Napoleon: The Revolution & the Catholic Church

In this essay segment, I explore Napoleon’s connection to the French Revolution and Roman Catholicism. Even though he accepts the role of emperor, bringing civil rule to an end, perhaps he was more revolutionary than we tend to think.

It might be easy to dismiss Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign as a clear shift away from the revolution of 1789 because he walked away from the newly established republic making himself Emperor with power rivaling that of an absolute monarch.  However, Napoleon’s revolutionary credentials should not be summarily dismissed. It is important to remember that the French Revolution was not about promoting liberal democracy as we understand it in the twenty-first century.  It was a very early expression of the people of a nation overthrowing the shackles of tyranny by toppling the existing order which had abused and taken advantage of the masses for centuries. Despite his empire building, Napoleon continued the secular society and imperialist tendencies of the revolution.  Napoleon’s rule was a clear continuation of the revolutionary spirit which swept to power in 1789 which ultimately toppled the monarchy of King Louis XVI and overturned feudal society.

One of Napoleon’s main objectives was to centralize the power structure of France (Lyons 73). The centralization of power could easily be seen as a power grab and, to a certain extent, this analysis would be true.  However, the one thing that the young revolution was lacking was order.  The revolution had seen itself move swiftly through new constitutions, various governments and numerous uprisings.  The Great Terror experienced in the mid-1790s was fresh in everyone’s memory and seemingly France was always just a coup d’état away from coming to another realization of that terror.  The French Republic was in desperate need for order.  Constant revolutionary activity ultimately could not offer what the revolutionary propaganda promised to the people – equality, fairness and security.  In many respects, the Great Terror put an effective end to all three of those ideals. Napoleon’s ascension to power brought about peace within the nation – a peace in which people could live without fear and where the Old Regime no longer had its grip on society.

When Napoleon was crowned Emperor by the Pope in 1804, it was not necessarily a clear break with the revolution but more of a realization that the French Empire held the fate of so many European Catholics (Lyons 89).  It certainly was a symbolic move showing the world Napoleon’s absolute power, but it was also a picture of French power – revolutionary power that started in the 1790s and pushed the edges of French hegemony for decades to come.  While this bold move was shocking to some republican observers, it most likely was a moment of great pride for the French people to see the Pope crowning their leader.  It was the consolidation of French power and preeminence throughout the region.  This epic scene was a culmination of Napoleon’s shrewd political games which produced the Concordant between Napoleon and the Vatican bringing about a return to normal religious life for most Frenchmen.

The Concordant was a master-stroke by Napoleon that finished the work of the revolution in regards to the Catholic Church.   The Concordant signaled the end of religious intolerance and the end of the supremacy of the Catholic Church.  Napoleon realized that an agreement with the Vatican could strengthen his standing and put the final touches on the secular state.  If the Vatican could agree to some of the radical revolutionary views which would have been rebuffed twenty years earlier, then Napoleon could consolidate a secular state while having the support of the vast remaining network of Catholic loyalties.  In this regard, the Concordant was quite revolutionary.  The Vatican agreed to recognize other religious groups in France (Lyons 92).  This ensured that Catholicism was no longer the established or dominant religion (Lyons 86).   In essence, Napoleon ended what the Directory started.  He, in his very pragmatic approach, realized that his country could not become a secular nation by ignoring the traditionally large influence that the Catholic Church had on its people and nation.  Instead of stripping Catholicism from the nation, the Concordant achieved a heightened awareness of the nation’s religiosity while ensuring the secular nature of the state.   In this sense, the Concordant achieved a great victory for the revolution.  But the Concordant did much more than just help secularize French society.

Napoleon used the Concordant to pacify the country and eliminate the opposition of counter-revolutionary bishops (Lyons 84).  One of the great challenges of the first decade of the revolution was the many conflicts and upheavals which roared from Paris into the far-reaching corners of France.  In Vendée and other Catholic dominated areas, many rebels never accepted the diminished role of the church and the secularization of society.   But now, as the Pope stamped his approval of the French government by reaching an agreement with Napoleon, the bishops and other religious leaders were once again under Vatican control. Once this happened, the bishops had to encourage others in places like Vendée to obey the Vatican endorsed government (Lyons 91).  This was a great benefit to Napoleon who wanted to consolidate his power, but it was also a great benefit to the French people as a whole.  The decreased turmoil would allow citizens of all religious persuasions to go about their lives without the fear of terror and backlash which was a constant feature of the 1790s.

Under Napoleon’s reign, churches that had long been closed or used for other purposes were reopened; religious festivals and ceremonies resumed; pilgrimages forgotten during the revolution were taken once more and the religious calendar which was always so interconnected with agrarian life was once again observed (Lyons 144).  This normalcy which was nearly non-in the early days of the revolution certainly contributed to the majority of the peasants supporting Napoleon.  However, it seems that the main reason Napoleon had peasant support was because he offered a permanent end to the feudal lord system (Lyons 144).  Beyond anything else, the peasants enjoyed being free from the yolk of the nobles and royalty who demanded their dues.  Now that a vast majority of them experienced a return to their normal religious life, they were for the most part happy to put their support behind Napoleon.

The relative period of calm which France experienced in the first decade of the nineteenth century enabled Napoleon to pursue policies which often times benefited the nation and continued the spirit of revolutionary reform. One such reform was education.  Napoleon nationalized secondary education for boys in 1808 (Lyons 91).  This progressive educational policy gave all boys a secular education that was standardized.  The same curriculum was used in every corner of France so to ensure a unifying, nationalistic approach. Napoleon’s focus on education was tangible and practical.  The lycée, or secondary school, replaced the old central school system.  It was a completely government run system.  The government chose the teachers, implemented the same syllabus throughout the land, and standardized everything regarding their education (Lyons 105).  To ensure the on-going success of such a new educational system, the government even paid the boarding fee for 180 students per school (Lyons 105).  In addition, Napoleon introduced the national examination in 1809 which was given at the culmination of secondary education and would be used as an admissions test for those moving into higher education (Lyons 107).  Napoleon clearly had a liberal view of education and accomplished a national, secular system that many revolutionaries would have been proud of.  He did not, however, have the same progressive view of education for both genders and his educational reforms did not reach down to the primary levels.

It may be rightly pointed out that Napoleon’s policy towards secondary boys education basically meant that primary education and the education of girls were abandoned to the Catholic Church (Lyons 91).  However, it must be remembered that this fact, in essence, was no different than the education that began to emerge during the revolutionary years of the 1790s when the lack of qualified teachers put education back under the control of the church (Connelly 150).  The fact that girls were not educated in the public system or that primary education was overlooked in no way diminishes the revolutionary pedigree of Napoleon’s educational system.

Another of Napoleon’s main achievements which helped underscore his revolutionary mindset was the Civil Code.  The provisions set forth in the Civil Code consolidated the laws and achievements of the revolution.  These laws acknowledged the strides which the revolutionary-leading bourgeoisie had accomplished (Lyons 94).  This code was applied nationally to every part of the republic, and coupled with Napoleon’s secondary education system unified the nation like never before (Lyons 94-95).  Bonaparte’s secular laws were applied universally to every citizen; they were impressive enough that many nations of the world emulated them (Lyons 95).  Several European nations introduced the code which they viewed as a way to end feudalism and diminish the power of the church (Lyons 102-103). In this way, the Civil Code was a cutting edge feature of the lasting power of the revolution which spilled over into many European countries.

The unifying nature of the code certainly had many advantages for Napoleon’s regime.  It helped him consolidate power while limiting the local authority of the provinces.  Napoleon would not tolerate opposition to the code as evidenced by the purging of the Tribunate in 1802 (Lyons 95).  While the Civil Code may have helped Napoleon achieve his goal of the centralization of government, it also laid to waste the social landscape of the pre-revolutionary regime.  For example, the Civil Code officially rid the nation of privilege; everyone now stood equally before the law and this entitled people to get jobs based on merit not status (Lyons 96).  It also completely secularized marriage (Lyons 96).  Napoleon codified what the revolution tried to accomplish concerning marriage. The difference was that in the early hours of the revolution, many people did not trust that a marriage could be performed without a clergyman, so many continued to get married twice – first by civilian means and the second time by a priest just to play it safe (Connelly 164).  However, now the marriage laws were part of the national body of secular laws which applied to everyone.

Napoleon’s use of the revolutionary calendar was yet another way that Napoleon did not try to distance himself from the revolution. He preserved the revolutionary calendar for six years considering it to be a proper and fit way that a secular society should keep its state in order (Lyons 138).  He retained the observance of Bastille Day commemorating the beginning of the revolution, and he continued to celebrate the first day of the year which commemorated the inauguration of the republic (Lyons 138).  It could be argued that these were mere hollow gestures of a ruler trying to show revolutionary pedigree to a populace who was still weary of a resurgence of the old monarchy. But if that was the case, it only bolsters the point that Napoleon took the views of his people seriously.

Look for Part II as we’ll look at some of the criticisms of Napoleon in regards to the revolution.

Based on the following works:

Connelly, Owen. The French Revolution and Napoleonic Era. 2nd Ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt

Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1991.

Lyons, Martyn. Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution. New York:

Palgrave, 1994.



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