Bastille Day values

How very Christian those revolutionary values of "liberté, egalité e fraternité"

By Thomas O'Loughlin

Each year on July 14th when France celebrates its National Day -- what we English- speakers call "Bastille Day" -- my mind goes back to visiting the Church of our Lady of the Angels in Collioure with the waves of the sea, literally, lapping its walls. Collioure is in the extreme south of France, on the Mediterranean, just a few kilometers from Spain. It is a tourist hotspot -- deservedly for its picturesque beauty – and the church jutting out into the sea is seen by myriads every day. Few, I suspect, look up over its main door where some official at some point in the past painted the following words:

REPUBLIQUE FRANCAISE: LIBERTE, EGALITE, FRATERNITE.


The lintel of the main door in the church in Collioure, France.

It is a far cry from most of the titles one sees on churches, and one can make a shrewd guess about the rationale behind the inscription. The storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 and the subsequent revolution were seen as a clash between modernity and the established powers: and the Church and the monarchy were fused in many minds, whether they approved of the fusion or saw it as the source of human enslavement.

Indeed, for nearly two centuries the default position of many Catholics in Europe was to see the French Revolution as an explicit attack on the Church. Many of "the left" saw the Church as the emotional bulwark of reaction, and the structure producing intellectual and social enslavement. Karl Marx expressed this famously in 1847 when he said: "The social principles of Christianity justified the slavery of Antiquity, glorified the serfdom of the Middle Ages and equally know, when necessary, how to defend the oppression of the proletariat, although they make pitiful face over it."

Meanwhile, from the Catholic side one heard -- and indeed one still can hear from those who imagine faith in terms of a dialectic -- that all our difficulties could be traced back to the "rationalism of the Enlightenment" and "the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution". There was a strange nostalgia in these claims: the Virgilian, but profoundly pagan, backward glance to a "golden age" somehow does not sit well with a religion that understands time linearly and culminating in an eschaton.

Christians do not look backwards to a good time but seek to do the Father's will and hasten the coming of the kingdom: the kingdom is a future event.

A culture war

But in that culture war that ran from roughly 1790 to 1960, each side sought the advantage and even some well-painted graffiti on a church building might seem like a little victory! So, I imagine some minor official, anxious to show that modernity had overtaken throne and altar, decided that placing these words over the door would remind worshippers that there were other values at work in this place, the French Republic, than those being preached inside!

The new, non-Church values were liberté, égalité and fraternité.

Sadly, many of those who preached would have agreed! The Church openly declared itself to be a "society of un-equals" -- there were two ranks: clergy (teachers and rulers and sanctifiers) and laity (led, taught and sanctified). Slavery was still defended as morally acceptable in Catholic moral theology textbooks for seminaries as late as 1860 -- and the modern wholesale opposition to slavery is a completely new departure in Catholic theology. Catholics still have problems with the notion of actual equality within the Church, and we (along with many of the eastern Churches) are also cagey about practical fraternity: otherwise, we would not be able to refuse other Christians a place at our tables.

But there is a more profound question: could it possibly be that both the cleric and the anti- cleric were wrong.

Could it even be that liberté, égalité and fraternité are Christian values?

Could it be that it was the effect of Christian teaching, anonymously present in the revolutionaries' minds, that inspired the events of 1789?

Liberté as a Christian value

Is there a Christian today who would publicly defend slavery?

I know many whose poor grasp of the nature of our common humanity, and whose anxieties and fears, makes them racists – but even these stop short of defending the opposite of liberty. But we did do it, just as other Christians defended apartheid in South Africa, and so we can forget some very basic Christian messages about humanity.

We are all God's children (1 John 3,1) and because of God's equal love, we are equal in dignity. If am God's child, I have an innate gift of liberty. If that is taken from me – that enslavement is part of the world of sin.

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are"

To not view the promotion of liberty as part of the moral vision of Christians is to imagine and promote an image of God that is unworthy of faith. But -- here is the awkward bit -- we have to face up squarely to those accusations that Marx levelled at us 170 years ago. Some of the thinkers we have most favored in our history -- such as Aristotle -- took slavery to be part of the natural order. One can find plenty of cases in the scriptures where slavery is taken for granted. We can find early disciples of Jesus, such as Paul, who seemed to have little problem with it. And we can find any number of famous names -- such as St Augustine or Pope St Gregory the Great -- and even Catholic bishops in the young United States who accepted slavery or owned slaves. It is always worth recalling that St Patrick -- him of the green beer on March 17th -- does not condemn slavery but does criticize those who stole his father's (a deacon) slaves.

What a challenge it is to discover just what a being moral means for a Christian. It can take centuries!

Egalité as a Christian value

Equality is not some obscure right discovered in a philosophers' salon in the 18th century but a basic moral sense. Often the first direct evidence we get that a child is becoming a moral agent is when she cries out in the playground: "That's not fair!" We want to receive fairness – and that is based in the notion that we humans should treat each other with equality. Indeed, the whole tradition of Christian ethics is seen to be founded in summation of the earthly demands upon disciples: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mt 19,19 and 22,39, and parallels). The supposition is that I and every other person are interchangeable in respect of our duties towards one another: neighbors are equal. But there is an explicit sense in which equality is a mark of the Christian -- and a characteristic of our lives together.

Consider Jesus' act of washing the feet of his disciples (Jn 13, 3-20) -- and then commanding them that they should each wash one another's feet. In this mutual foot washing, there is established the basis of the equality of the baptized. To wash the feet of guests was the task of the lowest, female household slave. There was simply no one lower in the social hierarchy -- indeed such slaves were seen as just available sexual objects for their owners. It was -- and is -- a shocking image. It is little wonder that it has never caught on as a practice -- and when it is done it is interpreted as humility on the part of "the big people" towards "the little people" rather than a statement of égalité.

But John rubs in the message:

You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him (Jn 13:13-6).

The same message is found elsewhere in the gospels: the first shall be last and the last first (Mt 19:30).

The Christian vision of mutual relationships is one of equality. We find this hard to take when we think of the Catholic Church as the hierarchical society where some are "reverends" -- some even more reverend that other reverends and a few who are "eminent", but the vision stands. We Catholics still live in a world that has many of the trappings of medieval European monarchies -- and it still affects the way many in the Church think. But just because it is familiar and fills us with awe -- all those impressive ranks in their coloured soutanes -- it does not mean this nostalgia as a spectacle is part of our basic vision.

The events of 1789 may still need to shock us out of our confusion of earthly pride with discipleship. The equality of the baptized is basic.

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise (Gal 3:27-9).

A visual display of the equality of every Christian in baptism?

And now as we embark on the path towards a synodal Church we might need to look back to that call for égalité and be thankful for those who first pointed out the need for a reform of society that placed it at its centre!

Fraternité as a Christian value

Human fraternity -- that we are a family -- is not that widely recognized apart from the three great monotheistic religions. Most religions are better at segregating the nice people (us) from the not-nice people (them). And if we need proof that fraternity is rare, let us recall that the history of humanity can be seen as the history of warfare.

But fraternité is very much a Christian virtue.

Just look at the language that we use when we gather for the liturgy: we are called sisters and brothers. Just look at the language of our religious orders: "Sister" and "Brother" have become titles! But also let us recall the solidarity we are expected to show with people in need, those who are suffering and marginalized. We embrace them -- or should -- as members of our family.

This is fraternité.

The need to share vaccines in the wake of COVID-19 is a call for us to model fraternité.

Taking the knee – an expression of fraternity

Learn from everyone

Too often there is a knee-jerk reaction to hearing the words "Enlightenment" or "French Revolution" that sends Catholics off on a nostalgia trip for the Ancien Régime! Instead, we should celebrate Bastille Day as an occasion when human beings discovered a new sense of dignity -- a moment when Christians were reminded of what we had forgotten.

Thomas O'Loughlin is a presbyter of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor-emeritus of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Eating Together, Becoming One: Taking Up Pope Francis's Call to Theologians (Liturgical Press, 2019).

First printed in La Croix International