The French RC Continuum

I am probably the only Continuing Anglican priest with experience of French Catholicism, both in the Parisian mainstream and the traditionalist scene. I see many parallels between French Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy: the identification of the Kingdom of God and the French Kingdom. The elephant in the room is the French Revolution and the various times when anti-clericalism and atheism have surfaced. This love-hate relationship with God and the Church has characterised French culture and thought for the past couple of hundred years. It penetrates the writings of great authors like Victor Hugo, Joseph de Maistre, Léon Bloy and Georges Bernanos among so many others. We find this aspiration in the great nineteenth-century churches of Paris. I give you here the example of Saint-Augustin near the Gare Saint-Lazare:

st-augustin-parisThe building is by Haussmann, like many of the residential buildings of the city from the time of Napoleon III. It is something like the music of Gounod, grandiose and expressive of human hope and aspiration (and pride). I last visited this church some six years ago when I saw a friend in Paris and we spent several hours in a warm café facing this church on a freezing cold January day. I had a nasty bout of flu, but yet the massive iron-framed building haunted me.

France was politically unstable throughout the nineteenth century, vacillating between self-styled emperors who were drunk with power and the various attempts at a Masonic republic, excluding God and the Church for a particular ideological view of human rights. From the Revolution, it was all about imposing rationalist notions of virtue on humanity on pain of banishment or death! We find the same themes in America, a political idea that was based on France in many ways.

The French notion of the priesthood is something I hold very precious. For those of us who are ordained by a bishop in Apostolic succession, the priesthood becomes a part of us. We identify with it intimately. It is not something that can be put on or taken off like the cassock. It is part of us, even the laicised priest and the young sick priest of Barnanos’ Journal d’un Curé de Campagne. I have experienced something of the tail-end of parish life as it used to be, before parishes were grouped into pastoral sectors and run according to principles of corporate management. This is something that formed the Opus Sacerdotale of Canon Catta in 1964, which still exists today rather like some priestly associations in the Forward in Faith movement in England.

With all the instability and struggles of the nineteenth century, which led to the separation of Church and State in 1905, Catholicism became quite polarised and political, generally split between nostalgia for the old Kingdom and acceptance of the anti-religious and Masonic republic. One thing that I have learned in life is to distinguish creative persons from their countries of origin. Bach, Schumann and Brahms would make me dream of Germany and love the land that nurtured them – until we know what happened under the Nazis. I love my own country for the great men of culture it mothered, but I see the mess of the present day, the fact I could never return because I could not afford housing or have pension rights. I know that men of my country have committed horrible atrocities in the name of the once-proud Empire. France had Devil’s Island and the guillotine, a passionate hatred of priests and decades of soul-destroying “champagne” socialism. This is the condition of an exile…

French Catholics refer everything to the Revolution, and this is how they perceived Vatican II. Both brought destruction and a kind of zero point, a mysterious turn of fate in history. We only look to an unknown future without end. In the writings of French authors in the nineteenth century, we find many themes about which Russian philosophers like Berdyaev wrote in the twentieth in the wake of their own Revolution. I see many parallels between France and Holy Russia, something that attracted me to this country in the early 1980’s. We arrive at the end of the Renaissance, enter a new dark age and await the light of a new gothic era. I have written on this theme many times when discussing Romanticism. If the world was to survive, the Church would emerge from the ruins, maybe with the wailing and gnashing of teeth the Apocalypse speaks about. But, this would be the Eternal Church, the Church to which Christ promised indefectibility, not the illusion which is the fruit of rationalistic humanism.

French Catholicism succumbed to Ultramontanism by the middle of the nineteenth century. Gallicanism became marginalised and ostracised after Vatican I. It was the time when Masonry became increasingly vehement and anti-clerical. The Church reacted with attempts at yet more triumphalism. There were “Modernist” or “Liberal” reactions from the most cultured academics and historical critics. The mainstream of the French Church was the reactionary bourgeoisie in central Paris and Versailles, as it is today in Tradieland. The Dreyfus Affair was a landmark in the conflict between Modernists and reactionaries in line with Rome. The story is well known and a leading cause of anti-Semitism and Catholic conspiracy theories at the beginning of the twentieth century. Dreyfus was wrongly accused of treason, but the Catholic party wanted to maintain his conviction and blame Judaism for the crime of treason. Emile Zola’s J’Accuse named the officers involved in the condemnation of Dreyfus, and this caused many anti-Semitic riots in France.

The polemics go back to the Revolution and the persecution of Catholics, almost a prototype of genocide when one considers the events in the Vendée and Brittany. The polemics between royalist Catholics and radical republicans were always implicit under the surface throughout the nineteenth century. This radicalism, unlike English socialism, was atheistic. The free-thinkers seemed to express common sense against the bigotry of religion and obscurantism. We see the same thing today. Resistance against and collaboration with the Nazi occupation of France from 1940 until 1944 was also an expression of similar polarised themes, the anti-Semitic theme of Nazism remaining highly symbolic. The bitterness festers to this day.

The story of Archbishop Lefebvre is complex. His parents were anti-Nazi during the war, which earned them deportation. He had spent most of his life outside France, in the missions. This did not prevent the Society of St Pius X from becoming increasingly reactionary and “anti-Dreyfus”. The old Kingdom of France came to be associated with The Tradition, meaning the totality of Catholic beliefs and practices. It came to mean more than Tradition as a source of revelation and doctrine alongside Holy Scripture. Another notion of Tradition is highly significant in France, the perennial Tradition expressed by men like René Guénon and Henry Montaigu, with which I have a great deal of sympathy. Vatican II and its aftermath could have been so much more sensitive and less politically motivated and iconoclastic. Largely, in the 1960’s, the salt had lost its savour and bishops and priests had lost sight of their spiritual and deeply pastoral vocation and mission. Archbishop Lefebvre and his society of priests seemed to represent something both heroic and mediocre. It seemed to represent contentment with the status quo ante, timorous counter-revolutionaries, nostalgic bigots, collaborators from the time of the Occupation. They made of The Tradition an ideology. This problem of a total lack of critical sense has remained ever since in that weird “other” world.

During my days in that world, and in the traditionalist communities approved by Rome since the 1988 episcopal consecrations at Ecône, one of the main issues was the “true church” against the perceived Universalism of John Paul II. This is another issue where the traditionalists and I differed. I saw little wrong with the Pope praying with Buddhists, Hindous and others during a get-together of world religions in 1986. What was all the fuss about? Perhaps if I found myself in a service of another religion, I would be silent in the midst of the unfamiliarity, but I would silently pray to Christ (from whom light is given to all believers). This was always the bee in the bonnet of traditionalists, unless they were given the treatment they would mete out to “heretics”, “schismatics” and “infidels”. This was a contradiction I always found hypocritical. This attitude would spread through anything that smacked of ecumenism and religious freedom. Perhaps, if we read more Dostoievsky, we would have a deeper notion of spiritual freedom. The same goes with human rights, born of the French Revolution, but which brought the traditionalists the freedom to set up seminaries and chapels without prosecution, imprisonment and exile – as they would mete out to others.

The greatest intuition of the traditionalists was to keep the old liturgy (I won’t go into the issues of the Pius XII and John XXIII revisions). It kept the ethos of the western liturgy, not only the Roman rite but also the various other rites and uses from before the Council of Trent. Their liturgical theology is not evolved as in Orthodox theological schools or the Ressourcement in the west. They are still too attached to neo-scholasticism, but the practical conservation of the liturgy has always been positive.

We do need a better understanding of the notion of Tradition. It is a part of the discipline called fundamental theology on which Ressourcement theologians have worked considerably. Newman theorised about the development of doctrine, a kind of organic or homogenous growth with identity of being. Joseph Ratzinger resumed these ideas in his hermeneutic of continuity as an attempt to defend Vatican II. We need to continue working on these themes, since a living Tradition seems more appealing than a dead or static one. This was certainly one motive that brought Benedict XVII to welcome Anglicans into the RC Church via something like the ordinariates, to offer a new theological think-tank, new blood and a way out of the traditionalists vs. liberal polemics.

The main problem with the RC traditionalists, and indeed with some Anglican quarters, is intellectual confusion and deep ignorance, the use or abuse of language, analogy and euphemisms. Most are simple conservatives who hanker for a reproduction of the 1950’s or some other stereotyped image of the “old days”. They also suffer from the “bourgeois” spirit, hardness of attitude and erroneous interptretations. Many fail to see that the Council was the perfect hermeneutic of continuity from a corrupt and bad Catholicism in the same way as Calvinism emerged from bad sixteenth-century pseudo-Augustinian scholasticism.

We need to find a way above the old dialectics between conservatism and radicalism. I have always had my sympathies with Ressourcement theology and an “orthodox” Gnosticism (Origen, St Clement of Alexandria, etc.). We need to develop a contemplative spirituality outside monasteries, and the “Benedict Option” is appealing if it can be refined and explained. There needs to be a sense of stability and certitude, without smugness and triumphalism. The heart and the head need to work together, the heart solidly governed by the rational faculties. There needs to be a notion of living Tradition, but one that needs more study and contemplative prayer. Perhaps it comes more easily to Anglicans when we are not processed in the totalitarian mould!

The study of the “perennial philosophy” seems to lose steam these days, and many of those who promoted it thirty years ago seem to have lost interest or disappeared. René Guénon needs to be studied, but critically, without making yet another ideology. The notion of conversion and initiation needs to be better understood. There needs to be a better understood notion of the transcendent unity of all religions, to express the idea that the one God is the source of all traditions and ideas.

Can Christianity still lead to the sacred? It is a good question, since most of the time it doesn’t! If Christianity is divinely revealed, divine knowledge is not limited by human infirmity, ignorance and materialism. The outward Evangelical dimension of Christianity is important, but so are the hidden, contemplative and esoteric dimensions.

In the debates about Gallicanism and Ultramontanism this country has experienced, it is a paradox that the theme of Anglicanism has not been understood other than as a manifestation of the Protestant Reformation. A few French minds understood the real value of Anglicanism, Louis Bouyer for example. A few French traditionalists have shown affinity towards Anglicanism, but they are thwarted by the usual Roman Catholic teaching on our Orders being invalid. I sensed this profoundly when I was interviewed on the radio and invited to conferences to talk about Anglicanorum coetibus and the TAC in 2009-10. There was a limit to the sympathy. Now, I am out of it. I no longer exist, but there is no reason why I should. My blog usually gets a few French hits per day, and most French people learn some English at school!

Continuing Anglicanism remains marginal, and has no effect in France. The link between Gallicanism and Anglicanism is not established in people’s minds. Gallicanism was marginal before Vatican I and the generalisation of the Roman rite in France. There are some independent churches and bishops calling themselves Gallican, sometimes in reference to the pre-Ultramontanist French Church, sometimes to the old Gallican rite of before Charlemagne. Most are exorcism and faith-healing mills, and I have nothing to do with them. Some Anglican churches of the Diocese of Europe have attracted a few French faithful and some services are in French. Are such people of any particular conviction or simply disaffected Roman Catholics? It is difficult to tell. Traditionalists would not go anywhere near Anglican churches, and Novus Ordo Catholics would find our liturgy a little on the “stuffy” side. My own wife certainly does.

I know more about what goes on in America than in France! There may be an Orthodox monastery or two I would like to visit, just to pray and experience the peace of the place. I find traditionalist RC monasteries too “military” and rigid, as I found Triors and Fontgombault, sublime as the Gregorian chant is. There were initiatives by men like Jean Vanier for mentally handicapped people and the Abbé Pierre for the homeless. There was something beautiful in the post World War II Church with its opening to the poor, the weak and the dispossessed after so many decades of occupation by the bourgeois – something like Anglicanism in the 1860’s. The Church went to the poor, the weak and the broken of this world. There is even a monastery for mentally handicapped people. I ought to visit it and understand how brokenness can be reconciled with holiness and contemplative life. Throughout my RC days, I dreamt of the slum priests and Fr Montgomery-Wright having been quite radical in the 1950’s due to his Anglo-Catholic past. This dimension is entirely missing in the traditionalist world, preoccupied as they are with the strong and wealthy.

I live in a strange country where faith has almost completely evaporated. I hear a lot about Islam, but I am too afraid to go into those areas around our towns and cities. There is a new movement with Trump, Le Pen and even Fillon – and things might change radically after the years of socialism and social alienation. If that tendency wins next May, it would be unpredictable in France. The traditionalists would certainly cry “triumph” and try to use the system to their advantage as the collaborators did with the Nazis against the radical republicans of their day. Now, it is not only France but the entire European experiment. I feel unable to relate to the political debate, since it burns me out too quickly, even from my little house in the Normandy countryside.

I will continue with this blog – in my own language, since the English language is a part of our Anglican culture. I look forward to getting my life into better order to write books and music and relate to the world in my own little way. I have tried French language blogs, but they fell flat, and my written style in French is just not up to it! The Anglican way just seems too good to be true, and remains ignored and passed over with silly and ignorant talk. That’s the way it is.

I would certainly go back to England in a heartbeat if I had the money to buy a decent house and make provision for my old age! That ain’t gonna happen.

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2 Responses to The French RC Continuum

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I may have mentioned before that, not so long ago, I read Frederick Brown’s translation of Letters from America (Yale UP, 2010) by Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustav Beaumont, which has glimpses of “the Vendée” in the background of their concerns about Bourbon activity not so long after Louis Philippe has come to power. De Tocqueville and Beaumont and their families back in France are clearly sincere Catholics, with educations that included attention to mediaeval history, and I would love to learn more about their Catholicism, and where its place might be in the picture you sketch here! (They go to Mass in New York, and de Tocqueville notes that it is so like what he knows that he has a sort of experience that he is simply back home – !)

  2. T Graham says:

    “I would certainly go back to England in a heartbeat if I had the money to buy a decent house and make provision for my old age!” – maybe some day there will be a quorum of people & families to have a Little Giddings somewhere in the countryside. Deo volente.

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