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Nine The Cult of the Supreme Being and the Limits of the Secularization of the Political
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The Fury of Rationalization and the Revolutionary Fiasco

One of the very few consensually shared opinions by historians of the French Revolution is that the Gallican church was ripe for reform on the eve of the Revolution and that this was a widely held goal at the end of the Old Regime both within and outside the church.[17] The historians' general perception of the near-universal recognition of the need for rationalization in the age may create the illusion that it was an easy task. In fact, as the Revolution had to learn very soon, and at a heavy price, rationalization is not a homogeneous term but an umbrella word. In the mouth of the advocates of the internal reform of the church, the term meant streamlining, modernization. In the interpretation of the philosophes and their political successors, it simply implied the application of the uniform principles of reason to society as a whole and therefore, by implication, also to the affairs of the church. The homogeneity and uniformity of the catchword "rationalization" was a common but dangerous illusion of the prerevolutionary Enlightenment. The


stumbling blocks involved in the issue can be identified in very simple questions: What kind of rationalization, uniform or sphere-specific? Rationalization by whom? And, finally, Rationalization on behalf of whom?

Once these questions are posed, the almost inextricable complexity of the situation that had developed already before the Revolution[18] becomes apparent. For almost two centuries a trend had been emanating from the court "to rationalize" the inherent contradictions of Gallicanism on its own behalf. After eliminating the authority of Rome, the monarchs also intended to destroy the representative system of the church as a competitive political authority within the absolutist rule.[19] Absolute princes could not be satisfied even with the decaying representative system that was reigning supreme within the church, in part because it was a bastion against royal inroads and in part because it could have served as a dangerous example. Nor could they ever accept the claim of the church to maintain an independent legal system parallel to their jurisdiction. The much discussed issue of appel comme d'abus , a common device of the court and parlements against the church, is telling proof of this incessant and irreconcilable conflict of parallel legal systems.[20] The "royal rationalization" of the church was therefore a strong option. At the same time, however, it was never implemented, nor even seriously attempted, and for good reason. Without the sanction of an independent, authoritative, and wholly spiritual power, the absolute monarchy would have been reduced in the eyes of an ever more influential public opinion into common tyranny or oriental despotism.[21]

The attempts on the part of the parlements to rationalize the church were even more self-contradictory. Their famous and much discussed "egoism" was not a moral but a sociological category. The parlements constituted a professional corporation within the system of Estates. And a corporation cannot reform another corporation under the sign of universalistic claims notwithstanding the high degree of formal rationality of the parlements' demand for a unified legal system. The victory of the parlements would have resulted either in the total monopoly of a legal aristocracy over the legislature and the administration of justice or in the further strengthening of the absolute rule of the prince.

"Society," or "the public opinion," an entity that until the Revolution had no sociologically perceivable body, regularly proposed its own versions of rationalization for the whole social world, including the clergy. Philosophical theses (of "tolerance," of an education based on "reason" and not "prejudice," of civil or natural religions) were widely advertised. Bereft of public forums of deliberation, however, the future liberal and radical actors of the revolutionary assemblies, who were to have a prominent role in shaping the church policies of the Constituent Assembly, had no opportunity to conduct discussions on the future political options of the sweeping reform of the church. The frequent statements of historians concerning the total unpre-


paredness of the revolutionary politicians for dealing with this enormous task merely describe the result of precisely this political lacuna.

Future reformers and revolutionaries frequently boasted about the "supreme rationality" of their ideas. But in fact, they were of the worst schools of rationality. They were imbued with the dominant spirit of étatisme . As a considerable contingent of them (Treilhard, Durand de Maillane, Martineau) had served as legal experts in the parlements, they brought a badly needed expertise on the issue of the clergy into the revolutionary legislation. This expertise, however, was at the same time inextricably interwoven with factionalism and the spirit of tit-for-tat. Some others, for example Camus and Lanjuinais were either surviving vestiges of a long-suppressed Jansenism, Protestants like Barnave, or professed libertines like Mirabeau. Their masterplans of rationalization could, at least, be suspected by friend and foe alike of being less than an expression of impartial justice and coolly inquisitive reason.[22] Beyond this far-from-negligible moral consideration, the future experts on church issues for the Revolution never even explored the following fundamental issues, without which no blueprint could be termed rational. First, what status were they going to grant to the church: that of a reformed corporation, a separate and independent association, or a state agency? Second, it was a foregone conclusion of some, and the increasingly prevailing option of others, not to declare even a reformed Catholicism as the national religion. But were they not thus undermining Gallicanism and opening the door to the influence of Rome from which no radical social transformation could expect beneficial results? Third, if they were to reduce the church to the role of a state agency without integrating its dogma into the founding principles of the state, could the result of this decision be anything but the creation of a rebellious servant rather than a useful spiritual arm of the state?

Paradoxically, the drive for reform within the church was motivated by the very fact that the church was the best-organized and the most streamlined of all three Estates. The need for reform grew out of the needs of an already existing but defective internal rationalization, not from the total absence of systemic rationality. The church had a representative "political" system of its own, one that could be termed an aristocratic parliamentary republic within an absolute monarchy. It had its own judiciary system, which, though constantly threatened by the court and the parlements, was powerful enough within its own walls. While enjoying exemption from taxation and making only "voluntary contributions" to the royal budget, it had its own enormous wealth and system of taxation. The church employed huge and separate bodies of (political, fiscal, theological, and educational) bureaucracies and, although submitting to the political hegemony of the court, it enjoyed a virtual independence from Rome and had a political representation in the court as well as a wide influence over secular affairs.

At the same time, the whole elaborate and highly rationalized system suf-


fered from maladies that were surprisingly similar to those of the Ancien Régime as a whole. As a result of exactly the same principles of selection and appointment, the caste of the prelates became an aristocratic network to the same degree as did the clique of commanding officers in the royal army. The church went through the same process of unstoppable and irreversible fiscal crisis as the court, and basically for the same reasons (the luxury of the upper layers combined with the structural impossibility of financial modernization). The church also had its own rebellious Third Estate, the curés, the priestly democracy with their strong "Richerist" ideology, Christian egalitarianism, gestures of defection, and explicit political demands for the democratization of the "parliamentarianism" of the church.[23]

The modernizers of the church, who lent moderate support to rationalization both internally and to "society at large," were suffering from the same delusions as their secular counterparts when they assumed harmony between the various options of rationalization. From a sweeping rationalization of France as a whole, they could only expect to lose, not gain. For at least one consequence of a general rationalization must have been predictable: the demise of the Gallican church as an independent and impenetrable corporation. Furthermore, there were different and conflicting strategies of rationalization—modernization even within the church. What seemed rational for the haute clergé meant the betrayal of the interests of the Richerist curés and vice versa; the Richerist dreams of a renewal of the church on the bases of a primordial, poor but moral Christianity, was for the episcopal aristocracy tantamount to a total abandonment of the institutional past and present of the church, and thus not only treason but also total irrationality. Clearly, each and every scenario of rationalization was on a collision course with each and every other.

It is common knowledge that within a year after the elections to the Constituent Assembly, the rationalizing program of the Third Estate transpired as victorious and irrevocable, literally wiping out all other alternative approaches to rationalization. The confiscation of the wealth of the church and the introduction of the Civil Constitution of the Gallican church comprised everything the political elite of the Third Estate was to say and legislate on the issue. And once the Constituent Assembly confiscated the wealth of the clergy, it practically excluded both options of an intrachurch rationalization. Only two alternatives remained: the separation of the church, no longer an Estate, from the state, that is, "laicization" or the merger of the church and the state; that is, the reduction of the new church to the rank of a state agency.

When the Civil Constitution decided in favor of the second option, this fundamental document transformed priests into state agents, the Gallican church into a clergé salariée . It brought greater social equality into the church by considerably raising the income of the curés and allocating to the episco-


pate salaries that, though high, no longer provided for a lifestyle comparable to the aristocratic luxury of prelates under the old regime. The Civil Constitution imposed a kind of work discipline on the clergy which was in harmony with their new identity as fonctionnaries . It demanded "job training" and the introduction of meritocratic principles in ecclesiastic appointments. It solved the internal fiscal problems of the church in the most radical fashion: the once enormously rich corporation ceased to be an independent economic unit.

A great rationalizer of the territorial organization of France, the Constituent Assembly also drastically reorganized the dioceses, transforming them into units basically coextensive with the new départements . Thousands of church positions were either abolished outright or slated for extinction once the incumbents died or retired. An overwhelming majority of religious corps and orders of century-long standing were dismantled overnight as ones not fulfilling a "socially useful" function. The ultimate act was the formal destruction of the internal parliamentarism of the church together with its separate corporative legislation. Once all internal political mechanisms of the church, including the councils or church assemblies, had been abolished, it seemed perfectly "logical" to the Comité Ecclésiastique , as well as to the majority of the Constituent Assembly, that the priests of the Catholic church should be elected by the citoyens actifs irrespective of their religious beliefs or lack thereof, as well as of their denominational affiliation. Finally, the Civil Constitution completed the work of centuries of Gallicanism in a form absolute monarchs had never expected and church leaders had never wanted. It severed all relations between the Church of France and Rome apart from the empty gesture of recognizing the pope as the "visible head" of Catholic Christianity.[24]

Despite the deserved ill-reputation of the church policies of the Revolution, it would be unfair to describe the Civil Constitution as merely a document of doctrinaires. On several points, the drafters were backed sometimes by the majority, sometimes by a considerable minority of the cahiers ,[25] and, above all, they were propelled by their own firm principles of a general and uniform social rationalization. Their first principle was that the emancipation of "society," which was for them tantamount to making the Third Estate general, be dependent on the political homogenization of the "national body." They were equally convinced, and on this point posterity has never questioned them, that the abolition of the prerogatives of the church (its position as a corporate feudal landlord, its exemption from taxation, its special system of jurisdiction and administering justice) was a precondition of transforming the confused network of privileges into the homogeneous system of universal rights. Finally, it was also self-evident to them that rationalization equaled modernization and that the latter was tantamount to functionalism . Defining a function as socially useful was naturally a public issue


pertaining to the competence of the sole authority in which the national will was invested: the Constituent Assembly. Generally jealous of associations, it never occurred to these radical rationalizers that an association may have either the authority or the competence to define its functional utility within its own borders.

From this dogmatic belief in the necessary homogeneity of ratio , a tyrannical spirit in the church policies of the Revolution immediately transpired. Together with the estate or corporation, they also abolished the association, a framework in which "society" could freely organize itself in various (not necessarily political) forms. By combining the system of election of church functionaries with the general political system of elections, they not only showed unmasked contempt for a millennial tradition, they also demonstrated that, for them, the new agency could only serve political purposes. As a result of this gesture alone, the church, reformed or unreformed, lost its raison d'être. It was therefore more than a passionate polemical invective, but indeed the truth of the matter that Camus, a Jansenist, threw down as a gauntlet in front of the reluctant or oppositional members of church representatives in the Constituent Assembly: a sovereign (i.e., the nation) not only can give orders to a religious agency, it can also change the religion of a nation by decree.[26]

"Rationalist fanaticism" crowned its work with the famous issue of imposing the obligation of an oath on the clergy. There is no point in rehashing here this well-known episode that made the breach between the church and the Revolution final. The important aspect is its overtly tyrannical and inherently absurd character. The oath, in itself a quasi-religious gesture that attested to the slowly emerging political fundamentalism of the new nationstate even before the Jacobin takeover, was imposed on Catholic priests in the name of a new sovereign, the nation. This sovereign was not Christian (it regarded itself as secular); it had refused earlier to declare Catholicism the national religion, for tactical reasons certainly, but also for reasons of principle.[27] And yet, at the same time, it felt it had a prerogative to legislate on all issues of religious doctrine.

Was the breach, at least in the early period of the conflict, reparable? In other words, was the conflict merely tactical in character, a matter of the revolutionaries' lack of prudence? The alliance of church and Revolution was undoubtedly a fact for a very short period, and sustaining this alliance seemed on the surface to be one of the feasible options. I am convinced, however, that the idea of a long-term alliance between church and Revolution was illusory right from the start, and the clash concluding in violence and terror was necessary, at least by the then-existing premises of the revolutionaries. The rift had firm roots in the very structure of the revolutionary ideology, most particularly in the idea of popular sovereignty as it then transpired.


Popular sovereignty started to emerge as a theroetical problem at the very moment it ceased to be a polemical concept used against a monarch whose existence as a sovereign could never be in doubt.[28] Arendt called it an outright tautological concept (over whom can the people be sovereign? she asked). She suspected that the term had only been preserved in order to activate occasionally the inherent totalitarian features of democracy: the oppression of a dissenting minority in the habitual fashion of sovereigns.[29] The undeniable tension in the very structure of the term stems from the fact that it had indeed retained the duality that was so brilliantly analyzed by Kantorowicz concerning the "King's two bodies." One of these bodies is natural; the other is transcendental—supernatural. The first can be the vessel of a criminal, tyrannical, or sick soul. Yet the other body is sacred in a dual sense: it is inviolable, barred from sacrilegious hands because it is annointed by God, and it is the repository of the Christian ideas inherent in sovereignty.

In the new concept of sovereignty, borrowed from the monarch by the victorious peuple , a similarly dual body of the new ruler was incarnate. The "natural part" was embodied in the empirically existing citizens and their elected agencies which together constitute the "body politic." This body had both the advantage and the disadvantage of being a body only in a metaphorical sense. It had the great pragmatic advantage of being imperishable; for example, it could not be decapitated like the king in his natural person. On the negative side, in the merely metaphoric body of the collective sovereign, its will was never unequivocal. It invariably transpired as the awkward aggregate of individual volitions and opinions which could only be summarized by a clumsy political arithmetic. In addition, the collective body politic had at least as many sources of "erroneous functioning" as the single body politic of the monarch. Le peuple could just as easily have a poor judgment in the selection of its agents and could thereby alienate its own inalienable rights just as the prince had. It could get entangled in internecine strife that made the body politic ungovernable. It could be possessed of various kinds of political furies that made it its own worst enemy, driving the citizens into the collective political hysteria of nous ne voulons pas être libres . It might easily become a menace to other collective body politics as well as the tyrant of its own dissenting minority.

For this reason, another supranatural—metaphysical body politic is needed as a principle of correction. In addition to the actual—empirical rule of the people, the idea of the popular sovereignty is necessary. It is no exaggeration to call it supranatural. It is meant to be immortal in the sense that it was not supposed to vanish even if every single member of the empirical body politic rejected it in a moment of political hysteria or if the people's representatives ruled as tyrants and banned the use of the term. Furthermore, in this metaphysical domain, the dispersion of pragmatic wills no longer presented a problem; here general will ruled and legislated.


It is small wonder, then, that the newly conceived idea of sovereignty was irreconcilable with the old Christian idea of the sovereign's supranatural body as a copy of the hierarchical character of the Christian universe. Nor is it surprising that in moments of political exaltation and "enthusiasm" (the latter was to become a key concept of Robespierrism), the new sovereign was regularly blown out of all proportion, even sacralized in the new political metaphysics. For the sacralizing of the political or the project of "redemptive politics" is inherently present in the dualistic structure of popular sovereignty, as is, of course, the idea of the constitution, an entirely rational answer to all enigmas of the "empirical body" of the collective sovereign.

The rationalizing fury of the first revolutionary wave intended to homogenize the whole social and political body under the sign of the metaphysics of la nation . It recognized no deviations (or to use the Weberian term, spheric rationalities) not only because it perceived them as so much stubborn and resistant irrationality in disguise, but also because it suspiciously sensed in them the hydra of corporatism and the relapse into the presocietal condition of estates. The rationalizers had to sanctify, and thus mystify, the new sovereign to such an extent that, by their tyrannical overrationalization, they also prepared the ground for the most irrational type of politics: the redemptive one. The end result of doctrinaire rationalization and tyrannical functionalization was the complete fiasco of the church policy of the Revolution.

The term fiasco has to be qualified in several aspects. True enough, the outcome of the clash between church and Revolution was a major disappointment on both sides; not just for the revolutionaries, but also for the counterrevolutionaries. A nationwide civil war with one side under the banner of a humiliated Catholic church never broke out. Instead, the civil war was restricted to the Vendée. In the heat of the clash, however, an irreconcilable schism between left and right was created in France which lasted for almost two centuries. Experts unanimously agree that almost until the late 1970s—early 1980s (when the pattern began to change), a Catholic vote was a rightist vote and vice versa.[30] Furthermore, the revolutionaries very soon came to realize that they had paid a heavy price in creating a state agency that was useless for them on all counts. This applied even to the "plebeian" or democratic wing of the reformed and nationalized church. The constitutional church never succeeded in embracing the majority of the believers and, instead of defusing the religious opposition, its very existence brought back the atmosphere of the religious wars in France together with the category (and the concomitant passion) of heresy. The religious schism undermined Gallicanism, the work of a long line of monarchs (which the Revolution had actually planned to bring to fruition) and brought back an unexpected protagonist absent from the French political scene for two centuries: the pope. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the fury of rationalizing dogmatism activated that aspect of the new order which has been termed by Talmon


"totalitarianism in democracy" or "totalitarian democracy."[31] When Treilhard silenced the opposition during the debate on the Civil Constitution by saying that, when the sovereign deems a reform necessary, no one can oppose it,[32] it was the language of Louis XIV and of future totalitarian dictators. It reduced the citizens to the status of mere subjects.

The result of this fiasco transpired, both in the political elite and at the social bottom, in the form of a deep disillusionment with rationalization and political secularization. Tyrannical rationalization and functionalism, acting on the belief that it was crowning the venerable tradition of the Enlightenment, had created a political and spiritual vacuum that came to be filled by violent dechristianization, an anarchist scenario, and a new political religion that was an explicit critique, as well as a partial rejection, of political reason. This is why, in my view, the story of the Cult of the Supreme Being has to be understood as not merely related to the fiasco of the revolutionary church policy but also as a direct response to it.

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Nine The Cult of the Supreme Being and the Limits of the Secularization of the Political
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