Some Insight Into Nineteenth Century Catholicism’s “Retrenchment”

In his massive work Christianity In A Revolutionary Age: A History of Christianity in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries Vol. 1: The Nineteenth Century in Europe,:”(New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1958)”: Kenneth Scott Latourette adds some extremely interesting details to the story of 19th century Catholicism’s descent into what has been called a “retrenchment” and “emergency mode” of living that culminated in the ultra-magnification of the papacy’s spiritual powers at the First Vatican Council in 1870.:”(See my entry The Historical Background of Vatican I)”:In a lengthy discussion of the French Revolution’s affects on Catholicism, Latourette chronicles the virtual destruction of the French Church and its support structures between 1789 and 1804. It is very difficult not to feel sympathy for the Catholics of this era, besieged on every side by the rising, seemingly inexorable forces of Modernity which ruthlessly stripped away traditional bulwarks of religious faith and Christian social order and replaced them with insipid rationalism and various forms of statism. The high point of Latourette’s narrative of the French struggle comes when he notes the stark contrast between Charlemagne and Napoleon. In 800, Charlemagne, a devout catholic, was crowned emperor by the pope and vigorously sought to carry out his duty of defending the Faith. 1004 years later, the pope, needing the political support of a powerful ruler to heal the massive problems in the French Church, attempted to crown Napoleon–only to have the man snatch the crown away and place it on his own head. Napoleon, unlike Charlemagne, was only nominally a Catholic and sought merely to use the Church as one of several pawns in his vast schemes. In this single incident Latourette sees a vivid of how far the de-Christianization of Christendom had progressed.:”(Ibid., pg. 145.)”:Particularly moving as one reads the account is this description of the situation of Pius VI (r. 1775-1799):

…Pius VI had not disgraced his office by vice, as had some of his predecessors of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, or by a combination of vice and weakness, as had some of those who had occupied the throne of Peter in the latter part of the ninth and in the tenth century. Nor was he confronted with rival Popes, as had been many of those who had gone before him. Yet not since the advances of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries had there been in the West such extensive defections from the faith. To be sure, the Protestant Reformation had torn away from the Papacy more millions, but that had been ostensibly from loyalty to the Gospel. Now the losses were through a denial of the Gospel. The kind of piety produced by the Roman Catholic Church, for Pius VI was above the average of his century, seemed impotent against the new revolutionary forces.:”(Ibid., pg. 147.)”:

Indeed, so powerful were these forces in the temporal sphere that the next pope, Pius VII (r. 1800-1823) ran deeply afoul of Napoleon, who annexed the Papal States in 1809 and imprisoned the pope until 1814. It is true that during this period the pontiff fought back with powerful spiritual weapons–such as refusing to perform any of his pontifical functions, which drastically curtailed the power of the French churches Napoleon sought to control. Nevertheless, losing the Papal States and only recovering a portion of them (with the Treaty of Paris in 1814) left a mark of insecurity on the papacy that would still be there in 1871 when Pius IX felt constrained to issue his tense encyclical Ubi Nos.

Still more trouble came from the revolutionary French. Overrunning the Austrian Netherlands and several other territories in 1794, French forces attempted to force the Church to adopt various secularizing and nationalistic policies of the Republic. They demanded that Gallicanism be taught in the seminaries, drafted a new catechism, and instituted new festivals. Napoleon slightly mollified these effects, but many Catholics nevertheless felt that the Concordat of 1801 had been forced on the pope. The papacy, such a critical part of Catholicism, was under fire in a possibly worse manner than it had been ever before.:”(Ibid., pp. 150-151.)”:

Germany, as well, was entirely lost to the spirit of revolution whose greatest champion seemed to be France. If France had Gallicanism, Germany had Febronianism. With the final dissolution of the thousand-year old Holy Roman Empire in 1806, Germany underwent a drastic reorganization both civilly and ecclesiastically. Ancient Sees such as Cologne, Mainz, and Trier were erased from the map. Numerous Catholic universities were closed, and the State, increasingly secular, took over education. Monasteries and abbeys were dissolved. Protestants ascended politically, even to the extent that the King of Prussia demanded that his Catholic subjects acknowledge him as the head of the Catholic Church in his own domains!:”(Ibid., pp. 153-154.)”:

In Spain, the outbreak of the French Revolution was greeted by Catholic fear and repression. The Inquisition labeled all works of modern philosophy “heresy” and demanded the seizure of all papers even remotely seeming to have revolutionary tendencies. When Napoleon invaded Spain in 1809, he reduced the religious houses of the country by two-thirds. Monks and secular priests were often killed as this decree was enforced. Churches were divested of their property and finances, and at last, in 1813, the Inquisition was shut down.:”(Ibid., pp. 155-156.)”:

From the foregoing it may be seen that the Roman Church was embattled on all sides as the 19th century opened. Throughout the century popes would issue numerous jeremiads against the rising forces of Modernity and secularization, and these would help contribute to the deep-rooted Catholic feeling of cultural besiegement. Nevertheless, as Latourette remarks toward the end of his survey of the troubles, “…The weeping, praying throngs which flocked to Pius VI and Pius VII on their exiled journeys were unmistakable proof of a vast if unorganized loyalty which might at the time be impotent but which must be reckoned with for the future.”:”(Ibid., pp. 157-158.)”: Looking back on all of this with the hindsight of history, it may be seen that the revitalization of Catholic faith that occurred in response to these grave evils would, for the larger part of the 19th century, take the form of strengthening the walls of its fortress. It would be left to a later generation, in the next century, to seek to maintain the essentials of the Catholic Faith without merely perpetuating the unnecessarily repressive and static encrustations of its post-16th century traumas.

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