A New Primacy of Conscience? Conscientious Objection, French Catholicism and the State during the Algerian War

Rachel M. Johnston-White*

*Corresponding author for this work

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This article explores how the Roman Catholic Church in France re-evaluated its traditional condemnation of conscientious objection in the closing years of the Algerian War. In contrast to the French Protestant Churches after 1948, the Catholic Church continued to proclaim objection to be detrimental to the principles of state sovereignty and obedience to legitimate authority. Despite this, cases of Catholic conscientious objectors like Jean le Meur and Jean Pezet brought contentious Church debates into the public sphere, dramatized in the press and the courtroom. The article traces how the moral dilemmas of the Algerian War created a space for new theological ideas that challenged the hierarchical, corporatist structure of the French Catholic Church and opened the way for a new emphasis on individual conscience that came to fruition with Vatican II. By focusing on Catholic activism during the war itself, the article also challenges the idea that support for conscientious objection emerged spontaneously after the end of the Algerian War. More broadly, the article addresses the wider narrative of the emergence of human rights by illustrating how the Algerian War proved to be a turning point in the relationship between individuals and authority.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)112-138
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of contemporary history
Issue number1
Early online date8-Nov-2017
Publication statusPublished - Jan-2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Algerian War
  • conscientious objection
  • Christianity
  • conscription
  • Decolonization
  • France
  • Catholic Church
  • Protestantism

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