The 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s well-known defeat at Waterloo on 18 June 1815 has recently been marked in Europe and elsewhere. In addition to commentary on the battle itself, much attention has focused on Napoleon’s politics, diplomacy, and military skills. It is for his actions in these areas that most of us know the upstart Corsican general.
But Napoleon is also a significant figure in the history of Western Christianity. The period of his political ascendancy from the late 1790s until 1815 witnessed difficult moments and revolutionary changes in the history of the Church. Most of these were caused directly by Napoleon or by events and developments that his rule had set in motion.
In France, Napoleon inherited the anticlerical legacy of the French Revolution that had split the clergy between those who had sworn allegiance to the state and those who had refused. Aware that a divided church would complicate his rule, Napoleon negotiated the Concordat of 1801, which did not return France to a purely confessional state, but, while granting toleration to other faiths, recognized Catholicism as “the religion of the great majority of French citizens.” A year later Napoleon unilaterally decreed the so-called Organic Articles, the terms of which greatly increased the power of the state over the church.
This outraged the pope, Pius VII. But soon Napoleon managed to coax Pius to Paris for his coronation as “Emperor.” Whether or not Napoleon took the crown from the Pope and crowned himself, the depiction of this famous event by the artist Jacques Louis-David captures the symbolic importance of what was going on: the ebbing of ecclesiastical authority and the rise the modern state.
Napoleon’s military machinations in central Europe led to the cessation of the thousand-year Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and the reorganization of the religio-political map of Central Europe. Three years earlier in 1803, a massive secularization of church properties had taken place—another act increasing the power (and coffers) of the state.
Wherever French troops went, churches and monasteries were plundered, universities shut down or merged (with their theological faculties sometimes eliminated), and much sacred art shipped back to France. In the late 1790s during Napoleon’s campaigns in Italy, Rome itself was occupied and the entire Vatican archives transported across the Alps to France—some of it never to return! Not surprisingly, much apocalyptic speculation at the time, whether Catholic or Protestant, cast Napoleon as the Anti-Christ.
But there’s more. Napoleon was instrumental in the abduction of two popes: Pius VI and Pius VII. The former died in exile in 1799 and hailed (prematurely as things turned out) by French anticlericals as “the last pope.” At the time Rome was occupied by French troops, so a rump College of Cardinals had to meet near Venice, then under Austrian suzerainty, to elect the aforementioned Pius VII. Several years after Pius had attended Napoleon’s coronation, this pope ran afoul of the Emperor by refusing to enforce France’s European-wide blockade. True to character, Napoleon had Pius unceremoniously hauled to France where he remonstrated with him until around the time of Waterloo.
To say that Napoleon’s relationship with Rome was testy is an understatement. In all likelihood, Napoleon was an atheist or agnostic at heart, making efforts to placate the Church only when it suited him or when he felt it necessary for political expediency.
Napoleon’s true colors were on display in a famous exchange with a cardinal. But the cardinal got the best of him in a quip that should encourage any Christian saddled with defective or malicious leadership. The exchange went as follows: Napoleon bragged, “Your eminence, are you not aware that I have the power to destroy the Church?” The cardinal shot back: “Your majesty, we, the clergy, have done our best to destroy the church for the last 1,800 years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.”
Indeed, Christians of all persuasions can be heartened that despite external persecution and its own internal sins and shortcomings, the Church has yet to meet its . . . Waterloo.