Refractory clergy

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During the French Revolution, the National Assembly abolished the traditional structure of the French Catholic Church and reorganized it as an institution within the structure of the new French government. One of the new requirements placed upon all clergy was the necessity of an oath of loyalty to the state before all foreign influences such as the Pope, this created a schism within the French clergy, with those taking the oath known as juring priests, and those refusing the oath known as non-juring or refractory priests.

Background[edit]

In the centuries preceding the French Revolution, the Church had functioned as an autonomous entity within French borders, it controlled roughly 10% of all French land, levied mandatory tithes upon the populace, and collected revenues from its estates, all of which contributed to the Church’s total income which it was not obliged to disclose to the state.[1]

Under the ancien regime, France was divided into three Estates, and the clergy occupied the First Estate, with the aristocracy comprising the Second Estate, and the commoners the Third Estate, as one of the first two privileged Estates, the Church was exempt from all taxation, although every five years the Assembly of the Clergy met and arranged a don gratuit (free gift) to be given to the King on behalf of the Church.[2]

Over the course of the 18th century, France fell into deeper and deeper financial crisis, on multiple occasions, the state attempted to revoke the Church’s tax-free status in order to tap into its significant financial resources, with official declarations calling for formal surveys of the Church’s wealth and subsequent taxations being levied in 1749 and 1780. Both were successfully rebuffed by the Church, whose infrastructure, organization, man-power, and influence were unrivaled in France.[3] Nonetheless, these events show that a desire to check the power and privileges of the Church was gaining momentum before the Revolution erupted.

During the French Revolution[edit]

In an attempt to find a peaceful resolution to mounting popular unrest and calls for reform, King Louis XVI first convened the Assembly of Notables in 1787 and then revived the Estates-General in 1789. During the 1787 Assembly, clerical representatives strongly opposed any reforms directed towards the Church,[4] but by the meeting of the Estates-General, internal divisions began to form. Bishops and other ‘high clergy’ (who were often of noble stock) allied strongly with the Second Estate in the preservation of official privileges. However, many parish priests and other ‘low clergy’ sided with the Third Estate, representing their own class and the class of their flocks.[5]

Things began to change quickly in 1789, on August 4, the newly assembled National Assembly drafted the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,’ and over the next year completely dismantled French society and rebuilt it from the ground up. Part of this included nationalizing all Church lands and transferring ownership to the state.[6] By June 1790 the Assembly had officially abolished the nobility, and on July 12 passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.

Civil Constitution of the Clergy[edit]

This new legislation dismantled and restructured the Church along the same lines it had the rest of society. Bishoprics were realigned to correspond with the eighty-three departments France had been divided into, while all additional bishoprics were abolished.[7] All clergy were forbidden from recognizing the authority of any Church officials beholden to a foreign power, and this included the Pope, whose position they were allowed to acknowledge, but not his authority.[8] New bishops were forbidden from seeking confirmation from the Pope, but were allowed to write him to inform him of their position and reassert a unity of faith.[9]

The most contentions aspects of the constitution, however, involved how new bishops would be appointed to office and the duties required of them, the Church was now essentially completely incorporated as a branch of government, and bishops were to be elected by popular vote.[10] This was received with outrage by many clergy, as it not only completely up-ended the top-down appointment system of the Church, but would then allow Protestants, Jews, and atheists to directly influence Church matters.[11] What would cause the greatest problems though, was Article XXI of Title II, this required bishops to take an oath before municipal officials asserting their loyalty to the nation of France before all other things, or their office would be declared vacant.[12]

Sentiments between the Church and the Revolution began to sour much faster after this. While reform had been the only stated goal by revolutionaries before, anti-religious rhetoric calling for the abolishment of the Church as a whole began to gain prominence. Fabre d’Eglantine described the Church’s singular purpose as being to “subjugate the human species and enslave it under their dominion.” In October 1790, the National Convention banned priests, monks, nuns, and any who had previously occupied such positions from teaching in schools, and many members of the Convention began calling for a “religion of patriotism” to supplant Catholic Christianity entirely.[13] In November, the oath described in the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was drafted, and by the end of the year the Assembly proclaimed executive authority to enforce said oath.[14]

Refractory Clergy[edit]

The oath of loyalty created a massive schism within the clergy. Many lower clergy had supported revolutionary calls for reform, even reform within the Church, but this was beyond the pale. Thousands of priests, monks, and nuns now had to choose between refusing the oath and risking arrest and punishment, or taking the oath and risking their salvation; in March 1791, the Pope forced the issue by issuing a papal bull officially condemning the Revolution's actions towards the Church and leveling excommunication upon any clergy who took the oath.[15]

The clergy was then split into juring priests (those who took the oath) and non-juring or refractory priests (those who refused). Both factions could face persecution, as communities with strong revolutionary sentiments would beat, stone, or even kill non-juring priests, while in more religiously traditional communities juring priests could face similar assaults.[16]

This controversy was the first major issue to divide the popular masses on revolutionary reforms. Never had royalists or other counter-revolutionaries had popular constituencies, but there were many who believed the state had no right to meddle in the affairs of God to this degree and were loyal to their local priests. Also, sectors of France that had long-standing conflict with Protestant communities refused to support anything that threatened Catholic supremacy.[17] Many clergy previously supportive of the Revolution were driven into opposition, and thousands of clergy hid or fled the country entirely.[18]

Impact[edit]

While there were organized efforts to hunt down refractory priests and organized protests of religious ceremonies, many revolutionary leaders began to see all this as detrimental to the movement, some were vehemently ethically opposed, such as Maximilien Robespierre, who argued that atheism was a dangerous product of aristocratic decadence, and believed that a moral society should at least acknowledge the provenance of a Supreme Being. Others had more practical objections, knowing that deep-seated religious beliefs would not be eliminated quickly, and that mobilizing popular support for the Revolution was of top importance. Dividing and alienating the masses over religious issues was unhelpful.[19]

Throughout all this, Louis XVI was appalled. Louis was a deeply devout man, and while he was required to give public approval to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, he rejected it in private, on Palm Sunday in April 1791, he took communion from a non-juring priest.[20] While friends, advisors, and even his wife had been strongly urging him to flee the country, Louis had resisted these suggestions, the attack on the clergy was potentially the tipping point that eventually led to the King’s doomed flight to Varennes in June 1791.[21]

References[edit]

  1. ^ William Doyle, Origins of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 66.
  2. ^ William Doyle, Origins of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 67.
  3. ^ William Doyle, Origins of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 67.
  4. ^ William Doyle, Origins of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 93.
  5. ^ David P. Jordan, The King's Trial: Louis XVI vs, the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 23.
  6. ^ David Andress, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 29-30.
  7. ^ [1]"Civil Constitution of the Clergy," Title I, Article II
  8. ^ [2]"Civil Constitution of the Clergy," Title I, Article IV
  9. ^ [3]"Civil Constitution of the Clergy," Title II, Article XIX
  10. ^ [4]"Civil Constitution of the Clergy," Title II, Article II
  11. ^ David Andress, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 31.
  12. ^ [5]"Civil Constitution of the Clergy," Title II, Article XXI
  13. ^ David Andress, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 240.
  14. ^ David P. Jordan, The King's Trial: Louis XVI vs, the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 23.
  15. ^ David P. Jordan, The King's Trial: Louis XVI vs, the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 23.
  16. ^ David Andress, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 31.
  17. ^ David Andress, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 32.
  18. ^ David P. Jordan, The King's Trial: Louis XVI vs, the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 23-24.
  19. ^ David Andress, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 241.
  20. ^ David Andress, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 32.
  21. ^ David P. Jordan, The King's Trial: Louis XVI vs, the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 24.