In early 20th-century France, Catholics were in a rather precarious situation. Growing anti-Catholic sentiment had gradually reduced the role of the Church in public life. In 1905, the Church officially lost her status as the state religion. The Eldest Daughter of the Church had been marginalized by “laïcité.” This resulted in new hardships, both financial and social, on the Church. A previous age of religious fervor, marked by Marian apparitions at Lourdes and La Salette, had gradually given way to a spiritual malaise and a barbed anti-clericalism. In response to a government that embraced explicitly anti-Catholic positions, many sought a new political option that would reject secularism and restore an age of devotion and tradition in France. Enter Action française, a political party promising a new era of rule marked by a return of Catholicism and traditional values.
Many devout and holy Catholics became enamored with Action française. Among these were the Dominican theologian Humbert Clérissac, the lay Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, and the novelist Francois Mauriac. These brilliant and pious men (all heroes of mine) latched onto Action française in the hope that it would lead their country out of the mire that secularism had sunk it. However, upon closer inspection, Action française hardly seemed to be their longed-for bastion of traditional values. For starters, the movement’s leader, Charles Maurras, was by no means a Catholic in good standing. While he did embrace some Catholic ideals, his motivations seem to have been solely political. In fact, he was a professed agnostic. While Maurras had been a hero to many and perceived as an antidote to France’s contemporary political system, problems in his politics and system of thought became more pronounced. Tapping into a real discontent with the present political system, many had been willing to overlook some of these flaws.
As Action française grew rapidly after World War I (in part due to a disaffected populace), Maurras had become a political icon to millions of voters. However, with success comes scrutiny. His misuse of Catholic teaching, personal practices, and rhetoric were all incompatible with the Gospel. Eventually, Pope Pius XI intervened, condemned Action française as being inconsistent with the Catholic faith, and even placed some of Maurras’s writings on the List of Prohibited Books. Immediately, faithful Catholics renounced their association with Action française (Clérissac, Maritain, and Mauriac among them). While they had put their trust in Maurras to help overturn a system causing real harm, they all admitted their errors in judgment and cut ties with the party.
This example does not mean that Catholics were necessarily wrong in their support of Action française before the condemnations of Pope Pius XI. After all, politics has been famously described as the “art of the possible.” It is entirely likely that Action française was a far superior option politically than that of the anti-Catholic government reigning in France. However, Catholics were forced to admit that there were fundamental inconsistencies between their faith and the machinations of a particular political movement. The lesser evil of two choices can still be fundamentally evil and against the tenets of the Faith. In the end, our hopes for a full embrace of the Catholic faith and its vision for right living can never be placed solely in the hands of secular leaders. It must be based in a true hope for the Kingdom of God. We must, as the psalmist says, “put no trust in princes, in mortal man who cannot save” (Ps 146: 3). Our hope must be in Him who has rightful reign of both heaven and earth.
Image: School of Martin van Meytens, Coronation Banquet of Joseph II in Frankfurt (detail)