Assemblies of French Clergy

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Convocations of representatives of the clergy called by the French king during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

Origins. The first such assembly is usually considered to have been the Colloquy of Poissy convened in 1561 by Michel de l'hÔpital, Chancellor for Charles IX. Catholic and Protestant theologians were invited to attend in an effort to work out a formula for religious agreement that would satisfy both reformers and Catholics. The Protestant reformer Theodore beza attended and refused to accept the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. On the other side, the Catholic leaders refused to accept any form of compromise, insisting that only the pope had authority to arbitrate on such religious matters. From the time of the Assembly of Melun (1579) the assemblies became an established institution, and eventually they met every five years. In due time procedures for representation and the conduct of business were developed. Each French province was represented by two bishops and two members of the inferior clergy, usually abbots and canons. A president was elected and members were divided into committees to carry on the detailed business of the meeting.

Evolution. One of the regular features of the assemblies, introduced at Poissy, was the approval of the don gratuit, an annual free gift to the king. In 1561 the amount of the don gratuit was fixed at 1,600,000 livres per year for six years. Additional grants were made on special occasions. In 1641, for example, the assembly was virtually coerced into approving an additional 4,000,000 livres to be contributed within three years. The regular annual grant was gradually increased to a maximum of 16,000,000 livres by 1755. Attempts by the crown to make the don gratuit compulsory were successfully resisted.

One of the most famous of the assemblies was held in 1682. It was called by Louis XIV as a means of resisting papal pressure to end the régale, the right of the French kings to appropriate the revenues of a vacant see and to make appointments to its benefices. It was at this time that Jacques bossuet, Bishop of Meaux, delivered an eloquent oration at the opening of the session, emphasizing the unity of the Church. The assembly supported the position of the king on the régale and also approved the Four Articles: (1) the temporal sovereignty of monarchs is independent of the pope; (2) the supremacy of the General Council over the pope as affirmed at the Council of constance is to be upheld; (3) the ancient liberties of the Gallican church are inviolate; (4) the infallibility of the magisterium belongs to pope and bishop jointly. These had been drawn up by Bossuet and represented an expression of gallicanism. Although Innocent XI was offended by the Four Articles, he took no action against them. He did, however, demonstrate his opposition by refusing to approve members of this assembly as appointees for vacant sees. In 1693 the Four Articles were withdrawn on the insistence of Innocent XII and with the approval of Louis XIV.

The last struggle between the Assembly of French Clergy and the government occurred in 1785 when the finance minister, Charles de Calonne, demanded an increase in the don gratuit. The clergy refused, and no further action was taken.

The meetings were concerned as much with religious as with temporal matters. In many of the sessions the question of Protestantism was considered. One of the important issues was jansenism. In general, the clergy supported the proclamations of the popes against Jansenism. In effect, the assemblies assigned the French clergy an important role in maintaining the purity of French Catholicism and a voice in determining the extent of secular influence in the Church.

The beginning of the French Revolution brought the institution of the assemblies to an end. To a significant degree they had represented the independence of the French clergy in their relations with the crown. Unlike the nobles who had lost most of their rights and privileges, the clergy had maintained their immunities and privileges; the institution through which this was successfully accomplished had been the Assembly of French Clergy.

Bibliography: r. chalumeau, Catholicisme 1:916918. l. serbat, Les Assemblées du clergé de France 15611615 (Paris 1906). p. blet, Le Clergé de France et la monarchie: Étude sur les assemblées générales du clergé de 1615 à 1666, 2 v. (Rome 1959). a. sicard, L'Ancien clergé de France, 3 v. (Paris 18931903). i. bourlon, Les Assemblées du clergé sous l'ancien régime, 2 v. (Paris 1907).

[w. j. steiner]