Catholic Christianity in France from the Restoration to the separation of church and state 18151905

james f. mCMinan Introduction

The relationship between church, state and nation in nineteenth-century France was shaped in large measure by the legacy of the preceding revolutionary era. The French Revolution had begun with the blessing of the church but it ended in a seismic rupture. Whereas the clergé patrióte of 1789 had looked to religion to bind the nation together, within a few years religion had developed into the single greatest source of national discord. The Jacobins proclaimed the Republic one and indivisible, but their onslaught on Catholic Christianity in effect turned France into not one nation, but two.

On one side of the fault-line lay those who continued to identify with the revolutionary idea of the sovereignty of the people, to be realised in the construction of a new kind of polity, the liberal or democratic nation-state. On the other were those who refused to embrace a social order which did not rest on religious foundations and who still thought of France as the Christian nation par excellence, the eldest daughter of the church, the creation of a Christian monarchy best exemplified by St Louis. The Revolution thus bequeathed to the nineteenth century a mythic vision of a 'culture war' between les deux France which would last throughout the nineteenth century, and even beyond, though only after 1879 would it once again involve hostile action on the part of a republican state against the forces of organised religion.

Of course, to highlight the persistence of the culture war is by no means to deny that there were people on both sides of the divide, Catholics and liberals, who regretted the conflict over religion and who continued to work for reconciliation between the church and a modern polity. Still less would one wish to imply that there was any inevitability about the eventual outcome of the war of the two Frances: the Separation, when it came in 1905, owed much to accident and circumstances.

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