The French Revolution And Catholicism In The 18th Century by Christopher Dawson

July 11, 2011

The advance of the Enlightenment weakened the influence of religion on culture, especially the influence of the Catholic religion on French culture. And French culture enjoyed such a cosmopolitan influence in the 18th century that its example was followed by the rest of Europe, with the exception of England. The influence of the Enlightenment, it is true, was mainly confined to the educated classes, and the great mass of the peasant population everywhere remained faithful to its religious beliefs and traditions. To a superficial observer the Church still held a dominant position in Catholic Europe. It was surrounded by wealth and privilege and its constitutional position in the different countries gave it a power of control over education and publishing which seemed to render it immune to criticism.

Nevertheless in the course of a few years all this was completely changed. In France it lost its privileged position and became an outlawed and persecuted society. In Germany and Italy the independence of the ecclesiastical states was destroyed, the monasteries were dissolved, Church property was secularized, and finally in Italy the Pope was deprived of his temporal power and was expelled from Rome and brought a prisoner to France.

All this was the result of the French Revolution. Obviously it was much more than a political revolution: it was a reformation of an even more fundamental kind than the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The latter, even in its most revolutionary moments, asserted its loyalty to the Gospel and the Christian faith, but the Revolution was more far-reaching and swept away the entire structure of organized Christian institutions so far as it was possible to do so.

But the two movements resemble one another in that they were spiritual revolutions which changed every side of life — political, social, and religious — the Reformation being primarily a religious movement that was linked with great political and social changes, and the Revolution primarily a political movement which was founded on an ideology which involved fundamental religious and moral principles.

We speak of the “French” Revolution as we do of the “German” Reformation, but they were both of them European movements which affected the whole of Western culture. Both of them were highly complex. In both of them we see the most exalted ideals coexisting with materialist motives, the most enlightened principles and the narrowest intolerance, utopian milleniarism and the will to power. In the case of the French Revolution it is possible to distinguish a number of different factors — some of which seem to contradict one another, but which all played an essential part in the historical process.

First there is the political factor. Everyone from the king downwards recognized the need for a reform of the state. In the days of Louis XIV and Colbert, France had been the leader in the creation of the centralized national state. But in the 18th century she had failed to maintain this leadership. The monarchy had become inefficient, not because it was too strong but because it was too weak. The Revolution attempted to cure this paralysis by a complete reorganization of government and administration; first, (a) according to the principle of Liberal Constitutionalism, (b) then by democracy and popular dictatorship and (c) finally by the military imperialism of Napoleon. Thus the wheel of revolution had traversed a complete circle and France was back again in the old tradition of centralized monarchy — more centralized and more absolute than ever, though more democratic in so far as the Bourbon monarch had been replaced by a band of successful generals.

The second factor in the Revolution is represented by the Enlightenment, which, as we have seen, had prepared the way for it by half a century of criticism and propaganda which spared neither institutions nor beliefs. The Enlightenment is most completely represented by the group of intelligentsia which called themselves “the philosophes” and organized the publication of the French Encyclopedia in the middle of the century. Their propaganda was directed above all against the Church and all forms of organized religion, and it was not primarily concerned with political change. But its unbounded faith in the unlimited power of reason to change human behavior and social institutions lies at the root of the whole program of legislative reform during the early years of the Revolution.

It is true that this belief in the power of reason was not confined to the philosophes alone, but was shared by the very influential group of the Economists, the disciples of Quesnay and Gournay. These were not irresponsible men of letters, but serious administrators and statesmen, and they were equally representative of the spirit of the Enlightenment in their unbounded faith in the possibility of the immediate transformation of society by radical reforms.

But the most important element in the revolutionary ideology had its origin not in the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but in the movement of democratic idealism which had many of the characteristics of a new religion and which in fact became for a few decisive years the established religion of the French Republic. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, its originator, was a typical example of that restless, perpetually dissatisfied class — the revolutionary intelligentsia. Like so many of his successors he was a man of religious instincts who had lost his religious roots, and who laid the blame for his own unhappiness and instability on the disordered state of the society in which he lived. He was a moral optimist and a historical pessimist, asserting the goodness of man and nature and the corruption of contemporary society. Yet at the same time he was ready to idealize the State and he was prepared to offer it unlimited homage, if only the will of the people could be substituted for the authority of the law, and the doctrines of the Churches replaced by the religion of nature and natural morality.

Yet in spite of this radical breach with historical Christianity, there is no doubt that Rousseau’s social idealism was a reaction against the secularization of the modern state and an attempt to recover that sense of spiritual community which Christian society possessed in the past. For Rousseau’s fundamental principle of the equality of man is a spiritual principle analogous to the doctrine of Christian fellowship rather than to the political rights of a citizen, and the related principle of fraternity is obviously derived from the Christian combination of Christian fellowship with charity rather than from the political relation of citizenship to civil behavior or public spirit.

It was Rousseau who transformed the natural religion of the philosophers into a religious cult which appealed to something deeper than reason in human nature. And thus it was under the influence of Rousseau’s ideals that the French Revolution was hailed as the regeneration of humanity, and the democracy of the First French Republic was felt to be more than a state — a spiritual community, the Church of the new humanity. Wordsworth has described, as a witness and partaker of the emotions of the time, how the birth of democracy transformed the “meagre, stale, forbidding ways” of politics by the breadth of a new spiritual life so that he “found benevolence and blessedness / spread like a fragrance everywhere, when spring / hath left no corner of the land untouched” — a power which united the poet and the man of action in a common task,

Not in Utopia — subterranean fields
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us — the place where in the end,
We find our happiness or not at all!

Thus to the men of 1789 the essence of the Revolution was to be found not in financial or even constitutional reform, but in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which marked a new era in the history of humanity. They felt, like Thomas Paine, who wrote as Lafayette’s spokesman to the English-speaking world:

In the Declaration of Rights we see the solemn and majestic spectacle of a Nation opening its commission, under the auspices of its Creator, to establish a government, a scene so new, and so transcendently unequalled by anything in the European world, that the name of a Revolution is diminutive of its character, and it rises into a Regeneration of Man

Government founded on a moral theory of universal peace, on the indefeasible hereditary Rights of Man, is now revolving from West to East by a stronger impulse than the Government of the sword revolved from East to West. It interests not particular individuals but Nations in its progress and promises a new era to the human race.

Thus the French Revolution falls into place as part of a world revolution which would restore to mankind the original rights of which it had been robbed at the very dawn of history by the tyranny of kings and priests.

Never did so great an opportunity offer itself to England, and to all Europe, as is produced by the two Revolutions of America and France. By the former, freedom has a national champion in the western world; and by the latter, in Europe. When another Nation shall join France, despotism and bad government will scarcely dare to appear. To use a trite expression, the iron is becoming hot all over Europe. The insulted German and the enslaved Spaniard, the Russ and the Pole, are beginning to think. The present age will hereafter merit to be called the Age of Reason, and the present generation will appear to the future as the Adam of a new world.

This new faith was indeed destined to change the world, but it changed it by unleashing forces of social revolution which were very different from anything the liberal reformers had imagined. For the liberal aristocracy and the bourgeoisie who had launched the Revolution were not the People, and in some respects were even further from the People than the clergy and the provincial nobility who remained faithful to the old order.

Behind the liberal aristocrats and lawyers who formed the majority of the States General lay the vast anonymous power of the people which had made the monarchy and had been in turn shaped by it, and now it was to make the Revolution. To the Liberal idealists — men like Lafayette and Clermont Tonnerre, the Abbe Fauchet and the orators of the Gironde  — the Revolution meant the realization of the ideals of the Enlightenment, liberty and toleration, the rights of man and the religion of humanity.

They did not see that they were on the edge of a precipice and that the world they knew was about to be swallowed up in a tempest of change which would destroy both them and their ideals. For, as the Revolution advanced, it gradually revealed the naked reality that had been veiled by the antiquated trappings of royalty and tradition, the General Will, which was not the benevolent abstraction the disciples of Rousseau had worshipped, but a fierce will to power which destroyed every man and institution that stood in its way. As de Maistre wrote, the will of the people was a battering ram with twenty million men behind it.

If we turn to the history of the Revolution in relation to the Catholic Church, we shall see how all these different factors were reflected in the religious policies of the successive governments.

The relations of Church and State under the old regime were so intimate that a revolution in the state inevitably affected the rights of the Church and the privileges of the clergy. But the National Assembly was not content to make these inevitable changes in the external relations of the State to the Church. It aimed at nothing less than the wholesale reconstruction of the national church. The reformation of the Gallican Church by the National Assembly was in fact as drastic as the Reformation of the Church in England by Henry VIII. Like the latter, the National Assembly dissolved the monasteries and abolished the religious Orders; it created a national church as in England, which was in practice entirely dependent on the State, though any interference in matters of faith and dogma was disclaimed.

But it went far beyond the English Reformation in its wholesale confiscation of Church property and in its revolutionary changes in the hierarchy and ecclesiastical organization. The ancient ecclesiastical provinces and dioceses were swept away, and the map of Gallia Sancta was redrawn so as to coincide with that of the new France, with the department as the diocesan unit. Both bishops and parish priests were to be chosen by election like other municipal officers and by the same electoral bodies — the bishops by the electors of the department and the priests by those of the district.

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, as it was called, which was enacted in May 1790, was mainly the work of the lawyers, like Lanjuinais and Camus, who represented the Gallican and Jansenist ideals of the old parliamentary opposition, but behind the legalism of these narrow and unimaginative minds there was the liberal idealism which believed that the Revolution was destined to unite humanity in a new spiritual unity and demanded that the Church itself should become the apostle of this humanitarian gospel.

This was the ideal which the Abbé Fauchet preached to enthusiastic audiences at the Palais Royal in the autumn of 1790. “There can be only one true religion,” he declared, “the religion which says to men, Love one another. This religion exists; it is as eternal as the law of love: it has hitherto been unrealized, and disregarded by men who have been separated by the law of hereditary descent that has ruled the world: we must show it to them in its naked purity and truth, and the human race attracted by its divine beauty will adore it with all its heart.”[ Aulard, L'Eloquence Parlesnentaire pendant la Revolution, II, iii]

According to Fauchet, Catholics and Freemasons could unite to preach the great religious truths which found their social expression in the Revolution. But the Church of Talleyrand was as unfitted as the Freemasonry of Philippe Égalité to become the organ of this democratic mystique. Though the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was too radical to be reconciled with orthodox Catholicism, it was far too traditional to satisfy the demands of revolutionary idealism. It was not enough to bind the carcass of the old church to the new state. What the Revolution demanded was a new civic religion which would be entirely totalitarian in spirit and would recognize no higher duty than the service of the state.

Thus the Constitutional Church satisfied neither party. Instead of strengthening national unity by enlisting the Church in the service of the Revolution, it produced a religious schism which gradually brought French Catholicism into direct conflict with the new order. At first Catholic opinion, as represented by the clerical delegates to the National Assembly, had adopted a very sympathetic attitude to the Revolution and even accepted the secularization of Church property and the sacrifice of clerical privileges with little resistance. But it was a different matter when it came to the complete reorganization of the internal order of the Church without regard for ecclesiastical traditions or canonical principles. The bishops, with the exception of Talleyrand and five or six others, refused to accept the proposed changes, and they were followed by more than half of the clergy and a large part of the population.

Even then the schism might have been avoided, since Rome was slow to issue its condemnation and there was an influential minority in the Assembly which realized the dangers of a complete break. Unfortunately the intolerant legalism of the majority forced the issue upon every parish priest and village congregation by obliging the clergy to swear fidelity to the civil constitution under pain of deprivation, and those who refused, the Non-jurors, or “insermentés,” were regarded as disloyal to the Revolution, since it was easy to confuse opposition to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy with opposition to the Constitution itself.

From this point the era of persecution begins which was to last with some brief intermissions until the coming of Bonaparte. In theory, the Catholics — that is to say, the Non-jurors — possessed the rights of freedom of conscience and could say Mass and administer the sacraments privately, but in practice they were subjected to the violence of the mob, which made a practice of beating up anyone who was bold enough to attend these unlicensed services. It was these outrages which led André Chénier, who himself was not a believer, to publish his famous pamphlet “The Altars of Fear,” against mass intimidation. “We no longer build temples to Fear,” he wrote, “like the Greeks. Yet never has the dark goddess been honored by a more universal cult. The whole of Paris is her temple and all respectable people have become her priests and every day offer to her in sacrifice their thoughts and their conscience.”

In the following year-1792 — the persecution became legalized as a result of the outbreak of war with Austria in April and the wave of fear and suspicion which swept the country. In May a law was passed which made all the non-juring clergy liable to deportation. Many of them were imprisoned as suspect, and when the great massacre of the prisons took place in September, 223 priests were murdered, and a number in the provinces. Henceforward, Catholicism was only able to exist in secret as an underground resistance movement. Most of the clergy took refuge in England and elsewhere, and those who remained lived under the constant threat of the guillotine, for by a law passed in March 1793, sentence of death was passed on any priest who had avoided deportation.

Nor was the situation of the Constitutional Church and the clergy who had taken the oath much better. With the coming of the Republic in 1792, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy had lost its legal status and the way was open for the complete de-Christianization of France. The Revolutionary Calendar with its ten-day week and its civic festivals replaced the traditional Christian calendar and feasts, and the churches were closed or converted into temples of the new cult. The priests and bishops of the Constitutional Church were induced by threats or cajolery to abjure their priesthood and renounce their faith, though there was a minority led by Gregoire, the Constitutional Bishop of Blois, who remained staunch to their vows. This anti-Christian movement reached its climax in November, 1793, when all the churches in Paris were closed by the Commune and the notorious celebration of the worship of the goddess, Reason, was carried out in the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Throughout France a carnival of sacrilege and iconoclasm took place which wrecked the churches and defaced religious monuments and works of art. But these excesses soon produced a reaction. As I have already said, the dynamic spirit of the Revolution was not the rationalism of Voltaire but the religion of Rousseau, which rejected atheism with horror and professed a fervent belief in the Divine Being and the supremacy of the moral law.

The great representative of this creed in the Convention was Maximilien Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobin party, and he owed his unique position in the republic to the inflexible rigidity and conviction with which he maintained its dogmas. In contrast to the other revolutionary leaders like Mirabeau, Marat and Danton, he regarded the Revolution as essentially a moral and religious reformation. And he saw that it was not enough to give a negative or secular expression to the spiritual ideals of the new order.

No doubt, as we have seen, the establishment of a new civil religion was implicit in the whole development of the Revolution from the Feast of the Federation in 1790 onwards, but hitherto its religious character had been concealed by the negative anti-clericalism of the extremists like Hébert and Chaumette who were responsible for the anti-religious outrages of 1793. But Robespierre was determined to purge the temple of Democracy of these unclean spirits and vindicate the religious character of the Republic. He began his campaign in the autumn of 1793 by purging the Jacobin party of all atheistic elements and thus making it the organ of the new religious movement. Next he destroyed the rival parties, above all the Cordeliers, whom he regarded as the representatives of social atheism, so that the Jacobins were the only party in the State — at once a political party, a Church, and an Inquisition. The road was now clear for the establishment of “the Republic of Virtue.”

Anyone who studies the history of the First French Republic cannot fail to be impressed by the way in which the Jacobins anticipated practically all the characteristic features of the modern totalitarian regimes: the dictatorship of a party in the name of the community, the use of propaganda and appeals to mass emotion, as well as violence and terrorism, the conception of revolutionary justice as a social weapon, the regulation of economic life in order to realize revolutionary ideals, and above all the attempt to enforce a uniform ideology on the whole people and the proscription and persecution of every other form of political thought.

From our present point of view, however, the most important thing about this prototype of all our modern revolutionary and communitarian movements, is that it also marks the decisive turning point in the relations between the State and the Christian Church. Although it finally resulted in the separation of Church and State, this was the very opposite of the ideal which it consciously aimed at. Its intention was to unite rather than to separate, to destroy the traditional dualism of the two powers and the two Societies and to reabsorb the Church in the Community. Nevertheless, this community was not a secular community in the strict sense of the word. The new republic as conceived by Robespierre and Saint-Just and by their master Rousseau before them was a spiritual community, based on definite moral doctrines and finding direct religious expression in an official civic cult.

As we have seen, the Revolution at first attempted to combine the new faith with the old religion by the creation of a Constitutional Church separated from Rome and inseparably bound up with the new state. But the victory of Robespierre and the Jacobins involved the abandonment of this compromise and the institution of the religion of Nature and the Supreme Being as the official faith of the republic. The feasts of the Church were abolished in favor of the new civic festivals, Sundays made way for the Decadi, and the churches were secularized or devoted to the new cult. Thus the democratic community became a counter church of which Robespierre was at once the high priest and the grand inquisitor, while Catholicism and atheism alike were ruthlessly proscribed.

This was the boldest and most logical attempt to solve the problem of the relations of Church and State, or rather the relations of religion and society, that had been made since the Reformation, and its failure largely accounts for the collapse of the democratic experiment and the coming of a military dictatorship.

After the tremendous events of 1794, culminating in the execution of Robespierre and the fall of his party, the remaining five years of the revolutionary period seem an anticlimax. But we must remember that the fall of the Jacobins did not involve any fundamental change in the spirit or religious ideals of the Revolution. Under the Directory, the civil religion of Robespierre was continued by Theophilanthropism and the Decadary cult, and the persecution of Christianity which was relaxed for a moment after the fall of Robespierre was revived in all its severity after the coup d’etat of Fructidor (Sept. 1797) when hundreds of priests were deported to Guiana or imprisoned at Oleron and the Ile de Re. The coming of Bonaparte in 1799 at last put an end to all this, and nothing contributed more to make his government popular and successful than his disavowal of the policy of persecution.

Bonaparte was not a Christian. As he once said, “I don’t believe in religion but in the idea of God.” However, his Deism was very different from that of Robespierre, and he was prepared to make a public gesture of conformity and to renew the old alliance between Church and State as a necessary foundation for his work of social reconstruction. It was in this spirit that he signed the famous concordat of 1801 with Pope Pius VII which at last restored legal recognition to the Catholic Church. But it was not so easy to undo the destructive effects of the last eleven years. It was a new century and a new world in which the Church was almost a stranger. An immense work of moral and religious reconstruction had still to be undertaken.

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  1. [...] the influence of the Catholic religion on French …Read the whole article here:The French Revolution And Catholicism In The 18th Century by …July 13th,2011 | Tags:apologetics,autumn,church [...]

  2. Is this C. Dawkins?? or Christopher Dawson — the title is in what is in question.

    • Thanks, Evan. I can’t tell you how many times I have paid for this brain freeze a few months ago — rooting out the dawkins-dawson error here and there…


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