Anti-Catholic Revolution and Catholic Revival 

The 18th century was a low point for the Church, particularly in France. But François-René de Chateaubriand would sow the seeds of the Catholic revival in France.

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[Editor’s Note: This is the twelth in a multi-part series on the unsung heroes of Christendom.]

It is hard to say which have been the lowest points in the history of the Church. The fourteenth century was pretty wretched. The papacy, exiled from Rome to Avignon, was largely in the pocket of the French monarchy. Then, after the pope finally returned to Rome, the French cardinals set up a rival pope, technically an anti-pope, at Avignon. If anything, however, the eighteenth century would be even worse. 

In 1773, Pope Clement XIV, under pressure from the tyrannical secular rulers of Spain, Portugal, and France, suppressed the Society of Jesus, the most dynamic order in the Church, which had twenty-three thousand members in missions around the world. The betrayal by the pope of the Jesuits, his greatest defenders, proved the political impotence of the papacy, which was dancing like a marionette to the secular tune of the time. 

Things would get worse. In 1789, the French Revolution erupted. After simmering and festering for a while, it finally boiled over into the murderous Reign of Terror. The anti-Catholic and proto-communist nature of the Revolution was encapsulated admirably by Church historian H.W. Crocker:

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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The state had its own church. It began with priests whose vestments included the tricolour of the Revolution. It moved on to a cult of Reason, and Reason’s altar replaced Christ’s at the cathedral of Notre Dame. The state also endorsed a cult of Nature…and of course a cult of the State. Heroes of the Revolution replaced the saints of the Church. In all this, the French Revolution presaged the state religions of Nazism and Communism, and, indeed, in its mass murders, nationalist uniformity, militarism, and lootings in the name of the state and of equality, it embodied the same principles.

By 1799, the Revolution had consumed itself in its own blood, the revolutionaries putting each other to death in a diabolical debauch. Napoleon emerged from the ruins of the Revolution as a military dictator. In the same year, following the French invasion of Italy, Pope Pius VI died in France as Napoleon’s prisoner. The situation was grim indeed, and few could have foreseen a future for the Catholic Church in the new century. And yet, as is always the case, heroes emerged who bore witness to the truth of the Gospel and to the errors of the age.

Ironically enough, some of the greatest heroes were to be found in France itself, not least in the witness and the brilliance of counter-revolutionary defenders of the Faith.

François-René de Chateaubriand would sow the seeds of the Catholic revival in France with the publication of The Genius of Christianity, his seminal defense of the Church, published in 1802. Earlier, escaping the violence of the Revolution, he had traveled throughout North America, recording his experiences in a later work entitled Voyage en Amérique. He fought for the army of Royalist émigrés against the new French Revolutionary Army and was wounded at the Siege of Thionville in 1792. A period of exile in England followed, during which he returned to the Catholic Faith of his childhood.

Chateaubriand’s Genius of Christianity was described by Christopher Blum, in Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolutionary Tradition, as “an epoch-making book” (xx). Countering the contempt for the Catholic Church and its tradition exhibited by Voltaire and others, Chateaubriand expressed “a vibrant love for France’s Christian past: her monuments, her customs, her beliefs” (Blum, xx). He wrote elegies in poetic prose in praise of Catholic culture, of parish processions, church bells, Gregorian chant, and especially of the beauty of Gothic architecture. According to Professor Blum, Chateaubriand “led the way for the continental Gothic revival, the rise of Christian romanticism in literature, and the rebirth of Gregorian chant at Solesmes.” 

Apart from his advocacy of the splendors of medieval Christendom, Chateaubriand also praised the superiority of France’s more recent past, especially the seventeenth century, over the secularism and skepticism of the iconoclastic eighteenth century. He considered the giants of the seventeenth century, such as La Fontaine, Pascal, Molière, Corneille, Racine, and Bossuet, to tower over the leading figures of the century that followed. The empiricism and rationalist materialism of the philosophes of the eighteenth century had introduced “abstract definitions, a scientific style and neologism,” all of which were “fatal to taste and eloquence” (Blum, xxi).      

Chateaubriand’s influence was instrumental in the resurrection of Catholicism in France in the century following that nation’s anti-Catholic Revolution. Other key figures who should be seen as unsung heroes of that revival include, most notably, Louis de Bonald and Joseph de Maistre. The former was a champion of the family as being the necessary and indispensable bastion of any healthy political, social, and Christian society; the latter was a champion of the role of the Church in society and of the popes in history, whose “civilizing powers are limited only by the blindness and ill will of princes” (Blum, 187).

As we conclude, it should be noted and conceded that Chateaubriand is hardly likely to be canonized as a saint. His personal life was disordered, especially with respect to extra-marital dalliances, or, to say it bluntly, his acts of adultery. He is, however, a hero of Christendom in his courageous and outspoken defense of it, a hero whose heroism is not as well-known in the English-speaking world as it should be. In many respects, he was the principal catalyst for the Catholic Revival in France throughout the nineteenth century, a revival which would hardly have seemed possible at that century’s beginning.

Comparing the weakness of the Church in France at the beginning of the nineteenth century with its relative strength at its end, we might be reminded of Chesterton’s quip that the Church has died many times throughout her history but has always risen again because she worships a God who knows the way out of the grave. The Church had seemingly died at the end of the previous century, betrayed by a weak pope and seemingly killed by the secularist pride of the Revolution. The fact that she rose again from the grave has as much to do with the role of Chateaubriand (under grace) as with any other figure of the time. For this he should be celebrated and his praises should be sung.  

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