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Catholic Blood in the French Revolution
On the Feast of the Martyrs of Compiègne
Unrest had been growing in France for years. Then, on July 14, 1789, French revolutionaries stormed the medieval fortress and prison known as the Bastille. The Bastille, despite being nearly empty, represented the king and his power. By taking the fortress, they symbolically took that power for themselves. They were making a stand. They would make France their own.
The story of the French Revolution that we learned growing up in public schools went something like this: the American Revolution was just so utterly awesome and inspirational that the French decided that they had to have a revolution of their own. America had just rebelled against a tyrannical government and king, and now it was France’s turn. They too were going to have their revolution in the American style, in favor of liberté, egalité, and fraternité. This meant the French Revolution was a good thing, part of the inevitable match of “Progress,” and we should be cheering for the revolutionaries against their cruel, out of touch, “let them eat cake” royal masters.
For a long time, I believed this view of the French Revolution.
And then I read the history of it.
There were certainly faults in the old regime, that monarchy holding onto the last vestiges of feudalism. There are faults in every human society tainted by the Fall. The massive expenditures in Louis XIV’s often fruitless wars really had placed a major financial strain on the kingdom. The economic reforms of his successors really were inadequate to deal with the situation and relieve the stress of their people. The kings were accused of being out of touch and not caring about peasant suffering.
Thus the revolutionaries swept in and claimed to be the friend of the poor and downtrodden.
Yet the revolutionaries were not truly about liberté. The storming of the Bastille was neither the first, nor the only, nor the last sign that what they wanted had little to do with true freedom. When they seized control of the Bastille, it showed what they wanted: power.
And what undermined the power of the new government? The king had lost his power—it was not the monarchy that was their enemy. No, it was Catholicism—the religion that stood against the revolution.
The revolutionaries’ utter hatred of Catholicism, the one great love and comfort of many French peasants during their struggles, was shown in their increasing persecution of Catholicism, passing law after law to take away the properties and rights of the Church, persecuting Catholics in increasing numbers. Such blatant and destructive hatred eventually provoked the Vendée uprising against the Revolution. (I had never even heard of the Vendée until graduate school; this part of the story is normally left out of the ordinary high school, college, and popular narratives.)
Both royalist and Catholic, the Vendée peasant armies in the west of France managed to win some early victories before being utterly defeated by the French Revolutionary government. The revolutionaries were not magnanimous in victory. These same peasants they audaciously claimed to be rebelling against the monarchy, they massacred in massive numbers for daring to defend king and Catholicism. They murdered women and religious; they set fire to buildings where they knew children were hiding.
This was merely another extension of the bloodthirstiness of the revolution that sent its opponents to the guillotine. The guillotine was not an unfortunate exception to revolutionary procedure; it was the rule.
The Vendée were not the only victims of the Revolution. 16 women from the Carmel of Compiègne were executed on July 17, 1794 after a sham trial. On their way to the execution place, they chanted the Miserere psalm and the Salve Regina. They renewed their vows, and one by one ascended the scaffold chanting Laudate Dominum, “Praise the Lord, all you nations.” The women refused help and ascended to the guillotine with neither fear nor assistance. One of the sisters audibly forgave the executioners before going to her death. Their courage calmed even the normally chaotic revolutionary mob, thirsty for blood. Eyewitnesses noted the crowd was unusually quiet, even though the public executions of the revolution were generally accompanied by shouting and cheers. One by one, their blood was spilled. At the end, their bodies were thrown into a mass grave.
How could a group of praying women, many of them well past middle age, so offend someone as to deserve public guillotining? The nobility was accused of abusing the common people and violating their rights; the Vendées were accused of violently resisting the revolution and trying to restore the Monarchy. But what had these cloistered sisters done?
In their own way, these few nuns had done something more dangerous than all the old nobles and even the Vendée rebels. Officially, the Carmelites were found guilty of violating the 1790 Civil Constitution of the Clergy and its related laws, which, among other things, confiscated Church property, shut down churches and religious communities, and required priests to swear to the revolutionary government. Their specific “crimes,” said the revolutionary court, were thus: being against the revolution (despite not visibly doing anything against it), being sympathetic to the monarchy (despite having done little visibly to aid the nobility), being associated with a dissident priest (“dissident” meaning, refusing to bow to the revolutionaries)... and, of course, continuing their community life as consecrated religious. In their trial, one of the sisters cleverly forced the prosecutor to admit that they were labeled as fanatics specifically because of their religion, and that their religion made them (according to the prosecution) enemies of public freedom.
In sum, whatever the charge, their actual crime was their Catholicism and their religious life.
This is the part of the French Revolution that is too little told and often passed by: the revolutionaries’ extreme hatred of traditional religion. They demanded freedom, liberté, yes but it was freedom to think and act in the revolutionary leaders demanded that one think and act. In place of the liberty to be Catholic, the revolutionaries substituted the freedom to place one’s faith in the Revolution. The revolutionary hatred of Catholicism cannot be exaggerated. They were determined to wipe it from France forever.
Not content with suppressing religion, they made their own. After stripping the French Catholics of everything they could, the Revolutionaries replaced statues and images in churches with their own statues and figures (much like modern Communist China does). They changed the seven-day week with Sundays as a day of rest, into a ten-day week. Robespierre attempted to create, ex nihilo, a new religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being (successor to the Cult of Reason), as the official state religion of France. In one especially bizarre episode, Robespierre officiated at the first Festival of the Supreme Being in Paris, appearing at the top of a massive man-made mountain dressed as a high priest of his new government religion.
The new religion (not of Reason or the Supreme being, but the religion of revolution) even had martyrs: Jean-Paul Marat’s murder by Charlotte Corday turned him, briefly, into a mystic figure worthy of worship. William Busch’s research in To Quell the Terror (1999) tells of whispers of the “Sacred Heart of Marat” in the veneration given him after his death.
The revolutionaries, of course, were constantly turning on each other, and many were secretly (or not so secretly) atheists who did not like these faux religions much more than they liked Catholicism. But each group of revolutionaries did not simply hate religion; no, they wanted its power for themselves. Thus they put blame on the Church, and then attempted over the years to replace it, for they knew how much power religion has over the minds of men. This is the power they wanted: the power not only over our thoughts, but the power that they sensed was in supernatural faith itself.
This is why, in the revolutionary mind, the Carmelites had to be executed; they showed the failure of the revolution to control not only the bodies and possessions, but the hearts and minds of the people. The Carmelites would not rebel like the Vendées, but neither would they burn incense to Caesar; they could not be forced to, and that is why they had to die.
The revolutionaries’ new state religions, one after the other, failed. They had tried to create their own religion, but its followers were capricious and fought among themselves; even more, there was no true faith. They proclaimed religion as a public enemy while creating their own forms of worship. This was in itself religious fanaticism, a form of diabolical self-worship that put human greed and human desires above God. And then they “defended” “public freedom” by executing the Carmelites, showing how much they truly despised true freedom. The execution of a tiny little group of religious showed that the revolutionaries didn’t just want public control; they wanted control over every family, every private group, down to each individual and her own thoughts.
In the end, they wanted people to have faith in them, not in God. They failed to achieve their aims in a bloody and horrific fashion. For true religion cannot be erased or replaced. No government can take away our love of God; they can only take away our physical freedoms, not our spiritual and intellectual ones. And in the end, no one can destroy the eternal and the immortal. The execution of the Carmelites did not advance the revolutionary cause: it still stands as proof that the revolution could never have succeeded in its aim.
On July 28, less than two weeks later, Robespierre was himself executed. Though the terror didn’t entirely end, the period known as the Reign of Terror ended when a new group took power. According to Bush, the Compiègne martyrs willingly offered themselves as a sacrifice, a prayer to end the violent upheaval. God heard their blood crying out. He did not let their sacrifice be in vain. By the blood of French Catholics He had again shown that the gates of hell cannot stand against the Catholic Church.
Recommended film on the war in the Vendée: The Hidden Rebellion (2016).
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