- La France dans la pensée des papes by Martin Dumont
As reactions to the recent Notre-Dame-de-Paris fire brought once more the question of France's catholicity to the fore, Martin Dumont's timely book revisits the checkered history of the relations between the Hexagon and the Holy See. Unlike current publications about French Catholicism, the author shifts the focus back to Rome. The book adopts the standpoint of the papacy: what did the popes know and think about France? How did they address French political regimes, social transformations, and international influence?
The baptism of Clovis in 496 created a special bond between the kingdom of France and the Catholic Church abruptly interrupted by the French Revolution. Dumont's book examines how the popes related to the "eldest but not the most faithful daughter of the Church" (Pope Francis) after the watershed of 1789. The book provides clear insight to grasp the meaning of a semantic shift forged during the Romantic age of the nation-state: while under the Ancien Régime the king of France was referred as "the eldest son of the Church," only after 1789 this designation encompassed the entire nation as "the eldest daughter of the Church."
Chapters 1 and 2 provide an overview of two centuries of the papacy's relations with France, from Pius VI to Francis: despite political and diplomatic turmoil, Dumont argues, the popes have always regarded France as a privileged repository of Christian vocation. Viewed from Rome, this special election also implied reciprocity and duties. For the popes, French governments had oftentimes dismissed and even despised these responsibilities, especially when the Third Republic engaged in anti-clerical policies culminating in the 1905 law of separation of church and state. As John Paul II put it in his landmark Bourget speech of June 1980: "France, eldest daughter of the Church, are you faithful to the promises of your baptism?" The papacy's special inclination toward France relies, Dumont asserts in chapters 3 and 4, upon the belief in a "Christian vocation of France"—a religious patrimony that situates France at the forefront of Catholic spirituality and intellectual life. The breeding place of well-known saints and Marian pilgrimages, France is also represented in Rome by institutions such as the École Française de Rome, the French seminary, and the cultural center Saint Louis founded by Jacques Maritain after World War II. Chapter 5 examines how the popes situated France's influence within the larger configuration of Vatican diplomatic relations, while chapter 6 explains the pontifical support for vectors of Christian reconquest of French secularized society such as Catholic education and the press. The last and most enlightening chapter discusses the current and controversial resonances of French laïcité and traces a change in pontifical attitudes after Paul VI; as demonstrated by John Paul II and Francis, the papacy's recent acceptance of French secularism offers an interpretation in which religion and the public sphere are distinct but not separated, thus legitimizing Catholic citizens to speak out in political and societal debates. [End Page 581]
Dumont successfully examines together two entangled types of discourse: as statesmen the popes speak to the political representatives of France, while as spiritual leaders they preach to the French faithful. A concise essay rather than a comprehensive monograph, the book brings papal voices to light with fluid writing and a rich body of direct quotations. The work's reliance on pontifical sources tends however to offer a one-sided narrative, while other sources could have added complexity to an overwhelmingly flattering picture. Because of its brevity, the book leaves aside the actual reception of pontifical discourses in France, a dimension which the author had instead well documented in his previous volume on French Catholics' responses to Leon XIII's Ralliement. The book could also further engage with recent developments in the history of global Catholicism, especially on colonialism and imperial networks. In this perspective, historians hope that the opening of the archives of...