2.4.2 The French Revolution and its long tail

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Unit 2 Contents

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That dependence on human reason alone had immense impact in how people thought about society and politics.  It led to a new optimism, that people could reconstruct societies and overcome all sorts of inherited injustices and other problems.  This found expression in one event above all which was experienced across the whole of Europe as a vast earth-shaking shock: the French Revolution of 1789.  This was carried out in the name of the ‘rights of man’ and the slogan Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.  It wiped away the old regime of the aristocrats and, in place of this, a group of men inspired by the ideals and optimism of the Enlightenment attempted to construct a new political order.  Across the rest of Europe, many cheered and many despaired, although as the years following 1789 passed the numbers doing the latter grew, as the Revolutionaries resorted to extreme violence to overcome opposition (especially in ‘The Terror’ of 1793-4).

The French Revolution was explicitly and militantly ‘anti-clerical’.  This is to say that it was wholly opposed to the way in which the institutions of the Catholic Church, and especially its hierarchy, formed an inherent part of the pre-Revolutionary aristocratic regime.  So in the new, post-1789 society, Catholicism would have no place.  Understandably, the Roman Catholic Church was utterly opposed to the French Revolution.  In the context of the Enlightenment, the Church saw it as a practical attempt to declare independence of God, to say that humans don’t need God or Christian beliefs for their life together.

One of the many ways in which the French Revolution proved immensely significant was that this opposition between all the Revolution stood for and Catholic Christianity became deeply entrenched during the following century.  Indeed the Roman Catholic Church came to be defined by a sharp reaction against many of the new things characterising emerging ‘modern’ society. This negative reaction was expressed in numerous ways, in words and deeds, during the century after 1789.  But it was put most sharply in a document called the Syllabus of Errors published by the Vatican in 1864.  This listed, and defined as errors, many features of the emerging modern Western world.

The Pope at this time was Pius IX, whose papacy was the longest in history (so far) – he was Pope for 32 years from 1846 to 1878.  It was a very troubled time for the Vatican, not least because it coincided with the great success of Italian nationalism in unifying Italy as one nation-state, a consequence of which was the removal of a large amount of territory from the Vatican’s jurisdiction, reducing this to the tiny area it is today.

Coming as it did after decades of hostility to the Church across Europe from all those who supported the French Revolution, that assault from Italian nationalism contributed to Pius IX developing an overwhelmingly defensive and negative attitude to all that post-Enlightenment ‘modern’ society represented.  The last of the 80 theses that made up the Syllabus rejected as an error the view that the Papacy should reconcile itself “with progress, liberalism and modern civilization”.1

This was the state of things in the 1860s.  From what you already know about more recent CST, it might surprise you that the Church’s stance in relation to modernity was so negative then.  You might be familiar with the vastly more positive and constructive analysis – and tone – that was expressed exactly 100 years later, in documents issued by Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).  These are much more representative of what CST now stands for.  This is even though, alongside this constructive engagement, there continues to be a profound critique of some of the thinking of Western modernity.  Throughout this module, we shall be giving attention to both sides of this coin.

Before we look at how things developed from the 1860s to the 1960s, it will be useful simply to bring to mind some of the significant historical events of the period from shortly before the French Revolution through to 1960.

 

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End of 2.4.2

Go to 2.4.3 A chronology of events, 1776-1960

Module B outline

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  1. Syllabus of Errors, #80, accessible (28 May 2013) at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius09/p9syll.htm

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