< Author | Library >
<< Previous | Contents | Next >>



IT is outside our purpose to embark upon discussions of the religious problem in France, in so far as this became a problem of politics. Our intention is rather to examine the inner core of religious thought, the philosophy of religion, which forms an appropriate final chapter to our history of the development of ideas.

Yet, although our discussion bears mainly upon the general attitude to religion, upon the development of central religious ideas such as the idea of God, and upon the place of religion in the future—that is to say, upon the philosophy of religion—it is practically impossible to understand the religious attitude of our thinkers without a brief notice of the religious situation in France during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In our Introduction we briefly called attention to the attempt of the Traditionalists after the Revolution to recall their countrymen to the Christian faith as presented in and by the Roman Catholic Church. The efforts made by De Bonald, De Maistre, Chateaubriand, Lamennais and Lacordaire did not succeed as they had hoped, but, nevertheless, a considerable current of loyalty to the Church and the Catholic religion set in. Much of this loyalty was bound up with sentimental affection for a monarchy, and arose partly from anti-revolutionary sentiments.* It cannot, however, be entirely explained by these political feelings. There was the expression of a deeper and more spiritual reaction directed against the materialistic and sceptical teachings of the eighteenth century. Man's heart craved comfort, consolation and warmth. It had been starved in the previous century, and revolution and war had only added to the cup of bitterness. Thus there came an epoch of Romanticism in religion of which the sentimental and assumed orthodoxy of Chateaubriand was a sign of the times. His Génie du Christianisme may now appear to us full of sentimentality, but it was welcomed at the time, since it expressed at least some of those aspirations which had for long been denied an expression. It was this which marked the great difference between the two centuries in France. The eighteenth was mainly concerned with scoffing at religion. Its rationalism was that of Voltaire. In the first half of the nineteenth century the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Romanticism, in poetry, in literature, in philosophy and in religion was à la mode, and it led frequently to sentimentality or morbidity. Lamartine, Victor Hugo and De Vigny professed the Catholic faith for many years. We may note, and this is important, that in France the only form of Christianity which holds any sway over the people in general is the Roman Catholic faith. Outside the Roman Church there is no religious organisation which is of much account. This explains why it is so rare to find a thinker who owns allegiance to any Church or religion, and yet it would be wrong to deem them irreligious. There is no via media between Catholicism and free personal thought. This was a point which Renan quite keenly felt, and of which his own spiritual pilgrimage, which took him out of the bounds of the Church of his youth, is a fine illustration. Many of France's noblest sons have been brought up in the religious atmosphere of the Church and owe much of their education to her, and Rome believes in education. The control of education has been throughout the century a problem severely contested by Church and State. More important for our purpose than the details of the quarrels of Church and State is the intellectual condition of the Church itself.

[Footnote * : De Maistre regarded the Revolution as an infliction specially bestowed upon France for her national neglect of religion—his religion, of course. The same crude, misleading, and vicious arguments have since been put forward by the theologians in their efforts to push the cause of the Church with the people. This was very noticeable both in the war of 1870 and that of 1914. In each case it was argued that the war was a punishment from God for France's frivolity and neglect of the Church. In 1914, in addition, it was deemed a direct divine reply to "Disestablishment."]

This reveals a striking vitality, a vigour and initiative at war with the central powers of the Vatican, a seething unrest which uniformity and authority find annoying. How strong the power of the central authority was, the affair of the Concordat had shown, when forty bishops were deposed for non-acceptance of the arrangement between Napoleon and the Pope.* Stronger still was the iron hand of the Pope over intellectual freedom.

[Footnote * : The Revolution had separated Church and State and suppressed clerical privilege by the "Civil Constitution of the Clergy" enactment of 1790. Napoleon, alive to the patriotic value of a State Church, repealed this law and declared the divorce of Church and State to be null and void. His negotiations with the Pope (Pius VII.) resulted, in 1801, in the arrangement known as the Concordat, by which the Roman Catholic Church was again made the established national Church, its clergy became civil servants paid by the State, and its worship became a branch of public administration.]

Lamennais was not a "modernist," as this term is now understood, for his theology was orthodox. His fight with the Vatican was for freedom in the relations of the Church to society. He pleaded in his Essai sur I'lndifference en Matière de Religion for the Church to accept the principle of freedom, to leave the cherished fondling of the royalist cause, and to present to the world the principles of a Christian democracy. Lamennais and other liberal-minded men desired the separation of Church and State, and were tolerant of those who were not Catholic. They claimed, along with their own "right to believe," that of others "not to believe." His was a liberal Catholicism, but its proposals frightened his co-religionists, and drew upon him in 1832 an encyclical letter (Mirari vos) from the Vatican. The Pope denounced liberalism absolutely as an absurd and an erroneous doctrine, a piece of folly sprung from the "fetid source of indifferentism." Lamennais found he could not argue, as Renan himself later put it, "with a bar of iron." It was the reactionary De Maistre, with his principle of papal authority,* and not Lamennais, whom the Vatican, naturally enough, chose to favour, or rather to follow.

[Footnote * : As stated in Du Pape, 1819.]

Thus Lamennais found himself, by an almost natural and inevitable process, outside the Church, and this in spite of the fact that his theology was orthodox. He endeavoured to present his case in his paper L'Avenir and in an influential brochure, The Words of a Believer, which left its mark upon Hugo, Michelet, Lamartine, and George Sand. His views blended with the current of humanitarian and democratic doctrines which developed from the Saint-Simonists, Pierre Leroux and similar thinkers. We have already noted that these social reformers held to their beliefs with the conviction that in them and not in the Roman Church lay salvation.

This brings us to a crucial point which is the clue to much of the subsequent thought upon religion. This is the profound and seemingly irreconcilable difference between these two conceptions of religion.

The orthodox Catholic faith believes in a supernatural revelation, and is firmly convinced that man is inherently vile and corrupt, born in sin from which he cannot be redeemed, save by the mystical operations of divine grace, working only through the holy sacraments and clergy of the one true Church, to whom all power was given, according to its view, by the historic Jesus. Its methods are conservative, its discipline rigid and based on tradition and authority. Its system of salvation is excessively individualistic. It holds firmly to this pessimistic view of human nature, based on the doctrine of original sin, thus maintaining a creed which, in the hands of a devoted clergy, who are free from domestic ties, works as a powerful moral force upon the individual believer. His freedom of thought is restricted; he can neither read nor think what he likes, and the Church, having made the thirteenth-century doctrines of Aquinas its official philosophy, hurls anathema at ideas scientific, political, philosophical or theological which have appeared since. No half-measures are allowed: either one is a loyal Catholic or one is not a Catholic at all. In this relentlessly uncompromising attitude lies the main strength of Catholicism; herein also is contained its weakness, or at least that element which makes it manufacture its own greatest adversaries.

While claiming to be the one Church of Jesus Christ, it does not by any means put him in the foreground of its religion. Its hierarchy of saints is rather a survival of polytheism; its worship of the Virgin and cult of the Sacré Cur issue often in a religious sentimentality and sensuality promoted by the denial of a more healthy outlet for instincts which are an essential part of human nature. Tribute, however, must be paid—high tribute— to the devotion of individuals, particularly to the work done by the religious orders of women, whose devotion the Church having won by its intense appeal to women keeps, consecrates and organises in a manner which no other Church has succeeded in doing. This is largely the secret of the vigorous life of the Church, for as a power of charity the Roman Church is remarkable and deserves respect. Her educational efforts, her missions, hospitals, her humbler clergy, and her orders which offer opportunity of service or of sanctuary to all types of human nature—these constitute Roman Catholicism in a truer manner than the diplomacy of the Jesuits or the councils of the Vatican. It is this pulsing human heart of hers which keeps her alive, not the rigid intellectual dogmatism and antiquated theology which she expounds, nor her loyalty to the established political order, which, siding with the rich and powerful, frequently gives to this professedly spiritual power a debasing taint of materialism.

Against all this, and in vital opposition to this, we have the humanitarians who, rejecting the doctrine of corruption, believe that human instincts and human reason themselves make for goodness and for God. While Catholicism looks to the past, humanitarianism looks forward, believes in freedom and in progress, and regards the immanent Christ-spirit as working in mankind. Its gospel is one of love and brotherhood, a romantic doctrine issuing in love and pity for the oppressed and the sinful. In the collective consciousness of mankind it sees the incarnation, the growth of the immanent God. Therefore it claims that in democracy, socialism and world brotherhood lies the true Christianity. This, the humanitarians claim, is the true religious idealism—that which was preached by the Founder himself and which his Church has betrayed. The humanitarians make service to mankind the essence of religion, and regard themselves as more truly Christian than the Church.

In those countries where Protestantism has a large following, the two doctrines of humanitarian optimism and of the orthodox pessimism regarding human nature are confused vaguely together. The English mind in particular is able to compromise and to blend the two conflicting philosophies in varying degrees; but in the French mind its clearer penetration and more logical acumen prevent this. The Frenchman is an idealist and tends to extremes, either that of whole-hearted devotion to a dominating Church or that of the abandonment of organised religion. In Protestantism he sees only a halfway house, built upon the first principles of criticism, and unwilling to pursue those principles to their conclusion— namely, the rejection of all organised Church religion, the adoption of perfect freedom for the individual in all matters of belief, a religion founded on freedom and on personal thought which alone is free.

Such were the two dominant notes in religious thought in France at the opening of our period.

Catholicism resisted the humanitarianism of 1848 and strengthened its power after the coup d'état. The Church and the Vatican became more staunch in their opposition to all doctrines of modern thought. The French clergy profited by the alliance with the aristocracy, while religious orders, particularly the Jesuits, increased in number and in power. Veuillot proclaimed the virtues of Catholicism in his writings. Meanwhile the Pope's temporal power decreased, but his spiritual power was increasing in extent and in intensity. Centralisation went on within the Church, and Rome (i.e., the Pope and the Vatican) became all-powerful.

Just after the half-century opens the Pope (Pius IX.), in 1854, proclaimed his authority in announcing the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.* As France had heard the sentence, L'Etat, c'est moi, from the lips of one of its greatest monarchs, it now heard from another quarter a similar principle enunciated, L'Eglise, c'est moi. As democracy and freedom cried out against the one, they did so against the other. Undaunted, the Vatican continued in its absolutism, even although it must have seen that in some quarters revolt would be the result. Ten years later the Pope attacked the whole of modern thought, to which he was diametrically opposed, in his encyclical Quanta Cura and in his famous Syllabus, which constituted a catalogue of the modern errors and heresies which he condemned. This famous challenge was quite clear and uncompromising in its attitude, concluding with a curse upon "him who should maintain that the Roman Pontiff can, and must, be reconciled and compromise with progress, liberalism and modern civilisation!" To the doctrine of L'Eglise, c'est moi had now been added that of La Science, aussi, c'est moi. This was not all. In 1870 the dogma of Papal Infallibility was proclaimed. By a strange irony of history, however, this declaration of spiritual absolutism was followed by an entire loss of temporal power. The outbreak of the war in that same year between France and Prussia led to the hasty withdrawal of French troops from the Papal Domain and the Eternal City fell to the secular power of the Italian national army under Victor Emmanuel.

[Footnote * : This new dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin must not, of course, be confused, as it often is by those outside the Catholic Church, with the quite different and more ancient proposition which asserts the Virgin Birth of Jesus.]

The defeat of France at the hands of Prussia in 1871 issued in a revival of religious sentiment, frequently seen in defeated nations. A special mission or crusade of national repentance gathered in large subscriptions which built the enormous Church of the Sacré Coeur overlooking Paris from the heights of Montmartre.*

[Footnote * : The anti-Catholic element, however, have had the audacity, and evidently the legal right, to place a statue to a man who, some centuries back, was burned at the stake for failing to salute a religious procession, in such a position immediately in front of this great church that the plan for the large staircase cannot be carried out.]

Seeking for religious consolation, the French people found a Catholicism which had become embittered and centralised for warfare upon liberal religion and humanitarianism. They found that the only organised religion they knew was dominated by the might of Rome and the powers of the clergy. These even wished France, demoralised as she was for the moment, to undertake the restoration of the Pope's temporal power in Italy. Further, they were definitely in favour of monarchy: "the altar and the throne" were intimately associated in the ecclesiastical mind.

It was the realisation of this which prompted Gambetta to cry out to the Third Republic with stern warning, "Clericalism is your enemy." Thus began the political fight for which Rome had been strengthening herself. With the defeat of the clerical-monarchy party in 1877 the safety of the Republic was assured. From then until 1905 the Republic and the Church fought each other. Educational questions were bitterly contested (1880). The power of the Jesuits, especially, was regarded as a con-* stant menace to the State. The Dreyfus affair (1894- 1899) did not improve relations, with its intense anti-semitism and anti-clericalism. The battle was only concluded by the legislation of Waldeck-Rousseau in 1901 and Combes in 1903, expelling religious orders. Combes himself had studied for the priesthood and was violently anti-clerical. The culmination came in the Separation Law of 1905 carried by Briand, in the Pope's protest against this, followed by the Republic's confiscation of much Church property, a step which might have been avoided if the French Catholics had been allowed to have their way in an arrangement with the State regarding their churches. This was prevented by the severance of diplomatic relations between France and the Vatican and by the Pope's disagreement with the French Catholics whose wishes he ignored in his policy of definite hostility to the French Government.*

[Footnote * : Relations with the Vatican, which were seen to be desirable during the Great European War, have since been resumed (in 1921) by the Republic.]

During our period a popular semi-nationalist and semi-religious cult of Jeanne d'Arc, "the Maid of Orleans," appeared in France. The clergy expressly encouraged this, with the definite object of enlisting sentiments of nationality and patriotism on the side of the Church. Ecclesiastical diplomacy at headquarters quickly realised the use which might be made of this patriotic figure whom, centuries before, the Church had thought fit to burn as a witch. The Vatican saw a possibility of blending French patriotism with devotion to Catholicism and thus possibly strengthening, in the eyes of the populace at least, the waning cause of the Church.

The adoration of Jeanne d'Arc was approved as early as 1894, but when the Church found itself in a worse plight with its relation to the State, it made preparations in 1903 for her enrolment among the saints. She was honoured the following year with the title of "Venerable," but in 1908, after the break of Church and State, she was accorded the full status of a saint, and her statue, symbolic of patriotism militant, stands in most French churches as conspicuous often as that of the Virgin, who, in curious contrast, fondles the young child, and expresses the supreme loveliness of motherhood.* The cult of Jeanne d'Arc flourished particularly in 1914 on the sentiments of patriotism, militarism and religiosity then current. This was natural because it is for these very sentiments that she stands as a symbol. She is evidently a worthy goddess whose worship is worth while, for we are assured that it was through her beneficent efforts that the German Army retired from Paris in 1914 and again in 1918. The saintly maid of Orleans reappeared and beat them back! Such is the power of the "culte" which the Church eagerly fosters. The Sacré Coeur also has its patriotic and military uses, figuring as it did as an emblem on some regimental flags on the battlefield. Meanwhile, the celebrations of Napoleon's centenary (1921) give rise to the conjecture that he, too, will in time rank with Joan of Arc as a saint. His canonisation would achieve absolutely that union of patriotic and religious sentimentality to which the Church in France directs its activities.

[Footnote : It is interesting to observe the literature on Jeanne d'Arc published at this time: Anatole France, Vie de Jeanne d'Arc (2 vols., 1908); Durand, Jeanne d'Arc et l'Eglise (1908). These are noteworthy, also Andrew Lang's work, The Maid of Orleans (also 1908).]

[Footnote * : Herein, undoubtedly, lies the strong appeal of the Church to women.]

The vast majority of the 39,000,000 French people are at least nominally Catholic, even if only from courtesy or from a utilitarian point of view. Only about one in sixty of the population are Protestant. Although among cultured conservatives there is a real devotion to the Church, the creed of France is in general something far more broad and human than Catholicism, in spite of the tremendously human qualities which that Church possesses. The creed of France is summed up better in art, nature, beauty, music, science, la patrie, humanity, in the worship of life itself.*

[Footnote * : Those who desire to study the religious psychology of France during our period cannot find a better revelation than that given in the wonderful novel by Roger Martin du Card, entitled Jean Barois.]

<< Previous | Contents | Next >>
< Author | Library >