When Napoleon Bonaparte became First Consul of France in November 1799, he looked back on nearly a decade of various types of atheism (some murderous, others coercive) and put “peace at home” at the top of his agenda. His first political act of substance was a concordat with the Holy See, though the process took two years, running from late 1800-early 1801 (negotiation), to summer 1801 (accord), to Easter Sunday 1802 (addition of the so-called “organic” articles and promulgation).
As Jean-Étienne-Marie Portalis, the consular director of religion, noted in a speech in 1802: “The whole of France calls religion to the aid of morality and society.” The fundamental idea was to make religion (notably Catholicism, but not only) a public matter and no longer private, and to organise religion under the aegis of the state, with paid priests, bishops appointed by the government and instituted by Rome.
The Church was to be the indispensable provider of morality, and civic loyalty was to be placed under strict state control. (Napoleon was later to note how conscription had never gone so well as when priests were endorsing it from the pulpit.) The political theorist Louis-Matthieu Molé remarked with surprise during a debate on the Concordat that this was the first time that religion had been discussed in government because of its practical advantages rather than because it was true.
The concordat project dovetailed with Napoleon’s pacification of the deeply religious parts of France still at civil war (inter alia, the Vendée and the south-west). But it also coincided, probably to Bonaparte’s advantage, with the election of a reforming pope, Pius VII, in March 1800 (in Venice, because French troops were occupying Rome). This, combined with the necessary Italian victory at Marengo in June 1800, smoothed over some of the diplomatic and political difficulties that might have scuppered preliminaries.
These preliminaries were already significantly complicated by the presence of two important but hostile figures in the project, namely, foreign minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand (an ex-bishop) and police chief Joseph Fouché (a religiously educated ex-Jacobin). This situation was further aggravated by the fragmentary nature of the Catholic Church in the wake of the French Revolution, with réfractaires (closely linked to émigrés and royalists) at loggerheads with supporters of the Église constitutionnelle, who had accommodated themselves to the Revolutionary era.
The first negotiation involved Pius’s calls for Catholicism to be declared the “religion of France”. This was rejected. The formula adopted was “religion of the majority of France”. And Protestants (and indeed Jews) were set up in parity and placed under French government management and jurisdiction, much to their delight.
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