Revolutionary Secularization as Catholic Renewal

This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.

By Joseph Harmon

In the decades after the French Revolution, self-conscious heirs of the republican tradition and of Catholic tradition battled one another in print, each side positing its interpretation of the cataclysm. Whether it was a new step in human progress or a plot destructive of society, both agreed that the revolution had been a direct attack on France’s traditional religion. Revolutionaries had used the force of law to secularize France, separating the state from the religious claims made by the Catholic Church. This framing has shaped the historiography of the French Revolution and aligned its ideological forces with the arrival in France of the modern secular state.

After all, the de-Christianization campaign of Year II drew battle lines between France’s traditional religion and the republic. The Republican Calendar was a direct attempt to erase the Christian temporal imagination. Catholic churches were closed, the vast panoply of worship practices forbidden, and many priests and nuns persecuted by the state. Even aside from the specifically anti-Christian policies of Year II, which did not last, the central and enduring projects of the revolution (e.g., the reform of the judicial system, a uniform property regime, a universal Civil Code) were designed to be separated from ecclesiastical control. From the conventional perspective, the main story is a secular one.[1] Religion has been a side story in this historiography.[2]

However, in the early days of the revolution there were multiple visions on offer for what a regenerated France would look like, including not only multiple Enlightenment-inflected liberalisms but also multiple visions of a France with a fully public role for the Catholic religion.[3]

An alternative view: the clergy work side by side with the lay orders forging the new constitution.

To explore how these alternative visions functioned even within ostensibly secularizing acts taken by the revolutionary state, let us consider the decree on the registers of civil status (état-civil) adopted on September 20, 1792.

This decree transferred the role of registering births, marriages, and deaths from parish priests to municipal officers. On the face of it, this is a straightforward example of secularization: the state takes over a function formerly carried out by the church, and it does so based upon its own legitimacy.

The name for the registers expresses this change. When the Church began keeping registers tracking the administration of the Sacraments (under Catholic law, a person could not be baptized a second time, or married a second time if the first spouse was still living), it was called the status animarum, the state or table of souls. Over time, these registers served as the legal acts or deeds presentable in a court of law as proof for property titles (especially for executing inheritances). In some jurisdictions, the parish had to send copies to the local court regularly. They came to be known as registers of état-civil. Whereas under the old registration system the logic behind record-keeping was based on membership in a divinely established institution (the body of Christ), under the new regime, the relevant body was the nation, recognized to comprise all citizens regardless of their religion. So for religious ministers to maintain the registers was plainly a confusion of two separate domains.

Certainly, some of the arguments presented by the legislators reflect this logic: Why should a religious minister register civil acts, even of those who do not share his religion? However, there is much more going on below the surface, as the minutes of the proceedings show.

The aims of the law were presented in two lengthy reports that accompanied the draft presented to the Assembly by its ecclesiastical and legislative committees. The space of this post permits us to consider the first, written by Durand de Maillane.[4] Like his committee colleague, Lanjuinais, he was named to the committee by the National Assembly on the basis of an established reputation as a scholar of canon law.[5]

Durand de Maillane’s report is in fact an argument from canon law for why the Assembly should remove from priests the responsibility to record civil status. At the heart of the argument was the definition of marriage. Since in Catholic teaching marriage is a sacrament, having a civil officer determine who was able to contract marriage based on civil law seemed to infringe upon the sacrament. Durand de Maillane argued that marriage as a civil contract could be separated from the blessing given by the Church. In fact, he argued, in the early Church under the Roman Empire, Christian practice had been what the new law was re-establishing. Citing a famous rule of orthodoxy, he defended the French law as more orthodox than current practice of the Catholic Church.[6]

Henri Grégoire, Catholic priest who saw the Revolution as “a moment of grace.”

Rather than couch the change in a Lockean or Rousseauean philosophy of individual liberty, Durand de Maillane presented the law as a means to reform the Catholic religion. He had made this argument years earlier in his published works, especially his Preuves des libertés de l’Église gallicane (1771). Along with the changes legislated by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (which placed a great part of church governance under state control), this decree was part of a project to implement reforms long called for by Catholics, such as Durand de Maillane himself, the goal of which was not so much a liberal republic as the renewal of Christianity. It is in this light that the priest-deputy Henri Grégoire saw the revolution as a moment of “grace.”[7]

Then there are the discussions on the Assembly floor. All speakers supported the law, but gave different arguments. The majority echoed Durand de Maillane’s position that the new law was actually good Christian doctrine; their recommendations were to relieve Catholic fears by making registration as dry a bureaucratic process as possible, so there would be no confusion with the rich ritual of the sacraments: secularization in defense of Christian renewal.[8] But there were a small number of speakers who wanted a more robustly secular state to clear the public square from religious influence. One demanded the opposite of dry bureaucracy, a veritable patriotic religion. Louis Gohier called for the erection of an altar to the fatherland in every village of the country. From womb to tomb, each individual would be offered as a sacrifice to the fatherland at this altar at each of the life-cycle moments: birth, adulthood (enrollment in the conscription lists), marriage (before professing their love, the spouses were to shout “Live free or die!”), the birth of one’s own children, and death.[9]

Classical iconography in the bas-relief of the Altar to the Fatherland made for the 1791 Festival of the Federation ceremonies in Paris. The pedagogical aspects of the rewards given for patriotic virtue (seen in the figures on the right) were emphasized in deputy Gohier’s plan for the civil registers.

In light of this last strategy (which was rejected), it is interesting that the promoters of secular bureaucracy wished to renew Christianity, while those who attacked Catholic essentials proposed a civil religion (i.e., the most traditional and universal form of religion).

In the secularization of the registration of civil status, the relevant legislators were working under a vision of revolutionary national regeneration that included religious regeneration in the form of a return to Catholicism’s first principles.

As historians turn from older narratives of the great modern revolutions as the emancipatory war against religion, the question is how to interpret religion in the revolutionary era. That processes of secularization were in some cases accelerated or established in law is true, but as some of those processes were actually demanded as religious reform, we should not be surprised at the “survival” of religion in the new regime.

Joe Harmon is a doctoral student at Florida State University and a fellow of the Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution, working under the direction of Rafe Blaufarb. His research focuses on ideas of Christian reform within the religious policies of the successive regimes in the revolutionary period and under the Concordat of 1801.

Title image: The heritage of conflict between the Catholic Church and the republican heritage from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution: an 1819 print entitled “Quick, Breathe! Let us breathe, by God! Put out the lights [or enlightenment] and Relight the Fires.” This is a line from a poem entitled “Les Diables missionnaires” by P.J. de Béranger printed in the magazine la Minerve française, which promoted constitutional liberalism. 

Further Readings:

Banks, Bryan A. and Erica R. Johnson, eds. The French Revolution and Religion in Global Perspective: Freedom and Faith. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Israel, Jonathan. Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790. NY: Oxford University Pres, 2011.

McManners, John. Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France. 2. vols (NY: Oxford Clarendon Press, 1998).

Tackett, Timothy. Priest and Parish in Eighteenth-Century France: a social and political study of the curés in a diocese of Dauphiné, 1750-1791. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Van Kley, Dale. The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.


[1] Each of these terms—“modern”, “public”, and “secular”—of course are not self-evident and have their own histories, and they have received the attention of philosophers for many decades. I do not intend to stake a particular philosophical claim here. I may say that I mean them in their ordinary, current, non-scholarly usages, which are partially synonymous and related to the grand narratives of modernity (to use a term in its own definition). Per Max Weber and Jürgen Habermas, for example, the modern era is characterized by the development of public offices out of formerly private power or patron-client relationships.

[2] In the histories written in the nineteenth century, one sees the sharpest contrasts between the interpretation of Jules Michelet on the one hand, and the numerous works of hagiography produced by Catholic clerical researchers, e.g., the Martyrologe du clergé français pendant la Revolution (Paris, 1840, conserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France: 8-LN4-6). In the historiography produced during the last several decades, historians moved not merely beyond taking a stance “for” or “against” the Revolution, but several scholars have carried out impressive efforts to bring religion from the margins to the center of the story of the French Revolution (see the following note).

[3] The literature on religious history of the French Revolution is vast: an excellent presentation of the lower clergy at the beginning of the revolution is given in two works by Timothy Tackett: Priest and Parish in Eighteenth-Century France: a social and political study of the curés in a diocese of Dauphiné, 1750-1791 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), and Religion, Revolution, and Regional Culture in Eighteenth-Century France: the Ecclesiastical Oath of 1791 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986). See also, Nigel Aston, The End of an Elite: the French Bishops and the Coming of the Revolution, 1786-1790 (NY: Oxford Clarendon Press, 1992); Dale Van Kley, The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996); for a local study that covers the response of the laity, see Suzanne Desan, Reclaiming the Sacred: Lay Religion and Popular Politics in Revolutionary France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990).

[4] The first report is found in Archives Parlementaires de 1787 à 1860, ed. M.J. Mavidal and M.E. Laurent (Paris, 1887) tome 26, pp. 166-186 (hereafter AP, 26: 166-186). These volumes are in the process of being digitized in a collaboration of the Stanford University Libraries and the Bibliothèque nationale de France (

[5] Timothy Tackett, Becoming a Revolutionary: the Deputies of the French National Assembly and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Culture (1789-1790) (paperback ed., University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 224.

[6] The rule of St. Vincent of Lérins, one of the Fathers of the Church, who held one could know what teachings were orthodox by whether they had been held semper, ubique, et ab omnibus (“everywhere, always, by everyone”). On the importance of early Christianity as an example for revolutionary legislation, cf. Guillaume Colot’s study of the term “the Primitive Church” in the revolutionary discourse: “L’Église primitive, une solution théologique à la crise traversée par le clergé français sous la Révolution,” Siècles, 35-36 (2012)

[7] See Jean Dubray, La Pensée de l’abbé Grégoire: despotisme et liberté (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2008). It is Dubray who uses the word “grace” based on a close reading of Grégoire’s voluminous oeuvre; in accord with Jansenist thought, Grégoire saw all human action distinguished between nature and grace. In humanity’s fallen state (the consequence of Original Sin) nature is corrupted toward evil because it tends toward various kinds of domination. In contrast, grace brings liberation; thus as the Revolution arrived to abolish despotism, Grégoire saw it as part of a divine plan: in a typical writing of his from the early months, a homily given on All Saints Day 1789, “the fatherland reborn, and you are counted with praise among those God is using to work a Revolution which resembles a prodigy” (Discours prononcé le jour de la Toussaint 1789, en l’église Saint-Germain-des-Prés, quoted in Dubray, 127). On the Civil Constitution as an instrument of Catholic reform, see Rodney Dean, L’assemblée constituante et la réform ecclésiastique 1790 : la constitution civile du clergé du 12 juillet et le serment ecclésiastique du 27 novembre (Paris, 2014).

[8] See, e.g., the discussion on April 19, 1792: AP, 42: 167-169.

[9] Discussion of June 19, 1792: AP, 45: 379-392.

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