The Nineteenth-Century French Government Excludes Religion from Education

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The Nineteenth-Century French Government Excludes Religion from Education
The Nineteenth-Century French Government Excludes Religion from Education
Photo:  © Dietmar Rabich, CC BY-SA 4.0

The early nineteenth century saw a need to restore Catholic civilization and combat the French Revolution. Unfortunately, this need gave rise to a weakened, although combative, apostolate. It was weak because it was mainly dedicated to lay Catholics. It was combative because Joseph de Maistre had laid down its guiding principles.

Still, the religious policies of Napoleon, Louis XVIII and Charles X produced massive confusion about how to unite efforts. Many Catholics differed in their practical application. This situation made an effective and lasting union impossible.

The fight against Gallicanism1 had rallied the intellectual elite of Catholicism in France around the liberal Fr. Félicité de Lamennais, but many Catholics were uninterested in the polemic. During the reign of Louis Philippe (1830-1848), an old question helped Charles, Comte de Montalembert, find the needed common objective. It was the so-called freedom of education issue.

The French State had established a monopoly on education during Napoleon’s time. This usurped one of the Church’s most sacred rights. The struggle to restore this right made the union of Catholics possible. With rare exceptions, ultramontanes, Gallicans, bishops, priests, and laity rose against state control. The bishops published decrees. The laity met in congresses. Within the government, Montalembert made his eloquent voice heard in the Chamber of Peers, while those of the Viscount of Carné and Msgr. Parisis resounded in the Chamber of Deputies. Publishers printed and sold books and pamphlets. Catholic newspapers, led by Louis Veuillot’s L’Univers, kept the enthusiasm strong.

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The Church’s campaign for Christian education is one of the most beautiful and instructive episodes in French religious history. It displayed the strength and vitality of a Catholic movement organized according to Church principles. At the same time, its development helped define ultramontane and liberal Catholic tendencies. The liberals moved further away from Catholic doctrine, leading toward a compromise with the State. Ultramontanes increasingly drew from the immutable principles established by the Holy See to face each new situation.

Therefore, several articles in this series will address this struggle beginning with the reign of Louis Philippe.

To exercise her civilizing influence over peoples, the Church does not use pre-established, highly detailed plans. She teaches, guides and instills in all things the Catholic spirit needed for the proper formation of people. The Church guides and inspires principles, giving rise to initiatives and institutions. In so doing, she largely allows genuine Catholic civilization to emerge from the needs and dynamism of Christian society. When necessary, she corrects any deviations through her infallible magisterium.

Thus, despite the Middle Ages’ seeming disorder, there was an upward movement and unity that humanity has never achieved since then. Despite the Ancien Régime’s destruction by the French Revolution, the Church knew a new Middle Ages would inevitably emerge from the rubble of the remnants of France’s Catholic spirit and the freedom to spread Her message in a post-revolutionary order. Therefore, the revolutionaries knew that to stay in power, they would need to replace the Catholic spirit with a new revolutionary mentality and prevent the Church from teaching.

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Before Napoleon, the National Convention started from the false premise that the Catholic Church was dead. Therefore, it limited itself to instituting an officially sanctioned educational model and curriculum. It founded high schools for secondary education and large central schools to provide professional training.

Education, however, still allowed private initiatives. The State appeared more as a competitor—indeed, a dangerous one—and did not direct all French education. High schools were empty. The central schools, inadequately equipped to form people’s intellects, could not infuse the revolutionary spirit in France.

Napoleon created a new State educational system. He said education must form citizens in the spirit of State institutions. The State could not be neutral, as neutrality is impossible. High schools and higher education must shape citizens for the future.

The State created lyceums and colleges everywhere to carry out the Emperor’s plans and put his principles into practice. He wanted a hundred lyceums scattered throughout France and a high school in every small town. Six thousand scholarships were established to give poor children access to secondary education.

Finally, on May 10, 1806, the founding of an Imperial University crowned Napoleon’s educational work. Directed by a chancellor and a council chosen by the Emperor, the University had Colleges of Theology, Law, Medicine, Science, and Letters. Of these five, only the last two were new. These schools were supposed to guide education throughout France due to their close relationships with the École Normale Supérieure, a higher education institution created by the Convention.

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Napoleon wanted the University to supply all teachers nationwide. It only featured a few courses of a pedagogical nature. Its education students followed classes at the Colleges of Science or Letters. The school itself, however, would provide the real formation. They adopted the boarding school model so future teachers could more easily participate in student life and discussions. They even considered forcing teachers into celibacy and a life in common as a means to preserve and develop the training acquired in the University.

Thus, the University controlled all education. It provided professors, programs, teaching methods and even lesson plans for all France. At any given moment, one could know not only what was being taught everywhere but also the orientation and teaching methods.

Napoleon’s grand plan was thus realized: the teaching State replaced the teaching Church.

Moreover, this was not the only right of the Church that the Corsican trampled. The Holy See had to fight for all its rights, especially at the end of the Empire.

After Bonaparte was deposed, there was hope that the Restoration of the Bourbons would destroy the clearly revolutionary University. However, that did not happen. At the beginning of his reign, Louis XVIII began to suppress it, but later, after the Hundred Daysopted to keep it and use it for the interests of his government. The monopoly continued, and Louis took no measures to prevent the University from continuing its work to spread revolutionary errors.

The reaction of Catholics came swiftly. However, it was soon stifled by the masterful appointment of Bishop Denis Frayssinous to be the University’s Chancellor, a move that placed the guidance of French education under his control.

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With his episcopal authority, he validated the whole revolutionary aspect of the University. As a Gallican leader, he also gave it a detestable religious orientation. Thus, he added another anti-Catholic note to Napoleon’s machine without correcting anything.

At the University, the religious influence was meaningless. For example, to please those in power, lyceum teachers recommended their students do their Easter duty, even though they had no faith. In one of the Paris lycées, the thesis of God’s existence was put to the vote. A priest sent by Bishop Frayssinous to inspect schools in France returned so horrified that he died of grief. Despite everything, Bishop Frayssinous denied all the evidence, facts and reports and declared that French teaching was doing very well from a Catholic point of view.

Charles X fell in 1830 and was succeeded by Louis XVIII in 1824. The new king, Louis Philippe, was obliged to swear an oath expressly declaring that France would have freedom of education.

Louis Philippe preserved the University. Fortunately, it was no longer in Bishop Frayssinous’ hands. However, Louis Philippe never fulfilled his promise to abolish the State monopoly on education.

Although closing the University would have been ideal, the State wanted to maintain this instrument of forming public opinion. Accordingly, Catholics made the minimum demand of allowing the Church to be free to operate its own schools, especially since the king had explicitly promised it. To obtain this vital minimum demand, Montalembert organized the Catholic Party. This act would write the most beautiful page of his life, as we will see in the following articles.


  1. Gallicanism was a pre-French Revolution movement to subvert the authority of the Church to that of the French Government, which continued long after the Fall of Napoleon.

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