Lacordaire was born on May 12, 1802, near the French town of Dijon. In spite of his parents’ fervent religious devotion, young Lacordaire remained atheistic until a profound religious experience forced him from a career in law into divinity. After completing seminary, he accepted a teaching position and was appalled at his students’ relative disregard for religion. In an effort to revive public affection for the Roman Catholic Church, he argued for its freedom from state assistance and protection in L’Avenir, a newspaper with which he collaborated. He later accepted the pulpit at the famed Cathedral of Notre Dame, where the strength of his oratory drew thousands of laymen to worship. His other momentous achievement was the restoration of the Dominican order in France, an institution that the French Revolution had largely subverted. He died on November 21, 1861.
At the heart of all of Lacordaire’s endeavors was a concerted effort to correct the flawed assumptions concerning the Catholic Church held by revolutionaries. Radical individualism had so possessed the masses that they deemed threatening any body of authority, including the church. “So long as this spirit exists,” Lacordaire argued the year of his death, “liberalism will be vanquished by an oppressive democracy or by unbridled autocracy, and this is why the union of liberty and Christianity is the sole possible salvation of the future. Christianity alone can give liberty its real nature, and liberty alone can give Christianity the means of influence necessary to it.” Thus, the state must also cease its control of education, the press, and labor in order to allow Christianity to effectively flourish in those arenas.
Lacordaire insisted that liberty without obedience was nothing more than autonomy. An autonomous collective could not engender moral creatures, and devotion to moral imperatives supported by “a common and sacred law” was vital to the establishment of justice. Morality demands that one be dutiful to a higher order, not self-absorbed in the rhetoric of rights. The perpetrators of the French Revolution had mistakenly equated the existence of human rights with liberty. The emotive rallying cry–“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!“”paid no heed to the duties required by God, the founder and preserver of society. According to Lacordaire, this anarchic sensibility could not support a social order: “Whoever does not love God has by that alone a permanent cause of aversion toward the social state, which could not do without God.”
Hero of Liberty image attribution: Théodore Chassériau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons