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Church in France

The February revolution of 1848 augured well for Church-State relations. The Church which had historically been allied with the monarchy and whose traditional powers rested in an ancien régime, supported a republic whose proponents were traditionally anti-clerical. During the Spring of 1848 Church and State enjoyed a honeymoon, but it was a brief one.

Both bishops and the Catholic press waxed enthusiastically about the February revolution. Three archbishops, Monsignor Affre, of Paris, Monsignor Donnet, of Bordeaux, and Cardinal de Bonald, of Lyons, all publicly pledged support to the new regime. "The republican flag will protect the religious flag," said Donnet. Le Correspondant, the organ of liberal Catholicism, and L'ère nouvelle, inaugurated on April 15, 1848 to promote a "Christian socialism", welcomed the revolution. Even the arch-conservative Louis Veuillot in l'Univers welcomed the demise of the Orleanist monarchy. There had been linkages throughout the July Monarchy between populist religion and social democratic movements. Reports were common of workers seeking priests to give extreme unction to the dying during the February days and ceremonial blessings of trees of liberty in the provinces. On February 24, 1848 a crowd seized a huge crucifix from the abandoned Tuilieres and solemnly marched to the Church of St. Roch, symbolically liberating it from the captivity of the monarchy. At the Champ de Mars demonstration of April 16 workers cried "Long live the republic, the true republic of Christ." There were anticlerical incidents, such as the destructions of convents in Lyons, but they were not the rule.

Modern republicans too viewed the Church as a bulwark of stability especially after the June Days. The Church had not been allied with the Orleanist Monarchy, it remained a powerful institution in society, and religion was a stabilizing influence. So long as leading Catholics and conservative republicans agreed upon issues, Church-State relations were harmonious. But leading Catholics loved the Second Republic less than they disliked the Orleanist Monarchy. Moreover, they had fundamental differences among themselves and with republicans.

The elections to the constituent assembly on Easter Sunday, April 23, 1848, gave the Church a powerful voice in national politics. With the introduction of universal manhood suffrage, rural groups exercised a new influence in national politics. Unused to voting and generally loyal to the Church, which alone had a national political organization, they often turned to local notables or clergy, who sometimes received lists of recommended candidates from their bishops, for leadership. The result was that fifteen priests, including three bishops, were elected to the chamber, Pére Jean-Baptiste Lacordaire, dramatically clothed in his white Dominican cassock sat on the left of the chamber, and a leading social Catholic, Phillipe Buchez, was elected president of the chamber. Although about thirty-five percent of the countryside voted for Christian social democrats, the chamber as a whole was moderate to conservative and hardly sympathetic to the woes of Parisian workers despite the presence of Catholic social reformers like Lacordaire and Buchez. As the national chamber was separating from Paris, so too was superficial Catholic unity collapsing -- over two issues: social policies and the Church's role in education.

The left of the Church was represented in the press by L'ére nouvelle, with a circulation of 20,000, which advocated democracy and a "protective society" which would ameliorate the condition of the working class. In the chamber, Armand de Melun, an associate of the newspaper's editors and writers, introduced a comprehensive national program of hospitals, schools, day care centers, orphanages, hostels, and workers' associations. That bill died in committee. L'ére nouvelle was attacked both by the liberal L'ami de la religion and the conservative L'Univers. Liberal and social Catholics, who had been allied for two decades, publicly split. P art of the reason was personal rivalries for leadership of "Catholic opinion" among Lacordaire, abbé (soon to be Msgr) Felix Dupanloup, and Charles-Forbes-Montalembert. More fundamental was the fact that liberal Catholics had sought freedoms in the tradition of 1789 within a middle-class social order and could not envisage fundamental change in that order. Moreover, their primary concerns were educational, not social issues. Montalembert, who had founded a Catholic political organization in the 18 40s, fought mainly to convince public opinion to grant "liberty of education," notably the right of the Church to operate secondary schools. He, Dupanloup, and Frederic, comte de Falloux, the ultimate author of law that granted liberty of education in 1850, wanted no more than a partnership of Church and State. But they did regard interest of the Church as paramount. A third reactionary group, led by Veiullot and abbé Joseph Gaume, insisted on the dominance of the Church over education, politics, and society. The June Days exacerbated these splits within the Church and frightened Catholics about the direction of the republic.

One last dramatic attempt to save the Church's association with both the republic and workers failed. On June 25, 1848 the Archbishop of Paris approached a barricade holding a crucifix, hoping to bring peace to the streets of Paris. Struck by a wild bullet, he fell and, although insurrectionists carried him away on a stretcher, he died. His death was a minor event but symbolic of the death of any hope of accommodation between Church and the revolution.

Leading Catholics reacted much as other members of the middle class did to the events of June 1848, with fear and condemnation. Their Catholicism counted less than did their own middle class upbringings and association. All the Catholic press, save for L'ère nouvelle, condemned the uprisings, as did a number of bishops. But Catholics also embarked on an internal purge with the hierarch y condemning L'ère nouvelle and dooming it as they had the reformist and popular L'Avenir two decades earlier. Moreover, Catholics uniquely juxtaposed Catholicism and socialism. Religion became a buttress of social order and the Church the prime defense against the destruction of social order. Not only did the Church take on a conservative, secular function but it appealed directly to the middle classes, who were increasingly drawn to it for political rather than religious reasons.

This alliance with conservatism became sealed with the December elections, in which the issue of liberty of education loomed large for leading Catholics. Louis Napoleon, with whom Montalembert had been in negotiations, promised the Church "freedom of education" while Cavignac's former minister of education Hippolyte Carnot had proposed a more state-dominated educational system. Moreover, Louis Napoleon offered greater support for the temporal power of the Pope -- the "Roman Question." Both the hierarchy and the Catholic press, with rare exception, announced for the Bonapartist prince. Catholics elected to the legislative assembly were monarchist or Bonapartist or at least joined with the latter in an alliance of the "Rue de Poitiers," whose watchwords were "order, family, and property." The breach between Catholics and republicans had widened.

The Catholic party achieved its great victory on March 15, 1850 with the passage of the Falloux law, which made a number of modificat ions on the educational system, but whose most controversial provision was the legal incorporation of the principle of "freedom of education," which permitted the Church to operate secondary schools and had the long-term effect of expanding the role of the Church in both primary and secondary schooling. It passed during a period of reaction to the June Days with Thiers decrying the "socialism" of primary school teachers and offering a monopoly of primary schooling to the Church only to see Catholic member s of the Falloux commission decline a monopoly. Conservatives and the middle class generally had come to see the Church as a bulwark of social order. The principle of liberty of education was barely new. Carnot himself had proposed it and it was enshrined in article lX of the constitution of 1848. The law was a reasonable compromise that let the Church and state form a partnership in the education of the young at a time when neither had the resources to fulfill the growing demand for schooling. What m ade the divisive was Catholic successes in the decades following and the bitter rhetoric surrounding passage of the law.

Between 1850 and 1863, Catholic schools at both the elementary and secondary level had twice the growth rate of state schools. This growth was less directly attributable to the Falloux law than to the general social conservatism for France following upon the revolution of 1848. But Montalembert's defense of the Falloux law in the assembly as a safeguard of property and against socialism hardened republican and anticlerical opposition. Anticlericals saw Catholic schools as divisive tools of the Church which would steal the hearts and minds of the next generation. The law became the symbol of the proper place of the Church and religion in society and a political issue that would divide France for the rest of the century. A victory for Catholics, the extension of the principle of liberty of education was a costly one that may not have been worth the price of rising anticlericalis m. A new alliance between Church and conservative members of the middle class had been forged but many equated the Church with reaction and division. The second republic began with a spirit of fraternity between Catholics and republicans but ended with acrimony and increased tensions.

Patrick J. Harrigan


Berenson, Edward. "Populist Religion and Left-Wing Politics" in France 1830-1852 (Princeton: Princ eton University Press, 1984).

G. Cholvy and Y.-M. Hilaire, Histoire religieuse de la France contemporaine,1800/1880 (Toulouse: Privat, 1985-86).

Dansette, Adrien. Religious History of Modern France. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1961).

May, Anita. "The Falloux Law, the Catholic Press, and the Bishops: Crisis of Authority in the French Church," French Historical Studies 8 (Spring, 173), 77-94.

Price, Roger. The Second French Republic. A Social History. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1972).

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