While reading Jody Bottum’s reflections on Catholicism and modern France , I found myself disagreeing. I’m inclined to think that we have a great deal to learn from France.
There is, of course, a lesson about the dangers to faith when the Church becomes intertwined with political movements. It is an unfortunate fact that the Catholic hierarchy in turn of the century France was intertwined with the conservative political forces that were implicated in the injustice and subsequent cover-up of the false conviction and imprisonment of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. This close connection discredited the Church, and rightly so, for her leaders simply could not or would not speak the truth about the Dreyfus Affair. Jesus spoke about this: He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.
There are also positive lessons. As a civil society, France managed to fend off the two great ideological temptations of the twentieth century: fascism and communism. Ideological passions were very much present in French public life, but those passions never created death camps, gulags, or systematic political assassinations. Yes, the students famously ruled the streets briefly in May, 1968, but France produced no Baader-Meinhoff Gang, no IRA, no Red Brigade.
Perhaps the reason for the underlying sanity of French political life should be credited to the French intellectual tradition. Throughout the twentieth century, France produced a large body of literature charged with a passionate effort to discern a humane way to live in the disenchanted, ideologically frenzied modern world, providing our era some of the great and lasting moralists of the twentieth century. Albert Camus will be read for a long time, and for good reason.
On the whole, I think a sympathetic reflection on modern French history should play an important part of our efforts to think through a conservative public philosophy for our now postmodern age. France was the first revolutionary society. Whether slowly or suddenly, whether organically or with catastrophic shocks, the entire West has followed this revolution: democracy, the egalitarian ethos, and an increasingly powerful secular state. French society and culture struggled to make sense of life under these revolutionary conditions. It’s a struggle we share.