“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 three–volume 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".