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Petite Église


The "Little Church" was a schism that arose in France and French-controlled territories in Belgium because of opposition to the concordat of 1801 and the related Organic Articles. In accordance with article three of this concordat, Pius VII issued the brief Tam multa (Aug. 15, 1801) requiring the resignation of the entire hierarchy in French territories in order that new appointments could be made to all sees. Obedience to this unprecedented exercise of papal authority was particularly difficult for clerics imbued with gallicanism. In June 1802 Joseph Fouché, French Minister of Police, demanded that bishops and priests swear by oath their adhesion to the concordat and recognize the newly appointed bishops. In London (April 6, 1803) 36 bishops who had refused to resign their sees, joined by two others who had previously submitted, claimed that they alone retained jurisdiction over their dioceses. Eventually all of them submitted, but two of them delayed their submission for several years, during which they encouraged priests and laymen to follow their example. Many priests were the more ready to do so because they too were removed from office. Bishop de Coucy, formerly of La Rochelle, submitted in 1817 and was made archbishop of Reims. Bishop de Thémines, formerly of Blois, was the principal figure in the origin of the schism. His followers claimed that in virtue of extraordinary powers conferred on bishops during the French Revolution and never retracted, De Thémines retained a jurisdiction that had no territorial limitations. Eventually De Thémines severed relations with the Jansenistically inclined Petite Église of Lyons. Shortly before his death (1829) in exile in Brussels, he submitted to the pope and received the Last Rites. By 1850 the communities had lost all their priests. The schism declined in membership, but three groups still existed without priests. In 1955 the Petite Église of Lyons had about 400 members; the Petite Église in the Vendée region another 3,500; and the Stevenists, named after Canon Corneille Stevens (d. 1828), in Belgium approximately 400, concentrated around Leerbeeck and especially in the small village of Hal. Although these Petites Églises were independent of one another, they all maintained similar religious practices. Pius XII, as well as his predecessors, repeatedly sought reunion with these groups and eased the way to return by not requiring individuals to make a formal abjuration of schismatic beliefs.

Bibliography: c. latreille, L'Opposition religieuse au Concordat de 1792 à 1803 (Paris 1910); Après le Concordat: L'Opposition de 1803 à nos jours (Paris 1910); La Petite Église de Lyon (Lyons 1911). e. mangenot, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 190350) 1.2:137278. r. de chauvigny, La Résistance au Concordat de 1801 (Paris 1921). c. g. van riel, Internationale kirchliche Zeitschrift 28 (1938) 3043, 6577, 141155. e. torfs, Le Stévenisme dans le sudouest du Brabant (Enghien 1955). c. de clercq, Dictionnaire de droit canonique, ed. r. naz (Paris 193565) 6:143847.

[l. p. mahoney]

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