Sin, Redemption, Salvation: Catholicism and the French Republic in War
This paper asks, what did “Union sacrée” mean for French Catholicism, ten years after the Separation Law of 1905 ? Can a war redeem a nation ? How could believers defend France without helping the Republic? In the Great War, French Catholics engaged unconditionally in war and developed a zealous patriotism that brought victory. They fought brutally to oppose cruelty, barbarism, and make a more peaceful world, “to save civilization.” A new kind of national Catholicism appeared; redemption through war was considered as a chance for France. But was the chance squandered?
After the Great War, France’s diplomatic relations were re-established with the Vatican, with Joan of Arc canonized in 1920. But we are still left with a puzzle of how French Catholics interpreted the Great War—especially in light of larger twentieth-century trends such as secularization, defeat (and occupation and complicity) in the Second World War, and the rise of pan-European Christian Democratic parties and their confrontations with Communism.
Drawing on the influential “war cultures” approach (Les cultures de guerre), this paper foregrounds these existential questions of religious war experience, using archival detail to illuminate France’s place in a pan-European and global twentieth century.