The separation of church and state had long been the deliberate aim of the irreligious French government. During the pontificate of Leo XIII the following resolution had been put and carried at an assembly of freemasons: "It is the strict duty of a freemason, if he is a member of parliament, to vote for the suppression of the Budget des Cultes, for the suppression of the French embassy at the Vatican, and on all occasions to declare himself in favour of the separation of church and state without abandoning the right of the state to police the church."
The Waldeck-Rousseau ministry had already brought France to the verge of a breach with Rome. By means of a concession on the part of the pope the difficulty had been bridged over, but all the efforts of M. Combes were directed towards making the separation inevitable. There was one difficulty in the way—how to make it appear that Rome was to blame. "To denounce the concordat just now," he said in a speech delivered in the Senate in March, 1903, "without having sufficiently prepared men's minds for it, without having clearly proved that the Catholic clergy themselves are provoking it and rendering it inevitable, would be bad policy on the part of the government, by reason of the resentment which might be caused in the country. I do not say that the connection between church and state will not some day be severed; I do not even say that that day is not near. I merely say that the day has not yet come."
The way was paved by a series of provocations designed to cast the responsibility and odium on the pope. Pretexts for a quarrel were soon found in the circumstances of the visit of M. Loubet to Rome; in the discussions which arose with regard to the nomination of bishops, and in Rome's treatment of the bishops of Dijon and Laval. The Vatican White Book sufficiently indicated the long-suffering patience of the pope with regard to these questions.
There were Catholic critics who thought that Pius X was slow in vindicating the rights of the Church. "God," said he, speaking to a Frenchman on this subject, "could have sent us the Redeemer immediately after the Fall. And He made the world wait thousands of years! . . . . Yet they expect a poor priest, the vicar of that Christ so long desired, to pronounce without reflection grave and irrevocable words. For the moment I am passive—passive in the hands of Him who sustains me, and in whose name—when the time comes—I shall speak."
On the 10th of February, 1905, the Chambre declared that the "attitude of the Vatican" had rendered the separation of church and state inevitable. "An historic lie," as M. Ribot, a Protestant member of the Chambre, trenchantly described the statement.
The Law of Separation of the Churches and the State, passed by the French government in 1905, completely dissociated the state from the appointment of bishops and parish priests, but, lest this might seem to be an unalloyed blessing, it must be added that it also suppressed the annual revenue of the Church, amounting to 42 million francs. The departments and communes were forbidden to vote appropriations for public worship. Life pensions equivalent to three quarters of the former salary were granted to priests who were not less than sixty years of age at the passing of the law, and life pensions equivalent to half of the former salary to those under forty-five. As a matter of fact, the state became the richer by eight million francs. The use of Catholic buildings was to be regulated by the Associations Cultuelles. Without any reference to the Holy See it was decided by the government that these associations for religious worship should be formed in each diocese and parish to administer church property. Several articles in the law regarding the constitution of these Associations Cultuelles left to the Council of State—a purely lay authority—the settlement of any dispute that might arise. In other words it lay with the Council of State to pronounce on the orthodoxy of any association and its conformity with the rules of public worship.
There was a good deal of discussion in ecclesiastical circles as to whether the "Associations" could be formed. Pius in his encyclical "Gravissimo," August 1906, decided the question. He had examined the law, he declared, to see if it were at all possible to carry on under its provisions the work of religion in France while safeguarding the sacred principles on which the Church was constituted. After consultation with the episcopate he had sorrowfully to declare that no such arrangement was possible. The question at issue was whether the associations for worship could be tolerated. His answer was that "with reference to these associations as the law establishes them, we decree that it is absolutely impossible for them to be formed without a violation of the sacred rights pertaining to the very life of the Church." As to any other "legal and canonical" associations which might preserve the Catholics of France from the difficulties by which they were threatened, there was no hope of them while the law remained as it was. "We declare that it is not permissible to try any other kind of association as long as it is not established in a sure and legal manner that the divine constitution of the Church, the immutable rights of the Roman Pontiff and of the bishops, as well as their authority over the necessary property of the Church, and particularly over sacred edifices, shall be irrevocably placed in the said associations in full security."
"God's law alone is of importance," said Pius at a private interview. "We are no diplomatist, but our mission is to defend it. One truth is at stake: was the Church founded by our Lord Jesus Christ or not? Since it was, nothing can induce us to give up its constitutions, its rights or its liberty." "Let it be clearly understood," said he on another occasion, "we do not ask the members of your government to go to Mass—although we regret that they do not. All we ask, since they pride themselves on recognizing nothing but facts, is that they should not ignore one very considerable fact—the existence of the Catholic Church, its constitution, and its head, which we at present happen to be."
There were not wanting critics who spoke regretfully of the wholesale sacrifice of church property. "They speak too much of the goods of the Church and too little of her good," said the pope. "Tell them that history repeats itself. Ages ago on a high mountain two powers stood face to face. 'All this will I give thee,' said the one, offering the kingdoms of the earth and their riches, 'if thou wilt fall down and worship me.' The other refused—and is refusing still . . . ."
The reply of the French government was the appropriation of all that was left of the property of the Church in France. The law of January 1907 permitted religious worship in the churches purely on sufferance and without any legal title. This looked like a concession, but it had its uses. The simple citizen still saw the priest in the church; Mass was still said there. "All of which proves," said the government to the unthinking public, "that the Church is in nowise persecuted; if she is not as prosperous as of old, she has only the pope to blame."
The separation of church and state was the signal for open war on the Church. Law after law was passed, making it more and more difficult for the priest to minister to the people. He was forbidden to enter a hospital unless his presence had been formally asked for by a patient. He was forced to serve his time in the army in the hope that his vocation might be ruined. He was forced to pay a rent for his presbytery, although he was often poorer than the poorest of his parishioners. Many of the beautiful old churches of France fell gradually into ruin, or were used for other purposes than worship— the more degrading the purpose the better.
The principle which underlay the attitude of Rome in the matter was clear and consistent. The state having proclaimed its indifference, not to say hostility, to religion, having ignored the constitution of the Church and suppressed all means of negotiating with the pope, claimed the right to legislate for Catholics, to control their organization, to limit their material resources, and to decide their differences. The men who made the law had openly declared that their purpose was to decatholicize France. "In making his decision, has not the pope appealed from the French parliament to the French people?" was a thoughtful question asked at the time.
"The apparent apathy of most French Catholics, the energy and cunning of their adversaries," said the same writer, "deceived the world into believing that a little faction had the strength of a whole people behind it . . . ."
The pope's refusal to accept the bishops proposed by the French government had left many sees vacant. In February 1906, immediately after the break with the government, Pius X himself consecrated fourteen French bishops in St. Peter's. It was the act of a great and apostolic statesman. "I have not called you to joy," said the pope, "but to the Cross," and bearing the cross on their breasts they went forth, without stipend, without government protection, intervention or recognition. They went as simply apostolic men—to gain souls to God—and the result of their labours is manifest.
"Destroy the Church in France, and dechristianization will follow," cried her enemies. "A short period of separation," said an orator at the general assembly of the Grand Orient in September 1904, "will complete the ruin of dogma, and the ruin of Church." What really happened?
"Our bishops, priests, and people," wrote George Fonsegrive in 1913, "are absolutely devoted to Rome and obedient to the pope. After the passing of the Separation Law all the orders of the pope were immediately executed. At one word from him our bishops and priests gave up their palaces and their presbyteries and abandoned all their goods. Nowhere else has there been such docility and such unanimity. Our Church is truly and absolutely Roman; therefore every attack on its members attaches them more strongly to the source and centre of their life. Religious life is everywhere increasing in depth and in intensity . . . . The human mind has found the limits of science, and has felt that they are narrow and hard; all men of culture recognize to-day that our whole life is, as it were, wrapped in mystery. Faith is no longer looked upon as a suspect but as a friend. Those who have it not are seeking it, and those who have found it treasure it. Even those who despair of finding it respect it. And all, or nearly all, recognize that truth can only be where she declares herself, where she is supplied with all she needs to make her accessible to man, that is to say, in Catholicism, and finally in Rome."