When We Subordinate Our Christian Principles

“I die in the Catholic Apostolic and Roman religion, that of my fathers, that in which I was brought up, and which I have always professed” wrote Queen Marie Antoinette in the early morning hours before her execution on October 16, 1793. She penned these words in her final letter, written to her sister-in-law Princess Elisabeth, the youngest sister of her husband, King Louis XVI, who had been brought to the guillotine less than nine months earlier in January. In her letter to her sister-in-law, she decried the lack of priests in France who could supply the sacraments and therefore entrusted herself to the mercy of God: “Having no spiritual consolation to look for, not even knowing whether there are still in this place any priests of that religion (and indeed the place where I am would expose them to too much danger if they were to enter it but once), I sincerely implore pardon of God for all the faults which I may have committed during my life. I trust that, in His goodness, He will mercifully accept my last prayers, as well as those which I have for a long time addressed to Him, to receive my soul into His mercy.”

In the final lines dedicated to her sister-in-law (who herself faced the guillotine less than seven months later, comforting her companions with words of pious encouragement as they approached the scaffold), the Queen stated: “Perhaps they will bring me a priest; but I here protest that I will not say a word to him, but that I will treat him as a total stranger.” At first glance, these last words of the Queen to her sister-in-law would appear shocking, especially since she had just offered her valediction as one dying “in the Catholic Apostolic and Roman religion.” However, a knowledge of the development of the French Revolution will help us to realize that by the time of the Queen’s execution in 1793, there were two very different types of Catholic priests (and by extension two different types of Catholics) in France.

In the midst of the French Revolution, France’s Constituent Assembly was no longer satisfied with manipulating the minds and hearts of the French people. Its design on the souls of all Frenchmen was manifested in July of 1790 with the passage of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The Civil Constitution directed the French government’s authority over Church property, dissolved remaining monastic orders, and called for the popular election of bishops and priests. The Constitution essentially made the Church an agent of the state. The Constitution seriously affected the conscience of the deeply-Catholic King Louis XVI who was induced to accept its passage. His reticence was only exacerbated when he received warnings from Pope Pius VI to reject the Constitution.

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Soon after, the passage of the Constitution was not enough. The Constituent Assembly eventually decreed that all clergy must swear an oath accepting the Civil Constitution. The King wavered until finally granting his sanction to the oath in December. Perhaps more than any other, this decision would weigh on his soul for the last two years of his life; and, recognizing the gravity of his decision, he agonized over whether he could make his Easter duty and receive Holy Communion because of it the following year. He even went so far as to write to the Bishop of Clermont for guidance.

The insistence on France’s clergy swearing an oath to the Civil Constitution opened a schism within the French Church. According to Colin Jones, the oath “revealed a church split almost down the middle: around 45 percent of the parish clergy refused the oath (and were called ‘refractory’ or ‘non-juring’ clergy), and though 55 per cent did take it, around 6 per cent of the ‘jurors’ publicly retracted following the pope’s public announcement of his opposition to the Civil Constitution in March 1791.” Bishops rejected the Civil Constitution at an even larger percentage with only 7 of the 136 taking the oath. It eventually became the practice of faithful Catholics in France (including the Royal Family) to exclusively seek out the ministration of non-juror priests who offered Mass and supplied the sacraments, often in secret.

It is in the midst of this “schism” that Marie Antoinette directed her final considerations. In confinement for such a long time, she wondered if any non-juror priests could still be found in France. For this reason, assuming that a juror priest might be brought to her, she declared unequivocally that she would remain silent and treat him as a stranger. As she expected, a juror priest named Abbé Girard was indeed brought to her before her execution. True to her word, she remained silent in his presence, rightly concerned that a priest who had already sworn an oath to the Civil Constitution would likewise have little compunction about breaking the seal of confession and revealing the Queen’s sins to the public.

The aversion to juror priests by French Catholics existed because of a distrust of those who were willing to sacrifice their beliefs and principles and the teachings of the Church by subordinating them to the state and, by extension, to the French Revolution as a whole. Because a revolution can never be fully satisfied, its designs didn’t stop at a simple oath to the Civil Constitution. The Reign of Terror eventually saw the execution and deportation of non-juror priests while some juror priests married and many others abandoned the priesthood. In the juror/non-juror conflict we realize that the ultimate destruction of the priesthood and of the Church is what the Revolution intended.

Unfortunately we see strains of this conflict in our own political world today. We see many examples of politicians and public figure who through an elaborate series of intellectual gymnastics manage to depict themselves as being “personally opposed to abortion” but nonetheless “pro-choice.” The latest attempt by a politician to separate his personal views from the law of the land can be seen in the Vice-Presidential debate when Catholic Democratic Senator Tim Kaine spoke of the view that he shares with his running-mate Hillary Clinton: “We support Roe v. Wade. We support the constitutional right of American women to consult their own conscience, their own supportive partner, their own minister, but then make their own decision about pregnancy.” Senator Kaine also remarked that “I don’t believe in this nation, a First Amendment nation, where we don’t raise any religion over the other, and we allow people to worship as they please, that the doctrines of any one religion should be mandated for everyone.”

During the debate Senator Kaine also addressed his attempt to assert the difference between his personal religious convictions and his responsibility to see the law carried through: “I think it is really, really important that those of us who have deep faith lives don’t feel that we could just substitute our own views for everybody else in society, regardless of their views.” Even as governor of Virginia he made sure that his position was clear to the electorate: “I’m not going to change my religious practice to get one vote, but I know how to take an oath and uphold the law. And if you elect me, I will uphold the law.”

Unfortunately, what Senator Kaine has done, like so many politicians of our modern age, is to place the law of the state as supreme without reasoning with the Catechism of the Catholic Church that if “rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience” (1903). There is no doubt that the framing and implementation of many laws can be legitimately debated among Catholics. Various questions and approaches can be addressed with regard to capital punishment, waging war, immigration, and social services. However, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger made it clear in 2004 that some moral questions are non-negotiable: “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia…. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

With these considerations in mind, Senator Kaine’s attempt to enshrine the laws of the United States above those of his own faith and conscience recall the juror priests of France who betrayed their religious vows for the sake of self-preservation as agents of the state. In this regard, we must ask ourselves to what extent Senator Kaine would be willing to weigh the laws of the state over his personal beliefs and religious convictions. Would he allow that there is a limitation to the law’s reaches, and if so, who or what is its arbiter? Do we need to remind ourselves that abortion on eugenic grounds was legal in Hitler’s Third Reich beginning in 1935? That same year the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws were introduced. By the extension of these laws, according to the political theorist Hannah Arendt, “[s]exual intercourse between Jews and Germans, and the contraction of mixed marriages, were forbidden. Also, no German woman under the age of forty-five could be employed in a Jewish household.” Would Senator Kaine have paid obeisance to any of these directives simply because they were the law of the land?

Adolf Eichmann, a lieutenant colonel of the SS, was instrumental in organizing the mass deportations of Jews to extermination camps during the Second World War. During his trial in Jerusalem in 1961, he maintained that, throughout his service with the SS, he always remained a law-abiding citizen of the Third Reich. According to Arendt (who covered the trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker), Eichmann argued that “[w]hat he had done was a crime only in retrospect, and he had always been a law-abiding citizen, because Hitler’s orders, which he had certainly executed to the best of his ability, had possessed the ‘force of law’ in the Third Reich.”

Arendt herself remarked on how extraordinary it was that the Third Reich could so quickly and easily not only invert the morality of natural law but make this inversion legal policy: “[J]ust as the law in civilized countries assumes that the voice of conscience tells everybody ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ … so that law of Hitler’s land demanded that the voice of conscience tell everybody: ‘Thou shalt kill,’ although the organizers of the massacres knew full well that murder is against the normal desires and inclinations of most people.” For men like Eichmann, their consciences were able to rest easily because they enjoyed the favor of the law: “[Whatever Eichmann] did he did, as far as he could see, as a law-abiding citizen. He did his duty, as he told the police and the court over and over again; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law.”

We see in the figure of Adolf Eichmann the frightening conclusion that can be reached by anyone who sacrifices their own principles and convictions (no matter how “personally opposed” they might feel) for the unjust or immoral laws of a secular state. However, Arendt doesn’t allow for such a crafty distinction: “For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same.” Yet we continue to see in our world of politics today the dangerous example of Catholic politicians who compromise their Christian principles for the sake of offering willing obedience to and (according to Arendt) their support for laws of the state regarding abortion, euthanasia, and homosexual unions.

In a very incisive editorial recently, William McGurn wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “Has Mr. Kaine ever raised his voice to say he dissents from a world view in which one life can be taken if it is deemed inconvenient to another’s? To the contrary, Mr. Kaine is that new model of Catholic politician who believes it is the church that must take its creed from the secular culture.” Unfortunately we see in the political character of Mr. Kaine and his ilk glimmers of that same spirit that led juror priests during the French Revolution to swear an oath and subjugate the Church to state control. We also see in these political figures strains of Eichmann’s willingness to sacrifice personal principles and convictions in order to follow and even advance the laws (however unjust) dictated by the state.

The continued attempt of Catholic politicians and public figures to walk a schizophrenic line between serving God and mammon at the same time has only weakened the foundation of the Church and Her teachings. Each year I offer a Requiem Mass as close to October 16 as my schedule allows, praying for the soul of Queen Marie Antoinette and the souls of all those who refused to compromise with the evils of the French Revolution. This year, I do so ever more mindful that the dilemma of the tragic widow-Queen awaiting her death in the Conciergerie remains the constant dilemma of Catholics of good will throughout the world who continue to make the effort to remain faithful to the Church’s teachings and refuse to compromise with the whims of today’s culture.


  • Fr. Brandon O'Brien

    Fr. Brandon O’Brien is a priest for the Diocese of Rockville Centre in New York. He served as the 2012-2013 Editor-in-Chief of The Dunwoodie Review, the academic journal published by students of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, before his ordination to the priesthood in 2013. He earned an M. Div and an M.A. in Theology from the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, New York.

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