Friday, 26 August 2011

Il faut que la France survive 3

So, by the time of the Revolution, we see a French Church:
1) Divided emotionally from the mainstream West by an firm and principled independence—Gallicanism.
2) Weakened by the abuse of the Church's resources, material and spiritual, to benefit the crown and state.
3) Weakened by the Wars of Religion, and the legacy of blood and bitterness.
4) Despised by the intellectual classes of the 'Enlightenment' who find different ways to express religion: Deism, a sort of Roman Revival Classicism, Agnosticism or even Atheism. This group felt themselves profoundly to hold the moral high ground.
5) Internally divided between Jansenism and orthodox Catholicism.
6) And yet still capable of producing saints.

This is what I call the French paradox; that you can have a situation that is from one perspective disastrous, and yet from another perspective, vibrantly alive and functioning. It is as true today as it was then, and I will be returning to this. I think that perhaps it has something to do with the French character, which, simply, is never lukewarm, but is always passionate and tending to the extreme. Rabbi Lionel Blue once described his mother (or perhaps his grandmother) as being the kind of woman who never had a headache; it was always a brain tumour. I don't think the lady was French, but the French, like her, tend to adopt radical positions and defend them passionately.

We see this most clearly in the spirituality of that pre-revolutionary age. On good Gallican principles, France had never implemented the decrees of the Council of Trent, or at least only did so very slowly. But that didn't mean to say that the spirit of reform had passed France by; it just wanted to implement reform in its own way. Dioceses retained their old mediæval rites, but instead of Romanizing them, they further distanced themselves from the mainstream. Inspired by Jansenism, they, for instance, removed from liturgical texts anything that was not strictly scriptural, and warmly approved the findings of the (Pseudo-) Synod of Pistoia, which advocated an awful lot of things that we would be familiar with today.

If you want to know more about Jansenism, Fr Anthony Chadwick has a very good trot-through the subject here.

French spirituality was very popular even outside France until quite recently. Mgr Ronald Knox famously remarked that he needed to read spiritual books in French; no other language would quite do. Sometimes its severity and austerity were characterized as Jansenist, but really I am not sure that all schools of French spirituality didn't have that mark.

As in all other things, the French wanted to do spirituality their own way. International religious orders, like the Jesuits, were not popular in France, and even the (itself very independent) Oratory would be transformed to French taste. The founder of the French Oratory, Cardinal de Bèrulle, approached St Francis de Sales and begged him to lead the new Congregation. St Francis refused, though he professed admiration from afar. One can scarcely think of a wider gulf between his spirituality and that of the French Oratory! One of its greatest luminaries, Père de Condren was described by St Jane Francis de Chantal as having a spirituality more suited for angels than human beings.

Seminaries were finally beginning to be founded at this time (priests were still being formed according to the pre-tridentine model), and the movement for seminary formation took on a huge momentum. Two whole religious congregations were founded to do this job (itself a strange concept of the time, that Religious should form secular priests), both influenced by the French Oratory, one by St Vincent de Paul, and the other by Père Olier, the Sulpicians.

Olier was a hugely apostolic and holy man whose foundation and inspiration provided generations of good and even saintly secular priests in France and Canada. I myself was formed in the only English seminary founded according to Sulpician principles. But the principle was a very strict one indeed. Again, we experience that French extremity.

Corporal mortification, for instance, has always been considered a healthy remedy for sin. But in French spirituality it became almost a good in itself. One would withdraw from every pleasure and comfort, deny all joy unless it be in God alone. Olier taught a strict custody of the eyes, and one day taking seminarians to Chartres on pilgrimage, one lad dared to lift his eyes to the great windows there and involuntarily gasped, expecting a harsh rebuke. But for once Olier said that it was all right to have a quick goggle, as Chartres was built to the glory of God.

This seems to me somewhat inhumane, and very alien to the Irish school in which I was brought up. That one might not look at a tree or a sunset lest it give one pleasure, it seems to me, is contrary to the evidence of God's goodness in his creation. It reflects a real pessimism about creation, that it is somehow totally depraved and incapable of leading us to God. Trent taught that nature (including human nature) was 'in deterius commutatur', changed for the worse, but its inherent goodness was not wiped out.

For the same reasons, extreme forms of mortification were encouraged and admired. This has often been called 'Jansenist', and I'm sure that the Jansenists were very enthusiastic about it, but I think that it also had widespread currency among those who would not call themselves Jansenists. Fr Chadwick in the article linked to above mentions that Jansenism is alive and well in the Society of St Pius X. I wonder, really, if it is really classical Jansenism, or whether it is simply this traditional French extreme approach to spirituality?

A friend, who was for a time a seminarian in the Society, was taken with his year group from Ecône to visit the new preparatory seminary at Flavigny, sited in a former religious house. There they inspected the cemetery and found many graves of men in their late teens and early twenties, worn out, it was explained, by the extremity of their mortifications.* The Rector smacked his lips with satisfaction: 'c'est bon, ça!' he said, 'c'est Catholique!'

* More likely tuberculosis, which was rife in such institutions.


shane said...

I have always found SSPX clergy to be very pleasant and fun-loving! I wonder if the Jansenist accusation against French Catholics generally is overdone. One can after all be a rigorist without being a Jansenist.

Don Henri said...

Dear Father. I was one day said by a Priest that they are two kinds of Jansenism: the doctrinal jansenism, wich is an heresy, and the moral Jansenism wich is a movement in the Church Of France (yes, l'Eglise DE France, and not l'Eglise EN France, and I can defend this point) instisting on various points, such as mortification, the dual nature of the man (the man is nor angel nor beast, Blaise Pascal), and the despicableness of the ego (le "moi" est détestable, Blaise Pascal). The doctrinal Jansenism is bad, the moral Jansenism is good, and very much alive in the French Church. As a soon to be seminarian, with God's help, I am not ashamed to confess its great influence on me. I should add that it also professes a bunch of good ideas about pastoralship of the People of God that were very much modern at that time and that we see again in some "innovations" of the Council Vatican II.
A last word: the loss of the proper rites of the French diocese is certainly a great loss, but we must remind that a lot of "new" prayers of the Novus Ordo are not new at all but come from these Frankish Rites, and particularly their sacramentaries. (And sorry for the bad English! It is not properly taught in French colleges).

Don Henri said...

Also, if you read the French, Archbishop Hippolyte Simon of Clermont explains on the webpage of the French Episcopate(incidentally, as the primary topic of this article is Islam in France) how it is right to say "the Church of France":

Flambeaux said...

Thank you, Father. My wife and I are both finding this series and your previous one on Ireland most enlightening.

It's given us much food for thought and fruitful discussion in our domestic life. And has prompted some serious discussions withour our respective Ghostly Fathers.

Thank you.

Andrew said...

Another terrific and informative post Sean, keep them coming. This "paradoxical" nature you describe so well extends beyond religion into other areas of French culture. One notable example is their diet, well documented as being calorific and high fat yet reflected in high health standards and reportedly the lowest incidence of heart diseases in Europe. Vive La France!

pelerin said...

I have followed the link provided by Don Henri to the article by the Archbishop of Clermont and I see that he explains that it is wrong to say 'Eglise DE France' even if it is in common use. The archbishop writes that for us Catholics, national churches do not exist - there is only one Catholic Church. So I was right to feel uncomfortable at the Priests' mentioning 'l'eglise DE France' recently.

berenike said...

Don Henri, the bishop's article to which you link seems to say (I admit I only looked it over, so perhaps I missed something) the opposite of what you do!

He states at the very outset "il n'est pas juste de parler de l'Eglise de France"!

Unless one were to decided that bishop's conferences really have changed the nature of the church, then the only "units" smaller than the universal church that can be called "church" are the churches sui iuris and dioceses. I think. Anyone?

Have you read the desert fathers?

Bryan said...

There is a very useful site here:

which gives a translation in English of all the Papal condemnations of Jansenism.

Without discussing what the Popes taught all discusion of Jansenism is so much hot air.

Bryan said...

I think it is noteworthy that one can obtain very cheaply copies of the whol of Ludolphus of Saxony's (aka Ludolph the Carthusian's ) VITA CHRISTI in French.

However no translation exists in English apart from Fr Coleridge's 19th Century translation of Ludolph's writings on the Passion.

In the early 1990's I very happily went from the Oxford Catholic Chaplaincy, which was a dresssed up Parish for students and little else to the Catholic Chaplaincy of the Universite d'Assas. At the Parisian University there was a vibrant Catholic student community who used their Chaplaincy as a Junior Common Room. Thousands of students went on the Palm Sunday Pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres each year. The Church in England is meagre and lifeless in comparison to these French Catholic institutions.

GOR said...

”Corporal mortification…”

I wonder if that was a specifically French trait, Father…? The old books on spiritual and religious life expended a lot of ink on that – coming from both Italian and Spanish sources also. The ‘discipline’ – flagellation with a small whip made of cord was still practiced in some Religious Orders up to fairly recently and, for all I know, may still be the practice in places. Custody of the eyes was also strictly enjoined in formation, not to mention care about speech and modesty. Ever seen religious swimming in full habit…?

One of the things I noticed about the Legionaries of Christ in Rome over 40 years ago was this strict discipline (of Spanish origin, in their case). Not just custody of the eyes but avoidance of ‘contamination’ by anyone outside their Order. They couldn’t even talk to seminarians from other Orders – which seemed distinctly odd to me at the time. The lockstep rigidity was palpable – in dress, demeanor and attitude. Of course, given what we know now, that may not be the best example…

Bryan said...

Dear GOR,

I think the Legionnaries were simply continuing a traditional practice of the Society of Jesus. Separation and exclusivity so that the Jesuits look to themselves and their own for their formation and very lives.

St Ignatius says that they are not to pay attention to other orders and they are to cultivate their own piety by taking examples from the Society and not outside. This is a good way of building an esprit de corps. Of course, it also shows Ignatius anti-clerical bias, he wants his men to be Carthusians at home and apostles on mission when they are at their work; there is no time left for clerical camaraderie or gossip.

Anonymous said...

As a former SSPX seminarian, who nevertheless admits how much he owes the SSPX, I must say this French spirituality of the counter-reformation period is one aspect of the traditionalist movement which is not merely dangerous, it is outright poisonous.

It is ultimately not merely neo-platonic, which would be bad enough, it is downright manichean. It also represents, in practice if not in theory, a repudiation of the philosophy of St Thomas and Aristotle.

One can easily appreciate how much of France apostatised in the 18th century - so inhuman a spirituality will only lead to disgust and rebellion. One can therefore also easily appreciate why things went the way they did after Vatican II.

Incidently, this spirituality also provides an eminiently practical, as opposed to theological or legal, justification for the repeal of the law of celibacy - priests who sleep with their wives would have a hard time convincing themselves that they were angels rather than human beings.

+ Wolsey

P.S. Unless this approach to spirituality is wiped out, it has the potential to undermine all the good the traditionalist movement does.

P.P.S. Note I am only talking about this French spirituality, not certain other aspects of French traditionalism such as monarchism, which has my full support.