Cover image for Catholic and French Forever: Religious and National Identity in Modern France By Joseph F. Byrnes

Catholic and French Forever

Religious and National Identity in Modern France

Joseph F. Byrnes


$72.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02704-3

$33.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05863-4

304 pages
6" × 9"
13 b&w illustrations

Catholic and French Forever

Religious and National Identity in Modern France

Joseph F. Byrnes

“Few contemporary authors command the time-transcendent wisdom that enables Byrnes to place in perspective the rich detail provided by years of historical research. Couple that learning with an elegant prose style and one has not only an informative piece of scholarship but a delightful book.”


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  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
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It is often said that there are two Frances—Catholic and secular. This notion dates back to the 1790s, when the revolutionary government sought to divorce Catholic Christianity from national life. While Napoleon formally reconciled his regime to France’s millions of Catholics, church-state relations have remained a source of conflict and debate throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In Catholic and French Forever Joseph Byrnes recounts the fights and reconciliations between French citizens who found Catholicism integral to their traditional French identity and those who found the continued presence of Catholicism an obstacle to both happiness and progress. He does so through stories of priests, legislators, intellectuals, and pilgrims whose experiences manifest the problem of being both Catholic and French in modern France.

Byrnes finds that loyalties to the French nation and Catholicism became so incompatible in the revolutionary era that Catholic believers responded defensively across the nineteenth century, politicizing both religious pilgrimage and the languages of religious instruction. He shows that a détente emerged in the first decades of the twentieth century with the respect given to priests in arms during World War I and to the work of religious art historian Émile Mâle. This détente has lasted, precariously and with interruption, up to the present day.

“Few contemporary authors command the time-transcendent wisdom that enables Byrnes to place in perspective the rich detail provided by years of historical research. Couple that learning with an elegant prose style and one has not only an informative piece of scholarship but a delightful book.”
“This attractive mélange of the personal and the professional has led Byrnes to produce an uncommonly good book.”

Joseph F. Byrnes is Professor of Modern European History at Oklahoma State University. He is the author of The Virgin of Chartres: An Intellectual and Psychological History of the Work of Henry Adams (1981) and The Psychology of Religion (1984), and he is a co-author of The Religious World: Communities of Faith (1993).





1. Catholic and French Forever

2. Between Church and Nation

3. National Ideals and Their Failure

4. Religious and Secular Extremes

5. Piety Against Politics

6. Local Languages for the Defense of Religion

7. The Limits of Personal Reconciliation

8. Reconciliation of Cultures in the Third Republic

9. Between the Wars, Vichy, and the New Republics

10. The Nation Conundrum




Further Reading



Catholique et français toujours? Catholic Christianity was, indeed, the religion of France in 1789, a church-state relationship having its own dynamic, contentious, always changing history: bishops and official teachings and polity, on one hand, and dynastic or elected officials and formal laws, on the other. Here I discuss Catholicism and Frenchness as a matter of identity, even though identity, for all its years in the marketplace, has no simple set of agreed-upon meanings. Baby boomers went through college hearing about and studying—in psychology at least—the identity crisis, made famous by the Freudian revisionist Erik Erikson. We can casually say that identity has a common meaning in modern English: the reality of somebody, true identity as against false identity. The philosopher Charles Taylor—using The Making of the Modern Identity as the subtitle of his study of the moral instinct—writes, “The full definition of someone’s identity thus usually involves not only his stand on moral and spiritual matters but also some reference to a defining community.” Identity does, indeed, label some major attitudes and commitments of a person. Self-identity is achieved principally by moral and spiritual action in reference to a community.

In The Idea of France, Pierre Birnbaum writes that “[France] on the one hand, has seen its soul as residing in a privileged relationship with Reason, and its deep personality expressed in an unquestioning adherence to the ideas of the Enlightenment” and “on the other hand, has conceived itself as the eldest daughter of the Church, the Catholic nation par excellence.” Between the “virtuous republicans” and the “uncompromising Catholic counter-revolutionaries,” there was always a struggle. Although catholique-et-français personalities were not all of a piece, Birnbaum does see a heritage that goes from Joseph de Maistre (1754–1821), writer, diplomat, and papal absolutist, all the way through to the Vichy government. And, of course, the most ardent republicans enthusiastically traced their heritage back to the Revolution, rejecting neither Terror nor dechristianization. Liberals were caught between the proverbial hammer and anvil. Benjamin Constant, Ernest Renan, and the secular themes of the Universal Exposition of 1889 put traditional Catholics on the defensive, just as the notions of God, church, and France or church influence on education put traditional republicans on the defensive. The final battle lasted from the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish French officer was accused of espionage by the heavily Catholic army administration and defended mostly by the republican left, through the official separation of church and state in 1905. The last vestiges of flexible practice on either side seemed to have disappeared; but then came the guns of August 1914.

Traveling across French terrain and back into French history, I will look at clergy and intellectuals, everyday people traveling and talking, the high drama of war, and the transmission of sophisticated learning, all to explore political and religious selves that have constituted identities in France. Gloss, for the moment, religious identity as “awareness and expression of one’s own doctrinal, moral, and devotional (prayer) profile”; national identity as “awareness and expression of belonging to a country as a voter, taxpayer, and contributor to the home country’s work effort” (it includes the more ideologically self-conscious nationalism). Churchgoing is the most public and visible expression of Catholic religious identity. Happily, for almost two hundred years local Catholicism has been monitored by French dioceses, giving us a very good idea of the number of folk who went to Sunday Mass and who made sure to partake of Communion at least once a year. It is true that we don’t know what went on in the minds and hearts of these folk, and it is true that we would want some more dramatic and personal Catholic expression. But religious practice is “the support that culture furnishes to the religious life of individuals and groups.” As a cultural phenomenon, religion can change its meaning from one era to another and from one area to another, but there is an identity that endures. “Regions and social milieus maintain—across changes in the levels and meanings of their practice—an identity, a ‘personality’ recognizable across the years or even the centuries.” The form and the content of religious activity may change or may remain the same: form can persist while content changes, and content can persist while form changes. Practice may derive from vague religiosity or the beliefs and fears of earlier eras or respect for local custom or genuine devotion, but there is some genuine content. In the last analysis, everyday religious practice with its elusive, changing content is preserved, elaborated, and reconfigured by religious teachers and leaders (clergy and religious primarily, in Catholicism). When people practice religion, they are part of a classic interaction between believers and authorities, local and national, contemporary and historical that is “a crossroads of shared religious vitality and individual initiative.” In this book, I push beyond the statistical base to reflect on unique personalities and interactions. Here, the story of religious identity features Catholic self-awareness, expression, shared vitality, and religious initiative—dark moments and shining moments in the life of a people. There is a gamut of Catholic identities involved, from loyal practicing Catholic through social or cultural Catholic, to the post-Catholic who deliberately or inadvertently searches to replace the old Catholic experience with a secular ethos.

How, then, to get to national identity? Should we talk about identification with France as such, or with the nation, or with the Republic? France may not mean the same thing as nation, and nation may not mean the same thing as republic, the predominant form of French government over the past two hundred years. The French historian-impresario Pierre Nora deliberately subdivided the series Les Lieux de mémoire into La République, La Nation, and Les France, and in his eloquent introductions struggled to make the Frances into the broadest imaginable category: the ensemble of the fighting, sharing, and passing on of the traditions and experiences that men and women acquired by simple birth and growth on the land itself. Nation was what the French talked about when they tried to square this belonging with everything from informal public life through formal government. And Republic was the solidly secular and democratic government, born in revolution and raised in an ideologically restricted world. Nora introduced these in reverse order.

Here is, first of all, the Republic with its symbols, monuments, pedagogy, commemorations, and examples of countermemory. Then will come Nation, . . . articulated around the principal themes that express its meaning: heritage from distant centuries, the great moments when historical memory was refashioned, the boundaries within which it has defined its sovereignty, and its “total being,” the manner in which artists and savants have been able to decipher its lands and spaces. But here also are the places where it has best summed up its ideas of the role of the state, its greatness, its military and civil glories, its architectural and artistic patrimony, its literature and its language. In the fourth volume will appear finally The Frances: political, social, religious, and regional.

For the Republic, Nora’s essayists consider symbols, monuments, pedagogy, commemorations, and the “countermemory” or rejection; for the nation, heritage, historiography, landscapes, territory, state, patrimony, examples of monuments to national glory, and examples of preservation of a national idea. For the Frances, everything from archives, chateaux, and the French language, through cathedrals, to conversational styles and cafes are laid out tatterdemalion. Obviously, the categories are not mutually exclusive. For all of Nora’s considerable efforts to justify and explain distinct categories, they remain definitively vague.

No doubt but that nation is a protean word and defining it a conundrum. Difficult to say how something called nation can be built out of ethnic structures and loyalties; difficult to isolate the role played by religion along the way, especially since religion may have—in a major way—constituted incipient national identity under the old regime. As Philip Schlesinger writes in his essay on national identity, “national cultures are not simple repositories of shared symbols to which the entire population stands in identical fashion. Rather they are to be approached as sites of contestation in which competition over definitions takes place.” Anne Thiesse, in similar fashion, says that “the true birth of a nation is when a handful of individuals declares that it exists and undertakes to prove it.” People have at their disposal a do-it-yourself kit of nation definitions that they coordinate into a series—like language declensions—and then play out. This means that “the nation is born of a postulate and an invention, but it only lives by collective acceptance of this fiction. . . . Success here is the fruit of a sustained proselytism that teaches individuals what they are, obliges them to conform to it, and incites them to promote this collective teaching in their turn.” Putative ancestry and patrimony are combined with politics, economy, and society. Steven Englund has urged that the nation in France be seen as “a complex system, indeed a force field—of ideological discourse that gave rise in French history to several political traditions (republican, Bonapartist, constitutional monarchist) of which one (republican) gradually became so hegemonic within the country that it has successfully stifled much awareness that there were or are any alternatives.”

In the story as I tell it, the revolutionary government sought to divorce Catholic Christianity from national life after 1789.18 The reaction of church people across the nineteenth century was to set up a defense against governments that did not privilege Catholicism. Government reaction was antagonism, and by the end of 1905, formal secularization. But peaceful scholarship and the trial of war brought the religious and secular French into a détente that has lasted more or less up to the present day—precariously and with interruptions.

Divorce. In 1790, the new government, in effect a constitutional monarchy, required all Catholic priests in public life to take an oath of loyalty to the newly developed constitution of the clergy. More than half of them did so, thus embarking on a new religio-political experience. Chapter 1, “Between Church and Nation: Posing, Abdicating, and Retracting Priests,” traces the inner break up of the old unity, or at least compatibility, between loyalty to Catholicism and loyalty to the French nation. For many of these “constitutional” clergy, the old Catholic priestly identity became a hindrance to their image as heralds of a new political and cultural era. At first they operated within the church, but, like many a marriage of convenience, it soon led to a split, with a sizable percentage of priests abdicating their religious status, often permanently. Later, when large numbers of them sought reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Church, they renounced their earlier loyalty to the revolutionary government, in effect separating themselves from the revolution they had played along with. In any case, the old union of throne and altar was not transferred into a new union of French religious and French political identity.

Chapter 2, “National Ideals and their Failure: Festival Celebration under the Directory,” traces, first of all, the hopes and projections of the Paris lawmakers. They would have a civil religion as part of the nation’s structure, at times adopting and at times adapting the elements of the old religion. But the people would not have it, and the lawmakers’ dreams of transferring the sense of the sacred from the old religion to the new nation were thwarted. Across this period, the revolutionary governments attempted to set up a system of celebrations that would replace the old Catholic festivals. Great ceremonies in central Paris and regular assemblies in town and country were planned and executed; Sacredness was to be transplanted from the old Catholic liturgies to the new government-inspired rituals. But with few exceptions the new rituals were pale imitations of the old, with ceremonies, speeches, and music that never caught on because the settings were dreary and the liturgies were consummately boring. The ritual celebration of the nation’s life and meaning—its ideals—was rejected by a population that was opting for real religion or no religion, but not what to them, in its myth-and-ritual feebleness, was obviously fake religion. They collectively took one side or another in the “divorce,” but a remarriage could not be forced on them.

In the end, then, traditional religion animated the minds and hearts of some, and political commitment animated the minds and hearts of others: two intellectual temperaments, two attitudes toward Catholicism’s relation to the nation. Chapter 3, “Religious and Secular Extremes at the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century: Chateaubriand and Destutt de Tracy,” presents two survivors of the Revolution during the reign of Napoleon: one personality shaped by commitment to traditional Catholic experience, the other shaped by science and philosophy. These men were emblematic of the now clearly separated sides. For Chateaubriand, religion defined Frenchness and for Destutt de Tracy, Frenchness—in fact, life in general—acquired nothing from religion. This was more than post-1789 political debate. The opposition was deep-seated; the ideological sides self-consciously chosen; a matter, it would appear of vital personal experience.

For many religious leaders, religion-friendly governments were not friendly enough: not Napoleon’s restoration of Catholicism in national life, not the privileging of Catholicism by the Bourbon restoration. True, the subsequent government of Louis Philippe was peopled by religiously indifferent new and old aristocrats; the brief-lived Second Republic was shot through with the old revolutionary secularism; even the Second Empire did not give church people complete authority in education; and after its initial flirtation with monarchism, the Third Republic was embodied by increasingly secular governments. Accordingly, church people developed a siege mentality among their faithful.

Defense. One great movement—perhaps the great movement—in defense of religion was the revival of pilgrimage during the second half of the nineteenth century. Chapter 4, “Piety Against Politics: Pilgrimage to Chartres During the Nineteenth Century” discusses the highly charged attempt to reconstruct French Catholic identity, an end run around the governments in place. Counterdemonstrations to national functions and celebrations, the pilgrimages were rallies to the church. Centers of pilgrimage became veritable fortresses of new church action. The great cathedral of Chartres, for example, embodied the religious passions and goals of France across the centuries; a traditional, religious France would be a defense against the modern secular nation, in both its imperial and republican forms. At Chartres, the clergy evoked the glories of monarchical Catholicism, presaged by French loyalty to Catholicism from the days of the Druids through the Middle Ages. The simple pastoral efforts and everyday administrative tasks of these clergy were paired with a countryside rejuvenation and conversion effort, where the piety and presence of women predominated as they had from the revolutionary era onward. The constructive spiritual energies of the women were channeled, partially at least, into the overall defensive use of pilgrimage by the official church against the government; the more secular the government, the more pointed the defense.

Defensiveness was also the principal religious reaction to the government’s attempts to homogenize the French language as a means of communication and education across the hexagon. Church people in the patois-speaking and non-French-speaking regions promoted local languages to catechize the children and to safeguard against the government attempts to possess the minds and hearts of simple French peasants. Priests and nuns believed, rightly, that the defense of local languages—Breton, Flemish, Basque, Alsatian German, and Catalan—would safeguard religious practice. In Chapter 4, “Local Languages for the Defense of Religion: Alsace and the Roussillon,” we find that in Alsace the support of local German helped secure a loyal church following for generations to come. Conversely, we see that the neglect of Catalan teaching in the Roussillon was one of the reasons for the decline in churchgoing. Protecting local language did not in every case serve as a genuine protection against domination by the national secular authority, but it did rally ordinary people to the defense of Catholicism.

Détente. The dramas of the Dreyfus Affair, a fight over the innocence or guilt of a French army officer accused of espionage, and the high antagonism politics of the secular revolutionary camp and the religious monarchist camp marked the decades on either side of 1900. But these quarrels paled in comparison to the worldwide catastrophe of the Great War of 1914–18, of which the French nation was a primary victim. Small wonder that the old religious and political antagonisms were put aside, suppressed, or destroyed. The two groups that represented, officially if not always in fact, religious loyalty and secular ideology, the priests and the schoolteachers (long trained to be an ideological and moral counterweight to the clergy), achieved a multiform armistice, limited though it was, in the old religion- secularism wars. This is the story in Chapter 6, “The Limits of Personal Reconciliation: Priests and Instituteurs in World War I.”

Even before World War I, even as the church-state fights were at full tilt, an agent of reconciliation was at work: the professor and scholar Émile Mâle had published in 1898 a study of religious art in the Middle Ages that in its later editions led French secularists as well as religious believers to a new appreciation of the French Catholic medieval tradition. Beginning at the turn of the century, Mâle, eventually a professor at the Sorbonne and a member of the Académie française, integrated in his own experience and education many opposed forces in French cultural and political history: classicism and romanticism, Catholic formation and secular education, specialized erudition and major appeal to the educated public. Many in the cultivated public accepted the central argument of his great synthesis of medieval Christian iconography; namely, that Catholicism was quintessentially French. Whereas the détente effected by the reconciliation of old antagonisms in the World War I trenches was dramatic and pragmatic, Mâle’s influence, traced and analyzed in Chapter 7, “Reconciliation of Cultures in the Third Republic: The Work of Émile Mâle,” was progressive, and, especially in the generation after the war, combined with a more public professional appreciation of the cultural and intellectual achievements in Catholic history.

Throughout the present book individual voices predominate, and the truth is in the individual voices. These are not the only voices that should be heard, their stories not the only stories that could be told to show how the standard-bearers of French religious identity and French national identity across the many decades first experienced divorce (Part 1), then faced off defensively (Part 2), and then entered into a longer period of détente (Part 3). Introductions to the thematic parts are full, general summaries containing subplots and voices that do not have a chapter of their own. But I chose my case studies for each chapter because as a historian of modern France I found them central and representative. I trust that readers will find them more revealing of the religious and political drama of modern French history than a homogenized text on nineteenth- and twentieth-century French history.

I believe that the quandaries of revolutionary priests, the gripes of revolutionary legislators, and the particular geniuses of Chateaubriand and Destutt de Tracy show us more about the dynamics of religious and national divorce than could a generalized religious history and political outline of the revolution by itself. I believe that the writers for La Voix de Notre-Dame de Chartres (with their dependence upon a feminized Catholicism), the priests of Alsace, and the bishops of the Roussillon had each of them an experience of Catholicism and Frenchness, of isolation from similar threats and of rallying to the Catholic cause that speak more clearly to us today than summaries of church defensiveness and state antagonism. Certainly the suffering and dying priests and teachers of World War I saw their own standard training and experience differently, finding a new solidarity with one another in the midst of chaos. Their social détente was complemented by the intellectual détente of Emile Mâle, whose totally secular formation at the École Normale was the foundation for a new appreciation of medieval Catholic culture. These two case studies reveal inner dynamics of reconciliation that strengthened the World War I détente between ardent Catholics and nationalists, which had its first moments in the late nineteenth century but was almost completely obscured by the polemics surrounding the separation of church and state in the first decade of the twentieth century.

In setting the stage for these dramas, we want not to trip over too many categories, but it is true that church and state are the classical pair, and that I have here set up Catholicism and Frenchness, in adjectival form Catholique and Français, as the identity categories. I propose then, to sketch the church-state setting for the chapters to come in the introductions to Parts 1, 2, and 3 and then move to the religious experience of Catholicism and the experience of France (as nation or as republic or as, simply, France) in the individual chapters. Some readers familiar with French history may see fit to omit the section introductions. Other readers may wish to read the chapters in an order based on their own interests. This is perfectly appropriate because each chapter, though part of conceptual unity, stands on its own. I would suggest, though, a reading of the appropriate part introduction when chapters are read in random order because in these introductions I explain how the chapter fits into the master plan. I need to say up front also that the history of Catholique (in that full gamut from loyal and practicing Catholic through post-Catholic) is fuller and more nuanced than the history of Français. In a history of formal politics and political theory, national identity would come into clearer focus. But these chapters present specific experiences of Catholicism in confrontation with a generalized—and often oversimplified—politics; the individuals in the book simply talk their religious identity more than their national identity, and so we let them have their way.

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