De Gaulle and the question of religion

The de Gaulle family had been devout Catholics for generations, the Maillot family perhaps even more so. Charles de Gaulle would always retain the imprint of the traditional world of the genteelly impoverished Catholic bourgeoisie which kept intact "the faith of ancient days" even if, as a matter of obedience, it accepted the rallying call of Leo XIII.

In this stratum of Northern French society, people were sensitive to the need for Catholic action on social problems. As a boy, Charles attended Catholic schools and his first historical work ever published was dedicated to the congregation of his secondary school which dedicated itself to the worship of the Virgin and taking up collections for the missions. The officer cadet at Saint-Cyr continued to perform his religious duties regularly and with piety, without ostentation or dissimulation; when about to marry, he wrote to his mother "hoping for a sanctified conjugal love".

De Gaulle's chosen reading was very often from spiritual works. It is interesting to note the many quotations taken from the Old and New Testaments to be found in his notebooks. He was also familiar with Saint Paul, Méliton, Bishop of Sardes, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas, Bossuet and his concept of "divine decree", and above all with Pascal; when in his memoirs he describes his feelings on hearing the news of the successful sortie from Bir Hakeim, he quotes from Pascal's Mémorial,  "Joie, joie, pleurs de joie" ("Joy, joy, tears of joy…").

Among the writers of his youth, he responded intellectually to Péguy, the author of Éve, the  Mystère des saints innocents and Jeanne d’Arc, and also to Psichari. Somewhat later, he would have contacts with the Dominican group Sept, with Temps présents and L'Aube. His favourite writers were Georges Bernanos, François Mauriac. During the war, he grew close to Maritain and would appreciate the support of Bernanos and of Mauriac.

He kept up a correspondence, sometimes political and generally private,  with Paul Claudel, Étienne Gilson, Jean Guitton, Daniel Rops, Stanislas Fumet, Maurice Clavel, and the Reverend Fathers Daniélou, Carré, Pire, Bruckberger and Riquet.

The General believed in a life hereafter. Admiral Philippe de Gaulle confirms this when he reveals that the General said to him when his grandfather died, "For a Christian, death has no importance". For him, the world was within, as he wrote to Pierre Emmanuel. He possessed the faith of the centurion and, in 1940 above all, to borrow Maritain's expression, he "hoped against hope ". De Gaulle the active pessimist was guided by Christian hope and it is this, according to Malraux, that distanced him from Fascism.

His practice of religion was exemplary: regular attendance at Mass, confession (although no spiritual counsellor), communion – and in the view of Jean d’Escrienne, it was not just for show. Following the rule requiring discretion of civil servants attending official functions, de Gaulle never took communion in public (with the single exception, probably unintended, of Leningrad). At the Elysée Palace, he reopened the chapel, decorated it with ornaments purchased out of his "privy purse" and had masses said there by a Carmelite priest (often his nephew François). The celebration of the Mass lasted twenty three minutes, so Flohic tells us. In Colombey, he attended Mass every Sunday right up to the day before he died. At High Mass, the General sang the Te Deum and, in cathedrals dedicated to the Virgin, the Magnificat.

He possessed the spirit of prayer and would retire to pray whenever a request for clemency was put before him. He believed in the intercession of pure souls devoted to God and would ask Christians to pray for him. 

Before God and in his own mind, de Gaulle thought of himself as a Christian, humble of heart. He was, said Cardinal Daniélou, "a man of profound faith, a simple Christian". That faith was put to the test by the personal suffering he and his wife shared as parents of a Down's syndrome daughter, Anne. The most illuminating testimony on this subject was given by the Abbé Bourgeon, chaplain to the 4th Armoured Division, who heard from Madame Giraud of the trials of the de Gaulles, "excellent Christians ". He presented himself on 15 May at the Bruyères HQ: "Tomorrow, Colonel, I shall celebrate the Mass for all of you and particularly for your daughter Anne". "Anne…," writes Abbé Bourgeon, "I had come to commune with him in the most intimate and the most sacred areas of his life as a father and as a Christian. By means of Anne, I entered into the sanctuary of his family preferences." "With Anne, indeed, Father, her birth was a trial for my wife and myself. But believe me, Anne is my joy and my strength. She is a source of grace in  my life. She helps me to remain within the modest confines of the limits and impotencies of human life. She keeps me in the safety of obedience to the sovereign will of God. She helps me to believe in the eternal meaning and purpose of our lives, in that Father's house where my daughter Anne will at last attain her true self and her true happiness."

De Gaulle was a member of the Catholic Church, Holy Mother Church. He knew the church was eternal, but was also aware of its bitter combats, its splits, all its "storms" and dramatic crises. Although as head of state he may have had certain specifically Gallican concerns, he did not believe that there should be a Church of France, distancing itself from Rome. He respected the papacy and enjoyed personal contacts with three popes, in particular Pius XII and John XXIII, and proved Gallican to a certain extent in asserting the rights of the state, but also moderate in the removal of the bishops who had supported Vichy; he was aware of the courage and fidelity of other pastors (Mgr Saliège and Mgr Théas) and many of the faithful, he protected the right of free choice in education (the Debré act) and perhaps even dreamed of a new Concordat, though knowing it to be impossible. He clearly felt admiration for Pius XII and friendship for John XXIII, "a prelate who once knew us and loved us well " and showed Paul VI all the filial deference due to the supreme pontiff. It was Paul VI who presented him with the rosary that Madame de Gaulle laid in his hands on the day of his death.

Some have wondered about the true nature of his faith - Teitgen, Malraux and even Mauriac - "we do not know what Charles de Gaulle's relations were with God". Others have sought to portray it as an attitude of social conformism, for all sorts of reasons: family, philosophical, historical, geographical, social. Others have denounced the pagan void of de Gaulle's thought (Paupert's Is de Gaulle a Christian?). Others have spoken of a non-Catholic Christian, a non-Christian Catholic… a Nietzschean Christian (Lance), a clerical, an anticlerical, a Judaeo-Masonic Christian, or have pointed out the ambivalent nature of de Gaulle's thinking (Borne)… Men of the cloth (Daniélou, Riquet, Boly, Bourgeon), his aides de camp (d’Escrienne) and those close to him (Alexandre Sanguinetti, Léon Noël) did not share such doubts. While no-one knows what prayers the general said, he often referred to the  Paternoster (Our Father…), and composed a statement of faith in the form of a prayer which was published in the Journal d’Egypte on 2 April 1941: "I am a free Frenchman, I believe in God and in love of my country…". He was also accustomed to consulting his conscience as a Christian, especially when considering appeals for clemency. In his reading, he was always much closer to spiritualist thinkers than to the agnostic, sceptic or Marxist materialists but, while he might occasionally give way to a  Nietzschean pessimism, he did not support the views of those like Maurras who, as an atheist, saw in Catholicism nothing more than the social usefulness of the religion. Sensitive, like Péguy, to the virtue of hope, even in his darkest moments he clung to hope: one of the theological virtues. 

His Christian morality served to inspire his ideas and vision in three fundamental areas. Firstly that of aid to the third world and the granting of independence to African states. De Gaulle was absolutely not a  "racist". He often echoed the words of Saint Paul, "There is but one Redeemer for all, whatever the colour of our skin." Nationalism went hand in hand with universalism thanks to Catholicism. Another area in which his faith dictated his conduct was social policy. He was "social by virtue of being a Catholic", and it was " the Christian flame" that inspired the generous decisions of the Liberation, the proposals for associations of capital and labour made by the R.P.F., and the "participation" of the Fifth Republic.

Lastly, de Gaulle had a vision of a Europe of Christian nations reconciled. At the commemoration of Solférino, Cardinal Montini was surprised to see de Gaulle come forward and say to him, "It is a Christian Europe, reconciled by our common Christianity, that we seek to build." The great design of John-Paul II was thus echoed by the General. He combined the Christian dimension of "Our Lady of France" with France's universal vocation to defend the values of freedom and of mankind. He preferred the France of Saint Louis to an Ottonian Europe and, in the conviction that it was in the nature of the French people to perform the acts of God  – gesta Dei per Francos -, he asked the eldest daughter of the Church and her head of state not to forget the promises made at their baptism. An eternal return to Clovis. Nor did he ever forget that he was a soldier. There could be no Christianity without the sword, no Crusades without the Gospel.