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26 January 2022

From the NS Archive: The Catholic Revival in France

May 10 1913: It was made obvious to everyone that Catholicism had lost all influence over the intellectual world.

By Pierre Chavannes

France’s Third Republic was cemented by its views on anti-clericalism. Republicans detested the Church for its political and class affiliations, and the various political scandals involving the Catholic Church in the late 19th Century, such as the Dreyfus affair, which continued to expose the association between the clergy and government. The passing of the Law of Separation of Churches and State in 1905 established state secularism in France, and so followed the closing of thousands of Catholic schools and the majority of the orders of priests and religious sisters. And yet, as Pierre Chavannes warns in this article from 1913, “it is always risky to announce the end of Catholicism; it has been done a hundred times in France, and Catholicism still lives”. Chavannes anticipates the Catholic Revival among France’s young people “who [will] confess themselves Catholics and practise their religion” as fuelled by youthful rebellion to “first and foremost” take “reaction against those who have gone before them”.


Catholicism has a genius for advertisement; one may be sure that any advantage it may gain in any portion of the world will very soon be known in all the others. Everywhere people are beginning to talk a little of a “Catholic Revival in France” and it is true that great efforts have been made of late years to raise the Church from its ruins, and that in certain respects these efforts have been successful. But to pretend that France is on the eve of becoming Catholic is to push the art of advertisement to the point of bluff, and the very people who announce it must know well, if they have any knowledge at all, that their desires are very far from being realised.

The Dreyfus affair, and still more the Separation [of the Churches and the State], exposed the real weakness of Catholicism in France. It was made obvious to everyone that Catholicism had lost all influence over the intellectual world and that the working masses of the towns also had escaped from its grasp. For many this was a revelation; men had failed to notice that obscure movement of thought that has been compared to the march of troops who journey through the night, and whom one sees in the morning occupying positions which last evening were still empty. The ease with which the law of Separation was voted, the complete calm and even indifference with which the vast majority of the nation received it in spite of all the efforts and all the demonstrations of the Catholics of the Right, the successive elections which resulted in a Chamber three-quarters of the members of which were Radical – that is to say, anti-Clerical – all these events threw a blaze of light on the Catholic defeat, which wore all the appearance of a great disaster.

At the same time, the new Pope, Pius X, seemed to take upon himself the task of completing the disaster of his troops. To the delicate and benevolent smile of Leo XIII, to a genius for diplomacy and conciliation, to social views generous and sometimes almost liberal, succeeded the spirit uncompromising, narrow, immovable, of a mediaeval pope, who in a series of decrees hardened Catholic dogma and discipline in those aspects where they were most opposed to modern ideas, and dug deeper than ever the abyss of misunderstanding and reciprocal ill-feeling that separates the Catholics from their opponents. Ignoring the desire formulated almost unanimously by the assembled bishops of France, scorning the wish of almost all serious Catholics, Pius X condemned and anathematised the law of Separation, choosing rather to see the Church of France plundered of its goods, without legal existence, occupying under tolerance churches that he no longer owned, rather than recognise the associations cultuelles, which might, he thought, introduce laymen into the government of the Church, and thus shatter with the democratic spirit her monarchical and, from top to bottom, narrowly hierarchical constitution. One after another Pius X condemned all the endeavours of Catholics to get in touch with their age and accommodate themselves with the new order of things. In condemning the “Sillon” he condemned the sole loyal attempt to reconcile Catholicism and Democracy in the political and social sphere; and in condemning Modernism he condemned the sole loyal effort to introduce into Catholic thought the spirit and the method of present-day science. He established a rigid surveillance over the thought, the writings, and the acts of the clergy, and tightened the meshes of a kind of inquisitorial net which enveloped the students in the seminaries, the priests, and the bishops. Lastly, he made a great attempt to restore to the Catholic cult its primitive austerity, to suppress modern music, and to re-establish the ancient order of the ceremonies.

At first it seemed that the Pope had finished the work of his adversaries. A great anti-clerical wave swept over France; it spread from the towns into the very heart of the country; the seminaries emptied; and the intelligent and moderate Catholic no longer broke silence, save to utter over the deserted and ruined Church the lamentations of Jeremiah. But it is always risky to announce the end of Catholicism; it has been done a hundred times in France, and Catholicism still lives; its constitution, iron in its solidity as in its hardness, enables it to weather the storm and wait for better days. It satisfies too many vital needs to collapse like this. It is even possible to wonder whether the intransigence of Pius X has not in the long run profited it. Pius X dissipated all ambiguities; accentuating Catholicism in the most starkly Catholic and Roman Catholic sense, he accomplished, as it were, a Puritan reform of the Church. In this way he has driven out of the Church many honest and moderate elements, but he has given to the remainder a very high degree of cohesion, of firmness, and of aggressiveness. There are losses which are also gains; allowing the Church to be plundered rather than modify the rigidity of Catholic principles, he has gained for the Church the prestige of a great moral force, and he has done his best over and above this to win her a martyr’s halo.

This uncompromising attitude has fascinated passionate souls who can brook no compromise, and attracted also weak souls who are awed by every appearance of strength. The seminaries have been denuded of priest-functionaries, but they have had some priest-apostles. The priests, compelled at last by the Separation to rely entirely upon their parishioners, have been led by the force of circumstances to get into more intimate contact with them, to multiply their activities, and to revivify their churches in order to live themselves. So harshly did the catastrophe bear upon them, so pressing was the necessity of living, that slumbering energies have been awakened, and priests and laymen have flung themselves courageously into the work of reconstruction.

All kinds of political and social circumstances stimulated and directed that effort: results began to appear. The bourgeoisie is (or says it is) more Catholic than it has been for a long time. Feverish fear of social upheavals, timid attachment to all the powers of conservation, worldly snobbism, regard for the conventions and for the comme il faut, need for a solid code of manners and for a religious consecration of the great events of life, the infection also of some fine personalities: all these things, if not always acting together, have made for this return to religion – a religion, moreover, sufficiently easy, usually superficial and not very troublesome, and of very little influence on the conduct of life. The class chiefly affected is the vast public of jeunes filles and of femmes, of petites bourgeoises and grandes bourgeoises, who pass through the convents, go to Mass, listen to Lenten lectures, celebrate Easter, read the Annales, and weep at the first communion of their daughters. But this essentially conservative class was long ago won for Catholicism, and these latter years have only drawn it closer. The rebellious liberal, free-thinking bourgeoisie became devout from the day when, having acquired everything, it had everything to lose by a change.

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Catholic endeavour has above all been directed towards the labouring masses, whose abstention and hostility had alone allowed its defeats. “Chapels of Help” have been built in the suburbs of various large towns, where a single priest had been lost in the middle of thousands of workmen who hardly knew of his existence; there have been attempts to win the people over through interest or gratitude; social works of all kinds have sprung up – crèches, workshops, popular institutes corresponding to polytechnics, associations of young men and young women, Catholic trade unions. The effort is certainly great for an exhausted Church, but up to the present the results seem rather meagre. The hold of Catholicism on the people appears to have been definitely lost, at least in the great industrial towns and in many rural districts; the indifference of the masses has hardly been affected. Hostility is less bitter; anti-clerical passion seems to have worked itself out, but that is for lack of sustenance; for impotent Catholicism is no longer considered an urgent danger, and the people, tired of “parson-eating,” are now preoccupied with the more substantial nourishment of the material advantages and social laws that have been promised them.

Whilst it was attacking the masses, Catholic endeavour very cleverly aimed at the head: it attacked also the world of intellectuals, of writers and of artists. At the present moment the fashion, or, at any rate, one of the fashions, is to be a Catholic. There have been some startling conversions; others more silent and, for that very reason, often more serious. Some men, delicate souls who are racked by the brutalities of modern civilisation, who are wounded by the cruelties of life, have themselves gone to seek a “last refuge” in the shadow, the silence, and the tranquillity of the sanctuaries. Others have celebrated in Catholicism the creator, the historical ally, and the perpetual guardian of the true French traditions, and, without possessing faith, have constituted themselves defender of the Church. Others, again, have been seduced by the beauty of her symbols and her ceremonies, and by the spell of certain of her dogmas. A whole school of young poets styles itself Catholic; in this group the diversity is great, from those who have allowed the Faith to renew their whole life to those, more numerous, who have found in the Faith the mean of renewing their themes and their cadences.

[From the NS archive: Are great men also stupid?]

Circumstances incline youth to come under the influence of Catholicism. Every generation of young people takes its line first and foremost in reaction against those who have gone before it. The youth of the last generation was restless, anxious to see itself clearly, and for that reason obsessed by analysis and criticism, rebellious against all external authority; it was Individualist, and at the same time animated by a noble though often vague desire for justice, and harassed by a religious feeling which was very pure, but shrank from allowing itself to be shut within the limit of a dogma, of an institution, or of a church. The youth of today wishes above all to live, to live rather than to think; and by living it means to live usefully, to enter upon precise activities, to labour at a lasting work, to enter into an organisation, a society, which has stood the test of time. It is less idealist than practical, or, at least, it is idealist in a practical fashion; it is Catholic-Royalist, or even Socialist-Syndicalist; more rarely Liberal or Individualist. Convinced of the relativity of science, it easily divides the domain of science from that of religion, seeing in the latter a medium favourable for the unfolding of energy and of life. In the large school the number of young people who confess themselves Catholics and practise their religion is much greater than it was ten years ago.

This Catholic renaissance was to be expected after the triumph of anti-clericalism, a triumph which was not without mistakes and excesses of all kinds; but it must be admitted that it only affects an inconsiderable part of the nation. Free thought is less aggressive and even loses ground in cultured quarters, but its work goes on beneath the surface; thousands of Instituteurs are officially associated with the Société de Libre Pensée, which in France is an extremely active anti-religious organisation. It must not be forgotten that if Catholicism remains active and gains strength in some districts, many others are almost entirely decatholicised; everywhere the ruins are vast.

What is more real than the Catholic revival is a French revival, a new confidence in the race and its destiny; and in the youth a spirit of affirmation, of creation, of reconstruction, of realisation, and of heroism, a love of action and responsibilities, an awaking of patriotism and of national pride. The causes of this revival are many; the influence and the example of England on one side, the reaction against Germany on the other side, have contributed something to it. Catholicism, like every other organised force, shares in this awakening of energies, and it endeavours to associate in people’s minds its own efforts at revival with this great national awakening, in order to capture it and to use it very practically for its own benefit. There is slight chance that it will succeed. For that a great moral revolution would be necessary, and also a political revolution, for in France politics and religion are always intimately interwoven. It was Poincaré who recently observed to a deputy of the Centre: “We are separated from you by the whole religious questions.” Doubtless there is at this moment a crisis of parliamentarism, signs of wavering and a certain confusion in opinion; regenerated energy hesitates between several roads, but there is nothing to justify the prediction that the moral revival in France will take place in the Catholic sense, nor that a political reaction is possible which may lead to a change in the form of government. And even should the Royalist and Catholic movements gain an access of strength that they do not at present possess, their victory would be very ephemeral. After the wave has leapt forward it comes back upon itself; it recoils, but the tide rises.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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