Episode 19: A Holy War Begins


Episode 19, “A Holy War Begins”, examines the nationalisation of church property, the introduction of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, and the broader hostility which commenced between Revolution and Church.

Nationalisation of Church Property

On the 10th of October 1789, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, the bishop of Autun, proposed a dramatic way for the Assembly to address the looming bankruptcy. Talleyrand proposed that the assets of the Catholic Church be nationalised and sold in order to finance the revolution and address the bankruptcy.

According to Talleyrand and his supporters, the contested property wasn’t so much owned by the Catholic Church as much as it was held in trust by the church for the benefit of society. Because the church used these assets to provide social functions (e.g. education, schooling, nursing), the Church was not the owner of these assets, but rather, the custodian or the administrator of them. It was argued then that the nation could reclaim these assets within this trust, so long as it also took on the associated responsibilities.

“I do not think that it is necessary to discuss at any length the question of church property. It appears to me quite evident, that the clergy are not proprietors like other proprietors, because the property which they enjoy (and of which they cannot dispose) has been given to them, not for their personal benefit, but for the performance of their functions.” – Talleyrand

The Conservative faction within the Assembly rose in vehement opposition, and denounced the plan as a violation of property rights.

‘But property is sacred, both for us and for you. Our property is a guarantee of yours: today it is we who are assailed, but do not deceive yourselves; if we are stripped, you will be stripped in turn. Your own immorality will be turned against you, and the first disaster to overtake the public finances will involve and devour up your own possessions. If the nation has the right to seek in the origins of society a reason for despoiling us of our property, this new metaphysical principle will lead directly to all manner of claims for the common ownership of land: the people will take advantage of the existing chaos to obtain a share of property that even the most immemorial rights will not protect from invasion, and they will exercise over you those very rights which you exerted over us: indeed, they will proclaim that they themselves are the nation, and are therefore bound by no law.’  – Abbe Maury 

“The clergy rose against this proposition. The discussion became very animated; and it was decided, in spite of their resistance, that they were not proprietors, but simple depositaries of the wealth that the piety of kings and of the faithful had devoted to religion, and that the nation, on providing for the service of public worship, had a right to recall such property. The decree which placed it at its disposal was passed on the 2nd of November, 1789.

From that moment the hatred of the clergy to the revolution broke out. At the commencement of the states-general it had been less intractable than the nobility, in order to preserve its riches; it now showed itself as opposed as they to the new régime, of which it became the most tenacious and furious foe.” – Historian Francois Mignot

Sale of Church land

On the 5th of February 1790, the Assembly voted to create a register for all the property belonging to regular orders of the Church, and for all ecclesiastical benefices and pensions to be inventoried. On the 14th of May, the terms of sales were fixed, and land flooded the market in June 1790, although sales had been occurring prior.  The sheer volume of property and goods simultaneously hitting the market created a range of problems. Historian Christopher Hibbert notes that the revolutionaries were warned that selling so much property at once would result in a significant devaluation of land, as the market simply wouldn’t be able to ingest the quantities being sold. The deputies, however, needed cash, and believed that breaking up larger properties into smaller lots would tie a greater number of people to the revolution’s success. The result was that the assets of the Church were sold in hast. 

“At Besançon, three churches out of eight, with their land and treasure, the funds of the chapter, all the money of the monastic churches, the sacred vessels, shrines, crosses, reliquaries, votive offerings, ivories, statues, pictures, tapestry, sacerdotal dresses and ornaments, plate, jewels and precious furniture, libraries, railings, bells, masterpieces of art and of piety, all are broken up and melted in the Mint, or sold by auction for almost nothing.” – Historian Hippolyte Taine

As scenes like this unfolded across the country, resentment from the clergy bubbled away.

Historiography of the Nationalisation of Church Property

Historian Gaetano Salvemini presents one of the best defences of nationalising Church lands. In short, what other choice did they the deputies have to avoid the bankruptcy? 

“It is true that out of so many millions of revolutionary currency less than half went into liquidation of debt. For the most part it was employed in coping with daily expenses and in making up for deficiency of taxation. It is easy to liken the actions of the National Assembly to those of a spendthrift, who, having sold his ancestral inheritance, pays off his most pressing debts and the interest on others, while he continues his extravagant way of life. Yet, in view of the profound social crisis into which France had been plunged after July 1 789 through the stupidity of the privileged orders and the King, the Assembly could not conduct itself in a different manner.  The absolute monarchy in period of tranquillity had always administered affairs by piling up debts; it had avoided all financial reform and had, in fact, acted with criminal folly. The Assembly now found itself not only burdened with difficulties inherited from absolutism, but obliged to administer the country in a period of crisis, in which the collection of taxes had ceased and all the people’s resentment were unleashed against the old financial system. Not able to borrow more money; the Assembly did not want to declare a state of bankruptcy; and it had no wish to relinquish control of civil and military administration owing to lack of funds which would have brought the return of the old regime. It had no other means of maintaining its authority and concealing its own impotence but that of taking the capital it could find.” – Historian Gaetano Salvemini

Historiography of the Revolution’s conflict with the Catholic Church

Partially explaining why the Assembly was comfortable in seizing the assets of the church, Historian Jonathan Israel notes that an ideological war with the church was inevitable. Standing as an affront to everything the revolutionaries held dear, Israel reasons that conflict with the Church was guaranteed.

“The papacy and ecclesiastical hierarchy repudiated the Revolution’s core values altogether. Outright conflict between Revolution and Church was wholly certain from the outset.” – Historian Jonathan Israel

“No part of French society enjoyed greater autonomy before 1789, commented Tocqueville later, or more special privileges than the Church. No other slice of society, apart from the army and navy, so completely reflected the social hierarchy; practically all archbishops and bishops were aristocrats. Hence, it was central to the leading révolutionnaires’ vision of the Revolution and democracy that the Church should be deprived of its autonomy, immunities, independent resources, privileged status, and solidly aristocratic leadership. Nor was this all. There was also a more directly political aspect. A haven of privilege, immunities, and autonomy, the Church had for decades combated la philosophie moderne, and now offered France’s elites their best hope of mobilizing substantial backing among the common people for the ancien régime and conservatism in their fight against equality and democracy. In effect, the Church’s authority, doctrines, and preaching were conservatism’s most formidable weapon against the Revolution.” – Historian Jonathan Israel

To secure the success of the new regime, Historian Francois Mignet agrees that an assault on the church was inevitable. 

“It was important not to leave an independent body, and especially an ancient body, any longer in the state; for in a time of revolution everything ancient is hostile. The clergy, by its formidable hierarchy and its opulence, a stranger to the new changes, would have remained as a republic in the kingdom. Its form belonged to another system: when there was no state, but only bodies, each order had provided for its own regulation and existence. The clergy had its decretals, the nobility its law of fiefs, the people its corporations; everything was independent, because everything was private. But now that functions were becoming public, it was necessary to make a magistracy of the priesthood as they had made one of royalty; and, in order to make them dependent on the state, it was essential they should be paid by it, and to resume from the monarch his domains, from the clergy its property, by bestowing on each of them suitable endowments.” – Historian Francois Mignet 

Monastic Reforms

On the 17th of December 1789 Jean-Baptiste Treilhard proposed to the Assembly that the majority of monasteries should be forcibly closed. Now that the clergy were paid for by the state (as a result of the nationalisation of church land), Treilhard argued that those monks and nuns which were locked away from society and served no social function should not be allowed to live at the expense of the nation. The Assembly agreed, and on February the 13th 1790, proclaimed that all monastic orders not devoted to charitable work, nursing or education would be abolished.

While the actions of the legislature did not create significant outrage in the streets, it did create unease amongst many clerical deputies within the Assembly. The suppression of the monasteries was an undeniable case of the state meddling in the affairs of the church. 

Civil Constitution of the Clergy

On  the 29th of May 1790, the Assembly’s Ecclesiastical committee revealed their declaration of war against the church. It was called the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The document was designed to subordinate the Church to the State.

This assault on the Church could be broken down into four key pillars. The first two pillars were reforms to the episcopate and to the parish system, the third was the introduction of elections, and the fourth was the curtailment of papal authority. 

  1. The reforms to the episcopate saw a reduction in the number of French bishops from 135 to 83 (to match the number of departments). The bishops that remained experienced dramatic salary decreases.
  2. The reforms to the parish system saw hundreds of parishes eliminated. Paris lost less than one third of its parishes, but Auxerre was left with only a third of their original twelve. Furthermore, the functions of the Church would be limited severely, as non-core functions such as canons, choir schools, cathedral chapters and other auxiliary functions were abolished.
  3. Elections were introduced for bishops and priests.
  4. Papal authority was curtailed. The French Church was to be divorced from the influence of the Pope. 

Controversy over the introduction of elections

The deputies proposal to introduce elections to the Catholic Church was quite controversial. It was proposed that department wide elections would be held for bishops, and local elections for parish priests. As the electorate was comprised of any and all active citizens, protestant, jews and other non-believers would be able to participate. This policy enraged the catholic faithful.

Controversy over the power of the Pope

The revolutionaries sought to demote the Pope from the Head of the Catholic Church to the Bishop of Rome, or more accurately, to the rank of some foreign and ignorable aristocrat. The problem with this position was that the demotion of the Pope went against the teachings and traditions of the Church. It conflicted with the conscience of the faithful.

“But the methods of the Assembly aggravated the violence of the change. They had the power, and probably the right, to disestablish and to disendow the old Church. But they had neither the right nor the power to force men’s consciences to accept their substitute for it, whether they would or not. Moreover, they did not understand that the new constitution of the clergy was absolutely repugnant to the spirit of Roman Catholicism, and involved ideas which that spirit could not possibly accept. They believed that all authority and government ought to begin with the people, to come from below ; and in accordance with that view they framed the new system of their Church. But if there was one principle which the Roman Church held dear, and which it had clung to even more closely than to its dogmas, ever since it established its ascendency in Europe, it was the principle that all authority in the Church proceeded from above. To every faithful Catholic the Pope held a spiritual power derived from Heaven ; without the Pope’s consent no share of that spiritual power could pass to bishop or to priest; and without such sanctions and authority from above, no man, whatever civil force might lie behind him, could administer with God’s approval the services and sacraments of the Church. Beliefs of that kind, founded on conscience, and fixed in immemorial habit, could not be uprooted by any decrees. Even had the Assembly secured the Pope’s consent, it seems doubtful whether its scheme would have been finally accepted in the country. Instead of that, it took no steps to conciliate the Papacy, but ostentatiously held itself aloof from Rome, and by various provocative measures showed its intention to set the Pope’s authority at defiance. The consequences were immediate and disastrous.” – Historian Charles Mallet

The measures contained within the reforms conflicted with the foundational traditions of the catholic church. They were the very definition of heretical. As a result, many priests refused to comply.

Introduction of the Constitutional Oath

 On the 27th of November 1790, the Assembly passed a new law requiring all clergymen to swear an oath to the Nation, to the Law and to the King. Furthermore, on the 4th of January 1791, the Assembly decreed that those who refused to swear allegiance to the constitution would have their positions declared vacant.

Almost half of the nation’s priests refused to sweat the oath. Furthermore, 10% who did recanted once the Pope publicly condemned the measures. Only 7 bishops of 135 took the oath, while roughly two-thirds of the Assembly’s clerical deputies refused to comply with the Assembly’s own law. 

The policies pursued by the revolutionaries throughout later 1789 and 1790 isolated, angered and finally ostracised many of the clergymen who were initially staunch allies of the Revolution. This needless attack on the church is criticised by Historian Charles Hazen. 

“Most fatal were the consequences. One was that it made the position of Louis XVI, a sincere Catholic, far more difficult and exposed him to the charge of being an enemy of the Revolution, if he hesitated in his support of measures which he could not and did not approve. Another was that it provoked in various sections, notably in Vendee, the most passionate civil war France had ever known. Multitudes of the lower clergy, who had favored and greatly helped the Revolution so far, now turned against it for con- science’ sake. We cannot trace in detail this lamentable chapter of history. Suffice it to say that the Constituent Assembly made no greater or more pernicious mistake. The church had, as , the issue proved, immense spiritual influence over the peasants, the vast bulk of the population. 

Henceforth there was a divided allegiance — allegiance to the state, allegiance to the church. Men had to make an agonizing choice. The small counter-revolutionary party of the nobles, hitherto a staff of officers without an army, was now reinforced by thousands and millions of recruits, prepared to face any sacrifices. And worldly intriguers could draw on this fund of piety for purposes that were anything but pious. The heat generated by politics is sufficient. There was no need of increasing the temperature by adding the heat of religious controversy. French Revolution or eternal damnation, such was the hard choice placed before the devout.” – Historian Charles Hazen

Grey History