Napoleon’s Personal Feelings about Religion

Klemens von Metternich, head of the Austrian government and therefore a sharp critic of Napoleon, reported that Napoleon viewed Catholicism in largely utilitarian, even cynical terms.


Napoleon was not irreligious in the ordinary sense of the word. He would not admit that there had ever existed a genuine atheist; he condemned Deism as the result of rash speculation. A Christian and a Catholic, he recognized in religion alone the right to govern human societies. He looked on Christianity as the basis of all real civilization; and considered Catholicism as the form of worship most favorable to the maintenance of order and the true tranquility of the moral world; Protestantism as a source of trouble and disagreements. Personally indifferent to religious practices, he respected them too much to permit the slightest ridicule of those who followed them. It is possible that religion was, with him, more the result of an enlightened policy than an affair of sentiment; but whatever might have been the secret of his heart, he took care never to betray it. His opinions of men were concentrated in one idea which, unhappily for him, had in his mind gained the force of an axiom. He was persuaded that no man, called to appear in public life, or even only engaged in the active pursuits of life, was guided or could be guided by an other motive than that of interest. He did not deny the existence of virtue and honor; but he maintained that neither of these sentiments had ever been the chief guide of any but those whom he called dreamers, and to whom, by this title, he, in his own mind, denied the existence of the requisite faculty for taking a successful part in the affairs of society. . . .

Whilst in his conceptions all was clear and precise, in what required action he knew neither difficulty nor uncertainty. Ordinary rules did not embarrass him at all. In practice, as in discussion, he went straight to the end in view without being delayed by considerations which he treated as secondary, and of which he perhaps too often disdained the importance. The most direct line to the object he desired to reach was that which he chose by preference, and which he followed to the end, while nothing could entice him to deviate from it; but then, being no slave to his plans, he knew how to give them up or modify them the moment that his point of view changed, or new combinations gave him the means of attaining it more effectually by a different path. . . .

Source: Clemens Lothar Wenzel, Frst von Metternich-Winneburg, Memoirs of Prince Metternich, 1773-1815, ed. Prince Richard Metternich, tr. Mrs. Alexander Napier, 5 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1880-1882), I: pp. 272-273.