Saved Through Fire by James Hitchcock

2017 Conference Talk

Saved Through Fire

France's Reign of Terror & the Witness of the Church Militant

Contrary to stereotype, France in the eighteenth century was by no means an irreligious society. The level of practice was high, and it was unimaginable that before the end of the century the Catholic Church would be struggling merely to survive. But throughout the century religion was also being discredited—both legitimately and illegitimately—as a repressive superstition and a cause of division and persecution.

Religion remained vital, especially at the popular level of shrines, pilgrimages, processions, and patron saints, but it included learned preachers and theologians and programs of spiritual discipline. There was a general belief in miracles and a declining belief in sorcery. Most professions and occupations were organized around pious confraternities or guilds. Many of the aristocracy led scandalous lives, and Louis XV was thought to have offended God by his adulteries, but his daughter Louise joined a strict Carmelite convent.

France in the seventeenth century had experienced a great spiritual flowering that continued to nourish the eighteenth—Francis DeSales, Jane de Chantal, Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, Jean-Jacques Olier, Armand Jean De Rancé, Jean-Baptiste de la Salle, Margaret Mary Alacoque.

Simultaneously, at the dawn of the Age of Reason, René Descartes sought a new synthesis between faith and reason, a philosophy accepted by many Catholics as an antidote to materialism. He also protected religious belief from scientific doubt on the grounds that, since it was based on divine revelation, religion was beyond empirical proof or disproof. (Unintentionally, he allowed later generations to conclude that there was no rational basis for faith.)

Descartes' near-contemporary Blaise Pascal was almost alone in seeing fully what was involved in this attempt to forestall skeptical rationalism. While the new science seemed to confirm a serenely ordered universe under God's presiding intelligence, Pascal saw that Descartes had merely proven the logical necessity of an abstract Supreme Being, not the existence of the living God.

Mere fashion played a part in the acceptance of new ideas that seemed daring. Although such ideas were potentially subversive, both the Catholic faith and the institutions of French life appeared so deeply rooted that it seemed safe to throw verbal stones at them.

Even as the Enlightenment became increasingly anti-Christian, most philosophes were Deists who extolled "natural religion" or the "religion of reason" and considered atheism irrational. Voltaire denounced atheism because it would make the universe unintelligible and encourage anarchy.

The issues were not simply between believers and skeptics. Deism existed in both mild and strong versions, and many Christians were complacent about the threat the Enlightenment posed. Some welcomed Deism as an antidote to atheism, so that, to varying degrees, the dogmas of Christianity were deemphasized, ignored, or denied.

The new spirit of critical inquiry penetrated everywhere, demythologizing politics (Locke, Montesquieu), historical Christianity (Gibbon), and morality (the discovery of new lands inspired fantasies of idyllic communities uncorrupted by old sexual taboos.) Besides rational skepticism, the Church was threatened by a new kind of religion that repudiated Christianity while retaining the religious instinct (Rousseau).

Although the philosophes attacked the Jesuits as ignorant bigots, in general the Jesuits were better-educated and more rigorous in their thinking than their opponents and at first even greeted the philosophes' Encyclopedia with qualified approval. (Some of it was in fact plagiarized from Jesuit authors.)

Open & Systematic Attack

The growing skepticism about Christianity came into the open after Louis XIV's death in 1715, and by the middle of the century the philosophes had mounted a systematic and passionate attack on the Church. Voltaire, the dominant intellectual of the age, saw the Church as the chief enemy of mankind ("crush the infamous thing"). Religion was the creation of the "first knave and the first fool," in the words of Marie-Jean Condorcet, a philosophe of noble birth.

Prior to the age of mass literacy, not only did the Church have authority over institutions of formal learning, but the Sunday sermon was the chief means by which most people were exposed to ideas. The aim of the Enlightenment was not toleration but the replacement of one kind of orthodoxy by another.

Enlightenment thought was simply in the air, but it was also embodied in organized secret societies like the Rosicrucians (the symbol of the "rosy cross") and the Illuminati ("enlightened"), who harbored outright antagonism to Christianity, as did the Freemasons, whose historical origins are obscure.

The Church's greatest failure was intellectual. For two centuries after Pascal there was no major Catholic thinker, while some of the educated classes, including clergy, lost the faith or compromised it. Cartesianism turned out to be a philosophical blind alley, its obligation of universal doubt all that remained of its system.

Yet without bitter divisions in the Church itself, the eventual outcome would have been quite different.

Despite its potentially subversive character, the Enlightenment's contempt for "superstition" appealed to self-consciously progressive rulers who were in the process of consolidating their power, a goal to which the Church was at least a passive obstacle.

In the seventeenth century the French theologian Edmond Richer asserted that parish priests, as the direct successors of Jesus' seventy-two disciples, had authority independent of their bishops, and in the following century a German bishop writing under the name of Febronius claimed that bishops also received their authority directly from Christ.

Richer and Febronius did not attribute religious authority to the state, but their ideas fit well with the absolute state—there was no religious authority above the state, within which prince-bishops were a key element.

Although they educated the sons of the aristocracy, the Jesuits were held in suspicion by most Catholic monarchs, because they were directly subject to the pope—they were "ultramontanists" because their loyalty was "across the mountains" (Alps) and not to the monarchy.

Few popes of the age showed much courage, and most, in order to retain a precarious independence, conceded to princes rights over the Church, a strategy that emboldened secular governments to demand still more concessions and left the Church in an increasingly weakened condition.

Despotic Monarchs & Worldly Clergy

Portugal, during the ministry of the Marquis Sebastião de Pombal, foreshadowed the French Revolution in combining Enlightenment ideas with brutal ruthlessness. When an attempt was made on the life of King Joseph I, Pombal blamed the Jesuits and effected their wholesale expulsion or imprisonment. One was burned at the stake.

The Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (the brother of the French Queen Marie Antoinette) epitomized the policy that came to be called Josephinism—he was dubbed "the sacristan emperor" because he concerned himself with ecclesiastical matters, even such fine points as the number of candles on the altar.

Usually with the cooperation of bishops, "enlightened despots" redrew diocesan and parochial boundaries to conform to the units of civil government, seized Church wealth, oversaw seminaries to ensure that priests would be properly "enlightened," closed "useless" monasteries of contemplative religious, suppressed "superstitious" practices, and pruned the liturgical calendar in order to eliminate "unproductive" holy days. Though some Catholics welcomed these changes, they were generally unpopular because they infringed on deeply ingrained habits.

Whether or not particular rulers believed in religious toleration, they often saw it as the only alternative to civil strife, and their reforms usually included it to some degree, something that the Catholic clergy generally opposed.

Huguenots in France had been given limited toleration by the Edict of Nantes of 1598, granted by Henry IV, a Protestant who had turned Catholic. But Louis XIV revoked the edict in 1685 and embarked on a policy of brutal suppression that aimed at eliminating Protestantism altogether. Thousands of Huguenots were killed or imprisoned, and many more fled the country, although some survived and eventually regained a measure of toleration.

Louis was probably motivated by absolutist notions of kingship, believing that toleration meant that he was not fully in control of his kingdom. The official Assembly of the Clergy opposed his policy, but many priests cooperated in
enforcing it.

According to the widely accepted Gallican Articles, in "spiritual matters" the pope was supreme, albeit subject to correction by a general council, and in "temporal matters" he was limited by the laws of the kingdom. In the chapel at Versailles the king looked down on the altar from a balcony, while the congregation faced not the altar but the king, on whom it was forbidden to turn one's back.

The kings had control over the appointment of bishops, and most bishops submitted to royal authority. Most parish priests, even if poorly educated, seem to have been devoted to their flocks, but there was an almost impassable gulf between higher and lower clergy. The Church was extremely wealthy, possessing about ten per cent of all the land in France, and high-ranking clergy lived in a manner thought befitting to their office, although much ecclesiastical wealth was used for charity.

A disproportionate number of bishops were younger sons of noble houses, and some were quite worldly. When Bishop Étienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne was proposed to be archbishop of Paris, Louis XVI refused with the words, "No. The archbishop of Paris ought at least to believe in God." But Loménie served as Louis's first minister and was made a cardinal.

Clergy of all ranks were vulnerable to criticism, with occasional scandals fueling popular anti-clericalism. In the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, Cardinal Louis-René Rohan of Strasbourg was at the center of a sordid sexual intrigue that may have involved Marie Antoinette. The famous aristocratic bishop Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord kept a mistress even while a seminarian.

The Jansenists & Their Opponents

At the other extreme, the Flemish bishop Cornelius Jansen was a kind of Catholic Calvinist, according to whom God was remote and inscrutable, men were incapable of keeping the Commandments, and grace was wholly unmerited.

But the term "Jansenist" was also used much more loosely, to designate anyone who held to strict principles of personal morality. The Jesuits, because of their emphasis on free will and a kind of "humanism" that saw God's presence in ordinary things, were Jansenism's greatest antagonists, accused by the Jansenists of catering to the lax consciences of the aristocracy by, for example, allowing a lady to attend a ball on a day when she had received communion or allowing the reception of communion by a married couple on a day when they had had intercourse. (The Jesuits were called Probabilists, because they held that, if theologians disagreed about a particular moral question, people were justified in following a permissive opinion that, while not certain, was at least probable.)

Jansenist writings were condemned by the Sorbonne, by the king, and by several popes, and as many as two thousand Jansenists were imprisoned during Louis XIV's reign. The Jansenist response was usually to accept the condemnations in principle, protest that in fact they did not hold such beliefs, and reformulate their teachings. But throughout the eighteenth century some bishops attempted to close the loopholes, and the Jansenist cause gained popular support as priests were suspended from office and lay people were denied communion and Christian burial for refusing to subscribe to the condemnations.

The political situation was bewilderingly complex. The Parlement of Paris (France's highest law court) tended towards Gallicanism and therefore championed the Jansenist cause against the pope, while most bishops were simultaneously Gallican royalists and anti-Jansenists. Thus the Jansenists were allied with the Parlement in attempting to check royal authority, with Gallicanism in rejecting much of papal authority, and with Richerism in undermining episcopal authority.

The Jansenists managed to build a quasi-underground network, including a clandestine press that waged a propaganda war against both civil and ecclesiastical authority, contributing in no small measure to the undermining of authority that made the Revolution possible.

By their unremitting, and ultimately successful, hostility to the Jesuits, the Jansenists also unwittingly aided the triumph of unbelief in France, since the Jesuits were by far the most effective defenders of orthodoxy.

Suppression of the Jesuits

In France the political attack on the Jesuits was made possible by their unwise investments in international trade, which allowed them to be sued by creditors and thereby gave the Parlement an opportunity to subject them to official scrutiny. In 1761 the Jesuits were forbidden to accept new members and their schools were closed, and a few years later Parlement urged their expulsion from France. Virtually all the French bishops opposed the expulsion, but Louis XV reluctantly agreed, because he needed the Parlement's help in his chronic financial troubles.

Catholic states then began expelling members of the Society one by one, and Pope Clement XIV was elected in 1773 because he acquiesced in the Society's total suppression. Many Jesuits were imprisoned for years under harsh conditions, and some were herded onto ships and deposited on the shores of the Papal States.

Throughout all this, the monarchy was losing its spiritual charism, especially because of Louis XV's notorious adulteries, for which his Jesuit confessors, despite their reputation for laxity, refused him absolution. Louis was a sincere believer who accepted that he was unworthy, and his conspicuous failure to receive communion raised fears that he and the kingdom no longer enjoyed divine favor.

His grandson, Louis XVI, was crowned in ceremonies that once again proclaimed the divine character of the monarchy and, in contrast to his predecessor, the new king led an exemplary life and at first won popular respect.

The Estates General

While ideas were essential, the Revolution would not have occurred when and how it did except for certain specific events that eroded royal popularity, especially the crown's chronic financial crisis and a series of bad harvests that worsened the poverty of the common people.

Louis XVI was vacillating but cautiously open to reform, and his government was only fitfully repressive. The hated Bastille had long ceased to be a political prison, and in 1787 the government decreed religious toleration, something that most bishops opposed.

Because of his chronic financial deficits, in 1789 the king was reluctantly persuaded to summon the Estates General, France's principal representative assembly, which had not been called since 1614. The meeting began with a solemn Mass of the Holy Spirit and a grand procession, and for a time religious observances continued to be part of its proceedings.

The Third Estate—mostly commoners of the upper middle class—was reform-minded and sought to alleviate the financial crisis by depriving the nobility of their privileged exemption from taxes, a surrender in which some of the nobles of the Second Estate acquiesced.

The First Estate—the clergy—proved to be the crucial element. Longstanding discontent, especially regarding social and economic disparities, made many of the elections to the First Estate bitter and disorderly, and overall the lower clergy were victorious over the bishops. Although the clergy were in principle not taxed but instead offered the king a periodic "free gift," a substantial part the First Estate favored reform.

But as the Estates debated reform, riots broke out both in Paris (the destruction of the Bastille) and in the countryside (the Great Fear), alarming the Estates and giving them a sense of urgency about change. Partly under the leadership of Talleyrand and two priests—Henri Gregoire, who had Jansenist sympathies, and the rationalist skeptic Emmanuel Sieyes—the Estates quickly abolished all feudal privileges and created a "constitutional monarchy" under which an elected National Assembly, with Talleyrand as president, was given legislative power and the king's authority was restricted. The reforms were celebrated with a solemn Te Deum.

But there were unresolved issues—the practical one of the continuing financial crisis and the ideological one of the authority of the Church. The two were "resolved" by the same action—the seizure of the wealth of the Church, proposed by Talleyrand.

The sale of Church property, much of which was bought by devout Catholics, created a class of people who therefore had a vested interest in the legitimacy of the new government. The Assembly also abolished tithes, which for many centuries had been the support of most of the clergy. With those gone, priests were to be paid salaries by the government, a plan that some of the lower clergy favored.

The Civil Constitution

Here the opponents of the Church saw their opportunity—the clergy were in effect to become employees of the state. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which Louis XVI reluctantly signed but which Pope Pius VI eventually condemned, required all priests to take an oath of loyalty to the government and to swear that they recognized no higher loyalty, a provision specifically aimed at the papacy.

Talleyrand later said that the Civil Constitution was the Revolution's greatest mistake. It destroyed the somewhat fragile consensus for change and introduced a hard and uncompromising ideology.

It began with systematic harassment not unlike that of the enlightened despots. Bishops and priests were to be elected by laymen, including non-Catholics, and were subject to governmental supervision, while parish and diocesan maps were redrawn and a large number of dioceses suppressed. Monasteries were abolished. Nuns were not required to take the oath, but their convents were officially disbanded and some nuns were reduced to begging.

There was a concerted attack on clerical celibacy, partly on the grounds that priests had an obligation to produce children for France, partly because celibacy was recognized as a major source of the priestly charism. Education was secularized to the point where even former priests and religious were barred from teaching, lest there be a danger of inculcating "counter-revolutionary" ideas in the young. The Sorbonne, most of whose faculty refused the oath, was closed.

The government for a time extended religious toleration, making non-Catholics fully equal to Catholics in law. Marriage was defined as a civil contract regulated by the government, and divorce was allowed for the first time.

The Constitution forced a choice between religious loyalties and the rapidly unfolding revolutionary agenda. Half the clergy, especially from some of the monastic orders, and 153 of the 160 bishops, refused to take the oath and were deprived of their offices, with 30,000 of them, including most bishops, fleeing the country.

The other half of the clergy took the oath, including Loménie de Brienne, Talleyrand, and Gregoire, who succeeded Talleyrand as president of the Assembly. A new group of "constitutional bishops" were named, including Gregoire, with Talleyrand presiding at their consecrations in order to provide apostolic succession.

But in many places the "constitutional clergy" were treated as intruders by their parishioners and even met with violence. Where nonjuring priests were not available, lay people sometimes kept their faith alive through organized, surreptitious pious devotions in private homes.

Dictatorship & Massacres

The attack on the monarchy and the attack on the Church were intimately linked, since the king's authority was said to be divinely conferred. At Rheims, revolutionaries destroyed the vial of holy oil—claimed to have originally been sent from heaven—that for centuries had been used to anoint each new king.

At Easter 1792, fearing that a conforming priest would not respect the seal of the confessional, Louis XVI demanded to go to confession to a nonjuring priest, and when this was refused, the royal family attempted to flee the country, only to be caught, brought back to Paris, and imprisoned.

Meanwhile, royalists who had fled the kingdom raised the alarm in various European courts, and the approach of foreign armies determined to restore the king to power enabled the more extreme revolutionaries to inaugurate dictatorship, demanding absolute loyalty and defining all disagreement as treason.

Especially in Paris, popular radicalism was both spontaneous and organized, some of it financed by Louis's cousin the duke of Orleans, who hoped to destabilize the monarchy so that he could himself become king. This radicalism was especially centered in the Jacobin Clubs—named for an abandoned monastery where they met—which roused the "little people" to action in the streets and enforced revolutionary orthodoxy. The club included priests, one of whom, the "red priest" Jacques Roux, led demands for economic equality. (He was later guillotined.)

The September Massacre of 1792—partly spontaneous but egged on by radical leaders—was the sudden eruption of murderous passion, the brutal butchery of over a thousand people who were being kept prisoner as "enemies of the Revolution." Many priests were among its victims.

Seeing this as dangerous anarchy, radical leaders under Maximilien Robespierre, instead of seeking a return to peace, set up revolutionary tribunals to deal with "traitors" in an official way. During the Reign of Terror that followed, thousands of suspicious persons were systematically rounded up and accused of the crime of "fanaticism." Some were immediately killed by mobs, others subjected to speedy trials at the hands of revolutionary tribunals and carted off to the guillotine.

Approximately 5,000 priests were imprisoned at one time or another, including those who had not taken the oath, and many never emerged alive. Nuns who continued to live in communities were subjected to mob violence and sometimes arrested, with sixteen Parisian Carmelites guillotined one by one as they chanted the Veni Creator Spiritus.

The king and queen were publicly executed, as was their daughter Elizabeth, who had once aspired to be a nun, while the dauphin probably died in prison. A majority of the clerical members of the Assembly, all of whom had taken the oath, voted for the death of the royal family.

Talleyrand, whose uncanny ability to anticipate the course of events made him the most famous survivor in history, fled the country as the Revolution began to devour its own children. Eight "constitutional bishops" perished on the scaffold, and Loménie de Briand, who had supported the Revolution at every stage, committed suicide in prison. Jean-Baptiste Gobel, the constitutional archbishop of Paris, was forced to resign his office and was then guillotined as an atheist. But Gregoire boldly continued to wear his episcopal robes and spoke out against the persecution of religion.

A Fanatical Urge to Destroy

The slaughter even of submissive clergy revealed the radicalism of the revolutionary agenda. In Roman times the state demanded only a formal denial of faith by Christians. Now it sought to destroy even the possibility of lingering beliefs.

Robespierre also purged the inevitable surge of atheism, because he considered Deism essential to forging a new moral order, even a new species of man.

Compulsory optimism was at the heart of the new creed, with the doctrine of Original Sin condemned as one of Christianity's greatest errors. The Revolution promised a perfect society and a perfect humanity, and the slogan "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" inspired a fanatical drive to destroy all social ranks and itself became a major justification for the suppression of liberty.

But if the Civil Constitution marked a quantum leap in the unfolding of the Revolution, the ultimate stage was the emergence from the depths of a spiritual nihilism, a fanatical urge to destroy, of which indiscriminate and sadistic slaughter was the chief symptom.

Even clergy who had taken the oath were now forbidden to exercise their ministries, and all churches were closed or converted to secular uses like stables. The tolerance granted Protestants and Jews was short-lived, as the revolutionary government forbade all religious practices except for cults created by the state itself.

The Revolution attempted to establish an entirely new religion, making use of words like "catechism," "martyr," "gospel," and "missionary" in politically orthodox ways. Sundays were forbidden to be observed in any special way; fish could not be sold on Fridays; and saints' names for children were abolished in favor of pagan names like Brutus.

New feasts and rituals were decreed, notably that of the Supreme Being. The cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris became the Temple of Reason, with an actress enthroned on the altar as a goddess, and the Church of the Madeleine was given the pagan name the Pantheon and made into a burial place for national heroes.

Most radically, history itself was now abolished, by obliterating every sign of the 1,700-year Christian past. A new calendar began with the year One, and the names of the months were changed even though they were of pagan origin.

Violent Resistance

Following the execution of the royal family, armed resistance to the Revolution broke out in several places, notably the Vendée region in the West, plunging the area into a decade of civil war and terrorism in which as many as 250,000 people perished.

The uprising was initially provoked by the compulsory conscription of soldiers, but it also had deep religious roots. Although at first the Breton clergy did not support the rebellion, they were soon among its leaders, as the rebels marched into battle under banners of the Sacred Heart, with chaplains carrying the Blessed Sacrament.

The rebels themselves sometimes committed brutal atrocities, but, in what could be called the first modern act of deliberate genocide, the revolutionary government set out virtually to exterminate the people of the Vendée, including resorting to mass drownings when individual executions proved too slow.

But as the Terror threatened many of the revolutionaries themselves, Robespierre became its last target and perished on the guillotine in 1794. The Terror then subsided, and limited religious toleration was restored. The Constitutional Church was left without official status.

Napoleon's Rule

For the next twenty years France was essentially ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte, aided by Sieyes, who had been repelled by the Terror, and by Talleyrand, who had returned from exile. Napoleon was essentially a Deist, but he was also a realist who tried to avoid the Revolution's mistakes, including its unpopular suppression of religion.

But he was determined to use the papacy as an instrument of his empire, and when Pius VI resisted, he was brought to France, where he soon died. His successor, Pius VII (elected in a kind of rump conclave hurriedly convened in Venice), succeeded in negotiating a concordat with Napoleon that sought to protect the interests of the Church as far as possible, without necessarily conceding legitimacy to the regime.

Both those Catholics who refused to recognize that legitimacy and those hard-core revolutionaries who wanted to crush the Church completely felt betrayed by the agreement, but the pope and the First Consul each saw advantages—for Napoleon, the end of religious strife in France and papal recognition of his own legitimacy; for Pius, limited toleration for the Church and the defeat of Gallicanism, since by the terms of the Concordat the pope alone represented the Church.

The Constitutional Church thus came to an end, with more than half its bishops submitting to the pope and the rest either resigning or being deposed. But the pope also had to agree to the resignation of those few remaining bishops who had originally rejected the Civil Constitution.

The government would nominate bishops subject to papal ratification, and bishops would appoint lower clergy approved by the government. All bishops were to take an oath to refrain from participating in any action "harmful to the public peace."

But as has so often been the case over the centuries, diplomacy failed to save the Church from a determined secular power. In 1804 Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of the French. Pius came to Paris to preside at the coronation, but Napoleon, not wishing to appear to receive his authority from the Church, placed the crown on his own head. (The legend that at the last moment he snatched the crown from the pope's hands appears not to be true.)

But soon the Concordat began to break down, as Pius continued to act independently. Napoleon seized the Papal States and brought the pope forcibly to France, where he was bullied into making concessions that he soon repudiated. Pius then began rejecting the imperial nominees for bishoprics. Talleyrand—once again sensing the future—fled France.

Wherever French armies were successful, Napoleon imposed the principles of the Revolution, including placing restrictions on the Church and seizing its lands. (Unintentionally he helped restore the spiritual integrity of the German hierarchy by abolishing the prince-bishoprics, thereby allowing the bishops to function primarily as spiritual leaders.)

During the Napoleonic occupation of Spain, the Spanish Inquisition was abolished and other religious reforms were introduced. But on the whole, the Spanish resisted Napoleon most fiercely, being heavily motivated by their Catholicism and often led by priests, a large number of whom were arrested, killed, or deported.

The aged pope was released after Napoleon's final defeat. Alone among the European heads of state, Pius was willing to receive Napoleon's mother and other relatives as refugees, and he interceded to try to make the conditions of Napoleon's exile less severe.

Spiritual Revival

If pent-up anti-religious feelings had been set loose in 1789, suppressed religiosity burst forth after 1815. The attack on religion caused even many people of skeptical mentality to conclude that religion was necessary. (Although Gregoire refused to seek absolution, the aged Talleyrand, repenting on his deathbed, turned his hands over to remind the attending priest that, himself a priest, he had already been anointed on his palms.)

Soon after the defeat of Napoleon there occurred one of the greatest spiritual revivals in the history of the Catholic Church. The peasantry had remained faithful throughout the eighteenth century, skeptical aristocrats now saw religion as the necessary basis of an ordered society, and many of the secularized bourgeoisie also returned to the Church.

Joseph de Maistre, Friedrich von Hardenburg (Novalis), and Francois de Chateaubriand, among others, saw religious meaning in the culture of Romanticism and asserted the truth of Catholicism on the basis of its esthetic and imaginative appeal, something that the Enlightenment had dismissed as mere superstition.

France, having led the way in the destruction of the Church, also led the way in its revival, something that was especially accomplished through new religious orders, founded by people who had persevered through the Terror: William-Joseph Chaminade (the Society of Mary or Marianists), Madeleine-Sophie Barat (the Society of the Sacred Heart), Eugene de Mazenod (the Oblates of Mary Immaculate), Basil Anthony Moreau (the Congregation of the Holy Cross). Pius VII restored the Society of Jesus, calling it a "powerful new oar on Peter's bark." Monasticism had been all but wiped out in France, but the Benedictines and the Dominicans experienced dramatic revivals.

Jean Vianney, the most revered French saint of the nineteenth century, dramatically demonstrated the continuing power of the faith. At first thought to lack the intelligence necessary for the priesthood, he spent almost four decades as curé of the obscure village of Ars, where his reputation for works of charity, self-denial, and simple but heart-felt preaching attracted thousands of
people.

Frederic Ozanam was a lawyer and scholar who supported the Revolution of 1848 but also was powerfully drawn to the Middle Ages, which he extolled as a time of social and cultural wholeness infused by faith. Following the guidance of a saintly nun, he and his friends established the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, an organization to aid the poor that spread worldwide and was the most important practical development in Catholic charity in the nineteenth century.

But forces unfriendly to the Church survived, both under the neo-Gallicanism and neo-Josephinism of the restored Old Regime and under the new Liberalism. The events of 1789 left a long anti-religious legacy. In 1848 and again in 1871 archbishops of Paris were shot and killed during revolutionary uprisings, and in 1905 the French government closed all Catholic schools and seized all church property.

Martyrdom versus Retaliation

Thus, as always throughout history, in the end it was martyrdom that saved the Church. The blood of those who perished indeed proved to be the seed of rebirth.

But there are difficulties. Who can see into the souls of the thousands who died for the sake of religion? How many in fact abjured their faith but were killed nonetheless? For how many were the issues as much political and ethnic as religious? How many had themselves contributed to the moral climate that made atrocities possible? Unhappily, it seems likely that many of those who suffered in the 1790s did so less in the spirit of self-sacrifice than of partisan passion.

The horrendous atmosphere of the Revolution—the sudden and unanticipated eruption of savage nihilism—surely owed much to the centuries of persecution and bloody religious conflict.

The Christian ideal of martyrdom forbids extracting an eye for an eye. But retaliation had been a principal motive for the post-Reformation religious wars, and after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes there were instances of Huguenot guerilla warfare in France, just as there was ruthless, religiously inspired guerilla warfare against Napoleon in Spain. After the fall of Robespierre, the renegade White Terror wreaked violence on any revolutionaries it could capture. Many, as in the Vendée, avenged martyrdom by unrestrained violence of their own.

But the example of the true martyrs still stood out. In bringing good out of evil, God perhaps allowed the horrendous sufferings wrought by the Revolution to teach even the elect a lesson they seemed unable to learn in any other way.

The French Revolution exceeded even the bloodiest religious wars in its nihilism and its compulsive urge to destroy. It understood that a faith that penetrated so deeply into the human psyche could only be extirpated by the most savage methods, an intuition whose truth was borne out precisely by the great religious revival after 1815. 

James Hitchcock is Professor emeritus of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his late wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.