A New Look at the French Revolution

It just has to be providential that two movies about historical conflicts between Church and State appear right now. Around the world, in the Middle East, in Asia, in Great Britain, and the Americas (the U.S.A., Mexico, and Cuba) religious freedom faces many threats. Attacks on Coptic Christians in their native Egypt, the ongoing battle between Christians and the Communist government of China, the U.K. government’s failure to defend a citizen’s right to wear a cross in public, the HHS mandates forcing Catholic organizations to fund insurance for free abortafacients, sterilizations, and contraceptives, and Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Mexico and Cuba—all are highlighting dangers to individual religious freedom and persecution of Christians.

The first movie, chronologically speaking, is The War of the Vendee, produced by Navis Pictures with a cast of young actors, set in the late 18th century Vendee region of France. It tells the little known story of the Catholic and Royalist uprising in that region against the French Revolution’s attempt to destroy Catholicism as well as the monarchy. The second is For Greater Glory, depicting the anti-Catholic, anti-clerical constitutional crisis and war in early 20th century Mexico (the ‘teens and ‘twenties). Understanding these two past conflicts of Church and State may help us understand the crises we face today. This article focuses on the French Revolution and the rising of Catholics in the Vendee region against the anti-Catholic policies of the new government.

Although the French Revolution’s ideals of Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood (Liberté, égalité, fraternité) seem laudable, in practice they were combined with a program of dechristianization. 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. Priests and nuns were also tied together and drowned in what revolutionaries called “Republican Weddings” in Nantes and Lyon. The Ursulines of Valencienne, the Carmelites of Compiegne, and groups of nuns from other religious orders were guillotined.

The final 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. Robespierre, the leader of the Committee for Public Safety, instituted and led ceremonies in the new Cults of Reason and the Supreme Being. Churches and cathedrals, like Notre Dame de Paris, became Temples of the new cults. A new calendar began with Year I of the new Republic.

Not everyone agree with this legally enforced anti-Catholicism (or with the overthrow of the monarchy). One region of France that almost immediately dissented was the Vendee, in the west, south of the Loire River. The people there were loyal to both the King and the Church; they refused to join the Revolutionary Army. Thus the leaders of the Revolution had a rebellion on their hands. From Paris, the government of the First Republic sent 45,000 troops in March, 1793 to face the Catholic and Royal Army of the Vendee.

After Catholic and Royal victories that month, Robespierre’s Committee for Public Safety (the committee responsible for the Reign of Terror) ordered the destruction of the Vendee and thorough pacification of its inhabitants. When the Republican Army gained control of the war in October and December of that year, it began a new campaign of enforced evacuation. The Army destroyed crops and farms, razed towns and villages, ransacked churches, burned down forests—a complete scorched earth policy. They murdered anyone and everyone in the area: young, old, Catholic or Republican. All were dispatched with appalling cruelty.

There is great historical debate about whether this campaign of destruction and death should be termed genocide, per French historian Reynald Secher’s A French Genocide: The Vendee. Certainly this is a little known episode of the French Revolution. Blessed John Paul II reminded the young people of the Vendee of their tremendous history when he visited the Basilica of St. Laurent-sur-Sevre to pay homage to St. Louis de Montfort on September 19, 1996:

You are the heirs of men and women who were courageous enough to remain faithful to the Church of Jesus Christ at a time when its freedom and independence were threatened. They were not detached from the movements of the time and they sincerely desired the necessary renewal of society, but they could not accept the imposition of a break with the universal Church and, in particular, with the Successor of Peter. . . . In the terrible struggles, many deeds on both sides were stained by sin. But it was in holy union with Christ that numerous martyrs offered their life here, uniting with the Son of God in the sacrifice of the Cross. To the very end they followed their true Master, the One who came to reveal the truth which sets us free and the depth of God’s love for all men.

Perhaps the most accessible narrative of the War of Vendee is Michael Davies’ For Altar and Throne: The Rising in the Vendee. The persecution of the Catholic Church in France ended when Napoleon Bonaparte negotiated a Concordat with the Church in 1801; France returned to the Gregorian calendar in 1806, restoring both a more scientific measurement and the celebration of Easter, Sunday, and the other holydays of the Church liturgical year. The violent oppression of the Church during the French Revolution, however, provided an unfortunate model for other governments which regarded the Catholic Church as an enemy, as the persecution in 20th century Mexico clearly demonstrates.

Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at www.supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com. Stephanie is working on a book about the English Catholic Martyrs from 1534 to 1681.

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