First Things: Anti-Christianity in France
The French Revolution does not make sense without the preexisting weight of the new rich in society and their hatred of both the régime and the Church that supported it. Because they were not allowed into the gentry (as was the case in England, for example), wealthy commoners bankrolled free-thinking intellectuals. Those writers produced stories, plays, and pamphlets that spread among the lower classes the notion that poverty and famine are due to the unfair social order guaranteed by the established religion. A mob stormed the Paris convent in which hundreds of priests and monks had been detained as “enemies of the nation” in September 1792, and butchered them all. That mob did not come from nowhere. Neither did the crowds who cheered as harmless nuns were guillotined for no other reason than their religious vows.
Napoleon, who unexpectedly emerged from the revolutionary chaos, bought peace by recognizing Catholicism as “the religion of the majority of the French.” But he also granted official recognition to Protestants and Jews so as better to control them. This made it easy for the secularists who were in power a century later to denounce and revoke the Concordat he had signed with the Holy See. Of course the clergy and their flocks had since the Revolution been remarkably consistent in betting on the wrong political horses. They supported all the successive régimes of the nineteenth century, before turning against them as they proved to be either too authoritarian or too liberal: successively the Napoleonic empire, a restored then a less absolute monarchy, a second republic, a second empire …
After a weakened Napoleon III lost the war into which the Prussians had snared him in 1870, Catholics would have preferred a second restoration, but a third republic based on the ideals of the 1789 Revolution finally prevailed in the popular vote. They failed to accept it (although Pope Leo XIII had advised them to), and the 1905 separation of state and Church was facilitated by two simultaneous crises: Catholics were once more on the wrong side in the Dreyfus affair, which tore the country apart, and the repression of “modernist” exegesis and theology suggested that faith was incompatible with reason and science.