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Separation of Church and State (France, 1905)


separation and the french revolution
the napoleonic concordat, 1801–1905
the campaign for the separation of church and state
separation and the third republic

The separation of church and state requires the disestablishment of any religion with formal connections to the government. In the case of France in 1905, the term refers to the abrogation of the Concordat of 1801 between France and the Vatican and the abolition of the Ministry of Religion (Ministère des cultes).

separation and the french revolution

In 1789 the relationship between the Catholic Church and the government of France was defined by the Concordat of 1516, a treaty negotiated at the beginning of the reformation by Francis I of France (r. 1515–1547) and Pope Leo X (r. 1513–1521). The concordat recognized Catholicism as the sole religion of France and gave the nomination of all bishoprics, abbeys, and priories to the king rather than the pope.

The conflict between the French Revolution and the Catholic Church over such issues as the abolition of the tithe (August 1789), the nationalization of church lands (November 1789), and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (July 1790) resulted in the supremacy of the state. All clerics were required to swear "to maintain with all their power the constitution decreed by the National Assembly." After increasing dechristianization in the years 1792 to 1794, the revolutionary government separated church and state on 21 February 1795 in a decree proclaiming freedom for all religions but renouncing state financial support. This decree (which paradoxically led to the reopening of many churches) formed the model for the nineteenth-century discussion of separation.

the napoleonic concordat, 1801–1905

Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon I, r. 1804–1814/15) held few religious convictions but he saw pragmatic reasons to restore church-state relations. Less than two years after his coup of 1799, Napoleon negotiated a new concordat (July 1801) recognizing that "the Roman, catholic, and apostolic religion is the religion of the great majority of the French citizens." Bonaparte granted similar Organic Articles for Protestants in 1802 and Jews in 1804. All religions were obliged to accept the changes wrought by the revolution and freedom of religion.

This concordat linked church and state throughout the nineteenth century. A restored Ministère des cultes provided upkeep for church structures and paid clerical salaries. The Ministry was typically headed by a Catholic, supported by a Protestant undersecretary heading a division of "cultes non-catholiques."

the campaign for the separation of church and state

Two strong voices kept the theory of separation alive: republicans, inspired by the revolution, and Protestants, seeking independence from a Catholicdominated government. Republicans did not separate church and state during the short-lived Second Republic of 1848. Indeed, Chapter Two of the Constitution of that year reiterated the constitutional connection of church and state. For the remainder of the century, separation was a central feature of programs of radical republicans but postponed by moderates. Léon Gambetta (1838–1882) stressed separation in his Belleville Manifesto of 1869 and Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929) did the same in his Radical Manifesto of 1885.

Many Protestants did not wait for politicians to legislate separation. Inspired by the Evangelical revival known as the "awakening" (le réveil) and by the teaching of theologians such as Alexandre Vinet (1797–1847), Protestants founded "free churches" (églises libres) outside of the concordat system. These églises libres were self-financed and outside of state regulation. Prominent congregations, such as the Église Taitbout in Paris, led for much of the century by Pastor Edmond Dehault de Pressensé (1824–1891), became religious centers of the campaign for the separation of church and state.

separation and the third republic

Radicals did not have a parliamentary majority in the early years of the Third Republic, but a republican majority agreed upon an indirect form of separation. Beginning in the 1880s republicans voted to reduce the annual budget for religion, forcing churches to fund more of their activities. The budget for clerical salaries was cut by nearly 20 percent between 1880 and 1894.

The election of a parliamentary majority favoring separation was a consequence of the 1894 Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was falsely accused of treason. Conservative defenders of the concordat were mostly anti-Dreyfusards, and the elections of 1898 and 1902 sent to office a majority of Dreyfusards. By 1902 a coalition of moderate republicans, Radicals, and socialists supported the government of Émile Combes (1835–1921) in readopting separation. Moderates were persuaded by the role of the Catholic Church in the Dreyfus affair; socialists were eager to get past the religious question and focus on social welfare.

A bill separating church and state was developed under the direction of Aristide Briand (1862–1932), the reporter of a committee studying the question. It was largely drafted by Francis de Pressensé (1853–1914), the son of Pastor de Pressensé and a Socialist deputy. The law of separation was promulgated, amid general Catholic opposition and Protestant enthusiasm, in December 1905. The contentious, and often bitterly resisted, inventories of churches followed the next year.

See alsoAnticlericalism; Catholicism; Concordat of 1801; Dreyfus Affair; France.


Galton, Arthur Howard. Church and State in France, 1300–1907. London, 1907.

Larkin, Maurice. Church and State after the Dreyfus Affair: The Separation Issue in France. London, 1974.

Mayeur, Jean-Marie. La Séparation de l'église et de l'état, 1905. Paris, 1966.

McManners, John. Church and State in France, 1870–1914. New York, 1972.

Méjean, Louis. La Séparation des l'églises et de l'état. Paris, 1959.

Partin, Malcom O. Waldeck-Rousseau, Combes, and the Church: The Politics of Anticlericalism, 1899–1905. Durham, N.C., 1969.

Steven C. Hause

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