Priests of the French Revolution
Saints and Renegades in a New Political Era
Joseph F. Byrnes
Priests of the French Revolution
Saints and Renegades in a New Political Era
Joseph F. Byrnes
“Joseph Byrnes offers the long-awaited first historical synthesis on the patriot clergy of the French Revolution. A necessary scholarly reconsideration, based on reliable sources, and far from the usual caricatures.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
“Joseph Byrnes offers the long-awaited first historical synthesis on the patriot clergy of the French Revolution. A necessary scholarly reconsideration, based on reliable sources, and far from the usual caricatures.”
“In Priests of the French Revolution, Joseph Byrnes provides us with a captivating study of the priests who embraced the Revolution and about whom we know surprisingly little, compared with their Old Regime predecessors and their nineteenth-century successors. The book covers well-known figures, such as the abbés Sieyès and Grégoire, as well as many lesser-known priests who cast their lot with the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, showing the vitality of the French constitutional church during a time of enormous political and cultural upheaval. Written in a lively and engaging fashion, this book should be read by all scholars of the Revolution and of religion in modern France.”
“Joseph Byrnes has written a completely original and extremely valuable book on the French Roman Catholic clergy who promoted and accepted the ecclesiastical reform known as the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, voted in by the Constituent Assembly in Paris in the years 1790 and 1791. For too long they have been sidelined, positively ignored, and criticized by those who opposed the reform. Byrnes introduces the reader to the faithful and highly intelligent leaders of the many priests (between 58 and 61 percent) who saw the need for change. At the same time, he uncovers those who went on to reject their faith. His story spans the whole of the revolutionary period, including the Terror and the post-Thermidor period, and describes the persecution of the clergy of the Constitutional Church in Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire. A fine achievement.”
“In his new book, Joseph Byrnes takes us into the fascinating world of Catholic priests who sought, in different ways, to work with rather than against the French Revolution. Moving beyond a simple narrative of church-state conflict and dechristianization, Byrnes explores the personal and professional dramas of individuals ranging from the abbé Henri Grégoire, who struggled to reconcile Catholicism and the republic through a reformed Constitutional Church, to terrorists such as Jacques Roux, who turned against his past and condemned his clerical colleagues as fanatics and hypocrites. Drawing on their sermons, speeches, letters, and pamphlets, Byrnes allows us to hear a discordant chorus of voices providing a rich commentary on the political and religious history of France during the revolutionary decade of the 1790s. This book will be a valuable resource for historians of France, but it should also draw the attention of scholars interested in the tense and complex relationship between religion and politics that continues to shape our contemporary world.”
Joseph F. Byrnes is Professor of Modern European History at Oklahoma State University. He is the author of Catholic and French Forever: Religious and National Identity in Modern France (Penn State, 2005).
List of Illustrations
Part I: Engagement, 1789–1791
1 The Formation of a Revolutionary Priest: Sieyès and Grégoire
2 The Priests in Action: From Estates General to National Assembly
3 Claude Fauchet at the Bastille
4 The Church of Adrien Lamourette and His Allies
Part II: Survival, 1791–1795
5 The Failed Relationship of Revolutionary Church and State
6 The Tragic Convention Years
7 Terrorists and Abdicators: Ultimate Renegades
Part III: Revival, 1795–1802
8 The New Constitutional French Church
9 Stabilizing the Constitutional Church: Claude Le Coz and the Council of 1797
10 Constitutional Irresolution in the See of Paris: Jean-Baptiste Royer and the Council of 1801
11 Constitutional Clergy in the Church of Napoleon’s Concordat
12 The Afterlife of the Constitutional Church: Hopes and Reality
Appendix: Administration of the Constitutional Church and Oath Adherence by Department
The Priests in Action:
From Estates General to National Assembly
No one was ready for the convocation of the Estates General, so far beyond living memory was the activity of a parliament. When elections were held in all the electoral districts in the first months of 1789, the bailliages and sénéchaussées of France, the clergy had to work out their own problems of power and politics, which were further complicated by theology and religious sentiment. Strong reformist priests were able to dominate from the beginning, although individual bishops were occasionally astute enough to maintain their control over clergy meetings within their own dioceses. At the opening of the Estates General there was an unexpectedly high percentage of curés, even given the ground rules set in place by Finance Minister Jacques Necker in order to ensure a high priest-to-bishop ratio. Curé words and deeds are recorded in the cahiers de doléances, those official lists of complaints and hopes, in the diaries kept during the meetings of the First (clergy) Estate, and in the records kept by the Comité ecclésiastique after the Estates General became the Constituent Assembly. After many months of work in 1790, the members of the Comité ecclésiastique produced the founding document of church reform, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.
Reform Within the Church: The Cahiers de Doléances
Very few revolutionary demands or complaints are in the clergy cahiers, according to Timothy Tackett, who scanned them to establish the frequency of such demands and complaints. There was some minor concern for the rights of the poor and antagonism toward the systems of rich and noble bishops, but no straightforward expression of bona fide revolutionary ideas. Tackett says that “grievances anticipating the most radical measures of the Civil Constitution were scarcely to be found anywhere.” Still and all, Philippe Grateau, in his “cultural rereading” of the cahiers, highlights a tradition of contempt for luxury and a clerical caste, and Nigel Aston notes a pervasive desire that the state might possibly “order matters thought formerly to be the preserve of the Church.” Ever stricter rules were required for the celebration of religious festivals, fasting, and control of immoral behavior in its usual forms of sex, drinking, and blasphemy. There was much demand for press censorship and little thought about toleration of non-Catholicism. There was little clarity about the distribution of powers needed to accomplish the reforms, with only a small minority of the cahiers suggesting that the decisions of the Estates General should be handled and ratified by the bishops or a national council or diocesan synods. At times the Estates General were considered the final authority. To highlight regional differences, Tackett recalculated his figures to apply geographically to departments instead of the old electoral districts. The highest level of demand for curé rights was found in western Normandy, Maine, the Touraine, then between the Massif Central and the Pyrénées. In these regions, the north looked more to “honorific” rights; the south, to political rights—but rights in any case. It is striking that these regions did not, on the one hand, end up with a high percentage of constitutional clergy or successful dechristianization, or, on the other hand, with high levels of revolutionary demands.
There were, to be sure, expressions of resentment and rebellion, recorded by Charles Chassin in his book on the clergy cahiers. Class differences always counted for something. The cahier from Arles indicates that “the diverse classes of ecclesiastics put forward their individual doléances in contradiction to one another.” In Aix and several other towns, little opposition to the bishop was recorded; but, even so, a simple village curé was chosen to accompany him to the Estates General. The curé, Father Cousin, helped prepare the parish cahier that was sent to the Third Estate—with provisions for the election of curés. In Marseilles, a supplementary cahier was sent in because the bishops would not sign some of the formulations that had been crafted by the lower clergy. From Puy-en-Velay came the strange cahier that was episcopal in tone, but noted the complaints of curés demanding that bishops and others who were rewarded for their services should actually provide those services. From time to time, a group of clergy would produce a very moderate document but choose a strongly political curé to represent them. Antagonism to the bishop is evident in the cahier that expects, not from the higher clergy, but “from the nation the concern to improve the lot of curés and assistants.” In Périgord the curés of Libourne also look to the nation “to remedy the abuses that have made their way into the church administration.”
From the Auvergne came the plea that the bishops be well chosen: “Since bishops must be the lights and model of the clergy, the king should be begged right away to take effective measures, so that in choosing [these] first pastors, the minister charged with this task experience no coercion or fear, due to the intrigue, money, or power of the powerful.” Opposition to the bishop also featured in the letters from the curés of Poitiers and Luçon. When Father Guilleminet wrote to Necker, the king’s finance minister, he said, “Monseigneur, the Lord Bishops of Poitiers and Luçon are always opposed to admitting into the minutes all the demands, requests, and protests that the cures want relative to the aforesaid cahier.” The Norman priest Crosnier roundly criticized episcopal immorality: “The people are indignant, scandalized to see that riches taken for the altar serve the secular luxury, sensuality, and intemperance.” Rather, the money “could have been used to put their children in a position to serve the fatherland, rather than to support the idleness of clergy useless to church and state.”
Curés projected their own key roles in church and society. The cahier from Caen was a pure Gallican document highlighting the importance of the curés and urging a separate but equal status for the French church relative to pope and king. The cahier from Beauvais provided for limited elections, Chassin says, in order to avoid the formula of the curé from Saventin demanding that gold and silver be taken from the churches in order to pay the national debt! In the cahier of the sénéchaussée of Anjou the curés call for the restoration of all Gallican liberties including “freedom of election.” But seldom does one find a cahier such as the two brief articles from the Angoulême region, wherein the curés said nothing of church or clergy, dealing only with taxes and—in a surprising expression in these documents—“the legitimate liberty of the press.” In Lorraine, the curés of Toul offered to pay taxes, “considering themselves citizens and children of the fatherland.” In Lille, the curés demanded that all pastors of the city church “participate in the administration of the properties and revenues of the fabrique of the diocese.” In Metz, however, though favorable to a constitution, they wanted the rescinding of Protestant civil status, just granted in 1787. And opposition to the corruption of the religious orders was juxtaposed to the demand for curé rights. In the Southwest, curés wanted formal assemblies of their own resembling the religious-order assemblies, noting the “decline that threatens the religious orders with imminent dissolution,” and suggesting the convocation of a national council to work on the problem. In Bigorre, the curés claimed the right to be the “only genuine preachers, instead of monks and religious.”
Curés highlighted the lot of their parishioners. The poor in their charge should benefit from the tithe, some of them said. The clergy of the bailliage of Mirecourt even demanded that the king himself listen to his people: “They will tell you for how long these children of the best of fathers [the king] groan under oppression. They will recount the rapport possessed by the church in the Vosges. It is a cruel stepmother that torments the inhabitants of the countryside and takes from them all the money it can.”
In any case, the priests of France had yet to try their hand at revolution when they arrived at Versailles in May 1789 for the opening of the Estates General. The expression of opposition to domination by bishops allowed little room for other church and government reforms. Confrontations developed across the meetings of the Estates General, where the curés of the First Estate acquired most of their spirit of revolution in asserting their religious and social rights against the aristocratic bishops.
Clergy Journals: Jacques Jallet in Particular
Lively records of the clergy sessions of the Estates General and the common sessions of the Constituent Assembly, minutes and diaries in effect, were kept by the curés Sigisbert-Etienne Coster and Anne-Alexandre Thibault, and then Jacques Rangeard and Jacques Jallet. There were contrasts here. Coster feared the radicality of the group’s decisions and refused the oath; Thibault, despite his appreciation of revolution and reform, wrote a matter-of-fact journal. Rangeard, although keeping his editorializing to a minimum, complained of the unjust distribution of tithes—so much taken by the aristocratic bishops and so little received by the hardworking priests. Jacques Jallet’s journal was, from beginning to end, the work of a priest revolutionary. On 13 June 1789, he had led the first curés (there were two others) to the hall of the Menus-Plaisirs to join the Third Estate.
Jallet put much more of himself in his journal, noting with satisfaction that the head of the small Third Estate deputation addressed the gathered members of the First Estate as Messieurs; even though there were a number of aristocratic bishops present, he never once said Messeigneurs. It was May 1789 and some of the bishops were hoping for good relations with the two other Estates. The trouble began with those efforts to unite the clergy and noble Estates as an intermediary between the king and the Third Estate. This would have considerably strengthened the control of the aristocratic bishops over the commoner priests: “We easily saw the real goal of this writing. If the plan were adopted, the clergy of the second order [priests], overcome by the higher clergy and the nobles, would have not the least force, even for resistance, in the chamber.” The bishops were also unwilling to renounce their tax privileges; to Jallet they seemed to oppose the Third Estate and protect the old union of throne and altar. It was then that Jallet undertook to show the Assembly that “all the cahiers insisted on the preservation of the throne and of religion, but they insisted on the reform of abuses, of the intolerable and scandalous luxury of the bishops; on the amassing of benefices, nonresidency, the exclusion of commoners from the episcopate; it made clear that the clergy themselves should take on the honors of planning the reforms, but those who live off the abuses endeavor to defend them.”
And it got rough at times, such as when a canon from Marseilles told the bishop of Langres, “I’ve forgotten more about this than you know now” (in fact, the canon was an aristocrat and conservative, whereas the bishop was open to change). This all took place in the confusing time between the first invitations to join the Third Estate and the dramatic unification of the First and Second Estates to the Third Estate; the memorable day was 19 May 1789. The indefatigably conservative abbé Maury, urging caution, “calumniated” (Jallet’s word) the intentions of the Third Estate. But Grégoire said that delays had already jeopardized the reform, and Lubersac of Chartres promoted a careful but rapid restructuring. The continued fussing of Maury and powerful logic of Lubersac took center stage until a weepy curé from Bordeaux drew some snickers as he warned of the dangers religion was facing. Jallet believed that the bishops were stonewalling the curés’ efforts to “reconcile” the First and Third Estates. He reported that “an episcopal curé was bold enough to treat the Assembly of the Third Estate as seditious; a bishop had said the previous day that it was a cave of robbers.” The radical curés won out, with the final vote 148 for union with the Third Estate and 136 against; “the bishops exited quickly before the news of the defeat could be reported.” The crowd did not know what had transpired but they were still looking for a fight with the abbé Maury: he “could not get away from the boos of the crowd; he made a threat and they were ready to attack him; some spoke out saying that it would be better not to dirty one’s hands by touching such a despicable person.” But at least the forces for change had won the day: “Then the joy and the applause were universal; the archbishop of Vienne [Le Franc de Pompignon], that of Bordeaux [Champion de Cicé], and the bishop of Chartres [de Lubersac] we put at the head of the winners.” The aristocratic bishops who lost went to the king to protest that the vote had not been legal, but the archbishops of Vienne and Bordeaux and the bishop of Chartres held fast in their defense of the change.
The curés were anxious to finish the union project, and the bishop of Chartres suggested that all repair to the church of Saint-Louis for the official ceremony. And so it was, to Jallet’s clear joy: “The union of the clergy with the Third Estate will bring life and action to the National Assembly; and it is noteworthy that this union has been accomplished in a church that is under the patronage of good Saint Louis; a situation that no one has noticed, as far as we know.” The king then tried to stop the proceedings, ordering the three Estates to return to separate assemblies the next day. The Third Estate and a large number of clergy in favor of union remained. There was a profound silence for several minutes. The marquis de Brézé entered at the king’s behest and declared with the accord of the president that the will of his Majesty was that the different orders separate. The president answered that the session could not be closed except with the consent of the National Assembly. One of the deputies rose and said, “Only bayonets could get us out of here.”
The business of getting the final union worked out was a drawn-out affair, a tug of war between curé eagerness and episcopal reserve. But on 25 May forty-seven nobles (“among whom figure the names of the first families of the kingdom,” wrote Jallet) reinforced the clergy for Estate unification. In the final discussion, Cardinal de La Rochefoucauld protested against the elimination of his right to meet separately with his Estate (his fellow bishops), and Mirabeau rose to say that no one had the right to protest his own will, or even cite the king’s will to the Assembly. The archbishop of Aix wanted to refute Mirabeau, but in his melodrama drew some laughter. Other bishops decided against continuing the contest, but Jallet referred to it all as an episcopal final attempt, a “swing of a club” to prevent the union of the Estates.
And when the secretaries for the united National Assembly were chosen for the first period on 8 June, the short list comprised two nobles, two members of the Third Estate (Le Chapelier, a founder of the Jacobin Club, was one), and . . . the abbés Sieyès and Grégoire! These were troubled times, nevertheless. In the first days of July plans were made to call in more than thirty thousand troops to maintain the peace. Mirabeau, believing that the order would arouse the people, demanded its cancellation, Grégoire wanted to know who could have given the king such pernicious advice, and Sieyès wondered how the Assembly could have free and open discussion when surrounded by bayonets. Then came the storming of the Bastille, consternation at Versailles, and the deliberations as to what to do, with the coming and going of the king. Jallet combines reports of the people’s and delegates’ esteem and expressed enthusiasm for the king, with the subtle insertion of reserve and antagonism—primitive reverence and primitive rebellion in a unique alloy only two days after the storming of the Bastille. A delegation was sent from the Assembly to Paris with an archbishop at its head: “It had been received with lively joy; taken down to the Place Louis XV, they were conducted by an honor guard of the Paris militia, to the acclamations of an immense crowd demanding the return of Necker, to the Hôtel-de-Ville, where the archbishop of Paris announced the dispatching of troops.”
The next delegation had the king at the center, but the clergy who were committed to reform were squeezed out of membership, Jallet himself finding that his name had been proposed but then arbitrarily removed. After a full presentation of the precautions taken against insurrection and violence in Paris, and a comment on the popularity of the duc d’Orléans, Philippe Egalité, Jallet posts his negative assessment of the king’s behavior: “The king revealed himself to the Assembly, not with the dignity of a monarch who considers it an honor to surround himself with the counsels of a noble nation, not with the goodness of a father who has just taken his place, but with the weakness of a despot, humbled by the evil success of his unjust and violent enterprises, and who has just humbled himself before those he cannot destroy, or rather with the faintheartedness of a weak king, without character, whom the counsels of those around him can make proud or craven, alternately, according to circumstances.”
Records show, then, that the priests’ discussions were sometimes reform-oriented and sometimes intimidated by the aristocratic bishops. Only a minority felt comfortable making common cause with the Third Estate, and few, apart from reflexively fearful conservatives, fully realized the magnitude of the changes they were bringing about. One of the outspoken curés, Jean-Louis Gouttes, author of Considérations sur l’injustice des prétentions du Clergé et de la Noblesse, changed his mind within ten days, from no to yes, on the question of joining the Third Estate.
What had happened was this. The regular run of lower clergy were clearly anxious about their relationship with the aristocratic bishops, first in their own Estate and then in the Constituent Assembly; those curés with the greatest resentment of the aristocracy were the most ready to reject their status as a separate Estate. Their suspicion of episcopal self-interest waxed and waned, depending on the liveliness of the communal discussions and the reconciliation achieved in them. All this meant that the clergy were less unified in their stand for or against union with the Third Estate than were the nobles. Back at the end of May, one of the great motivators of debate had been the Essai sur la réforme du clergé, an attack on the bishops by the curé Laurent; published probably on 20 May, it ensured intense debate by 25 and 26 May. Archbishop (of Aix) Raymond de Boisgelin’s warning that the clerical order would be swallowed up in a general assembly persuaded the majority of the clergy that loss of collective clout was the greater danger. By the middle of June, those promoting union with the Third Estate garnered enough votes to win, after several divided and inconclusive—perhaps gerrymandered—votes.
Maurice Hutt decades ago insisted that union with the Third Estate was not what the curés had voted for: “They had voted to cross to the Third Estate’s chamber to check election returns. It was not a decision to merge the Order with that of the Third Estate. . . . The leaders of the ‘curé party’ were prepared for voting by head and urged acceptance of verification in common to bring this about. But they realized quite clearly that this was not a view common among the lower clergy and in their speeches and pamphlets they took care to ‘manage’ this opinion.” This interpretation has been substantially qualified in subsequent years by Ruth Necheles, William Doyle, and Nigel Aston, who wrote that the clergy “were certainly aware of the implications of their behavior.” The Third Estate had actually decided two days before that they were the French “National Assembly” plain and simple, but at least some of the clergy (Hutt was not totally wrong) thought, right up through the fall of the Bastille, that they would be maintained as a distinct order. On 19 July, Cardinal de La Rochefoucauld announced the full participation of the clergy in the Assembly sessions and debates, and the First Estate was no more. A number of these patriote clergy who had voted volens nolens for the crossover in June had changed their mind by the beginning of 1791, when only one-third of them (compared to more than one-half of the clergy in general) were willing to take the oath of loyalty to the Constitution, and accept the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.
With the union of orders, the Estates General became the Constituent Assembly. One-quarter of the curés seated there came from peasant or artisan families, representing, then, humbler levels of society. Grégoire’s father was a tailor; Jallet’s father, a gardener; Thibault’s father, a cobbler. More than half of the curés came from families that were considered notable in the Old Regime, and the rest came from merchant or professional families. Some of the curés were widely read, and some had managed to publish their own works, with or without university degrees. Work with the Estates General and Constituent Assembly developed the political inclinations of some. Priests belonged, too, to the Jacobin Club, although some of them went along with the Feuillants, constitutional monarchists, when the Jacobins turned antireligious after the end of the Constituent Assembly. This was late June 1789, and in the following months there was no lack of strife.
Reform in the National Assembly: The Ecclesiastical Committee
Paris militias and mobs had stormed the Bastille on 14 July. Nobles surrendered their legal and tax privileges in August, after months of rumored and real peasant attacks on the great landed estates. After issuing a balanced “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” inspired by the American founding documents, an enthusiastic reforming assembly directed that all church property was to be placed at the disposal of the nation. Radical active churchmen, reinforced and even dominated by enthusiastic laymen, worked into the following year to reform and revolutionize church structures. They established the Comité ecclésiastique on 12 August to work out the shape of the church for the new regime.
Committee members wanted a democratic church that would have as close a relationship to a constitutional monarchy as had the Old Regime church to the Old Regime state. Coming from all three Estates, they were a mixture of nobles, bishops and priests, and laymen trained in canon law—in particular, Jean-Denis Lanjuinais, Jean-Baptiste Treilhard, and Pierre Durand de Maillane. Before long, a new rostrum of members included the future constitutional bishops Thibault, Louis-Alexandre Expilly, and Jean-Baptiste Massieu. According to Durand de Maillane, the Committee continued to hammer out the contents of the future Civil Constitution of the Clergy, trying to ensure a democratically elected roster of clergy. Dioceses were reorganized to conform to the new distribution of departments, with administrative units replacing the old regions: eighty-three uniformly divided and politically operative units in place of the old ramshackle set of dioceses that included great and small, rich and poor, well and poorly administered, dedicated and charlatan bishops. Curés and bishops were to be elected, and the bishops duly constituted without a mandate from the pope. Financially supporting the whole system, the state was to ensure an equitable distribution of income. This setup was an amalgam of political and ecclesiastical Gallicanism, an independent church–state polity that gave churchmen relative independence from Rome while keeping them submissive to the state.
Durand de Maillane, reporting on the whole affair, insisted that the state could not let clerical domination and religious abuses continue as it went about the job of cleaning up the other problems. The state could not tolerate any ecclesiastical self-defense from the bishops and priests who were the source of the abuses, no more than it could tolerate any offensive actions against the government. The Catholic Church response could not be taken seriously, because it was offered by “the court of Rome” and not really by the “Holy See.” When false decretals and new laws unjustly extended Roman authority over the years, “the more learned bishops in these latter days have complained”; and this was one of the glories of the Gallican church, always holding out against Roman abuses. Durand scorns the lavishness of church ornaments as one major example of clerical self-indulgence. Rather, he envisions a new episcopate, elected after the manner of the early church, “half ecclesiastical, half popular.” It appears, too, that Durand would expect that choices could fall outside the regular rostra of bishops and priests: “I thought that if the choice for the episcopate should fall upon others, it could only be by divine inspiration because of outstanding virtues such as those of Ambrose and Augustine, which appeared to me more in conformity with the minds of the church, and electoral liberty, and ancient customs.”
Gallican bishops had always insisted that their church dignity was founded by Christ and, hence, not arbitrary. Durand insists that, consequently, authority cannot be exercised arbitrarily, and so sets the bishop in the proper context to benefit from his priests: “It is precisely because of the new cathedral arrangement that we have come to place the bishop and his presbytery in a happy and paternal relationship.” But the aristocratic French bishops were refusing to countenance any loss of dignity and so rejected everything the Assembly tried to do to return to the discipline of the early church, and to assure the care of souls and the preaching of the gospel. Apropos, Durand is especially concerned to ensure the care of souls and the preaching of the gospel, and consequently, to elevate the wretched state of the country priests.
As he drafted the document, Durand knew that a principal complaint against election of bishops was based on the possibility of a non-Catholic vote: “But after the explanations that I have given on the real meaning of the acts of election, institution, and consecration, a single response will be enough to refute one or another of the objections.” The regular voters can be trusted to supply a good moral and political foundation for the election; then it is up to the hierarchy to decide what best serves the spiritual interests of their people. Inasmuch as the decrees presupposed the celebration of a Mass before the election, one would expect non-Catholics to vote in very limited numbers. Durand builds on the commonplace that a special dynamism resided in the bishops of the early church. And in its carefully maintained freedom, the Gallican church is a counterweight to the abuses of the Roman court. So, the “pope is neither infallible nor superior to a general council, which alone represents [the church].” He has no civil or temporal rights over kings, nor can he insist that people set up any particular form of society or government. The pope is not to make any particular judgments about the French. That is for the local hierarchy to do, and this in conformity with “natural law and ancient custom.”
The Civil Constitution of the Clergy
The central church reform document, and the subsequent cause of all the strife, was the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, adopted by the Constituent Assembly on 12 July 1790, and ratified in effect by all clergy who professed the oath of loyalty to the nation, the law, and the king, at the very beginning of the following year. Pierre Durand de Maillane and Jean-Baptiste Treilhard, the lay canon lawyers, were the outspoken members of the Ecclesiastical Committee across the weeks of debate in 1790, 29 May to 12 July. But the top orator was Armand-Gaston Camus, lay canon lawyer and polymath, whose theology of the church was the principal inspiration for Adrien Lamourette, the future constitutional bishop, a major influence on Henri Grégoire and Claude Fauchet all along, and on the comte de Mirabeau in the National Assembly.
The Civil Constitution fundamentally restructured French dioceses to coordinate with the new subdivision of the country into departments. Special attention was given to the independence of the French church from outside domination: “No church or parish of France, and no French citizen, may, under any circumstances or on any pretext whatsoever, acknowledge the authority of an ordinary bishop or archbishop whose see is established under the name of a foreign power.” Cities of less than six thousand people were to have one parish only; cities of more than six thousand were to have as many parishes as necessary to take care of the needs of the people. All titles and offices were to be abolished.
In providing for the election of church officials, the Civil Constitution revived much earlier custom. Priests who served fifteen years within a diocese were eligible for election as bishop and, if elected, would receive confirmation from the metropolitan bishop; if election was to the metropolitan see itself, confirmation would come from the oldest bishop of the arrondissement. Each bishop with his council constituted the regional church authority. The election of the local curé was to take place in each parish, following the form established for election of members of the district administrative assembly.
Set between the rules for the election of the bishop and the election of the curé were two major elements of the Civil Constitution. First, the bishops were to report in (and only report in) to the pope: “The new bishop may not apply to the Pope for confirmation, but shall write to him as the Visible Head of the Universal Church, in testimony of the unity of faith and communion which he is to maintain therewith.” Second, the bishop was to take an oath of loyalty to the nation, the law, and the king: “The bishop-elect shall take a solemn oath, in the presence of the municipal officials, the people, and the clergy, to watch with care over the faithful of the diocese entrusted to him, to be faithful to the nation, to the law, and to the king, and to maintain with all his power the Constitution decreed by the National Assembly and accepted by the king.” All clergy were to be salaried by the state but held to laws of residency. “No bishop may absent himself from his diocese for more than fifteen consecutive days during any year.” The same time limits were to apply to curés and vicars in their parishes.
When the time came, the elections themselves were conducted as part of the new governmental electoral structure. Selection of bishops and curés was actually accomplished by electors who were themselves chosen by voters who met in primary assemblies. There would be one elector for every one hundred citizens, and the electors tended to be relatively well-off, with enough leisure time to take part in the somewhat lengthy process. Later constitutional writers seldom acknowledged this two-tier system, but preferred, rather, to evoke a golden age of early church history, when the faithful would in all freedom and innocence choose their clergy, sometimes by acclamation. In fact, the system tended to produce bishops and priests that appealed to the more radical bourgeoisie.
If one label is to be used to explain the motivations or at least the orientation of the champions of the Civil Constitution, it would be “Gallican,” the grand old tradition of a national church wherein the French bishops would establish and carry out their own agenda, in conformity with the bishop of Rome (and so, Roman Catholic) but not under his direct jurisdiction. The old Jansenists in the Committee and legislative discussions cobbled together as many usable parts as possible from the old multiform and sometimes self-contradictory ideology; and the old Richerist tendencies were considerably diffused—all of which has led Catherine Maire to write, “Jansenism dissolved into its own proper contradictions.”
Even so, the bishops in the Constituent Assembly, with Boisgelin at their head, constrained to oppose any final church–state structures that the state would set up unilaterally, circulated an Exposition des principes on 30 October 1790. They insisted that the legislature should work with either a church council or the pope, for without that no redistribution of religious authority would be possible. Roman cardinals, in special session that September, were weighing the potential for schism of the redrawing of the diocesan boundaries, episcopal elections, and the relationship of bishops to Roman authority; they were to advise the pope, whose considered response the French bishops anxiously awaited. The king, however, was forced to approve the 27 November decree obliging the clergy to swear the oath of loyalty to the nation, the law, and the king (implying acceptance of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy). Henri Grégoire actually took the oath ahead of schedule, believing that it was the only way to reconcile the church and the revolutionary government. A minority of the priests and only two of the bishops in the Assembly took the oath. In the end, only seven of the Old Regime bishops took the oath: Talleyrand and Jean-Baptiste Gobel, the Assembly members, and then Étienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne of Sens, Louis-François-Alexandre Jarente of Orléans, Charles de la Font de Savine of Viviers, and the non-jurisdictional bishops Jean-Baptiste Dubourg-Miroudot (titular bishop of Babylon) and Pierre-François Martial de Loménie (titular bishop of Trianopolis). The massive refusal of the bishops came out of motivations theological and psychological, but aristocratic family background certainly weighed in here. More than 50 percent of the priests in public ministry (a much higher percentage than the priests in the actual Constituent Assembly) complied. Their motives, mapped by Timothy Tackett, were more varied than the motives of the bishops, of course, and can be conjectured with reasonable confidence by reference to authority and financial stability of church appointment, theological orientation, ecclesiastical milieu, age, social position, and location of diocese. The map of the wildly varying percentages of oath takers in the different regions of France, derived from Tackett’s broad sociography of oath takers, does not show these motivational factors, and must be supplemented with his other statistics.
Priests in their thirties and those over sixty took the oath in greater numbers, probably because they were more vulnerable financially. Curés from the aristocracy unsurprisingly rejected the oath, and curés from the formerly Jansenist—and so, still relatively anti-episcopal—areas accepted it, but those from the lowest economic strata took the oath in greatest numbers. A seminary education was an investment that poorer families did not want to lose. As for milieu, priests who lived in close proximity to colleagues were less likely to take the oath than were isolated curés, who identified more with the lay community. Personality traits are harder to pin down, although, after a sampling of ten provinces, Tackett noted “that of those young men specifically cited for their ‘piety,’ only about a fourth would take the oath. . . . On the other hand, some two thirds of the young priests described with the relatively neutral adjective ‘honnête’ or criticized for their ‘haughtiness’ or ‘quick temper’ would ultimately emerge oath takers. . . . There was apparently a tendency to those least amenable to ecclesiastical discipline to later accept the Civil Constitution.”
With eighty-three dioceses and only a handful of Old Regime bishops available, new bishops had to be chosen from the ranks of the constitutional priests. Talleyrand, assisted by Gobel and Miroudot, consecrated Fathers Louis-Alexandre Expilly and Claude-Eustache-François Marolles, who then got right to the task of producing more new bishops, consecrating around fifty by the end of the first month. When regional governments organized the election of the curés, immediate problems ensued. Only a limited number of parishioners took part in the elections, incumbent curés were unwilling to go, and elected curés were often unwilling to take up the posts to which they were called. Most often a nonjuror was replaced with a juror, although many nonjurors proved impossible to replace. Antagonisms quickly multiplied with violence perpetrated by rough-and-ready types offended by the constitutional clergy, their anger heated up by some of the more embittered or extreme refractories. Constitutional bishops, in their new dioceses, were met sooner or later with mockery, accompanied at times by violence.
Accepting or rejecting their new priests, the common people were inevitably engaged: in some regions the peasants were quite fond of their old curé or the traditional modes of church life. Constitutional bishops and priests themselves were resentful of troublesome refractories, but occasionally reached out with, or responded to, kindness. As far as the government was concerned, the constitutionals were the real priests of France. They were to control all the parish registers, and thus records of baptisms, marriage, deaths—matters of vital public record. Refractories were occasionally emboldened to resist, and the political clubs struggled with them all the more. The parish of Saint-Sulpice in Paris was able to get around the restrictions by turning over jurisdiction to a religious order, the Theatines. Constitutional bishops, their authority so often in question, could maintain that authority only by formal rejection of refractory ministries; they were aided by the passage on 14 May 1791 of the Le Chapelier Law requiring that recalcitrant clergy be brought to court.
In Paris, the only other bishop in the Constituent Assembly who had taken the oath with Talleyrand, Jean-Baptiste Gobel, was elected bishop, receiving five hundred votes, as opposed to the fifty-six votes for Louis Charrier de la Roche, then a canon from Lyon, and the twenty-six votes for Sieyès, who declined to be a candidate anyway. Gobel had an indifferent reputation in Alsace, where he was serving as bishop after a position as auxiliary bishop of Bâle: the main problem seemed to be his debts, resulting from high though probably not immoral living. Income was a factor in his choice of the see of Paris over those of Colmar, Langres, and Agen. There were even some reports that he was willing to negotiate his submission to the Holy See for a certain sum. He turned out to be an inconsistent leader, alternately showing pastoral concern and submission to revolutionary dechristianization. His correspondence with government officials contained little explicit talk about spirituality, theology, or ministry. His priestly personality can be glimpsed only in a few rare texts, such as one letter to a local government committee about his Paris seminarians, who straddled residency in the nearby parish of Saint-Magloire and liturgy in the cathedral. A principal issue for Gobel was their health! “There is no one who does not feel that we would endanger the health of the young men by forcing them, in winter especially, to come back to Saint-Magloire after the morning office, only to return to Notre-Dame for the [evening] office after dinner, and by requiring [subsequently] that they remain for two or three hours after they arrive soaked by rain or covered with snow.” The seminarians are good for the cathedral and the cathedral is good for them, because they assist in teaching catechism (Gobel developed four catechisms since taking charge of the diocese), and they get the opportunity to hear good preachers. It all might have worked out in less trying times.
One revolutionary priest who had established his reputation in Paris before Gobel was elected bishop there was Claude Fauchet. Right in the middle of the violent storming of the Bastille, Fauchet, the churchman closest to the men who fought and died there, was at the center of Parisian political and religious life. Later bishop of Calvados, he was the revolutionary priest and constitutional bishop who animated the radical activity that spread from the capital to the provinces. Both by his life and by his writings, he proved to be an essential “priest of the French Revolution.”
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