2020 is a year of anniversaries for one of the most well-known statesmen in French history. Not only does it mark the eightieth anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s Appeal of June 18 which called on France to continue fighting against Nazi Germany. It is also the 130th anniversary of his birth and the fiftieth anniversary of his death.
On the afternoon of his birth on November 22, 1890, de Gaulle’s parents took him to be baptized in l’Église Saint-André de Lille. Thus began a journey which ended when de Gaulle died on November 9, 1970, minutes after receiving the last rites from his parish priest, Father Claude Jaugey.
Until recently, de Gaulle’s Catholicism was an understudied topic. In his influential three–volume biography of de Gaulle published in the 1980s, Jean Lacouture portrayed it as something to which de Gaulle held primarily as a matter of French identity rather than deep faith.
Over the past thirty years, that interpretation has collapsed. Books including Gérard Bardy’s Charles le Catholique: De Gaulle et l’Église (2011), Laurent de Gaulle’s Une Vie Sous le Regard de Dieu: La Foi du Général de Gaulle (2015), and the conference proceedings collected in Charles de Gaulle, chrétien, homme d’État (2011) have illustrated that de Gaulle was a believing Catholic who accepted the Church’s teachings without much fuss. The real question is how this commitment shaped de Gaulle’s thought and action in a context in which practicing Catholics were inescapably entangled in a series of social fractures which had divided France since 1789.
A Catholic by culture and conviction
In one sense, Lacouture was right. Catholicism was simply part of the cultural air breathed by de Gaulle. He grew up in a family thoroughly immersed in the France which was Catholic, monarchist, strongly patriotic, and intensely suspicious of the other France: that of the Revolution, Voltaire, and republicanism.
Piety was an everyday part of the household in which de Gaulle was raised. His mother Jeanne (née Maillot) was, by de Gaulle’s account, fiercely devout, even intransigently so. His more easy-going but equally devout father, Henri de Gaulle, was a professor of history and classics who taught in Jesuit schools.
All the de Gaulle children attended Catholic schools and the pre-conciliar Jesuit imprint remained on Charles throughout his life. When he met the Jesuit General, Pedro Arrupe, in Rome in 1967, de Gaulle referred enthusiastically to “his Jesuits.” In a letter he wrote two years later to Father Bruno de Solages, de Gaulle commented that if his life had any significance, “it was only by the grace of God.” “I am,” he added, “grateful to my former teachers, their lessons and their example.”
Like all educated French Catholics of his time, de Gaulle read late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century French writers like Charles Péguy, the poet, nationalist and socialist who converted to Catholicism in 1908 and immersed his patriotism into a mystical view of France. But de Gaulle was also attracted to older sources. Throughout de Gaulle’s posthumously published Lettres, Notes et Carnets, there are numerous citations of texts like Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, Augustine’s Confessions and City of God, and the Scriptures themselves, many of which he could quote from memory. No one who has read these hitherto private writings of de Gaulle, Henri de Lubac SJ once stated, could doubt the authenticity of his faith.
That faith also involved the cultivation of an interior spirituality. For de Gaulle, this included but went beyond regular participation in the sacraments. At different points of his life, he attended retreats and, as a young man, made pilgrimages to places like Lourdes. In his later years, de Gaulle often went to confession at a home for retired priests not far from his residence in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises.
By all accounts, this spirituality helped de Gaulle cope with the horrors of World War I. He later told his son, Admiral Philippe de Gaulle, that “If I had not been a Catholic Christian, I think that I would have been less brave in combat. I would have been afraid of death instead of being only afraid of suffering.” In the trenches, one of de Gaulle’s most precious possessions was a much-thumbed copy of Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ.
De Gaulle’s inner spiritual life was disguised by a reticence about discussing such matters outside family settings. That was part and parcel of de Gaulle’s background in the French minor aristocracy. It was a social milieu, reinforced by his marriage to Yvonne Vendroux who came from a strongly Catholic business family, which emphasized distance towards those who were not family or close friends.
A Catholic officer in the Third Republic
These habits of reserve were, however, also a question of circumstances. When de Gaulle opted for a career in the French army in 1909, he did so in the aftermath of ferocious clashes between the Church and anti-clerical French governments in the 1890s and early 1900s. One manifestation of these conflicts was an effort by government ministers to diminish Catholic influence in a Catholic-dominated officer corps.
Between 1900 and 1905, the Minister of War, Louis André—a militant anti-Catholic—resorted to using networks of his fellow Freemasons to determine which officers regularly attended Mass. The goal was to impede their promotion. When the scheme was discovered, the subsequent scandal (known as l’affaire des fiches) resulted in the prime minister’s resignation. But suspicion about practicing Catholics in public life persisted right up until the Third Republic’s fall in 1940. During the 1930s, when tensions between right and left in France were extremely high, some wondered if Catholic officers in the French army might be tempted to imitate their Spanish counterparts and seek to overthrow a republic they viewed as irredeemably corrupt.
There’s no evidence that de Gaulle’s Catholicism hindered his army career. It helped that his primary mentor during the 1930s, the military theorist and retired colonel Emile Meyer, was a liberal-minded Jew who had been dismissed from the army in the 1890s for defending another Jew, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, famously and falsely convicted of treason in the 1890s. Nor did de Gaulle hesitate to lobby left-wing politicians such as Léon Blum, France’s first Socialist prime minister, to adopt his proposals to reform the French army. In his writings from the period, many of which were read in high political and military circles, de Gaulle expressed admiration for particular figures associated with “the other France.” This included the mildly anti-clerical prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, who had led France to victory in 1918.
Such factors made it impossible for his many critics to marginalize de Gaulle by claiming that he had a sectarian outlook. That said, there’s no doubt that de Gaulle’s Catholicism exercised a profound influence upon the way he led those Frenchmen who refused to surrender in 1940.
Free France as a Crusade
A few years after World War II, de Gaulle reportedly joked that his initial supporters in 1940 came from “the synagogue and the Cagoule.” The latter was a secretive anti-communist organization of French Catholic nationalists. De Gaulle’s point was that the Free French movement embraced people ranging from Jews, socialists, and freemasons to hardline nationalists and royalist Catholics.
De Gaulle never inquired into his followers’ confessional origins or beliefs. What mattered to him was a person’s commitment to liberating France. At the same time, de Gaulle relied heavily upon particular individuals for whom, like him, Catholicism and intense patriotism went hand-in-hand. They included his secretary Elisabeth de Miribel, who entered religious life after the war and later wrote a book about Edith Stein; the devout nobleman and army officer Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque; and the naval officer and Carmelite friar Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu.
It was d’Argenlieu who proposed the Croix de Lorraine as the insignia of Free France. On one level, it expressed the ambition to liberate France from the German yoke. Lorraine was one of two provinces absorbed by the new German Empire after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and then reunited to France after World War I.
The fact, however, that the symbol was also a cross was no coincidence. De Gaulle sought to invest Free France with something akin to the spirit of a crusade, albeit one that people with very different beliefs could embrace. He was not shy about blending distinctly religious themes with patriotic motifs. In speeches given throughout the war, de Gaulle regularly invoked the image of Notre Dame la France in ways that clearly echoed Péguy. In a 1941 interview with the Journal d’Egypte in 1941, de Gaulle was asked to define who he was. His response was telling: “I am a free Frenchman. I believe in God and the future of my country.” No politician of the Third Republic would have spoken in such a manner.
Vichy and the Bishops
Overshadowing de Gaulle’s quasi-religious conception of Free France, however, was a very practical problem: his movement’s strained relationship with France’s Catholic hierarchy.
In 1940, the majority of France’s clergy followed the rest of the country in embracing Marshal Philippe Pétain’s regime. They were subsequently inclined to see de Gaulle as, at best, a quixotic adventurer, or, at worst, a traitor who had defied a legitimate government. Something like 40 percent of the French episcopate in 1940 had served in the trenches of the First World War. For them, Pétain was a hero, the victor of the Battle of Verdun. Nor did they shed any tears about the Third Republic’s demise, given its anti-clerical history and efforts to marginalize the Church in French life.
Over time, Free France acquired supporters in the French episcopate. From the beginning, it was backed by the curial official, Cardinal Eugène Tisserant. A scripture scholar whose gift for languages had served him well as an intelligence officer in the French army in the Middle East in World War I, he held the position of Secretary of the Congregation for Eastern Churches in the Roman Curia. Another eventual sympathizer was Archbishop Jules-Géraud Saliège of Toulouse. Since the 1930s he had been outspokenly critical of National Socialism. During the war, Saliège forthrightly defended French Jews by word and deed, and was subsequently recognized as a Righteous among the Nations by Israel’s Yad Vashem.
In May 1942, de Gaulle wrote a clandestine letter to Saliège in which he expressed his worry “as a Christian and a Frenchmen” about the long-term consequences for the Church of the French episcopate’s association with Vichy. Three months later, Saliège penned a letter to Cardinal Tisserant outlining similar concerns. These efforts had little effect. While many bishops became more critical of Vichy, few questioned its legitimacy. Some bishops maintained Pétainist sympathies long after 1945.
Following the Liberation, there were immense pressures inside and outside the Church to purge the French episcopate of anyone closely associated with Vichy. De Gaulle was more circumspect. Not only did he want to draw a line under the postwar recriminations then engulfing the country. He also understood Pius XII’s reluctance to establish a precedent for removing bishops for political reasons at a government’s request.
In the end, de Gaulle worked with the new nuncio to France (and future pope), Angelo Roncalli, to secure the early retirements and resignations of a small number of bishops credibly accused of direct collaboration with the Germans. Yet despite averting a major crisis in church-state relations, de Gaulle’s relationship with many French bishops remained uneasy. Neither he nor they could quite forget who had stood where during the war’s darkest days. Not even de Gaulle’s election in 1958 as the first practicing Catholic in seventy years to be President of France would bring about a detente.
The Last Christian King of France
When de Gaulle returned to power in 1958, many people asked how he would reconcile his Catholicism with being president of a republic constitutionally committed to laïcité: the principle established by the 1905 law separating church and state that, notwithstanding historical ties, the state must be impartial and neutral vis-à-vis all religions. Many past governments had interpreted this in a distinctly anti-Catholic manner, and many French politicians maintained strongly anticlerical dispositions.
De Gaulle’s way of addressing the issue did not involve denying what he believed or certain facts about his country. In a 1959 interview with an American journalist, de Gaulle stated that he believed that France’s history as a nation began with the baptism of Clovis, the first king of France, in 508. France, de Gaulle then added matter-of-factly, was a Christian country.
The French Republic, however, was a different matter. The republic was constitutionally secular, and de Gaulle was scrupulous in his respect for the limitations which went along with that. De Gaulle abstained, for example, from taking communion at any public Mass that he attended in an official capacity. He broke that rule on just four occasions, such as when he attended Mass in Gdansk, Poland in 1967. It was his way of expressing solidarity with oppressed Christians living under a Communist government.
Behind the scenes, de Gaulle did several things to assist the Church in practical terms. He authorized, for instance, some Catholic members of his ministry like the Resistance hero Edmond Michelet (today, a candidate for beatification) to try and regularize the legal status of Catholic religious orders. Their ambiguous legal standing (a legacy of past church-state conflicts) had hindered their ability to run schools and hospitals for decades.
Throughout the 1960s, some members of de Gaulle’s ministry like the Interior minister Roger Frey held regular meetings with priests like the Jesuit theologian and future cardinal Jean Daniélou (a fervent Gaullist) to maintain discreet communications with influential Church figures. On an international level, de Gaulle worked hard to establish cordial relations with the Holy See. This was aided by the fact that he knew John XXIII from the latter’s time as nuncio to France. De Gaulle also knew that Paul VI was a devotee of French Catholic authors like Georges Bernanos and didn’t hesitate to capitalize on that.
De Gaulle paid close personal attention to the debates and discussions that occurred at the Second Vatican Council. While supportive of the Council’s reforms and the effort to open a conversation with modernity, de Gaulle was not without misgivings. In one meeting of his council of ministers, de Gaulle uncharacteristically wandered off topic to express worries that Vatican II would become an occasion for considerable mischief. In a private letter to the Thomist scholar, Jacques Maritain, de Gaulle expressed admiration for Maritain’s 1966 book Le Paysan de la Garonne in which the philosopher expressed sharp criticisms of progressive explanations of the Council. De Gaulle also told the former French ambassador to the Holy See, Wladmir d’Ormesson that he agreed “entirely” with d’Ormesson’s 1969 Le Figaro article criticizing those priests who, in the post-conciliar turmoil, had forgotten that they were supposed to be priests—not activists or celebrities.
In the midst of an often-tumultuous ten year presidency, de Gaulle’s faith remained front and center of his private life. He arranged to have a small chapel installed in the presidential residence, the Élysée Palace, in what had been a bar for chauffeurs under previous presidents. If de Gaulle was at the Élysée on a Sunday, a priest would come to say Mass for him, his wife, and visiting family members. Occasionally the celebrant would be his nephew, Father François de Gaulle, back for R&R from missionary work in Francophone Africa. The Church’s spectacular growth in that part of the world, it’s fair to say, brought de Gaulle great joy, both as a Catholic and as someone who saw this as extending the civilizing mission of Notre Dame La France.
At the end of his life, de Gaulle was not the happiest of men. In some respects, he never recovered from the student uprisings and civil unrest that almost drove him from office in May 1968. He also worried that death would prevent him from completing his memoirs. “Pray for me,” he wrote to his classmate from schooldays, Father François Lepoutre SJ, not long before he died.
One of de Gaulle’s life-long habits was to write down quotations from books that left an impression on him. The second last of these citations, recorded in de Gaulle’s posthumously published writings, comes from Book 13 of Augustine’s De Trinitate. It reads: “Posse quod velit. Velle quod oportet” [To be able to do what you desire, desire what is fitting].
The question of what is fitting for us to want was never in doubt for de Gaulle. His country’s well-being was one such thing. That, in his mind, went together with giving glory to God. As de Gaulle said in extemporaneous remarks to a group of French clergy in Rome in 1967:
The Church is eternal and France will never die. Whatever the dangers, the crises and the dramas that we must traverse, above all and always, we know where we are going. We go, even when we die, towards Life.
In these words, de Gaulle expressed confidence not only in the future of his country but also the ultimate promise of Christ. Few statesmen have shown such faith.
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