Today, July 14, is Bastille Day, the commemoration of the revolution that brought down France’s Ancien Régime and led to the establishment of a new order that promised to totally refashion society.
Unlike the American Revolution, which was fought to conserve rights and maintain political order, the French Revolution destroyed the fabric of French society. No aspect of human life was untouched. The Committee of Public Safety – influenced by Rousseau – claimed that to convert the oppressed French nation to democracy, “you must entirely refashion a people whom you wish to make free, destroy its’ prejudices, alter its habits, limit its necessities, root up its vices, purify its desires.”
To achieve this end, the new rational state, whose primary ideological plank was that the sovereignty of “the people” is unlimited, attempted to eliminate French traditions, norms, and religious beliefs.
The revolutionary governing bodies were particularly determined to destroy every vestige of the Roman Catholic Church because France was hailed by Rome as the Church’s “eldest daughter” and the monarch had dedicated “our person, our state, our crown and our subjects” to the Blessed Virgin.
The Constituent Assembly began the campaign against the Church by stating in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, “no body or individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.” In other words the Church could no longer have any say in public matters. The secular state would now have the final word over every aspect of human and social life.
Next, the government abrogated the 1516 Concordat that defined France’s relationship with the Vicar of Christ. Financial and diplomatic relations with the papacy ceased. In the name of freedom, all monastic vows were suspended and in February 1790, legislation was approved to suppress the monasteries and confiscate their properties.
The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed on July 12, 1790, decreed that the priesthood was a civil body and all bishops and priests were to be selected by the people and paid by the state. The pope was to have no say in the matter. In addition, clerics had to swear an oath of loyalty to the French Constitution. Dissidents had to resign their ministries and many were prosecuted as criminals. Lay Catholics loyal to the pope were treated as rebels and traitors.
The Storming of the Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houêl (1789)
With only four out of 135 bishops taking the oath in 1791, the more radical Legislative Assembly ordered additional sanctions against the Church. All religious congregations were suppressed and wearing clerical garb was forbidden. Priests loyal to the papacy were automatically guilty of “fanaticism” and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Processions were forbidden; crucifixes and religious artifacts were stripped out of churches. Government priests were granted freedom to marry, divorce was permissible, and marriage became a civil procedure. Also, education, managed for centuries by the Church, was nationalized.
To further de-Christianize France, a new civil religion was introduced – patriotism. The Gregorian calendar was eliminated and replaced with names related to nature. To abolish Sunday worship, months were rearranged to contain three “weeks” of ten days apiece, thus designating every tenth day for rest.
Catholic holy days were replaced with national holidays and civic days of worship. The “Cult of Great Men” (i.e., Rousseau) replaced the veneration of saints. The use of the word “saint” was forbidden. “There should be no more public and national worship but that of Liberty and Holy Equality,” declared the revolutionary government.
Every city and village was ordered to erect an “altar to the fatherland” and to conduct July “Federation Month” patriotic rites. The Feast of Nature was observed in August and the Cult of Reason was celebrated at Paris’ Civic Temple, formerly the Cathedral of Notre Dame. A female dancer was crowned as the Goddess of Reason and performed for the assembly.
In 1794, the deistic cult of the Supreme Being replaced the atheistic adoration of reason. At the first public worship, the self-declared high priest, Robespierre, pronounced in his homily, “the idea of the Supreme Being and the soul’s immortality is a continuous summons to justice and consequently social and republican.”
Despite all the efforts of the missionaries of terror, the Church was not stamped out of existence. The heroism of the thousands of martyred bishops, priests, and religious inspired millions of the faithful and caused a spiritual renascence in France during the nineteenth century.
The notorious political rogue and excommunicated bishop of Autun, the Prince de Talleyrand, reviewing that terrible period of persecution, conceded, “Regardless of my own part in this affair, I readily admit that the Civil Constitution of the Clergy . . . was perhaps the greatest political mistake of the Assembly, quite apart from the dreadful crimes which flowed there from.”
General of the Republic, Henri Clarke, agreed. In a report to the government in 1796, he wrote, “Our revolution, so far as religion is concerned, has proved a complete failure. France has become once more Roman Catholic, and we may be on the point of needing the pope himself in order to enlist clerical support for the Revolution.”
The French ideologues learned, as did their barbaric heirs in the twentieth century, that every effort to destroy the Church and eliminate the faithful fails. As Christ Himself promised: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”