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The work of Cardinal Mercier


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Juan Luis Lorda |

Professor of the School of theology

A particularly interesting chapter in Cardinal Mercier's life were the ecumenical conversations with representatives of the Anglican world. The "Mechelen conversations" occupied the last part of his life (1921-1926).

Desirée-Joseph Mercier (1851-1926) was a B professor of Philosophy, founder of high school of Philosophy of the University of Louvain and representative of neo-scholasticism. As archbishop of Mechelen (Brussels), he promoted the university and the training of the clergy, encouraged conversations with Anglicanism and intervened in the great affairs of the Church at the beginning of the 20th century.

Leo XIII (1810-1903) came to the pontificate (in 1878) at a fairly advanced age (67) and with thirty-two years of experience as bishop of Perugia (1846-1878) at a time of disagreements with Modernity. The Holy See had just lost the Papal States (1870), liberal regimes in half the world had fought against the Church for a century (and had expropriated it of everything they could), many Catholic institutions had collapsed or had been banned, although others were emerging. There was contestation and doctrinal unrest in the Catholic world due to the influence of new currents of thought. And nations were agitated by the tensions of the industrial revolution. Much encouragement and discernment was needed. And Leo XIII, despite his fragile appearance, had it.

The will of Leo XIII

In the first weeks, he already entered into all these important topics, thinking that his pontificate would be short (however, it would last twenty-five years, to his and others' surprise). And within a year he published Aeterni Patris (1879), recommending the Thomistic Philosophy in the ecclesiastical programs of study . He supported it with appointments of professors in Rome (Gregoriana, Antonianum) and abroad. He formally asked the Cardinal of Mechelen (Brussels) to endow a Chair of Thomistic Philosophy at the University of Louvain. This Catholic university had been refounded in 1834, and had survived well the debacle of the century.

The Belgian episcopate resisted for reasons of political expediency. But Leo XIII sent an Italian Dominican (Rossi) at his expense. Then they immediately looked for a Belgian candidate (and sent back the Dominican). Discarding great and difficult figures, the choice fell on a young professor and spiritual director of the minor seminar of Mechelen, Desirée-Joseph Mercier. He had just turned thirty and had to make himself respected (and make Thomism respectable) both in his own university and in the Belgian liberal circles, which were very critical of Catholicism.

Leo XIII invited him to Rome to comment on the program. And the classes began on October 27, 1883. By the will of the Pope they were obligatory for all the ecclesiastical students of the university. Doctoral students of Philosophy and letters also attended, and all lay students who wanted to. Mercier strove to acquire a good scientific training , especially in psychology (and physiology). And his lectures became famous. His disciples remember him as a documented, brilliant and welcoming teacher. He prepared notes for the students and turned them into textbooks. Some disciples joined him and he divided the courses.

The high school Superior de Philosophy

He kept Leo XIII informed. In 1887 he traveled to Rome and proposed to him to create in Louvain a Higher high school of Philosophy, distinct from the School of Philosophy and Letters, which had a historical and philological orientation. The Pope liked the idea and appointed him domestic prelate on the spot. On the other hand, the President of Louvain and orientalist Bishop Abbeloos, who had felt "bridged" from the beginning, opposed and created an opinion: this "medievalism" could not lead anywhere. The matter became tense. Mercier was even tempted to accept the proposal that came to him to transfer the project to the newly created Catholic University of Washington. But Leo XIII made it known that he supported him, and when Mercier proposed to create two Chairs, one for Philosophy and the other for propaedeutic sciences, he sent the funding and erected the high school (1889).

Mercier developed the courses and sought new professors, making sure that they were well informed both in the positive sciences and in medieval history (De Wulf). He obtained funding, built classrooms and also experimental psychology laboratories (in the style of Wundt). He wanted a "Superior" high school from Philosophy: not an elementary teaching . After a new interview with Leo XIII, he composed statutes defining the intellectual orientation of the high school and its relationship with the University. The President again objected, claiming this time that what was taught was modern science with a Thomistic veneer, and that it should be taught in Latin and not in French.

Mercier gave in on teaching in Latin for ecclesiastics, but not on orientation. He published Psychology (1892), Logic and Metaphysics (1894), and later a Criteriology. With this he would compose a Course of Philosophy in 4 volumes(Logic, General Metaphysics, Psychology, and Criteriology or general theory of certainty). He also published a essay on The Origins of Contemporary Psychology (1894). In 1894, he founded the Revue Néoescolastique, which later became the Révue Philosophique de Louvain.

Years of growth followed, stabilizing the Institute, which still exists at the University of Louvain. And he started a seminar (under the name of Leo XIII) to accommodate the students who came to him from all over the world.

An important experience

There is no doubt that Mercier had enormous capacities, nor that his challenge is still presented in almost the same terms. It can be observed that the direct mixture of Philosophy and experimental sciences (especially in his psychology) produces a rapid expiration, as the state of the sciences changes. This must be taken into account.

The work of St. Thomas is important to Christian philosophical thought for at least three reasons: it provides a Christian reinterpretation of the classical Philosophy , which partly composes our worldview (logic and metaphysics); it conveys important analyses of anthropology or rational psychology, which are of interest to ethics and to our own knowledge (intelligence, free act, affectivity, passions); and thirdly, it provides a vocabulary that belongs to the tradition of theology and is of interest to understand well.

On the one hand, it is important to transmit the Thomistic Philosophy (metaphysics, logic, cosmology, anthropology) in its historical context, so as not to alter its meaning. This is what Gilson did, for example. In a second moment, it is necessary to enter into dialogue with our knowledge of the world. The logic and anthropology (and ethics) transmitted by St. Thomas, in what they have of introspective knowledge, continue to have great force, although they may need complements or developments.

Whereas cosmology, our knowledge about the universe, has changed greatly with our ability to observe and understand it. This has repercussions on metaphysics, which universalizes our knowledge about being: it is more stable as far as intelligence is concerned and less so as far as subject. It is evident that it is not possible today to make a cosmology or a Philosophy of nature without taking into account what we know of the composition of the subject, of the origin of the universe or of the evolution of life. And this affects our idea of being (metaphysics).

It is certainly in the interest of those who dedicate themselves to these branches of the Philosophy in Christian contexts to have, at the same time, a good historical training , which allows them to access and preserve the original meaning, and, on the other hand, a good scientific training . And this, without rushing concordances.

Archbishop of Brussels

After the death of Leo XIII (1903), his successor, St. Pius X, elected him directly as Archbishop of Mechelen and Primate of Belgium (1906) and, the following year, Cardinal (1907). From the beginning he was committed to the training of the clergy. He preached many retreats for his priests (which are published), and founded a association to cultivate their spirituality(Priestly Fraternity of the Friends of Jesus). He also created a diocesan magazine. He supported the university and prepared professors looking for a high scientific level. He encouraged, for example, Georges Lemaître (who was a member of the Priestly Fraternity) to study physics and to be related to Eistein, and thus postulated his Big Bang theory.

In the pontificate of St. Pius X the modernist question arose. The Cardinal supported the Pope and described the status in an important lecture at the University(Modernism). But he also contributed to overcome misunderstandings (Lagrange, Blondel); he tried to soften the canonical status of Laberthonniére and to dialogue with Tyrrell, for example.

Moreover, since 1909, he supported Dom Lambert Beaudoin in his spirit of liturgical renewal, which sought a greater participation of the faithful, and also in his efforts of ecumenical openness. He also supported the growth of Catholic Action and was very interested in the social question.

The Great War (1914-1918)

In 1914, with a kind of suicidal naivety and without any means to prevent it, the European nations entered into a brutal war that wiped out at once four empires, perhaps a fifth of Europe's youthful population and, incidentally, the enlightened myth of progress.

In the first moves, Germany invaded by surprise the neutral Belgium to attack France. And it punished harshly the isolated reaction of the Belgian resistance, systematically bombing towns and Louvain itself, where the cathedral, the university, the Library Services... Cardinal Mercier was caught in Rome, where he had attended the funeral of St. Pius X and the conclave. On his return (December 1914), he walked through the enormous wreckage and wrote a harsh pastoral to be read in all the churches, with the degree scroll Patriotism and endurance(Patriotisme et endurance), which can be found online.

He praises patriotism as a Christian virtue, values the submission of the soldiers who have given their lives for their country, encourages the population to support the Belgian government, the king and the army in exile. He declares that the invading government is illegitimate, that only those laws that are necessary for the common good and public order should be obeyed, but asks that no unnecessary violence be done beyond that which concerns the Belgian army.

The German military command tried to prevent the dissemination, seized the copies and threatened the parish priests, but fearing repercussions among German Catholics, it held the cardinal for only a few hours. The documentation and correspondence are preserved. In those moments, the cardinal represented the honor of the nation. However, the Holy See asked him to moderate his political expressions. At the end of the war, he became a national hero in Belgium, but also in England and the United States. He made a triumphant trip to the United States (1919), where, among other things, he obtained generous aid for the reconstruction of the University of Louvain.

The great cardinal

Since then, Mercier has been a figure with an immense influence throughout the Catholic world. And he made himself to the role. It is necessary to understand him. He was not a Renaissance cardinal who built baroque palaces. He was a cardinal of the Church at a time of enormous weakness before the States. Prestige was needed to be heard. He acquired it and used it for the good of the Church. Even the Holy See wanted him to intervene, after the war, in the Treaty of Versailles to resolve the painful question of the Papal States, but he could do nothing. At his death, the Belgian government granted him a state funeral with full honors (old recordings exist online).

The density of the period and of the character himself has meant that the biography he deserves does not yet exist. There is a first sketch by the canonical A. Simon, Le cardinal Mercier. And Roger Aubert, a great historian of the University of Louvain, dedicated to him an important collection of programs of study, collected on the occasion of Aubert's own eightieth birthday: Le cardinal Mercier (1851-1926). Un prelat d'avant-garde. They have helped me to compose this portrait. Apart from other specialized programs of study .

Some features

He is accused of haughtiness and misunderstanding of the Flemish sector in Belgium. The question has been studied and needs a lot of nuances. On the other hand, despite his cardinal's pose, he was a person of sober tastes. Especially during the war and post-war period, he did not want to be out of tune with the hardships of his people, and for example, he dispensed with heating and simplified food as much as possible.

He was devoted to the Sacred Heart, the Holy Spirit, Our Lady and the Eucharist. And from what can be deduced from his correspondence he had a Christian reaction to the many misunderstandings and difficulties of his life. In his last years he was very interested in promote the proclamation of the dogma of the universal mediation of Mary and had conversations with the pontiffs and many theologians.

The Mechelen talks

A particularly interesting chapter were the ecumenical conversations with representatives of the Anglican world. They occupied the last part of his life (1921-1926). Pombal's friendship with Lord Halifax, a well-known Anglican nobleman who aspired to the unity of the Church. They went to the Cardinal to see what could be done. After informing the Holy See, and without advertising, conversations took place between Catholic and Anglican theologians to study the difficulties in common: the question of the value of Anglican ordinations, of the episcopate and of the sacraments. And especially, the exercise of the Roman Primacy. It was noted that an attempt could be made to approach the exercise of the first millennium.

The Cardinal's death left the matter at Fail, but those conversations were an important precedent in the ecumenical thrust of the Second Vatican Council, and formulated questions and approaches that continue to shed light.