Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Modernity: The Return of Manicheanism

"The priest is the law, prohibition, forbiddance," wrote the Abbe Larichesse of Cantal in an 1865 study of confession. Familiar with claims that people avoided church because its doctrines ignored human passions, he did not see laxity as a valid remedy. No wonder that, by 1883, we find the public prosecutor at Grenoble noting that the reserve and mistrust with which the peasants of Isere treated their priests was "a form of self-defense" against the clergy's attempts to trespass on their freedom of conscience in newly reserved domains like family affairs and politics. An article in a clerical review published in the last year of the century summed it all up: "The clergy is unpopular. To men of the people the priest is by definition a hostile being." It was in this guise that many priests worked hard to saw off the branch on which they sat.
Interestingly, Weber devotes two chapters in his book on the transformative changes in the relationship between the clergy and the laity bought about by the process of modernisation. Weber sees the transformation arising as consequence and confluence of many factors,  both internal and external to the clergy themselves.  But I think the important point to remember is that prior to modernity, the Church was in equilibrium with the agricultural society of Europe, the process of modernisation destroying this equilibrium. Relgious commentators tend to see the Church as a victim of modernity, but it wasn't like the Church was passive in these events, it seemed to have responded wrongly and thus further damaged its situation. 

The French revolution had polarised society and established a militant anti-clerical element in it, and its easy to blame the dissolution of religion on forces which openly sought to undermine the Church. Yet this line of reasoning tends to neglect some of the self-destructive actions which the Church took.  Clearly, it mistook what it was up against. Much Christian literature on the subject of secularisation tends to focus on the philosophical dimension of this battle, ignoring the sociological dimensions which were far more corrosive to everyday belief.
Thus clerical or anticlerical politics affected the popular mind indirectly. They helped to sap tradition and disintegrate practices that had been part of life for centuries. But political arguments as the cities knew them would not and could not engage the countryside until the country mind had shifted to the wavelength of the city. This would take a long time. Meanwhile, the existence, the pervasiveness, the vigilance of politico-religious conflicts discredited what had long been undisputed and advanced alternative attitudes. As the century ended, a portion of clerical opinion recognized the  counterproductive effect of political involvement. My own belief is that pettier factors, more closely linked with the personality of the priest and his relations with the  community, contributed at least as much to calling him into question.
It's here where  Weber--and Pope Francis-- seem to have a far more intuitive grasp of the problems of Christianity than many realise. Just as all politics is local, all religion is personal, and the line of argument that Weber advocates is that personal factors rather than philosophical arguments were far more influential when it came to dissolution of religious belief.

Even in pre-Modern times there was tension between the priest and the people. He notes that one of the perennial problems that faced the priest was that of securing an adequate income. This created a tension with the laity who resented the contributions that they were effectively forced to make, especially in the environment of constrained means that many of the rural French lived in. Once again it wasn't the decisive factor but it was one which pushed people away.
The priest often appears as tyrant or exploiter, manipulating his monopoly of the essential rites of passage. Thus, at Bouan (Ariege) the gendarmes reported that he expected gifts or refused the holy sacraments and would not attend the dying, however poor they were, unless he was first paid nine francs. Nine francs in 1862 was a great deal of money! What little success Protestantism had in the countryside at mid-century reflected the peasants' attempts to escape from the high fees exacted by some priests. In Yonne,(Ariege), the Limousin, we hear that "the popular classes" were turned away by clerical demands for money. Protestantism was cheap. A novel about the Limousin countryside (written by a priest) records frequent grumbles about the cost of masses, burials, and other services. A Protestant sympathizer remarks that the Protestant minister provides his parishioners a bench to sit on and a stove to warm the chapel, advantages that one did not find in the Catholic church
There were, however, other factors at play:
The consoling cleric undoubtedly existed, but when we meet the priest he is always saying no. No drinking on the Sabbath, or in periods when a mass is being said, or while processions pass. No Sunday morning markets. Too many pigs-disgusting animals; people feast on them when they should be fasting. The fishermen work on Sundays, the priests persuade fish merchants not to buy fish on that day. The reactions were expectable. At Usclades (Ardeche), the priest entered the local tavern to silence "certain songs," but had to retreat under a barrage of insults, followed by snowballs! In a village nearby the priest ran out of church to put an end to a noisy farandole troubling the evening prayers, broke the drum with his fist, and barely escaped lynching. Men were becoming less willing to accept this kind of interference, and even less willing to admit the priest's right to interfere in their private lives.
Weber notes that there was a change in the nature of the French clergy during the 19th Century resulting in it become more austere. It went puritan.
One thing it sought to lick-and with a determination that cost it even greater popular sympathies-was the festival and the vulgar rejoicing that accompanied it[ED]. In Morbihan a local man of letters expressed regret in 1863 that priests, who once, far from condemning dancing, had given it tacit approval by coming to watch and applaud, had become rigorous and reproving. The permissive priest of yore was gone. For the new, stern cure, popular feasting went on for far too long. [ED] It kept a man from work not only while it lasted, but while he painfully recuperated in its aftermath. In any case, as the Oc ditty had it, "There is no feast without a morrow." A feastday was likely to run into two or three, its participants carried away by the unaccustomed respite. What was much worse was the abandoned behavior: the unchaste dress of women and lewdness of the men, the return home at dawn, the drunkenness and debauchery without measure.
There has been some discussion whether the "Jansenism" of many graduates of nineteenth-century seminaries contributed to what has been called deChristianization- itself a misleading term if it suggests more than the abandoning of church rituals. As early as 1828 an old Yonne priest, trained before the Revolution, had criticized his younger colleagues: "The young reformers of humankind flatly refuse absolution to all but girls who do not dance and lads who never go to taverns ... and in this way they avoid the trouble of confessions." Doubtful about this view, Latreille and Remond remark that after all this was no more than "a certain moral rigorism or harshness, ... frequent in that clerical generation." Yet moral rigorism should not be underrated when its effects touched every aspect of popular observance and turned the priest into a killjoy [ED]-a resident and interfering Mrs. Grundy.
We have seen that straitened means condemned the priests to rapacity. There was less excuse for their authoritarianism. The best historian of the French priesthood in the nineteenth century, Father Joseph Brugerette, has attributed the unpopularity of priests to their "absolutist and retrograde ideas," which in his view ran counter to the ideals of greater social and political independence that were gaining ground. My own view is that the tendency toward independence, itself a product of novel possibilities, did not suggest rebellion against the priest or a complete break with him; it simply made it possible. Like the stern schoolteacher, the authoritarian priest was the product of an authoritarian family in an authoritarian society. They would all be challenged in due course, when  opportunity offered. The priest's immediate problem was not that he was too absolutist, but that he was less retrograde than the villagers he sought to direct. Venality lost friends, but attempted reform lost more.
What's interesting to see here is the transformation of French Catholicism from a "traditionally" more permissive variety into a more austere one. Weber raises the subject of Jansenism as being a potential source of this transformation, but in my opinion pseudo-Jansenism i.e Manicheanism is the more likely culprit.  Faced with the challenge of the modernity the Church retreated into a an austere spirtuality as a means of escape.
"Modern" religion extolled new cults (the Virgin, the Blessed Heart of Jesus, the Holy Sacrament) over familiar ones, and sought to purify practice. The clergy had always shown a certain hostility to popular rejoicing as essentially pagan; feasting was gross, libertine, leading to violence and keeping peasants away from church services. Unable to eliminate such feasts, the Church incorporated them but did not cease to treat them with suspicion [ED]. Around mid-century the hierarchy set about purification. Balazuc, in Ardeche, boasted a Confrerie de Saint-Antoine (better known as the Fraternity of the Cow, because its members killed one every year and distributed its meat to the poor). In 1845 the priest found the fraternal banquets were too washed down with wine and suppressed the confrerie. His action set off a riot, but it was final in Balazuc and representative of a wider trend. Religious congregations and fraternities, especially penitents, had lost sight of their original purpose, which was to aid the poor, bury the indigent, honor their members in death. They had become social and drinking societies-blancs le matin et gris le soir, they said in Velay-or political clubs, their chief public function restricted to marching in processions wearing colorful, awesome robes and hoods. "This form of devotion no longer corresponded to the mentality of the population," commented a canon. Certainly not to the mentality of reforming clergymen. Far gone in their worldly ways, the penitents were reformed to death and left to expire slowly in the first two decades of the Third Republic. They were replaced with  associations specifically dedicated to prayer and to pious works. The result was a setback on both sides: the new associations, which the clergy sponsored, sometimes wilted or died; meanwhile, the old groups, abandoned by the clergy, withered badly also. "In a few years," wrote Edward Harrison Barker in 1893, "there will be no Blue Penitents at Figeac. As the old members of the confraternity die, there are no postulants to fill their places.
This is an extraordinary passage which shows the damage an "excessive sprituality" can inflict on a public faith. It also shows the symbiotic nature of spirituality and corporeal practice. Separate one from the other and they both die, and it's a great example of what happens when you try to clericise the laity. Reading these passages makes me want to go Protestant. Where, for goodness sake, is dancing prohibited in the Bible, or reasonably derived from it? An yet this is what a generation of clergy thought of as sin. It wasn't moral rigorism as much as it was a distortion of Christianity.
Dancing, in any case, competed with the contemplation and the prayer that should command Sundays-the day of the Lord. "Today Sunday does not belong to the Lord, but to dancing," sighed La Semaine religieuse of Montpellier in 1877. But Sunday brought for most the only intermission in hard labor. They wanted to enjoy it as they could, and there was a widespread custom that after mass or vespers people danced. Priests denounced this, and also railed against the reels and jigs that joined on saints' feast days and pilgrimages. They tended to react to local fiddlers as if they were unclean sinners. We hear of one in Vernajoul (Ariege) who made a scene when the minstrels scheduled to play during the afternoon's celebrations of the Emperor's Day, August 15, escorted the mayor to church service in the morning. The report of the incident cites "his well-known feelings against music, dancing,.........A folklorist of the 1880's expressed regret at the oversensitivity of priests and warned that when these diversions held on pilgrimage days ended, the pilgrimages would end too. He was not fundamentally wrong. Pilgrimages endured, but when they were no longer part of popular rejoicings they represented only a religion from which the life had been drained away. Moreover, the danger to such institutions of the Church was all the greater because the Church was becoming more dispensable. Around 1900 the priest of Morette (Isere) refused absolution to a girl unless she promised to give up dancing. "If you don't want to give it, keep id" answered the girl.
Modernity gave people options, but the Manichean transformation of the Church worked to repel them from the old order. The destruction of the the faith was not a one sided affair. Many were working from within to undermine the old order.