Beyond Ideology

Catholic and French Forever

Religious and National Identity in Modern France

Joseph F. Byrnes

Pennsylvania State University Press, $50, 278 pp.

When Pope John Paul II arrived at the airport on his first trip to France in 1980, he scolded “the eldest daughter of the church” for being untrue to her baptismal vows. France was the land that produced Joan of Arc and Thérèse of Lisieux, and yet Mass attendance was abysmally low, and vocations almost nonexistent. Still, his remarks were not appreciated.

Then again, France is not Poland, as the late pontiff well understood. Not only has the church here not functioned as a fundamental constituent of national identity, but it has proved to be the principal foil against which the French idea of la nation has evolved in the modern era. The French Revolution dealt the church such hammer blows that it has never recovered. Eighteenth-century France, with less than half the population of today, boasted four or five times the number of religious and secular clergy as well as regular Massgoers.

The decline of Catholicism in France is to some extent hidden by the “rebirth” of the faith in the nineteenth century. After 1815, a huge influx of women into parochial institutions gave the church a strong boost at the grassroots level; the increased role of Mariology was no doubt part of the result. The wide popularity of pilgrimages-to Lourdes as well as Chartres-also contributed to salvaging the devastation that the revolution and Napoleon had brought upon the church. So did the rediscovery of France’s artistic and...

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About the Author

Steven Englund, a longtime Commonweal contributor, is the author of Napoleon: A Political Life (Harvard University Press), which won the American Historical Association’s J. Russell Major Prize. He is currently writing a comparative study of political anti-Semitism in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and France.