“She was on her way home from church when she felt labour pains,” Napoleon would say of his mother Letizia, “and had only time to get into the house, when I was born, not on a bed, but on a heap of tapestry.” Napoleon Bonaparte’s fraught relations with the Catholic Church started early in life, for although his mother was a devout Catholic, his father was a Voltairean who despised popular religion. A secularised Enlightenment non-believer, Carlo Buonaparte did not even marry in church (although his wife’s uncle Lucciano, the Archdeacon of Ajaccio in Corsica, altered the records to make it appear that he had).
Napoleon adopted his father’s attitude to faith rather than his mother’s. He was at best agnostic about the divinity of Jesus, alth-ough he did acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being and was occasionally seen to cross himself in battle. “Did Jesus ever exist,” he asked his secretary when in exile on St Helena in the mid-Atlantic, “or did he not? I think that no contemporary historian has ever mentioned him.” (He was clearly unfamiliar with Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews which mentions Jesus.) He enjoyed theological discussions, but when a priest offered his services to help him through his father’s death, the 15-year-old Napoleon refused. Several of the cleverest scientists and mathematicians he knew were atheists, but as he told his last doctor, “wishing to be an atheist does not make you one”.
“Although Bonaparte was not devout,” his interior minister Jean Chaptal reported, “he did believe in the existence of God and in the immortality of the soul. He always spoke about religion with respect.” When the Sermon on the Mount was read to him on St Helena, he said: “Jesus should have performed his miracles not in remote parts of Syria but in a city like Rome, in front of the whole population.” He once said: “Were I obliged to have a religion, I would worship the sun – the source of all life – the real god of the earth.” And also: “I like the Muslim religion best; it has fewer incredible things in it than ours.” On that score he dictated a note logically disproving the biblical claim that Moses could have quenched two million Israelites’ thirst by striking a rock.
During the French Revolution Napoleon joined the Jacobins, a political movement extremely hostile to Christianity in general and to the Catholic Church in particular. By November 1793, Notre Dame Cathedral had been re-dedicated to the Cult of Reason, and six months later the Jacobin leader Maximilian Robespierre passed a decree establishing the pantheist Cult of the Supreme Being. As well as tens of thousands of aristocrats be-ing stripped of their possessions and forced to become émigrés abroad, several thousand priests left the country too. Napoleon supp-orted the nationalising of the Church in a pamphlet which was inflammatory enough for him and his brother Joseph only narrow-ly to avoid a lynching when they happened to be walking near a religious procession in Ajaccio soon after its publication.
In his Italian campaign of 1796-97, Napoleon recognised the power of the Catholic priesthood to make trouble for the French occupying forces, which they (rightly) saw as atheistic invaders bent on pillaging Church property, a phenomenon that was to be repeated in the deeply Cath-olic areas of Calabria, the Tyrol and, especially, in the Iberian peninsula. In the country around Tortona, Napoleon destroyed all the church bells that had been used to summon the revolt, and had no hesitation in shooting any village priest caught leading peasant bands. Although his earlier anti-clericalism in Corsica was enough to make him resent what he called la prêtraille (“canting priesthood”), his conviction was confirmed by the way in which parish priests encouraged uprisings. Yet it also instilled in him a respect for the power of the Church as an institution, and he realised that he could not wholly oppose it forever.
Although he defeated the Papal States in battle with considerable ease, Napoleon knew that storming the Vatican would earn him the ire, even the lifetime enmity, of Europe’s devout Catholics. So when in February 1797 Pope Pius VI sued for peace, he was delighted to accept. The Pope sent Cardinal Alessandro Mattei to Napoleon’s headquarters at Tolentino to sign a treaty under which the Papal States ceded Romagna, Bologna, Avignon and Ferrara to France, closed all ports to the British, and promised to pay a “contribution” of 30 million francs and 100 works of art.
During Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign he seriously considered adopting the Muslim faith, years later telling a courtier’s wife that, since the hitherto Protestant Henri IV thought it was worth converting to Catholicism for the sake of ruling France, “Do you not think the Empire of the East, and per-haps the subjection of the whole of Asia, were not worth a turban and loose trousers?” He added that the army “would undoubtedly have lent itself to this joke”. After the battle of Mount Tabor on that campaign, he slept at the convent in Nazareth, where he was shown the supposed bedchamber of the Virgin Mary. When the prior pointed out a broken black marble pillar and told his staff, “in the gravest manner possible”, that it had been split by the angel Gabriel when he “came to announce to the Virgin her glorious and holy destination”, some of the officers burst out laughing, but as one of them recorded: “General Bonaparte, looking severely at us, made us resume our gravity.”
Soon after taking power in the Brumaire coup of November 1799, Napoleon opened secret negotiations with the new pope, Pius VII – a simple and holy monk whose views were not thought to be overtly hostile to the French Revolution – on the question of allowing the return of the Christian religion to France nearly a decade after its abolition there. Napoleon knew these would be delicate and occasionally hard-fought, but the prize was great: the adherence of Catholic France to the Napoleonic cause. The population of France was about 28 million, only a fifth of them in urban areas of more than 2,000 people. Most of the rest lived in 36,000 rural communes of a few hundred residents. Napoleon appreciated how invaluable it would be if the person who played an important social role as the centre of information in those communities, who was often the most educated person and who read out government decrees, was also on the national payroll. The concordat – his treaty with the papacy – has been accurately described as attempting “to enlist the parish clergy as Napoleon’s ‘moral prefects’”. The concordat was concluded by Easter Day 1802, and the church bells of Notre Dame were rung that day for the first time in a decade. Yet it was over economics rather than theology that Napoleon was to fall out monumentally with the Vatican and, in particular, over his insistence that the Papal States join his Continental System, designed to expel British goods from the whole of the European continent.
Pius VII refused to join, and he also refused to grant Napoleon’s youngest brother Jérôme an annulment of his marriage to Elizabeth Patterson, the daughter of a Boston merchant, or to recognise his older brother Joseph as king of Naples. So in February 1808 Napoleon sent General Sextius Miollis down the west coast of Italy to occupy the Papal States and capture the Castel Sant’Angelo, whose cannon could soon be seen pointing directly at St Peter’s. On June 10 1809, Napoleon annexed them to the French Empire, and in retaliation Pius excommunicated him that same day.
Franco-Vatican relations continued to deteriorate over the next 13 months, and on July 5 1809, General Étienne Radet arrested the pope in the Vatican, giving him half an hour to pack his bags before escorting him to the bishop’s palace in the small Italian Riviera port of Savona. This allowed Pius to make one of the wryest remarks of the 19th century. “Assuredly, my son,” he told Radet, “those orders will not bring divine orders upon you.” Napoleon, meanwhile, told his brother-in-law Prince Camillo Borghese, who was governor-general of the Alpine region which included Savona, that “the guard of the Pope should have all the appearance of a guard of honour”.
“The Pope is a good man,” Napoleon wrote on August 6, “but ignorant and fanatical.” Those adjectives better describe Napo-leon’s behaviour towards the pope, who was to remain in imprisonment – albeit of a very comfortable kind at the château of Fontainebleau – until 1814. From being hailed by Catholics as the saviour of the Church at the time of the concordat to being excommunicated and imprisoning the pontiff only seven years later, Napoleon had placed his belief in economic protectionism over any scruples he might have had about alienating the millions of Catholics in his empire. It was one of his worst political errors.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (02/01/15)
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