the Church for its too-close ties to the illiberal regime. He died in 1871.
Throughout his life Montalembert championed the relinquishing of power by the state, especially in the arena of religion and beliefs. He devoted himself to the independence of education from the state:
“I do not want to be constrained by the state to believe what it believes to be true, because the State is not the judge of truth. However the State is bound to protect me in the practice of the truth that I choose, that is to say, the exercise of the religion that I profess This is what constitutes religious freedom in the modern state, which the free state is bound to respect and guarantee, not only for each citizen in particular, but for groups of citizens joined together to profess and propagate their belief, that is to say, for corporation, for associations, and for churches.”