Bernier, Étienne Alexandre
BERNIER, ÉTIENNE ALEXANDRE
Bishop of Orléans, prominent in politico-ecclesiastical affairs; b. Daon (Mayenne), France, Oct. 31, 1762; d. Paris, Oct. 1, 1806. After ordination (1786) he became a doctor of theology (1787), professor at the University of Angers, and pastor of St. Laud's parish in that city. During the French Revolution he refused to take the oath (1790) in support of the civil constitution of the clergy. For this he was replaced by the constitutional pastor Yves Besnard, but Bernier's opposition made the intruder's position unbearable. After the taking of Saumur, Bernier joined the army in the Vendée. By his ability, valor, and intrigues, he became one of the leaders of the insurrection, although lacking official title. He sided with Stofflet against Charette, and negotiated the peace of Saint-Florent with the generals of the Republic. After the deaths of Stofflet and Charette, Louis XVIII named him agent général of the Catholic and royal armies. But Bernier, realizing that the Vendée was incapable of continuing the battle, remained aloof from the final uprising in 1799.
Unable to deal with the Directory, he bided his time in order to begin a new career as a negotiator. The Coup d'État of Brumaire (Nov. 9, 1799) supplied a favorable opportunity, which he hastened to seize by offering his services to napoleon. He duped the last Vendean leaders and concluded (Jan. 19, 1800) with General Hédouville the Peace of Montfaucon, which granted religious liberty to the Vendeans. Crowned with this success, he went to Paris, where Bonaparte frequently received him and listened to his counsels. The first consul also chose him to negotiate a concordat with spina, the papal representative, promising to reward him with the see of Paris and a cardinal's hat. Bernier, a very capable but somewhat unscrupulous diplomat, revealed his skill by defending to the best of his ability the interests of the Holy See. Once the concordat of 1801 was concluded, Bernier helped put it into effect, and also acted as an intermediary between Portalis and the papal legate caprara. His double role resulted in his composing both the notes of the French government and Cardinal Caprara's replies to them, in order to make more certain their agreement. This, plus his doubtful attitude at the time of the pretended retractation of the constitutional bishops promoted to new sees under the Concordat, led to his disgrace. Instead of obtaining the archdiocese of Paris, he had to content himself with the bishopric of Orléans (1802). If Pius VII named him cardinal, it was merely in petto.
talleyrand had further recourse to his tact, having him negotiate the Italian and German Concordats and the imperial coronation of Napoleon. Bernier was the one who drafted the famous note that convinced the pope to come to Paris for the imperial consecration. He also regulated the entire ceremonial of this event in conjunction with Pius VII, who agreed to let Napoleon crown himself. In vain did he try to reestablish his personal position by having himself appointed nuncio to Germany. Confined to his diocese, Bernier proved a remarkably good administrator and an exemplary bishop. Ambitious, crafty, but exceptionally intelligent, he performed great services in his own fashion without succeeding in raising himself to the highest level, or in dissipating the very mixed impression created by his enigmatic character and his overclever manner.
Bibliography: j. leflon, Étienne-Alexandre Bernier, évêque d'Orléans, 2 v. (Paris 1938); Étienne Bernier: Lettres, notes diplomatiques, mémoires, rapports inédits (Reims 1938).