Religion in Napoleonic France
By Matthew Zarzecny, FINS
When most people hear of the names Napoleon I or Napoleon III, some of the first phrases that probably leap into the minds of these historically unversed listeners, are likely to include “retreat from Russia,” “battle of Waterloo,” or perhaps, “Franco-Prussian War.” Few non-Napoleonic historians probably consider other non-militaristic phrases, such as “Concordat of 1801” or “Grand Sanhedrin.” By means of comparatively studying the role of religion during the First Empire in France under Napoleon I the Great, who reigned from 1804 to 1814 and for one hundred days in 1815, compared and contrasted with the role of religion during the Second Empire in France under Napoleon III, who reigned from 1852 to 1870, I hope to shed light on those less-often referenced, but more civil achievements of the two emperors. Additionally, the policies considered and enacted under the two French empires exhibit close connections with the policies of the two Napoleons, when they held the titles of First Consul of the French and President of the French, respectively. In order to fully explore certain key policies of Napoleon I and Napoleon III in regards to religion under the First and Second Empires, we thus find necessity in also considering the Bonaparte heads of states’ actions in the periods from 1799 to 1804 and from 1848 to 1852. The Bonapartes’ policies during these years directly laid the foundations of, flowed into, and drove the emperors’ later imperial policies towards religion. Nevertheless, the predominant focus of my study will be on the aforementioned imperial years of French history.
As my study analyzes the religious history of empires, identifying the geographic differences of the two French empires appears justifiably crucial to my comparative study, because by nature an empire tends to incorporate a host of ethnic or national groups into its population. While France under Napoleon I included modern day Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as large portions of modern day Germany, Italy, and Spain, which meant an augmentation of the numbers of Catholics and Protestants living within the borders of the French Empire, France under Napoleon III only included modern day France and Algeria, which resulted in fewer Protestants, but now a sizable proportion of Muslims residing in France’s North African departments. Therefore, with different numbers of and different types of religious minorities figuring into each respective empire, in addition to the Catholic Church having dissimilar numbers of adherents within these changing borders, each Napoleonic emperor had to tweak certain vital religious policies in respect to the regularly changing religious composition of the French Empire.
With this study, I hope to show that the Napoleonic emperors sought to use religion as a unifying force in France by improving the conditions of religious minorities and by manipulating the Catholic Church to legitimize domestic and foreign policies. One of the more fascinating aspects of religious history during the second imperial era pertains to the Catholic influence on Napoleon III’s foreign policy, just as one of the major characteristics of religion during the reign of Napoleon I centers on the role religion played in Napoleon I’s vision of a unified Europe. While these issues cannot be ignored, I will also devote a significant amount of my analysis to another key facet of religion during the reigns of the Bonaparte emperors, which relates to the dominant religion under both Napoleonic regimes. This crucial component of religion in Napoleonic France pertains to the ways in which Catholicism can and cannot be viewed as a state religion, particularly under Napoleon I, who worked to create an imperial political-religious system.
Religion during the Second Empire in France under Napoleon III in some ways parallels a number of conditions under Napoleon I in regards to how the nephew of the first emperor of the French used religion as a tool of state intervention in order to fulfill Napoleon III’s aspirations of imitating and realizing the policies of Napoleon I. Napoleon III sought to emulate his uncle in numerous ways and just as Napoleon I had used limited male suffrage to legitimize his progressive steps towards empire, Napoleon III became president in 1848 by means of an election utilizing universal male suffrage and then gradually limited the vote until his restoration of the empire in 1852.
While Napoleon I saw himself as personally above morals, morality, as well as formality, during the Victorian Age theoretically seeped into the second French Empire. Bersot, one of the most esteemed moralists of the Second Empire, effectively summarized his philosophy when he said, “Man is not born to be happy, but he is born to be a man at his own risk and peril.” In 1867, adhering to the formality of excuses, Madame Barrois refused an invitation to meet Empress Eugénie, Napoleon III’s Catholic Spanish wife, by writing that she would be suffering too much from the memory of her child’s death to participate in such an occasion. The imperial government understood how morality and formality exemplified the social implications of religion, but naturally each religious group had distinctive conceptions of social mores and norms and so, correspondingly, each imperial government had to treat these groups differently.
In regards to the conditions of religious minorities, Napoleon I worked to authoritatively dominate priests of all faiths, while integrating Jewish and Protestant religious life into his totalitarian social structure. Emulating Henry IV’s issuing of the Edict of Nantes over two centuries before the creation of the Consulate, Napoleon Bonaparte firmly re-established and expanded on Henry IV’s earlier proclamation of freedom of worship that Louis XIV the Great had revoked in 1685. Despite being an agreement with the Catholic pope, the Organic Articles of the Concordat of 1801 granted status to both the Lutheran and Calvinist churches as recognized forms of worship. Even before this gesture, Napoleon I had earlier demonstrated his benevolent attitude towards minority religions when he attempted to resurrect a Jewish Middle Eastern state, during the invasion of Syria in 1799. The memory of that revolutionary project, followed by Napoleon I’s legal recognition of Judaism as a religious community in 1805 and his establishment of the Grand Sanhedrin of European rabbis in 1807, caused French Jewry under Napoleon I to publicly declare their civic support of him.
Although never reaching a position above the various religious groups along the lines of his illustrious uncle, Napoleon III certainly did not ignore the conditions of religious minorities. Though Catholicism still dominated religious life in France, even groups such as the Jansenists still elicited support from periodicals that defended this once significant and contentious sect. Perhaps more significantly, while never in a situation to create a Jewish state, Napoleon III’s benevolent actions on behalf of French and European Jews definitely merit at least some commendation. Consider, for example, Napoleon III’s efforts to secure the return of six-year-old Edgar Mortara to his biological family. The Roman Catholic Church abducted this child from his Jewish parents in Bologna and installed him in a house in Rome with a Catholic family. The third Emperor of the French, though unsuccessful in “rescuing” young Mortara, throughout the years of the Second Empire worked magnanimously to ameliorate the position of Jews, notably employing the wealthy French Jew Isaac Strauss to compose popular music for his court balls at Vichy. Of course, neither emperor enjoyed total support from French minorities, as the critics of imperial France attacked the supporters of the Napoleons, as well as the emperors themselves. In regards to Protestantism, for example, detractors of the imperial regime labeled Gabriel Monod, who supported the Second Empire, as “the despised.”
 Although technically, the First Empire also includes the very brief reign of Napoleon II in 1815, Napoleon II, a mere child, only officially reigned for about one week and so he formulated no major policies in regards to religion (or anything for that matter!) during that often forgotten week.
 A department is a French political subdivision. Carl Strikwerda, “A Resurgent Religion: The Rise of Catholic Social Movements in Nineteenth Century Belgian Cities” in European Religion in the Age of Great Cities, 1830-1930, edited by Hugh McLeod (London: Routledge, 1995), 63.
 Hugh McLeod, Secularisation in Western Europe, 1848-1914 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 31.
 Theodore Zeldin, “The Conflict of Moralities: Confession, Sin and Pleasure in the Nineteenth Century” in Conflicts in French Society: Anticlericalism, Education and Morals in the Nineteenth Century (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1970), 42-43.
 Bonnie Smith, Ladies of the Leisure Class: The Bourgeoises of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 108.
 Geoffrey Ellis, Napoleon (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 1997), 216.
 René Rémond, Religion and Society in Modern Europe (Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1999), 48, 134.
 Ben Weider, “Napoleon and the Jews” in Napoleonic Scholarship (Montreal: International Napoleonic Society, 1998), 41, 45.
 Israel Finestein, “Jewish Emancipation in Victorian England: Self-Imposed Limits to Assimilation” in Assimilation and Community: The Jews in Nineteenth-Century Europe, edited by Jonathan Frankel and Steven Zipperstein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 41; Rémond 48.
 Zeldin 26-27.
 Rémond 101-102.
 Richard Cohen, “Nostalgia and ‘Return to the Ghetto’: A Cultural Phenomenon in Western and Central Europe” in Assimilation and Community: The Jews in Nineteenth-Century Europe, edited by Jonathan Frankel and Steven Zipperstein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 130.
 Steven Hause, “Anti-Protestant Rhetoric in the Early Third Republic” in French Historical Studies 16 (The Society of French Historical Studies, 1989), 198.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2003
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