French Catholicism and the Crises of the Twentieth Century

AHA Session 214
American Catholic Historical Association 8
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Vineyard Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Andrew Orr, Sam Houston State University
Brenna Moore, Fordham University

Session Abstract

The political and cultural landscape of modern France was marked by an intense conflict between republican, anticlerical politicians determined eliminate the Catholic Church’s influence in the public sphere and reactionary Catholics opposed to the democratic and liberal principles of the republic.  Rival factions waged bitter battles from the 1790 Civil Constitution of the Clergy to the Dreyfus Affair and into the Vichy era.  These conflicts and ideological polarities seem to form a narrative pitting Catholicism against Republicanism.

Recent scholarship has complicated this narrative, however.  The work of scholars such as Caroline Ford and J.P. Daughton emphasizes how Catholics both contested and cooperated with the republic to shape the French nation and empire.  This panel continues that discussion.  Historians of Modern France and Catholicism, as well as scholars with an interest in the relationship between religion and modernity, will be interested in this panel’s treatment of the interaction among French Catholics, the state, and the public sphere in the twentieth century.  Each of the three papers uses a critical moment to examine the changing relationship between Catholics and society in twentieth-century France: World War I, post-1945 reconstruction, and the colonial conflicts of the 1950s. 

Dr. May’s paper on the mobilization of Catholic priests in the trenches of the First World War examines how the priests’ religious faith interacted with the wartime nationalism in defense of a republic that the Church condemned.  To what extent did the priests incorporate the patriotic values of the French republic’s war effort into their religious vocation?  How, if at all, did support for the patrie (and thus the republic) become a Catholic value acted out in all too real terms for clergy at the front? 

Ms. Nowinski’s paper on the reconstruction efforts of French Rural Catholic Action in the 1940s-1950s suggests that Catholics transformed seemingly prosaic concerns about housing conditions into moral and spiritual issues.  The association’s social agenda offered young Catholics a new way to act out their faith: upgrading living standards, whether adding plumbing or a child’s bedroom, provided a means to a more virtuous life and the possibility of a more profound spirituality.

Dr. Plaza’s paper on the public debates surrounding the French Christian Democratic party’s role in controversial state colonial policies suggests a similar pattern. Catholic activists and intellectuals framed their opposition to colonialism in moral terms, transforming political debates to religious debates.

Together the three papers suggest that over the course of the twentieth century Catholicism did not retreat from the public sphere in France.  Rather, as Catholics integrated into republican institutions and adopted democratic practices (at first with the union sacrée in 1914 and later with wane of clerical conflicts after the Second World War) they expanded their field of action.  Over the course of the century, Catholics turned their gaze to a wider set of concerns, framing them as religious issues and thus claiming authority to speak out and act.

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