It is the 12th of July 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Sam Leanza Ortiz, filling in for Dan van Voorhis, who is on vacation.
In just two days Francophiles across the globe will celebrate Bastille Day, the national day of France with parades, festivals, and French fare.
Today, however, we remember the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which passed in the French National Assembly on this day in 1790.
The furor of the Revolution was still climbing in the summer of 1790, but societal restructuring was coming for the ancien regime at full speed. One of the revolutionaries’ primary targets was the Catholic Church, the First Estate in pre-revolution France.
In the 1780s, the church was experiencing its own internal difficulties that were, in a sense, addressed by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Inconsistent tithes led to wealth disparities between clerical offices, and absent priests impoverished the spiritual lives of some French dioceses. However, later on the cure proved more harmful than the disease.
By the summer of 1790, the church was already under fire from the state as lands had been confiscated, tithes abolished, and any church office not directly involved in serving the French people was targeted.
The Civil Constitution of the Clergy formalized what had already been happening in the past year. By nationalizing the Catholic Church in France, the state took control of the ecclesiastical government. Priests were now salaried, rather than reliant on tithes. The payment structure was leveled, and all dioceses now had residency requirements. Monastic orders were abolished unless they were service-based orders.
These legal changes won over some, but the thornier parts of the Civil Constitution created tensions that worked all the way up the clerical ladder to Rome.
The major problem with the Civil Constitution was that it essentially severed any meaningful papal relationship with the French Church. Prior to the Civil Constitution, the Concordat of Bologna of 1516 outlined the relationship between France and Rome, giving the French king power to appoint clerical offices in France and the pope a veto power to the king’s choices.
Now, as the National Assembly was consolidating its power, it removed the papal veto, opting instead for a mere notification of changes in the office.
For French clerics on the ground, the office itself underwent a few adjustments. As part of the Assembly’s drain on monarchical power, the Civil Constitution made clerical offices subject to election, rather than appointment. Tied up with that, residency requirements were imposed for clergy.
The monarchy, and for that matter, the monarch himself, Louis XVI, remained in one piece up to this point. King Louis XVI, trying to play nice with the new political powers, promulgated the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in August.
In September, Pope Pius VI wrote to Louis with great sorrow that the King, “coerced by the violence of the National Assembly” gave his approval to such “unjust decrees.”
In October of the same year, the Constitution was amended to include a provision requiring all priests and bishops to swear a civic oath of loyalty to the Constitution. While many clerics were amicable to the initial provisions, any swearing of oaths, especially without the green light from the pope proved too far for many. Thirty French bishops wrote the pope refusing to swear the oath, instead promising fealty to the church.
The Vatican’s response in March of 1791 boldly condemned the Civil Constitution, exclaiming that “from the beginning to the end it seems to be full of decrees that run from dangerous to reprehensible,” All too late they realized the Assembly pursued nothing less than an effective abolishment of the Catholic religion in France.
The relationship between the French church and the French state only deteriorated from here –– coming to a head in 1793 and 1794. In 1793, the heavily Catholic population in the Vendee in western France revolted against the revolutionary regime, which resulted in the government slaughtering upwards of half of the region’s population.
In nearby Nantes, a Reign of Terror ensued, as radicals persecuted their enemies –– real or imagined –– by loading them onto floating prisons and either tossing them overboard in deep water or intentionally sinking old barges full of men, women, and children.
It is hard to say whether these tragedies could have been avoided in the heat of revolution, but the rift between the French church and state was made with the passing of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy on this day in 1790.
The last word for today comes from St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, a French nun who survived the revolution and was one of the founders of the Society of the Sacred Heart:
“Go to the Heart of Jesus and draw from it, and when you need more, go back to the Source and draw again.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 12th of July 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie.
This episode was written and read by Sam Leanza Ortiz.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.