Written by Vladimir Moss



     The Revolution swept away all the complex structures of feudalism, thereby preparing the way for the totalitarian state. But Napoleon went further. Thus he abolished trade unions, introduced a standardized system of weights and measures, and a standardized system of education and legislation, the famous Code Napoléon. Everything, from religion and charity to economics and the government of friendly sister-republics, such as Holland, had to be controlled from the centre. And the centre was Napoleon.

     Napoleon’s attitude towards religion was on the one hand respectful and on the other hand manipulative and utilitarian. His respectfulness is revealed in the following perceptive remark: “There are only two forces in the world: the sword and the spirit; by spirit I mean the civil and religious institutions; in the long run the sword is always defeated by the spirit.”[1] On the other hand, his essentially unbelieving, utilitarian attitude is revealed in the following: “I see in religion not the mystery of the Incarnation but the mystery of order in society”.[2] “What is it that makes the poor man take it for granted that ten chimneys smoke in my palace while he dies of cold, that I have ten changes of raiment in my wardrobe while he is naked, that on my table at each meal there is enough to sustain a family for a week?  It is religion, which says to him that in another life I shall be his equal, indeed that he has a better chance of being happy there than I have.”[3]

     In other words, religion was powerful, and as such had to be respected. But it was powerful not because it was true, but because it was a – perhaps the – major means of establishing order in society. More particularly, it was the major means of establishing obedience to his, Napoleon’srule. That is why, “As soon as I had power,” he recalled in 1816, “I made it the groundwork and foundation upon which I built. I considered it as the support of sound principles and good morality, both in doctrine and in practice. Besides, such is the restlessness of man, that his mind requires that something undefined and marvelous which religion offers; and it is better for him to find it there, than to seek it of Cagliostro, of Mademoiselle Lenormand, or of the fortune-tellers and imposters.”[4]

     He would no doubt have preferred a heady kind of religion, such as the worship of himself as a god-king, but he recognized that those times had passed: “I have come too later; men are too enlightened; there is nothing great left to do… Look at Alexander: after he had conquered Asia and been proclaimed to the peoples as the son of Jupiter, the whole of the East believed it… with the exception of Aristotle and some Athenian pedants. Well, as for me, if I declared myself today the son of the eternal Father, there is no fishwife who would not hiss at me as I passed by…”[5]

     Instead of that, Napoleon issued an Imperial Catechism whose purpose was to “bind by religious sanctions the conscience of the people to the august person of the Emperor”[6]:

Q: Why are we bound in all these duties towards our Emperor?

A: Because God… has made him the agent of His power on earth. Thus it is that to honour and serve our Emperor is to honour and serve God Himself.[7]

     Napoleon, writes William Doyle, “never made the mistake of underestimating either the power of religion or the resilience of the Church. Under orders in the spring of 1796 to march on Rome to avenge the murder by a Roman mob of a French envoy, he was confronted by a Spanish emissary from the pontiff. ’I told him [the Spaniard reported], if you people take it into your heads to make the pope say the slightest thing against dogma or anything touching on it, you are deceiving yourselves, for he will never do it. You might, in revenge, sack, burn and destroy Rome, St. Peter’s etc. but religion will remain standing in spite of your attacks. If all you wish is that the pope urge peace in general, and obedience to legitimate power, he will willingly do it. He appeared to me captivated by this reasoning…’ Certainly he continued while in Italy to treat the Pope with more restraint than the Directory had ordered: and when, early the next year, the Cispadane Republic was established in territories largely taken from the Holy See, he advised its founders that: ‘Everything is to be done by degrees and with gentleness. Religion is to be treated like property.’ Devoid of any personal faith, in Egypt he even made parade of following Islam in the conviction that it would strengthen French rule. By the time he returned to Europe, it was clear that Pope Pius VI would not after all be the last…

     “This approach bore one important fruit: in his Christmas sermon for 1797 the new Pope, Pius VII, declared that Christianity was not incompatible with democracy – a very major concession to the revolution that later Popes would take back.

     “On his second entry into Milan, in June 1800, he convoked the city’s clergy to the great cathedral, and declared, even before Marengo was fought: ‘It is my firm intention that the Christian, Catholic and Roman religion shall be preserved in its entirety, that it shall be publicly performed… No society can exist without morality; there is no good morality without religion. It is religion alone, therefore, that gives to the State a firm and durable support…’”[8]

     Religious toleration was both in accordance with the ideals of democracy and politically expedient. Thus to the same clergy he said: “The people is sovereign; if it wants religion, respect its will.” And to his own Council of State he said: “My policy is to govern men as the majority wish. That, I believe, is the way to recognize the sovereignty of the people. It was by becoming catholic that I ended the wars in the Vendée, it was by turning Mohammedan that I gained a hold in Egypt, it was by turning ultramontane that I won over people in Italy. If I were governing Jews, I should rebuild Solomon’s temple.”[9]

     Napoleon’s remark about gaining a hold in Egypt by turning Mohammedan was literally true. He “promised respect for the Islamic religion, even discussing with the leading ulama the terms on which a mass conversion of his army might be considered (circumcision proved a stumbling block).”[10]

     It is in this astonishingly cynical attitude that Napoleon reveals his modernity, making him perhaps the closest forerunner to the Antichrist that had yet appeared on the stage of world history, closer even, in some ways, than Lenin or Stalin. For the Antichrist will not – at first – persecute religion; he will rather try to be the champion of all religions – in order to subdue them all to his will. And he will rebuild Solomon’s temple…

     Napoleon’s first task in the religious sphere was to heal the breach between the Constitutional Church, which had accepted the revolution, and the non-jurors, who had rejected it. Only the non-jurors were recognised by the Pope, so an agreement had to be reached with Rome. Finally, on July 15, 1801, a Concordat was signed.

     “This document,” writes Cronin, “opens with a preamble describing Roman Catholicism as ‘the religion of the great majority of the French people’ and the religion professed by the consuls. Worship was to be free and public. The Pope, in agreement with the Government, was to re-map dioceses in such a way as to reduce their number by more than half to sixty. The holders of bishoprics were to resign and if they declined to do so, were to be replaced by the Pope. The First Consul was to appoint new bishops; the Pope was to invest them. The Government was to place at the disposal of bishops all the un-nationalized churches necessary for worship, and to pay bishops and curés a suitable salary.

     “The Concordat was an up-to-date version of the old Concordat, which had regulated the Church in France for almost 300 years. But it was less Gallican; that is, it gave the French hierarchy less autonomy. Napoleon conceded to the Pope not only the power of investing bishops, which he had always enjoyed, but the right, in certain circumstances, to depose them, which was something new. Napoleon did this in order to be able to effect a clean sweep of bishops.

     “Napoleon did not discuss the Concordat beforehand with his Council of State. When he did show it to them they criticized it as insufficiently Gallican. The assemblies, they predicted, would never make it law unless certain riders were added. Finally seventy ‘organic articles’ were drawn up and added to the Concordat [without consulting the pope]. For example, all bulls from Rome were to be subject to the Government’s placet, one of which asserted that the Pope must abide by the decisions of an ecumenical council…”[11]

     In April, 1802, Napoleon reopened the churches in France, which proved to be one of his most popular measures (as he said, “It was by becoming catholic that I ended the wars in the Vendée”), and it enabled him to enlist the Church in support of his government – as did, of course, his coronation by the Pope. Moreover, notes Johnson, “by making peace with the Church, he prepared the way for a reconciliation with the old landowners and aristocrats who had been driven into exile by the Revolution, and whom he wanted back to provide further legitimacy to his regime.”[12]

     However, a group of French and Belgian Catholics, numbering at one time as much as 100,000 people, rejected the Concordat, forming the so-called Petite Église (Little Church).[13] 

     “Even while seeking the Church’s support,” writes Cronin, “Napoleon kept firmly to the principle that the temporal and spiritual are two separate realms, and had to be kept separate in France. He might easily have used his growing authority to subordinate the Church to the State, but although he was occasionally tempted to do so, he quickly drew back… Equally, Napoleon refrained from subordinating the State to the Church. When bishops urged him to shut all shops and cabarets on Sundays so that the faithful should not be enticed from Mass, Napoleon replied: ‘The curé’s power resides in exhortations from the pulpit and in the confessional; police spies and prisons are bad ways of trying to restore religious practices.’”[14]

     However, while Napoleon wanted the Church to flourish, it could do so only under the general control of the State. This was made abundantly clear at his coronation in 1804, when instead of allowing the Pope to crown him, he took the crown from his hands and crowned himself![15] “For the pope’s purposes,” he said to Cardinal Fesch, “I am Charlemagne… I therefore expect the pope to accommodate his conduct to my requirements. If he behaves well I shall make no outward changes; if not, I shall reduce him to the status of bishop of Rome…”[16]

      Not for nothing did Napoleon say: “If I were not me, I would like to be Gregory VII”.[17] Gregory had secularized the papacy by making it into a secular kingdom. Napoleon had done the same from the opposite direction…

     However, the pope continued to put up a resistance. “As part of his war with England, Napoleon wanted the pope to submit to the obligations of the continental blockade: the ban on trade with England and her allies. The pope refused, and the situation deteriorated. In 1808 Rome was occupied by French troops. In May 1809 the Papal States were reunited with the French empire. The pope excommunicated the usurpers.[18] On 6 July the pope was put under house arrest at Savona (near Genoa) until March 1812. The bull of excommunication was published in France despite the police. Pius VII then refused to consecrate the bishops nominated by Napoleon and there were soon seventeen dioceses without a bishop. So that he could marry Maria Theresa of Austria, Napoleon obtained an annulment of his marriage with Josephine from the religious authorities in Paris, who were cooperative. The Roman cardinals who were in Paris refused to attend the wedding, which took place in 1810.

     “In order to get out of the impasse caused by having dioceses without bishops, Napoleon summoned a national council in Paris in 1811. The bishops affirmed their loyalty to the pope but did not want to incur the emperor’s displeasure, and undertook to win over Pius VII. However, he would not give way. Napoleon had him taken to Fontainebleu in June 1812. When subjected to force the pope made some concessions (the Concordat of Fontainebleu) which he very quickly went back on. Military disasters led the emperor to send the pope to Rome, where he made a triumphal entrance on 24 May 1814.”[19]

     Thus in the French, as in the English revolution, the established Church survived the Revolution. The restoration of the one-man-rule under Napoleon went hand-in-hand with the restoration of the Church, if not to a position of independence, still less of “symphony” with the State, at any rate of greater influence than during the 1790s. In the longer term, however, the Catholic Church’s authority and influence continued to decline…


March 12/25, 2020.


[1]Napoleon, in Vincent Cronin, Napoleon, London: HarperCollins, 1994, p. 202.

[2]Napoleon, in Cronin, op. cit., p. 211.

[3]Napoleon, in Bamber Gascoigne, A Brief History of Christianity, London: Robinson, 2003, p. 216.

[4] Napoleon in M.J. Cohen and John Major, History in Quotations, London: Cassell, 2004, p. 532.

[5] Napoleon, the day after his coronation, in Cohen and Major, op. cit., p. 532.

[6]Napoleon, in Gascoigne, op. cit., p. 217.

[7]Napoleon, in Cohen and Major, op. cit., p. 532.

[8]Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 385-386.

[9]Cronin, op. cit., p. 212; Ivan Ilyin, “O Monarkhii i Respublikanstve” (On Monarchy and Republicanism), Sobrannie Sochinenia  (Collected Works), Moscow, 1994, vol. 4, p. 492.

[10]John Darwin, After Tamerlane: The Rise & Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000, London: Penguin Books, 2008, pp. 182-183.

[11]Cronin, op. cit., pp. 216-217.

[12]Johnson, Napoleon, London: Phoenix, 2002, p. 48.


[14]Cronin, op. cit., p. 220.

[15] Again, there is a resemblance to Cromwell. “It was said that, in bringing to an end to ‘Barebone’s Parliament’, Cromwell took the crown from Christ and put it on his own head” (Peter Ackroyd, The History of England, vol. III, Civil War, London: Macmillan, 2014, p. 333).

[16] Cohen and Major, op. cit., p. 532.

[17]Peter de Rosa, Vicars of Christ, London: Bantam Press, 1988, p. 68.

[18] When Napoleon removed the pope from his status as temporal ruler (in exchange for a handsome salary), he said to him: “Our Lord Jesus Christ,” he said, “although a descendant of David, did not want an earthly kingdom…” Pius then excommunicated Napoleon for his “blasphemy” and refused to invest his nominees to vacant bishoprics.

     In 1811 Monsieur Emery, the director of Saint-Sulpice, defended the Pope, reminding Napoleon “that God had given the Pope spiritual power over all Christians. ‘But not temporal power,’ objected Napoleon. ‘Charlemagne gave him that, and I, as Charlemagne’s successor, intended to relieve him of it. What do you think of that, Monsieur Emery?’ ‘Sire, exactly what Bossuet thought. In his Declaration du clergé de France he says that he congratulates not only the Roman Church but the Universal Church on the Pope’s temporal sovereignty because, being independent, he can more easily exercise his functions as father of all the faithful.’ Napoleon replied that what was true for Bossuet’s day did not apply in 1811, when western Europe was ruled by one man, not disputed by several” (Cronin, op. cit., pp. 220-223) (V.M.)

[19] Jean Comby, How to Read Church History, London: SCM Press, 1989, volume 2, p. 119.

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