- Monseigneur Darboy (1813–1871): Archevêque de Paris entre Pie IX et Napoléon III by Jacques-Olivier Boudon
Being the archbishop of Paris was a dangerous job in the nineteenth century. Monseigneur Georges Darboy, the subject of Jacques-Olivier Boudon’s excellent brief biography, was executed as a hostage by forces representing the Paris Commune in May 1871; two of his predecessors, Monseigneurs Affre and Sibour, also died violently—Affre on the barricades of June 1848, Sibour at the hands of a crazed priest in 1857. Boudon’s biography clarifies the details leading up to Darboy’s tragic death, but it also provides an overview of his entire career and thereby brings into focus some of the most important developments in the history of the Church in modern France.
Darboy’s career followed a typical pattern for the nineteenth-century French episcopacy. He was born into a modest family in the Haute-Marne, east of Paris. His intelligence and ambition opened doors to high positions in the Church that would have been a rarity for a nonaristocrat, if not unthinkable, in the eighteenth century. Influenced in his seminary years by Lamennais’s project of marrying “God and Liberty,” Darboy was devoted to the work of reconciling the Church and the modern liberal state, a task that proved difficult during the papacy of Pius IX, with whom he clashed on a number of occasions. Boudon shows, however, the extent to which a liberal Gallican bishop could become an influential figure despite the ultramontane policies of Pius IX. Here Boudon’s biography serves as a case study that exemplifies his earlier and magisterial works, L’Épiscopat français à l’époque concordataire (1802–1905): origines, formation, nomination (Paris, 1996) and Paris, capital religieuse sous le Second Empire (Paris, 2001).
Like many of his episcopal colleagues, Darboy served an apprenticeship as a vicar-general before he became archbishop in 1863. His familiarity with the administrative and pastoral problems of Paris made him an excellent administrator, visiting parishes, expanding the numbers of clergy, and working cooperatively with the French state. But as Boudon points out, Darboy’s own investigations reveal the challenges he faced, with only 15 percent of the population making its Easter duty in the late 1860s. Darboy’s tenure was also troubled by a long-running conflict with the papacy. His defense of Napoleon III’s Roman policy, and his attempt to interpret Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors” in a liberal mode, earned him the enmity of Pius IX, who personally intervened to ensure that the archbishop of Paris would not be named a cardinal. Given his past record, it is no surprise that Darboy was among the leaders of the opposition to the declaration of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council. Boudon’s treatment of Darboy’s activity at Rome reminds us that despite the lopsided result in favor of the declaration, it was preceded by a bitter dispute in which as many as thirty-four (out of eighty-eight) French bishops agreed with Darboy that it was “inopportune.” Darboy nonetheless accepted the decree, [End Page 945] adhering “purely and simply” to the decision of the Council (p. 142)—a conciliatory move that adds to the complexity of his historical legacy.
Darboy left Rome before the final vote and arrived at Paris just as the Franco-Prussian war began. Following the French defeat, he was arrested by the rebellious Paris Commune and held in prison for more than a month. Boudon is characteristically judicious in his analysis of the responsibility for Darboy’s execution, confirming the central role of the virulently anticlerical prosecutor Théophile Ferré, but noting as well the refusal of the government at Versailles to negotiate for the release of the hostages. Boudon sees Darboy’s execution as more of a political than a religious act, a distinction that might not have been perfectly clear to the participants on both sides of the Parisian civil war. In a...