Monday, April 21, 2014

Carol E. Harrison's "Romantic Catholics"

Carol E. Harrison is Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. She is the author of The Bourgeois Citizen in Nineteenth-Century France: Gender, Sociability, and the Uses of Emulation and coeditor of National Identity: The Role of Science and Technology.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Romantic Catholics: France's Postrevolutionary Generation in Search of a Modern Faith, and reported the following:
My goal in writing Romantic Catholics was to dismantle the historical stereotype of France’s Catholic Church as inevitably reactionary and reflexively opposed to everything that the French Revolution represented. Page 99 lands the reader in the center of one nineteenth-century Catholic community that made its peace with the Revolution and that proposed Catholicism as the creative antidote to modern individualism and alienation.

At the center of this group is Maurice de Guérin, a boy who at twelve wore a cassock to school, but who had, by age twenty, exchanged his clerical vocation for a poetic one. Newly graduated, Maurice couldn’t bring himself to choose a career, marry, and follow his father into respectable adulthood. Instead, he moved to Brittany to join a circle of male friends living with Félicité de Lamennais, the most prominent theologian of the postrevolutionary period.

Lamennais promised his followers that embracing Catholicism did not mean accepting the bitter, nostalgic, reactionary politics that leading clerics adopted in the wake of the French Revolution. “Monsieur Féli” assured Maurice that he could be a revolutionary of a sort too: together they would remake the church for the modern world, giving an ancient institution a glorious future. In their Breton retreat, the combination of male friendship and religious exaltation fueled Maurice’s lyrical poetry. The Breton estate was a sort of cross between a monastery and a think-tank: from their cloistered, loving community, the young men proposed to take on the modern world.

Historians like to think of Victorian domesticity as the dominant institution of the nineteenth century, with only a few rebels able to ignore its prescriptions. The family that Maurice and his friends established, however, suggests that the desire to escape the bourgeois household was actually quite widespread and that it included Catholics. In the early nineteenth century, many groups looked for new ways to organize family and society. Maurice and his friends, committed to fraternal affection, belong in the same company as their contemporaries, the utopian socialists and more radical religious groups like the Shakers or Mormons.
Learn more about Romantic Catholics at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue