Clearing the Heart to See the Truth

Religious Liberty and the Mandate: A Historical Examination of the Modern Loss of Faith

The Health and Human Service Department from the Obama Administration recently made a shocking decision regarding a new health care mandate for insurance companies. In an egregious affront to the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, this department, headed by a so-called Catholic from Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius, declared that all insurance companies must offer—free of charge—coverage for contraceptives and abortion-causing pharmaceuticals like the birth control pill and the RU- 486, otherwise known as the ‘morning after’ pill, over and against one’s conscience. Thus, for Catholic institutions like hospitals and universities, this, in effect, forces them to offer this coverage to employees, with the employer, i.e. the Church, footing at least part of the bill by means of paying the higher premium costs by the Insurance providers. Obviously, the Church cannot and will not formerly cooperate with evil in such a wimg-flagsay, which this mandate expects. If nothing changes, the results will be devastating. This administration has now made it clear: the state has made itself the opponent of the Catholic Church—or, rather, views the Church as an opponent, rather than an ally—when it comes to providing health for the poor.


This move will obliterate the Catholic Church’s involvement in the sphere of public service for health and higher education. The Catholic Church can neither morally support nor financially offer coverage for employees regarding contraception, sterilization, and/or abortifacients, as the new HHS policy mandates. Catholic hospital or university employers will be forced out of business as they will be unable to offer health insurance benefits to their employees, who will, in turn, be forced to find employment elsewhere. The other alternative, one which at least one Catholic hospital system in California has already chosen, is to sever ties with the Catholic Church.


If history serves as any teacher, these unfortunate results may be just the beginning. For example, if we at first broadly examine the historical situation in Europe, we will find many similar instances of state/Church conflict over social institutions. Many European countries accepted similar restrictions placed by the state on the Church. These restrictions not only limited the Church’s involvement in social institutions in the health and educational spheres, but curtailed the very public mission of the Church by subordinating it to the state. The end result has been tragic: the complete loss of faith. Since the time of the French Revolution, there have been many battles between Church and state, with the state viewing the Church as at least an obstacle—if not an enemy—to secular designs for society. Germany’s Kulturkampf, Italy’s Wars of Unification, and the emergence of the French Republic all arose from a particular pessimistic view of the Church that sprang from the Enlightenment, declaring the Church to be too closely aligned with the ancien régime and therefore an enemy of progress. These newly formed secular states forcibly excluded the Church from operating public missions in the areas of health care, charitable work, and education through legislative mandates. Leaders in these various states viewed the goals for industrial modernization as being in competition with the Church’s claims of Christ’s supremacy over the world. This religious intrusion, these radical secularists contended, prevented scientific growth and offered a theocratic rival to their newly reconfigured secular state.


In the case of the French Third Republic, we may find an even more apt example that may provide insight into our current situation. For instance, France enjoyed a large number of health and educational institutions managed by the Catholic Church. Further, this country had a large and practicing Catholic population which found itself at odds with the new direction of the state. Only now do we see the far-reaching and devastating effects of this state-enforced secularization that has now all but decimated the faith in the former Catholic country known as France.


In early September of 1870, Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon I, and self-proclaimed ruler of France’s Second Empire, fled his rule after France lost to Prussia at Sedan in the Franco/Prussian War on September 2. With the empire vacated by its emperor, France established the Third Republic the next day. Although this government was seen as provisional in its first few years (even ruled by a president—Patrice MacMahon—who believed he was simply keeping the seat warm for France’s next Monarch) as the decade of the 1870’s wore on, the government established itself as a permanent fixture. When MacMahon vacated his office as President in the fall of 1877 after his failed attempt to dissolve a liberal parliament the previous spring, the new leadership of the Third Republic quickly established itself as decisively secular. By 1878, a faction from the previous century re-emerged within French republicanism and sought to gain ascendency in French politics and society. This faction, called the anti-clericals, viewed science as the means to bring France into modernity, and Catholicism as the intransigent foe preventing that dream with its medieval doctrines and practices.


Anti-clericalism derived its political and intellectual foundation from a philosophy known as positivism. This philosophy reduced knowledge to merely the level of the observable and scientifically verifiable. Any other claims to knowledge, like religious or philosophical knowledge, were just opinions claiming to be knowledge. If France were to become a truly powerful state like Germany and England, all of French education needed to be reformed to teach, advance, and inculcate science, in order to bolster technology, industry, and military might, so the leaders of the fledgling Republic argued. Thus, anti-clerical secularism was the rising force in the French Third Republic.


To gain ascendency, there were many challenges to overcome. One was to convince the French citizenry, who were predominantly Catholic at that point, to accept this model of government. Yet, how would a young, new secularized form of government win approval from a Catholic population being trained and taught by Catholic religious teaching communities? The answer lay not in convincing the population at large, at least not initially, but at convincing the politicians. Thus, the stage was set for heated debates in both Chambers of government, the Chamber of Deputies, and the Chamber of the Senate. The monarch-leaning conservatives held the majority of the Senate, whereas the more left-leaning Republicans held the majority in the Chamber of Deputies. The plan was that as these debates were won, a series of successive, legislative measures, over a period of 3-5 years, would slowly transform a largely Catholic, conservative, monarchist-leaning country into a thoroughly secular Republic. Then the Catholic population would, at least, be subordinated to a rule of law that would establish civic responsibilities. Once the rule of law was accepted, conformity to the new, secular goals of the Republic would achieve wide-spread acceptance, or so the Republicans hoped. Several leading French political thinkers and actors like Léon Gambetta, Charles de Freycinet, Paul Bert, and the various Jules’—Jules Simon, Jules Grévy, Jules Favre, and Jules Ferry (their influenced have led some scholars to refer to this era as the Republic of the Jules’,) emerged as the architects. They became known as the Republican Opportunists. With this plan, they hoped  that French Catholics would come to see themselves as Frenchmen first, who needed to modernize with science in order to keep up with the Germans and eventually not only seek revenge for the embarrassing defeat in the war with Prussia,  but establish France as a dominant world force once again. These goals necessitated scientific advancement. The Church, they believed, stood in the way of this. To oppose these mandates would be to oppose the law.


It should be noted that these goals—scientific advancement, revenge against the Germans, and France as a world power—were not markedly different from those of the Catholic politicians. None of these goals were necessarily antithetical to loyalty to the Church. Many of the Catholic politicians, in fact, supported all of the stated goals of these anti-clerical Opportunists. They simply did not view the Church as the problem. Thus, here was the secret core of the Opportunist campaign: bitter anti-Catholicism which sought to persuade the deputies and senators that the Church posed a serious threat to these national goals. Further, the secular republicans had to do so in such a way as to present their position as reasonable, not ideological. After all, if their anti-Catholicism was a result of their positivist philosophy and not based on any actual evidence, then a robust, intellectual cross-examination could point out that they were simply acting in a biased, prejudicial way. To avoid any potential derailment to their plan, they needed to establish a speaker who could debate carefully but powerfully, through emotional appeals and sentimental persuasion. If such a person could be found who could at once create emotional associations with their political opponent and something negative, in this case, the monarchical and despotic past, and repeat these over and over again, perceptions could change. This became the operative movement of the Third Republican anti-clericals. To this end, they needed an articulate leader, and Jules Ferry, the positivist free-mason Deputy from the Vosges region of Northern France, fit the bill.


Ferry became the Minster of Public Instruction and Cults in 1879. This position was prestigious and very influential; in some ways, even more influential than the presidency itself, as the Minister of Public Instruction and Cults would control education, charitable organizations, and religious bodies, simultaneously. He was chosen due to his oration skills demonstrated during heated sessions in the Chamber of Deputies, June/July of 1878. At these sessions Ferry had proposed a law which would allow only those certified by the state to teach in French schools. This would effectively abrogate the teaching credentials of every Catholic religious school teacher in the country, of which there were many.


To make his case, Ferry argued that it was the Catholic Church and not he or his confreres that threatened the autonomy and liberty of the nation. In so doing, he anticipated his Catholic political rivals who would surely accuse his bloc as being the more threatening. At this time, positivism was not yet major philosophical influence in France. By offering the first address to the Chamber, Ferry could accuse and put on the defensive those who planned on doing the same to him. Further, he bolstered his attack by quoting selectively from some recent papal statements that seemed to condemn all things modern (like Quanta Cura, Pope Pius IX’s controversial encyclical condemning modern notions of liberty and reason due to their reliance on philosophical naturalism). Ferry’s selected quotations seemed to offer ample evidence that the Church aimed at usurpation of the liberties of Frenchmen, and he was simply acting as watchdog on behalf of his countrymen. Regardless of the merits of his arguments, Ferry’s persuasive power won over many of the French politicians. It was for this reason that Ferry was chosen as Minister of Public Instruction.


Once in power, Ferry soon authored legislation aimed at secularizing all educational institutions. He wanted to remove all religious influence in primary, secondary, and higher education. Because the Opportunists did not control the Senate, his measures faced the possibility of defeat. There were articulate members of the Senate who opposed him. These senators were unfortunately hindered by a particular flaw, however. They were all tied to the idea of restoring the monarchy, an idea that was losing support by Frenchmen, Catholics or otherwise, for several reasons. First, the French kings of more recent times were not widely loved or considered competent leaders. Second, all of Europe was moving away from this form of governance. Third, the last king of France, Louis-Philippe I (who reigned from 1830-1848), was not exactly considered a friend and supporter of the Church. The reason why the Catholic senators supported a restoration of the monarchy was due to their great suspicions regarding Republics. These were always born of a revolution, and these revolutions were never beneficial to the Church; in fact, quite the contrary. Yet, their dogged insistence on restoring the monarchy left them politically very vulnerable to being voted out of office.


There was one voice that rose to the challenge of defending Catholic influence in education that wasn’t tied to monarchical restoration, and that was from the Dean of the Theology Faculty at the University of Paris, Bishop Henri Maret. Maret’s political position was unique in that he was supportive of a French Republic. He had argued many times in various places in his writings that the tenets of the French Revolution, namely Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, were all Catholic social doctrines and posed no threat. Thus, Catholics need not oppose a Republic, per se. Maret challenged Ferry’s thesis that the Church hindered scientific development and fostered intellectually inferior systems of education. In fact, during Maret’s tenure, the University of Paris enjoyed wide-spread respect and prestige, not just in the areas of philosophy and theology, but even in science. Albert-Auguste De Lapparent, head of the Faculty of Geology and Physical Science at the University of Paris, was viewed as one of the foremost experts in that field, and attained such prestige despite his Catholicism and the Catholic nature of the university. Maret believed strongly, however, that the Republic needed the Church. Without the Church’s moral guidance, especially in the area of higher education, he feared that the Republic would eventually collapse. In fact, the very concepts of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity would decay and fall into ruin without being safeguarded by a moral force that had the competency and experience to guide society. The state, he argued, was not equipped to do this as it had no gauge by which to measure good from bad behavior.


Maret challenged Ferry in three ways: first, he tried to create a document that would give canonical status to the Theology faculty at the University of Paris so that even if the state refused to confer, recognize, or fund theology degrees from the university, the Vatican would do all three, thereby offering priests and theologians continual reason to study theology at the university; next, he wrote a book entitled The Catholic Truth and Religious Peace: An Appeal to the Reason of France. In this work, he clearly and thoroughly detailed his arguments regarding the need for Church and state to work together in France. This work enjoyed a wide audience, both Catholic and secular, and proved influential in Catholic circles to rethink models for Church/state relations. In fact, there is much confluence of ideas between this work and Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Nobilissima Gallorum Gens, 1884, where he urged French Catholics to accept the Republic and cease vying for a restoration of the monarchy. Lastly, Maret spent much effort with communications and meetings with Ferry in order to prevent the Minister of Public Instruction from eliminating funding for his theology faculty. His efforts actually achieved success, at least for a while. Ferry retreated from his hard-line approach to the university, and even dissuaded other anti-clericals from enacting harmful measures to the theology faculty for a couple of years. However, in June of 1884, exhausted with all of his efforts to spare his beloved faculty, Henri Maret died of a fever. That September, the funding for the faculty was revoked, and in January of 1885, the Theology Faculty of the University of Paris, once the heart and soul of the university, was completely suppressed. This encapsulated the complete secularization of all education in France, primary, secondary, and higher. There were many other battles, failures, successes, obstacles, turmoil, etc. that occurred in France from that time until now, all contributing to the loss of faith in France. What cannot be denied, however, is that when the state removed the Church from social influence, her social mission and subsequent influence, waned. Thus, a complete loss of faith was unavoidable.


There are many differences between the situation in France and the current dangers faced by Catholics in the United States. What remains the same, however, is the conflict between Church and state, whereby the state will force a removal of Church influence from the social sphere. If France and, indeed, all of Europe stand as any example, the end result will be the same. The United States of America will not stay united or even healthy if the Catholic Church is forced to abandon her public service to the poor, the sick, and the young. We see in the figures Ferry and Maret two personages who reflect the battle we witness today: Ferry, a skillful orator and able politician, someone who viewed the Church as a threat to science, social advancement, and freedom. Maret, a Bishop, who resisted suppression as a loyal republican citizen, and who fought for the Church’s freedom as well as for the enrichment of the State as a whole. Ferry not only aptly represented the political bloc in power, he also symbolized the new, modern France and thus enjoyed popular representation in the media. Maret, on the other hand, represented the old ways, intransigent and backward thinking. These stereotypes were of course totally inaccurate, as Maret’s words and works demonstrate. Yet, French people had to choose between the wildly conflicting characterizations: Ferry, portrayed as liberator of France, or Maret, who was portrayed as trying to chain France to its past. The question as to whether or not solid and careful argument would win the day over radical emotional appeals was soon settled. In the end, it was Ferry and not Maret who capture public sentiment. Now, France reflects the mournful reflections of Elie Wiesel, who said ‘the opposite of love is not hate, its indifference; the opposite of faith is not heresy, its indifference; the opposite of life is not death, its indifference.’ In the face of this current mandate, we cannot be indifferent if we wish the love and life of faith to endure. America, like France teeters on the brink of a precipice. Only in time will we see whether or not the past will be repeated. If so, then the glories of American faithfulness may sink into the cold and lifelessness example of current French indifferentism.


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One Response to “Religious Liberty and the Mandate: A Historical Examination of the Modern Loss of Faith”

  1. I_M_Forman says:

    Excellent and educational. Thank you so much for this enlightening article.

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