Church vs. State

Americans may find it difficult to understand the problems that have arisen in France out of the relationship between church and state. In the United States the dividing line between government and religion has been sharp and strictly preserved, whereas in France the line has been blurred. The great majority of Frenchmen are Roman Catholics and the Catholic church is an institution older than the French state itself. Under the “Old Regime”—when France was a monarchy—the church exerted a powerful influence in affairs of state inasmuch as the clergy constituted one of the three “estates” (the others were nobles and commoners) that made up the king’s advisers.

During the period of the French Revolution a great crisis faced the church. The Revolution looked upon it as a pillar of the Old Regime and attempted to break the church’s power by confiscating its property, disrupting its organization, and outlawing its ministers. The church, on the other hand, vigorously opposed the Revolution and condemned its principles. Restored by Napoleon to a place in the national life as the official or “established” faith of France, the church tended throughout the nineteenth century to side with the forces of conservatism and reaction against those of liberalism and democracy.

Among the French people there occurred a division into bitterly opposing camps: clericals and anticlericals. The former, or pro-church elements, were hostile to the Revolution of 1789. Many were royalists and favored extreme Rightist policies. The anti-clericals were generally liberal in religion, republican in politics, and strongly opposed to church influence in education and government.

The conflict increased in sharpness after 1880 and reached a climax in the celebrated Dreyfus case that shook France to its political and social foundations at the turn of the century. Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army and a Jew, was accused of selling military secrets to Germany. Although the real traitor was one of his fellow officers, Dreyfus was court-martialed, stripped of rank, and exiled to Devil’s Island. The officers’ corps of the French army, strongly tinged with anti-Semitism, helped first to manufacture and then to defend this miscarriage of justice. And the clericals stood with the militarists and the forces of reaction in general against a reconsideration of Dreyfus’ guilt.

When a new trial was held in response to outraged public opinion and the innocence of Dreyfus proved, the Republic turned with fury on all its enemies: clericals, militarists, and royalists. The royalists were so discredited that they practically disappeared as a political party; the anti-Dreyfusards in the army were removed from positions of authority; and the church was stripped of much of its power, notably in education, and completely separated from the state.

When the first World War broke out the issues raised to white heat in the Dreyfus case were forgotten, and a united France faced the German invader. The subsiding of anticlerical sentiment during the war opened the way to a progressive Catholic campaign for social justice along the advanced lines laid down by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. In the twenty years between wars a considerable section of the French clergy joined in carrying forward the ideas of the great reforming pope. By the 1930’s the church enjoyed a prestige in the working-class districts of France greater than it had had for hundreds of years, and a number of Catholic leaders were pressing forward to take a place in French political life again.