Paris Commune: between hagiography and history, the difficult Catholic discourse

On May 29, 2021, a procession was organized, curiously called the “hostage march”, in Paris, following the route of the hostages in the Commune. On the same day, the traditional ascent to the Federated Wall was held, a major liturgical moment for the part of the left which identifies with the Commune. The confrontation to which this meeting of two celebrations led and the violent aggression of the pilgrims had a great impact in the Catholic world.

On June 2, on the site of the cross, fifteen Catholics denounce in the march “a spiritual and political aberration”. The organizers of the march, by proposing an exclusively religious reading grid, would have obscured the political dimension both of the event and of its memory.

→ READ. Attack on a procession in Paris: what we know

The authors go further, asserting that in the context of the Commune, it is not justified to speak of a “martyr”. The victims of the rue d’Haxo would have paid the price for the representation of the clergy by the Communards, as being absolutely linked to the violence that is deployed against its supporters in this final week. In a provocative phrase, they call on French Catholics to take note of “structural cronyism. [du] clergy with the capitalist bourgeoisie ”.

The reactions on the platform were equal to the provocation. And it was hardly difficult for his contemptors to oppose him with the social commitment of several of the victims of May 29, 1871, and particularly of “the apostle of the suburbs”, Father Henri Planchat.

For the historian, there is a form of mirror effect in the reactions to this event. All of them seem to mobilize discursive fictions which build blocks: the Commune, “the holy Commune”, on one side; the Church, “the holy Church”, on the other. The June 2 tribune truly underestimates the role of anti-clericalism, and even some form of anti-Catholicism, in the process leading up to the May 26 executions. Anticlerical emotion prepares the ground which makes the massacre possible when the Versailles repression is unleashed.

→ ANALYSIS. Why the Paris Commune still unleashes passions

But the Commune is not one in its relation to Catholicism. Political decisions (separation of the Church and civil institutions, etc.) do not constitute a desire for dechristianization. The essential thing is played out at the level of the districts, in a Municipality itself diverse and crossed by deep disagreements on the religious question. On May 26, several Communard leaders, such as Eugène Varlin and Camélinat, opposed the massacre in the rue d’Haxo.

Conversely, the promoters of the march claim to be only in a process of prayer and commemoration, without any form of expression or political demand ” (Mgr. Denis Jachiet, auxiliary bishop of Paris). They are part of a register of dehistoricization of events, despite the educational effort that accompanied its preparation. The enhancement of the figure of Father Planchat allows them to send the victims of the massacre back to the beginnings of a social Catholicism which now has the right of citizenship in contemporary Catholicism.

Still, the proposal was hardly accompanied by historical work on Catholicism in the time of the Commune. And the re-legitimation by this holy story of the social commitment of Catholics may appear to the authors of the forum as a form of distancing from the complicity of many Catholics with the violent reconquest of Paris by the troops of Adolphe Thiers. Should we recall the broad approval by the French episcopate of the repression against the Commune?

→ EDITORIAL. Attack on a procession in Paris, restore civility

The holiness of “our” martyrs does not erase this; it does not constitute a self-readable response to the political memories of the event and the emotions associated with it. A history of the political use of the memory of the martyrs of the street of Haxo would have appeared as the condition for the possibility of a process of overcoming memorial confrontations.

On the contrary, it is their reactivation that we have witnessed. Mutual ignorance has played a full role. Activists saw in the procession a desire to celebrate the repression and a form of collusion between the Church and the extreme right. They ignored not only the way in which the organizers had thought of the event but also the history which led to separate the Catholic memory of the martyrs of the Commune from its past political uses.

Catholics procession, ignoring or at least minimizing, the political and emotional effect of the procession, in particular given the calendar but also the irremediable political dimension, in the full sense of the term, of the procession as rite. Naivety? The authors of the June 2 tribune are certainly not wrong to question an overt depoliticization that has little meaning except in a speech ad intra, and which itself has a political dimension.

→ TRIBUNE. March of the Martyrs of the Municipality: “Why we organized a pilgrimage”

What this episode signals is the great difficulty in Catholicism in keeping hagiography and history together, in thinking holiness outside the fantasy of pure narratives, in taking note of history in a way that truly puts the Church at the service of peace and reconciliation of memories. At a time when the Church of France is preparing to face the terrible aspects of its past, renouncing the dehistoricizations on which militant positions are based could appear as a necessary spiritual exercise.


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