Catholic Culture in Interwar France
Nord, Philip, French Politics, Culture and Society
The interwar years have been characterized as a "watershed" in the history of French Catholicism, (1) and it is not hard to see why. The Church had experienced the first decades of the Third Republic as a time of trial and persecution. World War I, however, gave believers reason to look forward to a brighter future. The republican establishment had welcomed the political representatives of Catholic opinion into the Union sacree. The distress of soldiers and war widows had nourished a revival of popular faith. (2) With the return of peace, the Catholic laity plunged into an associational activism of unprecedented proportions. The vaulting edifice of voluntary bodies they constructed reenergized the faith and at the same articulated a Catholic countervision of the proper constitution of la cite.
The Catholic community no longer stood on the defensive but carved out for itself a vast, new civic domain. The phrase "ghetto Catholicism" (3) has been invoked to describe the phenomenon, and the term will serve insofar as much of the activism of the interwar years styled itself as apolitical and inward-looking. There should be no mistaking, however, just how innovative the newstyle Catholicism was, nor the degree to which its creative impulses had an impact on the wider public arena, all claims to non-partisanship notwithstanding. The nature of that impact may well be debated. Anglo-American historians have been inclined to highlight the authoritarian leanings of interwar Catholicism, its predilection for dictatorial regimes with a confessional bias like Salazar's Portugal or Dollfuss's Austria. (4) From this angle of vision, the Church hierarchy's deep involvement in the affairs of Vichy appears all too predictable. French historians, however, have preferred a more benign interpretation. Yes, all sorts of compromises were made at Vichy, but for many militants, the object was not to serve the National Revolution but to make it serve the cause of a redressement national. (5) When that failed, they poured into the Resistance, finding there a hardcore of Christian Democrats who had stood against Petain from the very first. The interwar decades had witnessed a narrowing of differences between the Church and the Republic. The Resistance experience crystallized Christian commitment to democratic principle, making possible at long last a whole-hearted Catholic ralliement.
The two views, of course, are hot altogether antithetical. The Catholic revival of the 1920s and 1930s was compatible with a variety of political choices, democratic and authoritarian, although on balance the scales tipped in favor of the latter. The catastrophes of the war years reweighted the options, this rime to the advantage of Christian Democracy. But whatever the ambivalences of Catholic culture and however such ambivalences got resolved, it should be remembered that Catholics were not just the objects of larger political forces. They in turn influenced events and policy, leaving an imprint on Vichy of course, but also on the political life of two Republics, the Third and to a greater extent the Fourth. Ghetto Catholicism accommodated itself to an ambient republican culture, but it gave as good as it got.
Catholic associational activism was not a creation of the interwar decades. The evangelization of the lower orders had been a preoccupation for many years, dating back to the foundation of the Association catholique de la jeunesse francaise (ACJF) in 1886. The organization, though, was paternalist in orientation, run by the well-bred with the object of bringing religion to the less fortunate. The experience of the war and its aftermath prompted a trio of new initiatives. The insurrectionary climate of 1918 and 1919 spurred Christian trade unionists, committed to a defense of working-class interests but not at the expense of religious principle or public order, to set up a national labor organization the …
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Publication information: Article title: Catholic Culture in Interwar France. Contributors: Nord, Philip - Author. Journal title: French Politics, Culture and Society. Volume: 21. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 2003. Page number: 1+. © 2001 Berghahn Books, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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