Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Can Anything Good Come from France?

(The Remnant, December 31st, 2004)

One of the few remaining acceptable public prejudices in the United States today is disdain for France. Contemporary Iraqi issues aside, this disdainmost often appears in contemptuous criticism of ever-weakening French efforts to defend what is left of that nation’s heritage. Part of the explanation for the anti-French prejudice lies with a residue of English animosity towards a traditional enemy still alive in what was once a basically Anglo-Saxon America. More important in forming this bias in the early twenty-first century pluralist American environment, however, is France’s possession of a distinct culture. That culture, at its peak in the seventeenth century, was very much concerned with educating and perfecting itself and its people. Much of what it sought to do is still alive in the traditionalist mentality. Nothing could be more destructive to pluralism, built as it is upon the vision of a world where toleration alone can stave off evil, than the kind of educated alternative to formless openness that France represented. The breeze wafting in from tradition-soaked Gaul nudged—and still in many ways nudges--people into a pilgrimage towards a distinct, splendid, and, hence, “divisive” goal that pluralist America cannot help but recognize as dangerously alien.

What is it that shaped this distinct goal and the passion for an education to reach it in traditional French culture? Catholicism played an enormous role in the enterprise, and perhaps never more fervently and consciously than in the seventeenth century, when the Church, in the aftermath of Trent, was urging the re-evangelization of Christendom. Still, Catholicism had competition in its efforts to shape the education and character of French culture, some of which worked back on Catholics themselves, weakened their control over France’s ultimate destiny and helped to bring on the hostile educational policy of the Revolution. In other words, France experienced a pedagogical battle in the seventeenth century with manifold consequences, only some of which will be addressed here, but which must be examined by anyone eager to grasp the nature of our own contemporary pedagogical and political battles.

In order to understand the character of the French conflict clearly, one must always keep in mind the spiritual and material nightmare France endured between 1559 and 1598. In the course of those years, France saw the growth of the Calvinist Huguenot power, backed by many illustrious aristocrats; a Catholic reaction centered around cities like Paris and various leagues guided by orthodox noblemen, academics, magistrates, and bourgeois keen on purifying France of a strange and often violently iconoclastic menace; revulsion on the part of both groups with a monarchy that did not seem to rule consistently in line with God’s laws; religious wars and regicide; foreign exploitation and even threats of absorption into the Spanish Hapsburg power bloc. The mounting confusion only ended with the victory of the Huguenot leader, Henry Bourbon, Henry IV (1589-1610), who defused the Catholic opposition by obtaining absolution from the pope for his abjuration of the Faith and then committing himself to aiding many aspects of the cause of Catholic reform. Protestant resistance to peace was cut off first by Henry’s abandonment of the leadership of that resistance, and then by his promising his erstwhile co-religionists, in the Edict of Nantes (1598), various guarantees for the practice of their faith. The nightmare seemed to end once peace with Spain was concluded in 1598, and the country then prepared to devote its energies to its own recovery and development.

A battery of diverse and enthusiastic Catholics thought that it knew what the country needed. What came to be called the dévot party in seventeenth-century France included bishops like Cardinal François de la Rochefoucauld (1558-1645) of Clermont/Senlis and priests such as Adrien Bourdoise (1584-1665), active at the Parisian Church of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet. Religious from reformed Benedictine, Carmelite, Cistercian, and Dominican houses, especially in or near Paris, added their fervor to the cause. Members of the new Capuchin, Discalced Carmelite, Fatebenefratelli, and Ursuline orders originating in Italy and Spain were also active, not to speak of the fathers of the Society of Jesus, who provided such dévot leaders as Nicolas Caussin (1583 -1651), confessor to Louis XIII (1610-1643). Orders founded by French-speakers, including St. Vincent de Paul’s (1581-1662) Congregation of the Mission and the Visitandines of St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) and St. Jeanne de Chantal (1572-1641), played a significant role as well. Moreover, organizations of secular priests, ranging from the network of Aa (Association d’amis) to Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle’s (1575-1629) French Oratory, Jean-Jacques Olier’s (1608-1657) Company of Saint Sulpice, and St. Jean Eudes’ (1601-1680) Congregation of Jesus and Mary offered many zealous foot soldiers for the movement.

All these prelates, priests, and religious were aided immeasurably in making their influence felt by an army of laywomen, among them Madame Barbara Acarie (1566-1618), who eventually entered religious life as the Carmelite Marie de l’Incarnation, and Louise de Marillac (1591-1660), whose work with St. Vincent de Paul led to the creation of the Daughters of Charity. Louise’s uncle, Michel de Marillac (1563-1632), was one of the most important political figures from the large pool of laymen in the dévot camp. While Jesuit Marian congregations, and sodalities sponsored by other priests and religious, were often the locus for lay involvement, private homes also became dévot foyers. Nobles such as Henri de Lévis (1596-1680), Duke of Ventadour, created and fueled the lay Company of the Blessed Sacrament, which operated in France almost as a kind of Catholic Freemasonry.

If one thing could be said to unite all these diverse elements, that cement, as indicated above, would have to be found in their joint concern for education: education of the clergy, the average man, and society at large. Education of the clergy to a sense of its dignity and its lofty responsibilities was the theme set by de la Rouchefoucauld in his De la perfection de l’état ecclésiastique (1597). From 1612 onwards, Bourdoise used his church to provide unofficial seminary training in a Paris still lacking clerical preparatory institutions. Creation of a new secular clergy, almost da capo, was the special mission of de Bérulle’s Oratory, and this spirit lay behind the work of Olier and Eudes as well. St. Vincent de Paul sought to instruct Parisian priests by means of a continuing series of Wednesday conferences. Meanwhile, colleges of Jesuits and Oratorians, the circles around the Cistercians of Port Royal, and, a bit later, the Brothers of the Christian Schools of St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle (1651-1719), sought the elevation of laymen. Laywomen, whose education was more and more considered to be crucial to the improvement of family life, were formed, to begin with, by Ursulines and Visitandines, and later, with the encouragement of Louis XIV’s (1643-1715) second wife, Madam de Maintenon (1635-1719), and the great François de Salignac Le Mothe Fénelon (1651-1715), Bishop of Cambrai. General education was continued through the development of the episcopal pastoral letter and the perfection of the preaching art, which reached its apex by the end of the century with Fénelon, Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet of Meaux (1627-1704), and the Jesuit Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1704). The Jesuits made use of the theater as a teaching tool, while the period also saw the widespread dissemination of devotional and catechetical works. The Jesuits, Eudes, and the Congregation of the Mission, convinced that France itself was a mission country in need of evangelization, organized highly sophisticated sweeps of the countryside to teach, preach, and firm up commitment to practice of the faith. Each sortie was repeated at regular intervals to make sure the good seed had not fallen by the wayside.

In the long run, of course, this was education of the soul in its approach to union with God, and mystical in its flavor. The mystical character of the movement was aided by stimuli from Italy and Spain, and by the rediscovery or republication of works of the early Christian centuries, such as those of the Pseudo-Dionysius. A rich French strain of mystical writing soon emerged, including the Capuchin Benoit de Canfield’s (1562 - 1660) Règle de perfection (1609), Pierre de Bérulle’s Discours de l’état et des grandeurs de Jesus (1623), Olier’s Journée chrétienne (1670), and the posthumous (1694) compilation of the teachings of the Jesuit Louis Lallemont (1588-1635), the Doctrine spirituelle. Marie Guyard (1599-1672), an Ursuline active in Canada under the name Marie de l’Incarnation, and many others, taught mystical concerns by example. Different in their specific approaches, all urged some form of meditation on Christ’s Sacred Heart and His love for mankind, self-abasement before His majesty, grace, and goodness, imitation of the Holy Family, friendship with Mary, and specific penitential and eucharistic practices. One type of devotion to the Sacred Heart received especially powerful support from the revelations to Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690) and the writings of her Jesuit confessor, Charles de la Colombière (1641-1682).

But were personal and corporate prayer life alone sufficient for education and elevation of the soul to union with God? A resounding “no” came from different dévot circles. What was referred to as “devout Humanism”, as found in the Jesuit Pierre Coton’s (1564-1626) Interieure occupation d’une âme dévote (1608), or the spirituality of Saint Francis de Sales’ Introduction à la vie dévote (1609) and Traite de l’amour de Dieu (1616), spoke volumes about the need for active individuals to raise themselves to God through their particular vocations in the world. All Christians, St. Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, and their friends argued, had charitable responsibilities to perform for the sick and the poor. Social sins like dueling, the neglect of agriculture and the peasantry, and the disturbance of the peace of Europe in general, were problems that dévots--from the time of St. Vincent and the Company of the Blessed Sacrament to Fénelon in his great work, Télémaque (1699)--believed that the Christian on pilgrimage to God had to tackle. And then there was the scandal caused by the continued dead weight of Protestantism in French society, which the dévots, by a combination of evangelization and State action, wanted to see removed entirely.

Many of these dévot concerns obviously entailed political activity. No Tridentine reforms could be made fully effective until the decrees of the Council were given force of law and the backing of the king. This was due to the fact that some of the decadent practices of the late medieval church, as well as the quite different reform measures stemming from the fifteenth-century Councils of Constance and Basel, were legally binding before the French courts, the parlements. For example, someone opposed to a Tridentine-inspired action could make what was referred to as an appel comme d’abus from Church to State authorities on that basis. French kings had the right, vouchsafed by Francis I’s Concordat with Leo X in 1516, to name practically every bishop in the country, the pope retaining only the subsequent power of confirmation of royal choices. Consequently, influence over the monarch was essential to bringing individual dioceses into the Tridentine reform camp. None of the specific desires of the various dévot groups--reintroducing sound diocesan and monastic discipline, establishing colleges and seminaries, improving the plight of the peasant, and assuring a Catholic-friendly European harmony--could be achieved without backing from parlements and king. Hence, the effort of pro-Tridentine bishops, culminating in the petition of the clerical representatives at the Estates-General of 1614, to accept the decrees of the Council officially, once and for all.

But the problem was that there were a variety of groups that did not like the political agenda of the dévot party. There were still certain Huguenots whose voices were heard in court and parliamentary circles. A myriad of self-interested groups, such as monks receiving support for a life of prayer which they did not carry out, could be counted on to assure endless litigation and anti-Tridentine agitation. Many ordinary people opposed reform because it struck against what were actually long-entrenched superstitious practices masquerading as religious activity, one prime example being the sacrificing of bulls to the Virgin in times of trouble. A skeptical faction, whose great intellectual mentor was Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), and a so-called libertine party, with support from Louis XIII’s brother, Gaston d’Orleans (1608-1660), were opposed to a France committed to pious causes. Dramatists like Molière (1622-1673) satirized the dévot movement, depicting the religious-minded layman as a pretentious hypocrite in Tartuffe (1664) and other works.

It was the apparent Ultramontanism of many of the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century dévots and the Roman-backed Tridentine reforms they supported that brought out most of the effective French opposition to their victory. This opposition was expressed in the name of Gallicanism and the special liberties of the Church in France, which were ultimately thought to be the ancient prerogatives of all local churches vis-à-vis Rome. It was in the name of Gallicanism that the parlements criticized as agents of a foreign court the nuncios whom the dévot saw to be crucial links with the Holy See. It was in the name of Gallicanism that the Jesuits were often bitterly opposed, their doctrine of indirect papal power over law (justified by Cardinal Bellarmine as a consequence of the possible corruption of law caused by error and sin) being understood as an assault on French sovereignty leading even to regicide. This latter argument was particularly powerful in France, given the murder of Henry IV in 1610 by François Ravaillac (1578-1610), who feared a long-term protestantizing effect stemming from the king’s policies. The conviction, real or alleged, that the dévot cause was dangerous to the State, which must, at all costs, be left to its own devices in establishing policy, is well captured in the petition of the Third Estate at the Estates-General of 1614. This successfully criticized legal sanction for Trent and demanded official assertion of the independence of French politics from outside spiritual control.

Perhaps the most effective of the opponents of the dévot camp were those partial to the use of the term bon Français to describe their position. Emerging from what had been called the politique vision at the time of the Religious Wars, a bon Français no longer claimed to try to stand above the Catholic-Huguenot battle, as a politique might have done. Catholicism had re-asserted itself much too strongly for such an approach by the early 1600’s. Instead, he argued that while seeking to do the right Catholic thing, he wished to do it without detriment to France. The problem was that this could, and did, expand to encompass the idea that the right Catholic thing to do, and the benefit of France itself, must be guided not by the pope nor even by the Gallican bishops but by “Reason of State”, understood by a divine right monarch mystically protected by God. In other words, in making a powerful appeal to patriotism, the bon Français implicitly criticized a Catholic who did not accept his claims as being a mauvais Français. He then confused the issue by making it unclear whether his opponent’s lack of patriotism was ascribed merely to political miscalculation or to the very desire to submit the State to the higher law of morality, as interpreted by the Papacy and dévot prelates. Whatever the case, a heavy dose of Gallican disdain for external papal involvement in the affairs of France was part and parcel of the whole bon Français position, as was a dislike of independent internal Catholic influence as well.

Battle was joined between the dévot and bon Français parties over the issue of France and religious war in the period from 1618-1648. The dévots believed that France should dedicate whatever military energy it possessed to the elimination of Protestant fortified places still existing within the country by the terms of the Edict of Nantes, move to suppress public Huguenot worship entirely, and turn its attention to needed internal reforms, especially in agriculture. They believed that France should be at least neutral, if not positively friendly towards the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs in the Thirty Years War, since the result of their victory would mean the definitive international triumph of Catholicism over Protestant heresy. For the bon Français, internal reform was of little interest, and the Huguenots concerned them only insofar as they did continue to pose a threat to domestic security. The real question was whether or not the power and glory of the Hapsburg Family might surpass and eclipse that of Bourbon France. The bon Français supported war with Spain and Austria, and, in consequence, alliance with the very Protestant powers whom the dévots wished to see crushed. A pamphlet war in the 1620’s saw the dévot True or Friendly Word of Messieurs the Princes and the Admonitio ad regem pitted against tracts such as the Discourse of the Princes and States of Christendom, On the Progress and Conquests of the King of Spain and House of Austria, and the Parallel of St. Louis and Louis XIII. It flared up again in the mid-1630’s with the appearance of Bishop Cornelius Jansenius’ (1585-1638) Mars Gallicus, which attacked French aggression and was challenged in works like How the Piety of the French Differs from that of the Spaniards within a Profession of the Same Religion and Gallican Vindications.

After taming the internal Huguenot military threat in the 1620’s, France experienced a complete bon Français victory. This was symbolized by the triumph of Cardinal Armand-Jean de Plessis de Richelieu (1585-1642) over Michel de Marillac and his allies on what has come to be known as the Day of Dupes (November 10, 1630). France entered the war against Spain and Austria. She won the power and glory that “Reason of State” demanded. She also found herself, by the end of that conflict, racked by the internal revolt of the Frondes, suffering from agricultural and industrial turmoil, and prey to the kind of sufferings poignantly described by the circles around St. Vincent de Paul.

Moreover, the dévot camp, by the latter part of the century, had lost whatever unity its diverse elements had once possessed, with baleful results for a coherent education of Frenchmen and French society. For one thing, the bon Français argument had had an impact on many of its followers who wished to be both good Catholics and good patriots. De Bérulle contributed to a bon Français pamphlet. Many Jesuits, much to the scandal of other members of the Society outside the country, toned down their Ultramontanism in favor of Gallicanism, making France, as one modern writer puts it, the graveyard of internationally-minded Jesuit Catholicism. Even Cardinal Richelieu himself illustrates this point. Always supportive of Tridentine reform on a diocesan level, and tied in his early career with de Bérulle, he, nevertheless, was willing to ally France with Moslems against fellow Catholics and press for the creation of a French patriarchate with quasi-papal powers, so long as dynastic glory and Reason of State required it. It is no surprise that the French dévots were bewildered. After all, Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644), while condemning the principle of Reason of State in theory, himself frequently acted in practice during the Thirty Years War as though Protestant defeat were indeed secondary in importance to humbling Hapsburg power. A dévot might be forgiven for wondering if politics and patriotism did perhaps have special mystical rules for operating which were different from those of private individuals. And, besides, the personal piety of the French monarchs seemed assurance enough that a Catholic spirit would somehow triumph through the confusion anyway.

On the other hand, the budding Jansenist movement, itself emerging from a segment of the dévot party, and taking its political cue from Mars Gallicus, continued its resistance to the demands of a king basing his actions upon Reason of State. The penitential practices of the Jansenists involved an “opting-out” of the world which was alien to the Richelieu vision of a dynastic France, majestic and mighty among the nations. Their episcopal leaders sometimes challenged French regalism in a way that earned them the gratitude of popes, especially Blessed Innocent XI (1676-1689).

But the Jansenist rump of the dévot party was troublesome as educator even more than the dévot-turned-bon Français. It did win glory for defending things spiritual against the incursions of the temporal realm, but in a faulty way. Jansenist theology led to condemnation by the papacy and the vast bulk of the French episcopacy alike. This, in turn inspired a Jansenist appeal to the individual conscience, shaped by a self-conscious sincerity, as the ultimate teaching authority in the Church. With the papacy and the French bishops against them, the Jansenists obviously could not rest secure in Ultramontanism or in a Gallicanism looking to native prelates for protection against the pretensions of Rome. A Gallicanism based on the support of the King was equally impossible, since the monarchy saw Jansenists as being really or potentially rebellious, and puritanaically opposed to the attainment of glory to boot. The only escape route available to them was appeal to the law courts, the parlements, as more suitable defenders of Gallican freedom and individual conscience. Parliamentarians did, indeed, take up the cudgels on the Jansenists’ behalf, both because many of their members were sympathetic to the movement in and of itself, and because they had always contested the right of bishops and/or king to be the sole spokesmen for Gallicanism and the French State.

Hence, out of the debris of the dévot party, dedicated to the education and the elevation of Frenchmen and France, two basic tendencies, shot through with contradictions, had appeared. One, Ultramontanist at heart, had sufficiently sold itself out to the principle of Reason of State to help to baptize this un-Catholic principle. Ironically, the royal bon Français needed the support of Rome in opposing the Jansenists, so that the nation found itself exposed to the spectacle of a monarchy appealing for final judgment to a papacy that was supposed to bow to the regal will. Which, then, was the court of last instance? Papacy or Monarchy? Spirit or Strength? The second tendency had no doubt that the spiritual authority was the superior guide, but reduced this spiritual authority to infallible “sincere” individual wills (in effect, as many little “kings” operating by their own reasons of State as there were different persons appealing to it) and then compounded the recourse to force that this entails by surrendering itself to the often brutally anti-royal political program of the parlements. It is hardly surprising in such a situation that the eighteenth-century philosophes saw the quarrels of Catholics as proof positive of their inability to teach anything cohesively to anyone.

Can, therefore, anything good be said to have come out of seventeenth-century France? Yes. Three goods, to be specific. One was positive: the example of Catholic thinkers and spiritual leaders seriously trying to educate their world in the best sense of Greek paideia, by using all the tools available to them, from the State to the theater, to aid the passage of souls to God. The second two were negative: a powerful warning about the way in which respect for the State and the sentiment of patriotism could be used to override the message of Christ’s Church in favor of that of the spirit of the times; and a poignant reminder that wrong-headed zeal, in the manner of the Jansenists, could degenerate into heresy, creating believers whom one French prelate called “pure as angels and proud as demons”.

Historians often lament the fact that France did not devote its attention in the seventeenth century to dealing with its internal problems. Yet France, as we have seen, was not lacking in influential people who shared this judgment-after-the-fact, at the moment when it might have actually meant something for national policy. Why, then, not admit that the dévots were on the right track? Because to do so is not permissible in our global, pluralist world. It would mean admitting that one form of teaching might be preferable to another, and that Catholicism might be that preferred truth. It would mean rejection of the purely “pragmatic” guide to life that pluralism cherishes, precisely that kind of guide which uncritically spews forth whatever the spirit of the times defines as being practical, including the drive for power and glory lying responsible for the mistakes of seventeenth-century Reason of State. It would mean recognizing that the answer to assaults on freedom is not the pluralist canonization of as many despotic wills as there are individuals and groups in society-- the practical consequence of Jansenist deification of sincerity as well--but the submission of will and conscience to solid truth, both rational and supernatural. In sum, it would involve a realization that the present age is headed toward the same cul-de-sac that marked an end to France’s golden century, and that the mistakes guaranteeing its progress to nowhere are not orthodox Catholic ones, but errors central to modernity’s own heart.

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