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-by Brendan Lowry

Before the Paris Commune in 1871, the Catholic Church had influence over many facets of French social life: the economy, politics, and education. This heavy involvement caused many people to resent the institution. Ultimately, religion played a fascinating role throughout the Commune and although the institution of the Church was attacked, Catholicism remained a prominent force in French social life after 1871. The Communards attacks were not directed towards Catholicism per se, but rather the Catholic Church that maintained an unequal hierarchy between itself and its followers.

Prior to the Commune, the authority of the Catholic Church was solidified by Napoleon III. As Napoleon’s popularity began to decline, he realized that without the support of the Catholic Church his reign would come to a halt. The Church also recognized this and took full advantage of it, which created even more inequality in society. The Church collected taxes from the population and was given land by the government.1 As things began to worsen and inequality grew, insurrection and revolt became inevitable. Colin Jones’s analysis in “Mass Violence and the Self: From the French Wars of Religion to the Paris Commune” demonstrates this inevitability. He argues that the “collective trauma that the people of France underwent came from a place of empathy,” the insurrection of the Commune came from a place of desperation.2

Although there were many positive changes the Commune made, some are critical of the insurrection. Historian Collette Wilson argues that elites within the Church were taking advantage of their position of authority, but the Catholic Church was not solely to blame for the inequality in France.3 Yet, Catholic elites were rounded up and murdered in the streets by Communards. The diary of Elihu Washburne mentions the deaths of Archbishops and other Church elites.4 Wilson would argue that the murders evident in Washburne’s diary should have consequences and actions like these during the Commune should not be celebrated.

One of the reasons Catholicism persisted after 1871 was because after the Commune the Church maintained control over education. As David Muzzey explains, control of the education system “allowed religion to maintain a prominent role in the structure of society.”5

Religion played a crucial role in the Commune. Although the Church was heavily criticized throughout this period, most Communards remained Catholic, demonstrating that the French population resisted the institution of the Church, not the religion. Furthermore, religion remained a prominent force in the social lives of French people after the Paris Commune.

from the archive

Elihu Washburne

Elihu Washburne was an American politician and Republican who pushed for universal suffrage and civil rights. He served as the United States Minister to France during the Commune, and travelled throughout France, telling his stories through personal diaries and letters sent home.6

Religion played a large role in the Commune. The Catholic elite prior to the Commune were privileged in many different ways while women and others were completely put by the wayside. The Commune pushed for equal rights and universal suffrage for all and the Church was an institution with unjust authority. While many Communards remained Catholic, the Catholic Church’s close ties to Napoleon III created quite a bit of hatred due to the amount of power Napoleon III gave to the Church. It is important to distinguish between the “role of the Church” in the Commune and “the role of religion.” The Church became a hated institution, however, many Communards did not waiver in their faith.

Washburne’s diary describes the Communards’ discontent with the institution of the Catholic Church, but it also demonstrates that Communards and French citizens alike remained loyal to Catholicism as a religion. Washburne’s comments reflect the role of religion in the Commune.7 Washburne saw things from an outsider’s perspective. He empathized with the Communards, but recognized the brutality of the Commune’s end when saying “The insurrection is suppressed but alas! The poor old Archbishop was shot on Tuesday night last with some 70 priests.”8

  1. Stewart McCain, “Language and Education Under Napoleon,” In The Language Question Under Napoleon, (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2017).
  2. Colin Jones, “Book Review: Mass Violence and the Self: From the French Wars of Religion to the Paris Commune,” The Journal of Modern History 92, 4, (December 2020).
  3. Colette E. Wilson, Paris and the Commune 1871-78: The Politics of Forgetting (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).
  4. Michael Hill, Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France During the Siege and Commune of Paris (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012): 203. Digitized on Internet Archive,
  5. David Saville Muzzey, “State, Church, and School in France III. The Separation of Church and School,” School Review 19, 5, (1911): 318–32.
  6. Hill.
  7. Hill.
  8. Hill, 203.

One thought on “religion

  1. Hello, Brendan. I am interested in a paradox: many of the Communards were Catholic and yet they (may I assume?) hated the institution of the Church. I wonder how that was possible since Catholicism was very institutional, not only in the clerical hierarchy, but also in the complex liturgy. Did the Communards pray and attend Mass? Or were they religious in their own way without reference to the traditional forms of Catholicism? Were there Communard priests?How did the Communards justify killing Archbishop Darboy and others given that the Ten Commandments forbids killing? Or did their violence cause an inner division between what they wanted to achieve politically and what they believed about morality? Or did they see the clergy as monarchists and thus as tyrannical obstacles to republicanism that had to be eliminated? Was it very difficult to be a Catholic Communard? Was that almost a contradiction in terms?

    Thanks for addressing what must be a complex topic. History is always fascinating when it raises many questions. You have made me think about the connection between Catholicism and the Commune.

    I found the comparison between the French Wars of Religion and the Commune interesting. Did Jones note a fundamental difference or similarity between the two? In the French Wars of Religion, the Catholic League led a revolt against King Henry III in Paris on the Day of the Barricades in 1588. Maybe the Leaguers were early modern Communards?

    PS How many Archbishops did the Communards kill? I knew they killed the Archbishop of Paris (Darboy). Were there other Archbishops in Paris at the time of the Commune?

    Liked by 1 person

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