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1871-1914 - Third Republic and the Catholic Church

The challenge facing the Third Republic was to persuade the Catholics of France who were almost unanimously hostile to the Republic, to surrender their monarchical sympathies and dynastic attachments and reconcile themselves with the existing government, and, at the same time, to persuade the Republican authorities to cease regarding the Catholic Church, the French Catholics, and the Vatican, with a hostile and suspicious eye, and to call a halt, or, better still, to retrace their steps, in anti-Clerical legislation.

The Second Empire, especially during its last ten years, had proven itself no less hostile and treacherous to the Church than had many of its predecessors. This was evident most of all in the unworthy treatment of the Holy See during its trying conflict with the revolutionists of Italy. France had encouraged the spoliation of the Papal States by the forces of Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel, and in 1870 it was forced to abandon Rome to the Italian Unionists. Before this last act had been consummated, however, a revolution broke out in France, Sept. 4, 1870, and overturned the imperial Government.

The new republic was born in the midst of war and confusion. The Paris Commune was above all an explosion of rage against religion and the middle classes. All who in any way represented religion or the social order, - priests, magistrates, soldiers, police - were arrested and cast into prison as "hostages."

The war against the Church had sounded in the very first moments of the Third Republic. Its actual declaration and acts of hostility required a preparation of several years. It was on May 4, 1877, that M. Gambetta terminated his vehement assault upon the Catholic Church in the Chamber of Deputies with those words which have become famous: "Our enemy is clericalism!" The administration of President MacMahon proving unfavorable to antireligious sectarianism, it was determined to compel the hero of so many battles to resign- a consummation that was finally effected in January 1879.

The law of laicisation had been proposed in 1876, by the extreme Left. It is a law that denies to French Catholics what they regarded as the most essential liberties. It required the elimination of the religious element in the Superior Council of Public Instruction, the reservation to the State of the monopoly of degrees, the suppression of mixed juries,-established by the law of 1875 in regard to higher education,-the suppression of university rights for every Catholic establishment of superior education, and, finally, it asserted that every member of a Congregation not authorized should be held incapable of participating in any instruction public or private.

In the matter of higher education, the faculties of Catholic theology in the Sorbonne were suppressed (Budget of 1885), while the Protestant faculties have been maintained. In secondary education, religious instruction was made optional (December 21, 1881). In primary education a law of March 28, 1882, interdicted anyone from teaching the catechism in the local schools. In the prisons the religious services were notably reduced. In the hospitals of many cities the Sisters were driven out despite protestations of all kinds; moreover, no priest was henceforth to be placed upon the administrative commissions of the hospitals (April 5, 1879). The cure"s were also driven from the bureaus of charity (April 5, 1879). The exterior ceremonies of religion were forbidden in the streets, and religious monuments proscribed. In the cemeteries nonCatholics were to be admitted to burial side by side with Catholics (Nov. 15, 1881). In the churches, the mayor of the town was to have a key, couiu order the church bells to be rung, and exercise police supervision within the church limits, in contradiction to Article XV. of the Concordat. In the workshops and factories the law of Sunday rest was abrogated (1880). In private houses, no private chapels might be maintained. In the family, the law of divorce was felt (July 27, 1884). In May, 1893, this law was so transformed that a mere separation lasting three years could then, on the demand of one of the parties, be changed into absolute divorce. Civil contracts were elevated to a position of honor. The laws stood at the bedside of the dying to prevent the making of pious legacies; in the cemeteries civil funerals were permitted with attendant anti-religious manifestations, and the new practice of cremation.

In 1880, lyceums were opened for young girls in order to transform their Catholic spirit. In October 30, 1886, a law was voted declaring that thenceforth all Congregation teachers, male and female, should be excluded from all public schools, primary and maternal. In schools for boys the law was executed promptly, and their personal administrations were completely laicised before October, 1891. The schools for girls were subjected to the change more gradually but none the less effectively. By "the law of March 28, 1882, priests were excluded from the schools. In November, 1882, it was forbidden to display any longer the crucifix, which was thereupon taken down from the walls and cast, in many cases, into the filth of the sewers.

Other laws attainted the salaries of the clergy. In 1886 that of the bishops was reduced by one-third, and that of the archbishops by one-fourth. The salaries of canons were gradually extinguished altogether, as were also those of many curacies and assistants. The same method of reduction was brought to bear upon the allowances for seminaries; the towns were released from the obligation of repairing churches and religious establishments of charity. From 1876 to 1893, the budget for religious worship was reduced from 53,727,925 to 42,560,000 francs, or more than 11,000,000.

In 1884 the Pope addressed his celebrated encyclical Nobilissima Gattorum gens, an effusion of fatherly tenderness towards a noble daughter of the Church. In a magnificent word-picture he spoke of the past grandeur of France, he deplored her present evils, and he pointed out, as an efficacious remedy, a cordial understanding and necessary concord between Church and State. At the same time he warned the bishops that they should give no occasion for a suspicion of hostility to the Republic: " Nemo jure criminabitur vos constitutae reipublicae adversari." The same sentiments, calling for close union among Catholics in a Catholic State, were reiterated in his letter to the Bishop of Perigueux, and in his encyclicals, Immortale Dei of Nov. 19, 1885, in his Libertas, June 20, 1888, and still more in the encyclical, Sapientiae Christianae, Jan. 10,1890, all of which while defending the glory and rights of the French Catholics, instructed them in the duties and methods of unity among themselves, and of loyalty to the Republic.

Pope Leo XIII published, on February 16, 1892, the encyclical An milieu dea sollicitudes, addressed to the French bishops, in which he enjoined French Catholics to be loyal to the Republic. The purpose was to rescue religion in France from the vicissitudes of party strife by accepting the political institutions which the country had adopted, and then to rally all the conservative elements of the nation to the defense of religion. To put the motive in more concrete, political terms, the Holy See sought to end the identification of Catholicism with Royalist opposition to the Republic, and thus to deprive the Republic of its strongest arguments for opposing the Church; to force a wedge between the Moderate Republicans and the Radical Republicans, who had hitherto been united against the Catholics because the latter were Royalists, and thus to form a Conservative-Republican bloc friendly to the Church.

A number of factors explain the failure of Pope Leo's policy of reconciling French Catholics with their government. Catholic militants in France, including some of the bishops, did their utmost to aggravate these difficulties, not so much on account of their religious zeal, as on account of their Royalist dislike for the Republic. Catholics of this type did not hesitate to insult their own bishops when the latter seemed to them too tolerant of the existing government. One of their favorite manoeuvres was to oppose the Concordat, which enslaved the church and paralyzed its energy. This argument was used, not only by Catholic laymen, but also by priests and bishops.

These ecclesiastics fairly overwhelmed with pious insults and religious anathemas anyone, whether layman or cleric, who did not agree with them. 'They assumed that they possessed a monopoly of all the zeal and heroism expended in defending the rights of the church. Whoever adopted their views was a brave and courageous man, a true champion of the good cause. Whoever was inclined to a different opinion was a villain, a poltroon, not to say a traitor. These clerical irreconcilables eventually fancied that they alone spoke in the name of the Deity, proclaiming that, if a miracle was necessary, they would demand one. Naturally, these irreconcilable monks and priests were backed up by those French Catholics who were opposed to any form of reconciliation with the government, who were Royalists equally hostile to the Republic and to the policy of the Holy See.

The Government no longer dared to touch upon the religion of the soul; it perceived clearly that dogmas and the internal rules of morality were beyond the scope of civil legislation. In its new war upon religion it invoked against the Church reasons of State, and interests of a political order. Comprehending as they did that the French people were attached to republican institutions, the party of persecution endeavored to represent the Catholics as the enemies of the republican Government while they would identify their own cause with that of the established power.

The Catholics were accused of political ends in all their actions, and their zeal in defending the spiritual order was transformed into a greedy desire for exclusive advancement in things temporal. Hence the Government, menaced by the plots and schemes of Catholics, was obliged to defend itself, and to adopt the most effective measures for destroying Catholic conspiracy. These insinuations were constantly injected into the masses by anti-Christian journals, orators, and demagogues, whose perpetual cry was that the Church is the enemy of the State, of civil authority, of modern society and of intellectual progress, all of which were by them comprehended in the term "Republic."

The Liberal party in France deemed it necessary that all children should be taught loyalty to the Republic. There were nearly twenty thousand religious associations, holding property worth a billion of francs, that were carrying on schools taught by monks or nuns, who were believed to favor the restoration of monarchical government. A majority in Parliament regarded these schools as dangerous to the State. They accordingly passed a measure called the Law of Associations (1901). This law limited the amount of property which the associations could hold, and it required every one of their schools to obtain a license to teach, and to report what their course of instruction was. Over five thousand associations applied for licenses, but few received them. Three years later (1904) a stringent measure declared that all denominational teaching in schools must entirely cease within a period of ten years. This radical decree foreshadowed the enactment of one still more radical; namely, the disestablishment of the Catholic Church in France in 1905. This momentous act, in which the Socialists took a very prominent part, was hailed by loud cries of "Long live the Republic!" "Long live Liberty!"

The French Government put the Catholic church precisely on thp same footing with the Protestant church the Jews, and the Greek Catholic church. French Catholics hail only to accept the law, just as other religious bodies did, and form associations for religious worship-in that case the churches were to be dedicated to the very same use for which they were intended when they were bnilt. There was not a Catholic congregation in France which could not have had the use of its property by simply complying with the law of religious association. The Protestant churches were willing to comply with the law and did comply with it. The Jews were willing to accept the law and did accept it. The Greek Catholic church was willing1 to obey the legislative act and did obey it.

So long as the Holy See had made no definite pronouncement concerning the policy which French Catholics ought to adopt, they were very much divided on the question, but unanimity instantly reigned on the day when Pope Pius X. formally indicated a definite policy. They who had desired that a plan of campaign different from that outlined by Rome should be pursued, respectfully submitted, and thus, by their obedience, gave proof of the sincerity and good faith of their former convictions.

A majority of the French Catholics wanted to obey the law and requested the Roman hierarchy to allow them to do it. But the Pope, controlled of course by the Italian priests who surround him in the Vatican, ordered the French Catholics to defy their own Government. Such an order on the part of the Pope was incendiary in its character, for it tended to make rebellion against the Government inevitable.

Active resistance was organized by a number of militant Catholics, but for the most part, the ecclesiastical authorities, bishops and cures, held themselves aloof from such organized efforts, and discountenanced all use of physical force. Nevertheless, in Paris, throughout the northern and central part of France, in Brittany, many churches were barricaded and transformed into veritable fortresses. The agents of the Government were compelled to fall back on an armed force, and soldiers were employed in a service to which their flag certainly did not call them. Many officers, when ordered to force the door of a church, refused to obey, and were willing to sacrifice their career for the sake of their religious convictions. For this disobedience they were summoned before a courtmartial ; some were acquitted; others found guilty and punished.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:58:29 ZULU