For God and France: The Military Law of 1889 and the Soldiers of Saint-Sulpice

By Coffey, Joan L. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2002 | Go to article overview

For God and France: The Military Law of 1889 and the Soldiers of Saint-Sulpice


Coffey, Joan L., The Catholic Historical Review


On July 15 of that centennial year, the Chamber of Deputies finally passed the Military Law of 1889. Introduced earlier in the decade by the Minister of War, Georges Boulanger, the law in its final form dealt mainly with the issue of conscription and was part of a series of laws intended to reorganize and update the military after the disaster of 1870.1 Provisions concerning the organization and administration of the army hardly caused a ripple of controversy, as one by one they were introduced and, after some considerable delay while they moved back and forth between the two assemblies, were passed perfunctorily by both Chamber and Senate. Conscription was another matter, however, since it was a politically sensitive issue with military repercussions. Just who would make up the army and what would this mean for military preparedness?

Third Republicans, seeking inspiration from the First Republic, wanted to reverse the pattern that had existed throughout most of the nineteenth century, which put into the field an army of professionals, and instead reintroduce that of an army of citizens, a new levee en masse. Universal conscription would reinvigorate the military. To implement such a program, military service needed to be shortened and all able-bodied men had to serve. Once in place, the changes would see an army made up essentially of reservists and based on the principle of egalite. Reducing the military tour of duty to three years proved far less problematic than recruiting on an egalitarian basis. For example, young men studying to become doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, and priests now would be called to duty just like everyone else.

Not surprisingly the Roman Catholic Church steadfastly maintained that it had fulfilled its civic duty already by ministering to the spiritual needs of the Republic, and therefore, military service was superfluous and merely a cover for anticlericalism.Arguments presented by the Church as to why the Military Law of 1889 was detrimental to its mission were compelling. But was it all that damaging to the Church's basic raison d'etre, namely, the saving of souls, and to the spiritual life of priests and seminarians? This study posits that despite the considerable re-orientation in the schooling of the future priests of France necessitated by taking time out for military service and despite a loss of one of the major privileges accorded certain elite segments of French society, namely, military exemption, the overall experience of the cleric-cum-soldier was beneficial to the Church and its mission. My argument will agree with conclusions reached earlier by Adrien Dansette, who recognized that, even before the outbreak of World War I, seminarians were "assured a precious human experience while accomplishing the apostolic mission of the Church," thanks to the Military Law of 1889.2 My study, however, will detail and personalize these conclusions by using letters written home by the young men of the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris during the prewar and wartime periods. Additionally, these letters will allow me to argue that military duty, both before and during World War I, masculinized the French clergy during a time when religion routinely was viewed as a feminine domain, and strengthened it spiritually. Thus, the Military Law of 1889 advanced the mission of the Church by giving its young clergy a more vigorous and worldly education than was offered by contemporary seminaries, thereby preparing clergy to move comfortably into the modern world long before the advent of the worker-priest. Prewar barrack life, moreover, prepared young clerics mentally and physically to move to the trenches in 1914 and hence contribute to the overall war effort.3

Besides indirectly aiding the mission of the Church and assisting in the war effort, the Military Law of 1889 helped in a not insignificant way to heal the division between church and state that typically is cast as a major feature of the early Third Republic. …

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