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On the day after François Fillon’s victory in the Republican primary in France last November, the leftist daily Libération’s headline was: “Help, Jesus is coming back!” The reason for this distress call was that Fillon is known as a practicing Catholic, a faithful husband (unusual among contemporary politicians), and a regular visitor of the Solesmes Benedictine abbey, the symbol of the allegedly reactionary neo-medieval nineteenth-century religious revival. Worse, he is supported by many of the militants who organized the spectacular (albeit vain) mass demonstrations against the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2013.

In hindsight, Libération’s cry for help did not betray panic among secularists; it announced their determination to torpedo Fillon’s candidacy. Within weeks, Fillon was accused in the muckracking press of doing what most politicians in all parties do: putting his wife and children who toiled for him on salaried jobs—which is illegal only if no actual work is done. A prosecutor was swiftly appointed by the Socialist government and predictably indicted the conservative opposition leader. The charges remain disputable, to say the least. There have been no reports of either public or private institutions that paid salaries to members of Fillon’s family. Details of the preliminary investigation were leaked to the media, which then added new accusations.

Fillon has acknowledged that hiring family members had been unwise, and has apologized for it. But he has been unable to brush away suspicions of dishonesty. Prior to the scandal, he had been the front-runner for the presidency; currently he is third, behind Le Pen and the centrist Emmanuel Macron.

The charge of corruption against Fillon was not just a political dirty trick. It was motivated by ideology, and it reflects hostility to Christianity in various circles where religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, is seen as an infantile disease. This is not only the idea of half-repentant Marxists still eager to rail against “the opium of the masses,” or of other left-leaning materialists. Aversion to Christianity can also be found on the extreme right, with its mystique that despises love and mercy, and among centrists whose moderation assimilates faith to fanaticism.

Marine Le Pen, the populist National Front’s candidate, is also accused of placing party workers on the payroll of the European Parliament, of which she is an elected member. But she has not been persecuted as savagely as Fillon. One reason is that she appeared to be less of a threat: She was expected to make it to the second round and then to lose. But the main reason the media have hounded Le Pen less fiercely than Fillon is that she is no enemy of “progress” in the area that matters most to “enlightened” people: the so-called sexual liberation. She is twice divorced and “gay-friendly.” She cannot and does not claim to be a good Catholic.

Hostility to the Church is not new in France. Some historians point out that the country has never been thoroughly evangelized. Missions in the provinces were necessary until the nineteenth century, when growing secularism eventually forced the clergy to retreat on defensive positions. After the baptism of the Frankish king Clovis by bishop Rémi of Reims in 496 A.D. (considered the birth of the nation), the Church tended to bank on royal power, providing the monarchy in return with an aura of sacredness (sometimes against the pope in times of “Gallicanism”) and obedient subjects. The founding alliance between throne and altar was challenged—first during the Reformation (when Protestant aristocrats threatened the national unity laboriously achieved in the Middle Ages under the kings), then more seriously in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the rise of the bourgeoisie, the new wealthy merchant class.

The French Revolution does not make sense without the preexisting weight of the new rich in society and their hatred of both the régime and the Church that supported it. Because they were not allowed into the gentry (as was the case in England, for example), wealthy commoners bankrolled free-thinking intellectuals. Those writers produced stories, plays, and pamphlets that spread among the lower classes the notion that poverty and famine are due to the unfair social order guaranteed by the established religion. A mob stormed the Paris convent in which hundreds of priests and monks had been detained as “enemies of the nation” in September 1792, and butchered them all. That mob did not come from nowhere. Neither did the crowds who cheered as harmless nuns were guillotined for no other reason than their religious vows.

Napoleon, who unexpectedly emerged from the revolutionary chaos, bought peace by recognizing Catholicism as “the religion of the majority of the French.” But he also granted official recognition to Protestants and Jews so as better to control them. This made it easy for the secularists who were in power a century later to denounce and revoke the Concordat he had signed with the Holy See. Of course the clergy and their flocks had since the Revolution been remarkably consistent in betting on the wrong political horses. They supported all the successive régimes of the nineteenth century, before turning against them as they proved to be either too authoritarian or too liberal: successively the Napoleonic empire, a restored then a less absolute monarchy, a second republic, a second empire …

After a weakened Napoleon III lost the war into which the Prussians had snared him in 1870, Catholics would have preferred a second restoration, but a third republic based on the ideals of the 1789 Revolution finally prevailed in the popular vote. They failed to accept it (although Pope Leo XIII had advised them to), and the 1905 separation of state and Church was facilitated by two simultaneous crises: Catholics were once more on the wrong side in the Dreyfus affair, which tore the country apart, and the repression of “modernist” exegesis and theology suggested that faith was incompatible with reason and science.

Since they were patriots, French Catholics fought in World War I, ignoring Pope Benedict XV; but they continued losing political and cultural ground, until the Germans came back in 1940 and brought about the archconservative anti-Semitic Vichy régime, which many clergy and faithful welcomed, again mistakenly. They didn’t much like de Gaulle, even though he was one of them, and they were slowly marginalized after World War II, as economic growth and urbanization sapped the rural Church structures, and Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud became the new intellectual luminaries confirming that Christianity was doomed.

In recent decades, the belief that Catholicism is not only outdated but harmful has been based on sex rather than politics. Modernity considers its fights for divorce, contraception, and abortion decisively won, and now it seeks to impose the acceptance of all kinds of sexual activity in the name of the rights of minorities. In these circumstances, the Church is more than ever the enemy.

Most French citizens are not actively hostile to Christianity. They are simply indifferent to a religion they know less and less about. But there exist a few very effective lobbies eager to discredit the Church. This eagerness to eliminate religion now bumps into the unforeseen expansion of Islam, which formally denies that secularization is irresistible. But this is no reason to spare Catholicism, since it cannot help control Muslim fanaticism and remains an easier target.

France is no exception among formerly Christian nations. Murderous anticlerical rage surfaced in Mexico and during the Spanish Civil War. And the European Union’s refusal to acknowledge any spiritual roots shows that anti-Christianity is not limited to dogmatic militants but is widespread among the Old World’s “enlightened” élites.

This state of affairs does not justify pessimism. World-class Christian artists may have required the support of a civilization where faith was omnipresent, providing both a favorable environment and a source of inspiration. But embattled national Churches, no less than triumphant ones, have produced missionaries, saints, and theologians. In France, the rise of secularism around 1900 coincided with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and the conversions of Péguy, Claudel, and Maritain. The twentieth century’s totalitarianisms coexisted with Bernanos, de Lubac, Daniélou, Congar, and Bouyer. Some of today’s internationally renowned French philosophers (Jean-Luc Marion, Rémi Brague) are Catholics. The Church bears fruit also when it is misunderstood and scorned. She will not be unopposed until the end of times. This is one of the lessons of Christ’s Cross.

Jean Duchesne is emeritus professor at Condorcet College and a special advisor to the Archbishop of Paris.

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