Romanticism and the Church

I recently got a good lesson in Romanticism from Simon Schama’s book Citizens, a history of the French Revolution. In the final pages, Schama concluded that the revolution was an expression of the Age of Romanticism. So, far from the Age of Wonder that Richard Holmes would have the Romantic Period be – the title of his own book on the subject – there was and is another side to Romanticism, one that rides violently over thought, institutions, and people. Holmes and others who think like him are not wholly wrong (there is a large dose of wonder in Romanticism). But there was simply much more to Romanticism, especially as it continues today: in the mobs in the streets, for example, and in the built-in obstructions to the operations of Catholicism.

Among the many contributing causes, Schama debunked the idea that the French Revolution was a matter of the poor against the nobles. Mostly, it seems to have been the nobles against each other. There was a strange kind of self-loathing among many figures of the upper classes. This is the first useful point for us to remember in current conditions, elite self-loathing. Revolution seems to be a thrill even when it is a movement against one’s own community and interests. Today, perhaps undermining the Church and its teachings gives people a thrill – who can also say: See, we’re revolutionaries too!

Then Schama debunked the idea that the royal administration was doing nothing for the people. He analyzed the extensive modern research on the projects being instituted and carried out by the king and his staff. This was a second useful point. There was a large group during the days before the Revolution pooh-poohing the value of what was there already, most of which they were probably not even aware. Today, too, there is a similar anti-historical attitude – “The Church and its teachings start anew with me. I make it up as I go along.”

Schama also studied how the rhetoric in France changed, becoming more histrionic and extreme as the revolution approached. This is yet another useful point. The revolutionary rhetoric detaches itself from reason and becomes hysterical. All the noise was intended to cow the other side, much as some bishops today can be scared by their diocesan staffs, or priests intimidated by their parishioners. Then clergy and laity don’t get to do what they are meant to do. They can become opposing political factions instead of cooperators in the mission of Christ.

One of Schama’s key points is worth pondering: Romanticism had – we might say still has – “an addiction to the Absolute and the Ideal.” Here the “Absolute” was nature, not God. The “Ideal” had more to do with abstract terms than anything that relates to reality. This kind of Romanticism is characterized by “its obsession with the heart; its preference for passion over reason, for virtue over peace.”

The Routing of Cholet, October 1793 by Jules Girardet, c. 1900 [Museum of Art and History, Cholet, France] **

Romanticism was (is) anti-reason, obsessed with passion – where it dominates in the Church all those courses in logic for clergy are wasted. “Virtue” was what the French revolutionaries imagined had existed in ancient Rome, which is to say mostly Stoicism. This was not the Catholic understanding of virtue. In fact, the Revolution worked mightily to destroy the Church, slaughtering clergy, religious, and laity.

Here’s the crux: the Romantic stance contributed “a crucial ingredient in the mentality of the revolutionary elite: its association of liberty with wildness. . . .From the very beginning, violence was the motor of the revolution.” The often-wild language and murderous behavior of the Romantics gained the upper hand and the contributions of Catholicism were pushed aside.

If there is a parallel with modern times, then Romantics will have difficulty with Catholicism because the real Faith involves assent to actual doctrine – reason over passion. Shifting passions will not allow one to consistently love one’s neighbor, for example. Romantics don’t regularly pray the Office of Readings because they cannot – don’t want – to enter the Tradition that, after all, they believe has passed. But without a commonly accepted Tradition, there is no unity in the Church.

Such Romantics make poor priests, for the same reason, not listening to the tradition. Romantic clergy cannot preach about Scripture beyond giving their opinion. They don’t want to do what the Church intends. Hearing confessions is impossible because they cannot make an objective judgment.

Romantics make poor bishops, too, because they work without the tradition. Some of the people they hire will also be Romantics and so cannot objectively bring Catholicism to bear on their tasks, meaning well (passion) is all that is required.

Romantics make poor religious because they will violate their order’s role in the history of salvation, reading everything as starting with themselves. They will violate their vows not least because they ignore what the Church means by them. Try being poor and middle-class, or chaste and self-indulgent or obedient only to one’s own wishes.

Romantics will also do lethal things like voting for abortion because there is expediency about Romanticism that is savage and yet so matter-of-fact. In 18th century France, Romantic revolutionaries could tear people to pieces just as we pay doctors to do to babies today.

To be fair and complete, there was another Romanticism, the Romanticism of Chateaubriand who pointed to what he called The Genius of Christianity, the immense record of architecture, painting, music, literature that came out of the Faith – the Faith in its fullness, which included both thought and (authentic) emotion.

The Incarnation did not mean taking on the worst aspects of the culture and bringing them into the Church. It means learning from Christ and teaching the culture what He taught us. Romanticism of the wrong kind is destroying the Church.


** Girardet’s painting depicts Catholics fleeing Revolutionary forces during the Battle of Tremblaye (15 October 1793) near Cholet during the War in the Vendée.