02/12/2013 12:12 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

Napoleon and the Pope

Napoleon Bonaparte would be at home in today's relatively irreligious age. A recent poll showed nearly 20 percent of Americans report no religion, up from 8 percent in 1990. In France the percentage declaring no religion is 48, in the UK 50. Even in Mexico, 20 percent report no religious affiliation.

Napoleon seized power in a military coup against a revolutionary government that began as officially atheistic, and which had booted out France's dominating Catholic Church. Notre Dame was turned into a "Temple of Reason" with busts of Greek philosophers. Then it briefly became a food warehouse.

Church property was seized, churches temporarily closed up, and convents and monasteries emptied.

One of Bonaparte's first acts was to reach agreement with the Church to welcome back Roman Catholicism, but under conditions that trimmed it of its old ownerships and powers.
It was political calculation. The revival of religion was as popular with many French commoners as the return of Orthodox religion was popular with some Russians after the collapse of communism.

But Bonaparte was no churchgoer and no true Catholic. He remarked once that perhaps the sun would be a logical object of worship. He had curiosity without faith. His last deathbed word was not about God, but "Josephine."

When he invaded Egypt he tried to portray his revolutionary, atheistic French troops as potential friends of Islam. The Cairo Imams did not believe it for a moment.

The recently announced resignation of Pope Benedict XVI brings to mind the important role the papacy has played throughout history.

Napoleon was a man of his times, and ours, in that he was not religious but intellectually curious about spirituality. He was superstitious. He believed in destiny and luck. By some accounts he had supernatural experiences in the Great Pyramid in Egypt and with a prophetic gnome called the Little Red Man. All this has found its way into my Ethan Gage series of historical novels.

Raised in Corsica, Napoleon had a penchant for making the sign of the cross at moments of stress or exasperation. But he was not a churchgoer, and regarded religion as a tool to control the masses, not an answer to life's mysteries.

He also regarded papal approval as necessary for his own legitimacy.

The plot of my upcoming novel The Barbed Crown revolves in part around Napoleon's coronation as emperor on December 2, 1804, at Notre Dame in Paris. He astounded the world, and the invited Pope Pius VII, by crowning himself and his wife Josephine, an act of secular hubris.

It was also carefully calculated. Napoleon wanted religious legitimacy, but not religious obligation.

Pius wanted to reassert the Church's role in post-revolutionary France but attended Napoleon's coronation only with reluctance. He was being asked to endorse hereditary rule on the family of a military upstart.

Accordingly, it took months of negotiations to convince the pope to make the long journey from Rome to Paris in late autumn. Napoleon and Pius contrived to meet "by accident" outside Paris while Bonaparte was hunting (an activity that bored him.) The chance meeting avoided either looking like a supplicant to the other and they even choreographed their entry into a coach to confer. Both stepped inside the vehicle at exactly the same time.

Pius was a devout pontiff who lived a life of relative simplicity, for a pope. He ignored the gifts Napoleon showered on him (although his entourage did not), and found the spectacularly jeweled papal crown that the French presented uncomfortable to wear. He was wisely skeptical of Napoleon's motives.

But the church needed the state and the state needed the church. Josephine, who had wed Napoleon in a civil ceremony, had a religious ceremony the night before the coronation to legitimize her own crowning.

(This didn't stop Napoleon from divorcing her a few years later when she could not produce a male heir.)

To see what role Ethan Gage played in Napoleon's crowning, you have to read the novel. Suffice to say that Pius is taken by surprise in more ways than one.

Don't believe me? If you study David's famous painting of Napoleon's coronation in the Louvre you can detect, in the crowd of onlookers, an equally surprised fellow who looks very much like Ethan Gage.