Religious Renewal in France, 1789-1870

The Roman Catholic Church between Catastrophe and Triumph

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Roger Price
  • London, UK: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , January
     416 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Religious Renewal in France, 1789-1870 by Roger Price illustrates a troublesome period for the Catholic Church. The author investigates the years between the beginnings of the French Revolution (1789) and the interruption of the First Vatican Council (1870). In particular, the book offers both a report of events and a presentation of their context.

In our time, when history tends to be analyzed starting from personal stories rather than anonymous events, it is a paradigmatic essay. It presents a successful combination of “small” and “big” stories for outlining as much as possible a complete history. This is especially needed for church history. It has to be read from a religious history perspective, but also from social and political history—that is, church history is not only ecclesiastical.

Price’s book focuses on France, the author’s main research interest and a distinctive nation during the time period, as well. After all, Catholicism was at the time much more Eurocentric than it is today, and the author thinks that “contextualization is everything” (4).

The book is divided into two parts. The first one consists of five chapters covering the rise of a new ecclesiology, a vision of the Church based on a tragic reading of the most recent upheavals—including the Protestant Reformation of some centuries prior.

In this first section, Price explores the internal life of the Church. In a way, he recalls the traditional distinction between fides et mores, faith and morals. In fact, on one side he deals with the ecclesiastical structure and its workings (9-58), the attention to a Rome-established doctrine (73-103), and the relationship between the clergy and the laity in the form of pastoral care (113-153). Instead, on the other side he speaks about the ecclesial tendency to pursue a supposed moral order (169-201), and some aspects of parish daily life with a relevant reflection on abuse cases by clergy which are sadly very present in the new coverage of the Catholic Church in these last few years (215-250).

The second part of the book consists of two chapters following a cultural perspective. One interesting chapter dwells broadly on the practice of religion, describing the believers, and also their relationship with some ecclesial practices (265-310). However, not less interesting is the following one, taking into consideration the wave of anti-clericalism which spread because of a certain intellectual atmosphere (327-341).

What Religious Renewal in France delivers is an evaluation of a transitional moment. It sheds light on that moment without nostalgia and remarkably emphasizes the most severe episodes of the Church’s reaction to modernity.

Many things happened when the Church and modernity met. Price discusses the way in which the Catholic Church became ultramontane. It was an epochal theological shift because Catholics never had a relationship of this kind with the pope, so that even the “responses to the Syllabus varied” (91). Ultramontanism was indeed a key factor for the development of the doctrine of the infallibility of the pope, as well as for a different Catholic imagery where the Church represented a society contrary to the secular one, namely a “perfect society.”

According to this analysis, such an ecclesiological program derived from a slow but incisive process. It was a process in which the cultural, political, and religious “catastrophe” which began with the French Revolution progressively gave way to an apparent theological “triumph” whose highest expression was the Vatican Council of 1869-1870.

Price therefore does not leave out the historical coincidence between the council and the political and military threats against the papacy. He points out that because of these threats the council had to be interrupted, but also construes the council as a paradoxically partial limitation of the pope’s power, given that “in exercising his rights, he would not do so on a personal basis, but on behalf of the Church” (101).

Although the book only dedicates a paragraph and a few lines to Vatican I, it is not surprising it equally contributes its historicization.

This insightful study neither prefers a single historical nor theological issue, but rather it describes the dominant missiological strategy and idiosyncrasies of the time. It is concerned with a certain reshaping of Catholicism, though one may wonder whether it would have been appropriate to mention the council’s reception, which is always decisive for the Church as a whole.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Antonio Ballarò is a PhD student in Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and a Catholic Religion Teacher.

Date of Review: 
May 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Roger Price is Emeritus Professor of History at Aberystwyth University, UK, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He has published a large number of articles and books on the economic, social and political history of nineteenth-century France and Europe. Previous publications include The French Second Empire: An Anatomy of Political Power (2001); People and Politics in France, 1848-1870 (2004); A Concise History of France(2014); Documents on the Second French Empire, 1852-1870 (Palgrave, 2015); and The Modernization of Rural France: Communications Networks and Agricultural Market Structures in Nineteenth-Century France (2017). In addition to this book, his study of The Church and the State in France, 1789-1870: Fear of God is the Basis of Social Order will soon be published by Palgrave.


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