The Age of Revolution and the Catholic Church

By Rev. John Trigilio, Rev. Kenneth Brighenti

The 18th century witnessed the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in England. The American and French Revolutions also occurred during this time. Many new ideas and concepts were being introduced into philosophy, religion, and society, and these ideals were embodied in a movement called the Enlightenment. The age of revolution had begun.

The French Revolution’s effect on the Church

Freemasons, rationalists, and philosophers supported the extremes of the Enlightenment, laying the cornerstone for the French Revolution. In addition, many of the French aristocracy and some corrupt monarchs had oppressed the common people for too long. Unfortunately, the Church in France had become too closely bound with the state. A pronounced division existed between the upper clergy (bishops and cardinals) and the lower clergy (priests).

In 1789, the atmosphere began to change in France. Church land was taken over by the government with the understanding that the state would take care of the clergy. The following year, all monasteries and convents were suppressed. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was enacted, and one-third of the dioceses were done away with.

In 1793, the Reign of Terror began, resulting in the execution of many (often innocent) people during the French Revolution. King Louis XVI was deposed and put to death. Hatred for the Church reached the point of insanity. Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites (1957), a famous opera, highlights the ill effects of the French Revolution. Based on a true story, the opera portrays cloistered Carmelite nuns who refused to take the new oath and submit to the laws of suppression. It finally led them to the guillotine. This was all too common in France during that time. The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, a bastion of French Catholicism, was reduced to a barracks for animals, and a statue of the goddess of reason replaced the one of the Virgin Mary.

Napoleon came to power in France and saw that the French people were basically Catholic at heart. He tried to win them to his side by making pseudo and bogus overtures to the Catholic Church. In 1801, he signed a concordat (Vatican treaty) with Pope Pius VII giving back Church property seized during the French Revolution and the infamous Reign of Terror. He went so far as to have the pope come to Paris and crown him emperor in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. With audacious pride, he grabbed the crown from the aged pope and literally crowned himself and then his Empress Josephine.

The Revolution drastically changed Catholicism forever — not only in France but also throughout Europe. The people of France were able to declare themselves non-Catholic or non-Christian. By the creation of a civil state, divorce became acceptable. Anti-clericalism and atheism later flourished in a country that was once called the Eldest Daughter of the Church.

The restoration of the monarchy and Church to France

The 19th century saw the restoration of the monarchy to France after the fall of the Emperor Napoleon and the chaos of the Reign of Terror. Absolute monarchies in Europe were being replaced with Constitutional ones that preserved tradition while maintaining some form of representative government, like Parliament.

Catholic schools, convents, monasteries, and seminaries were reopened. Great attention was given to clerical formation. As a result of the new freedom, the Church enjoyed a sense of renewed optimism. New religious communities were established, and new parishes and new dioceses were created. A revival in devotion commenced, and the Church believes that two great spiritual events occurred:

  • In 1858, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared 18 times to a poor peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes. Even now, hundreds of thousands of people flock to Lourdes for spiritual renewal or a miracle.
  • The little town of Ars, France, became the home of one the holiest parish priests, St. John Vianney (1786–1859). He didn’t belong to any religious order, like the Dominicans or Franciscans. Rather, he was a diocesan priest, the first diocesan priest to be canonized. Today, he’s the patron saint of all parish priests. His work and evangelization became a hallmark to be studied and copied by every priest.

The Oxford Movement in England

In England, with the Act of Emancipation in 1829, the Catholic Church was allowed freedom of worship — something that had been denied since the Reign of Henry VIII. As a result, a great renaissance in the faith occurred. Religious communities were able to come from Italy and preach, teach, and commence devotions.

At this time, a great revival also occurred in the Anglican Church, the official Church of England. It was known as the Oxford Movement (1833–1845), and it attempted to recapture many Catholic doctrines and to introduce many of the customs, traditions, rituals, pageantry, and color of the Catholic Church. Up until then, the Anglican Church had leaned toward the Puritan style: few vestments and little use of liturgical colors, statues, candles, and so on. In other words, the Oxford Movement attempted to Romanize belief and worship while retaining the Anglican identity.

One of the great supporters of this movement was Blessed John Henry Newman. An Anglican minister and professor at Oxford, he became influenced by the Catholic Church and later converted to Catholicism. He then became a cardinal and joined the Oratory of St. Philip Neri.

A revival of Catholicism was beginning in England.

Catholicism in the New World

In the New World, the Catholic Church was firmly planted in French Canada and Spanish Central and South America, but in the Protestant colonies of England that would eventually become the United States, the Catholic Church grew slowly in the face of anti-Catholic prejudice and bias.

In 1792, Fr. John Carroll became the first bishop of the United States in Baltimore, Maryland, which had been colonized by Lord Calvert, a Catholic. From this colony, the Catholic faith spread by a priest who celebrated Mass secretly in Catholic homes during this time of persecution. Fr. Ferdinand Farmer provided for the spiritual and sacramental needs of Catholics already living in the colonies up to New York. By his hard work and effort, many converts were made, and by 1808, a new diocese was established in New York, Philadelphia, Bardstown (KY), and Boston.

The conversion of St. Elizabeth Ann Bailey Seton, a wealthy Episcopalian, to Catholicism saw the establishment of a new religious community devoted to education: the Sisters of Charity. The Episcopalian Church is the American — post revolution — version of the Anglican Church in England. In 1791, the first American seminary and Catholic college were established: St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The early 19th century saw an increase in many orders dedicated to education, such as the Christian Brothers, Brothers of the Holy Cross, the Religious Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill, Sisters of St. Francis, and the Xaverian Brothers.

Nuns and brothers of the immigrants’ own nationality followed the different waves of immigration. These nuns and brothers were able to speak the immigrants’ own language, making it possible for their children to enter into the life of the New World without losing their faith. The New World was a new continent on which to reestablish the Catholic Church.

But during the 19th century, with the increase of immigration from Catholic countries of eastern, southern, and central Europe, as well as Ireland, bigotry against Catholics increased. In New York, the Know Nothing party was established, and it provoked riots and the burning of Catholic churches. In Boston, convents were burned down. The Ku Klux Klan, which became very powerful in the 1920s, included Catholics and Catholic churches on its list of targets, along with Jews and African Americans.

However, by the end of the 19th century, the Church was firmly planted and rooted in the American soil. And in the early part of the 20th century, the United States wasn’t considered missionary territory anymore.