De Revolutionibus

The Church in France from the time of Louis XIV to Louis XVI is well known today for its incredible worldliness, which Hollywood filmmakers portray very well. Look at period films and you will see how obsessed we are today with the Church at the height of the Ancien Régime. Cardinals, bishops, and prelates walk around in outrageous, rich robes and wigs, covered in jewels and wearing proud ugly faces. Such is the modern caricature of the French Church. We have inherited this from the Enlightenment writers down to the present day.[1]

Ubi Fumus, Ibi Ignis.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Perhaps this caricature was in some respect warranted. In the Roman Catholic world the French church occupied a position of unquestioned pre-eminence. Numbers alone provide no guarantee of strength, but in this respect it easily outdistanced any of the other churches of western Europe. To its prominence in French life, the great number of churches and convents bore silent but ubiquitous testimony. Nor was great wealth its only privilege. Many church dignities carried with them their appropriate feudal counterpart; bishops were often temporal lords, and religious and secular powers were intimately intertwined. There was never any doubt that Roman Catholicism was the official and favored faith of France.[2]

Extreme wealth doesn’t imply that the Church in France was necessarily wicked. But some factors are clearly responsible for the attitude the people of France had inherited and nourished at the time of the Revolution. Greater prelates would make 100,000 livres or more, favored ones make up to 4 times that. A resident bishop might receive 7,000, while priests receive a minimum of 300 livres. Since most citizens would only ever have direct contact with the Church at the level of the parish priest, it is clear to see the sense of injustice the layman would have felt. While his poor parish curé would be living in abject poverty, cardinals and bishops would live like worldly princes. Rather than seeing a saintliness in their poverty, Voltaire chose to accuse the priests of terrible crimes, “fighting their wretched parishioners over a sheaf of corn.”[3] Late in the 18th century the government finally took steps to compel the church to pay its country clergy a living wage; in this the initiative came wholly from lay sources. The priests sprang from the people and remained in intimate touch with them. Among the lower clergy was a democratic—almost a revolutionary—temper. It was fortified by a growing tendency to appeal to the equality which was regarded as the distinguishing mark of the primitive Church. The impact of this democratic sentiment was far from negligible; the numbers of the lower clergy, the justice of their claims, their devotion to the faith, and their pastoral zeal, all lent weight to their protests against prevalent abuses. A church thus divided was in no position to withstand the attacks to come. A serious decline in preaching power had coincided with an increasing tendency to restrict the episcopacy to the nobility. On the eve of the Revolution, out of 130 bishops only one was a commoner. It inevitably followed that the church, as represented by the higher clergy, steadily lost contact with the common people.[4] A Church thus divided could hardly withstand the terrible attacks to come.

The approaching revolution considered religion and the government, the Church and the monarchy, Christianity and the Régime as interdependent. It was not the Church that precipitated the fall of the old regime, which was doomed by its own faults to ultimate destruction; but she was involved in that fall and was seriously wounded, although she managed to survive the disaster. Yet despite all of the abuse and worldliness prevalent in the general perception and mindset of the populace, the contemporary hierarchy would also produce many great witnesses to charity and mission work. The church of the old regime was largely responsible for the education of the nation. Saints like Benedict Joseph Labre lived lives of extreme poverty. People practiced their faith with genuine fervor, and never dreamed of throwing it away. Churches were always full, sermons often lasted hours. The priest took part in the day-to-day existence of the parishioner, and gave them advice on all sorts of matters. Laypeople were given a voice in the parishes, even greater than they are today. “Louis XV’s life was often an offence to the Commandments; but when he came to die he repented publicly, confessed his sins and abandoned himself to God like a true Christian.” The efforts of bishops were not dictated only by some vague humanitarian “social sense”; many were animated by the most genuine charity. Some are remembered as ascetics. Mgr de Royere when alone ate nothing but bread dipped in water. A great many of them were actively concerned with the moral and spiritual life of their flocks, particularly of their priests. To say that all the bishops of the age were corrupt princes is unjust and unfounded.


[1] Frank Kafker, The French Revolution, Conflicting Interpretations(New York: Random House, 1968), 101.

[2] Gerald Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648-1789 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1960), 201.

[3] Henri Daniel-Rops, The Church in the Eighteenth Century (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1964), 249.

[4] Ibid., 203.

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10 Responses to “De Revolutionibus”

  1. Peter Paul Fuchs Says:

    You guys are impressive, but I am not sure how you can use Gerald Cragg’s book as a reference and come up with the summary you have presented here. Cragg makes quite clear that the lower clergy were mostly dependent on de facto payments for services rendered –read sacraments — and not any largesse mainly from the government. I love all the Vibert paintings, or Vibert-workshop if that is what they are, but still the anti-clericalism that they demonstrate and that was around generally in that period hardly scratched the surface of what people felt. It was a rather elitist, attenuated affair. On the more basic level you had a Church which more or less left the clergy to fend for themselves in the form of benefice payments by which they could live, and yet a supervising hierarchy which demanded compliance no matter what. That certainly counts as some impetus for social unrest, but perhaps not comparable to the more vaunted ones attendant to royal concerns. What has been left out of this discussion by you, and certainly not by Cragg, is the very hostility of the Church towards the beneficial aspects of human rationality in the Eighteenth Century. In this respect, if perhaps not others, the Catholic Church is very guilty of fomenting trouble and thus itself quite culpable for the great tragedy of the Revolution.

  2. C. Whitty Says:

    Wow thanks for the detailed response. This post represents about a third of a paper I wrote for a Church history class, in which I go into further detail on both sides of the Revolution. However, being who we are–that is, culturally Catholic and lovers of and students of the priesthood, we will tend towards giving our priests an easier treatment with the lens of history.

    I’m glad you enjoy the paintings, they are indeed Vibert. Our seminary has the largest singular collection of Vibert works in the world.

  3. Peter Paul Fuchs Says:

    You should do a post where you discuss that collection of paintings by Vibert, post pictures of the collection, and how it came to be collected and installed there. I think this would be of great interest to lots of people and you would be doing a service to art-history students and scholars. Think about it. I would love to see those painting again. My favorites. The Cardinal getting the piano lesson. The bishops reading the news paper on the street (Le Figaro?) and of course the big one –really a masterpiece — of the musical party with them all together playing and singing. That one used to be in the faculty lounge in the McCarthy Building. Ciao bello.

  4. Peter Paul Fuchs Says:

    No, thank God, what a depressing place! Work on the Vibert idea, aesthetes
    everywhere are counting on you.

    • C. Whitty Says:

      I shall never return. It is a ghastly place and home to traitors and ambitious men who ache for glory and reverence for themselves.

  5. Peter Paul Fuchs Says:

    Cliff, Consider yourself lucky. We all wanted to be involved with something that touched our deepest selves. But it is a career that calls for the deepest compromises. In my opinion, compromises of the very humanity of the person. In the world of the past that had no civil rights generally , such compromises may have seemed fairly normal compared to what society asked of people generally. But in our world , those compromises draw a different sort of person. I won’t go into that, but I bet you know what I think. What I will say is that the ambition and traitorousness is all pretty small and harmless. It really stings because some of the pledges of friendship turn out to have been expediency. What would be a shame is if your delight in the very real beauties of the cultural past were lost because you, and people like me, feel a bit banged- up by having actually interacted institutionally with the organization. All organizations require loyalty, that I am comfortable with. What is sad about this old and ancient organization is that it is now so at odds with itself that when it lets someone go, it rarely does it with a sure and decent hand. Rather it tends to be with blunderbuss subterfuge. In this sense we may not have been lucky to be involved. But remember that what drew you was probably all the inspiration from the beautiful past, a past ironically mocked by much of the current effluvia. Your website shows you understand this. You can look me up, a fellow alum, if you need some encouragement. I really wish you the best, believe me, I understand.

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