FINANCIALLY the Catholic Church was the soundest institution in the country. It owned some six per cent of the land, and other property, valued in sum at from two to four billion livres, with an annual income of 120,000,000 livres.1 It received an additional 123,000,000 in tithes levied on the produce and livestock of the soil.2 These revenues, in the view of the Church, were needed for its various functions of promoting family life, organizing education (before 1762), forming moral character, supporting social order, distributing charity, tending the sick, offering to meditative or unpolitical spirits a monastic refuge from the confusion of the crowd and the tyranny of the state, and inculcating a judicious mixture of fear, hope, and resignation in souls condemned, by the natural inequality of men, to poverty, hardship, or grief.
All this it claimed to do through its clergy, which constituted about one half of one per cent of the population. Their number had fallen since 1779,3 and the monasteries were in serious decline. “Many monks,” we are told, “were favorable to the new ideas, and read the writings of the philosophers.”4 Hundreds of monks abandoned the monastic life, and were not replaced; between 1766 and 1789 their number in France fell from 26,000 to 17,000; in one monastery from eighty to nineteen, in another from fifty to four.5A royal edict of 1766 closed all monasteries having fewer than nine inmates, and raised the permitted age for taking vows from sixteen to twenty-one for men, to eighteen for women. Monastic morals were lax. The Archbishop of Tours wrote in 1778: “The Gray Friars [Franciscans] are in a state of degradation in this province; the bishops complain of their debaucheries and disorderly life.”6 On the other hand the nunneries were in good condition. There were 37,000 nuns in the 1,500 convents of France in 1774;7 their morals were good, and they actively fulfilled their tasks of educating girls, serving in hospitals, and offering asylum to widows, spinsters, and women broken in the battle of life.
The secular clergy prospered in the sees and languished in the parishes. There were many devoted and industrious bishops, some worldly idling ones. Burke, visiting France in 1773, found a few prelates guilty of avarice, but the great majority impressed him by their learning and integrity.8 An historian familiar with the literature of scandal concluded: “It may be broadly stated that the vices which had infected the whole body of the clergy during the sixteenth century had disappeared by the eighteenth. Despite the law of celibacy the country curates were, as a rule, moral, austere, virtuous men.”9 These parish priests complained of the pride of class in the bishops, who were all nobles; of the requirement to transmit to the bishop the greater part of the tithes, and of the consequent poverty that compelled the curates to till the soil as well as serve the Church. Louis XVI was moved by their protests, and arranged that their salaries should be raised from five hundred to seven hundred livres per year. When the Revolution came many of the lower clergy supported the Third Estate. Some bishops, too, favored political and economic reform, but most of them remained adamant against any changes in the Church or the state.10 When the treasury of France neared bankruptcy the wealth of the Church offered a tempting contrast, and bondholders, worried about the ability of the government to pay interest or principal on their loans, began to see in the expropriation of church property the only road to national solvency. The spreading rejection of the Christian creed concurred with this economic urge.
Religious belief flourished in the villages, waned in the towns; and in these the women of the middle and lower classes kept their traditional piety. “My mother,” Mme. Vigée-Lebrun recalled, “was very pious. I too was pious at heart. We used always to hear High Mass and attend the services of the Church.”11 The churches were crowded on Sundays and holydays.12 But among the men unbelief had captured half the leading spirits. In the nobility a gay skepticism had become fashionable, even among the women. “The fashionable world for ten years past,” wrote Mercier in his Tableau de Paris in 1783, “has not attended Mass”; or, if they did go, it was “so as not to scandalize their lackeys, who know that it is on their account.”13 The upper middle class followed the lead of the aristocracy. In the schools “many teachers were infected with unbelief after 1771”;14 many students neglected Mass, and read the philosophes. In 1789 Father Bonnefax declared: “The gravest scandal, and that which will entail the most fatal consequences, is the almost absolute abandonment of religious teaching in the public schools.”15 In one college, it was said, “only three imbeciles” believed in God.16
Among the clergy belief varied inversely with income. The prelates “accepted the ‘utilitarian morality’ of the philosophes, and kept Jesus only as a discreet front.”17 There were hundreds of abbés like Mably, Condillac, Morellet, and Raynal, who themselves were philosophes, or adopted the current doubts. There were bishops like Talleyrand, who made little pretense to Christian belief; there were archbishops like Loménie de Brienne, of whom Louis XVI complained that he did not believe in God.18 Louis refused to have a priest teach his son, lest the boy lose religious faith.19
The Church continued to demand censorship of the press. In 1770 the bishops sent to the King a memoir on “the dangerous consequences of liberty of thinking and printing.”20 The government had relaxed, under Louis XV, the laws against the entry of Protestants into France; hundreds of them were now in the kingdom, living under political disabilities, in marriages unrecognized by the state, and in daily fear that the old laws of Louis XIV would at any moment be enforced. In July, 1775, an assembly of the Catholic clergy petitioned the King to forbid Protestant meetings, marriages, or education, and to exclude Protestants from all public office; it also asked that the age of permitted monastic vows be restored to sixteen.21 Turgot pleaded with Louis XVI to ignore these proposals, and to relieve the Protestants of their disabilities; the hierarchy joined in the campaign to displace him. In 1781 the second edition of Raynal’s Histoire philosophique des deux Indes was burned by order of the Parlement of Paris, and the author was banished from France. Buffon was attacked by the Sorbonne for outlining a natural evolution of life. In 1785 the clergy demanded life imprisonment for persons thrice condemned of irreligion.22
But the Church, weakened by a century of attacks, could no longer dominate public opinion, and it could no longer rely on the “secular arm” to implement its decrees. Louis XVI, after much worry about his coronation oath to stamp out heresy, yielded to the pressure of liberal ideas, and issued in 1787 an edict of toleration prepared by Malesherbes: “Our justice does not permit us to exclude any longer, from the rights of the civil state, those of our subjects who do not profess the Catholic religion.”23 The edict still excluded non-Catholics from public office, but it gave them all other civil rights, admitted them to the professions, legitimized their marriages past and future, and allowed them to celebrate their religious services in private homes. We should add that a Catholic bishop, M. de La Luzerne, vigorously supported the emancipation of the Protestants, and full freedom of religious worship.24
No class in the cities of France was so disliked by the educated male minority as the Catholic clergy. The Church was hated, said de Tocqueville, “not because the priests claimed to regulate the affairs of the other world, but because they were landed proprietors, lords of manors, tithe owners, and administrators in this world.”25 A peasant wrote to Necker in 1788: “The poor suffer from cold and hunger while the canons [cathedral clergy] feast and think of nothing but fattening themselves like pigs that are to be killed for Easter.”26 The middle classes resented the exemption of church wealth from taxation.
Most previous revolutions had been against the state or the Church, rarely against both at once. The barbarians had overthrown Rome, but they had accepted the Roman Catholic Church. The Sophists in ancient Greece, the Reformers in sixteenth-century Europe, had rejected the prevailing religion, but they had respected the existing government. The French Revolution attacked both the monarchy and the Church, and undertook the double task and jeopardy of removing both the religious and the secular props of the existing social order. Is it any wonder that for a decade France went mad?