Did Napoleon Start the Road to Vatican II? Maybe. See "Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis " Discussion Part 1
I spent this past weekend involved in two things: watching the U.S. Open Golf Tournament which was on TV here on the East Coast from suppertime till midnight for four straight nights, and during the afternoons reading my second killer history book this month, Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis  by John T. McGreevy. The golf tournament was exhilarating—an upset winner by one stroke—but the book is more discomfiting because [a] it is thinning my herd of sacred cows, and [b] the last third of the book covers my lifetime, a very troubling thing when you still feel young enough to be making history.
McGreevey’s book deserves a lot of attention and discussion. I review books for Amazon, which you may see posted from time to time, but I have a 1,000-word limit on those submissions. [My last review was my 190th with Amazon, dating to 2000.] But in many cases a book deserves a multi-faceted discussion, necessitating a brief Amazon summary for its book site and a longer treatment on the Café blogsite, which has no word limit beyond human compassion and exhaustion. Catholicism deserves a lot of thought and soul searching. I suppose the first question would be the relationship of the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon to the era of Vatican II?
McGreevy is not the first historian to begin a modern church narrative with Napoleon. In his What Happened at Vatican II Father William O’Malley begins with a lengthy overview called “The Long Nineteenth Century” in which he essentially dates the moving forces for Vatican I and Vatican II from the era of the French Revolution, which is dated from 1789. The French Revolution—caused in part by French government bankruptcy incurred, ironically, assisting the American Revolution—created a chain of events in Western Europe that ended what is often called “the marriage of throne and altar,” or the interlocking of church and state. After the Napoleonic Wars there was a shift across Western Europe from the older absolute monarchy model toward representational or democratic government with an emphasis upon independence from churches, particularly Roman Catholicism. Coupled with this was the emergence of strong grassroots nationalism and newfound belief in the freedom and conscience of man independent of religious discipline, rooted in the modern philosophies from Descartes to John Locke. In shorthand, the modern secular era had arrived for good.
No two nations went through these processes precisely the same way, and McGreevy’s book discusses variants of the process, but across the board the changing face of the West in the nineteenth century created a major challenge to the power, influence, and authority of the Catholic Church. Recall that at the time of the French Revolution Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were Catholic monarchs surrounded by Catholic aristocrats. The immortal phrase “let them eat cake” came from a Catholic queen to an angry and hungry populace. When the French Revolution took its violent turn, the properties and riches of the Church were seized, and the new transitional government would eventually persecute and execute clergy and religious. Ever since the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, the Church had laid claim to secular as well as religious authority—consider, for example, that when Spain and Portugal began exploration and settlement of the Western Hemisphere after Columbus, Pope Alexander VI [conveniently, for Spain, a Spaniard] drew the famous “Line of Demarcation” to divide the claims of the two nations in the New World in 1493. [His line, incidentally, ultimately created Brazil as a Portuguese-speaking nation.]
What became very clear in the nineteenth century after the French Revolution was the decreasing influence of the papacy in the course of world events. While Napoleon was finally planted in permanent exile on St. Helena, the future of Europe was debated at the Congress of Vienna [1814-1815], which redrew the map of the old Holy Roman Empire through the workings of Metternich and Talleyrand, to cite two famous international diplomats of the day. Although represented in Vienna, the pope was not invited to draw maps as he had three centuries earlier, and few European leaders were disposed to ask him.
The post-French Revolution era was marked by the birth of a liberalism characterized by national identity and pride, greater democratic process, emphasis upon the rights of man, economic free enterprise, and freedom of governments from interference from organized religions, primarily the Roman Catholic Church. McGreevy provides examples of Western liberalization and distrust of a monarchical Catholic Church in such diverse nations as the United States, England, and Italy. By the terms of the founding documents written by the thirteen original colonies, the United States should have been a safe haven for Catholicism, and in many locales the practice of Catholicism was tolerated to a degree.
However, periodic flareups of anti-Catholicism were widespread and deadly. In her 1997 The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862, Carol Sheriff describes the animosity between residents of New York State and the Catholic Irish immigrants, hard fighting and hard drinking Irish Catholics who had come to America to dig the canal from Albany to Buffalo. It is no accident that the “Know Nothing Party,” a powerful third-party xenophobic force in American presidential politics, had deep roots in Western New York. The Wikipedia entry on the Know-Nothings has interesting overtones of recent American electoral politics:
Fearful that Catholics were flooding the polls with non-citizens, local activists threatened to stop them. On August 6, 1855, rioting broke out in Louisville, Kentucky, during a hotly contested race for the office of governor. Twenty-two were killed and many injured. This "Bloody Monday" riot was not the only violent riot between Know Nothings and Catholics in 1855. In Baltimore, the mayoral elections of 1856, 1857, and 1858 were all marred by violence and well-founded accusations of ballot-rigging. In the coastal town of Ellsworth, Maine, in 1854, Know Nothings were associated with the tarring and feathering of a Catholic priest, Jesuit Johannes Bapst. They also burned down a Catholic church in Bath, Maine.
As more Irish, German, and Italian Catholics poured into America throughout the nineteenth century, white Protestant Americans feared that these immigrants were, at heart, loyal to a foreign power, i.e., the pope in Rome, and if the opportunity arose, would take over the United States as a fiefdom of the Papal States. Catholic politicians in the U.S. were accused of representing the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion,” a charge that rumbled through American politics well into the twentieth century. And, if you listen close enough to monied American interests even today, you hear strains that Pope Francis is a socialist who wants to take our hard-earned money and redistribute it south of the equator. The more things change…
In England, the historical memory of Queens Elizabeth and “Bloody Mary” was enough to inflame similar violence against Roman Catholics throughout the post-Napoleonic nineteenth century. Fears—rational or not—of Roman Catholic takeover of the established Church of England were exacerbated by that nation’s own mistreatment of Ireland, highlighted by the Potato Famine, and resulting in protests and immigration.
But by far the most tempestuous impact of the post-Napoleonic era may have been the upheavals in Italy itself, the cradle of the Church. If you are a little rusty on your Italian history, the Wikipedia entry entitled “The Unification of Italy,” often referred to as the Risorgimento, chronicles the civil upheavals of the peninsula in the nineteenth century. Italy had not been a unified nation since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 475 A.D. The papacy—with its hold on “the papal states”—lived in constant conflict with outside intruders dating back to the Goths in the 400’s to the newly minted nation states after the French Revolution. [The Church Council Vatican I was disbanded prematurely in 1870 amidst the canon fire of the Franco-Prussian War on the doorsteps of Rome.] The Risorgimento called for a unified Italy with a measure of self-determination, a direct challenge and threat to papal civil authority and land holdings. Recall that the status of the papal states and some reassure of Church independence in the new, unified Italy was not legally defined until the Church’s Concordat with Mussolini in 1929, an arrangement that deteriorated soon thereafter.
The French Revolution and its aftermath had two opposite effects upon the Church itself. On the one hand, a sizeable segment of Catholic intellectuals in the Western World began to assess a new understanding of Church life in the “modern era.” The nineteenth century may have been a period of international unrest and searches for new national identities, but it was also a time of intellectual and economic explosion. Consider that the century after the French Revolution would see the advent of modern industrialization, scientific expansion, historical and archaeological advances, democratic governments, medicine and psychology, and even the theories of air travel and nuclear power. Coupled with this were new philosophies and methods of understanding the world, from Hegel to Darwin to Marx.
Religions, including Catholicism, could not isolate themselves from the rapid developments of the times. The nineteenth century saw an explosion in religious scholarship in both Protestant and Catholic circles, and it was impossible for Catholic thinkers and leaders to ignore what was happening around them. Possibly no one better embodies the religious complexities of the time or thought more creatively about them than England’s John Henry Newman, the Anglican priest-scholar who converted to Catholicism in 1845.
Newman’s journey to Roman Catholicism was long and complicated. As an idealistic youth his evangelical faith caused him to regard the Catholic pope as the antichrist. In his college years he matured into the mainstream of Anglican faith and scholarship. But convinced that the Church of England stood in need of reform, he joined with other Oxford scholars in a spirited study of the early Church Fathers, which they published as papers or “tracts” that came to be known as the Tractarian Movement or the Oxford Movement. In his studies Newman and many of his confreres came to be believe that the Roman Catholic Church had best embodied the traditions of the Christian roots of the Fathers. He converted to Catholicism and would eventually become a Cardinal of the Church. Newman would become one of the greatest minds of modern Catholicism, and his thought forms the basis of many of Vatican II insights, including his writing on the development of doctrine. He was, in fact, canonized on October 13, 2019, by Pope Francis.
Newman appreciated better than most that Catholicism would need to make considerable accommodations to the scholarship and the spirit of the best of contemporary thought and practice to remain intellectually honest, but he appreciated—far ahead of his time—the challenges we face today as Catholics. In a famous essay on the nature of a university, Newman described the dilemma of the Catholic in the new world at hand:
[From Wikipedia]: Newman believed in a middle way between free thinking and moral authority—one that would respect the rights of knowledge as well as the rights of revelation. His purpose was to build a Catholic university, in a world where the major Catholic universities on the European continent had recently been secularized, and most universities in the English-speaking world were Protestant. For a university to claim legitimacy in the larger world, it would have to support research and publication free from church censorship; however, for a university to be a safe place for the education of Catholic youth, it would have to be a place in which the teachings of the Catholic church were respected and promoted.
Finding the balance of “being in the world but not of it” was one of the significant challenges of Vatican II, but that was still long in the future. For despite the insights of Newman and others, much of nineteenth century Catholicism was governed by two Popes, Pius IX, and Pius X, who saw the Church as the last bastion of a sacred history that must be preserved at all costs, the driving force of the Council Vatican I [1869-1870]. Theirs was the predominant reaction of Catholics to the post-Napoleonic upheavals, the “Ultramontantist Era” [from “the other side of the Alps mountains,” a reference to Rome and the papal states.] In our next discussion of McGreevy’s book, we will immerse ourselves in the Ultramontanist revival, which many of us may recognize as the pre-Vatican II world we grew up with.