Lessons from France's anti-religious purge
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“We protest most vehemently against the proposal of the law, its passage, and promulgation; and we attest that there is nothing at all of importance in it to weaken the laws of the Church, which cannot be changed by the laws of men.” 

Sound familiar? With a little tweaking, that might pass as a statement from the American bishops assailing President Barack Obama administration’s plan for forcing religious institutions to become part of a system for providing contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs via their health plans. In fact, though, it comes from a 1906 encyclical by Pope St. Pius X denouncing French legislation that dealt a grave and deliberate blow to the Church. 

Rhetoric aside, both episodes reflect the clash between Catholicism and the secular state that’s a recurring feature of modern times. Despite the differences, the church-state struggle in France at the turn of the last century tells us some important things about church-state tensions in America now. 

French laïcité — secularism, that is — was pressed by politicians who were proudly anticlerical. Few politicians, judges, journalists or other shapers of opinion in today’s America would claim that distinction for themselves. But worldviews, values and policy positions in both cases have fundamental likenesses. A positive take on religion’s place in public life was not and is not among them. 

Speaking in Rome to American bishops making ad limina visits on Jan. 19 — the day before the Obama administration announced its contraception mandate — Pope Benedict XVI urged American Catholics to “realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism.” The shared lesson of the struggles in France a century ago and in America now is that secularist ideology is wholly serious about bending religion to the will of the state. 

‘Crushing’ the Church

Intellectual groundwork for the 19th century culture wars that racked continental Europe — not only in France but in Germany, Italy, Spain and other places — was laid by the rationalistic Enlightenment of the 18th century. Ecrasez l’infame — “Crush the infamous one” — thundered the most prominent publicist of Enlightenment thinking, Voltaire. He meant crush traditional religion and especially the Catholic Church. The sentiment was widely shared. 

Beginning in 1789, the pent-up fury of the French Revolution toppled the French monarchy and came close to toppling the Catholic Church in France. Hundreds of clergy and religious lost their lives for rejecting a loyalty oath to the secular state over the pope. These included 527 priests who perished in French prison ships in the 1790s. 

Napoleon imposed a measure of stability on France and gave the Church a concordat or formal treaty with the Vatican that provided the framework for relations between the Church and the state from 1801 all the way to 1906. The reign of Napoleon III in middle years of the century saw a kind of church-state honeymoon. 

But that ended with the arrival in 1870 of the Third Republic, ushering in a time of church-state strife. Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) sought peace with the French secularists now running the country, and his 1885 encyclical Immortale Dei (“The Immortal Work of God”) expressed approval for democracy and a moderate version of separation of church and state. But ultra-conservative French Catholics rejected the papal policy. In the end it failed in France, while strongly influencing church-state relations elsewhere, including the United States. 

Much of the secularists’ program now was aimed at Catholic schools and the religious orders operating them. 

Religious representatives were forced off the Council for Public Instruction, and recognition was withdrawn from Catholic universities. The Jesuits were expelled from France and their property was seized. Other religious orders were given three months to seek government recognition, with those that failed to receive it facing dissolution. Other laws forced religious instruction out of lower schools, suppressed the theological faculties of universities, subjected seminarians to military service, abolished military and hospital chaplaincies, and forbade religious sisters to serve as hospital nurses. 

The Dreyfus Affair, which began in 1894, was still another blow — a self-inflicted one — for the Church. A Jewish army officer named Alfred Dreyfus had been convicted and sent to prison for supposedly spying for the Germans. (The real spy was another officer who was not a Jew.) Church leaders took no official position on the case, but anti-Semitism was a fact in the French military establishment and many Catholics were strongly anti-Dreyfus — a further embarrassment for the Church. 

The turn of the century brought a fresh round of persecution, with ex-seminarian and active freemason Émile Combes leading the charge as prime minister. Shortly before Pope Leo’s death in 1903, a French cardinal tried to console him, saying, “France is not an anti-religious country. It’s only a small group who are persecutors.” To which the aged pope replied, “No doubt. But they are the masters; and they are let to do it.” 

Formal separation

Leo XIII was succeeded by Pius X, and the policy of accommodation gave way to a new papal policy of unbending resistance. In July 1904 the French Chamber of Deputies broke off diplomatic relations with the Holy See. December 1905 brought a new “Law Concerning the Separation of the Churches and the State.” 

Largely the handiwork of Aristide Briand, who was to serve several times as prime minister and to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, the law ended the public stipends paid to the clergy for a century in compensation for income lost because of the French Revolution. But its central provision was a declaration that Church property — including the churches French Catholics had built and worshiped in for generations — belonged to the state. The administration of church buildings was to be handed over to new religious associations, made up of laypeople, which would manage them. 

Pope Pius’ reply was the encyclical Vehementer Nos, quoted at the start of this article. August 1906 brought a second encyclical, Gravissimo, forbidding Catholics to cooperate in setting up or operating the religious associations that were supposed to manage churches. 

Whether prudent or not, the move was in character for this saintly, resolute pontiff. Someone once asked Pope Pius X how an archbishop of Paris could function without a house, money, or a church. His reply was that as pope he could appoint a Franciscan archbishop, already obliged by the rule of his order to live by begging. 

Since, thanks to the pope, there were no religious associations to assume control of church property, in December 1906 the government simply forced bishops and priests out of their homes and seminarians out of their seminaries. Even so, most of the clergy managed to find shelter one place or another, while strenuous efforts to raise money kept a few seminaries operating. In the years that followed, it was even possible to build some churches in the suburbs of large cities, and the government, bowing to reality, adopted legislation to keep some churches open and running. 

For the Church, the big plus of the whole episode lay in the fact that under the new arrangement the government swore off involvement in appointments to the hierarchy. For the first time in the history of France, and for the first time in any of Europe’s historically Catholic countries except Ireland, the pope had a free hand to name bishops without interference from the state. Secularization apparently had some advantages. 

British historian Michael Burleigh sums the situation up this way: “The Church that emerged from the separation was considerably poorer than its predecessor. … Some communes were assiduous in maintaining church buildings; others allowed them to decay. … It took several decades for a body of customs to accrete as to how relations between Church and state would function in these novel circumstances.” 

And it took a war to bring about anything like reconciliation — the conflict in question being World War I, which brought conservative French Catholics and anticlerical French republicans together in France’s hour of need. Nearly 33,000 priests served in combat, as stretcher bearers and nurses, and as chaplains in the field while another 12,500 worked in military hospitals. Of this group, 4,618 priests died in battle and more than 13,000 received military decorations. Whatever doubts there might have been about the patriotism of the French clergy, numbers like these put an end to it. 

In the nine decades since then, French church-state relations under the vaunted policy of laïcité have generally been stable. But the relationship, like much else in France, was put to the test in World War II. Besides pursuing a policy of collaboration with the victorious Germans, the French Vichy regime under World War I hero Marshal Philippe Petain encouraged traditional values, religion among them, whose neglect was held to be responsible for the French military collapse in 1940. Many Church leaders supported the Vichy government as a result. 

None of this made for warm church-state relations in the postwar years, and the Vatican dealt with the delicate situation by sending a veteran diplomat, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli — later Pope John XXIII — to France to straighten things out. He accomplished his mission with notable success. 

Today France, like most other European countries, is a secularized society as well as a place where some 85 percent of the people are baptized Catholics but the vast majority don’t practice the faith. (The only religion really flourishing in France right now may be Islam.) 

Statistics show an ongoing numerical decline in French Catholicism. Between 1996 and 2006, the number of baptisms annually fell 19 percent, from 421,285 to 344,852. Similar declines occurred in Catholic marriages (down more than 28 percent, from 124,362 to just over 89,000), diocesan priests (from 27,781 to 20,523, a drop of 26 percent), men religious (from approximately 15,000 to 8,388 — down 44 percent), and religious women (from 53,000 to 40,577 — down 23.4 percent). 

Many factors besides the church-state clashes of the 19th and early 20th centuries have helped cause this situation. But it’s hard not to think those ancient conflicts set the stage, not only by laws and policies but, perhaps even more, by giving preferment to attitudes toward religion ranging from indifference to hostility. 

High-stakes struggle

The history of church-state relations in the United States is vastly different. America has no significant history of anti-religious violence to compare with the French Revolution nor, up to this time, has there been a high-visibility government campaign of secularist origin directed against the Church. 

Instead, thanks to the First Amendment’s twin religious guarantees — freedom of worship and non-interference by government in internal religious affairs — and to the American tradition of tolerance, religion has found a congenial home here. For the most part, that has been eminently true of the Catholic Church. 

Starting in the 1960s, though, America has moved in the direction of secularism. Religion and religious practice remain far stronger here than in many Western nations.  

But the dominant secular culture — that elitist entity which controls the great universities, the national media, the major foundations and think tanks — is today unabashedly secularized. American courts have moved to widen the gap between church and state by expelling prayer from public schools and looking askance at other forms of church-state cooperation. 

This can now be seen even among politicians. In one notorious instance, candidate Barack Obama, speaking at a San Francisco fundraiser in 2008, said of blue-collar whites who didn’t support him: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them … ” Obama, a Christian himself, has been more careful since then in what he says about religion and other sensitive matters, but his pro-abortion policies and his administration’s backing for same-sex marriage have placed him and the Church on a collision course. 

Thus the controversy over the contraception mandate is far from being the first church-state conflict of the Obama years, but it is easily the most serious one. The plan was announced in January by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Responding to protests a month later, President Obama sketched what he called an “accommodation.” Many religious groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, find it an intolerable violation of religious liberty. 

If that analysis is correct, the stakes in the present struggle — not in isolation from everything else, of course, but in the context of other conflicts and trends — are a lot higher than has generally been recognized so far. Voltaire and St. Pius X would understand. American Catholics may be starting to catch on. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.