Bernard Plongeron – Anathema or Dialogue? Christian Reactions to Declarations of the Rights of Man in the United States and Europe in the Eighteenth Century (1979)

[Originally published in the 1979 issue of ConciliumThe Church and the rights of man, The Seabury Press Inc/New York.]

The Christian reaction: anathema or dialogue? The question will surprise many people who are already convinced that the Gospel and those basic texts, the American Declarations of 1776-1787 and the French Declaration of 1789 share, in some way, a common nature.

Others, better-informed, remember, nevertheless, the fulminations of the Catholic hierarchy against the Declaration of 1789, which they roundly declared to be a work of the devil and not of the Gospel. But, they may object, have we not moved on from the denunciation of the nineteenth century to the dialogue of the twentieth?

If, in spite of everything, we still insist on our question—anathema or dialogue?—it is because it remains historically relevant and also brings to light certain areas of confusion which still exist in the contemporary Christian struggle for the rights of man. Three such areas may be singled out for examination. The first concerns the methodological confusion which consists in treating as articles of faith, and thus as theological issues, rights which have been traditionally considered in the West as matters of public order. The second derives from the historical evidence: reactions in revolutionary Europe from 1789 to 1800 revealed some very complex attitudes among Catholics: sometimes they disagreed openly with the condemnation of the rights of man by a hierarchy which could not, on this score, guarantee the reaction of the Church as a whole. The third area of confusion, and not the least important, is, in effect, the reduction of the universal, basic rights of man: liberty, equality, fraternity—to the struggle for particular, specific freedoms, however essential or legitimate. This attitude became widespread after 1919, at a time when social and political rights had won increasing acceptance.


Contrary to a commonly-held view, the French and American Declarations were neither spontaneously produced by the rationalism of the enlightenment, nor mere accidents in the course of Western civilisation. Among their predecessors must be mentioned Magna Charta (1215), the Habeas Corpus Act (1679) and the Bill of Rights (1689) which was completed, the same year, by the Toleration Act, which granted, (three years after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in France), freedom of worship to all, except Catholics and Unitarians. All of these were designed to restore peace to the country after major political upheavals. They still required in addition a long process of maturation, which was to be the work, not of the theologians but of philosophers, and in particular John Locke. In 1689 he published his two Treatises of Civil Government, which constituted a justification of the Revolution of 1688. By establishing a basis which was natural (and no longer political) and general (and no longer a matter of toleration with respect to particular freedoms) for liberty, Locke enabled the transition to the American Declarations to be made.

The dynamic quality of the form taken by these rights in America was definitively established by the Declaration of Independence of 1776: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is worth noting this dynamic based on life, as typical of the ‘American dream’ and of its belief in the coming future of man, in the hope of a world to be built for the happiness of all. The French axiomatic system of liberty, equality and fraternity is more arid and still turned towards the past: the preamble to the Declaration of 1789 repeats four times the words ‘no longer’ in order to set the seal on the death certificate of the ancien régime.

Passing from the American Declaration to the French, therefore, we see not merely a more detailed version of a solemn affirmation of the natural and fundamental rights of man, but a change of perspective.


The majority or minority status enjoyed by the Churches was the phenomenon which controlled the dialectic of anathema and dialogue.

When the argument of confessional majority or minority status coincided with theological positions, the Churches centred their consideration of the question of the fundamental rights of man on the issue of religious freedom

It was, it seems, this approach that was to be adopted by those bishops who commented on the anathema pronounced by Pius VI in his brief Quod Aliquantum of March 10th 1791. Of the seventeen articles of the Declaration of 1789, the Pope only selected for comment articles 10 (‘No man shall suffer disturbance for his opinions, even those on religion, so long as their expression does not disturb the public order by law established’) and 11 (‘The free communication of thought and opinion is one of the most cherished rights of man; all citizens may therefore speak, write and print freely, except that they must answer for the abuse of that freedom in those cases determined by law’). This did not involve ‘unbridled freedom’ as the ‘papal brief states, but rather, in the name of liberty of conscience (art. 10) the ending of the privileged status of the Catholic religion in France. Pius VI preferred to see it as a sinister conspiracy: ‘This equality, this liberty, so highly exalted by the National Assembly, have then as their only result the overthrow of the Catholic religion, and that is why it has refused to declare it to be predominant in the realm, although it has always enjoyed this title[‘] [1].

But when, after 1793, Catholics were forced to recognise the irreversible and expansionist progression of the ‘immortal principles of 1789’, they were to change their tactics. Rather than perpetuate an absolutely sterile denunciation of the Declaration of Rights, they preferred to claim for the Catholic religion the safeguards offered by article 10 on liberty of conscience.

Unlike their co-religionists in France, the Catholics of the new Batavian Republic had not been compelled, before experiencing the delights of the rights of man, to drink the cup of bitterness. The Catholics of the United Provinces were well aware of the religious persecution raging in France since 1792, and of the denunciation of the rights of man in Quod Aliquantum: the émigré French bishops who had settled particularly in Bois-le-Duc had often expounded this text to them. But what relevance did this have for them, an oppressed minority whose spirits could only be stirred by such words as ‘rights’, liberty, equality?

In fact, the new Batavian Republic proclaimed, on August 5th, 1796, the separation of Church and State. This hardly affected the Reformed Church, which was already based on the quasi-republican structure of the Calvinist congregations. By contrast, the Catholics immediately began to speak of their ‘emancipation’, a notion which, in other Christian states, was only applicable to Jews. All in all, the fortunate beneficiaries of the Declaration of Rights were the Catholics.

Was the Declaration of Rights to degenerate into that practical utilitarianism whose rallying cry could have been the remark falsely attributed to Louis Veuillot, in the nineteenth century, speaking to his liberal opponents: ‘When we are in the minority, we demand freedom in the name of your principles; when in the majority, we refuse it to you in the name of ours’ [2]? The Dutch example could give this impression, and apparently offers many points of similarity to the American situation.

Like their brethren in the United Provinces, the Catholic colonists, on the eve of independence, were in a minority in the thirteen colonies of North America. Indeed, they were a mere handful of farmers, swamped by the much larger Protestant community. This minority, even more despised than persecuted for their allegiance to popery were still waiting for the recognition of their civil rights quite as much as for the freedom to practise their religion openly. One can well understand their enthusiastic participation in the War of Independence, both against the king and, at the same time, against the ‘established’ Church of England, which practised its own additional oppression of the Catholic and dissenting Protestant minorities.

It is here that the originality of the attitude of the Maryland Catholics can be seen. They fought as Americans and as Catholics, but were sustained by the tradition of religious tolerance established by Lord Baltimore, who had founded the colony in the seventeenth century. This American-Catholic phenomenon in the tradition of Maryland was, moreover, given further significance by a family, the Carrolls, which was to play a leading part in the Constitution of the American States.

To what extent, however, did the position of the Catholics of Maryland reflect the ‘spirit of 1776’ which breathes through the Declaration of Independence? Was it not, in the final analysis, nearer to that attitude of mind based on ‘Christian civilisation’ in which a Europe which had its own theologico-political preconceptions was steeped?


It has often been stated that one reason for the Church’s hostility to the principles of ’89 was the fact that they formed a corpus of doctrine which was self-sufficient, since it was founded on reason, not revelation. The quite opposite attitude of the American Churches to these same philosophical presuppositions found in the Declaration of Independence may therefore appear astonishing. This must be accounted for by making a detailed comparison of two intellectual world-views which elaborated two political theologies displaying two contrary evaluations of man. One was the totalitarian vision of the integrality of Christian doctrine informed by the ideology of‘Christian civilisation’. It was opposed by the vision of the social compact between God and man, or the Puritan utopia which was democratic because it was based on the Bible: the ‘Bible Commonwealth’ [3].

Was the Declaration of 1789 a challenge to the Catholic Church, or was it necessary for religious minds to consider it as such? Herein lies the whole problem of ‘Christian civilisation’. When the counter-revolutionary apologists insisted so much on the status of the Catholic religion as ‘predominant’ (one may recall Duvoisin, in succession to Pius VI) it was not only to safeguard the position of the doctrine of divine right as specifically characteristic of Christianity, but also, and primarily, because only (the ‘true’) religion, or religious society, can complete and perfect the civil order, which by its nature is imperfect. For those men, there was no more possibility of the ‘natural’ without the ‘social’ than there was of the ‘social’ without the ‘religious’. The first two orders can only find their political and metaphysical purpose in the third.

This inspired the lapidary formula of Pius XI in Divini Redemptoris (1937): ‘Christian civilisation, the only truly human City’. As the principles of 1789 separated the political and the metaphysical there was, thereafter, a radical incompatibility between the Church and the Declaration of Rights, reflected in the constant, uniform teaching of Popes from Pius VII to Pius XII, in his Christmas radio message of 1944, on the problem of democracy. How, indeed, could it have been otherwise? It would have meant the ruin of the whole Augustinian vision of the Catholic West.

This involves a long historical perspective of which we shall only note the essentials, as seen in the four stages of the human condition defined by Saint Augustine: ante peccatum, sub peccato, sub gratia, in gloria. At the origin of Adamic man was that state of ante peccatum, which, with the coming of original sin, is revealed for sinful man in society, by a nostalgia for Paradise Lost. The state of sub peccato denies the myth of a pure innocence and the claims of the philosophers to speak of‘natural’ rights. Man sub peccato, since he is only ‘redeemed’ by grace, has no rights: he has only ‘duties towards God’, as the catechisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries repeat. The emancipation of man in the name of rights dictated by reason is a political nonsense because it is a theological monstrosity (Duvoisin). It follows logically that man is subordinate to the divine order of which the Church is the custodian and interpreter. The Church, as the regime of ‘Christian civilisation’ cannot tolerate the claim that man has a future to build, or in other words a historicity, since that future lies behind him, in that original sin which he will have to atone for throughout his life, sub gratia, by faithfully fulfilling his ‘duties’ towards the Creator, the Sovereign Legislator who delegates subordinate power to popes and kings whom He has anointed. The anthropological vision of the Rights of Man and that of ‘Christian civilisation’ are thus poles apart. To say, for example, with H. Wattiaux [4] that Divini Redemtoris is ‘the first papal declaration of the personal rights of man’ is to accord scant importance to the ‘thesis’ of Christian civilisation which conditions it: ‘Civil society and the individual human being owe their origin to God and are, by Him, mutually bestowed on each other; consequently, neither, therefore, may avoid their duties towards the other, nor deny, nor diminish, the rights of the other. It is God who has ordered this mutual relationship in its essential structure’ (n. 33) . . . sub peccato, sub gratia!

It is just as incorrect to affirm that with ‘Leo XIII, Catholic doctrine is reconciled with the rights of man’: successive papal pronouncements prove it. To begin with, one would have to deny Immortale Dei (1885) on the Christian constitution of societies, which served as a point of reference for Pius XII in his 1944 radio message. It is true that Rerum Novarum did make some contribution to an increased respect for the poor and the workers and that ‘from this persistent effort, a new right was born, quite unknown in the previous century, guaranteeing to workers respect for their sacred rights derived from their dignity as men and as Christians’, as Pius XI recalled in Quadragesimo Anno (1931) nr. 30. [5].

But it was still a matter of defending particular freedoms—important ones, no doubt—necessitated by the hypothesis of the secularised society of the industrial age; this society could not be absorbed into the thesis of a Christian society based on duties towards God and opposed to the concept of universal, basic, natural rights of a mankind which had come of age and was master of its historical destiny.

Leo XIII adopted this strategy of the hypothesis which had been pursued by social and liberal Catholics (e.g., Lamennais). These Catholics proclaimed in 1877, following A. de Mun: ‘Let us oppose the Declaration of the Rights of Man which served as a basis for the Revolution, and proclaim the Rights of God, which must be the foundation of the counter-revolution. Ignorance or forgetfulness of these is the real cause of the evil which is leading modem society to its ruin.’

Such indeed was the thesis of‘Christian civilisation’ . . . defended by the Abbé Grégoire in 1789 before the Constituent Assembly!

The theological presuppositions and mental attitudes which inspired the American ‘spirit of 1776’ were quite different. The fundamental difference between ‘Christian civilisation’ and ‘Bible Commonwealth’ stems from the fact that the Puritans, the future Dissenters, made no distinction between metaphysical and political freedom. For them, Biblical certainties were mystical, and indeed practical, truths. Burke was aware of this when he declared to the Commons that their ‘jealousy of all that looks like absolute government’ should not ‘be sought for so much in their religious convictions as in their history’.

This was a twofold allusion by Burke to the ‘Mayflower Compact’ of 1620 and to the congregationalist structure of the Dissenting Churches, illustrated by the Puritan preacher par excellence, Cotton Mather: ‘We came here because we would have our posterity settled under the pure and full dispensation of the Gospel, defended by rulers that should be of ourselves’. That is to say, defended against the theologico-political absolutism of James I of England and the clerical despotism of the ‘Established’ Church, the living contradiction of that Bible from which the Dissenters naturally drew their civil as well as their religious beliefs. Before their departure from England, the Mayflower Pilgrims had sworn: ‘We (…) do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and of one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid’. Four times, in this document, the expression ‘we covenant’ is repeated. This covenant, or contract, was reflected in the Church structures which they established for themselves.

The concept of the Church was to refer, not to a national, provincial or diocesan body, but rather to a congregation, which recognised no other authority save that of God Himself. An essential principle, since this refusal to acknowledge any external authority over the gathered community, the ecclesia, contained the seeds of a certain democratic conception, implying a government of the group by the group, and a considerable possibility of self-determination. It is evident that there existed also in Congregationalism the basis of a certain kind of federalism, since each Church, although it was autonomous, had to establish a bond of association, of fellowship, with the other Churches, so that the whole formed a ‘commonwealth’ based on the Word of God.

In the Calvinist tradition, everyone believed ‘that it is conscience, and not the power of man, which will bring us to seek the kingdom of God’. The fact remains that the main principle of this grand adventure was that of a Covenant theology which gave responsibility to each man and institution (instead of treating them as minors as in ‘Christian civilisation’). This responsibility was to lead to self-government and free consent. Throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries Puritan sermons ceaselessly refined this theology of the contract: ‘The general will of the regenerate (the Puritans themselves) bound by the social compact projects and continues the will of God in the State’, declared, among others, John Winthrop, [6] because society is the result of a free contract between its citizens, but once it is established this free society takes on a sacred character, the seal of God: woe to the man who would seek to alter it! There was thus a kind of immediate relationship between the natural and the divine (a horrifying idea for the ‘redeemed’ man of‘Christian civilisation’) which inspired Hamilton to write these famous words in 1775: ‘The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.’ Of course, this direct relationship of the natural and the divine is mediated through three covenants: the first is with God Himself, the second binds men to each other in the framework of the Church, and the third links them to the State as such. Also, of course, in the period between the pure Biblical utopia, the ‘New heaven and the new earth’ of the seventeenth century, and the enthusiasm of the young Hamilton for ‘rights’, one must take account of a secularisation of thought which tempers the mythology of the Promised Land and the New Jerusalem in the Declaration of Independence.

The religion of Jefferson and the Virginians as revealed in the Philadelphia Convention, from which the American Constitution was to emerge, is a matter of some debate and will long continue to be so. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Americans, by the mouth of Jefferson in his second inaugural address, proclaimed: ‘Europe is Egypt; America, the Promised Land. God has led His people to establish a new social order which shall also be revealed to all nations’. Perhaps, first of all, because the Americans had very early received the revelation that ‘liberties are of the gift of God’, as Jefferson also said, in his Notes on Virginia, and that therefore they might not be violated by divine right nor be used by popular absolutism in the name of a demagogic liberalism which had been explicitly exorcised by the American Constitution. But the American revelation to other nations is much more closely concerned with the proclamation of the right to life. Life ceases to be human without liberty and equality. Through life, man creates society, instead of being created by it. In the name of life, which is the gift of God, rights are placed beyond discussion. They are not at the end of history, they begin history and direct its course in a dynamic movement in which are combined man’s ambition, his pursuit of happiness, and the hope of a new Heaven … on a new earth.

The language of theological hope should forever exclude the twofold language of anathema and dialogue. This is the very lesson of History itself, recalled by A. Latreille, the historian of the Catholic Church and the French Revolution: ‘The Churches have undergone the apprenticeship of events, and of all that these events involve; and they have learned, in particular, definitively, that in crises of the magnitude of the one which has occurred since the advent of Nazism (…) it is incumbent on those religious forces which aspire to exercise a certain moral authority on public opinion to defend, in a completely open-minded and liberal way, not only religious liberty (as Catholics have often declared, and which has almost always meant their own liberty), but the rights of man. . .’ [7]. And even on this specific issue of religious freedom, there is a real theological task which remains to be undertaken, if we may judge by certain ‘ecumenical’ expressions of dissatisfaction. Thus Pastor Hébert Roux tells of his visit to Rome to speak to a group of French bishops during the discussion by the Council of the document Dignitatis humanae. ‘It is not enough’, he pointed out to them, ‘to say that the “principle” of the natural right to religious freedom “does not contradict” the truth of the Gospel, but it is necessary to show the close correlation in the Gospel itself (i.e., starting out from the person and work of Christ) between truth as the content of the Faith and the freedom of man’s conscience . . .’

The bishops recognised that they found some difficulty in entering into this mode of thought, accustomed as they were to referring back to the teaching of the magisterium, [8] This is an obvious proof that our question remains valid, the question of the attitudes of mind of which we have sought here, very rapidly, to show the different types of approach, as a contribution to a problem which remains, in our view, completely unresolved. Is a theology of freedom only the sum of individual freedoms—as nineteenth century liberal Catholics believed—or is it something other? If the latter is true, the theologian can make progress only in the light of history, as he attempts to establish, once and for all, an unequivocal and stimulating language for each individual conscience.

Translated by Lawrence Ginn

[1] Underlined in the original Latin.
[2] Quoted by H. Madelin ‘La liberté religieuse et la sphère du politique. Pour l’intelligence de la déclaration Dignitatis Humanae Personae.[‘] Nouv. Revue Theol., 97, no. 2, (1975) pp. 110-126; p. 125.
[3] B. Plongeron, Théologie et politique au siècle des lumières 1770-1820, (Geneva, Droz 1973) pp. 318-326.
[4] H. Wattiaux ‘Statut des Interventions du Magistère Relatives aux Droits de L’Homme’ Nouv. Rev. Theol., 98/9, (1976) p. 802-3.
[5] The historian should, however, note that the right to work was proclaimed for the first time in the French Constitution of 1793, art. 21, by virtue of the principle that ‘state aid to the needy is a sacred obligation’.
[6] Michael McGiffert (ed.) Puritanism and the American Experience (Mass. 1964).
[7] In Églises et chrétiens dans la IIe guerre mondiale (Lyon 1978) p. 362-363.
[8] Hébert Roux De la désunion vers la communion. Un itinéraire pastoral et œcuménique. (Paris 1978) p. 225-226.