France

The Christian faith made its appearance in Gaul at an early date, probably in the first century. Missionaries and merchants from the East brought the Gospel to Marseille from which town it spread up the Rhone River valley to Vienne and Lyons. The greatest impact was made initially in the cities, among the Roman and Greek populations. Progress was much slower in rural areas among the native Celts. Martyrdom became the lot of many Christians in Gaul in the second and third centuries. Under the vigorous leadership of Irenaeus* and others, however, the faith spread northward, reaching Paris in 250. By the time religious toleration was granted throughout the Roman Empire in the early fourth century, Christianity was established in the cities of Gaul, but had only begun to penetrate the countryside.

When the Germans overran the empire beginning in the fifth century, the Christians of Gaul were faced with the task of converting and civilizing them. Since the church was the strongest surviving institution in the West, the invaders sensed its importance. A turning point in the history of French Christianity came in 496 when Clovis,* king of the Franks, was baptized. Genuine or not, his conversion made the task of the further evangelization of his people much easier for Christian missionaries.

During the early centuries, Gallic Christianity produced a number of illustrious saints such as Martin of Tours,* Hilary of Poitiers,* the talented scholar-poet Paulinus of Bordeaux (d.431), Germanus of Auxerre (d.448), and Genevieve.* The work of Gregory of Tours* also adds luster to the history of Christianity in Gaul in this period.

By about 500, Frankish Gaul had been divided into dioceses. Although the history of the Christian faith in this period is obscure, one important service which the Franks rendered to the Western Church was their firm stand against the Muslim invasion from the south which in the eighth century threatened all of Christendom. Charles Martel* stemmed the tide of Muslim advance with his victory over them near Tours in 732.

It was, however, the grandson of Charles Martel, Charlemagne,* who proved the major benefactor of the Christian Church in Frankland in the early Middle Ages, doing all he could to further it, even using force to convert the heathen when necessary. But by 843 his former empire was divided into three parts, and this date marks the beginning of the modern kingdom of France. After a protracted power struggle, the Capetians, with the support of the French clergy, were enthroned to replace the ineffectual Carolingians as the kings of France.

The history of Christianity in medieval France was marked by great vitality and achievement in the realms of piety, reform, learning, and politics. No other kingdom of Europe surpassed the French in medieval times in their leadership and enthusiasm for piety and reform. The Capetians supported the French Church and, in turn, the church greatly influenced the affairs of state to an extent that it has never attained either before or since. One of the most devout of all Christian kings in history was Louis IX,* and under his reign the alliance of church and state in France reached its highest point of development.

Medieval France was also the home of the Cluny reform movement (see Cluniacs), which began in 910 and was to contribute a host of reformers to the church, including several popes. Bernard of Clairvaux* was another whose influence extended to every part of the Christian world. It was he who preached the Second Crusade so effectively that he himself later noted it had reduced the ratio of women to men in France to seven to one. Significantly, the First Crusade had been preached and organized at Clermont in 1095. The history of the Crusades, indeed, was so inexorably linked with French leadership that in the Holy Land the Crusaders as a whole were known simply as “Franks,” and the Christians of those lands until very recently looked to France as their protector.

In addition, medieval France was the home of many popular medieval heresies. A majority of the people of S France may have been “heretics” during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The major heretical groups were the Albigensians* and Waldensians (see Waldenses). The former outnumbered the latter, but their exact beliefs were not known because both they and their records were destroyed with ruthless thoroughness. The Waldensians survived and flourish today in Italy and other parts of the world. Both groups represented vigorous protest movements against the lax Christianity which they felt existed in their day.

Christian piety in medieval France expressed itself also in the building of magnificent Gothic cathedrals in the later Middle Ages. Illustrative of this great outburst of church construction in the period was the celebrated Notre Dame cathedral of Paris which was begun in 1163. Medieval Paris, moreover, was the home of the first and greatest of the universities of N Europe. Sponsored and protected by the church, the University of Paris was chartered in 1200. Even before the official founding of the university, Paris had been the site of a celebrated cathedral school. Many of the most famous teachers of the day were either French or taught in the French schools: Anselm,* Peter Abelard,* and Thomas Aquinas.*

Finally, the church in France in the Middle Ages played a major role in the development of both French and papal politics. The part of Joan of Arc* in restoring the credibility of the French monarchy, the challenge of Philip IV* to the papacy, and the subsequent removal of the latter to Avignon* for two generations all testify to this fact. But perhaps the most important of all was the development of what later would be called the “Gallican Church” (see Gallican Articles; Gallicanism).

The history of French Christianity in the modern period begins with the Renaissance,* the Reformation,* and the monumental figure of John Calvin.* Christian humanism and sympathy for reform permeated France in the early sixteenth century. For reasons not yet fully understood, however, Protestantism never captured the allegiance of the majority of Frenchmen. Calvinism came close. At one time as many as one-tenth of the population had embraced the Calvinist doctrines, with perhaps as many as twice that number in sympathy with their cause. Popularly known as Huguenots,* political complications deflected their original aims, plunging the country into a long and bitter period of civil war. In the end the Calvinists lost, but managed to salvage a certain amount of toleration when their political leader, Henry of Navarre, converted to Roman Catholicism in order to receive the crown as Henry IV.* His Edict of Nantes* in 1598 gave Huguenots a measure of religious freedom for more than two generations. The scars of the civil wars, however, lingered for a long time, and the Protestant churches of France have never recovered fully from their impact.

The Catholic Reformation was successful in seventeenth- century France, producing an era of Catholic piety and a battery of saints: Francis of Sales,* Vincent de Paul,* Quietism,* Jansenism,* and the expulsion of many Huguenots with the revocation of the Nantes edict in 1685.

The eighteenth century brought a dramatic reaction to the growing power of the church in the life of the nation. Voltaire,* Diderot,* and other men of the Enlightenment* flourished where once the seventeenth-century French saints had walked. Hostility to organized religion, Deism, naturalism, and materialism spread along with other ideas spawned by the Enlightenment. These religious trends culminated with the French Revolution of 1789. When the Revolution triumphed, it tried to abolish the church in France as well as the dynasty. From 1793 vigorous attempts were made to remove all traces of the Christian past from France: Notre Dame cathedral became the Temple of Reason, and Fanny Aubry danced there, “natural religion” was encouraged by the state, and the Roman Catholic Church was outlawed. The church persisted, however, and regained its freedom and some of its former privileges under Napoleon I (d.1821). The French emperor and the pope reached an understanding in the Concordat of 1801.*

Nevertheless, the reverberations of the bitter struggle between the revolution and the church echoed throughout the century. Anticlericalism* became widespread, and the Catholic Church in France found itself constantly on the defensive. A phenomenon known as “Catholic atheism” made its appearance among those who remained within the church, but who had lost their faith. Leo XIII* tried to accommodate Catholicism to the increasingly liberal and secular mood of the nation, without much success. The anticlericalism of the period climaxed with the anti- Roman Catholic legislation of the early twentieth century, including the law of 1905 which decreed complete separation of church and state.

France today is deeply secular, but no longer as hostile to Christianity as it was previously. Roman Catholic Christianity continues to flourish among the peasantry, the Reformed Church (Calvinist) still claims more than a million adherents, and various other non-Roman Catholic groups have grown recently despite certain disabilities still attached to religious nonconformists. Further, many nonpracticing Catholics maintain their ties with the church despite their anticlericalism.

Modern French Christianity is virile enough to produce such first-rate thinkers as Teilhard de Chardin* and Jacques Ellul (b.1912), and the worker-priest movement. It is still powerful enough to help mold international politics, as when great progress was made in Franco-German relations after Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and President Charles de Gaulle attended Mass together.

Thus, despite the curious paradox of a France divided into various shades of belief and unbelief, into practicing and nonpracticing Catholics, into a growing interest in Christianity on one hand and a widespread and historical hostility toward organized religion on the other, the Christian faith remains an important ingredient in French civilization. As it has been central to French history in the past, so it continues to be a significant force even in the secular twentieth century.

There is no satisfactory general history of Christianity in France available in either French or English. Treatment of various periods can be found in the following generally reliable works: C.S. Phillips, The Church in France, 1848-1907 (1907) and The Church in France, 1789-1848 (1929); T.S. Holmes, The Origin and Development of the Christian Church in Gaul During the First Six Centuries of the Christian Era (1911); H. Bremond, Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France (8 vols., 1916- 33); F.V.A. Aulard, Christianity and the French Revolution (1927); R.R. Palmer, Catholics and Unbelievers in Eighteenth Century France (1939); E. Amann and A. Dumas, L'église au pouvoir des laïques (1948); S.W. Herman, Report from Christian Europe (1953); J.W. Thompson, The Wars of Religion in France (1956); G.R. Cragg, The Church in the Age of Reason, 1648-1789 (1960); A.R. Vidler, The Church in an Age of Revolution, 1789 to the Present (1961); G. Mollat, The Popes at Avignon (1963).