The Catholic Church was an essential and omnipresent force in the government. The number of her clergy in France has been estimated at 260,000 in 1667,7 420,000 in 1715,8 194,000 in 1762;9 these figures are guesses, but we may assume a decline of some thirty per cent during the eighteenth century, despite an increase in the population. Lacroix calculated that in 1763 France had eighteen archbishops, 109 bishops, 40,000 priests, 50,000 vicaires (assistant priests), 27,000 priors or chaplains, 12,000 canons regular, 20,000 clerks, and 100,000 monks, friars and nuns.10 Of 740 monasteries 625 were in commendam—i.e., they were governed by assistant abbots on behalf of absentee abbots who received the title and half or two thirds of the revenue without being required to live an ecclesiastical life.

The higher clergy were practically a branch of the nobility. All bishops were appointed by the king, usually on nomination by the local seigneurs, and subject to papal consent. Titled families, to keep their property undivided by inheritance, secured bishoprics or abbacies for their younger sons; of 130 bishops in France in 1789 only one was a commoner.11 Such scions of old stock brought into the Church their habits of worldly luxury, sport, and pride. Prince Cardinal Édouard de Rohan had an alb bordered with point lace and valued at 100,000 livres, and his kitchen utensils were of massive silver.12 Archbishop Dillon of Narbonne explained to Louis XVI why, after prohibiting the chase to his clergy, he himself continued to hunt: “Sire, my clergy’s vices are their own; mine come from my ancestry.”13 The great age of French ecclesiastics—Bossuet, Fénelon, Bourdaloue—had passed; the epicurean riot of the Regency had freed men like Dubois and Tencin to rise in the hierarchy of the Church despite their achievements in both forms of venery. Many bishops lived most of the year in Versailles or Paris, joining in the gaiety and sophistication of the court. They kept one foot in each world.

Bishops and abbots had the rights and duties of seigneurs, even to providing a bull to service their peasants’ cows.14 Their vast domains, sometimes enclosing whole towns, were managed as feudal properties. Monasteries owned a great part of the city of Rennes, and most of the environing terrain.15 In some communes the bishop appointed all judges and officials; so the Archbishop of Cambrai, suzerain over a region comprising 75,000 inhabitants, appointed all administrators in Cateau-Cambrésis, and half of those in Cambrai.16 Serfdom survived longest on monastic estates;17 the canons regular of St.-Claude, in the Jura, had twelve thousand serfs, and fervently resisted any reduction of feudal services.18 The immunities and privileges of the Church were bound up with the existing social order, and made the ecclesiastical hierarchy the most conservative influence in France.

The Church annually collected, with some moderation and consideration, a tithe of every landholder’s produce and cattle; but this décime was seldom an actual tenth; more often it was a twelfth, sometimes only a twentieth.19 With this, and gifts, legacies, and the revenue from her realty, the Church maintained her parish priests in poverty and her bishops in luxury, she relieved the destitute, and educated and indoctrinated the young. Next to the king with his army, the Church was the strongest and richest power in France. She owned, by diverse estimates, from six to twenty per cent of the soil,20 and a third of the wealth.21 The bishop of Sens had a yearly income of 70,000 livres; the bishop of Beauvais, 90,000; the Archbishop of Rouen, 100,000; of Narbonne, 160,000; of Paris, 200,000; the Archbishop of Strasbourg had over a million a year.22 The Abbey of Prémontré, near Laon, had a capital of 45 million livres. The 236 Dominican friars of Toulouse owned French property, colonial plantations, and Negro slaves, valued at many millions. The 1,672 monks of St.-Maur held property worth 24 million livres, earning eight million a year.

None of the Church’s possessions or income was taxable, but periodically the higher clergy in national convocation voted a free donation to the state. In 1773 this amounted to sixteen million livres for five years, which Voltaire reckoned to be a just proportion of the Church’s income.23 In 1749 J. B. Machault d’Arnouville, comptroller general of finances, proposed to replace this don gratuit by extending to the Church, as well as to all the laity, a direct annual tax of five per cent on all income. Fearing that this was a first step toward despoiling the Church to salvage the state, the clergy resisted with “an inflexible passion.”24 Machault proposed also to outlaw legacies to the Church without state sanction; to annul all religious establishments set up without royal approval since 1636; and to require all holders of ecclesiastical benefices to report their revenues to the government. An assembly of the clergy refused to obey these edicts, saying, “We will never consent that that which has heretofore been the gift of our love and respect should become the tribute of our obedience.” Louis XV ordered the dissolution of the assembly, and his Council bade the intendants collect an initial levy of 7,500,000 livres on the property of the Church.

Voltaire sought to encourage Machault and the King by issuing a pamphlet, Voix du sage et du peuple, which urged the government to establish its authority over the Church, to prevent the Church from being a state within the state, and to trust to the philosophers of France to defend King and minister against all the forces of superstition.25 But Louis XV saw no reason for believing that philosophy could win in a contest with religion. He knew that half his authority rested upon his anointment and coronation by the Church; thereafter, in the eyes of the masses, who could never come close enough to him to count his mistresses, he was the viceregent of God and spoke with divine authority. The spiritual terrors wielded by the clergy, enhanced by all the forces of tradition, habit, ceremony, vestments, and prestige, took the place of a thousand laws and a hundred thousand policemen in maintaining social order and public obedience. Could any government, without the support of supernatural hopes and fears, control the innate lawlessness of men? The King decided to yield to the bishops. He transferred Machault to another post, suppressed Voltaire’s pamphlet, and accepted a don gratuit in lieu of a tax on ecclesiastical property.

The power of the Church rested ultimately on the success of the parish priest. If the people feared the mitered hierarchy, they loved the local curé, who shared their poverty and sometimes their agricultural toil. They grumbled when he collected the “tithe,” but they realized that he was compelled to do it by his superiors, and that two thirds of it went to his bishop or some absentee beneficiary, while the parish church, as like as not, languished in a disrepair painful to piety. That beloved church was their town hall; there their village assemblies met under the presidency of the priest; in the parish register, as the witness of their patient continuity through the generations, were recorded their births, marriages, and deaths. The sound of the church bells was the noblest music to their ears; the ceremonies were their exalting drama; the stories of the saints were their treasured literature; the feasts of the Church calendar were their grateful holidays. They did not look upon the exhortations of the priest, or his instruction of their children, as a mythical indoctrination to support ecclesiastical authority, but as an indispensable aid to parental discipline and moral restraint, and as the revelation of a divine order that redeemed with eternal significance the dreary routine of their earthly lives. So precious was that faith that they could be inflamed to kill anyone who tried to take it from them. The peasant father and mother welcomed religion into the daily routine of their home, transmitted its legends to their children, and led them in evening prayer. The parish priest, loving them as they loved him, sided with them in the Revolution.

Monks, friars, and nuns were diminishing in number and growing in virtue26 and wealth. They were rarely mendicant now, for they had found it wiser to elicit bequests from the dying as a fee for Paradise than to beg pennies in the villages. Some of their wealth overflowed into charity; many monasteries maintained hospitals and almshouses, and daily distributed food to the poor.27 In 1789 many communities urged the Revolutionary government not to suppress the local monasteries, since these were the only charitable organizations in their region.28 Nunneries performed several functions now otherwise served: they provided a refuge for widows, for women separated from their husbands, and for tired ladies who, like Mme. du Deffand, wished to live away from the turmoil of the world. The convents did not entirely renounce worldly pleasures, for the well-to-do used them as havens for surplus daughters, who might otherwise, by requiring marriage dowries, have lessened the patrimony of the sons; and these discarded virgins were not always inclined to austerity. The abbess of Origny had a coach and four, and entertained both sexes in her comfortable apartment; at Alix the nuns wore hoopskirts, and silk robes lined with ermine; at other nunneries they dined and danced with officers from nearby camps.29 These were apparently sinless relaxations; many of the stories of conventual immorality in the eighteenth century were lurid exaggerations in the propaganda war of rival faiths. Instances of girls kept in convents against their will were now rare.30

The Jesuits had declined in power and prestige. Till 1762 they still controlled education, and provided influential confessors to King and Queen. But they had suffered from the eloquence of Pascal and the skeptics of the impious Regency, and were losing their long contest with the Jansenists. These Calvinistic Catholics had survived royal persecution and papal bulls; they were numerous in the business and artisan classes, and in law; they were nearing ascendancy in the Paris and other parlements. After the death of their ascetic theologian François de Paris (1727), fervent sick Jansenists made pilgrimages to his tomb in the cemetery of St.-Médard; there they scourged themselves, and some fell into such cataleptic fits that they were called convulsionnaires; they groaned and wept, and prayed for cures, and several claimed to have been miraculously healed. After three years of these operations the authorities closed the cemeteries; as Voltaire put it, God was forbidden, by order of the King, to work any miracles there. The convulsions ceased, but the impressionable Parisians were inclined to credit the miracles, and in 1733 a journalist reported, with obvious exaggeration, that “the good town of Paris is Jansenist from top to bottom.”31 Many of the lower clergy, defying a royal edict of 1720, refused to sign the bull Unigenitus (1713), wherein Pope Innocent XIII had condemned 101 allegedly Jansenist propositions. The Archbishop of Paris ruled that the last sacrament should not be administered to anyone who had not confessed to a priest who had accepted the bull. The dispute shared in weakening the divided Church against the attacks of the philosophes.

Huguenots and other French Protestants were still outlawed, but small groups of them gathered clandestinely. Legally a French Protestant’s wife was a concubine; her children were accounted illegitimate, and could not inherit property. Under Louis XV there were several outbreaks of persecution. In 1717 seventy-four Frenchmen caught in Protestant worship were sent to the galleys, and their women were jailed. An edict of 1724 decreed death for Protestant preachers; all persons attending a Protestant assemblage were to suffer confiscation of property, the men were to be condemned to the galleys, the women were to have their heads shaved and be shut up for life.32 During the ministry of Cardinal Fleury this edict was only laxly enforced, but after his death it was revived at the request of Catholic bishops in southern France.33 In 1749 the Parlement of Bordeaux ordered the separation of forty-six couples who had been married by Protestant rites. Children of parents who were suspected of Protestantism could be taken from them to be brought up in Catholic homes; we hear of a rich Huguenot spending 200,000 livres in bribing officials to let him keep his children.34 Between 1744 and 1752 some six hundred Protestants were imprisoned, and eight hundred others were condemned to various penalties.35 In 1752 the Protestant preacher Bénezet, twenty-six years old, was hanged at Mont-pellier. In that year Louis XV, under the influence of Mme. de Pompadour, ordered an end to these persecutions;36 thereafter, especially in or near Paris, Protestants could escape penalties provided they attended a Catholic service once in the year.37

Despite the bigotry, worldliness, and will-to-power of their leaders, the French clergy included hundreds of men distinguished by laborious learning or devoted lives. Besides those bishops who squandered in Paris the tithes taken from the peasantry, there were others who came as close to sanctity as administrative duties would permit. Cardinal Louis Antoine de Noailles, archbishop of Paris, was a man of intelligence and nobility. Jean Baptiste Massillon, bishop of Clermont, was loved by the people despite the erudition of his sermons, which Voltaire liked to listen to at meals, if only for the beauty of their style. Gabriel de Caylus, bishop of Auxerre, gave all his wealth to the poor, sold his silver plate to feed the hungry, and then apologized to further suppliants, “My children, I have nothing left to give you.”38 Bishop François de Belsunce remained at his post in the terrible plague at Marseilles (1720), when a third of the population died and most doctors and magistrates fled. “Look at Belsunce,” wrote Lemontey:

all he possessed he has given; all who served him [his personal staff] are dead [from infection]; alone, in poverty, on foot, in the morning he penetrates into the most horrible den of misery, and in the evening he is found again in the midst of places bespattered with the dying; he quenches their thirst, he comforts them as a friend, … and in this field of death he gleans abandoned souls. The example of this prelate, who seeems to be invulnerable, animates with courageous emulation … the parish priests, the vicars, and the religious orders; not one deserts his colors; not one puts any bounds to his fatigue save with his life. Thus perished twenty-six Recollect friars, and eighteen Jesuits out of twenty-six. The Capuchins summoned their brethren from other provinces, and the latter rushed to martyrdom with the alacrity of the ancient Christians; out of fifty-five the epidemic slew forty-three. The conduct of the priests of the Oratory was, if possible, even more magnanimous.39

Let us remember, as we record the bitter conflict between religion and philosophy, and share the anger of the philosophes at stifling censorship and disgraceful superstition, that there was devotion as well as wealth in the hierarchy; dedication as well as poverty among the village priests; and, among the people, an abiding, indestructible love for a faith that gave some saving discipline to pride and passion, and brought a consoling vision to toilsome days.

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