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The resilient French Church shows that Catholicism survives no matter how repressive the regime

In Tours a fine basilica was built on the site of a vast medieval church knocked down during the Revolution

By on Monday, 3 October 2011

The Basilica of St Martin in Tours

The Basilica of St Martin in Tours

I have been on holiday in France, which is one reason why I have not been posting much over the last week, and in the course of my travels I visited two holy places which perhaps ought to be better known to readers of The Catholic Herald.

The first was the Basilica of St Martin in Tours. Tours is a lovely old town by the banks of the Loire. St Martin died in the fourth century, and by 1789 there was a vast medieval church standing over his remains. You can tell how huge it must have been because the two remaining towers are pretty enormous. Anyway, along came the Revolution, and in an amazing display of fraternity, equality and liberty, the building was secularised and turned into a stable. Then the roof was stripped, and eventually the whole thing was knocked down. This happened to an awful lot of churches in France at that time.

Some years later, in the 1860s, the tomb of St Martin was rediscovered and a new basilica was built covering part of the site of the old one. This is the fine church that I visited, which is somewhat reminiscent in style of Sacre Coeur in Paris, which dates from about the same time. It was very pleasing to go into the crypt and see the tomb of St Martin surrounded by ex votos. It was also encouraging to see a large congregation at the Sunday Mass, people of all ages, a Mass celebrated with dignity, the music of which was animated (as they say) by Dominican nuns wearing full choir habits. I noticed too that many of the people receiving Holy Communion genuflected as they approached the sacrament.

All this would be deeply upsetting for those who hoped that Robespierre’s campaign of deChristianisation would have lasting effects in France. In fact wiser heads than Robespierre’s (Danton’s, for example) were of the opinion that the Revolution had made a terrible mistake in attacking the Church so violently; certainly the campaign of deChristianisation alienated a large tranche of French society. But those who do not acknowledge their mistakes are destined to repeat them, and the government in the early part of the 20th century was almost as bad as the Jacobins. Let us not forget that the French Church has had all its property confiscated and its religious orders exiled not once but twice, the second time by the government of Émile Combes. And yet, despite these efforts, which seemed pretty successful at the time, the French Church keeps on coming back. Now why is that?

I suppose there can only be two possible answers. One is that the campaign to extirpate Catholicism has simply not been thorough enough. But when you consider the facts – such as the Noyades – it becomes quite hard to sustain this position, and I have heard no one argue that there were too few guillotinings during the Revolution. The alternative position is to acknowledge that religious practice is a permanent feature of the human landscape, and that attempts to extirpate it are illogical and futile. I cannot see any feasible alternative to this position – there never has been a modern society that I can think of that has successfully abolished Catholicism. I would bet that there are Catholics, deep underground of course, even in North Korea.

One last point: supporters of the Jacobins would surely point out that the Revolution was committed to religious liberty in the private sphere. This I would dispute, as would most historians, but even if it were true, one would have to counter that religion cannot ever be a purely private matter. To tell someone to keep their faith private, behind closed doors, either in the home or in a church, is to be religiously intolerant. Freedom of religion necessarily entails freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and freedom of association; the French revolutionaries and petit père Combes, as the anti-clerical former seminarian was known, were certainly opposed to the last two.

I mentioned two French holy places; I will hold the second over for another day.

  • Charles Martel

    Thank you for your article on Tours; it’s just a pity you didn’t mention me, who saved Tours, France, and Europe, from oblivion in the Year of Our Lord 732.
    When I saw your title, I imagined it must be an article about the survival of the French Church since Vatican II, under the oppressive regime of its own bishops. Joking aside, though, it is clear that the Church is on the point of complete collapse now in France, despite the fact that no one has been persecuting her over the past 40 years. The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the Church, not the blatherings of ecumenists and modernists.

  • Tito Edwards

    The Muslims have been pretty darn successful in eradicating Catholicism everywhere they went.  The Middle East (now 2% of the population), Egypt (now 10% of the population), Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia (all have less than 1% Catholic if that), Turkey, and pretty much every other Muslim country.

  • Andr3w Swan

    I think you might find that Henry VIII and Elizabeth I did a pretty good job of abolishing the Catholic (big ‘C’) Faith  in Britain, though they certainly replaced it with a fluffy enough counterfeit that could let you believe in Papal Infallibility and the Real Presence if you want and nothing so vile and coercive as the Reign of Terror.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Interesting point… that is why I said “modern society” above. I had in mind the complete destruction of the North African Church in the homeland of St Augustine, something that historians find very hard to explain. Why did Catholicism effectively disappear in what is now Morocco, Agieria and Tunisia, but not in Egypt or Syria?

  • Anonymous

    I am told that 25% of all people who attend Mass in France now attend the Traditional Mass. Certainly those Churches are much fuller than the ones celebrating N.O. Masses only.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Elizabeth Tudor did her best, didn’t she, but she did not succeed in extripating Catholicism…. and the Tudor regime was in some ways worse than the Terror in that it used torture. Say what you like about the guillotine, but it was quick and painless!

  • H

    In actual fact, it is the french bishops themselves who are decatholicising France. They love modernism; mosques, temples and everyone else’s religion except for the Traditional Roman Catholic Faith.

  • H

    In actual fact, it is the french bishops themselves who are decatholicising France. They love modernism; mosques, temples and everyone else’s religion except for the Traditional Roman Catholic Faith.

  • Royston

    I have been going to France for some 10 years or more. Start your History Lesson with abbaye de Silvacane with the Cistercian Revolution – also take a tour of le Palais des Papes, and see how the Church survived and grew stronger, how it was nearly destroyed – it gives us all so much hope.

  • Royston

    I have been going to France for some 10 years or more.  Start your ‘history lesson’ with Abbaye de Silvacane with the Cistercian Revolution – also take a tour of le Palais des Papes and see how the Church survived and grew stronger, how it was nearly destroyed – it gives us all so much hope.

  • Little Black Censored

    My impression from occasional visits is that parochial Church life in France has decayed almost beyond recall in many areas, but that some religious communities are flourishing and spreading. In England the first is becoming true, but the second, positive tendency is completely absent.

  • Parasum

    Part of the answer is that the Church in Roman Africa was weakened by the hatred of Catholics & Donatists for each other. Both sides resorted to violence.

  • Parasum

    She wasn’t determined enough, and she was too Christian. Mao & Stalin, by contrast, could kill tens of millions because they were single-minded and ruthless and unscrupulous enough as human beings;because they could rely on an entire state apparatus; and because they had subordinates who could be counted upon to do as they were told. Tudor England was not centralised – London could be controlled in a way that Lancashire could not. And she did not keep at it. Nor was she able to kill on an industrial scale; the 20th century bloodbaths were possible because there were the materiel & the industrial substructure & equipment to make them possible. Mao & Stalin were not weakened by any tosh about compassion, kindness, pity; so they could keep at it. Mao and Stalin used torture constantly. Who needs a devil, when men as evil as that can exist ? When people act like that, the notion of forgiveness is stretched to snapping-point, because what they did was satanic.

  • Parasum

    “…despite the fact that no one has been persecuting her over the past 40 years”

    “Despite” ? LOL One of the best ways to wreck a Church is to suffocate it with ease and security & comfort. No blood is shed, but it is ruined. Simples. A comfortable church has no credibility, unlike a martyred Church. Job done.

  • Parasum

    Maybe in England & Wales – though, John Knox was helped by English money. The Scottish Reformation followed a different course from that down south.

    The real villains are the Popes; perhaps surprisingly. The 1559 Act of Settlement in England passed by just three votes. It would almost certainly have failed if the seven English sees that were vacant when Mary I died on November 17 1558, a few hours before the Archbishop of Canterbury, had not been kept vacant for months while Paul IV kept delaying nominations to them, because he dreaded doing anythinhg that could stregthen Spain’s position. He hated the Spaniards passionately, and Mary I had married Philip II. And the Pope had a baseless fear that Cardinal Pole, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was a heretic. So Paul IV
    was not going to help the Church in England.

    Even after 1559, everything was not lost – there could still have been nominations to the sees that were left empty when 13 of the 14 surviving Catholic bishops were replaced  by Protestants. Thomas Goldwell, bishop of St. Asaph, the one English bishop present at Trent, was able to avoid being imprisoned, & escaped to the continent; & he did not die until 1585, so the Papacy had 27 years to nominate Catholic bishops and preserve the succession that began with St. Augustine of Canterbury. But nothing was done. Talk about missed opportunities ! When England desperagtely needed bishops, Rome did exactly nothing.

  • Pastor in Valle

    And then there were the Arian Vandals who brought more violence. It is also said that the North African Moslems were more fanatical than others.

  • Don Gaffney

    re being quietly strangled by apathetic bishops.

  • Anonymous

    So Father, you feel a weak thready pulse in the French Catholic Church?

    So everything’s all right then?

    Cool !

  • Edwards-j18

    You were lucky,Father,to visit Tours when you did. It is very difficult to breathe there in May,when the cotton planes are shedding their “blossom”.

  • Beat

    “I would bet that there are Catholics, deep underground of course, even in North Korea.”

    Unfortunately, a good number of them are literally underground - courtesy of the North Korean government….

  • The GF

    what a smug loser you really are

  • Anonymous

    The French Church has been torn to shreds to the point of near-annihilation ; and NOT by Robespierres or maniacal secularists – but by its own hierarchy.

    Smug? No – just despondent that desolation is wrought and it’s called peace.

    A loser? Most definitely! God bless you too.

  • AgingPapist

    Good for the French government.  They and other European states should seize the Church’s land and loot and start paying sexually abused children and their parents everywhere.  The Church and its corrupt hierarchy belong in the catacombs doing penance for centuries of venality and continuing hierarchical corruption at every level.

    Catholics should never be reconciled to an institution so clearly imperiled by the devil.  Who continues to operate through the ministrations of pious priest craft in his service.