French Catholic Resistance to Vichy Tyranny

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Cardinal Gerlier was a supporter of Marshal Petain

‘The execution of the deportation measures now taking place against the Jews throughout the territory is giving rise to such tragic scenes that it is our painful but imperative duty to protest from the depth of our conscience. We are in the presence of a cruel dispersal of families, and neither age nor illness is taken into account. It makes one’s heart bleed to think of the treatment suffered by thousands of human beings, and even more so to think of all that may yet be in store for them…’

Cardinal Gerlier: Pastoral Letter to be read in all churches (6.9.1942)

Although it is true that the Catholic Church in Rome allied itself first to Italian fascism under Mussolini, and then German Nazism under Hitler, it is also true that there were individual Catholic priests (and groups of Catholic priests) in Europe who did protest the Pope’s collusion with the holocaust. This observation does not, in any way, absolve the Catholic Church from the crimes it committed in the name of fascism, or seek to placate the support it gave General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. In 1933, Hitler and the Catholic Church in Germany signed a ‘Concordant’ whereby the Catholic Church promised to abstain from all political activities in return for a guaranteed ‘freedom of worship’ from the Nazi German State. In reality, however, Pope Pious XI had already aligned with Catholic Church with Italian fascism over a decade before, and his acquiescence to Hitler’s demands was simply more of the same rightwing policy. This flirting with fascism has often been explained away during the Cold War era as the Catholic Church preferring far-right politics that tolerated religion, as opposed to what it saw as the threat of ‘atheist Communism’, which was a misrepresentation of Soviet Socialism. In the USSR every Citizen had a right hold (or not hold) a religious viewpoint, and to freely assemble for worship (or not) as the case may be. No religion, however, was allowed to interfere in State politics, or influence or usurp the reliance of the Soviet State upon science. Indeed, the Catholic Church would have been better off under the Soviet System with regards freedom of worship, as Hitler violated the ‘Concordant’ numerous times, often sending protesting priests to the Death Camps.

Even Cardinal Gerlier – a professed supporter of Marshal Petain and his Vichy government – felt sufficiently moved to write a letter of protest to be read out in all Catholic Churches in France on the same day (quoted above), protesting the Vichy treatment of French Jews at the behest of the Nazi German invaders. Of course, Cardinal Gerlier was not protesting fascism per se, (after-all, the Catholic Church is composed of a strict hierarchy), but rather those aspects of it that demanded a ruthless ethnic cleansing. Some within the French Catholic Church felt that Cardinal Gerlier had not gone far enough in condemning that destructive Vichy antics, and this led to the following powerful statement:

‘That children, women and men should be treated like vile cattle, that members of the same family should be separated and then sent to an unknown destination – that is the sad spectacle reserved for out time to see. Why does the right of asylum exist no longer in our churches? Lord, have pity on us. Our Lady, pray for France. In our diocese, in the camps of Noe and Recebedou there were may scenes of horror. Jewish men are men, Jewish women are women. Foreign men are men, foreign women are women… They are part of the human race. They are our brethren. A Christian must not forget it.. France, our beloved country, France in the conscience of whose children there is the tradition of respecting the human person, chivalrous and generous France: I do not doubt that thou art not responsible for these abominations…’

Mgr Salieges – Archbishop of Toulouse

Interestingly, the arguments used by the French Catholic Church which suggest that a different ethnic group, regardless of its origin, political stance or religious view, should be treated with tolerance and respect, are often used in a humanistic context, to criticise the modern State of Israel and that nation’s ongoing persecution, rounding-up, imprisoning and killing of the Palestinian people. However, in Vichy France, the Nazi German occupiers were becoming disturbed by this almost ‘leftist’ propaganda emanating from the Catholic Church, and issued this retort:

‘A good deal of excitement has been caused in various parts of France, in connexion with certain events in which Jews of various nationalities and living in France as refugees, were involved. An insidious propaganda, the sole purpose of which is to compromise the work of the Marshal and his Government, has succeeded in spreading to the Catholic world. These hypocritical lamentations should be oppose by the doctrine of St Thomas and the Popes… Catholics must not be deceived by this treacherous agitation encouraged by the enemies of the National Revolution.’

Vichy Press Department (Service Arbellot): Statement Issued 4.9.1942

Extracts quoted from – Alexander Werth: France, Robert Hale, (1956), Pages 62-63

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