Out of the incense into the fire
On October 5 of 1793 the French government “disestablished” the Catholic Church, that is, ditched Catholicism as the official national religion. Which was definitely the right idea and, as usual, was done in the wrong way.
It was the right idea because of that business about rendering unto Caesar. It’s not the business of the policeman to tell you which church to attend or to shake out the contents of your pocket into a particular collection plate whether or not you show up and pay attention or snooze through the sermon. Nobody can be saved by being forced to act as if they were virtuous even if the government knew what virtuous was which is pretty unlikely.
The French Church itself had lost sight of the question in many ways, another pernicious consequence of being linked to the state. It is one more unique achievement of the Anglosphere that you could have a church, even an established one which the Anglican Church was and rather feebly still is, that was neither a slave of the state nor constantly scheming to rule it from behind the rood screen. But in meddling constantly in matters of state the Church became horribly worldly and, unsurprisingly, blind to the gross defects of the established order that eventually erupted into the bloody French Revolution.
To condemn the Ancien Régime is not to praise the Revolutionary one, of course, any more than to denounce Tsarism is to praise Lenin and Stalin. The Revolution may have exploded with uncontrollable force because the old system crushed and smothered society for so many centuries, preventing the venting of harmful pressure in less disastrous ways. But that in no way diminishes the destructive violence of the Revolution. Including in matters of religion.
The logical and proper thing to do would have been to tell the church from now on we neither enforce your orthodoxy nor collect your tithes. It is up to you to attract the loyalty and support of the citizens. And you are free to criticize politicians of every stripe just as every other Frenchman and woman is in this land of liberty as described on paper in our noble constitution. But of course that’s not what they did.
Instead of separating Catholicism from the state they tried to separate it from the French. They set themselves the goal of eradicating belief and practice in the Church altogether. They seized its property, subordinated the clergy to the government instead of turning them into private citizens from an official point of view, setting rules for their election by parishioners and condemning them to death if they did not swear an oath to the new order, then set about destroying statues, icons, crosses, bells and all signs of Catholicism and ultimately of all Christian churches.
Very quickly, of course, they created their own religion in name as well as in fact, a ghastly farce involving the Cult and Goddess of Reason (including a formal celebration of her in Notre Dame Cathedral on Nov. 10 1793) and then later the Cult of the Supreme Being promoted by Robespierre shortly before the Revolution devoured him too, things in which virtually nobody believed and nobody worshiped. And it is typical of such an approach that behind the hollow noble words there was always a covetous determination to seize the silver and gold to finance revolutionary wars.
I do not mind that the state legalized divorce despite Catholic doctrine. There are in my view good reasons for making divorce difficult but, like taking over the birth, death and marriage registries, it seems to be a sensible part of rendering unto Caesar of the sort grudgingly and insincerely granted by Louis XVI in the November 1787 “Edict of Tolerance” that was too little and far too late. But massacring clergy, either through mob violence or a justice system that increasingly resembled mob violence (for instance mass drownings of priests), was a horrible thing to do.
By 1795 they actually permitted public worship under some conditions, like no bells, processions or those bits of wood in a sort of X. By the time Napoleon made some sort of peace in 1801 with Pope Pius VII, whose predecessor died in French captivity, thousands of clergy had been massacred and tens of thousands had fled. And in 1905 the French state went back to aggressively promoting secularism. A very odd conception indeed of freedom of conscience, and one hauntingly similar to that of the Ancien Régime except that it seeks to enforce lack of hope instead of a particular vision of hope.
In some sense it worked. Many Frenchmen and Frenchwomen were apparently only going to church because they had to, doing neither them nor the church any good. But it is unfortunate, though typical of the sort of explosion that follows long centuries of oppression, that the new regime managed to imitate many of the worst failings of its predecessor in even worse form while insisting, and for the most part believing, it was doing the opposite.