Catholic and French Forever

Religious and National Identity in Modern France

By (author) Joseph F. Byrnes

Hardback - £53.95

Publication date:

02 November 2005

Length of book:

304 pages


Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271027043

It is often said that there are two Frances—Catholic and secular. This notion dates back to the 1790s, when the revolutionary government sought to divorce Catholic Christianity from national life. While Napoleon formally reconciled his regime to France’s millions of Catholics, church-state relations have remained a source of conflict and debate throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In Catholic and French Forever Joseph Byrnes recounts the fights and reconciliations between French citizens who found Catholicism integral to their traditional French identity and those who found the continued presence of Catholicism an obstacle to both happiness and progress. He does so through stories of priests, legislators, intellectuals, and pilgrims whose experiences manifest the problem of being both Catholic and French in modern France.

Byrnes finds that loyalties to the French nation and Catholicism became so incompatible in the revolutionary era that Catholic believers responded defensively across the nineteenth century, politicizing both religious pilgrimage and the languages of religious instruction. He shows that a détente emerged in the first decades of the twentieth century with the respect given to priests in arms during World War I and to the work of religious art historian Émile Mâle. This détente has lasted, precariously and with interruption, up to the present day.

“This profitable book tackles an important topic from a rather novel perspective. Since the French Revolution it has been as easy to argue that being French means being Catholic as to argue that being Catholic is inimical or irrelevant to French identity. Byrnes presents the conflict of these points of view, its origins in rationalist Enlightenment and militant revolutionary deism, and its evolution to the present day.”

—Eugen Weber