Sunday, March 23, 2008

Was Bastiat a "devout Catholic"?

I have always been interested in the life of Frederic Bastiat, perhaps because it was cut so short. Bastiat was a fighter for classical liberal values in France during some of the most tumultuous years in French history. He was a member of the French Assembly where he sat on the Left with Prodhoun. But Bastiat was no socialist -- on the contrary he was a fervent opponent of socialism.

I was reading an article by Prof. Brian Baugus for The Independent Journal regarding Bastiat. And I was a bit baffled by the claim that Bastiat was “a devout Catholic.” Very little that I have read on the man seems to affirm that idea. Certainly; like most Frenchmen of his day, he was born a Catholic, but I never found any indication that he was particularly religious. His writings refer to a deity in the same sort of vague generalities as used by most Enlightened deists of the time.

In fact, prior to this statement by Baugus I’ve only run across one indication that Bastiat was religious. The Catholic Encyclopedia claimed that while Bastiat “was fitted to understand and defend Catholic truth” that was not the case. Instead “the prejudices in the midst of which he lived kept him aloof from the Faith until the very eve of his death.”

When the Catholic Encyclopedia says Bastiat was “aloof from the Faith” that hardly sounds as if he were a “devout Catholic.” They claim that only “in his last hour” did Bastiat become a Christian. Of course, last minute deathbed conversions, most of them invented by the faithful and not by the dying individual, are easy to manufacture. The evidence to support such death bed conversions are usually lacking in substance. The Catholic Encyclopedia gives no source for the claim that Bastiat converted before his death.

The Right-wing, anti-Semite Joseph Sobran, himself a traditionalist Catholic, says that Bastiat was “a devout Catholic” but he offers no source for this assertion. Certainly Bastiat attended a Catholic school but other options didn’t exist and one doesn’t judge an adult’s religious views based on his childhood education. Another Right-wing blog calls Bastiat the “the great Catholic liberal” but again they don't even attempt to substantiat this claim.

While it is easy to assert that Bastiat was a devout Catholic, there is no evidence presented to substantiate the claim. Most those making this assertion seem to be conservative Catholics though Baugus is a evangelical Baptist.

Bastiat did not live much like a devout Catholic. He did marry very briefly. Just before he turned 30 he married Marie Hiard but they separated almost immediately and no other romantic incidents are documented. His one lifelong relationship was with Felix Coudroy. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Coudroy as Bastiat’s “able, dearly loved and lifelong friend.” While none of this is definitive, it does raise the question as to whether Bastiat was a gay man but, like most of Bastiat's private life, there is precious little actual evidence beyond the circumstantial.

The circumstances of Bastiat’s death are tragic. Still a young man, he suffered from tuberculosis. His physicians recommended he seek a warmer climate for his health and in late 1850 he went to Rome. It was there that he died on Christmas Eve. While the Catholic Encyclopedia claims he had a deathbed religious experience I have never been able to find an independent account of this alleged incident.

The evidence that Bastiat was a “devout “Catholic seems non-existent. By the Catholic Encyclopedia’s own assertion he remained “aloof from the Faith” his entire life, until he allegedly had a conversion minutes before he died. But we can find no evidence for this conversation. I have not even been able to find a description of Bastiat’s last minutes of life. Other than the fact that he was in Rome, I don’t know where in Rome. I don’t know if he died in a hospital, or in a hotel where he was staying, or in the private home of a friend. There is no account that I’ve seen of who was with him during these last moments and I know of no contemporary account describing his death except in the most broad terms.

Bastiat is one of the great mysteries of libertarianism. Much of his private life remained private and apparently so did his death. We don’t know why he married or why his wife left him almost immediately. Most of Bastiat’s relationships were of a political nature. He was an avid debater for libertarian ideas but his private life remained relatively secret. Outside his political activities the only person he spent much time with was Felix Coudroy. And where Coudroy was, when Bastiat died, doesn’t appear to be known. We know little about Coudroy himself other than he was Bastiat’s neighbor and that the two men spent a considerable amount of time in one another’s company.

There are many things we don’t know about Bastiat. But I can not find evidence that he was devout Catholic and the Catholic Encyclopedia implies he wasn't. Other than an undocumented claim of a last minute conversion we have no indication that Bastiat was anything more than a deistically inclined son of the Age of Enlightenment.

Bastiat is one of the most well-known figures of his day. His writings still influence people today. Yet no major biography has even been published. The closest to it is George Roche’s Bastiat: A Man Alone. Yet Roche spends much of the time describing Bastiat’s writings and beliefs on economics. We have a rudimentary description of his life but what is missing is the kind of detailed discussion that most biographies contain. One could say that Bastiat is one of the most obscure, well-known figures in libertarian history. And, unless someone uncovers new evidence, there is little reason to describe Bastiat as a “devout Catholic.” Such a description seems more like wishful thinking than history.

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