Religion in Napoleonic France
Part I: Napoleon I and Religion
By Matthew Zarzecny, FINS
Napoleon I, while continuously striving to influence French society and gain new backing from the believers of any faith that lived within his empire, devoted considerable time to his efforts of manipulating an institution almost as old as the Roman Empire. The relationship between the Catholic Church and the French state deeply concerned the emperor. Napoleon I greatly understood the power of a religious majority, as first evidenced by his actions during his military campaign to conquer Egypt from 1798 to 1799. The then General Bonaparte, who liked to compare himself to Julius Caesar, after crushing a violent uprising in Egypt, pardoned the imams and sheiks of the El-Azhar mosque, who had done nothing against the French, while ordering the beheading of the real rebels. Just as Alexander the Great and his army had marched through the desert to visit the shrine of Amon, Bonaparte treated Islamic sites with admiration and respect during his own desert odyssey. Bonaparte felt flattered by those Egyptians who called him Sultan Kebir, which literally means the “Great” Sultan. Bonaparte even went so far as to outright state that the Koran predicted his defeat of the Mameluke caste that ruled Egypt and he also talked of the conversion of the French Army of the Orient to Islam. In spring 1799, Bonaparte actually had the ulemas of El-Azhar proclaim that Sultan Kebir “loved the Muslims, cherished the Prophet, instructed himself by reading the Koran every day, and desired to build a mosque unrivalled in splendour and to embrace the Muslim faith.”
When Napoleon Bonaparte returned to France in 1799, he made use of his past experiences with religion to gain support from the Catholic majority in France that had been disillusioned by revolutionary excesses. The activities of the various revolutionary regimes had created religious disunity, which René Rémond sees as “a final religious war,” evidenced by the police’s recording of at least some violation of the laws restricting public worship in every one of the sixty-nine cantons of the department of Yonne between the fall of Robespierre and the coming of Bonaparte. In the aftermath of the left-wing coup d’état of September 1797, France had endured a comprehensive two-year dechristianization campaign, which lasted until December 1799, when Bonaparte overthrew Barras’ feeble government known as the Directory. In that year, Bonaparte recognized what the directors did not: he understood that only the Catholic religion stirred the emotions of the people, could effectively mend the religious divisions of the revolution, provide a basis for morality, and support the authority of the new Consular regime. Within two months after the coup d’état of 18 brumaire an VIII, First Consul Bonaparte allowed non-alienated churches to reopen and began to grant amnesty to deported priests. As generous as these efforts appear, Bonaparte only intended to restore Catholicism to a certain extent, without returning the Catholic Church’s full ancien régime privileges. Evidence exists suggesting that although Bonaparte did not personally adhere to any definite faith, he nonetheless wisely wanted to pour water on the fires of animosity that had erupted against the Catholic church, so that a united Catholic church in France could serve as a veritable fortress of order and social peace.
The Concordat of 1801 best exemplifies this policy by making reference to Catholicism not as the “state religion,” but as the “religion of the majority of the French,” wording contributed by none other than the wily Talleyrand. From 1801 to 1802, Bonaparte and his diplomats negotiated and had passed into law this concordat with Pope Pius VII that reversed anti-clerical revolutionary laws passed in the 1790s and reestablished Catholicism’s preeminent religious position amongst the French. In some respects, the Concordat went back to the earlier concordat of Leo X and François I in 1516, which allowed the French government to supervise the appointment of the higher clergy and the payment of the lower ones. This new concordat of Bonaparte and Pius VII lasted until 1905, when the anti-clerical backlash following the Dreyfus Affair made the separation of church and state palatable to French political-religious taste-buds. Still, that the Concordat of 1801 endured for over one hundred years indicates that the Concordat can be justifiably regarded as Bonaparte’s most durable civil achievement after the Napoleonic Code.
The Concordat contained many important components. Amusingly, Bonaparte allowed compulsory priestly celibacy to be reversed in his concordat with Rome, which shows Bonaparte’s wish to determine even the sexual behavior of his subjects. The Concordat also significantly incorporated an agreement establishing special relations between France and the papacy that made Pius VII available to sanction Bonaparte’s acceptance of a crown at a coronation. This arrangement foreshadowed an event that plays a key role in illustrating the power of religion in Bonaparte’s propaganda efforts. This historic event occurred on December 2, 1804, when Pope Pius VII attended Napoleon I’s coronation in Paris. Napoleon I’s coronation did not include the traditional sacramental rites of other imperial or royal coronations, which meaningfully indicated a decrease in the papal role in consecrating the new emperor. Furthermore, although Pope Leo III had crowned Charlemagne in December 800, Napoleon I crowned himself during his coronation rather than allowing Pius VII to retain this millennium old honor. This ground-breaking act symbolically meant that Napoleon I did not owe his crown to any divine power and that the pope correspondingly did not hold a position higher than the emperor. Subsequently, Napoleon I continued his attempts to supersede the pope’s authority by publishing the Imperial Catechism in April 1806, summoning a national council of French and Italian bishops in Paris in June 1811, and negotiating the Concordat of Fontainebleau on January 25, 1813.
Through these actions and through others, Napoleon I exploited the Church to glorify himself, more so than God. Three Church feasts, Ascension Day, All Saints on November 1, and Christmas, became State festivals, while the Church sanctified two state occasions, July 14 and December 2, the anniversary of the coronation and the victory of Austerlitz. Perhaps the most poignant example of Napoleon I’s efforts to aggrandize himself in the religious sense can be seen with how the Imperial Catechism proscribed the veneration of the Emperor’s name day. While the ancien régime attached the feast of St. Louis, the patron saint of every king from 1610 to 1792, to August 15, the feast of the Assumption, Napoleon I replaced the royal saint with St. Napoleon. The catechism went further still by asserting that Napoleon I had been “raised up by God in difficult circumstances, that he was God’s anointed, and that good Christians must love him, pay taxes, accept conscription or go to hell.” Thus progressively, Catholicism had become a religion of imperial grandeur under Napoleon I.
 Timothy Wilson-Smith, Napoleon: Man of War, Man of Peace (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2002), 125.
 Susanne Desan, Reclaiming the Sacred: Lay Religion and Popular Politics in Revolutionary France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 29; Rémond 47.
 Desan 11.
 November 9, 1799.
 Desan 13.
 Jean-Marie Leflon, “A Compromise for Mutual Advantage” in Napoleon and his Times: Selected Interpretations, edited by Frank A. Kafker and James M. Laux (Malabar: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company, 1989), 82.
 Dagmar Herzog, Intimacy and Exclusion: Religious Politics in Pre-Revolutionary Baden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 26.
 Paul Johnson, Napoleon (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2002), 46-47.
 Rémond 48.
 Rémond 128.
 Rémond 81.
 Rémond 81.
 Wilson-Smith 178.
 Bernard Semmel, The Methodist Revolution (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1973), 193.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2003
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