How did Napoleon help reform the Catholic Church and religion in France?

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By the time Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the Directory government headed by Barras to become the leader of France, the French Catholic church had undergone severe annihilation. The ‘dechristianisation’ campaign had wiped out all elements of worship including shutting down of churches and removal of religious symbols such as church bells and crosses. Napoleon knew how influential the Catholic Church was, having noted that it had the highest number of adherents. After assuming power, he ordered the re-opening of the non-alienated churches and even granted amnesty to the priests that had been deported.

In 1801, under Napoleon’s leadership, France and Rome signed a document called Concordant that outlined the church’s relationship with the state. Even though the document recognized Catholicism as the religion of the vast majority in France, it gave the state authority over the church. It is therefore important to note that whereas Napoleon took steps to restore the church, he did not intend to restore it fully. He was more interested in using the church’s influence to consolidate his rule in France.

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Napoleon did not really reform the Church itself.  Instead, he worked to reform the relationship between the Catholic Church and French society.

The Catholic Church had been a major opponent of the French Revolution.  When Napoleon came to power, he essentially made peace with the Church.  He signed a "Concordat" with the pope that reformed the relationship between the Church and France.  In the Concordat, Napoleon allowed the Church to reorganize in France.  The Church was allowed once again to operate in the country.  However, Napoleon did not restore it to its previous (pre-Revolution) status as the official religion of France.  Instead, it became just one of the religions, albeit that of the majority of the people.  Napoleon also refused to force the return to the Church of lands that had been confiscated.

In this way, Napoleon backed away from the truly anti-Church policies of the Revolution, but did not allow the Church to regain the power it had once had.

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