Modern history


Who would help Mirabeau in his harebrained plan? Naturally he turned to his colleagues in the Club of 1789 to depose Necker and form an alternative government of national rescue. But his selections – Du Pont de Nemours, Ségur, Panchaud, Talleyrand – looked uncannily like areunion of Calonne’s junior brains trust. The one exception was Lafayette. The more the general became a popular cult figure, the less Mirabeau liked it, nicknaming him, sardonically, “Gilles César.” But he was forced to recognize that Lafayette’s active assent would be indispensable in legitimizing the “coup” he was planning. Most remarkable of all, on the face of it, was his choice of Talleyrand for minister of finance.

Perhaps only a chronic debtor like Mirabeau could have thought this a suitable post. Yet for all his expensive tastes, Talleyrand was no innocent where money was concerned. He had made his public reputation as a manager and accountant of church property and it was his firsthand knowledge of its locked-up capital that led him to a daring solution to funding the Revolution. Like Mirabeau, Talleyrand fully recognized the need to empower a viable executive state if the new France was not to become a helpless creature of legislative whim. All his trained instincts were bureaucratic, rational and Voltairean. More than a nation of virtuous citizens linked together in fraternal embrace, he wanted a rejuvenated nation-state: an empire of reason where sense, rather than sensibility, was sovereign. But he also understood that the very powers that made Mirabeau remarkable often robbed him of common sense. As much as his friend, he liked a gamble, but as far as humanly possible Talleyrand wanted to bet on a sure thing. Where could it be found?

In the first week of October 1789, while Mirabeau was making up to the court, Talleyrand reflected on the fortune of the Church. He was still the Bishop of Autun but sartorially, at least, he had defrocked himself, allowing only the merest glimpse of an elegant pectoral cross beneath his coat to allude to his episcopal office. When his friends called him “The Bishop,” it was usually with a grin on their faces as though enjoying an innocent joke. Though he was never as cynical as many of them liked to think, they treated him like Voltaire in a miter. As apostate aristocrats, they at any rate were not surprised when Talleyrand applied to the Church the principle of making war on one’s own order.

On October 10, in the course of yet another debate on finance, Talleyrand declared that since the state was imperiled by financial disaster, “great dangers demanded equally drastic remedies.” At hand was the answer, an immense resource lying unrealized in the property and estates of the Church. Recovered “for the nation” it might be used as collateral against a new loan or even sold off to meet the most pressing needs of the state. It was the insouciance with which this bombshell was dropped that particularly enraged his clerical colleagues. Affecting his most agreeable manner, Talleyrand claimed that the matter didn’t even require lengthy discussion since “it is evident that the clergy is not a proprietor in the same sense that others are; since the property of which they have the use cannot be freely alienated and was given to them not for their personal benefit but for the exercise of an office or function.”

Talleyrand’s intervention was all the more telling because it did not depend on crude anticlericalism for its effect. Though he would be denounced in the pulpit as Judas, a minister of Satan, a beast of the Antichrist (among other things), he was not in fact an anticlerical bishop. His inclinations were pragmatic and utilitarian, and in that scheme of things the Church had a distinctive social role, ministering to the needs of the credulous, giving them spiritual succor and keeping them in orderly relation with the state. For this work, as he made clear in his speech on October 10, the state would guarantee clerics a decent living wage – substantially above the level usually enjoyed by a country curate. They were to become moral functionaries.

The air of sweet reasonableness by which Talleyrand seemed to be saying “Surely all men of goodwill and sound judgment must concur” was not as outrageous as his many enemies made it seem. His view of the Church was in keeping with a pronounced strain in the political thought of the late Enlightenment. For all his personal deism, Voltaire had always thought religion, stripped of its legally coercive power, indispensable for public morality. For Rousseau, veneration of the “Supreme Being” acknowledged the source of natural virtues and gave the state and its legislator their essential moral personality. For both writers, however, the sacerdotal mysteries and theological doctrines that set the institutionalized Church apart from citizens were dangerous frauds. Instead of an autonomous order claiming its own jurisdiction, they envisaged a church dissolved into the general purposes of the public realm: a useful, rather than an ineffable institution. The Abbé Raynal put it most succinctly: “The State, it seems to me, is not made for religion but religion made for the State.”

At least one attempt to implement this vision of a practical Catholicism had been made outside France. During the 1780s, Marie-Antoinette’s extraordinary brother, the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, had embarked on a systematic program to abolish the mendicant and contemplative monasteries and convents and turn their inmates into “useful citizens.” Like Talleyrand he thought the clergy should be recruited into, but not control, a national system of elementary education that would supply literacy for the masses without theological indoctrination. And like Talleyrand he conceived of ecclesiastical property as a general fund, controlled by the state and disbursed for socially benevolent operations like poor relief, the training of orphans, hospitals and lunatic asylums. The salaried clergy might continue to administer these funds but on the strict condition that they acknowledged that they were public functionaries.

Needless to say, these policies resulted in an immediate collision with the papacy. But it was possible for the Emperor to use that conflict to emphasize the patriotic character of his reforms of the clergy. Similarly, in revolutionary France, those who wanted to integrate the clergy into the body politic represented their policy as a natural extension of national sovereignty. In August 1789, the National Assembly had already suppressed “annates” – the fees paid to the Pope in recognition of annual pilgrimages to Rome – as an infringement of that sovereignty. And by declaring the property of the Church to be at the disposal of the Nation, Talleyrand and Mirabeau (who placed a succinct resolution to that effect before the Assembly on October 13) hoped to appeal to the same kind of “Gallican” sentiment that had resulted in the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1765. They knew they had some allies within the Church: men like the Abbé Grégoire, who saw the reduction of ecclesiastical property not as plunder but as an opportunity to turn a corrupt establishment back to the purely evangelical purposes for which it had been established. And there was a considerable body of literature, some of it Jansenist, some of it “Richerist,” arguing for a more austere Catholicism, cleansed of worldly impurities and even able to co-exist alongside other confessions. It was the kind of view expressed in prerevolutionary publications like The Citizen-Priest (L’Ecclésiastique-Citoyen) in 1787, which characterized the life of present-day monks as

une bonne vie bourgeoise, an excellent table; all the pleasures allowed to men of the world; all the delicacies afforded by opulence… you frequent the best company; you receive a wide circle of friends [in] immense houses, superb apartments, fashionable dress even beneath your habits; fine books and paintings… hunting, gambling, every kind of luxury and entertainment and the pretended paupers of Christ are now only known as the darlings of wealth and fortune.

By contrast, the writer went on, the curés’ poverty, solitude and weariness from their travail made them much more authentically the apostolic successors of the first Christians. It was by emphasizing the material gains for the rural clergy that Talleyrand hoped to recruit them as allies against the diocesan and monastic clergy, whom he knew would be his most serious enemies. One at least, Dominique Dillon, the curé of Vieux-Pouzanges who had been elected, however, for the Third of Poitiers, agreed that “if, in these difficult times, the sacrifice of the property of the clergy could prevent new taxes on the people,” it should be done forthwith.

If Talleyrand really expected near-unanimous support from within the Church, he was to be gravely disappointed. Many of the rural curates who had been instrumental in accomplishing the victory of the Third Estate in June had been incensed by the casualness with which the Assembly had abolished the tithe on August 4, even though it had provided for its continued collection until other arrangements were made for financial support. In reality, as they knew all too well from their parishes, the mere news of the abolition of the tithe had made it uncollectable. But there was even more unpredictable opposition. The Abbé Sieyès, who for a long time had been even less ecclesiastically inclined than his old friend Talleyrand, spoke against Mirabeau’s resolution on November 2, not on any grounds of piety but because he insisted it violated the Declaration of the Rights of Man’s commitment to hold property as inviolable. “You have declared that property said to belong to the church now belongs to the nation but I only know that this is to declare something to be fact which is untrue… I don’t see how a simple declaration can change the nature of rights… Why do you allow these petty hateful passions to lay siege to your soul and succeed in tainting with immorality and injustice the finest of all Revolutions? Why do you want to depart from the role of legislators and for what, to become anti-clerics?”

The unaccustomed note of passion that marked Sieyès’ speech suggested the emotional turbulence that Talleyrand and Mirabeau’s proposal had stirred. It was made worse, not better, by the fact that a considerable number of the parish clergy had been warm supporters of the Revolution and now for the most part felt betrayed and unjustly victimized. Their opposition to the Assembly’s program was not merely the defense of vested interests, as the orators claimed. It arose from sincerely held convictions about the nature of their pastoral role and resentment at being demoted to some sort of department of state. While they readily acknowledged that their material position might be improved, the surrender of their autonomy to some sort of national superintendence seemed to be too high a price to pay. And they were even more anxious that the special position historically enjoyed by the Catholic Church would be jeopardized by the toleration of Protestantism. The months following the Assembly’s acceptance of Mirabeau’s resolution on November 2 by a margin of 510 votes to 346 saw a series of bitter disputes over the “nationalization” of the Church.

Figures like Boisgelin, the Archbishop of Aix, who had been among the warmest enthusiasts of the Revolution, now became at best tepid supporters. An initial tactic of resistance was to invoke the representative principle on behalf of the clergy, arguing that the decrees should be submitted to a specially convoked national synod. When that was rejected as an infringement of the sovereignty of the Nation embodied in the Assembly, Boisgelin became more impassioned. “You want to strike the ministers of the altar with the sword?” he said in a powerful speech to the Assembly on the fourteenth of April 1790. “We declare absolutely that we neither can, nor must, adhere to the decree which you will enact and that we reserve to ourselves the right to appeal to all the rights and prerogatives that belong to us by law, tradition and the establishment of the Gallican church.” (Though the Archbishop was, in fact, to be one of those who would advise the King to sign the civil constitution.)

For their part, the reformers found themselves supported by exactly the kind of pugnacious Parisian anticlericalism they had hoped to avoid. On the day of the vote about “national property” ecclesiastical deputies known for their opposition were jeered and pelted outside the Assembly. Caricatures, songs and poissard poems drawing on an old and rich vein of satire against monks, popes and bishops took a new lease on life. One popular parody of the invocation O Filii ran:

Notre Saint-Père est un dindon

Le calotin est un fripon

Notre Archevêque est un scélérat


Our Holy Father is a turkey

The priest is a rogue

Our Archbishop is a scoundrel


Another song suggested that these avaricious, sexually rapacious clerics were about to arm themselves and massacre citizens in a new St. Bartholomew’s Eve, a much repeated theme and one which owed its currency to Marie-Joseph Chénier’s immensely popular play Charles IX. In that drama cardinals and bishops were seen plotting and praying for the extermination of good citizens, and Chénier did his utmost to make the parallels with the Revolution quite explicit. The best actor in France, Talma, carried off a portrayal of the King as a kind of demonic halfwit in whom loathsome amorality and devious plotting were concentrated to an unusually abominable degree. A special deputation of clerical deputies and bishops petitioned the government and the King to close the play for its scurrilous quality and – an exception in 1789 – the petition was granted. But even after the curtain was down, the identification in the Parisian popular mind of the priesthood with anticitizenship remained very strong.

As the partisans of the “national church” encountered stiff resistance from the clergy, they were tempted to use both high-minded and low-minded propaganda in their attempts to overcome it. On December 19 it was decided to auction off up to four hundred million livres’ worth of ecclesiastical property through the agency of the municipality of Paris. This operation would allow the government to float a major new loan against the security of the proceeds and was, in effect, the beginning of the state’s expropriation of the Church. Curates and bishops denounced the action from their pulpits, threatening to excommunicate buyers and warning that holy wealth might now fall into the hands of Protestants or even, Holy Mother forbid the thought, Jews. In response, pamphlets supporting the sale reminded the public that “aristocrats” of both clerical and lay kinds had been responsible for the shortage of coin. It was the bullion equivalent of the famine plot, the emigrants and the abbots either exporting or secreting vast caches of ingots and money to deplete the economy of its circulation.

The same sort of war of prayers against pamphlets broke out over the momentous decision taken by the Constituent on February 13, 1790, to withdraw recognition of monastic vows. At last, the reformers said, the armies of shiftless monks and nuns would be turned into useful citizens. The cloisters would be unlocked to allow their inmates to enter the public realm. The response of the two sexes to this sudden opportunity was, however, quite different. Very few nuns decided to depart other than those at the Convent of Sainte-Madeleine in Paris, where some of them organized a formal protest against the “despotism” of the abbess, an aristocratic Montmorency-Laval. A much more typical response was the declaration of the Carmelites of Paris, who protested that “if there behappiness on earth we enjoy it in the shelter of the sanctuary.” Not all monks, either, were eager to escape. The Benedictines of Saint-Martin-des-Champs had voted in September 1789 to give up their property against allowances paid by the state but still decided in 1790 to retain their monastic vows. The most dramatic spectacle, though, occurred in the very heartland of the monastic renewal of the twelfth century: in the great Cistercian abbeys of Clairvaux, Cluny and Cîteaux. From the immense and beautiful Gothic refectories, libraries and dormitories, created to provide a self-supporting barrier against the corruptions of the world, issued a great exodus of tonsured citizens rejoining their fellow mortals.

The invasion of clerical autonomy by the state was felt everywhere in ecclesiastical life. Before the first property sales in December, commissioners had been sent into the diocesan chapter houses to inspect and seal title deeds against false disclosures or clandestine transfers to third parties. In March and April 1790 more men wearing tricolor sashes arrived at convents and monasteries to ensure that the decrees of the Assembly were being communicated and respected by abbots and mothers superior.

In February the pulpit itself had been conscripted into the Revolution. On the ninth, the Abbé Grégoire, the Lorraine curate and advocate of the emancipation of blacks and Jews, reported widespread rioting in the countryside of the rugged river country of the southwest. In the Quercy, the Rouergue and the Tarn peasants were committing acts of violence because they assumed the decrees of the fourth of August had abolished all dues and taxes payable to the landlord, rather than the all-important fine distinctions the Assembly had carefully drawn between personal services and what were now rental obligations. Much of this misunderstanding, Grégoire said, arose from ignorance of the French language in a region where local patois and varieties of the southern langue docwere spoken. But in the timbered Dordogne town of Sarlat, the Bishop had set a fine example by publishing a personal circular explaining the decrees and using the opportunity of his sermons to clarify misunderstandings – all in a pastoral way.

Grégoire’s conclusion was, first, that one of the primary duties of the Revolution would be to unify the nation through an active campaign of instruction in the French tongue, supported by propaganda; one which he would lead. For the moment, however, the clergy needed to be recruited to help the people, especially in the countryside, to comprehend revolutionary legislation. On the following day Talleyrand said that this could best be done by having them read decrees from the pulpit and use the occasion to disabuse people of false rumors. The proposal was less shocking than it was made to seem since Louis XIV and many of his predecessors had often required royal decrees to be read by the clergy to their flock. Sunday Mass, after all, was one of the few times when one could be sure of gathering together peasants from widely scattered farms under the same roof. But occasional recourse to the Church to make known declarations of war or the stigmatization of heretics was not the same thing as turning the pulpit into a revolutionary bulletin board. And even the Sun King had conceded that he could not force the clergy to publish decrees.

By threatening them with removal of their parish and denial of their voting rights as “active citizens” the Revolution was going much further than the monarchy in annexing the Church as a department of public instruction. In effect, it was implementing the Abbé Raynal’s demand that the state act as the final arbiter of public morality, determining whether the Church was acting in, or against, its interest. “The clergy only exists by virtue of the nation,” declared Barnave, “so the nation [if it so chooses] can destroy it.” And against this subaltern relationship and the acts of political intimidation to reinforce it, clerical publications mounted a spirited campaign of counter-propaganda. Journals like the Catholic-royalist Acts of the Apostles and the Abbé Barruel’s Ecclesiastical Journaldenied the right of the state to legislate on matters that concerned Christian teaching, ritual or liturgy. And in response to the official demand that the Church dissolve itself into the general purposes of the nation, they stubbornly reiterated the special, separate nature of its sacred authority.

Barruel’s paper was particularly effective in that it not only printed the abbé’s own eloquent tirades against the revolutionary legislation but letters from country curates, some of them at least bearing the stamp of authenticity, complaining bitterly of intimidation from the state. One wrote, “My house, Jesus Christ said, is a house of prayer… our temples are not public places or town halls,” and Barruel responded that “the disciples of Christ are not Caesar’s men; if there are truths to publish in church they are the truths of the laws of Christ and the precepts of the gospel.”

The dispute was, of course, only the latest round in an ancient cycle of hostilities between the Roman Catholic Church and the European states. Both in his pragmatic opportunism and his version of the obedience of the Church to lay statutes, Talleyrand was not much of an advance on Henry VIII’s manager of the Reformation, Thomas Cromwell. Rousseau had replaced Luther as the alternative authority on the redundancy of priestly autonomy. In France, however, the situation was complicated by the evident reluctance, even among the majority of the Assembly, to abandon Catholicism as a favored religion. It was only when they were pushed too far, as on April 10, when Dom Gerle insisted that the Assembly declare the Roman Church the only religion of state in France, that positions became dangerously polarized. But the legislators also expected the papacy itself to assume a passive if not a compliant role, especially since its territorial enclave at Avignon was under threat of “reunion” (that is, annexation) to France.

Instead, throughout the spring and summer of 1790, a growing sense of alienation from Paris and from the secular bullying of the Revolution began to make itself felt throughout the Church. The geography of disaffection was, as Timothy Tackett has charted it, quite distinctive. Resistance was most marked in the west and southwest and in eastern France from the Vosges through Alsace and Lorraine to Flanders and Picardy. The Rhone Valley and the Midi seem to have been marked both by anticlericalism and militant Catholicism, and the revolutionary settlement was most widely accepted in the Seine Valley, the Paris region and in the poorest regions of central France, where the attraction of a better stipend for curates may well have been a decisive factor. Even within specific areas, there were marked discrepancies of loyalty between country and town. In the Norman town of Bayeux, for example, Olwen Hufton found a high degree of rejection among the local clergy and noted that their colleagues in the neighboring countryside were likely to be more pragmatic.

Talleyrand’s own chapter at Autun (which of course hadn’t seen him since his ordination) was quite clear about their view and began to talk back to their bishop. They were particularly upset with him for proposing to the Assembly in January – along with that notorious sinner Mirabeau – the emancipation of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. It all seemed to add up to a calculated act of betrayal, a bishop in league with Christ-killing usurers and other equally detestable capitalists to despoil the property of the Church and feather their own nests. Was this the way he fulfilled his sacred vow, sworn at the cathedral altar, “to defend with his life the estate of his bride, the church of Autun”? Letters to the local press called him a Judas, an apostate, a murderer of the evangel. Talleyrand pushed his pectoral cross a little deeper into his waistcoat.

In their turn, the legislators appreciated that the curés-citoyens on whom they had pinned their hopes – men of public goodwill who could reconcile their Christian vocation with their civic duty – were very rare birds indeed. Some could be identified – for example, one Pupunat, who, from his parish of Etables in the eastern department of the Ain near Nantua, wrote to the Assembly that local officials there refused to give him the text of decrees to read and that he had always felt it “his most religious duty to unite inseparably the teaching of the decrees of the august National Assembly with those of the dogma of Christian morality.”

The growing realization that the Pupunats were few and far between dislodged the Assembly’s convenient assumption that a dependable body of citizen-priests would spontaneously come into being. To fill the vacuum it moved in two directions. First, it decided to appoint lecteurs – readers – of decrees who would be the Assembly’s official communicators and might, but not necessarily, make their announcements from the pulpit. Second, with the clergy excused from that duty, they would nonetheless be held to strict allegiance by the swearing of an oath of loyalty to the nation and its laws. This was nearly identical to the oath sworn by all public officials and soldiers whose loyalties might otherwise be called into question, but for the Church it represented the final subordination to profane authority. There are signs that when the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was presented to the Assembly in July 1790, it was seen by a majority of the legislators as no more than the final integration into the new revolutionary Nation of its salaried, certified and inspected personnel. Mirabeau had said, after all, that since “religion belonged to everyone,” it followed that its ministers should be public servants like soldiers and magistrates. Henceforth, curés and bishops would be elected in the manner of the new justices of the peace and district tribunals, and dioceses would be identical with departmental boundaries.

The Abbé Montesquiou, who was well enough respected to serve as president of the Constituent, saw this not as reform but as annihilation. Was the constitution, he had asked in April, “now to be one of those pagan cults that demands human sacrifices?” Was it to sacrifice the holy clergy? Was “the exterminating angel to pass over the face of this Assembly?”

The Civil Constitution was not simply another piece of institutional legislation. It was the beginning of a holy war.

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