In this series so far, it has become quite clear just how diversified and extreme the different experiences of the Catholic Church were during the Second World War. Based on the evidence here, there was no such thing as a ‘Catholic Experience’ of the war. Indeed, almost the only unifying factor was the constancy of Catholic teaching promulgated by the Vatican: all people were created equal, and war is immoral. Even that teaching was not always followed, and one can find a considerable body of Catholics, including priests and bishops, who ignored it altogether.
For many Catholics, the claims of ideologies of race, nationalism or Fascism weighed more heavily than those of the Gospel and the Magisterium. For many others, it was the claims of the past that blinkered them to the essence of the Gospel message. In the countries examined to date, the main claim from the past was almost always one of revenge for perceived past wrongs, as, for example, in Hungary or Slovakia.
There were two countries where the claim was far more complex, and, indeed, divisive. Those countries were Spain and France, and it is to the latter that our attention now needs to turn. France in 1939-1945 was a rather different place from today in terms of its position within the Catholic Church. Of course, even today France retains a significant presence in the Catholic world, but that pales into virtual insignificance when measured against the recent past.
Second World War France was the oldest and largest daughter of Rome. Her clergy were in commanding places in dioceses from Canada to Fiji, from Japan to Algeria. For centuries, French missionaries had been the main carriers of the Good News to the rest of the world. In addition, the country had experienced an amazing explosion in new Catholic structures in the form of a myriad of religious orders dedicated to everything from hospital care to teaching. Finally, the great Marian age in which we now live commenced in France, reaching an apogee in the apparitions in Lourdes.
On the face of it, then, if we are to discover the definitive Catholic Experience in World War Two, we should find it here. Not so. Rome’s eldest daughter was not the pristine child she had once been. Instead of a united and comfortable Church, she was a divided, uncomfortable, and at times a persecuted Church. In 1901, the religious orders had been expelled, and this was followed in 1905 by the strict laicist separation between Church and state that is still the hallmark of the Fifth Republic. Some 14,000 Catholic schools were lost, most Church property simply stolen.
This was but the newest expression of a deep conflict between the ideals of the Church and the aspirations of the French Enlightenment. Its roots go back some way, but understanding them is vital if one is to understand the vicissitudes of Catholicism later on, and, in particular, the divisions that hit the Church when the French state collapsed in 1940. As is well known, 1789 heralded the end of the old regime in Europe, with the collapse of a French system of government that had lasted since the late fifteenth century. It was a system of government in which the structures and personnel of the Catholic Church were intimately interwoven with those of the monarchy. Bishops played the role of government representatives, and were, at times, virtual rulers of the country. The Church, including the massive monasteries, owned vast swathes of land, and the higher clergy especially lived a life that had more in common with the rulers than the poor.
For many centuries, too, this Church had been regarded with the greatest suspicion by Rome. This is a fact often overlooked by those who see the Revolution as having brought nothing but loss to the Church. The French Church expounded the so-called Gallican model, in which the demands of the monarchy and the state were held to be more important than those of the Faith. Indeed, the Popes were excluded as much as possible from the appointment of bishops, and the liturgy followed a specific French model instead of the Roman Missal as adopted at the Council of Trent.
For thinking Catholics, the situation was rather uncomfortable. On the one hand, the state supported the Church to the full, and assisted it in promulgating its message, while on the other, that message was frequently obscured by nationalism. The Church became just another tool of government, a useful means for social cohesion. This, of course, is a rather far cry from the ideals of the Gospels. It was expressed well in the formula “Throne and Altar”. For some in the Anglican Church in the centuries after the Reformation, the Church in France was a model, and there were even attempts to merge the two, an indication of just how far away from Rome the French Church was perceived to be.
When the Revolution finally died on the battlefield of Waterloo in 1815, the French had come a long way from the outright rejection of the Church as articulated in 1789-90. Napoleon had already appropriated the Church as a tool of social control, keeping the Pope, Pius VII, captive just in case he would prove troublesome. The new French monarchy of 1815 adopted a system of Church without deep Faith, a “clericalisme sans Dieu”.
For most of the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church in France fought an internal battle between those who saw the Church as an element of French identity and a prop for the monarchy, and those who wished to deepen the Faith and whose loyalty was to Rome and the Pope. Against those who favored the marriage between Altar and Throne, there aligned a most formidable group of French Catholic thinkers. They included the Abbot of Solesmes and restorer of monasticism, Dom Prosper Guéranger, Félicité de Lamennais, who would end up outside the Church he did so much to restore, and the rather liberal Comte Montalembert.
Together, these men came up with the slogan, “Without the Pope no Church, without the Church, no Christianity”. It proved a formidable slogan that outlived the demise of some of its earliest supporters, and created the way for the French Church to return to a full obedience to the Vicar of Christ. What these men achieved intellectually, the great St. Jean-Baptist Vianney, the amazing Curé d’Ars, achieved spiritually and pastorally. Such was their achievement, that whereas the French Church of 1789 all but collapsed under the onslaught of the Revolution, that of 1901-05 robustly survived the demise of the old system in which the Church was supposed to serve the state.
Nonetheless, for many in France with a conservative monarchical world view, the notion of a Church that lived outside the state and without a monarchy was simply detestable. They coalesced under the wings of the Action Française, a right-wing movement founded in 1898 under the inspiration of Charles Maurras. Maurras, interestingly, was an agnostic, but could not imagine France without the Church! This utilitarian view of the Faith, as well as the totally non-theological and materialistic view of the Church, sat uneasily with Rome. In 1926 the Pope would even condemn the organization. But in the meantime it garnered the support of many, including many priests.
Action Française was defined by what it opposed: the Republic, the Enlightenment, the Jews – it was born partly in reaction to the Dreyfus Affair – Socialism, Communism, Freemasonry and Protestantism. In part, that agenda was shared by the Vatican, but for entirely different reasons. It is most interesting to note that Pope Pius XI, who did not oppose Franco in Spain, totally opposed Action Française and its agnostic ‘prophet’, Maurras. The implications of these two widely-opposed ideas of Catholicism and the Church within Catholic France were to have massive implications in 1940-45.
Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. was born in Holland to a secularized family with Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran roots. He moved to Scotland at the age of 18, and attended the University of Wales, College Cardiff (then the Jesuit University of Antwerp, Belgium), and the University of Edinburgh, where he gained a masters. Schnitker completed his Ph.D. in medieval history at the same university. During college and through the study of the Middle Ages, he regained contact with his own Catholic roots.
Since graduating, Schnitker has taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, before moving to the Maryvale Ecclesiastical Institute, where he is the senior supervisor of Ecclesiastical History. The institute specializes in long-distance learning, and this allows Schnitker, his wife, son and daughter to live in the countryside of Perthshire, Scotland.
Besides supervising Ph.D. students, he also teaches the history module for those training for the permanent diaconate, and is developing a new course of R.E. for primary education throughout the English-speaking world. He has written for a number of Catholic newspapers and magazines, both in Britain, North America and Holland.
In the past Schnitker has been involved in curating exhibitions, both at a local and national level, and was responsible for the historical St. Ninian’s pageant in Edinburgh in 2010 for the state visit of the Holy Father to the United Kingdom. He recently completed a book on the culture of the devotion to Our Lady, and is currently finishing a book on the memory of the saints in Scotland.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.