Sunday, July 25, 2021

Charles De Gaulle and Catholicism

“As the French and as Christians we oppose Hitler and fight the fight”

Andre Malraux, de Gaulle's polymath Minister of Cultural affairs once said of him. "He talks a lot about France, very little about God" and it is in this vein that many of his biographers have approached his life. De Gaulle is primarily thought of as a political person, yet that is to misunderstand the man for de Gaulle was profoundly religious. Catholicism is often thought of a showy, flashy religion yet that was not the case of the de Gaulle who was quite reserved about it, keeping it a very private affair.  The other reason why this dimension of is neglected is because the type of faith he had was out of sync with contemporary notions of religion.

When we think of a religious lay man, we tend to think of someone like Robert Schuman: aescetic, in prayer, "churchy", gentle and seeking "peace". De Gaulle, on the other hand, was combative, rude and fiercely nationalist. Someone we wouldn't necessarily associate with being serious about his faith. A yet this would be to misunderstand the man because he was sincerely religious but  he wasn't a church groupie. And here I think we touch the crux of the matter. Our conceptions of religiousness have been so conditioned by the "monkish aesthetic" that we fail to recognise his religious dimension. Yet perhaps this failure in recognising the "holiness" of De Gaulle, seeing him mainly as a political person, lays more in our mistaken conceptions of holiness rather than the actions of de Gaulle.

Samuel Gregg has written an excellent article on his faith which I would urge you to read. Sam writes:

Until recently, de Gaulle’s Catholicism was an understudied topic. In his influential threevolume biography of de Gaulle published in the 1980s, Jean Lacouture portrayed it as something to which de Gaulle held primarily as a matter of French identity rather than deep faith.

Over the past thirty years, that interpretation has collapsed. Books including Gérard Bardy’s Charles le Catholique: De Gaulle et l’Église (2011), Laurent de Gaulle’s Une Vie Sous le Regard de Dieu: La Foi du Général de Gaulle (2015), and the conference proceedings collected in Charles de Gaulle, chrétien, homme d’État (2011) have illustrated that de Gaulle was a believing Catholic who accepted the Church’s teachings without much fuss. The real question is how this commitment shaped de Gaulle’s thought and action.......

The answer: quite a lot. De Gaulle was a deeply sincere Catholic, but why this is so difficult to recognise is that his Catholicism was peculiar and once you begin to realise the peculiarity of it, a lot of de Gaulle's political actions become quite easy to understand. Roosevelt once mocked de Gaulle saying "he thinks he's Joan of Arc" but here Roosevelt was on the money. Because de Gaulle's Catholicism was of the same nature as that of St Joan, it was, in a sense, medieval and not modern.  His efforts to liberate France need to be understood as personal crusade, with all the medieval religious elements that it entertains.

Lacouture, a biographer,  held that de Gaulle was Catholic because he was French, but that's not how de Gaulle would have seen it. His Catholicism is what amplified his Frenchness and not the other way around. Unlike modern Catholicism which demphasises identity, de Gaulle's emphasised it. His version of Catholicism was pushing against the stream of contemporary christian culture. His Christianity was nationalistic, identitarian and militant.

De Gaulle's peculiar version of  Catholicism meant that his relationship with French Catholicism was sometimes quite difficult.  With the Fall of France, many of the Catholic senior clergy enthusiastically accepted the new Vichy regime and were quite accommodating to their Nazi overlords.

When Pétain restored what Baudrillart would have regarded as the natural order, with Church and state wedded together, he welcomed the Marshall’s rule and offered open support, even though he lived in the occupied zone. In 1941, he went a step further. He publicly supported the French volunteers who joined the Wehrmacht and SS in the campaign against the Soviet Union. In the first two years of the war, the Cardinal could even write that there was no contradiction between Nazism and Christianity.
What I also hadn't appreciated till now was that support for de Gaulle in religious circles could be broadly predicted by theological position. The Nouvelle Theologians lined up behind de Gaulle and the Resistance, the traditionalists behind Vichy. Let me be quite clear about this: Traditionalist Catholicism in France lined up behind the Nazi's.
Yet some in France were resisting the new order from the outset. In the vanguard of the Resistance stood the Jesuits, often in close collaboration with Protestant pastors. These men were theologically far removed from their fellow clergy in Paris, or, indeed, in much of France. As liberals, their thinking was to influence the outcome of the Second Vatican Council profoundly, particularly in the new attitude towards the Jews and their rejection of the close association between Church and state. It was exactly this line of thinking that proved abhorrent to Archbishop Lefebvre* and caused the schism with the SSPX some decades later.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that there is something seriously wrong with a Catholicism that sees itself as compatible with German National Socialism.  Traditional Catholicism in France, as in the rest of Europe, was seriously diseased.

And remember, this was before Vatican Two.

De Gaulle had a healthy contempt of some of the senior French Catholic hierarchy and with the victory of the Allies, made sure some of the worst offending clergy were removed. But in being opposed to the traditionalists it did not mean that de Gaulle was some kind of kumbayah liberal. He realised, like most other sensible people at the time,  that the Church needed to change in order to deal with modernity. During the war, despite all the other issues that beset him, he cultivated religious intellectuals such as Maritain and Bernanos. He followed Church events closely and was influential in some of the French appointments to Vatican II. He hoped for positive changes since he understood that the identity of Europe and Christianity were intertwined, and the decline of religion was sapping Europe's vitality. Yet, as a social conservative,  he deplored many of the changes that resulted from Vatican Two.

De Gaulle, it seems, had a unique take on Catholicism that doesn't fit neatly within the liberal/conservative schema. But it wasn't an idiosyncratic expression of Catholicism rather one which had its roots in a dissident strain of Catholicism that seems to have been pushed aside in battle between the "modernisers" and traditionalists.  Perhaps the greatest exponent of this strain of Catholicism was Charles Peguy, and the more I read about de Gaulle, the more I see the influence of Peguy on him.

And this is where I find de Gaulle really interesting. De Gaulle's political actions with respect to France have as their basis a specifically Christian vision of the nation, people and state. De Gaulle's strident French nationalism, for instance, was based on a Christian nationalism, something that is foreign to modern Christianity. His Christian realism led him to reject pacifism something modern Christianity has nearly completely succumbed to. De Gaulle's battles with the British, Americans and EU take on a different dimension when one starts thinking of him as a Christian/Catholic statesman instead of being simply a good french politician.

What I haven't really appreciated until now is that a political approach to de Gaulle is the wrong one, and one has to really look at him as a Christian engaging modernity in the field of politics. The reason why we don't take this approach I imagine is because our contemporary notions of Christianity are so foreign to what de Gaulle stood for, is that we are blind to the Christianity in de Gaulle's action.

And perhaps de Gaulle's Christianity was the right one and ours is wrong.

*Bonus:Lefebvre thought de Gaulle "a snake".


Marcus Montisursinensis said...

I would say that de Gaulle and the "modernisers" within the Church concurred on the choice of the ally in WW2. The traditionalist wing should have known better, though it is easy to play a general now. Perhaps they imagined Petain's regime to become something like Franco's (though the Germans didn't occupy Madrid, while they did occupy Paris) or that of Dollfuß (whom the Nazis actually shot). Every time I go to the polls I tell myself I should not go at all; then I tell myself it is my duty to choose the lesser evil. Well then... choosing a lesser evil easily brings to a long, continuous self-deception and when multiple sides wage war... you should be aware of the fact that the winner will later anyhow be percieved as the lesser evil, while the loser will be agreed upon as the greater evil. Not only because the winner is the author of history, but because the people want to join his side and be able to kick the dead body of the loser. Probably they should have know better.
De Gaulle was an outstanding person, yet he did not manage to perpetuate his view into any coherent school of thought or a political movement (the gaullist party were/are just average cuckservatives, the Outer Party). Except for the airport and vessel names, there is not much remaining of him. But he did certainly stop the flood for some time. May he rest in peace. As for Maritain and the nouvelle théologie... by the Council the protagonists got absorbed into a general whirlwind that took the worst of their thinking and destroyed the rest.

The Social Pathologist said...

though the Germans didn't occupy Madrid, while they did occupy Paris

Nor did they occupy Vichy. The problem with large elements of the Church in France was its active support of the Vichy regime. It wasn't a forced choice, i.e. a lesser evil.

That's my point.

yet he did not manage to perpetuate his view into any coherent school of thought or a political movement

That's true but neither did Joan of Arc. True, the meaning of Gaullism is still debated in France. The point is that de Gaulle wasn't so much about politics as about culture, and that's where his value lays. I thought I knew him, but the more I delve into his life the more I realise that I was wrong in thinking of him as a political person. He was really deep and embodied a Christianity that may be a solution to our current malaise.

As for Maritain and the nouvelle théologie... by the Council the protagonists got absorbed into a general whirlwind that took the worst of their thinking and destroyed the rest.

I don't think that the Council really grasped much of their thinking at all. They wouldn't of acted so dumb if they had.

Jason said...

It's a good essay by Gregg doctor, which demonstrates that de Gaulle's faith was hardly nominal but obviously substantive; not merely cultural but also personal in a very real way. Still, the opinions of aides who questioned the intensity of the general's devotion do not appear to me to be entirely misplaced. One should be cautious about the matter considering the inevitable privacy of belief, but it is fair to ask whether certain critical components of Christianity were lacking. A sense of personal sin, and connected to this an awareness of the dangers of self-aggrandizement and pride (which is, after all, the chief of vices) appear to have been prominently lacking in de Gaulle. One looks in vain for any instance where he would recognize the validity of Lord Acton's well-known maxim concerning himself; indeed all of this utterances and actions over his three decades of political stardom indicate the contrary. (Did any other democratic statesman during the twentieth century so dominate his country for so long?) To put the matter rather brutally, I've wondered whether it really ever occurred to de Gaulle that his ways (and more generally his vision of France) might not necessarily be God's.

This last point is significant, for it relates to the question of "Christian nationalism" (I would prefer patriotism, which in my opinion is a more salutary phenomenon). Especially in modern times, nationalism can become an idol, a temptation, considering how pleasurable and fun it can be - how easy it can be. Appealing to Mother Russia or St. Sava or Joan of Arc, which are all noble as far as it goes, is a lot more pleasurable than exhortations to practice chastity or forgiveness of enemies or other such virtues that require lots of work. At it worst such efforts as the former can create a veneer of piety that masks what Bonhoeffer called "the cost of discipleship."

The Social Pathologist said...

Thanks Jason,

To put the matter rather brutally, I've wondered whether it really ever occurred to de Gaulle that his ways (and more generally his vision of France) might not necessarily be God's.

I think that every religious patriot claims God for his own side however, in the case of de Gaulle, I think he pondered this question deeply. One aspect I thought about covering was his rapprochement with Germany after the Second World War.The only ever foreign dignitary he invited into his house was Konrad Adenauer. He could have chosen to achieve his foreign policy aims by other methods--but chose the most personal, some would say Christian way--of seeking a peace between the two warring nations. Note, his family suffered quite a lot under German occupation.

Still, the opinions of aides who questioned the intensity of the general's devotion do not appear to me to be entirely misplaced

De Gaulle took the separation of Church and State quite seriously and I imagine that he definitely kept a very low religious profile while on Government business even with his aides. He was notoriously reticent about his personal life. I think Gregg's article highlights some of the scholarship which affirms this.

but it is fair to ask whether certain critical components of Christianity were lacking. A sense of personal sin, and connected to this an awareness of the dangers of self-aggrandizement and pride

No man is perfect and de Gaulle certainly had his faults. But pride--as his own sense of importance--I don't think so. I think that de Gaulles "arrogance" and "pride" were more characteristics he "wore" as part of the uniform of his job, rather than an innate sense of his superiority above other beings. There are several instances in his life where he could have claimed more for himself than he did. Like, for instance, when Paris was liberated. The presidential bed was prepared for him to sleep in, but he tore into his aides and demanded that he be put in a lesser position as he was not the President of France. A "prideful" man would have done the opposite. He offered to step down as leader of the Free French, following the British Invasion of Madagascar if he felt that it would have helped the cause. One of the things that strikes you is that he was most arrogant and rude to those who did not show France the respect he felt it was owed, but as Eisenhower noted, he was extremely gracious to the courteous.

But was he a wannabe Christian monk, like Schuman, No.

The question I pose to you Jason, is Schuman's way the only way to be authentically Christian or have we got it wrong. Is de Gaulle being judged by the standard of Schuman or God? Should the Christian Knight, politician, butcher or electrician all be cut from the same cloth as Schuman?

Here is an interesting article from the NYT which I presume is quoting from Malraux's Fallen Oaks.

"The merciful leasing of these passages suggests how finally correct Malraux is when he ap plies the adjective “bizarre” only to the General's shrewdness. If the mind seems otherwise outlandish to us, it is only because it was so old‐fashioned."

His was an "old fashioned mind" a mind that came from a time when the faith was strong. I thought this comment also quite pertinent:

“We are certainly witnessing the death of Europe…. We are the last Europeans in Europe, which was Christianity,”

The Social Pathologist said...

@ Jason

This last point is significant, for it relates to the question of "Christian nationalism" (I would prefer patriotism, which in my opinion is a more salutary phenomenon). Especially in modern times, nationalism can become an idol, a temptation,

I think you're correct here.

Jason said...

All good points about de Gaulle and the problem of ego. Regarding Schumann (who very much was a product of his upbringing, growing up in then German Alsace-Lorraine before WWI), I'm a little more sympathetic to him. A sense of being European, and with this a desire for sub-continental, Occidental unity, was not some crazy, kumbaya idea but has been held by many perceptive individuals: Dante, for one (in his Monarchia), and much later by patriots and realists like Churchill, Adenauer, and others. And not merely for prudential reasons, out of a horror for what occurred during two dreadful world conflagrations. Especially with the rise of America and other powers during the twentieth century there was a real need to assert Europe's primacy and place, which naturally has been without equal in history and must continue if we want to preserve basic virtues and decent behavior. (Of course somebody like Christopher Dawson notably stressed intensely the spiritual as a bulwark for Europe.) What is a Western Civ class, after all, other than a stroll largely through Europe's past, with a dollop of Middle Eastern and colonial whipped cream added on top? Certainly whenever I myself have trod in any European nation I feel a frisson completely unavailable in my native America, where I sense a kinship and solidarity with peoples and places who are not my own.

In my mind Schuman's flaw was he - or maybe to be more accurate his successors - attempted to do too much, not being satisfied with prudential, piecemeal solutions, like say de Gasperi's more mundane desire for some Italians to simply work in Europe while his country made the painful transition to industrialism after the war. (Again, don't neglect the personal: this great Italian had served in Vienna when his south Tyrol was still a part of Austria-Hungary.) The European Economic Community, which probably should have stopped there with just a half dozen nations, definitely metastasized into something unwieldly, reaching the point where it is today absurdly castigating Hungarians for what they can teach about homosexuality in high school classrooms. And I would also assert in this sense de Gaulle was much more perceptive than Schuman in his emphasis on national interest, which when push comes to shove will always override internationalism or regionalism. Once need only perceive the utter ineptitude of the E.U. or U.N. during the Yugoslav wars of the nineties, or more recently the relatively brutal self-interest of Germany and Russia in their pipeline deal as testimony to this.

It seems to me then to be a necessity for Europeans and Americans to be more accepting of statesmen like Orban, irrespective of his flaws (which are definitely there - his defenders too easily give Fidesz a pass for its corruption and clamping down on independent press organs). Which I suspect will become inevitable over the next few decades, as America's influence begins to recede, Germany's rises, and Europeans will simply have to recognize some diversity in their realm absent a hegemon able to issue dictats. Hence you'll have something like the Visegrad 4 (Slovakia, Hungary, Czechia, Poland) likely being more religious and traditional, Western Europe less so, resulting in the kind of multi-faceted tapestry that Chesterton applauded. So yeah, I think that sort of patriotism - the spirit of de Gaulle - would be more congruent with Christianity, to reference your query.

Forgive me doctor for sounding didactic and lecturing - not my intention!

Anonymous said...

>Catholic traditionalists in France lined up with the Nazis.

My ethnically Jewish relatives in Germany "lined up with the Nazis". At least of them were in the Wehrmacht and a third was in the Waffen-SS (lied about ancestry). Jewish German Nationalist groups like the Association of German National Jews "lined up with the Nazis" until they were rejected by them. All of the major right of center political parties in Germany "lined up with the Nazis". Mussolini, who thought Nazi racial theories were ridiculous, "lined up with the Nazis". Apparently all of this was a sign a fundamental spiritual deformity and not making the best of a bad, if not impossible, situation.

The Social Pathologist said...



Occidental unity, was not some crazy, kumbaya idea but has been held by many perceptive individuals

The realisation that Europe had to unite--for the reasons you mentioned--was also held by de Gaulle but the question was how to unite. Shuman's piety led him to supranationalism, de Gaulle's to inter-nationalism. One de-empahsised national identity while the other did the opposite. My interest is what is the relationship with Christianity and identity, because what we have here are two different conceptions at play.

But there is another relationship at play, and that is Christianity's relationship with the temporal and material. European-ness more is of an abstraction than French-ness, which is more concrete and temporal. If for example if European-ness is simply an abstraction then there needs to be no material association with it, anyone can be "European" by way of abstractive association, but if the notion of European-ness rests on a certain temporal or material association it limits such abstractive legitimacy.

Here we start--indirectly--approaching the subject of the incarnation, where the Word assumed a material being. Jesus isn't an idea, he's a specific person. Likewise, Europe, isn't an idea, its a collection of different peoples. What the primacy of the idea of "European-ness" is the attempt to "de-carnalise" the constituent elements. France, is not an "idea" it is a certain people, located in a certain place, with a certain history.

To quote Chesterton:

[Christian] Patriotism is a perfect example of this deliberate balancing of one emphasis against another emphasis. The instinct of the Pagan empire would have said, “You shall all be Roman citizens, and grow alike; let the German grow less slow and reverent; the Frenchmen less experimental and swift.” But the instinct of Christian Europe says, “Let the German remain slow and reverent, that the Frenchman may the more safely be swift and experimental. We will make an equipoise out of these excesses. The absurdity called Germany shall correct the insanity called France.

I'm not really pushing the subject of nationalism/patriotism but more the the relationship of Christianity and identity, of which national identity is but one aspect of the relationship. And it's my notion that the piety of Schuman led to anti-Christian notion or what it means to be European. Or to put it another way, de Gualle for all of his personal faults was more authentically Christian than Schuman.

Sorry for may rant.

The Social Pathologist said...


You don't join the "SS" to make the best of a bad situation,you had to want to get in, the selection criteria being quite tough until near the end of the war.

All of the major right of center political parties in Germany "lined up with the Nazis"

Papen thought he could outfox Hitler and control him, but lost the match. BTW being nationalist does not make you "Right". It also needs to be understood that may of these other parties were enthusiastic supporters of the Nazi's if not outright party members. Germany took the guilt of many other countries after the war. There were huge numbers of supporters in France and Holland for instance. The more you look into the history the more you become revolted by many of the "occupied nations". Europe was morally diseased, torn between two pathologies, Fascism and Socialism. Hitler and Stalin catered to this.

But politics is downstream from culture and my main purpose of enquiry is to understand why Christianity collapsed. And the ugly fact is that before Vatican two, the Church, especially the upper clergy had a serious moral cancer affecting it.

Hoyos said...

Here’s the problem ad I see it, and I may be wrong in some regards, or most.

God is real, free will I real, the spiritual war is real, and human nature is real. We aren’t going to see a “multi-faceted tapestry that Chesterton would applaud in Western Europe” after they’ve accepted “some diversity”. The newcomers don’t want to really be a part of the western story because they perceive it, rightly, as part of the Christian story, even if the current heirs of our great Christian civilization are unbelieving technocrat maniacs (and as we’ve seen on CRT, global warming, COVID, and the ongoing attempt to expand the trans thing to children, they are maniacs and in some cases possibly demoniac).

There are two ways to go for us and we’ve seen it before. The first is what might be called the “worldly wise” Christian, he is a “right winger” who is capable of saying he believes in the creeds, but when it’s down to the wire, he doesn’t exactly trust God and looks for “practical” solutions. Much of his Christianity is like that warned of in the Screwtape letters, an addenda to buttress what he really cares about. I don’t know but I fear some of the Christian fascists during the war were like this. Vichy, thr Iron Guard, made some serious compromises.

The other way is to actually trust in God. I realize some people will choke on this because they’ve been taught, as SP has pointed out, that this means a passive, Buddhist or Stoic response. But I mean actually trust Him. Pursue the love of God and a relationship, believe what He said and do it. Western civilization ascended far and fast before we got wrapped around the axle of putting tactics in front of strategy. When we Western peoples (and I include the European descended settler nations), were evangelising and trying to hammer out a Christian life we were not sinless by a long shot, but we created the house the entire world is trying to live in,

I believe this will not only improve our lives on a personal and eternal level, but perhaps make it easier for God to help us. I believe it will give us the spiritual strength we need to actually fight when we need to fight, but according to God’s plan. avoiding the madness of the terrorist and the cravenness of the collaborator.

This is why I love de Gaulle and the Free French. The Vichy collaborated with a regime that was martyring it’s cool-religionists and trying to resurrect the old pagan gods, and the French communist resistance was doing things like castrating German conscripts and then viewing German retaliations on civilians as a net positive for the Revolution. De Gaulle helped Frenchmen fight like soldiers, like men while avoiding these bizarre extremes. Perfect? Of course not. But something much, much better than the other options.

Anonymous said...

Social Pathologist,

Before tarring a good man and traditional Catholicism generally, you might mention that Lefebvre's father was brutally murdered for resisting the Nazis. He wasn't a democrat, or an advocate for the separation of the church-state or allied with bible-thumping Protestant ministers, he was, a right-wing monarchist. I realize this might pose something of a conundrum for you though in your general quest to justify liberal Catholicism so my expectations at this point are pretty low.

The Social Pathologist said...


Before tarring a good man and traditional Catholicism generally

I don't remember writing about Lefebvre at all. His brand of Catholicism, however, does deserve serious critique as it seemed unable to stop the onslaught of Modernity and in many ways facilitated it's progress (Despite its protestations, it's cut from the same cloth). And your wrong about me trying to justify "liberal Catholicism", both factions in my opinion have worked to corrode the Church.


I think that trusting God doesn't necessarily equate with passivity here. De Gaulle plowed ahead, despite some very unfavourable circumstances. In fact when you look at the hand he was dealt and what he was able to achieve, it almost appears miraculous.

Anonymous said...

But your posts typically read like modernity was a good thing from your perspective. The proliferation of Protestantism was grace working itself out in the world, the rise of the cult of domesticity eclipsing an earlier culture of asceticism was great and necessary corrective ect.

Lefebvre and his followers did what they could in trying circumstances and basically saved the TLM from extinction. THAT to me is grace moving in history, to bring goodness out of evil and impossible odds, not some bible thumper sect.

Never forgot SP that you are a dissenter. Maybe instead of dredging up the sins of others, you might repent yourself.

The Social Pathologist said...


Maybe instead of dredging up the sins of others, you might repent yourself.

The fact that I have faults does not detract from the fact that RGL had serious ones as well. My faults are mine, but RGL propagated his throughout the Church.

The Social Pathologist said...

But your posts typically read like modernity was a good thing from your perspective

Modernity is rather large umbrella that captures a lot of sociological phenomena. I quite like anaesthetics, regular supply of food, affordable housing and analgesia, etc. The problem is not technology, rather it's continuing to preserve a mode of religious sociological habit that achieved equilibrium with an agricultural culture while stopping it from changing its structure to better cope with industrial society.

mc23 said...

Interesting series of posts on DeGaulle, puts some perspective on someone who is a shadowy figure to most Americans.

-blessed b9, Catalyst4Christ said...

I bet Charly didnt ever wok weeerd
and wasnt a NDEr. Who's a NDEr? Why,
I am. And thats the way UH-HUH UH-HUH
I like it. WTFud?? Exactly. Exactly
why I was sent to earth to teach...
and so were YOU, bro.

God's not atheist!
anything but finite!
exponentially extravagant!
+ +
...we must pass this final test...