Further, Father, Further!

David A. Bell

  • The Wanton Jesuit and the Wayward Saint: A Tale of Sex, Religion and Politics in 18th-Century France by Mita Choudhury
    Penn State, 234 pp, £43.95, December 2015, ISBN 978 0 271 07081 0

In the autumn of 1730, a 20-year-old woman in the southern French port of Toulon claimed that her spiritual director, a middle-aged Jesuit, had repeatedly forced her to have sex with him. When she became pregnant, he made her drink a potion that induced an abortion. He denied everything and accused her of slander. The case went to trial before the sovereign court of Aix-en-Provence, and lawyers for both Catherine Cadière and Father Jean-Baptiste Girard published dozens of accusatory briefs that circulated freely, sometimes with print runs in the thousands. The most popular ones made their way into translation, in Britain, Germany and the Netherlands. Underground news sheets reported further details to readers throughout Europe, while a newspaper as far afield as Boston, Massachusetts promised to carry as much about the affair ‘as is fit to be printed’. Hundreds of songs and poems appeared, including, in London, the hilariously awful ‘Spiritual Amours’. Its author, a certain ‘Jeremy Jingle’, had no love lost for

That compound of a goatish Lecher
And a most edifying Preacher …
To him Adultery, Fornication
Were nothing more than Recreation.

Within a year, most people in Western Europe who could read probably knew about Girard and Cadière, and a large proportion of them were following the case’s every twist and turn. The story lingered in public memory long after the complex trial of 1731. Erotic engravings of the pair’s supposed encounters were popular for decades. References abounded in popular literature. And in 1748, the story became the basis for the century’s bestselling work of French pornography, the novel Thérèse philosophe, which contained explicit descriptions of the anagrammatical Father Dirrag seducing his student, Mademoiselle Eradice, while hidden witnesses discoursed learnedly on materialist philosophy.

Some scholars have linked the scandal to the early stirrings of the French Enlightenment. Montesquieu had written Persian Letters ten years earlier, and Voltaire was working on his deeply subversive Philosophical Letters, which were published in 1733. Both these works treated revealed religion in general, and Roman Catholicism in particular, with scepticism and scorn. Both urged their readers towards tolerance and freethinking. Perhaps the case became a cause célèbre because the French public saw in the abusive Jesuit everything they were learning to distrust about an oppressive Catholic Church.

While Thérèse philosophe certainly qualifies as an Enlightenment text of sorts, the works that circulated during and immediately after the trial itself contain few if any traces of religious scepticism, or freethinking of any kind. The lawyers for both Cadière and Girard claimed their clients were religious paragons and accused the other side of consorting with dark powers. Cadière called Girard ‘the devil of Uncleanness’, while his lawyer wrote that ‘we agree with our adversaries about the power of demons.’ Even Jeremy Jingle claimed that Girard had had supernatural help:

But now, to cast her into Trances,
And fill her Mind with various Fancies,
By Magick Art he calls from Hell
The chiefest Fiend that there does dwell.

The French underground newspaper that did the most to publicise the case insisted it was part of the eternal struggle between good and evil, and likened its protagonists to figures from scripture.

Both sides made full use of the period’s burgeoning print culture – especially the periodical press. They did not hesitate to appeal to a new force they described as ‘the voice of the public’. Indeed, they referred to the public as a ‘sovereign arbitrator’, superior even to the royal magistrates who judged Girard and Cadière. They also helped change the way ‘scandal’ itself was understood. Up until this period, in Western Europe, the word most often denoted things that needed to be covered up because they set a bad example, and could lead the unwary into perdition. But at the time of the Girard-Cadière case scandals were coming to be seen as incidents that should be exposed to public condemnation. Authors and printers were rushing to profit from the change in attitude, mostly by packing as much sex as they could into their productions. The difference between the Girard-Cadière case and the sexual abuse scandals of our own day, it may seem, is no more than a matter of media technology. Yet the trial itself turned on Cadière’s claims to have experienced miracles, visions and divine possession, and involved testimony obtained during an exorcism. Both Cadière and Girard were accused of witchcraft and heresy, and had they been convicted either of them could have burned at the stake.

The case has never lacked for historians. Jules Michelet called it ‘the most curious affair of the century’, and devoted a long chapter to it in his 1862 book La Sorcière, a history of witchcraft and superstition. He called Cadière a ‘sad flower’ who made an easy target for the predatory Girard, and cast the story as an example of the way the Jesuits sought to keep France in thrall to superstition. More recently, the case has attracted attention from historians of illicit literature such as Robert Darnton, interested in explaining the success of Thérèse philosophe, and from historians of medicine fascinated by Cadière’s visions and trances. An article on it even appeared in the journal Epilepsy and Behaviour. Scientists, ignoring the long history of religious possession and reading the sources uncritically, have tended to explain Cadière’s trances as ‘psychogenic seizures’ brought on by sexual trauma, or ‘hysterical mysticism’ induced by sexual abstinence.

Mita Choudhury’s lucid new study offers a more cautious and better informed interpretation. Unlike most of her predecessors, including Michelet, she does not assume that the abuse actually occurred. At a remove of nearly three centuries, faced with wildly conflicting pieces of evidence, she admits: ‘In the end we cannot know what happened.’ Father Girard, the rector of the school and seminary attached to Toulon’s naval installations, certainly devoted an unusual amount of attention to a circle of young female followers, with whom he frequently picnicked and danced in the countryside. Cadière, the poor daughter of an olive oil merchant who had died during her infancy, rapidly emerged as the ‘shining star’ of this coterie after the two met in 1728. Soon afterwards, she started suffering violent convulsions, and had visions of accompanying Christ at his crucifixion. She even claimed to have bled from wounds that duplicated his. Girard initially encouraged these mystical ventures, and arranged for her to live in a convent, free from the distractions of daily life and the olive oil business, but she had difficulty adjusting to the convent’s rigid rules and the nuns accused her of stealing food. We know from the letters they exchanged that she was soon arguing with Girard: she wanted to leave and he wanted her to stay. But we can’t tell what took place between the two in private. Quite possibly he did molest her. But it is also possible that she made everything up. Perhaps the two had a consensual affair. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between – or elsewhere entirely.

Both Cadière and Girard were also pawns in a much larger religious and political conflict. In the 1730s, the Catholic Church was embroiled in its fiercest theological quarrel since the Reformation. On one side stood the so-called Molinists (named after a 16th-century Spanish Jesuit, Luis de Molina), who emphasised the ability of believers to choose the path of salvation freely, and the power of the Church to guide them towards it. They were particularly associated with the Jesuit Order. Opposed to them were the Jansenists (after a 17th-century Flemish bishop, Cornelius Jansen), who held that a radically sinful humanity could hope for salvation only if God chose to bestow his ‘efficacious grace’ on them. Unlike Protestants, to whose beliefs on the subject of grace they strayed perilously close, the Jansenists had no desire to break with Rome, but they did stress the fallibility of even the most eminent members of the clergy. The details of the dispute can seem tortuous and opaque to modern readers, but in an overwhelmingly devout society, among men and women concerned about their prospects of eternal salvation, they were hugely important. Indeed, the rhetoric on both sides became so hate-filled and abusive that some observers feared it might trigger a French civil war. The archbishop of Paris fretted to the prime minister that it could lead to the beheading of the king, ‘as is done in England’. Until the 1750s, the quarrel excited considerably more attention in France than the writings of a few daring philosophes.

By the time of the Girard-Cadière affair, the quarrel had become extremely unequal. The pope, the king of France and nearly all the episcopacy had turned against the Jansenists, and were working to drive them out of the clergy entirely. But the Jansenists had created a powerful clandestine network that distributed its underground newspaper, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, throughout France. Jansenist lawyers also realised they could turn their printed legal briefs – the only printed matter allowed to circulate in the country without preliminary censorship – into powerful propaganda. As a result, Jansenists were constantly on the lookout for court cases they could use to expose the wickedness of their enemies, especially the Jesuits.

To the Jansenists the case of Catherine Cadière represented an irresistible opportunity. When Cadière finally left the convent in 1730, her relationship with Father Girard in tatters, she turned to a new confessor – a Carmelite priest and Jansenist called Nicolas Girieux. Pronouncing her the victim of demonic, not divine possession, he performed a series of exorcisms, during which she denounced her former mentor. To what extent Girieux encouraged this denunciation we cannot know. But soon afterwards, Catherine appeared before a local magistrate and formally accused Father Girard of using unholy means to seduce her. According to her deposition he had breathed into her mouth, after which she had developed unnatural passions. A lawyer with Jansenist sympathies then became involved in the case and published dozens of briefs, some of them hundreds of pages long. The Jansenist underground newspaper reported on the briefs, sympathetic versifiers and songwriters got in on the act, and soon what amounted to a Jansenist media campaign had whipped up a nationwide controversy. Attempts by Father Girard’s advocates to fight back in the ‘court of public opinion’ only helped the Jansenists by drawing more attention to the unattractive Girard, and further legitimating the role of public opinion itself.

In the short term, the Jansenists achieved little. The trial in Aix, torn between Jansenist and Jesuit sympathisers, ended in deadlock, and Girard escaped conviction (he died of natural causes in 1733). Cadière disappeared from the historical record. We don’t know what happened to her, even how long she lived, after the legal proceedings ended. The persecution of the Jansenists in France not only continued, but intensified. But the case reinforced the image of the Jesuits as corrupt and dangerous. In the 1760s, after another spectacular case involving alleged Jesuit misconduct (this time financial), Louis XV ordered the dissolution of the order in France.

Choudhury is a reliable guide to this often difficult material. She knows the world of 18th-century French Catholicism well, and has deftly untangled the case’s legal complexities. She takes religious belief seriously, and manages to write about both Jansenists and Jesuits with sympathy. Unlike Michelet, and most of the other historians who have written about Girard and Cadière, she has no wish to find the case a rehearsal for the French Revolution (Michelet wrote of a popular protest in favour of Cadière: ‘Ici, déjà, ce fut une grande scène révolutionnaire’). Choudhury sees the story as part of a long, slow process of questioning and criticising ‘the religious principles underpinning French society and politics’.

Choudhury might have done more with the case’s repercussions outside France. What explains, for instance, the enormous interest taken in it by the British (including the colonists in Boston)? In the autumn and winter of 1731-32 London newspapers published hundreds of articles on Girard and Cadière. The legal briefs sold well enough to justify multiple English-language editions, while the authors of the competing translations denounced one another’s linguistic mistakes with a verve worthy of the LRB’s letters page. Few British readers cared much about the difference between Jansenists and Molinists. But as a letter to Fog’s Journal explained, ‘every British Subject and true Protestant’ would see in the story ‘by what villainous and diabolical Arts the Romish Priests … usurp and maintain an absolute Dominion over the Consciences, as well as the Persons of their Devotees.’ In other words, a theological battle between Catholics became a pretext for condemning Catholicism as a whole.

The way the case was treated in the British press makes clear that both scandal and sex were becoming commercial forms of entertainment. In January 1732 a London paper reported on a new Parisian fashion: ribbons painted with the likeness of either Girard or Cadière, which women pinned on their heads and men on their sword hilts. ‘But this mode was soon put down as scandalous,’ the article continued, and the Paris police forced the ribbon dealers to cease and desist. The ribbon wearers saw the case mostly as a source of bawdy fun. So did Jeremy Jingle, for all his talk of the devil, and so did the British racehorse owner who called one of his mares Miss Cadière. For all of them, the spectacle of a middle-aged priest, whom one account described as ‘excessively ugly’, tricking a comely young woman into bed with spiritual mumbo-jumbo was above all amusing. Choudhury, though brilliant on the theology and politics, has too little to say about commercialism and humour. She provides a learned analysis of the erotic engravings inspired by the affair, including one of a leering Girard bending down to inspect Cadière’s naked buttocks. ‘His expression of desire subverts devotion,’ she writes. Indeed it does, but it’s funny too.

The humour matters, because nothing was more corrosive of ‘the religious principles underpinning French society and politics’. Montesquieu and Voltaire knew this very well. Persian Letters and Philosophical Letters are full of barbed humour. When Montesquieu’s Persian visitors to France wrote naively about the ‘great magician called the pope, who can make people believe that three are one’, or when Voltaire claimed that in the London stock market, Christians, Jews and Muslims rubbed shoulders, ‘only giving the name of infidel to the bankrupt’, readers were meant to laugh – and to think. The Jansenists who turned the case into a massive scandal wanted readers to feel outrage at the diabolical Jesuit who had bewitched and violated an innocent young woman. They did not count on readers finding the story so amusing that it became harder for them to take religion itself so seriously.

The author of Thérèse philosophe was probably Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, Marquis d’Argens, who came from Aix-en-Provence and was the son of a prosecutor who had taken part in the trial. He had a genuine comic gift. The scene in which Father Dirrag takes advantage of the prone Eradice by telling her, ‘with the venerable cord of St Francis I’m going to purge you of all impurities,’ can still make us laugh two and a half centuries later. The narrator, Thérèse, goes on to preach materialist philosophy while she has her own sexual adventures. But getting readers to take the materialism seriously depended on the utter ridicule of Catholic mysticism accomplished in that first seduction scene: ‘“Oh Father,” cried Eradice. “Such pleasure is penetrating me! Oh yes, I’m feeling celestial happiness. I sense that my mind is completely detached from matter. Further, Father, further! Root out all that is impure in me. I see … the … an … gels.”’ Scenes like this could do more than a dozen stolid atheist tracts to make France a more secular society. The fact that readers knew it was based on a real story – or, at least, on real allegations – gave it more spice.

Today, we’re likely to be more conscious of the victimisation and pain that may have lain behind such scenes. It’s a sobering thought that over the following centuries very little changed within the Catholic Church. Modern scandals, though they produce much sound and fury, most often do very little to remedy the underlying conditions they expose. The scandal of a young woman allegedly molested by her confessor shook the religious foundations of France’s Old Regime. It provided income for pamphleteers and pornographers, and helped one group of Catholics in their theological disputes with another. The one group it did nothing at all to help was young women molested by their confessors.