Relations between France and the Holy See after World War II

Among all the periods which mark out the century of relations renewed in May 1921 between France and the Holy See, it is necessary to underline the crisis which constituted the episode of the immediate post-war period.

The strong personalities of the two leaders who are Pie XII and General de Gaulle, their respective historical weight at the end of the Second World War, their visions converging on certain points but diametrically opposed on others, undoubtedly contain a part of explanation. But even before the question of men, it is above all the leading political issues that poison the framework of the relationship. Certain questions turn out to be real casus belli between Paris and Rome.

The recall of the nuncio Valerio Valeri

The audience granted by Pius XII as well as by Cardinal Maglione to General de Gaulle on June 30, 1944 marks the starting point of the emerging relationship between the provisional government of France and the Holy See. The general came to seek from the Pope and his Secretary of State the external recognition which is necessary for him to impose outside France the legitimacy of the CFLN (1). Transformed into a government on June 2, it must replace Vichy as a legal power everywhere.

One of the most sensitive points of this transition concerns the nuncio Mgr Valerio Valeri, who had followed Marshal Pétain to Bordeaux then to Vichy, and whom General de Gaulle considers for this reason that he cannot continue to represent the Saint. -Headquarters in Paris. Asking for its recall, as the one who now embodies the French state claims for the symbol, obviously cannot be accepted cheerfully by the Pope. This constitutes an interference in the government of the Church which is difficult to accept from his point of view and that of the Vatican Secretariat of State and in particular of Mgr Domenico Tardini, who assists Cardinal Luigi Maglione at the head of the section for relations with the States and is therefore in charge of the apostolic nuncios, while Bishop Giovanni Battista Montini occupies the position of substitute.

Pius XII, however, eventually acceded to this request. But not immediately. A fine jurist and diplomat, he nevertheless knew that he could hide behind canon law to challenge it.

He consents, perhaps with the ulterior motive that this favor granted may spare others in the future.

Recognition is also slow. It intervenes six months later, on December 9, 1944, following the mission entrusted a few days earlier by General de Gaulle to Mgr Théas, the archbishop of Montauban, who had distinguished himself by very firm denunciations of the laws anti-Jews of Vichy. Sent to Rome for this purpose, we owe him this long-awaited recognition of the new provisional government of France.

The next day, December 10, the announcement of De Gaulle’s trip to Moscow, however, failed to cause a break in these barely sealed relations! Along with the signing of a Franco-Soviet pact with Stalin, this Moscow visit is obviously most badly received by the Holy See. The storm passed, however, and relations were institutionalized. They involve on both sides the sending of ambassadors: one responsible for representing the Holy See in Paris in place of the nuncio Valerio Valéri, the other the representative of the new government of France and the occupier. of his embassy “to the Holy See”. Léon Bérard, a senator who had voted full powers for Marshal Pétain in June 1940 and had been appointed to this post after that, has already left Villa Taverna.

The Maritain – Roncalli tandem

Who will be the two emissaries chosen to embody these new relations between Paris and Rome? General de Gaulle has set his sights on Professor Jacques Maritain, whom he went to meet on July 10 in the United States. Reluctant at first, he ends up being convinced. He is one of the most active spokespersons for spiritual resistance, this resistance which considers that it has suffered the most from the choices of the high clergy since June 1940. Accompanied by his wife, the Russian poet Raïssa Oumansoff and the sister of that – here, the strange trio formed by “the Maritan clan” did not arrive in Rome until May 1945. The time to obtain the approval of the Holy See, which would have preferred to welcome a smoother personality, because its reading of the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas offers a new interpretation which has not yet been favored by Rome. This more evolving Thomism would take a few years to penetrate the circles of the curia, helped by the translations into Italian which Mgr Montini, the future Paul VI, whose relationship of deep friendship with Maritain was forged at that time.

The contrast between the brilliant fame of Maritain and the man chosen by Rome to occupy the nunciature of Paris is striking: Mgr Angelo Roncalli, whom Rome sends to Paris at the very end of December 1944 is indeed still an illustrious unknown! Nicknamed “the peasant of the Danube”, the apostolic delegate in Turkey and Bulgaria and future John XXIII is far from having the profile of the position corresponding to the Parisian nunciature. Some consider his appointment as a form of vexatious measure by Pius XII in response to Bishop Valério Valeri’s recall, without it being nevertheless possible to affirm that this was indeed the calculation.

In an unusual double in history, the new nuncio presents his credentials on 1er January 1945, and a few hours later, as dean of the diplomatic corps, his best wishes to General de Gaulle.

Episcopal purification

Roncalli in Paris and Maritain in Rome therefore both work on a delicate mission covering several dimensions: to make the Church and the State in France find a harmonious relationship, that “the eldest daughter of the Church” is thus restored to this rank and that the climate between France and the Holy See finally pacifies. But an acute problem remains: that of “episcopal purification”. This is the most problematic aspect of the immediate post-war years.

It was in Algiers in 1943 that the slogans aimed at a “drastic purification of the high clergy” were launched. The liberal and democratic Catholics of the MRP (2), including Georges Bidault, now count on de Gaulle to sanction the elites who have acquiesced in the surrender of France, those who have gone the furthest in obedience to the Vichy regime and have relayed the theses of German propaganda. Many and important members of the French episcopate are singled out. Some thirty names appear in this first list, including those of cardinals, for example Cardinal Suhard, the Archbishop of Paris, who was unable to attend the Te Deum in the presence of Gaulle at Notre-Dame in August 1945, because of the mass in memory of Philippe Henriot which he celebrated shortly before. Or that of Cardinal Gerlier, the Archbishop of Lyon, guilty of this sentence: “France is Vichy, and Vichy is France”, and that we continue to judge for his actions or his words, despite other actions in favor of the protection of Jewish families.

Of around thirty names, the list of members of the high French clergy, whose departure the government of France wants to obtain, is gradually reduced.

Aware that Rome will never agree to sacrifice “blood princes” of the Church on the altar of the policy of “bringing together the French”, we quickly give up claiming the head of the cardinals.

The list is then reduced to twenty-four bishops. It was the subject of delicate negotiations and incessant trips back and forth between Rome and Paris. To not aim in fine that seven people: an archbishop who eliminated himself (in Aix), three simple apostolic vicars (in Rabat, Dakar and Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon), two bishops practically forbidden to stay in their cities (in Arras and Tende) and the auxiliary bishop of Paris. And this result undoubtedly rewards the diplomatic skill exercised to this end by the nuncio Roncalli? It will be on future episcopal promotions that the French government will gradually postpone this desire for purification by using its modest right of scrutiny. And also on the cardinal elevations. For example during the consistory of 1946, by which Pius XII put an end to the secular supremacy of Italy within the Sacred College, the starting point of a new and decisive internationalization of the Holy See.

Three French cardinals see themselves elevated to purple: Mgr Saliège, Mgr Petit de Juleville and Mgr Roques. These are the three “candidates from Paris” that the nuncio Roncalli also supported, as the latter then affirmed, rejoicing.

However, on the choice of future bishops, the nuncio will be summoned by Georges Bidault in 1947. He is accused of renewing the French episcopate in the ranks of people hostile to the French government and always close to Action Française …

The return to republican secularism

The other issue on which the French government is battling concerns France’s religious policy: “The return to republican secularism”.

Vichy had abolished the decree on illicit congregations in 1942 and had established the principle of subsidies to private schools, which the France of the Liberation considers it necessary to return to. But she does not want to do so at the risk of repoliticizing the debate on religious questions. On the congregations, according to the principle quiet nomovere, the status quo will prevail. As for the subsidies allocated for private schools, they will be maintained for the start of the 1945 school year. But the rejection a year later of a proposal by the MRP to include freedom of education among “the fundamental rights of the citizen” crashes again the Holy See. Because as noted L’Osservatore Romano in its edition of March 20, 1946, “it is on the very principle (of a rejection of this right) that a decision was taken”.

Georges Bidault would have liked a “Concordat of separation”, that is to say a form of Franco-Pontifical exceptional status; this, in order to support this mission of religious appeasement by digging one by one, together with Rome, some of the ambiguities inscribed at the heart of the foundations of republican secularism. Perhaps we should finally be sorry that the burning religious issues of the immediate post-war period were all resolved without giving rise to these real substantive debates which could have uprooted so many future misunderstandings.


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