From Uncertainty to Opposition: French Catholic Liberals and Imperial Expansion, 1880-1885

By Perkins, Alfred | The Catholic Historical Review, April 1996 | Go to article overview

From Uncertainty to Opposition: French Catholic Liberals and Imperial Expansion, 1880-1885


Perkins, Alfred, The Catholic Historical Review


In the century since France embarked on the quest for new overseas possessions, historians have examined the "new imperialism" from many angles--its causes and justifications, its theorists and pressure groups, its governing arrangements, and, most recently, the resistance from native populations. Yet even now, three decades since the territories thus acquired reemerged as independent states, relatively little attention has been given to the early opponents of overseas conquest. What little attention anti-imperialists have received has centered on the Extreme Left. Almost totally ignored have been those on the Right who, for quite different reasons, were hostile to imperial expansion.(1)

In the absence of thorough study, historians have generally believed that French Catholics, virtually all of whom were on the antirepublican Right throughout the 1880's, favored expansion because it would benefit missionary activity. Consequently, the extensive criticism of imperialism voiced by the Right during the decade has commonly been ascribed to mere partisanship, an effort to weaken the Republic by discrediting the overseas policy of the moderate republicans who held power. Though such generalizations are not totally unfounded, they mask a more complex reality. In fact, Catholics were not of one mind regarding expansion; neither were they so limited in their motivations, nor so static in their thinking. Far from being universally approved, imperial policy divided the faithful at the very time unity was of prime concern.

During the 1880's the Church in France faced its most severe crisis since the Great Revolution. With majorities in the Chamber and the Senate, and one of their own in the Elysee Palace, republicans mounted in 1879 an aggressive campaign to reduce the Church's influence in French society. In the forefront of this campaign were the two most able republicans, Leon Gambetta and Jules Ferry, leaders of the two parliamentary groupings that together were labeled "Opportunists."(2) The anticlerical agenda concentrated initially on creating a system of free, mandatory, and secular primary schools, and enforcing restrictions on religious orders, with other initiatives to be taken as the decade advanced. These measures were strenuously opposed by Catholic clergy and laity alike, but their efforts were hampered at the national level by political disunity.

Separated into three camps--Legitimist, Orleanist, and Bonapartist--Catholics did not agree on even the most basic constitutional questions. Even after the chief Bonapartist claimant was killed in 1879, and the last of the Bourbons died in 1883, antirepublican Catholics failed to unite behind the Orleanist pretender, the Count of Paris. Divided in political loyalties, and in the vision of society that underlay such allegiances, they were also at odds on key policy matters. Among the most bitterly contested issues was the extension of French authority in Africa and Asia.

This article deals with one side of that controversy. Focusing on liberal Catholic responses to events in Tunisia, Egypt, Madagascar, and Annam, it describes the emergence of an oppositionist view that was cogently reasoned, vigorously argued, and, after initial uncertainty, consistently followed. Those who came to adopt this position, financially well-connected and generally forward-looking as they were, proved quite impervious to the economic and other arguments advanced by the champions of expansion. The roots of Catholic anti-imperialism, this study contends, are to be found in the liberals' understanding of contemporary international affairs, the propagation of the faith, and, implicitly perhaps, France's future role in the world.

It was shared ideas and perspectives, reinforced by professional and social connections, rather than formal organization, that gave liberal Catholics their coherence as a group. Like their intellectual forebears--Dupanloup, Lacordaire, Montalembert--liberals of the eighties believed the Church needed to adapt to at least some aspects of modern society, while not compromising the fundamentals of faith and morals. …

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