Separation of Church and State (law of 1905)

Separation of Church and State (law of 1905)

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The law of separation of churches and state of December 9, 1905 put an end to the Concordat regime of 1801 which associated in France the Catholic Church and the State. Rooted in the republican tradition, the idea of ​​a separation of the Catholic Church and the French State is already pronounced by the revolutionaries on February 21, 1795. During the XIXth century, a long process of secularization of society and of the State is set up, to lead to the law of 1905. Returning on the history of this decisive law can help us in part to understand this philosophical and political principle so difficult to define, but today constitutional, guarantor of republican equality.

The first separation of Church and State (1795)

Without going back here to the deepest origins of secularism (which take us long before the Enlightenment), we must focus on an often overlooked fact, the first law of separation between Church and State, which appears in the Constitution. of the year III (1795): “No one can be prevented from exercising, by conforming to the laws, the worship which he has chosen. No one can be forced to contribute to the expenses of worship. The Republic neither pays them nor subsidizes any ".

The context is obviously that of the Revolution, and even more of great tension in France partly due to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790), but also to the role of part of the Church in the counter-revolution. and its weight has become stifling for society. France experienced a period of great anticlerical violence, dechristianization, which culminated in the years 1793-1794. The decision of 1795, supposed to ease tensions, did not really succeed and the attempt to secularize the state ended in 1801, with the Concordat signed between Bonaparte and the Catholic Church ...

A secular republican first step: school (1882)

During the 19th century, when the concordaire statute of 1801 governed the statute of the French Church, a long process of secularization of society and the state took place. In 1830, the Catholic Lamennais himself called for separation in the name of religious freedom: “We, Catholics, ask for the total separation of Church and State. "

Relations between Church and State continued to be strained throughout the 19th century, and the advent of the Republic did not help matters, especially since the Republicans did not abandon the idea of ​​secularism, on the contrary . Secularization began with the law of 1880, which abolished Sunday rest, or even with the legalization of divorce in 1884. But it is above all the school, where the citizen must be built and where equality is supposed to be ensured. , which becomes secular.

The law of March 28, 1882 imposes, among other things, the neutrality of public schools and the abandonment of religious education (authorized on the day of rest, outside of school): secular morality, the universality of republican values, the teaching of the rights and duties of citizens, replace the catechism. The teachers become the famous "black hussars of the Republic".

The context of the Third Republic (1890-1904)

Obviously, not everything is going smoothly, resistance is strong, and this until Rome (despite the election of Leo XIII, more conciliatory). Then the situation eases a bit, with Republicans who, for some, are satisfied with the Concordat. It seems that it is, in part anyway, the Dreyfus affair that is rekindling tensions. The Church sees this state affair as a plot by Protestants, Jews and Freemasons; in her campaign she relies on newspapers such as "La Croix" or "Le Pèlerin", and shows that she still has real power.

It was in this climate that the left won the legislative elections of 1898. The law on associations of 1er The purpose of July 1901 was in part to control the congregations by requiring them to be authorized by Parliament. The state now limits the freedom of congregations by demanding transparency of their finances; for, while congregations are accused of being rich, they are also accused of having an anti-Republican influence on the youth they educate. The new victory of 1902 allows Emile Combes to lead this time a resolutely anticlerical policy, mainly attacking the congregations, which angered Pope Pius X. But Combes is not yet for a real separation. It was undoubtedly the intransigence of the Pope, which went so far as to sever diplomatic relations with France, that prompted Combes to resolve to separate in 1904.

1905 Law of Separation of Church and State

However, it is not to Emile Combes that we owe the law of separation of Church and State. He was indeed forced to resign in January 1905, following the "file affair". It did, however, partly influence the work that followed, until the law was drafted. However, this stems mainly from the report of the Parliamentary Commission chaired by François Buisson, who is also the head of the National Association of Free-Thinking and of the Education League. The other important craftsman is the rapporteur of this Commission, a certain Aristide Briand. The latter advocates a law of pacification, and he has a hard time convincing both Catholics and the most radical Republicans.

The debates last from April to July 1905, the law of separation of the Churches and the State is voted on December 9, 1905. Several main principles are founding it: it affirms the reciprocal independence of the State and the Church - the Republic guarantees the free exercise of worship and freedom of conscience (mainly Articles 1 and 2); the state refrains from any interference in religious matters and does not subsidize any religion (Article 4); however, freedom of worship is exercised with respect for public order and for individuals (Article 5). The 1905 law also allows the state to recover Church property, now managed by secular religious associations. It is a "just and wise" law according to Jean Jaurès.

However, the law is very badly received by the Catholic Church. As soon as the law was promulgated, tensions exploded, in particular around inventories of ecclesiastical property. The Pope condemns it. These struggles, sometimes violent, still lasted after the Second World War, and it was not until the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s that it seemed that secularism was finally accepted by all. It became a constitutional principle at the start of the Fifth Republic (1958), and the Second Vatican Council allowed real peace between the Republic and the Church.

Today, however, it would seem that secularism, and in particular its legislative translation of 1905 (and soon 1882?), Is once again contested. But this is no longer history ...


- H. Pena-Ruiz, What is secularism?, Folio, 2009.

- J. Lalouette, The State and the Cults (1789-1905-2005), La Découverte, 2005.

- R. Rémond, The invention of secularism (from 1789 to tomorrow), Bayard, 2005.

- J. Baubérot, History of secularism in France, PUF, 2010.