As it often happens, dictators realize that it is harder to win the hearts and minds of people than to control them with the barrel of a gun.
Napoleon Bonaparte, the military genius and Consul of the French Republic (1799-1804), President of the Italian Republic (1802–1805), Mediator of the Swiss Confederation (1803–1813), Emperor of France (1804–1814), King of Italy (1805–1814), Co-Prince of Andorra (1806–1814), Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine (1806–1813), among many other titles, managed to get the people of France, his countrymen, to ratify a constitution that installed him dictator for life. He did not live long enough though (he was only 51 when he died in 1821) to see what else he could not control as ruler and strongman.
He realized, however, that while grabbing practically all European territories, including Russia and the offshore United Kingdom, for his throne was easy by military standards, the execution of an agenda to take the Catholic faith away from his countrymen was not.
Napoleon emerged from the political euphoria whipped up by what history has tagged as the French Revolution. In 1789, the French monarchy with strong ties to the Catholic Church and landed estates that ruled for centuries was supplanted by a revolutionary government led by the Jacobins.
I will attempt to describe this euphoria by imagining what the Philippines could have been like when Emilio Aguinaldo raised the Philippine flag in Kawit, Cavite, in 1898; or when Filipinos regained their civil liberties in 1986 after decades of authoritarian rule under Ferdinand Marcos; or, in more recent times, when Filipinos are rumored to have found relief from street crimes and corruption in government when Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016.
The so-called Jacobins was a rainbow coalition, so to speak, and it will be hard to remember the main characters without mention of the “brains” behind it. Like all coalitions, the thinkers at the time were as diverse in backgrounds, focus and methods, as there are colors in a rainbow. But there seemed to be a common thread in the advocacy of what historians have labelled as the New Age of Enlightenment. Liberty, equality, fraternity, freedom and reason were the key themes of intellectual unrest that swept much of Europe, and their main proponents included Jean-Jacques Rousseau and François-Marie Arouet, aka Voltaire. The Statue of Liberty in New York is a quick reminder of how hot those ideas were at the time. A century later, Jose Rizal and fellow ilustrados picked up the seeds of the revolution and planted them in Islas de Filipinas.
The core ideas of the Enlightenment are very much alive today, and they find expression in legal and cultural concepts such as the separation of Church and State, secularization, divorce, abortion and mercy killing, same-sex marriage, etc.
Voltaire et al did not have monopoly of these ideas. The Illuminati and the Freemasons, for example, which similarly supplied intellectual grounding for the revolution, flared with even grander concepts. (Note: Voltaire himself, like any institutional leader of consequence–past or present, whether in government, military, business, academe, judiciary, etc–became a Freemason. Freemasonry, alleged to have infiltrated the Jesuits that led to its suppression by Pope Clement XIV in the 1770s, had been at odds with the Catholic Church. At least 9 Papal Bulls since 1738 have been issued banning membership in Freemasonry, under pain of automatic excommunication.)
The immediate agenda of the French Revolution was rejection of the monarchy and about everything that the Catholic Church stood for. In politics, “it resulted in the suppression of the feudal system, emancipation of the individual, a greater division of landed property, abolition of the privileges of noble birth, and nominal establishment of equality among men…”
Its impact on global politics was profound. “The Revolution accelerated the rise of republics and democracies. It became the focal point for the development of all modern political ideologies, leading to the spread of liberalism, radicalism, nationalism, and secularism, among many others.”
The Revolution at the same time pushed the Catholic Church (close to 99 percent of the population were Catholics) to the margins, if not completely out of official sight. Many priests and the religious either died or sent to exile. Churches became Temples of Reason. The Holy Mass, Sundays, names of saints and any symbol that were associated with the Catholic Church were eliminated. The Roman Calendar was replaced with the Revolutionary Calendar. Church properties were sequestered, religious orders dissolved, monks and nuns encouraged to return to private life.
During the so-called Reign of Terror (early years of the Revolution), “extreme efforts of de-Christianization ensued, including the imprisonment and massacre of priests and destruction of churches and religious images throughout France. An effort was made to replace the Catholic Church altogether, with civic festivals replacing religious ones. The establishment of the Cult of Reason was the final step of radical de-Christianization.”
That official France and the Catholic Church was on collision course was inevitable. Responding to papal belligerence, Napoleon sent his army to Rome to arrest Pope Pius VII, who went on to serve time for over 6 years. (Get this: our would-be dictator is too kind. He cursed the Pope, but this one jailed the Pope! On second thought, showmanship does have its limits. This one conquered much of Europe; while the other is close to giving away the West Philippine Sea to China.)
These events, as contextualized within the broader process of de-Christianization, “led to a widespread disillusionment with the Revolution and to counter-rebellions across France. Locals often mounted resistance by attacking revolutionary agents and hiding members of the clergy who were being hunted. Eventually, the government was forced to denounce the campaign, replacing the Cult of Reason with the deist but still non-Christian Cult of the Supreme Being.”
The Freemason’s idea of a Supreme Being that is above other Gods underpinned the Revolution’s cultural uprising, emphasizing science over dogma; in other words, the Perfect God over a Stupid God, if we apply today’s searing language.
Despite his official titles, Napoleon knew that legitimacy of his rule, and his global clout, remained suspect. It lacked a key element: popular support. He “knew that the majority of French citizens were still very Catholic at heart. His natural supporters–-labourers, artisans and rural workers-–were deeply religious and yearned for the return of the Catholic faith to France. As early as 1796 Napoleon had told the Directory that ‘it would be a big mistake to quarrel with that power’, referring to the Catholic Church. In 1802 he would sign the Concordat with the Pope, attempting to force some sort of reconciliation that would remove the main cause of the uprising in the Vendee and the discontent of the Catholics in Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and the Rhine.”
“The Concordat stated that the Catholic faith could be freely exercised in France, as long as it conforms to the regulations which the government would judge necessary for the public tranquility. There would be new dioceses and parishes, ten Arch-bishops and 50 bishops would be appointed by Napoleon and the Pope. All divine services would include the prayer for the Republic and the Consuls. The Concordat cemented the land transfers of the Revolution-–all former church property would belong to those who had acquired it during the Revolution. Ten day week was suppressed and Sunday was restored as the day of rest. The government would pay the clergy’s salaries and the Church would be responsible for primary education.”
After decades of winning military wars, Napoleon lost at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He was sent to exile on the Island of St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean where, 6 years later, he died. Before his death he was reported to have reconciled with the Catholic Church, having received Sacraments of Confession, Extreme Unction and Viaticum in the presence of Father Ange Vignali.
The French-Philippines parallels are many, and it is not surprising to note that dictatorial regimes at key junctures of history have found the Catholic Church to be an obstruction, worthy of derision and contempt.
But like mosquitoes, the swarm of Catholic faithful in the Philippines continues to buzz. They continue to nag rulers from their arbitrary ways. They just won’t leave, even if this sometimes puts them at risk of being swatted away. Would-be dictators should be wary by now that, except for brandy and rhum, no force on earth can put to sleep the believers of The One Stupid God.