How Do You Feel About Religion?

Staats-Frag, wo man untersucht, ob die Ordensgeistliche[n], welche Einkünften haben, dem Staat nützlich oder schädlich sind

Printed and published by Matthäus Rieger, Augsburg in 1764. French source text presumably by Benoit Gouget.

Opinions come and go in waves. There are many examples for this phenomenon. Just think of our idea of the role of the state. It has changed several times in the last 70 years alone. While a broad majority believed that coercive measures of the state were necessary in the early Cold War, the period after the protests of 1968 can certainly be described as anti-state structures. 9/11 and the fight against terrorism have restored the state’s role as an undisputed leader. However, this role is now facing severe criticism as many Western states appear to be rather helpless in the fight against Covid-19.

That’s how opinions work. They are subject to what people currently experience. And once the zeitgeist changes, arguments don’t stand a chance. The victims of this process aren’t those who oversimplify matters but those who wisely demand a well-balanced compromise. They fall victim to their own reasoning, even if the battle of opinions is waged in the name of reason.

Calas saying goodbye to his family. Copper engraving after a painting by the Huguenot Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, who emigrated to Berlin. Pay attention to how prominently and negatively the Catholic priest is depicted. The actual culprits, the magistrate of Toulouse, on the other hand, are not depicted at all.

The Case of Jean Calas

On 13 October 1761, the Protestant Jean Calas found his eldest son dead in the French city of Toulouse. His son probably hanged himself because, as a Protestant, he had not been admitted to the final exam after studying law. At that time, suicide was a disgrace. It was not permitted to lay the body to rest in the cemetery. Instead it was buried without any kind of ceremony. Probably wanting to spare his family, the father claimed that somebody had strangled his son.

Nobody believed him. But his neighbours and the magistrate came to the wrong conclusion. They knew that there had been a heated dispute between Calas and another of his four sons because the son thought about converting to the Catholic faith. There was a rumour that Calas himself had strangled his own son because the latter considered converting for the sake of his career. Since Calas refused to confirm this theory, he was tortured and forced to make a confession, which was used to sentence him to death – although Calas immediately recanted the confession when they stopped torturing him. On 9 March 1762, the Protestant Jean Calas was executed. His dead son was glorified as a martyr.

The death of the Protestant Calas was – we cannot describe it otherwise from today’s perspective – a blatant judicial murder, a trial in which the Catholic judges had allowed themselves to be influenced negatively by their prejudices against Protestants.

Altersbildnis von Voltaire. Victoria & Albert Museum / London. Foto: UK.

State Religion or Tolerance?

Since the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the Catholic faith had been the only state religion of France. But intellectuals had already been fighting that for many decades. They demanded tolerance, also and especially from the state. And for Voltaire, the pioneer of the Enlightenment, the case of Calas was an ideal precedent to illustrate the potentially disastrous consequences of intolerance.

The atheist Voltaire took up the cause of the devout (and probably also somewhat fanatical) Protestant Jean Calas. To avoid nasty surprises, Voltaire meticulously researched the details of the event, obtained witness statements and reconstructed the logical sequence of events. At first glance, he seemed to fight for a retrial of the case of Jean Calas and for his rehabilitation. But the real question was which role the Catholic faith was supposed to play in the future in the Enlightened states of Europe. Many understood Voltaire’s call for tolerance as a call to abolish all priests and clerics including all forms of superstition.

Regarding the case of Calas, Voltaire led something that we would call a campaign today. He had a broad network of intellectuals throughout Europe. All of them received personal letters from him in which he explained his opinion on the case. Every single letter was read by numerous people in intellectual salons and groups of scholars. And everyone who heard about the case of Calas could not help but support the eloquent Voltaire, at least morally.

The Victim of the Campaign

By the way, Voltaire’s fight to restore the good name of the dead Protestant also claimed victims. Until then, many Catholic priests and clergymen had been firm supporters of the Enlightenment; but Voltaire’s campaign, which was subject of discussion in all intellectual circles – and those were also frequented by priests – put them in a position where they had to justify themselves. They obviously condemned what had happened to Jean Calas, but the Catholic Church had not been involved in the judicial murder. Why should it be abolished for that?

After all, the Church was the largest and most important social institution in Europe at the time. It ran hospitals, poorhouses, schools and universities. Convinced of the Christian message, many pastors made sure that those in need benefited from the gifts of the rich in their parish. Of course, there were black sheep among them too – but you can find those anywhere, can’t you? Thus, demanding that the entire Catholic Church be abolished because of a miscarriage of justice in Toulouse was too much, even for the Enlightened clergy. The book we present to you today was written in this very context.

Supporting Catholic Orders

In 1764, a German translation of a French work with the title “Question politique où l’on examine si les Religieux rentés sont utiles ou nuisibles à l’État” was published in Augsburg. The original text had probably been written by the Benedictine monk Benoit Gouget (1701–1790) in 1762. It is remarkable that the author did not dare reveal his full name on the title page neither in 1762 nor in 1764. This demonstrates under how much pressure the advocates of the Catholic cause were after Voltaire’s campaign.

The title of the work also underlines that: translated into modern English it goes “An examination of the political question of whether the members of Catholic orders who have their own income are useful or harmful to the state”. The author phrased his intention with great caution! He acknowledges that atheists exist. He does not want to convert them. But he asks something else: “What is the intention of these people, I wonder. The Gospel is in conflict with their way of living; so be it! Their very point is to renounce the Gospel. But why would they make an effort to recruit new fellow believers and to lead them on the path of destruction, where they walk with great strides? Why would a man who does not believe anything except what reason suggests tempt others to think the same as he does? Antiquity showed us some atheists, but none of them took the trouble to recruit followers. … What would they gain if there weren’t any Christians left? Will they then be able to live more exuberantly?”

In other words, the author feared for the survival of the Church because the aggressive approach of some Enlightened scholars did not call for tolerance but for the abolition of the Catholic Church. Gouget tried to appeal to reason: he compiled all the positive things achieved by monasteries and clergymen. After all, he believed in reason himself and was thus a believer of Catholic Enlightenment. He was part of the Congregation of St Maur, a Reformed order that lived according to Saint Benedict’s Rule and approached church history from a new, more objective perspective. The order was at the forefront of Catholic Enlightenment and opposed the Jansenists, a Catholic branch that was perceived as particularly fanatical and was very active in France.

The fact that Benoit Gouget’s concern for the survival of orders in France was not misplaced was proven by history. The French Revolution swept away the Catholic Church and murdered hundreds of Catholic priests and clerics during the September Massacres of 1792.

The French people worship reason in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Copper engraving by an unknown artist made in 1793.

Public opinion had turned against the Catholic Church and there was no reasonable argument that could have stopped the removal of Catholic privileges.

And thus this book demonstrates what we postulated at the beginning of this article: there’s no use in swimming against the historical current. Benoit Gouget and his appeal to common sense have fallen into oblivion today. Rejecting faith in the name of reason became a religion in itself and spread for a few years throughout the Catholic cathedrals of France. Would Voltaire have liked to be glorified as a saint in these new cult spaces?


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

We purchased this work at Antiquariat Hohmann.

If you want to know how ingeniously Voltaire managed to get rid of his competitors and opponents, you should read our article on the “great Rousseau”.

You can find a detailed article on the case of Calas in the Paris Review.