Toward the Civil Constitution of the Clergy

About France Category: History

  • Information
    The law of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (Fr. “Constitution Civile du Clerge”), passed July 12, 1790 during the French Revolution, subordinated the Roman Catholic Church in France to the French government.

    It is often erroneously stated that this law confiscated the Church’s French land holdings or banned monastic vows. In fact, that had already been accomplished by earlier legislation. It did, however, complete the destruction of the monastic orders, legislating out of existence “all regular and secular chapters for either sex, abbacies and priorships, both regular and in commendam, for either sex”, etc.

    Perhaps surprisingly, some of the support from this came from figures within the Church, such as the priest and parliamentarian Pierre Claude François Daunou, and, above all, the revolutionary priest Henri Grégoire. The measure was opposed, but ultimately acquiesced to, by King Louis XVI.

    Status of the Church in France before the Civil Constitution

    Even before the Revolution and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the Catholic Church in France (the Gallican Church) had a status that tended to subordinate the Church to the State.Under the Declaration of the Clergy of France (1682) privileges of the French monarch included the right to assemble church councils in their dominions and to make laws and regulations touching ecclesiastical matters; furthermore, papal authority within France was severely limited by requirements of royal consent, and it was lawful to appeal from the Pope to a future council of the Gallican Church or to have recourse to the “appeal as from an abuse” (“appel comme d’abus”) against acts of the ecclesiastical power.

    Even prior to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy:

    • On August 4, 1789, tithes were abolished.
    • On November 2, 1789, Catholic Church property that was held for purposes of church revenue was nationalized, and was used as the backing for the assignats.
    • On February 13, 1790 (some sources give the date as February 11; for example, monastic vows were forbidden and all ecclesiastical orders and congregations were dissolved, excepting those devoted to teaching children and nursing the sick.
    • On April 19, 1790, administration of all remaining church property was transferred to the State.

    Thus, the changes brought about in the Civil Constitution of the Clergy were as much at the expense of the monarchy as that of the papacy.

    Motivation of the Civil Constitution

    The following interlinked factors appear to have been the causes of agitation for the confiscation of church lands Civil Constitution of the Clergy:

    The French government in 1790 was nearly bankrupt; this fiscal crisis had been the original reason for the king’s calling the Estates-General in 1789.
    Church lands represented 10-15% of the land in France. In addition the Church collected tithes.

    Owing, in part, to abuses of this system (especially for patronage), there was enormous resentment of the Church, taking the various forms of atheism, anticlericalism, and anti-Catholicism.

    Many of the revolutionaries viewed the Catholic Church as a retrograde force.
    At the same time, there was enough support for a basically Catholic form of Christianity that some means had to be found to fund the Church in France.
    Presumably, another factor, at least indirectly was Jansenist rejection of the cult of kingship and absolutism.

    Debate over the Civil Constitution

    On February 6, 1790, one week before banning monastic vows, the National Constituent Assembly asked its ecclesiastical committee (which was promptly expanded from 15 to 30 members) to prepare the reorganization of the clergy.

    No doubt, those who hoped to reach a solution amenable to the papacy were discouraged by the consistorial address of March 22, in which Pius VI spoke out against measures already passed by the Assembly; also, the election of the Protestant Jean-Paul Rabaut Saint-Etienne to the presidency of the Assembly brought about “commotions” at Toulouse and Nimes, suggesting that at least some Catholics would accept nothing less than a return to the ancien régime practice under which only Catholics could hold office.

    The Civil Constitution of the Clergy came before the Assembly May 29, 1790. Bonal, Bishop of Clermont, and some members of the Right requested that the project should be submitted to a national council or to the pope, but did not carry the day. Joining them in their opposition to the legislation was Abbé Sieyès, the firebrand of 1789, author of “What is the third estate?”.

    Conversely, the Jansenist theologian Camus argued that the plan was in perfect harmony with the New Testament and the councils of the fourth century.

    The Assembly passed the Civil Constitution on July 12, 1790, two days before the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. On that anniversary, Talleyrand and three hundred priests officiated at the “altar of the nation” erected on the Champs-de-Mars, wearing tricolor waistbands over their priestly vestments and calling down God’s blessing upon the Revolution.

    Legal status of the Church in France under the Civil Constitution

    As noted above, even prior to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, church property was nationalized and monastic vows were forbidden. Under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy:

    There were 83 bishops, one for each Department, rather than the previous 137.
    Bishops and priests were elected locally; electors had to sign a loyalty oath to the constitution. There was no requirement that the electors be Catholics, creating the ironic situation that Protestants and even Jews could elect the nominally Catholic priests and bishops.
    Authority of the pope over the appointment of clergy was reduced to the right to be informed of election results.
    The tone of the Civil Constitution can be gleaned from Title II, Article XXI:

    Before the ceremony of consecration begins, 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.

    In short, new bishops were required to swear loyalty to the State in far stronger terms than to any religious doctrine. Note also that, even in this revolutionary legislation, there are strong remnants of Gallican royalism.

    The law also included some genuine reforms supported even by many within the Church. For example, Title IV, Article I states, “The law requiring the residence of ecclesiastics in the districts under their charge shall be strictly observed.

    All vested with an ecclesiastical office or function shall be subject to this, without distinction or exception.” In effect, this banned the practice by which younger sons of noble families would be appointed to a bishopric or other high church position and live off of its revenues without even moving to the region in question and taking up the duties of the office.

    Delay in implementation

    For some time, Louis XVI delayed signing the Civil Constitution, saying that he needed “official word from Rome” before doing so. Pope Pius VI broke the logjam July 9, 1790, writing a letter to Louis rejecting the arrangement. On July 28, September 6, and December 16, 1790, Louis XVI wrote letters to Pius VI, complaining that the National Assembly was forcing him to publicly accept the Civil Constitution, and suggesting that Pius VI appease them by accepting a few selected articles to.

    On August 17, Pius VI wrote to Louis XVI of his intent to consult with the cardinals about this, but on October 10 Cardinal Rochefoucauld, the Archbishop of Aix, and 30 of France’s 131 bishops sent their negative evaluation of the main points of the Civil Constitution to the pope. Only four bishops actively dissented.

    On October 30, the same 30 bishops restated their view to the public, signing a document known as the Exposition of Principles (“Exposition des principes sur la constitution civile du clergé”), written by Jean de Dieu-Raymond de Cucé de Boisgelin

    On November 27, 1790, still lacking the king’s signature on the law of the Civil Constitution, the National Assembly voted to require the clergy to sign an oath of loyalty to the Constitution.

    During the debate on that matter, on November 25, Cardinal de Lomenie wrote a letter claiming that the clergy could be excused for taking the Oath if they lacked mental assent; that stance was to be rejected by the pope February 23, 1791. On December 26, 1790, Louis XVI finally granted his public assent to the Civil Constitution, allowing the process of administering the oaths to proceed in January and February 1791.

    Pope Pius VI’s February 23 rejection of Cardinal de Lomenie’s position of withholding “mental assent” guaranteed that this would become a schism. The pope’s subsequent condemnation of the revolutionary regime and repudiation of all clergy who had complied with the oath completed the schism.

    Jurors and non-jurors

    As noted above, the government required all clergy to swear an oath of loyalty to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Only seven bishops and about half the clergy agreed: the rest, mainly in western France, refused; these became known as “non-jurors” or “refractory priests”.

    Most of these refractory priests lived in the countryside, and the Civil Constitution generated considerable resentment among religious peasants.

    Meanwhile, the Pope had repudiated the “jurors” who had signed the oath, especially bishops who had ordained new, elected clergy, an above all for Bishop Alois Alexandre Expilly.

    In May 1791, France recalled its ambassador to the Vatican and the papal nuncio was recalled from Paris. On June 9, the Assembly forbade the publication of Papal Bulls or Decrees, unless they had been approved by the Assembly as well.

    The Constituent Assembly went back and forth on the exact status of non-juring priests. On February 5, 1791, non-juring priests were banned from preaching in public. However, they continued to perform masses and attract crowds; meanwhile; the more extreme anti-clerical elements responded with violence against those who attended these masses and against nuns who would not renounce their vocation.

    (Loyal Catholics perpetrated similar violence against the “constitutional” priests.) On May 7, 1791, the Assembly reversed itself, deciding that the non-juring priests, referred to as prêtres habitués (“habitual priests”) could say Mass and conduct services in other churches on condition that they would respect the laws and not stir up revolt against the Civil Constitution.

    However, violence on all sides continued, and on November 29, 1791, the Legislative Assembly, which had replaced the National Constituent Assembly, decreed that the refractory priests be arrested.

    Anti-Catholic persecution by the State would intensify into de-Christianization and state support for the Cult of Reason in 1793-1794.

    Repeal of the Civil Constitution

    After Thermidor, the Convention restored freedom of religion (February 21, 1795), but the schism between the civilly constituted French Church and the papacy was only resolved in 1801, when the Concordat was signed. In the interval, the French army would invade Rome (1798 and end the temporal sovereignty of the Pope

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