THE MOST RECENT COLD SHORT is not that old: April 2015, under the presidency of François Hollande, the Vatican refused to accredit as ambassador the candidate proposed by the Élysée. The reason given? The diplomat openly claims his homosexuality. The tension will last several months before another name is unanimous. Under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, other frictions had already concerned bioethical laws, or the positions of Paris, before the UN, on the subject of birth control. Despite this, the very contemporary period of this long history linking France and the Vatican undoubtedly remains one of the most peaceful in view of the sixteen centuries of bilateral relations which precede it.
The story begins in the 5th century with a founding gesture: the baptism of Clovis, the first European king to embrace the Catholic religion. The first diplomatic relations followed in 1011, then the concordat of 1516, under Francis I, which was only repealed in 1790. Since Henry IV, sovereigns and presidents have even been named honorary canons of the Saint-Jean-de-Basilica. Lateran, in Rome. Since the Fifth Republic, only three presidents have refused to receive this title: Georges Pompidou, François Mitterrand and François Hollande.
Under the Ancien Régime, France proved to be for the Church both a Christian kingdom which provided a number of important saints (from Saint Louis to Saint Bernard, from Saint Martin of Tours to Joan of Arc) and the heart of tragic events: the Cathar heresy, the Wars of Religion, the Edict of Nantes and its revocation, etc. They leave wounds between the kingdom and the papacy, even if centuries later, in 1980, John Paul II launched without fear of angering secular France: “France, eldest daughter of the Church*, are you faithful to the promises of your baptism? »
Divorce between the throne and the altar
Gallicanism, this desire for autonomy in relation to the Pope, irrigated the soil of France early on. From Rabelais and Molière to Voltaire, the protest against the hypocrisy, the privileges and the corruption of the high clergy was in fermentation well before 1789. The philosophers of the Enlightenment did not hesitate either to question the dogmas or to demand a separation of the altar and the throne. During the Revolution, the divorce between the clergy and the nation took place in stages. During the Constituent Assembly, part of the clergy stood on the side of the third estate, the other with the nobility. Among the demands: the abolition of tithes and other privileges; which will happen on the night of August 4.
However, not all the leaders of the Revolution were anti-religious. The division will arise with the Civil Constitution of the clergy, in 1790, requiring priests to take an oath to the Constitution. Pope Pius VI took months (March 1791) to publish a “brief” judging this constitution “heretical”. In the meantime, more than half of the priests will have taken the oath… The revolutionaries will also transform churches into temples of worship of the Supreme Being; many priests and monks were arrested in the dark years, from 1792 to 1794. These included the massacres of the Carmelites and the pontoons of Nantes. The Directory will also show itself to be very anticlerical. In 1798, French troops occupied Rome. Pius VI, taken prisoner, crossed the Alps on a stretcher and died in Valencia in 1799.
France, a secular nation
In 1795 a law separating Church and State was passed, a foreshadowing of that of 1905. A central concept of the French political system, secularism, while reducing the powers of the Church, will have paradoxically given it a independence. Three main issues will fuel antagonism: state control over the appointment of bishops, the rights of congregations and the supervision of Catholic education. It was not until the First World War that they found lasting solutions.
Another French specificity: the tense relationship between the French State and the Vatican has always been accompanied by inter-ecclesial tensions between Gallicans (supporters of the autonomy of the Church of France) and ultramontanes (defenders of the absolute sovereignty of the Pope). . And until today, between conservatives and a socially engaged, sometimes politically radical fringe, from Abbot Grégoire (1750-1831) to Mgr Jacques Gaillot (died in April 2023).
With the Concordat of 1801, which remained in force until 1905, Napoleon aimed to reconcile these two Frances. He fully reestablishes the cult… but subordinates it to civil power. Which did not prevent the new Pope Pius VII from crowning him emperor. But a series of incredible events will spoil everything: the French troops occupy Rome again, the Pope excommunicates Napoleon by the bull Quum memoranda . The pontiff will be kidnapped, then sent into exile in France from 1809 to 1814! Catholicity partly regained its luster under the Restoration.
Then Louis-Philippe called himself “citizen king”. The long pontificate of Pius IX (1846-1878) will coincide with several regimes (monarchy, Republic, Empire). Pius IX will begin his reign with the image of a liberal democrat, praised by Victor Hugo himself. But his flight, in 1848, from the Vatican occupied by Italian revolutionaries made him the adversary of modernism. The following year, a French expeditionary force liberated Rome, which allowed Pius IX to return. French troops remained stationed in Rome and until 1870, French people joined the papal Zouaves. Napoleon III’s aid to the “martyr pope” will nevertheless be criticized. Previously, the Falloux law of 1850 had laid the foundations for private Catholic education.
Pro and anticlerical
While original Catholic voices like those of Henri Lacordaire and Félicité de Lammenais defend liberal ideas far from Rome, social Catholicism shines with luminous figures like Frédéric Ozanam, founder of the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul Society ; that Marxism spread, that the skeptic Ernest Renan wrote his Life of Jesus … Pius IX published in 1864 the Syllabus which condemns rationalism, freedoms of religion and opinion, the separation of politics and religion.
Two Frances will then divide. During the Commune, priests and the Archbishop of Paris Georges Darboy were massacred. The Dreyfus affair, where Catholics took sides against the Jewish officer, accentuated the division between clericals and anticlericals. A gap that passes within families themselves. The defeat of 1870 against Prussia, the fear of the violence committed during the Commune, encouraged among Catholics a movement of atonement “for the sins of France”, leading in particular to the construction of the basilica of the Sacré-Cœur, in Paris.
The 1901 law on freedom of association will pose a major problem for the Vatican.
It does not authorize the existence of religious congregations. The separation law of 1905 seeks to establish a public law regime for religious associations. But Pius X refused this associative status and broke with Paris. Tension peaks when, in several regions, parishioners attempt to forcibly oppose inventories of property in churches. But the laws of 1889 and 1905 which sent priests “backpack” to the army allowed a relative rapprochement to begin: in 1914-1918, priests were seen as “men like any other” sharing the common fate. . Complex era which saw Pope Benedict XV treated as a “Boche pope” for his calls for peace.
At the end of the conflict, after fifteen years of rupture, diplomatic relations resumed in 1920. The Vatican agreed to consult the French state for the appointments of bishops. Diocesan associations depend on the sole authority of bishops. It was also a period of popular fervor supported by Rome. Joan of Arc was canonized in 1920, Thérèse of Lisieux in 1925, Bernadette of Lourdes in 1933.
If the Holy See did not hesitate to condemn, in 1926, Action Française, an anti-republican and ultranationalist movement, it responded – after hesitating -, under the Occupation, to the outstretched hand of Pétain, sensitive to its Christian references and anti-communists; also satisfied with the resettlement of congregations, until then without legal status, and the recovery of their property.
Tension over private school
In 1945, General de Gaulle, a practicing Catholic, claimed his proximity to the Holy See. The post-war period was also marked by social ferment. The experiment of priest-workers will be stopped on the orders of Pius XII in 1954, and authorized again by Paul VI in 1965. The various presidents will get along well with Francophile pontiffs such as Paul VI and John XXIII, former nuncio in France. “The authorization of Catholic education will remain the main recurring point of tension between the Church and governments,” observes historian Édouard Coquet, researcher at the French School of Rome. The other quarrels over the status of the congregations were settled following decisions by Vichy, taken up by the governments after the Liberation. » But secularism remains a sensitive subject – thus Nicolas Sarkozy asserting in 2007 “that the teacher can never replace the priest”.
In recent times, the Vatican has endorsed Paris’ foreign policy priorities, while being critical of nuclear power and arms sales. But after centuries of quarrels, France and the Holy See have now learned to live more distant relations. While frequently finding themselves allies in the defense of fundamental human rights around the world.
* This term “eldest daughter” derives from the title “eldest sons of the Church” by which the kings were called.
Sixteen centuries of relationships
498 Baptism in Reims of Clovis, king of the Franks, by Bishop Remi.
800 Coronation of Emperor Charlemagne by Pope Leo III, in Rome.
1516 Concordat between Francis I and Leo X, at the end of which the bishops invested by the pontiff take an oath to the king.
1790 Decree on the Civil Constitution of the Clergy adopted by the Constituent Assembly.
1801 Concordat signed between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Holy See recognizing that the Catholic religion is that of “the vast majority of French people”.
1905 Law of separation of Churches and State ensuring freedom of conscience and that of religion and the principle that the government does not subsidize any religion.
1980 First apostolic visit of a pope, John Paul II, to France.