Civil Constitution of the Clergy

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An organic law adopted by the Constituent Assembly (July 12, 1790) to impose a new organization on the Church in France. It began a serious conflict between the french revolution and the Catholic Church.

Genesis of the Law. When the Estates-General met in 1789, it was generally recognized in France that civil administrative reorganization and ecclesiastical reform were needed. Ambition to recast the political constitution necessarily implied modification of the Church's status; for under the ancient régime, Church and State were so intimately bound that one could not be touched without disturbing the other.

The Constituent Assembly voted abolition of the privileges of the nobles and clergy (Aug. 4, 1789); seizure of ecclesiastical possessions to balance the government's financial deficit (Nov. 2); and suppression of religious houses, or at least the release of religious from their vows (February of 1790). These first measures introduced such profound changes in the traditional structure of the Church that other steps had to be taken to prevent shackling the exercise of religion and alarming the people. The Revolution, moreover, needed the support of the curés known as "patriots." It envisioned, therefore, supplying a religious foundation for the moral unity of the nation. An Ecclesiastical Committee, appointed (Aug. 20, 1789) by the Constituante, presented a plan nine months later to reorganize the French Church.

This plan was not inspired by the antireligious ideas of the enlightenment, save perhaps in its tacit provision to suppress the religious congregations. It proceeded in places from the theses of richer and from the jansenism in vogue among the lower clergy and the legal profession. It reflected, above all, the defiance of gallicanism toward Rome and the resolve of the Jacobins to submit the religion of the nation exclusively to State authority. Here the assembly members were copying the royal absolutism that they sought to overthrow. The new constitution was termed civil because, according to its authors, it dealt only with matters pertaining to temporal power. The Constituent Assembly considered it beneath its dignity to consult in advance the views of the clergy or to negotiate with the Holy See. During the long, bitter discussion (May 29July 12) and in numerous controversial writings, Catholic deputies tried vainly to have their colleagues seek papal assent, without which the law would be unacceptable. pius vi hoped that at least the king would refuse to acquiesce in the vote of the Assembly. Louis XVI, however, approved the Constitution (August 24) to avoid worse troubles.

Contents of the Law. The Civil Constitution was a document of considerable length, in four sections that dealt with: (1) ecclesiastical offices, (2) appointments to benefices, (3) payment of ministers of religion and (4) obligations of ecclesiastics as public functionaries.

Ecclesiastical boundaries were drawn to coincide with the new administrative divisions, with one diocese per département, one parish for 6,000 souls. This reduced the number of dioceses from 135 to 85, grouped in ten metropolitan districts. The sole ecclesiastical functionaries recognized were bishops, pastors (curés ) and curates (vicaires ). The law suppressed chapters and ignored religious congregations, which later laws were to destroy.

Bishops and pastors had to be elected by the populace, with voting power restricted to "active" citizens, Catholics and non-Catholics, who paid the required taxes. A newly elected bishop did not need to solicit from the pope even his spiritual investiture; but he was required to seek canonical investiture from the first or oldest bishop of the metropolitan district (métropole ). Bishops were to administer dioceses with a council of vicaires.

Ecclesiastical functionaries of the Catholic religion alone were to be paid by the State, since the clergy no longer possessed landed properties after nationalization. They had to provide religious services gratuitously and remain in residence unless authorized to absent themselves from their posts.

Defenders of the legislation emphasized during the debates that the Civil Constitution left to Catholicism the dignity of being the national religion, with other "religious opinions" granted mere tolerance; also that it ended grave abuses and restored certain usages of the primitive Church. But adversaries objected that the Holy See would never accept a modification of ecclesiastical boundaries drawn up unilaterally, an elective procedure that permitted Protestants and unbelievers to choose Catholic bishops and pastors, or the separation introduced between bishops and the pope, who alone could give to a bishop his episcopal character and his jurisdiction over a diocese.

The Civil Constitution was, therefore, doubly vicious in that it was imposed on Catholics and severed the unity between pope and bishops that is essential to the Catholic religion. French bishops were unanimous, save for lomÉnie de brienne, talleyrand-pÉrigord and five others, in censoring very firmly the principles of the Constitution and in proclaiming their attachment to the successor of St. Peter. After eight months of delays and consultations, Pius VI published two briefs (March 10 and April 13, 1791) condemning the law outright and forbidding the faithful to participate in its application.

Results. Before the papal condemnation, the Assembly had put into effect a law, concerning which it wanted no compromise. It proved this by enjoining (Nov. 27, 1790) all bishops, pastors and functionary priests to take an oath of fidelity to the Civil Constitution under pain of deposition. To replace those refusing to take the oath (the refractory clergy or nonjurors), the Assembly also expedited the election of new bishops, commonly termed constitutional bishops or jurors, but stigmatized by the pope as schismatics and intruders.

Clergy and faithful divided into two rival Churches. The Constitutional Church, the sole legal one, stood for the State; the Refractory Church, the sole orthodox one, sided with the papacy. Their forces were in balance. On one side were the clergy whose patriotism and attachment to their parishioners impelled them to submit to the law. They represented more than one-third of the clergy and enjoyed the support of the public authorities. On the other side were those clergy faithful to Roman orthodoxy, numbering all but three of the bishops in charge of dioceses and a majority of the priests. At first this latter group was not prominent, but it grew stronger when the judgments of the Holy See on the affairs of France became known.

This division caused discord and then civil war; to a large extent it modified the course of the Revolution. The pope, almost the entire French episcopate, many priests and religious men and women turned against the Revolution, which was accused of seeking to subvert the Church. The revolutionary assemblies, especially the Legislative Assembly, accused the refractory clergy of accepting aristocrats and foreigners as accomplices. According to a decree of Nov. 20, 1791, ecclesiastics who had not taken the oath were "suspect of revolt against the law" and against the Fatherland, and should be deported. At least 30,000 ecclesiastics fled or were driven from France. Those who remained in the country, particularly after the outbreak of war between revolutionary France and the rest of Europe, risked life as well as liberty. Henceforth the Catholic clergy, whose support was responsible for the first successes of the Revolution, joined the front rank of its adversaries. Religious difficulties complicated all the political crises confronting the Convention and the Directory during the period.

The Constitutional Church succeeded in establishing itself and for three years strove, after a fashion, to replace the Catholic Church amid populations attached to the traditional religion. For a number of reasons the attempt proved vain. Revolutionary governments abandoned the constitutionals. Under the terror the dechristianizers attacked all clerics, jurors and nonjurors alike, and all cults. Then on Feb. 21, 1795, the Thermidorian Convention adopted a regime separating the State from the Churches, thereby abandoning the Civil Constitution.

Internal decadence infected the Constitutional Church, which counted dubious, ambitious, or corrupt elements. grÉgoire and other of its bishops showed dauntless courage and undeniable integrity at the height of persecution; but Bishop gobel of paris and numerous others defected, seriously harming their cause. Catholics in France very often demonstrated their favor for the refractory "good priests" in preference to the jurors. Outside France, Catholics manifested solidarity with the émigré clergy faithful to orthodoxy.

napoleon, as First Consul, showed himself eager to re-establish religious peace as a necessary preliminary to domestic concord. As a result, he signed with pius vii the concordat of 1801, which implied a rejection of the Civil Constitution and resulted eventually in the submission to the Holy See of the last Constitutionals.

Bibliography: Sources. j. h. stewart, A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution (New York 1951), contains an Eng. tr. of the Civil Constitution, the papal condemnation, Charitas and other closely related documents. Literature. l. sciout, Histoire de la Constitution civile du clergé, 4 v. (Paris 187281). a. mathiez, Rome et le clergé français sous la Constituante (Paris 1911). c. constantin, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed., a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 3.2:15371604. a. latreille, L'Église catholique et la Révolution française, 2 v. (Paris 194650). j. leflon, La Crise révolutionnaire 17891846 (Histoire de l'église depuis les origines jusqu'à nos jours, eds., a. fliche and v. martin, 20; 1949). l. carret, Dictionnaire de droit cannonique, ed. r. naz, 7 v. (Paris 193565) 4:429453.

[a. latreille]

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Civil Constitution of the Clergy

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