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Civil Constitution of the Clergy

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Published: Thu, 27 Apr 2017

The Impact on the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, 1790

The French government completed its subordination of the Roman Catholic Church in France on July 12, 1790. The National Assembly passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. This was a culmination of events of the Catholic Church meeting opposition from the French government. The Catholic Church already faced the abolishment of tithes as well as nationalization of all property they used for revenue in 1789. Leading up to the actual Civil Constitution, monastic vows were forbidden. Only ecclesiastical orders that dealt with children and nursing the sick were kept intact, all others were dissolved. Motivations for these changes to the French Catholic Church are questionable. They could have been sparked by the French government’s impending bankruptcy, or the tithes system’s abuse.

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was a dramatic reorganization of the clergy. The number of bishops was drastically decreased from one hundred and thirty five to eighty three. Each of the new bishops and priests were required to be elected locally by their constituents, removing the pope’s authority over the clergy’s appointment. Under the Civil Constitution, the bishops and priests had to swear an oath of loyalty to the new order and the Constitution. Title II, Article XXII of the Civil Constitution states, “The bishop elect shall take a solemn oath in the presence of the municipal officers, of the people, and of the clergy to guard with care the faithful of his diocese who are confided to him, to be loyal to the nation, the law, and the king, and to support with all his power the constitution decreed by the National Assembly and accepted by the King”[1]. This swearing of the oath caused great debate.

Pope Pius VI refused to accept any provisions of the Civil Constitution. Louis XVI sent numerous letters to the pope complaining that he had to publicly accept the Civil Constitution. He suggested that the Pope Pius VI appease the National Assembly and accept a few articles. On December 26, 1790, Louis XVI granted his public assent despite the Pope’s acceptance because of pressure from the National Assembly. The next month, administrations of the oath began, drastically diminishing the numbers of the clergy. Half of the clergy and only seven of the preexisting bishops swore an oath of loyalty. A schism was created within the Catholic Church as Pope Pius VI denounced the Civil Constitution. One side of the split took the oath and was known as the constitutional clergy. Those that agreed with the Pope’s denouncement became non jurors or refractory priests; they faced dismissal, deportation, and death for their actions.

To understand more upon the impact of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy on the French Catholic Church one examined a few books on the subject. The first was published in 1986 by the Princeton University Press. Timothy Tackett wrote Religion, Revolution, and Regional Culture in Eighteenth-Century France: The Ecclesiastical Oath of 1791, a four hundred and twenty five page book. Tackett is an American historian specializing in the French Revolution; he has published a few books on different aspects of religion in the French Revolution. This particular book focuses on explaining the geography of oath taking in France, which regions were most likely to take the oath and why.

In Timothy Tackett’s Religion, and Regional Culture in Eighteenth-Century France: The Ecclesiastical Oath of 1791, he makes convincing arguments that many have come to respect and others that have yet to be confirmed. Tackett is able to accomplish this through his use of vast archival and printed sources. In arguing his thesis, geography of oath taking, he argues that the clergy’s ideology, their beliefs, denominational influences, and constituency influences, is the most important deciding factor. Tackett finds that reactions to the oath usually varied depending on the region. In an area where protestant enclaves were present, it was more than likely that the local clergy would be opposed to the oath. On the other hand, in areas where there was a presence of local Jansenism or the Cures opposed Episcopal power, he found that the local clergy tended to take the oath. Tackett understands that no argument is a strong argument without acknowledgement of the opposition. With that said, it was only right for him to mention other possible influences on the reactions to the oath. Other minor influences on the regional reactions to the oath could have also been attitudes towards the Revolution, age and social origin of the bishops. According to Tackett social origin is defined as cultural and political distance from the center of France.

When discussing the importance of the Oath, Tackett says, “[it is] one of those very particular kinds of historically happenings, with the potential for sharply jolting the whole historical landscape”[2]. He did not believe that the Oath of 1791 was the only shaping factor of France’s rich history. In addition to the oath, he also credits the Church’s role in society as well as the relationship between Church and State to be the reason for the laicite seen in modern day France. Tackett comes to this conclusion by the uncanny coincidence between the regions’ reactions to the oath and religious practices divided by areas.

Timothy Tackett’s book was a helpful source in the area of clear analysis of the factors that played a role in the reactions to the Oath of 1791. Through this analytical work, the reader is able to understand the impact of the oath and ultimately how it shaped France. While helpful in some areas, Tackett’s book is lacking in synthesizing his analysis with a clear conclusion. This leaves issues of the development of France’s religious history unanswered. Some of the conclusions drawn were not fully developed and some times unclear, which gives the reader the idea that he may not have fully understood the entire concept or maybe his sources were lacking in these very areas. Tackett builds up his arguments to support his thesis on the geography of oath taking, but loses momentum.

The next book studied was published in 1996 by Yale University Press. The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791 is a three hundred and ninety page book written by Dale Van Kley. Van Kley is an American historian who is best known for this prize-wining book. His work has focused on the contributions that Augustinian theology made to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. He is a professor of History at Ohio State University. In the Religious Origins, Van Kley explores the diverse religious strands of Jansenism that influence political events up to the revolution, claiming that the efforts to dechristianize the French state and citizens had long-term religious origins.

Van Kley shows that French royal absolutism was a product and then a casualty of religious conflict using a wealth of primary sources. He studies a great number of individual bishops and clergy, their views, and sympathies. The relevant religious conflict that he discusses is the Jansenism- related conflicts in the eighteenth century that helped to “desacralize” the monarchy along with the French Catholic clergy. This conflict was a direct contribution to the revolution because it led to parties that were of a political and religious nature. The Patriot party was a successor to the Jansenist party. The rhetoric of such parties affected the content of the revolutionary political culture. The Civil Constitution “eliminat[ed] the clergy itself as a visibly independent corps, this ideological combination hastened the interiorization of religion and the state’s monopolization of public functions, a tendency long evident in judicial Jansenism itself”[3]. Before the clergy had a role in public functions, but Jansenism supported this separation of religion into the private sphere and government control of the public sphere that was made by the Civil Constitution. Van Kley, indebts the revolutionary political culture to the varieties of French Catholicism. It was strongly influenced by the struggle between rival notions of the good society. The ultra-montanist Catholicism of the Jesuits supported the sacral monarchy. However, the Jansenists favored a contractual political order. “Jansenists could have congratulated themselves that the Civil Constitution enforced Episcopal residence, instituted clerical elections, nearly nullified papal influence… banished arbitrary government”[4]. The Jansenist’s defense of a contractual political order over a sacral monarchy seems to have led to these provisions of the Civil Constitution.

This source was less helpful in exploring the topic, because it was narrowly focused. Van Kley’s attitude was obviously prejudiced against the Jesuits, as he portrayed them as the leaders of sacral monarchy and the Jansenist oppression. He describes Jansenist opposition and criticism of Catholicism. His interpretation of religion’s influence on the French revolution was extremely limited; however, he should be praised for shedding light on the importance of religion in the French revolution. He adds a major strand to the debate on the origins of the French Revolution. Despite, its innovative addition, Van Kley limits his focus to the Jansenists’ role as the chief force behind opposition the French monarchy. He states, “Some if not all of the content of the Civil Constitution was the culmination of a century of Jansenist efforts at ecclesiastical reform”[5]. Jansenist position seems to be of exaggerated importance. He also seems to leave out the Catholic features of Jansenism, and more likens them to Calvinists. He demonstrates how Jansenism inspired a radical Calvinist break with Catholic discourse and worship. This book was a tough reading, with much material through primary sources. However, its focus on Jansenism serves more as giving another side to the traditional story rather than convincing many of religion’s influence in the French Revolution.

Nigel Aston wrote four hundred and thirty five pages on the Religion and Revolution in France, 1780 – 1804. Aston is Reader in History at the University of Leicester. This book is a comprehensive survey of the religious history of France from the eve of the Revolution through the early years of the nineteenth century.

Using a vast array of secondary materials and printed sources, Aston creates a comprehensive survey of the religious history of France. He begins his text with discussing the special privileges of the Catholic clergy as well as the principles of Gallicanism, Jansenism, and Richerism, the strains of Catholicism that would fuel the revolt of the lower clergy against the bishops of the Estates General. There were deep social and economic divisions within the clergy. Aston also notes the religious diversity in France. He writes, “Geography is crucial”[6] when discussing the variations in clerical density, religious fervor, and ecclesiastical revenues from province to province. Aston also includes information on the treatment alongside male clergy of women in religious orders. His second chapter analyzes the diverse beliefs and practices of the clergy and laity. He felt the French laity “remained overwhelmingly attached to the Catholic faith and practice”[7]. He is rejecting the idea that the French populace showed signs of secularization and questions the thesis of a “desacralization” of the monarchy. Aston also includes a chapter on other denominations in the late Old Regime.

The second part of his book focuses on the relationship between religion and Revolution, exclusively on Catholicism and builds on his earlier work. He blames the leaders of the Constituent Assembly for the terrible religious divisions which marked the Revolutionary period. “Events would have taken a more moderate course and scores of thousands of lives would have been saved”[8]if the oath was not required. Also, if the leaders would have permitted the convocation of a National Council of the French clergy to ratify the revolutionary reorganization a less radical course would have been taken. Instead the Civil Constitution of the Clergy led to a break in the church by forcing clergy to choose between the church and the state. “Faced with what was crudely reduced to a stark choice between religion and revolution, half the adult population rejected revolution”[9].

The last relevant section of the book focuses on the aftermath of the Civil Constitution and the official policy of dechristianization. “Most native French had no choice but to put up with the changes imposed by urban-based politicians; the non compliant risked death by their determination not to abandon their Christian faith”[10]. Other chapters in this section focused on how anticlericalism triggered European opposition to the Revolution more than the decision to kill Louis XVI. He also explored the Constitutional Church and Catholic opponents of the Revolution.

Aston was a helpful source as it seemed to cover all aspects of religion and the French Revolution. Its broad coverage treated Protestants and Jews alongside the Catholics. This is unique as the term religion when regarding the revolution is conflated with Catholicism in most studies. This book was very readable striking a balance between synthesis and detail. However, some of Aston’s conclusions lack strength because opposing stances were omitted. For instance, his sole blame on the leaders of the Assembly for the schism created by the Civil Constitution underestimates the impact of Pope Pius VI. The pope was uncompromising and rejected the Civil Constitution as well as the ideals of the revolution.

When researching this topic, I would have to first seek Aston’s source to inform me. The comprehensive study was so helpful in getting a whole understanding of the subject. Although, he did underestimate Pope Pius VI’s influence in the break between the French Catholic Church, he did bring up elements not previously discussed. However he did have the benefit, of having publications such as Tackett’s to elaborate upon, as well as John McManner’s short synthesis of 1968. From a non expert point of view this book was very readable, and had much detail and evidence to back conclusions. It explained the atmosphere before, during, and after the Civil Constitution which is useful in figuring out the implications of the Civil Constitution.

However, I wouldn’t use Van Kley’s book again. It was least helpful in giving a whole explanation on the impact of the Civil Constitution on the French revolution. It was very one-sided, and the information was hard to understand. Only experts, with a firm knowledge on the religious influences of the Revolution would benefit from reading this source, as they would be able to understand his point of view. However, Van Kley must receive credit for being a pioneer in his subject. His work influenced many works that came after that had information on Jansenism. I just did not receive the full picture of the Civil Constitution’s impact and how other denominations were concerned.

More synthesis needs to be done on this topic to really get the full gist of the importance of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Van Kley’s view should be incorporated with the main historical narrative of the impact of the Civil Constitution and not disregarded as Jansenism focused and therefore irrelevant. Also Pope Pius VI’s influence needs to be studied. Instead of trying to argue the importance of one side of the debate, each aspect that had an impact needs to be dissected and expanded upon. More analysis of primary sources and empirical data will only be helpful to the subject. Reading these three books by Tackett, Van Kley, and Aston is a great start in understanding the impact of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.

Bibliography

Aston, Nigel. Religion and Revolution in France, 1780-1804. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2000.

Perry, Jonathan. “The Civil Constitution of the Clergy.” Hanover Historical Texts Project. 2001. Nov 16 2009. <http://history.hanover.edu/texts/civilcon.html>.

Tackett, Timothy. Religion, Revolution, and Regional Culture in Eighteenth-Century France: The Ecclesiastical Oath of 1791. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Van Kley, Dale. The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

[1] Perry, Jonathan. “The Civil Constitution of the Clergy.” Hanover Historical Texts Project. 2001. Nov 16 2009. <http://history.hanover.edu/texts/civilcon.html>.

[2] Tackett, Timothy. Religion, Revolution, and Regional Culture in Eighteenth-Century France: The Ecclesiastical Oath of 1791. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. pg. vx.

[3] Van Kley, Dale. The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. pg. 362

[4] IBID. pg. 353

[5] Van Kley, Dale. The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution,

1560-1791. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. pg. 336.

[6] Aston, Nigel. Religion and Revolution in France, 1780-1804. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2000. pg. 48.

[7] IBID. pg. 56.

[8] IBID. pg. 161.

[9] Aston, Nigel. Religion and Revolution in France, 1780-1804. Washington, DC: Catholic University of

America Press, 2000. pg. 162.

[10] IBID. pg. 194.


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