Historians troubled by upcoming canonization of Charles de Foucauld

Some scholars see future saint’s legacy tied too closely to French colonialism in Algeria where he was murdered in 1916

Claire Lesegretain France July 13, 2020

After the Congregation for the Causes of Saints announced last May that a miracle had been attributed to the intercession of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, the canonization of the man known as the universal brother can now go forward.

But not all historians are pleased with the news.

The canonization of Charles de Foucauld would be a denial of history, wrote Professor Ladji Ouattara in an article that appeared in the July 2 edition of Le Monde.

His work would be inseparable from the colonial conquest of the Sahara

The work of the ‘hermit of hoggar’ is inseparable from France’s colonial conquest of the Sahara, claimed Quattara, who teaches history at universities in France and Niger.

He cited the works of a number historians, such as Jean-Marie Muller, who in 2002 denounced the deep nationalist and colonialist convictions of this Saharan hermit who defended a total war against Germany during the Great War . 

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Quattara noted that Hélène Claudot-Hawad had, that same year, condemned de Foucauld’s direct involvement in colonial military operations against the rebel tribes in Algeria.  

And he noted that more recently, in 2014, André Bourgeot had criticized the future saint’s ideas in favor of a disorganization of the Tuareg socio-political structures .

Ouattara, who did his doctoral thesis at the Catholic University of Louvain on the Tuareg people, claimed that as a former second lieutenant, de Foucauld personally took part in several military tours with Captain Dinaux, the aim of which were to establish the submission of the Tuaregs of Hoggar and to get a tax accepted that would be a tangible mark of this submission .

Bishop emeritus Claude Rault of Laghouat (Algeria) rejected that claim.

Charles de Foucauld’s aim was not to directly take part in a military operation, but to use it to extend his knowledge of the Tuareg world, the 79-year-old bishops said.

He had no other way to do this than to rely on these expeditions, said Rault, a White Father missionary who led the Laghouat diocese from 2004-2017.

The traumas of colonization

John Paul II moved de Foucault’s sainthood cause forward in 2001 by declaring him venerable .

Then four years later Benedict XVI decreed that the French-born monk had died as a martyr and approved his beatification. Now, after the recent verification of the miracle, Pope Francis is to declare him a saint.

Who, really, is Charles de Foucauld? How does Africa view his future canonization while the traumas of colonization still affect Tuareg societies? Quattara asked provocatively

He said the canonization would likely appear dissonant in the current context of dismantling colonialist figures.

Furthermore, he noted that it comes five years after the controversial canonization of Junipero Serra (1713-1784) in the United States.

But Bishop Rault argued that Charles de Foucauld never stopped denouncing the exactions of a colonization that consisted in appropriating the great Algerian south to the detriment of the Tuareg people and culture .

Moreover, he said de Foucauld’s French-Touareg dictionary remains an essential reference to this day.

His vision of colonization was always humanized and humanistic, the bishop said.

He pointed out that the soon to be acclaimed saint often asked that Tuareg leaders be taken into consideration and that certain political powers be entrusted to them .

Betraying the trust of the Tuaregs

His love for the Tuareg people has always prevailed, Bishop Rault emphasized.

Charles de Foucauld wanted to live among the people and become their brother. He took the risk of staying where the army was not present so as to mark his distance from them, the bishop said.

But he also admitted that it would be healthy for the Church to reveal to the general public all the grey areas: it is time to tell the limits of this man who has been so hallowed .

He acknowledged that the revered monk said nothing about the violence and had even wished for the physical disappearance of this or that Tuareg . 

But even though Charles de Foucauld did not succeed in everything in his life, holiness is not the same as perfection, Bishop Rault insisted.

Murdered in December 1916 in Tamanrasset

Jean-Claude Boulanger, the recently retired bishop of Bayeux-Lisieux in France, is a member of the priestly fraternity Iesu Caritas of Charles de Foucauld and author of a book on the hermit of Tamanrasset.

He quoted a letter that the aménokal (Tuareg religious leader) Moussa agg Amastasent sent to Madame de Blic, sister of Charles de Foucauld, on December 25, 1916 — following the monk’s assassination on December 1.


“As soon as I learned of the death of our friend, your brother Charles, my eyes closed; everything was dark for me; I shed many tears. His death caused me great sorrow”, the aménokal wrote.

In the same letter, he asked Madame de Blic to tell her family that Charles the marabout is not only dead for you alone; he is dead for all of us. May God have mercy on him and may we meet with him in heaven!

Bishop Boulanger pointed that in Islam a marabout is venerated as a saint.

It is surprising that Moussa could write ‘our marabout’ and that he plans to meet him in the same paradise, the 75-year-old bishop said.

He added that even if all the Tuaregs did not necessarily share the aménokal’s opinion, it does not negate the fact that it was through his entire life that Charles de Foucauld tried to bear witness to Jesus of Nazareth and the Gospel .


I’m always advising people not to turn any human being into a saint – because ALL us humans have feet of clay.

This is the first time I have heard these worrying criticisms of Brother Charles of being a collaborator in the French colonisation of Algeria.

And, I am disappointed.

We humans are quite determined not only by our genes but by our upbringing and the all-pervading culture we live in.

And when we are TRYING to be Christians it is very difficult for us to TOTALLY have the mind of Christ.

There is also the question of the practicalities of everyday living.

When I was on the Falls Road from 1978 to 1983 anarchy reigned.

The RUC were rendered useless by their alienation from the population.

What did one do to get justice for good causes.

One approached the “authorities” that reigned there and made one’s difficult way between various forces.


I hope Brother Charles acted with integrity in his dealings with the French invaders and the native Toureg people.

I imagine it was very difficult to always get a balance?

And perhaps one had to settle, sometimes, for the lesser of two evils?

Brother Charles is still dear to me.

And as the bishop said: “There is a difference between holiness and perfection”.