The Catholic Church in France under German occupation

The Catholic Church in France during the Second World War.

During the Second World War France was occupied by German forces after a catastrophic defeat, so catastrophic it caused her ally Great Britain to flee from the field of battle; the French Government retreated to Bordeaux, where it asked for an armistice rather than capitulate.   France was dismembered and occupied. Alsace and Lorraine were annexed by Germany, and the North was made dependent administratively on the Brussels Nazi administration.  However the Germans did not occupy an area situated away from the Channel and Atlantic coasts, until November 1942.

Assembled in the small town of Vichy, in the non-occupied zone, in its last meeting after the defeat, Parliament gave Marshal Pétain full powers to govern and to make a new constitution.

Pétain had ‘full powers’; he legislated by decree; parliament did not meet.  These so-called full powers did not however allow Pétain to do as he liked.  His position, unsupported by any party or mass organisation, was weak.  He had against him the occupier, part of the French political personnel, and a large part of the press, who all wielded power from Paris.

In the occupied zone, Vichy legislation was only valid after it was approved by the occupying authorities, but there was only one legislation, which applied to all zones.  Therefore all Vichy legislation was under German control

Public administration in the occupied zone was also under the control of the occupier, down to the nomination of officials.

What role did the Catholic Church play in this situation?  Since it was traditionally associated with the Right, one would expect that it would support Pétain and be given pride of place by the regime and then be engulfed in the disgrace that followed.  But is that what happened?


What was the Church before 1940?

The Church had survived despite years of successful persecution, starting with the French Revolution.  It had taken part voluntarily in the meeting of the Three Estates (The nobles, the clergy and the Third Estate, the bourgeois class), and supported the decision that the property of the Church would be put at the disposal of the nation (1789).  There followed a series of measures, such as the expulsion of religious orders in 1790.  During the following years, which were dominated by foreign wars, Christianity was suspended, the Church calendar superseded, church buildings vandalised, and the cult of Reason was established.

After the Revolution, Napoleon maintained the transfer of property from the Church to a large section of the population, including the peasantry, and also a transfer of influence from the Church to the State in the field of welfare, education and the registering of births, deaths and marriages.  He did not reinstate the Church in its property or in its old position as dispenser of education and welfare, neither did he return its responsibility of registering births, deaths and marriages.  However, he  more or less imposed a Concordat on the Pope, which compensated the Church by providing finance for the clergy and for Catholic schools.

The Restoration of the monarchy (1815) and the Second Empire, after a brief second attempt at a republican regime,  did not see a return of the Church to its former position, as might have been expected.

In 1875 the Third Republic was founded and, after a shaky start which saw royalist parties still influential, the Republican parties established themselves, supported by a long-standing majority in Parliament which was very strongly anti-clerical.  The Republic was finally built, on a platform of anticlericalism.

The Republicans voted to implement measures that had first been put forward during the French Revolution at its most virulent: expelling the religious orders, removing religious symbols from public buildings, preventing members of religious orders from teaching, ending the legal sanctity of Sunday rest, and forbidding processions and the ringing of bells.  To rub it in, they named streets after republican figures, including anti-clerical politicians.  The present writer lived near “Rue Aristide Briand”; Briand headed the committee that worked out the law of separation of Church and State.

Teaching had remained a stronghold for the Church: it ran a network of primary and secondary schools, which spread its influence.  The Republicans dealt that network a blow by creating an alternative.  The Jules Ferry law of 1882 set up a network of schools that were free and compulsory, when Catholic schools were not free, and not compulsory.  The new schools would not teach religion, and the teachers would be trained in establishments that were to be strictly neutral in matters of religion. The competition between the two school systems gave an edge to the republican teacher, increasing his or her militancy in the cause of the neutrality of the state.  This had a deep and lasting influence on the country.  In the 1950s, the author of this article remembers being taught to admire Jules Ferry and his law of “L’école laïque, gratuite et obligatoire” {free, non-religious compulsory school}, and a prize giving day when the headmistress protested in her speech to parents that the priest had scheduled the celebration of First Communion on the same day, causing some pupils to be absent.


Religious orders

The establishment of the Third Republic saw a concerted attack against religious orders: they were dissolved and their property confiscated and liquidated, unless they obtained permission to continue in existence.  This permission had to be obtained from Parliament, and was systematically denied.  It was illegal for members of a non-authorised order to continue wearing their habit and occupying their premises, the crime being punishable by a fine or prison. In 1904, members of religious orders were banned from any teaching whatsoever.  Faced with this situation many members went abroad.  (As a consequence, the young Charles de Gaulle went to Belgium, to attend a Jesuit school.)  Others gave up wearing the habit and remained in their premises, bought through helpful supporters for “other purposes”.  When such subterfuges were suspected, the religious were prosecuted. Between 1906 and 1914 there were 272 prosecutions for such cases.

The de la Salle Brothers (Frères des Ecoles Chrétiennes) went abroad.  They established a flourishing network of schools in the Middle East, Egypt and South America, where they taught French. They had no presence in France. As a result, eventually their only connection with France was the name of their founder, and only the older members were native French speakers.  The Republican Government realised it was depriving itself of a useful presence abroad and tried to change the legislation to permit the Brothers to once again establish themselves in France but this was never allowed.  The moderate Republican Poincaré wanted to put this to Parliament in 1926 but it came to nothing.


The Separation of Church and State

The Government unilaterally legislated for the Separation of Church and State in 1904-5, at a time when diplomatic relations between France and the Vatican were broken. The committee that worked on this measure included members who explicitly wanted the destruction of the Catholic Church.  The law was a punitive and humiliating measure imposed on the Church.   Churches and presbyteries were to be confiscated unless a “cultual association” (association cultuelle) was formed, on the model of 1901 associations, with as sole object the exercise of the cult.  The law of 1901 had established the right of associations to exist legally.  (‘Associations according to 1901’ still exist today, for non-profit making associations.)  So each priest had to found an association and have it allowed by the Mayor, who would then allow the use of a church and a presbytery. If the property included a library, that was confiscated, as not necessary for the exercise of the cult.   Furthermore, saying Mass was considered as holding a meeting, and this too had to be applied for, on the basis of one Mass, one application.  What was worse from the Church’s point of view was that this applied to the Bishops too.  Priest and Bishop were on a footing of equality, the Church’s hierarchical structure was ignored.

Priests and Bishops were no longer salaried or housed by the State.  The cult associations were only allowed to keep the property that was necessary for the exercise of the cult; the rest was confiscated.  This necessitated inventories. But in some areas these led to disturbances so severe that they had to be discontinued.

This law did separate Church and State.  The Church was no longer anything special.  It was a series of separate associations, with which the State had no particular connexion.  The State then had no say in the appointment of Bishops.  The Church had no connexions left, except with the Papacy.

The Church refused to turn itself into a series of 1901-type associations.  Priests were not however turned out of their Churches and Presbyteries: a Mayor who tried to do that was told to desist; Masses were not stopped.

The result of these campaigns against the Church from 1789 onwards had their effect, however.  A large number of people, especially the lower classes, deserted the Church, France was dechristianised.  The clergy was isolated; in villages the priest was often in opposition to the Mayor and the schoolteacher, and his influence was much weaker.  Financially the situation was bad.  Priests and Bishops lived on small incomes; the priesthood was not attractive as an occupation.

What did the Church think?  Paradoxically it was encouraged by the Pope to accept the republican regime: Its official role was to support established government and to preach obedience to the faithful.  Pope Leo XIII in the Encyclical Diuturnum Illud of 1881 had enjoined the faithful to recognise and respect established authority.  In the case of France, the Pope was recommending to Catholics that they accept the Republic, at a time when many Catholics still were not willing to accept the Republic as a fait accompli. They obeyed the Pope on this, more or less willingly.


Social Policy

The influence of the Pope however set the clergy on a line of thought that did not coincide with the philosophy of the new republican liberal regime.  The Encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) had taught the clergy that liberal capitalism was the enemy of the Catholic Church, and the agent of de-Christianisation.  In the thirties, two important Encyclicals put the Pope’s position on the two philosophies of the time: one against Communism Divini Redemptoris (1937) and one against Nazism, Mit brennender Sorge (1937, at a time when the British and French Governments were encouraging Hitler, an encouragement culminating with Munich).  The Catholic Church set itself against the three important movements of the twentieth century: liberal capitalism, socialism and Nazism.


Vichy & the Church

So this was the Church that was greeted in 1940 with the news that Marshall Pétain was head of State.

There was a moment of hope from some members of the clergy, but feelings were mixed on both sides.

The Church continued its policy of respecting the Government of the moment, as recommended by the Vatican. The official Church position was that the hierarchy would be loyal to the established regime but not in thrall to it.  The Church’s spiritual role forbad it from being committing itself to support any political regime. The Papal Nuncio, Valerio Valeri, warned the clergy to keep their distance; there was no knowing how long the regime would last, and no great confidence should be placed on it, it would be like building on sand.

The ACA (Assemblée des Cardinaux et Archevêques, an assembly of the archbishops and cardinals) met in September 1941 and issued a reminder to priests not to be involved in activities of a political nature, such as contributing to the spread of Government propaganda.  It forbade priests and leaders of Catholic movements to hold office in the association of First World War veterans (the Légion Française des Combattants), created by Vichy after it had disbanded all previous veterans’ associations.

A National Council was established by Vichy to help frame the new Constitution, and at first it included some ecclesiastics. Cardinal Suhard was a member but never attended and soon withdrew.  It was felt that Catholics should not be part of the National Council.

On 24 July 1941 the ACA declared the Vichy regime “legitimate”.  The Vichy regime was a representative institution, having been actually voted in by the assembled Parliament at a time of the gravest crisis.

There were members of the clergy, especially at the beginning, who sympathised with the Vichy regime. They liked Pétain’s message: repenting sins, restoring authority and discipline, returning to the land and to the family.  They liked Vichy’s motto: Travail, Famille, Patrie (Work, Family, Country).  The National Revolution of Vichy was directed against liberal capitalism; this seemed to chime with the message of the Encyclical Rerum Novarum, so they approved the National Revolution.   However, as we have seen in a previous article The Vichy origins of modern France. How the Vichy Government superseded traditionalism and promoted modernity (Church & State 105, Summer 2011), the National Revolution was the ideology of a nostalgic and powerless minority within the Vichy Government.

On a personal level, the Church hierarchy was not very enamoured of Pétain himself; he was not devout and had not lived his life as a good Catholic—not getting married until his sixties, and then marrying a divorcee. His wife’s first marriage had been annulled in 1929 and the possibility had existed of consecrating his civil marriage in Church since that date, but Pétain did not avail himself of the opportunity.   (His marriage was eventually consecrated in a religious ceremony in 1941, by proxy, for reasons of State.)  There are no religious references in his speeches and appeals. Despite being in the Army, he had not involved himself in the Dreyfus Affair, in which religious elements had been active.

Pétain did want the support of the Church. However, he was aware that he was getting the support of a body that was not very popular in the country, or with many politicians, or with the occupying forces.  Eventually too it was the support of a body that was critical of his Government’s policies. He counted on the support of the Church but did not choose many Ministers who could be considered as Catholics, his head of Government Pierre Laval in particular was scornful of the Church.


Vichy legislation in favour of the Church.

Vichy laws in favour of the Church show the limits under which the regime operated.

The defeat had precipitated a general feeling of guilt: spontaneously came the idea that France was culpable; there was a collective self-accusation.  This was so widespread that even Trade Unions like the Communist-allied CGT as well as the Christian CFTC blamed certain acts by the Trade Union movement for the defeat.  For some Catholics, France deserved to be beaten: the French had sinned, loved pleasure and the easy life, lacked discipline, eschewed hard work, and their morals had become too lax.  Then came the search for the people responsible for this state of affairs.  France was no longer a Christian country, because her children were educated by militant godless teachers in the compulsory, free, non-religious primary schools.  The solution promulgated was to stop the production of these teachers, so teacher-training colleges were closed.  Existing teachers in State schools would be made to teach “Duties to God” as part of the curriculum; priests and members of religious orders would be allowed to teach in State schools.

But, given public opinion at the time, these measures could not be carried through; Vichy could not undo decades of anti-clerical measures. In religious matters, public opinion was on the whole indifferent, if not hostile, to the Church.

The Vichy Directives were greeted with protests; the Minister of Education responsible was replaced.  The new Minister for Education insisted on his determination to maintain the secular State and the neutrality of schools, so duties to God were not added to the curriculum, and clergy not allowed in State schools, although teacher-training colleges did remain closed (until 1945).

Signs of religious observance had been removed from public places, crucifixes had been taken down from class-rooms, hospitals and town halls; some in 1940 thought the time had come to bring them back.  Pétain, aware of public opinion, said the time was not right.  (Portraits of Pétain were put up in public buildings instead.)


Religious orders

Vichy made some moves in favour of religious orders.  It allowed members of religious orders to teach (they had started teaching again, unofficially, after the First World War).  It allowed orders to receive legacies.  It encouraged orders to apply for permission to settle, letting it be understood that it would be granted.  Few applied, only one permission was actually granted.  In 1944 the De La Salle Brothers were even refused permission by Vichy, on the grounds that their headquarters were in Rome.

However, belonging to a non-authorised order was no longer a criminal offence, so nuns and monks could wear their habit again without fear of prosecution.  Processions, taking the objects of the cult outside the Church, were once more legally allowed.  These measures legalised what had been tolerated more or less since the end of the First World War.

The clergy outside religious orders, the secular clergy, also benefited from measures in their favour.  Since the separation of Church and State, religious buildings had not been maintained by the State, unless they were of special historical interest.  Vichy promised to make funds available to repair all Churches.  It is interesting to note that in September 1940, the Bishop of Tarbes asked Pétain for the return of the Lourdes Grotto from the local Town Council.


Catholic Schools

The main question however was that of the funding of Catholic schools. Napoleon’s Concordat with the Vatican had not returned to the Church the property confiscated by the Revolution, but had made compensation by financing Catholic priests and schools. Since the Third Republic and the spate of anti-clerical measures, the State no longer contributed to the running of Catholic schools; teachers’ salaries and the maintenance of school buildings were financed by parents’ contributions and charitable donations.  A fifth of all schools functioned in this way, gathering about a million pupils.  45% of secondary schools were Catholic schools.  Vichy allowed funds to be given to Catholic primary schools, within limits.

The law of 2 November 1941 stipulated that Catholic elementary schools could get a subsidy from the State, but in compensation the schools would be under the control of public administration.  Vichy did not want to encourage the expansion of Catholic schools, so this subsidy would only be given to already existing schools, and the subsidy would never amount to more than 3/4 of the sums needed to run the schools. Teachers would receive “up to 60% of the salary paid to State primary teachers”.  The subsidy was only for primary schools, and did not include the cost of maintenance of buildings, and even less that of building new schools.

After 1943 the Bishops tried to obtain an increase in subsidies.  Pétain was no longer in charge, but his head of Government Pierre Laval turned a deaf ear, being both displeased with the Bishops’ attitude to certain measures taken by him, and aware of the attitude of the population which did not want to see the neutrality of the State in religious matters and the higher status of State schools endangered.

As the war intensified and the situation in France worsened, a number of issues gave rise to disagreements and led the Church to distance itself from the Government.


The Question of Youth Organisations

Vichy and the Church had conflicting objectives regarding youth organisations.

1914, with the ‘Sacred Union’ against Germany, had seen the reintegration of Catholics into the life of the nation.  Thanks to anti-clerical laws, seminarists were required to do military service and priests were made part of the army as ordinary soldiers. The war had  thrown the clergy into close contact with ordinary soldiers, factory and farm workers in civilian life. This experience opened the eyes of the clergy to the depth of ignorance and indifference to religion which existed in the country, especially among the lower classes.



The Church reacted by developing a policy of social action and youth action.  It developed a network of charitable associations, and a network of youth organisations,   the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne (for young workers), the Jeunesse Etudiante Chrétienne (for students) and others, grouped under an umbrella organisation.

The Vichy regime on the other hand, isolated and suffering from a lack of support, wanted to find mass support for itself.  To achieve this, Vichy formed youth movements.  To fill them out, it wanted the Catholic groups to merge with them, without keeping their religious character.  The Church was adamant that this would not happen and this created ill feeling between Church and Government.

The Question of Forced Labour.

From 1942, the Nazi occupying forces ordered that workers in occupied Europe be sent to Germany to work.  In France, Prime Minister Laval tried to negotiate and extract compensation by exchanging workers for prisoners (France had 1.5 million prisoners in German POW camps).  From 16th February 1943 Compulsory Labour Service was official Government policy. This put Catholics in a dilemma: on principle they had decided to support the Government, but they did not want to work for the enemy.  The motto “Labour, Family, Country” had turned, as they said, into “Forced Labour, away from the Family, against my Country”.  Young Catholics turned to priests for advice.  The hierarchy turned to theologians for advice.  The advice was, that it was not a sin to refuse to be sent to Germany to work.

This advice did not help the hierarchy get out of the difficulty.  Some Bishops relayed the advice in letters to be read to the faithful, others did not.  Some Catholic publications tried to relay the advice in their pages but were prevented by censorship.  Arguments raged: some thought that there should be a Catholic presence among the French in Germany, especially as the Germans refused permission for chaplains to accompany the requisitioned workers; if Catholics refused to go, others would be made to go in their place.  There was no consistent support by the Church for young Catholics who wanted to escape the Compulsory Labour Service.

The Persecution of the Jews.

The Church did not object to the measures taken in 1940 “to limit the influence of Jews on French public life”. In the search for those responsible for the defeat, many thought that, as we saw above, godless education was the source of French weakness and decadence.  Those who had framed the new system of compulsory, free, non-religious primary schools included Jews and Freemasons.  They also included Protestants, but the French had too long a memory of the Wars of Religions to want to attack them.

The Church agreed with Vichy that there was a “Jewish Question” (See Appendix).

The Church did however protest against the deportation of the Jews when that happened; deportations from the internment camps were witnessed by the local population and local priests and gave rise to protests. The protests of the Bishop of Toulouse, Mgr Saliège, were the topic of a radio programme on France Inter (8.11.12).  Mgr Saliège was one of the people who before the war deplored what he saw as the lax morals of the French, their love of pleasure and search for an easy life, so Pétain’s words had found an echo in him at the beginning.  But on 23rd August 1942 he wrote a letter to be read in all churches protesting against the deportation of Jews. Laval forbad the reading of the letter; it was read in many places in France however, and also on Radio Vatican and on the BBC.  Other Bishops wrote similar letters, and tried to have them read in Churches or published in Church magazines.  On an individual level, members of the clergy protected people persecuted by the Nazis and by the Vichy regime, including Jews, by hiding them and helping them to reach safety.  The Paris press said the Bishops were obstructing the anti-Jewish laws.

Post-War Legacy

Paradoxically, the experience of the war led the Church to take a turn to the left in matters of politics.  At the Liberation, the Resistance took pride of place in the Government and in public opinion.  Whatever its actual importance in influencing the course of events, it assumed a huge importance in the ideology of the liberated country.  Catholics had played an important part in the Resistance.  They had formed or joined Resistance groups, they had founded magazines with strong social and democratic sentiments (for example, Témoignage Chrétien), they had protected the persecuted, and they had fought and died for freedom.  This led the other members of the Resistance, Communists, Socialists and Gaullists to mute any anticlericalist feelings, out of respect, and to preserve unity.  A Christian Democrat party was formed. Other European countries had strong Christian Democrat parties that became very important after the war, with leaders such as Adenauer in Germany and De Gasperi in Italy. As a result of the involvement of Catholics in the Resistance, a Christian Democratic party was founded, the Mouvement Républicain Populaire (MRP), with Georges Bidault.  Schumann, MRP Minister for Foreign Affairs, worked with Adenauer and Gasperi towards a European Union.  The importance of the MRP diminished however from 1947.


Part of the discussion about the Compulsory Labour Service was the argument that Catholic priests ought to be present where French workers were sent.  Some priests went illegally as workers to Germany with the purpose of bringing the Catholic religion to the workers.  The movement towards continued after the war; Catholic priests made a point of reaching out to the working class, believing that by sharing their experience they would be able to transmit to them the Christian message.  The movement soon took on a political nature; the priests espoused the workers’ causes.  They were reined in by their hierarchy.

The Catholic Church supported the Vichy regime, although with reservations regarding some of their policies: it opposed the formation of a single youth movement, it did not support Compulsory Labour Service, and it protested against the deportation of the Jews.  On a personal level the clergy acted strongly to protect the persecuted.  After the war this was recognised and during the Purge that followed the Liberation they were not persecuted themselves for having been Pétainists. Later, the State of Israel bestowed the title of “Righteous among the Nations” on some members of the clergy.  The war however contributed to diminish again the importance of the clergy in the life of the faithful: the Church had been unable to give clear guidance in difficult circumstances, and the faithful would from then on be less inclined to turn to it for guidance.

The presence of Catholics within the Resistance helped to reduce the prevailing anti-clericalism of the political class, and to give Catholics a place in the political and social life of the country, at least for a time; the Church was no longer associated mainly with right wing political parties.


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