Propaganda against the Church: The French Revolution

Author: Grzegorz Kucharczyk

Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the great French political thinkers, whilst wondering in the 19th century why in France in the 18th century “ungodliness was able to become a common passion,” pointed out that the key was anti-Catholic propaganda practiced for several decades by the Enlightenment elite. This had created a fertile ground in which ungodliness could proliferate, and thus prepared the coming of the revolution.

Ungodliness – “a common passion”

In his famous work, The Old Regime and the Revolution, Tocqueville described it in this way: “They worked diligently and constantly on depriving the souls of the faith they were filled with and the souls were left empty. A lot of people enthused to this ungrateful undertaking. The total lack of faith, so contrary to the inherent instinct of man, and exposing his soul to painful dilemma, appealed to the crowd. What hitherto evoked only a kind of morbid apathy – this time resulted in fanaticism and propaganda.”

The main goal of propaganda was the clergy who were made a symbol of “backwardness” and “bigotry”. These terms after 1789 were seized upon completely by the revolutionaries, who saw each person who confessed their faith in Christ as a “fanatic,” religion – as a “superstition,” and the church hierarchy (with the pope at the forefront) – as “tyrants of conscience.”

Just for moment, let us again give voice to Tocqueville who, referring to this anti-church propaganda in France just before the outbreak of the revolution, stated that: “The Church was by no means worse here than elsewhere, on the contrary, errors and abuses committed here were less than in most Catholic countries; moreover, the Church was infinitely more tolerant than ever before, and also more tolerant than in other nations. Therefore, the specific reasons for the struggle against religion should not be sought in the state of religion itself, but rather in the state of society.”

During the French Revolution the society was the subject of propaganda activities on a large scale. While earlier, during the 18th century Enlightenment, atheism (as a smokescreen it was called “philosophy”) was essentially limited to the parlor or salon elite, after 1789 it was promoted on a much larger scale. During the revolution it was filtered in not only from the revolutionary press, but also through the country-wide network of revolutionary clubs, and Masonic lodges – always active in this type of work.

After 1789, anti-Catholic propaganda argued that atheism was not only an indicator of scientific method (“philosophy”), but also of patriotism. One of the constant themes of propaganda directed against the Church was to convince the French that the clergy was a kind of fifth column working for the enemies of France, with whom the republic was currently at war. The conclusion was simple: those attacking the church and taking an active part in the de-Christianization of France, not only belonged to the “enlightened” but also to the class of “true patriots.”

The main goal of propaganda was the clergy who were made a symbol of “backwardness” and “bigotry”.

Propaganda’s master key: progress

In the revolutionary propaganda the most upfront slogans were those of liberty, equality and fraternity. In reality, however, a more important slogan was that which insisted on “progress.” If the revolutionaries had to choose between progress and liberty, they always chose the former. Except that the meaning of the word “progress” in the revolutionary phraseology was specific. It meant not so much the desire to modernize France, to remove obsolete institutions or administrative practices. Something else was at heart here – to create from scratch a “new France” and the “new French.” “Progress” was synonymous with an ideology in which hatred for Christianity was inherent. “New France” could not simultaneously be France – “the eldest daughter of the Church.”

In this context very characteristic were the words spoken on May 31, 1790, by one of the deputies to the French National Assembly (such a name was given to the States-General convened by Louis XVI in 1789), who stated: “We are the nation’s parliament. Certainly it is in our power to change the religion [of the country], but we will not do so.” For the time being – as the history of the French Revolution has shown.

The ideological notion of “progress” was used by the French revolutionaries to push projects which remained in sharp disagreement with the noble principles of the Declaration of Human and Civil Rights, which till today is considered the flagship work of the 1789 coup. The Declaration spoke of respecting freedom of conscience and property rights. Meanwhile, the same parliament which had passed the Declaration, in the years 1790-1791 passed a ban on religious vows in France, deeming that perpetual vows of “obedience, poverty and chastity” is contrary to the “laws of nature.” The free will of thousands of people, who out of religious motivation and freedom of their conscience wanted to make such vows, in fact turned out to be invalid. As we know, several decades before the outbreak of the French Revolution the propaganda of Enlightenment parlors and “philosophers” argued that the monasteries were hotbeds of ignorance, all types of deviation and laziness (especially hated were the contemplative orders where, in the eyes of enlighteners, no “useful” work was performed).

The same thing happened with the law of ownership, protected in the Declaration of Human and Civil Rights with all sorts of warranties. Shortly after the resolution of the Declaration, on September 2, 1789, the revolutionary parliament passed a decree about the confiscation of property belonging to the Church. While some deputies (both lay and clergy) pointed out that these goods are in the possession of the Church because, above all, this is what their donors wished when they endowed the Church (its various charitable organizations) with their possessions, and they as the owners had the right to dispose of their property as they saw it fit; the revolutionaries would then respond – like the famous “progressive” orator Mirabeau: “We should get rid of superstitious respect for what is called the will of the donor.” “Why – continued the same speaker – should some ignorant or parochial people have the right to use their capricious will to chain generations that were yet to come? No human work is intended for eternal duration. If everyone who ever lived wanted a tomb, these monuments would have to be destroyed to leave enough land to grow, and the ashes of the dead would have to be moved to feed the living.”

Classic demagogy, which is so characteristic of revolutionary propaganda. Notice that according to the propagandists of the “new France” only an “ignorant or parochial person” could have decided to bequeath their wealth to the Church.

De-Christianization campaign was raging in France, with its climatic decree that the French republic had no place for Catholic priests or Christian worship – even within the churches.

Revolutionary para-religion

It is not my intention here to present the most important moments of the battle of the French Revolution against the Church. I have done this more than once on these pages. However, in the context of anti-Catholic propaganda, it is worth noticing that, in a way, it had two sides. On one side it was dedicated to attacking, ridiculing or slandering the clergy – which, in brief – focused on stripping the Catholic religion of its sacrum. And on the other side – its principal purpose was the sacralization of the revolution, in fact sacralization was the policy of each of the frequently changing republican regimes (Girondists, Jacobins, Thermidorians).

For this purpose the revolutionaries developed specific para-religions and quasi-religious products. In this respect, the French Revolution was the prototype of the twentieth-century totalitarian regimes (communism, national socialism), to which an important part was also the sacralization of politics (cf. the Soviet “cult of personality” and the cult of the Führer in the Third German Reich).

In the case of the French Revolution, the objects of worship were “Reason”, “Freedom” and “Nation” – fine sounding words, but they need to be understood in the sense conferred on them by the revolutionary propaganda of the day. “Reason” meant a radical break from the tradition of Christian France, both in an individual sense and in society as a whole. “Freedom” – but certainly not for the “enemies of freedom” (i.e. not for those who were devoted to the faith of the Church, which since 1793 had become a crime). “The Nation“ – this did not include all the inhabitants of France, but only those who subscribed to the project of revolutionary change in the political and cultural face of the country. The “Nation” thus understood, did not include tens of thousands of priests and lay exiles who were outside France, who did not agree to revolutionary politics, and most often who fled persecution (especially after the adoption of the so-called Civil Constitution of the Clergy in July 1790, which established in France the Church de facto schismatic to Rome).

While the de-Christianization campaign was raging in France at the turn of 1793/94, with its climatic decree that the French republic had no place for Catholic priests (even those who had already pledged to the unfortunate “Civil Constitution of the Clergy”) or Christian worship – even within the churches. At the same time, the local revolutionary elite were organizing the “cult of Reason.”

Something else was at heart here – to create from scratch a “new France” and the “new French”.

The main celebration was held on 10th November 1793 in Paris at Notre Dame, converted for this occasion into a “Temple of Reason.” At the site of the main altar destroyed earlier, a mound was piled up, on top of which one of the Paris Opera actresses stood, symbolizing Reason. The choir performed a commemorative song: “O come down Liberty, daughter of Nature! People have met their immortal power! On the ruins of the ancient fraud the shoulders are erecting your altar.” Of course, this “ancient fraud,” which the authors of this propaganda spectacle were fighting, was the Christian religion.

In June 1794, Maximilian Robespierre – Jacobin dictator of France – presented his own quasi-religious product. He believed that France could not cope with militant atheism, which would destroy not only the “remnants of fanaticism”, but also violate all social ties. However, there was to be no going back to the true religion (Christianity). It was all about a religion that would be socially useful. In this respect, Robespierre was a true disciple of his intellectual mentor – Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, before 1789, preached the need for some kind of civil religion (“natural religion”), which would have nothing to do with the Christian faith in Triune God.

On June 8, 1794, Robespierre presided over the celebration of the “Supreme Being” in Paris (terminology taken directly from Masonic rituals). From then on it was to be added to the entire catalog of revolutionary festivals, which played a primary role in the so-called political education (read: propaganda) of the citizens of the republic.

The cult of “Supreme Being” did not survive its creator, it lasted about a month, because Robespierre was overthrown in July 1794. However, the sacralization propaganda of the revolution did not end with the removal of the Jacobins from power. In autumn 1794, one of French deputies wrote: “After the creation of the world came the creation of the French Constitution; instead of Sunday we have a decade. There is no longer the Virgin giving painless birth to God-Man; now there are the people, always clean and incorruptible, bringing freedom to the world. We no longer need to worship the incomprehensible Christian Trinity. Liberty, equality, fraternity – this is what we are to worship now.“

It is hard to find a better summary of not only revolutionary propaganda, but also revolutionary pride. The intention to completely destroy the Church had failed. The Concordat signed by Napoleon Bonaparte and Pope Pius VII in 1801 ended the period of bloody persecution of religion in France. However, the time and break in the continuity of generations had made their impact. Between 1789 (the beginning of the Revolution) and 1815 (the end of the Napoleonic era) a new generation rose, largely brought up with the propaganda which equated the republic with patriotism, and the latter with anti-Catholicism.

Such a state of affairs in 1815 was met by the parish priest in Ars, St John Mary Vianney. And in 1826, when the monarchy returned to France, and the Church enjoyed complete freedom, the papal nuncio in Paris wrote to the Holy See: “More than half of the French people remain in complete ignorance of Christian duties and are plunged in listlessness, one can ask whether there are ten thousand people practicing their faith in the capital (Paris).”

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