Back in the mid-nineteenth century, the Catholic Church in France was enjoying a comparatively rare period of public and official favor. Since 1789 the Church had been derided, persecuted, subjected to State control; and Napoleon even imprisoned two of the Popes in his time. Periodic riots and outbreaks of terror had destroyed churches, convents, abbeys, and sent hundreds of clergy, nuns and brothers, and devout laity to prison, exile, or indeed, the guillotine.
Yet in 1849 a nephew of the same Napoleon, Louis Napoleon, had by skill, persistence, and a dash of Bonaparte ruthlessness made himself the first directly elected French Head of State in history ( and the last till 1962) and then in 1852, his uncle’s heir as Napoleon III, sovereign of what history terms The Second Empire. Possessing few, if any; of his “great” uncle’s talents and abilities, this Napoleon also possessed few of his uncle’s vices and cruelty. Married to a devout Spanish noblewoman, the Empress Eugenie, he was friendly to the Church, its mission, and its clergy and history. This was the era of St. Bernadette, and the beginning of the shrine at Lourdes, of the Cure of Ars, of the growth of religious orders ( including the Little Sisters of the Poor), and a revived Catholic social doctrine,as well as support for Pope Pius IX in his struggle against Garibaldi and the Risorgimento. It seemed to many French Catholics that a new era was at hand, and lasting.
However, a great figure of Catholic France, Frederic Ozanam, sounded a warning: Messieurs, let us not think that the State will do our work for us.
He was right. It came crashing down in 1870 and the Church once again went into a darker period of anti-clerical, Masonic, and atheistic mockery and despoliation.
I wonder if we Roman Catholics in America had our “Second Empire moment” in the 1980’s with the presidency of Ronald Reagan and a new social and political conservatism? It was an era in which Roe vs. Wade seemed imminently reversible, social liberalism was in retreat. An era in which the new Polish Pope ( an astounding thing in itself) along with help from the USA could bring down Communism; and “push back” the seeming decline of the Church in the post-conciliar era.
Perhaps we thought “the State” would do our job for us; if only we kept voting for “pro-life Republicans” and “social conservatives” we might create a more Christian, if not more Catholic, America?
30 years later, practically unrestricted abortion is still “the law of the land”; the very definition of marriage itself is altered beyond anything imaginable even a decade ago. Millions of children born into no stable family; in fact in some segments of our national community the illegitimate birth rate is near 70%. Catholic politicians show no fear of crossing the Bishops Conference; as indeed do most laity. It seems that most of us feel that “religion and politics don’t mix” to an extent that public and civic life should be “value free.” Genuinely Catholic faith and practice are in a minority even among those who define themselves as “Catholic.”
Also, most “pro-life” and social conservatives who espouse a religious ethic are not of our religion. Perhaps, never were. Today we see conservative politicians inviting evangelical pastors of “mega-churches” to share platforms with them who have declared Roman Catholicism to be a demonic “cult”. Another one is a practicing member of a denomination that officially teaches that the Papacy is the “anti-Christ”, and yet others are fallen-away Catholics. One defected from the Faith in full knowledge after years of what he described as a serious Mass-going practice of the Faith.
Perhaps we too are entering into a “winter” of declining influence and impact on our society. The old optimism of “morning in America” culture-wise seems to have been without a firm foundation after all.
Ringing across the millennia comes the cry of the Psalmist: Put not your trust in princes in whom is no salvation!
Even good princes…
August 22, 2011.