Monday, May 24, 2021

A Lasting Legacy of Discord

This year 2021 is, among other things, the 150th anniversary of the infamous Paris Commune, the notoriously violent and bloody sequel to the Franco-Prussian War and the overthrow of Napoleon III's Second French Empire, a regime which had been allied with the Church. In the wake of the French defeat in the fall of 1870, the Parisian proletariat had risen up in March 1871, with the ominous cry, "Vive la Commune!" Unsurprisingly, the Commune quickly turned to attack the Church. In his great political pamphlet, The Civil War in France, Karl Marx analyzed the Commune as the first historical example of what Marxist theory called "the Dictatorship fo the Proletariat," and described how: "Having once got rid of the standing army and the police, the physical force elements of the old Government, the commune was anxious to break the spiritual force of repression, the 'parson power,' by the disestablishment and disendowment of all churches as proprietary bodies."

That, of course, was just the beginning. By the end of May, many lives had been lost as the national government violently suppressed the Commune and the Commune retaliated by murdering some 74 hostages, among them 24 priests, of whom the most famous was the Archbishop of Paris, Georges Darboy, murdered 150 years ago today, wearing the cross of one predecessor archbishop who had died during the 1848 revolution and the ring of another predecessor murdered in 1857.

After the defeat of the Commune, Archbishop Darboy got a fancy funeral on June 7. But the bizarre intransigence of the Comte de Chambord (the grandson of King Charles X and thus the Legitimist pretender to the French crown), who refused to accept the throne unless the white Bourbon flag were restored also, resulted in the compromise of the Third French Republic. (From Rome, Pope Pius IX remarked, "Henry IV said Parish was worth a Mass, Henry V finds France not worth a serviette.") 

The post-Commune French Republic was, for a while at least, seized with a certain sort of remorse. Fifty members of Parliament participated in a Mass of expiation celebrated at Paray-le-Monial, site of Saint Margaret Mary's revelations of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the 17th century. Then, by a vote of 389 to 146, Parliament approved the public erection of a shrine dedicated to the Sacred Heart in Paris (photo) on Montmartre, the site of the martyrdom of a much earlier Archbishop of Parish, Saint Denis, in the year 250. (The shrine that had historically marked that site had been destroyed by the Revolution in 1793.)

"This imposing Romano-Byzantine pastiche in brilliant white (still the fifth largest tourist attraction in Paris) was regarded as an attempt to expiate the revolutionary tradition recently so grimly active on the city plain below." (Michael Burleigh, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War, Harper Collins, 2005, p. 338.)

Even without the restoration of "the Most Christian King," the Church made a significant recovery in France after the defeat of the Commune. There were even serious attempts to reach out to the French proletariat. Such efforts ultimately failed, however. "They presupposed a Christian working class, hostile to the spirit of the 1789 Revolution, whereas, in fact, the whole tendency of the period was in favour of that Revolution." (Adriene Dansette, Religious History of Modern France: Volume I From the Revolution to the Third Republic, tr. John Dingle, Herder, 1961,  p. 342.)

In 19-century Europe, the Catholic Church desperately struggled to survive as an institution against an increasingly liberal political order that sought to constrain it. In reaction, the 19th-century Church sought to counteract the social fragmentation associated with liberalism and to reconnect increasingly isolated individuals into a community by preserving, repairing, or restoring religious bonds. The predominant approach was to assert the Church’s claims to authority as vigorously as possible and to insist upon the Church’s political privileges and institutional rights in relation to the state and upon the traditional constitutional arrangements (for example, the union of throne and altar) that appeared most compatible with the Church’s social and political position, if only because of the security this seemingly offered in the face of frightening and unpredictable change. 

One American alternative, associated with Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), to that primarily political approach enthusiastically supported the Church’s full spiritual authority over its own members but envisaged a social solution in which citizens could combine commitment to true religion with democratic and republican political institutions. His was a thoroughly religious form of discourse, uniquely attempting to address novel social and political concerns.


Meanwhile, already in the 1830s, the 19th-century’s most famous foreign observer and analyst of Jacksonian American society and institutions, the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), had famously described American democracy’s utterly unexpected compatibility with Catholicism:


These Catholics are faithful to the observances of their religion; they are fervent and zealous in the support and belief of their doctrines. Nevertheless they constitute the most republican and the most democratic class of citizens which exists in the United States; and although this fact may surprise the observer at first, the causes by which it is occasioned may easily be discovered upon reflection.


De Tocqueville was, of course, well aware that his social insights into American democracy’s compatibility with Catholicism and what Catholicism had to offer to America hardly corresponded to conventional wisdom – on either side of the Atlantic. Changes in both Church and State in the 20th century opened a much needed path for reconsideration and for exploring new ways around the impasse that had been created by the existential conflict between religion and modernity that the French Revolution had institutionalized. Although in the 20th century both Church and State have sought to put behind them aspects of this unhappy legacy of conflict, so far the effort seems only partly successful. It now remains to be seen how well those new 20th-century pathways will hold up under the cultural and social stresses of this increasingly conflictual 21st century.

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