Francophiles especially know that 14 July is Bastille Day, traditionally the beginning of the French Revolution with its motto (above). Its symbolic meaning is like our Fourth of July, or (more obscurely) the Assize Sermon of John Keble (14 July 1833) marking the “official” beginning of what became the Oxford Tractarian Movement, led by Keble, John Henry Newman, and later Edward Bouverie Pusey. But let’s not digress too much: the theme for today is the rallying cry of the French Revolution—a cry that most of us, 20th-21st century Americans, surely find very, very compatible with our deepest desires.
But in 19th century Europe, and especially among Catholics, this cry was the moral equivalent of heresy, for several reasons. First of all, its intention was to eliminate all crowned heads in favor of democratic elections. But the Pope was at this time one of the “crowned heads”—of the Papal States comprising much of what is now central Italy. Second of all, the French government even before the Revolution was hostile to the influence of the Church (and especially of the Jesuits), and had followed the lead of Portugal, Spain, and other countries in banishing the Jesuits from their realms. It required French clergy to swear an oath of allegiance to the new government and to disavow their relationship to the pope. If they refused, they were guillotined, or drowned, or set adrift in ships.
Finally, in its effort to finance their ends, the revolutionaries seized the Church’s assets in France, including its churches, schools, and other possessions. It bankrupted the Church there.
So when Napoleon was finally defeated and (for a second time) exiled, the Congress of Vienna restored all “crowned heads,” including the pope—Pius VII, whose defiance of Napoleon won him the admiration of many others in Europe, including Protestants. Is it any wonder that the mantra of the revolution would be anathema to Catholics, and especially the pope? This was especially true as an attempted revolt in 1848 required Pope Pius IX to flee Rome for his life. So far as he could see it, “democracy” meant anarchy and overthrow of authority, especially that of the Church. This is the genesis of the idea of (and perceived need for) papal infallibility.
If we fast-forward to Vatican II, given this background we can see why a number of bishops were diametrically opposed to what became Dignitatis Humanae, the decree on religious liberty. To a number of them, it smacked of “Liberty/Equality/Fraternity”—the enemy of the papacy. But scholars like Fr John Courtney Murray were able to convince the bishops that as times had changed, the meaning of “religious liberty” had also developed. It was no longer based on revolution but on respect for human dignity. And that document has remained a hallmark to this dignity ever since.
Yes, times have changed, and one of the speakers at Vatican II in favor of religious liberty was none other than a young Karol Wojtyla—whom most of us heard of a decade or so later! The bottom line, to me, is that we want and need to be involved in the business of evangelization. But the most effective (the only effective?) method of evangelization is witness, especially the witness of respect. This is the basis for Pope Francis’ call for accompaniment—to bring people along while showing them the ultimate in respect for where they are, and who they are. Happy Bastille Day to everyone!