Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

French Women and the Global Fight for Faith: Catholic International Religious Outreach in Turn-of-the-Century France

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

French Women and the Global Fight for Faith: Catholic International Religious Outreach in Turn-of-the-Century France

Article excerpt

In October 1910, Fanny Faustin gave a presentation in Lourdes at the annual convention of the Ligue Patriotique des Françaises (LPDF), the largest Catholic women's organization in France. Faustin described a recent trip to Montreal where she had represented the LPDF and addressed 7000 attendees of a Catholic convention. Faustin met with high-ranking members of the clergy in attendance, and she expressed her gratitude toward Archbishop Louis Joseph Napoléon Paul Bruchési of Montreal for allowing her to promote the LPDF at the Canadian convention. She proudly announced to fellow LPDF members that her talk in Montreal had been very well received. Faustin also gratefully acknowledged her warm welcome from the Fédération Saint-Jean-Baptiste, a Canadian Catholic women's organization similar to the LPDF.1 This trip to Canada allowed Faustin to serve as an international ambassador for the LPDF, raising its profile and prestige, creating contacts with similar women's organizations, and gaining support from important members of the Catholic clergy.

Faustin's trip to Canada reveals a striking trend in the public engagement of French Catholic women in the early part of the twentieth century. By 1900, Catholic women in France had begun organizing very large, influential women's associations designed to strengthen Catholicism in France and remedy social problems such as poverty, class conflict, rural depopulation, and church-state divisions. However, very quickly after the formation of national organizations such as the Action Sociale de la Femme (ASF, founded 1900) and the LPDF (founded 1902), women leaders began extending their influence beyond France's borders. These two organizations quickly developed significant information-sharing systems with Catholic women throughout the world. By 1910, the LPDF had built an international federation of Catholic women who gathered at conferences each year to discuss international problems facing Catholic communities. This article seeks to explain why French Catholic women became so determined to create international Catholic women's networks in the early-twentieth century. Considerable religious and social conflicts in France during this same period could have easily kept French women occupied in their home country. It is argued here that international cooperation among women helped prove the vitality of Catholicism in France at a time when France's commitment to Catholicism was in question. It affirmed France's traditional position as the "eldest daughter" of the Catholic Church, despite church-state conflicts and growing concerns about religious indifference in France.2 International cooperation also increased women's confidence in their ability to implement both national and international reform programs. It allowed them to create an international structure that focused specifically on women's issues and that paral- leled the male-dominated church hierarchy. Finally, engagement with women and ideas globally allowed French women's organizations to promote feminist goals that seemed too radical for France and that challenged the Vatican's position on women's political activism.

This study draws primarily on documents published by the ASF and the LPDF, more specifically the magazines they produced and reports from their meetings and congresses. The image presented by these sources of Catholic women as entirely unified in their common struggle against vice and secularism did not always match reality. Like members of all organizations, Catholic women were sometimes divided by political differences and petty power struggles. Published sources indicate the way in which women wanted to be perceived, the public image they wished to promote, and the goals they crafted for themselves and their organizations. These sources also reveal how women tried to shape people's thoughts and actions both inside and outside the Catholic community. Women's magazines and conference reports document a certain tension between women's proclamation of submission to the male Catholic hierarchy and their desire to make the Church more woman-friendly and open to women's religious and political leadership. …

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