Sunday, July 14, 2013

Bastille Day and Religious Freedom

Today is Bastille Day, when France celebrates the Revolution of 1789. As I view the day, I note that the celebration occurs in the midst of the Novena to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, just two days before that Feast and just three days before the memorial of the Blessed Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne, whom I discussed with Barbara McGuigan yesterday on The Good Fight and will this Wednesday discuss with Brian Patrick on the Son Rise Morning Show. I sent a version of this post to Barbara as background for our conversation.

Since January 2012, when the Obama administration issued the final version of the Health and Human Services (HHS) Mandate of insurance coverage for “free” contraceptive, abortafacient, and sterilization services, many pundits have cited the historical example of Henry VIII and the English Reformation. See for example, Chris Matthews’ comments on MSNBC: “I guess I grew up watching movies like Becket and A Man for All Seasons and seeing the church and state go to war with each other and being told stories from the Old Testament about the Maccabees, about people, families being told you got to eat pork,” he said. Matthews added that it is “frightening” to him “when the state tells the church what to do.” On The Catholic World Report website, Matthew Cullinan Hoffman saw some parallels between Elizabethan era recusancy laws and the Obama administration’s HHS Mandate against Catholic consciences:

“Intentionally or not, the administration’s policy smacks of the methods established by England’s Queen Elizabeth against Catholic “recusants,” who refused to participate in the worship services of the Anglican Church during the late 16th century. Although Elizabeth’s regime, and those that followed for the next two hundred years, did not provide a penalty for Catholic belief as such, they found a simple and devastating way to coerce Catholics to violate their consciences: the recusancy fine, which was levied against those who absented themselves from Sunday Anglican worship or failed to receive communion once a year.”

In the summer of 2012 and again this summer, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops have sponsored the Fortnight for (Religious) Freedom from June 21 to July 4, beginning the fourteen day period of prayer, fasting, and protest the day before the memorial of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More. St. Thomas More has particularly been the focus, since he was a layman (and the bishops are calling on the laity for leadership in this effort), and he has even been featured on a prayer card.

While I have been supportive of this interpretation, I think that the French Revolution’s attack on the Catholic Church might be an even better historical parallel for us to consider.

While the English Reformation did introduce a great conflict between Catholics and the state, it did so by creating an Erastian (state controlled) Christian church. There is definitely a confessional element here of the officially Protestant state, with its head being the Supreme Head and Governor of the Church, persecuting Catholics for their faith, especially for their attendance at Holy Mass and their spiritual and ecclesial loyalty to the Pope as the Vicar of Christ. But I suggest the attempted secularization of French culture and the animosity of the revolutionary governments against the Catholic Church as being counter-revolutionary is the more apt comparison.

The Incorruptible Maximilien Robespierre and the Reign of Terror led a campaign to excise Christianity from French culture. The revolutionaries were acting on the Enlightenment philosophes’ verbal attacks on the Catholic Church, regarding it as an ally of the old regime. The National Constituent Assembly of France seized all Church property, suppressed convents and monasteries, and forced priests to serve as employees of the State, swearing an oath to the Revolution while denying loyalty to the Pope. The Blessed Sacrament was desecrated, church furnishings and artwork wrecked, and churches destroyed in a massive campaign of iconoclasm. More than 200 non-juring priests and three bishops—those who would not take the required oath—were brutally massacred in Paris on September 2 and 3, 1793 (pictured above). The Carmelites of Compiegne, the Ursulines of Valencienne, and nuns from other religious orders were guillotined as enemies of the Revolution.

Other steps in the dechristianization of France were to eliminate the Gregorian calendar, the seven day week, the Sunday day of rest and worship; change any street or city name with a religious reference; and ban holy days and saints’ feasts. A new calendar began with Year I of the new Republic. In all these efforts, the French revolutionary governments—from the fall of the monarchy to the restoration of some rights with Napoleon Bonaparte’s Concordat with the Vatican—wanted to demonstrate that the Catholic Church was an enemy of the revolution.

In the revolution’s terms, the Catholic Church was an enemy first because the Church had great wealth and had supported the old structures. But the deeper reason was that the Catholic Church could distract her members from loyalty to the revolution and new state that emphasized absolute unity around the ideals of Liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Note that priests and religious were particularly targeted, as the hierarchy of the Church was forced to choose between loyalty to the State and loyalty to the Church, and contemplative religious orders were suppressed because their lives of prayer and sacrifice were considered useless to the common good. Christianity was fundamentally in conflict with the goals of the revolution, and had to be eradicated from French culture. Of course, this attempt failed—even trying to replace Catholic worship of Almighty God and devotion to His saints with the Cult of the Supreme Being and other deist rituals and festivals—because many of the people, especially in the rural areas, remained true to the Catholic Faith. In the Vendee region of France they fought for their faith (and the monarchy) and the people suffered greatly when Robespierre and his Committee ordered their massacre and devastation of their crops and property.

The parallel I see to our situation today in the United States—and there is another very obvious parallel in France today with the Socialist Hollande government forcing so called “gay marriage” on the people in spite of their overwhelming protests against that legislative action —is the State proclaiming its absolute authority to force the Church and its members to accept the State’s version of the common good. (The same could be said of Enda Kenny of Irish Fine Gael imposing abortion on Ireland in spite of protests and opposition in his own party.) The Obama administration has obviously determined that these contraceptive and “reproductive health services” are required by its standards of the common good. The Church’s argument against that position has been rejected, even when we attempt to use natural law and the dignity of the human person, including the right to life of the unborn, and the fact that fertility is a normal, healthy condition. Our argument from the right of conscientious objection has also been ignored and rejected, because the State has determined that providing these reproductive services is a good that trumps conscience rights and the free exercise of religion, even though the latter is protected by the U.S. Constitution.

The French Revolution established a pattern of State control over and interference with Church and religion, combining those efforts with violence and destruction in the name of secular unity on earthly ideals. In 2012, the film For Greater Glory dramatized the Cristeros War in twentieth-century Mexico, during which the revolutionary government followed the French Revolution’s example to attempt again to destroy Catholicism. As often noted, of course, we are not facing life and death decisions like the recusant Catholics of England, the non-juring priests of France, or the Cristeros in Mexico. Catholic individuals, organizations, universities, and dioceses have access to legislative and judicial means to avoid either compromising our beliefs or paying fines. Nevertheless the French Revolution’s attack on the Catholic Church provides us with a fascinating historical parallel to the modern secular state attempts to impose its will on Catholics and other Christians in the name of the common good.

But the story would be incomplete without remembering the failure of this effort and the recovery of the Church after the French Revolution. The martyrdoms of the priests and seminarians in the September massacres, the execution of the Carmelites, Ursulines, and other religious, inspired Catholics to remain true to their Faith. The government’s very attempt to replace the Catholic Mass with deistic festivals showed that society abhorred the religious vacuum. The laity remained true to their devotions and prayers, even if they could not attend Mass.

And after the rise of Napoleon and the Concordat with the Vatican, the Church in France recovered and grew: new religious orders serving the poor flourished; the monastic orders revived; new educational and social efforts, like the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, involved the laity in charitable works. Great cathedrals and churches were reconsecrated for sacred worship and restored--church bells tolled again to call the people to prayer. although the bells in the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, having been melted down for coinage and cannon shot, were replaced with out-of-tune bells. This situation was not remedied until 2013, when a new set of bells were consecrated and installed in time for Holy Week.

Pilgrimages to the sites of Marian apparitions—Lourdes, the Rue de Bac (Miraculous Medal), Laus, and La Sallette—recalled medieval piety and devotion. Great saints inspire the Church to this day: St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Bernadette Soubirous, St. Catherine Laboure, Blessed Frederic Ozanam, St. Peter Julian Eymard, St. John Vianney, and many foundresses of the religious orders like St. Mary Magdalen Postel (The Sisters of the Christian Schools of Mercy), St. Mary Euphrasia (The Good Shepherd Sisters), and St. Julie Billiart (The Institute of Notre Dame)—their lives of holiness and service demonstrate the chronic vigor of the Church.
These signs of revival and renewal clearly demonstrate the continuing guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Just as after the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, God raised up many saints to lead and inspire the Church in the nineteenth century, the Age of Revolution in Europe. That’s why Catholic Church history is always so inspiring and even consoling: it proves that as He promised, Jesus is always with His Church. Whatever dangers or persecutions we encounter—from within and without—He protects and guides us to struggle on in this life to do His will.


  1. It is to be hoped that Catholics and other Christians in France and the USA will be praying for the removal of the forerunners of the Beast.
    Thank you for your site it has strengthened my own faith and reinforced to me that my spiritual forebears-the English recusants-created a heritage and added to our Faith and it should not be squandered.

    1. Thank you for the comment and for reading about the Catholic martyrs and the brave recusants!