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Françoise Fauconnet-Buzelin, Un évêque au pays des Talapoins, Louis Laneau, 1637-1696

Paris, Éditions du Cerf, 2021, 400 p.
Michel Chambon
p. 205-207
Référence(s) :

Françoise Fauconnet-Buzelin, Un évêque au pays des Talapoins, Louis Laneau, 1637-1696, Paris, Éditions du Cerf, 2021, 400 p.

Texte intégral

1In this third study dedicated to one founding figure of the Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP), Françoise Fauconnet-Buzelin offers a crucial contribution to the historiography of not only the MEP but also to Catholic missions across Asia and Franco-Siamese relations. From 1669 until his death in 1696, Louis Laneau (1637-1696) was a missionary in Siam. With Pierre Lambert de la Motte and François Pallu, he is one of the early figures of the French missionary society created to oversee Apostolic Vicariates of the Far East. Yet, despite his linguistic skills and sophisticated writings, the dominant historiography has long considered him as a secondary actor, plagued by poor health, extreme modesty, and indecisiveness. Depicted as a charitable bishop unable to keep up with the political forces of his time, he has often been held responsible for the failure of the French embassies in Siam and the lack of Christian converts in the region. Yet, relying on the rich MEP archives and in dialogue with a renewed MEP interest in Louis Laneau, François Fauconnet-Buzelin challenges this narrative and provides a detailed and nuanced account of his pastoral work, spiritual journey and political positioning in Siam.

2The book is structured in three parts, each covering one historical period of Laneau’s life. The first section introduces his French background, his initiation to missionary work in Siam and his early episcopal years as Apostolic Vicar. The second section covers the period starting with the death of Pierre Lambert de la Motte (15 June 1679), one founding father of the French mission, and ending with the second French embassy to Siam (1687). Fauconnet-Buzelin highlights how the bishop of Metellopolis, Louis Laneau, responded to the challenging presence of French diplomatic envoys who tried to subjugate the Asian kingdom. Finally, the third section explores Laneau’s last and most difficult years. It includes his captivity after the Siamese revolution of 1688, the destruction of the Catholic mission and Laneau’s partial political rehabilitation during his final years. Through a very pleasant writing style filled with extensive quotations from Laneau, Fauconnet-Buzelin unveils the strength, constancy, and skills of the French bishop to highlight his coherence and resilience.

3As the author rightfully shows, one who wants to discuss Laneau’s legacy must understand the MEP project. This missionary society was both a product of 17th century French Catholicism and a disruptive force within Asian Catholic missions. This group of secular priests was established by the Holy See in 1659 to strengthen local missions and overcome the limitations of the Padroado. In this complex modernization of global Catholicism in which Rome played a growing but contradictory role, it is often tempting to contrast the MEP with their predecessors – the Jesuits and the mendicants – and to simplify their style and action. Fauconnet-Buzelin overcomes this by highlighting Laneau’s distinct temper and theological approach, which introduced an alternative voice to the early DNA of the MEP and the Siamese mission.

4Rooted in the French school of spirituality, the bishop of Metellopolis prioritized radical humility, charitable visits to the poor, medical help and in-depth fraternal dialogue with Buddhist monks over the prestige of Western sciences and techniques as well as political involvement. Challenging a French historiography unwilling to consider the spiritual dimension of historical actors, Fauconnet-Buzelin argues that Laneau’s religiosity is essential to understand his capacity to develop a personal relationship with two Siamese sovereigns and high-ranking Buddhist monks while being unable to halt political intrigues and internal conflicts between Catholic religious orders.

5Overall, this detailed account of Laneau's life stands as a stimulating invitation to revisit the historiography of the MEP. With a growing number of scholars from various geographic and disciplinary backgrounds joining the field of MEP Studies, this new biography of Laneau will necessarily complexify scholarly conversations on the early years of the missionary society, its role in the modernization of Catholicism and its impact on Asian Catholicism. For instance, as discourses on the Chinese Rites Controversy have often portrayed the French missionary society as a religious force opposed to politico-religious adaptions and inculturation, Fauconnet-Buzelin shows how Laneau’s actions and teachings contradict this. Laneau was one of the very first Western missionaries with a sophisticated and benevolent understanding of Buddhism in Siam, and who developed a theology open to the salvation of non-baptized people. Similarly, while the MEP claims that one of their core missions has been the production of an Asian clergy, Fauconnet-Buzelin shows that Laneau's commitment to seminarians was quite an exception. Since their beginning, most MEP have been reluctant to spend their lives teaching within religious schools and seminaries. Indeed, generating an Asian clergy was not an obvious or appealing task. Moreover, this MEP contradiction is essential for analyzing the shadow of Western patronage over the modern development of Asian Catholicism.

6Nonetheless, even though one can only praise the author for her efforts to bring forward the cautious, humble, and spiritual voice of Laneau, one must also acknowledge that most of her sources are from the MEP archives. If it makes sense to mobilize the rich material conserved by the missionary society, and letters written directly by Laneau, the reader wonders about alternative sources that necessarily exist within the archives of the Holy See, the French diplomatic services and Jesuit libraries – to name just a few.

7These alternative sources might not be needed to capture the temper and spirituality of Laneau – as Fauconnet-Buzelin skillfully does – but would be essential to better understand the politico-ecclesiastical context in which he was evolving. In the first section of the book, for instance, Fauconnet-Buzelin tends to present the Padroado in a negative light. Yet, there is no systematic discussion of its initial logic, internal functioning, or historical evolution, nor an engagement with scholarly debates on these matters. While this politico-religious system linked to the Spanish and Portuguese crowns was essential for the modern globalization of Latin Catholicism, the French MEP represents an alternative response by the Holy See, an ethnic, theological, and political innovation that requires further inquiry. In other words, dismissing the value and importance of the Padroado is ultimately detrimental to understanding of the bishop of Metellopolis and the internal transformation of 17th century Catholicism.

8Finally, this vivid and overdue portrait of Louis Laneau frequently refers to a theoretical opposition between political and evangelical motivations that needs to be discussed. Unlike the Jesuits and the mendicants, the French missionaries were sent to newly discovered lands to preach the Gospel without getting involved in politics. Fauconnet-Buzelin seems to imply that evangelization and politics could be easily distinguished and eventually opposed. Still, she shows how the founding fathers of the MEP were never able to ignore the political implications of their actions and eventually became involved in state-to-state dialogues, diplomatic services and royal courts. Thus, one needs to question the MEP’s political agenda and how their foundation enacted a renewed approach to civil authorities by the Holy See. While this missionary society of secular priests was designed to deploy a new political theology to counterbalance the influence of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns, the MEP also played a central role in structuring authority within expanding ecclesial networks and in promoting the Holy See’s role among emerging nation-states. Thus, the French fathers did not simply separate God and Caesar. They rather helped at reconfiguring ecclesial leadership and the ways Catholicism engaged with modernizing Asian states.

9Nonetheless, this biography of Louis Laneau is essential for researchers interested in the MEP, the history of Asian Catholicism and French-Siamese relationships. One can only benefit from the richness of its sources and the quality of its writing.

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Référence papier

Michel Chambon, « Françoise Fauconnet-Buzelin, Un évêque au pays des Talapoins, Louis Laneau, 1637-1696 », Archives de sciences sociales des religions, 200 | 2022, 205-207.

Référence électronique

Michel Chambon, « Françoise Fauconnet-Buzelin, Un évêque au pays des Talapoins, Louis Laneau, 1637-1696 », Archives de sciences sociales des religions [En ligne], 200 | octobre-décembre 2022, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 20 avril 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/assr/68478 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/assr.68478

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Michel Chambon

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