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Religion in Napoleonic France

Part II: Napoleon III and Religion

By Matthew Zarzecny, FINS

The ways in which the relationship between church and state changed from 1815 to 1852 prove intensely fascinating.  On one hand, some similarities can be found with the situation under the First Empire, as the Concordat of 1801 would remain in effect throughout Napoleon III’s reign.  Additionally, Napoleon III, like Napoleon I, tried to decrease the political influence of the Church, while attempting to use the clergy as a means to disseminate propaganda.  James McMillan accurately noted “a history of nineteenth-century French Catholicism that left out the men of the parti clérical of the Second Empire would make strange reading.”[28]  The French clergy fervently rallied behind Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s presidential election in 1848 and approved of his coup on December 2, 1851.[29]  To a large extent, the cordial relationship between the imperial government and the Catholic Church existed for pragmatic purposes.  The Legitimists amongst the clergy viewed the empire as a more church-friendly governmental system than the republic, while those wealthy Catholics realized that by supporting Napoleon III, the emperor would reward the clergy and facilitate a period of prosperity for Catholicism in France that positively impacted Catholics of every social rank.[30]  One does not find surprise then in the evidence that Napoleon III enjoyed support from devout Catholics and significant numbers of the rural population, while church-related organizations for women multiplied and began to noticeably merge with the right-wing politics of the Empire.[31]  This flourishing era for the Catholic Church lasted until tensions arose between 1859 and 1863 over Napoleon III’s military actions in Italy.[32] 

From that point on, the floodgates of opposition opened and remained opened until the end of the Second Empire.  Despite Napoleon III’s benevolent actions towards the religious majority in France, the emperor fell short of generating universal acclamation for his regime within his empire.  Anti-clericalists, such as Michelet, lawyers, Masonic Lodges, and other members of the middle bourgeoisie, who took exception to the loss of certain freedoms under the reestablishment of the dictatorial empire, also bemoaned the influence of priests in regards to families, while republicans, socialists, and even imperialist supporters of Napoleon III challenged the right of the clergy to interfere in politics.[33]  Additionally, members of the clergy who practiced medicine without proper certification annoyed licensed physicians who sought the arrests of such priests.[34]  Despite these outcries against the lingering power of the clergy, French priests did not readily give up their positions of social and political influence without resistance.  Throughout the period, they attempted to maintain as much bearing as possible on both the political and familial lives of the French populace.  For example, under the Second Empire, a party persisted amongst the clergy of an uncertain size that still preferred to use confession as a means of repression.[35]  Furthermore, even the official chaplain to Napoleon III, l’abbé Mullois, disapproved of something as mundane as dancing.[36]  Since Napoleon III focused on granting concessions to the church in exchange for collaboration with his regime, the clergy therefore exploited this opportunity by attempting to control the social lives of the French, primarily for the church’s gain. 

By contrast, Napoleon I sought to use religion to personally regulate many social aspects of his subject’s lives, just as much as priests traditionally did.  For instance, on May 15, 1807, while residing at the château of Finkenstein in what is now modern Poland, Napoleon I asserted that religion is an all-important matter in a public school for girls.  Whatever people may say, it is the mother’s surest safeguard, and the husband’s.  What we ask of education is not that girls should think, but that they should believe.  The weakness of women’s brains, the instability of their ideas, the place they will fill in society, their need for perpetual resignation, and for an easy and generous type of charity - all this can only be met by religion, and by religion of a gentle and charitable kind.[37]

Hence, we see that religion played an instrumental role in Napoleon I’s vision of a unified Europe by directing both the private and public lives of men and women.  Napoleon I readily converted the call to order into his call for imperial grandeur, all in the name of spreading the message of the revolution throughout Europe, which garnered the enthusiasm of many Europeans throughout his Grand Empire.[38] 

 

Notes:

[28] McLeod 36; James McMillan, “Religion and Gender in Modern France: Some Reflections” in Religion, Society and Politics in France since 1789, edited by Nicholas Atkin and Frank Tallett (London: The Hambledon Press, 1991), 59.

[29] McLeod 36.

[30] McLeod 40.

[31] McLeod 95; Smith 116-117.

[32] McLeod 40.

[33] McLeod 40; Smith 116.

[34] McLeod 114.

[35] Zeldin 30.

[36] Zeldin 13.

[37] Ellis 178.

[38] Semmel 196.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2003

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