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 architectural Catholic patrimony by secular scholars. And finally, World War I, in which thousands of French priests served and died along with everyone else, went a long way toward re-creating a certain degree of harmony between church and state.

None of this came anywhere near resurrecting France’s old identity as “the eldest daughter of the church.” And yet, the mythic hope of Catholique et Français toujours (from an old religious hymn) still abides in the hearts of many Frenchmen. And not just Frenchmen. It also captivates the hearts of friendly foreigners-for example, Joseph F. Byrnes, Oklahoma State University history professor.

Byrnes has much in common with the men and women he writes about. A laicized priest, Byrnes was trained in the Franco-Catholic tradition in an era (Vatican II) when that tradition was fecund and internationally influential. (Think de Lubac, Congar, Chenu.) “Roman Catholic we called ourselves,” he writes, “but French Catholic we were. God may not have been French, but the church was.”

This attractive mélange of the personal and the professional has led Byrnes to produce an uncommonly good book. Though written in clear prose, this book takes on one of the knottiest themes in modern French history: the dialectic between “political and religious selves that have constituted identities in France.” Byrnes is ever at pains to illustrate the secular-religious tension at the heart of French “identity.” It is a modus operandi that recalls the method of America’s greatest living historian of modern France, Eugen Weber.

Byrnes explores his large subject in seven chapters organized in three parts: Divorce (between church and state during the revolution), Defense (of the nineteenth-century church against the state), and Détente (between church and state after World War I). The most interesting and original essays deal with individuals, such as the writer Chateaubriand (1768-1848)-a sincere believer, sincere doubter, and sincere opportunist.

Byrnes is perhaps most convincing in arguing that the French Republic has never succeeded in investing the nation or the patrie (fatherland) with a truly religious cathexis. This is contrary to the thesis of mainline French republican scholarship which, for generations now, has argued facilely that a strong civic sense plus passionate patriotism is equivalent to a properly religious investment. This, however, it most surely is not. Byrnes demonstrates that the secular festivals and official creeds that the revolution offered its citizens as substitutes for traditional religion were largely failures on the ground. The sacred cannot readily be transferred to the profane; or, as Byrnes cogently puts it, “no pedantic forcing of myth, no legislation of ritual can accomplish [it]....The government only deepened the rift between religious and national identity.”

In this regard, the author cites a well-known teaching of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the recently retired archbishop of Paris (and surely one of the most remarkable churchmen in the long and remarkable history of the French church). Lustiger is a proud graduate of the very secular Sorbonne (unusual for a cleric in France), but though he is a strong republican patriot, he has no time for the anticlerical “catechism” in France, which leans toward sacralizing the state. “A republican may be a republican, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, or a Muslim-he may even be a skeptic, for the republican ideal of citizenship is no substitute for religion.” Alas, the cardinal’s irony somewhat escapes Byrnes. No one knows better than Lustiger what the French republics have tried-and failed-to do by way of confecting “substitutes.”

In his final chapters, Byrnes offers a slightly misleading conclusion: namely, that détente has finally taken hold in this land of Voltaire and Joan of Arc. Not so much détente as historical exhaustion is what has engulfed both sides of the classic dialectic. The French church and the French Republic are finally out of “juice”; the millions of recently arrived Muslims-or for that matter, millions of Frenchmen under thirty-five-simply don’t care much about either laicité or chrétienté, to use the French word for Christendom. It is thus not so much that French Catholics are still “strangers in their own country,” as the art historian Émile Mâle put it, as that both French Catholics and republicans are fast becoming strangers in the new French society.

My final critical comment is aimed not so much at Byrnes as at the work of the many leading historians and social scientists whom he reads and cites. A certain liberal-Catholic impulse leads scholars to follow secular academic fashion in folding religion into the larger envelope of “ideology.” This is a mistake, for it leads to the failure to grasp the nature and abiding power of religion. Thus, it is not an enlightening simile to compare a French person’s loss of Catholic faith to a Russian’s throwing off of Communist allegiance. The Christian faith in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, retain an infinitely more complex, potent, and abiding (even if ambiguous) presence, even in the hearts and minds of former believers than does political ideology.

Published in the 2006-11-03 issue: View Contents

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.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.