by Lee White


     During the French Revolution, the National Assembly attempted to enact several religious reforms in order to subjugate the Catholic Church. The passage of these acts was a catastrophe for both the Church and the revolutionary government. A schism in the Church resulted due to the government's actions. Furthermore, the Assembly was forced to pass other decrees that addressed the problems created by the division in the Church.

     In the eighteenth century, philosophes such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire began to question the Catholic faith. These thinkers considered religious beliefs to be mere superstition because reason could not prove the existence of God.(1) They also emphasized the subordination of the Church to the state and its independence from papal authority.(2) Ultimately, these beliefs influenced the Assembly.

     The legislators demanded religious reform, but they were ignorant of religious life. Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, described the Assembly as

Whenever the supreme authority is invested in a body so composed, it must evidently produce the consequences of supreme authority placed in the hands of men not taught habitually to respect themselves; who had no previous fortune in character at stake; who could not be expected to bear with moderation, or to conduct with discretion, a power which they themselves, more than any others, must be surprized [sic] to find in their hands.(3)

The Assembly did not understand its power. They did not realize that the clergy did not want to be removed from papal authority only to be subjugated by the state.(4) Nonetheless, the members of the Assembly believed change could only be beneficial.(5) This assumption created heavy consequences for the Church and the revolutionary government when religious reforms were instituted.

     The Assembly had sole authority over reconstructing the Church when Louis XVI renounced his claim to power.(6) This body contained a majority of Catholics, but, for many, Catholicism was merely a matter of conformity without conviction.(7) Two contradictory ideas dominated the Assembly: individual rights and the sovereign state. On August 23,1789, the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen" became law. One provision of this act gave Protestants and Jews the right to worship as they saw fit.(8) In this respect, the Assembly granted individual liberty. Other religious reforms passed, however, made the state sovereign. The Assembly's paradoxical efforts would eventually lead to a schism in the Church.

     The first signs of the unfolding of a schism originated with the "August 4th Decrees," which were enacted on August 4-11, 1789. These acts were the first instituted among religious reforms which would eventually make the state supreme over the Church. Tithes were abolished and maintenance of the Church was provided by the state under these laws.(9) However, now that tithes were eliminated, the Assembly would have to think of a way to make money in order to survive economically.

     The nationalization of church lands contributed to the schism and intensified France's economic difficulties. According to the Assembly, the sale of Church lands was the only way to solve the financial problems. The old debt was 3,119,000,000 milliard francs, which was increased by 1,149,000,000 milliard francs to redeem the debt of the clergy.(10) Moreover, the maintenance of public worship, which was the state's responsibility since the abolition of tithes, was 70,000,000 milliard francs.(11) The Assembly thought that even if it took on the debt of the clergy, the sale of church lands would save France. The enormous debt was not the only reason to nationalize the church lands. The cahiers did not like the taxes of the old regime, and many peasants believed that the Revolution meant no more taxes.(12) The lack of taxes resulted in an increasing deficit which created a predicament for the Assembly.

     Finance Minister Jacques Necker was extremely upset about the deficit. As early as August 7, 1789, Necker asked for patriotic contributions. Parisian women donated jewelry, one man gave a forest, and some people contributed shoebuckles.(13) These gifts did not solve the national debt. Thomas Carlyle stated 'The Clergy must be 'invited' to melt their superfluous churchplate-in the royal mint."(14)

     The extent of land that the Church owned was impressive. The regular clergy (those who took monastic vows and lived according to strict rules in religious houses) owned a quarter of the land in Paris.(15) By 1789, the Church had become the principal landowner in the country. Although the Church was the chief landowner in France, the land was utilized. The Church had the duty to provide social services and education. Each great town had its own charitable foundation while little towns had smaller institutions.(16)

     Bishop Charles Talleyrand, a member of the Assembly, formally proposed that the Church's property be used for the payment of the debt. He claimed that the property had not been given to the clergy, but to the whole nation.(17) Talleyrand looked for property that was not sacred and was not protected by the guaranty of property afforded the individual by the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen."(18)

     Two bishops in the Assembly claimed that the property had not been given to the clergy as a group. Instead, it was given to the people of France, which would be an act of injustice to seize.(19) The members of the Assembly, nonetheless, voted 508-346 to use the Church lands, valued at 3,000,000,000 milliard francs, as security for the state debts.(20)

     The "Decree Confiscating Church Property," passed on November 2, 1789, disposed ecclesiastical property to the nation upon the condition that the government provide "in a suitable manner" the expenses of worship, the maintenance of ministers, and the relief of the poor.(21 ) There would be some time before the actual confiscation took place. When it did, the revolutionary government would acquire additional financial problems.(22)

     The sale of land would require the establishment of some means of assessing the value of the land. Necessity soon forced the Assembly to place some of the lands on sale earlier than expected.(23) To expedite the process, the Assembly issued a decree on December 19, 1789, whereby the security of church lands was used as a basis for the issue of assignats.(24) The assignats did not bring the anticipated results. To stimulate sales, they were transformed into legal tender by the "Decree on Assignats," which was instituted on April 17. 1790.(25) This was the Assembly's worst mistake, because holders of the assignats spent the paper money on other merchandise instead buying land. By 1791, France had a larger debt than in 1789.(26)

     The assignats created many problems. Gouverneur Morris, the United States Ambassador to France, warned before they were issued, "The policy of assignats will have fatal consequences. The paper money will depreciate contrary to other opinions."(27) There were also a great number of false assignats which caused inflation.(28) Necker was extremely embarrassed and believed that bankruptcy would result because of the failure of the assignats.(29 ) After the failure of the assignats, the Assembly still proceeded to subjugate the Church.

     The "Decree Prohibiting Monastic Vows in France" was enacted on February 13, 1790. Under this act the state no longer recognized solemn monastic vows.(30) Individuals in monasteries were allowed to leave and were provided with a pension.(31) Many monks left the monasteries to avoid future problems,(32) and, in general, there was no extensive protest against the Assembly.(33)

     The enactment of the "Civil Constitution of the Clergy," on July 12, 1790, created a major protest and made the schism almost complete. The "Civil Constitution" completely upset the Church's administrative organization, both by circumscribing the spiritual authority and by making the bishops dependent upon popular vote.(34) The "Grant of Religious Liberty to Protestants" law, which was enacted on December 24,1789, did not help matters. This act allowed non-Catholics who fulfilled the necessary requirements to be elected to all governmental offices.(35) Since the "Civil Constitution" made bishops governmental employees, a Protestant theoretically could become a bishop.

     Another aspect of the "Civil Constitution" which divided the clergy was that only constitutional churches would be recognized.(36) This provision gave rise to clashes. The Assembly insisted that the clergy were behind the conflicts. In an effort to silence the clergy, the Assembly passed on November 27,1790, the "Decree Requiring the Clerical Oath," which required that all clergy take an oath of loyalty to the "Civil Constitution."(37) This oath prohibited non-juring clergy (those who did not take the oath) from participating in any public ceremony.(38) At this time marriages and baptisms were public ceremonies. If this decree were taken literally, all refractory priests would have to stop their functions immediately. The Assembly, fearing that chaos would result from this act, allowed non-juring clergy to perform their functions until they could be replaced. But a majority of the refractory priests were not replaced until August 10, 1792.(39)

     At first, the government refused to recognize that a schism had occurred. Gradually, the Assembly was forced to admit what was only too evident: religious war had broken out in France. Devout believers were incensed that their bishops and priests would be replaced. Constitutional clergy (those who took the oath) were regarded as intruders who could only perform their functions with the support of the National Guard.(40) Families were divided against themselves. Ordinarily, women went to mass given by the non-juring clergy, while men went to mass given by the constitutional clergy.(41) The constitutional clergy prevented refractory clergy from using church buildings for the purpose of mass,(42) yet the non-juring clergy had every right to perform their duties, one of which was mass, because after all, the state allowed them to perform their duties until they were replaced.

     The oath did not bring the results anticipated. Bishops who were members of the Assembly were supposed to take the oath by January 4,1791, at the latest. Of 49 bishops in the Assembly, only two embraced the oath,(43) and only five other bishops accepted the oath in France.(44) Barely one-third of the parish priests took the oath.(45) When the process of electing bishops was tried for the first time, the winner could not find a bishop to consecrate him because only seven bishops took the oath.(46) Of the seven bishops who took the oath, only Talleyrand could consecrate because the other six were either unpopular or refused to consecrate.(47) The failure of the oath led to the refractory priests performing their duties longer than expected.

     On April 13, 1791, Pope Pius VI denounced the "Civil Constitution" and the oath in his bull "Charitas,"(48) which proved that a schism had resulted.(49) The Pope condemned clergymen who had taken the oath and claimed that the election of bishops was void.(50) To counter the Pope's bull, the Assembly passed the "Decree Restricting the Publication of Papal Documents in France" on June 9, 1791. This decree stated that all bulls were null in France.(51) The non-juring clergy were determined to practice their faith even though the Pope's authority had been suppressed in France. As a result, the Assembly was forced to pass other decrees that addressed the problems of the schism.

     On November 29, 1791, the Assembly passed the "Decree Upon Non-Juring Clergy." This act required all ecclesiastics who had not taken the oath to do so because the constitution secured the non-juring clergy's religious beliefs. Furthermore, by not recognizing the law, the non-juring clergy voluntarily renounced the advantages which that law alone guaranteed.(52) The act also decreed that those who refused to take the oath would be under surveillance by the authorities and possibly punished.(53) This decree attempted to get the non-juring clergy to support the constitution or face the consequences. The Assembly's efforts did not work.

     The Assembly then insisted that the non-juring clergy were devoting themselves to overthrowing the constitution.(54) The refractory clergy were compromising the public safety, therefore, they must be deported. The "Decree for Deportation of Non-Juring Priests" was instituted on May 27, 1792. It decreed 'That when 20 active citizens of [the] same canton ask for deportation of non-juring clergy the department directory will pronounce the deportation if the district directory agrees with the petition."(55)

     It also stated that non-juring clergy who were deported and returned to France would be put in jail for 10 years.(56) These terms would not solve the problem of the non-juring clergy.

     The Assembly became frustrated and passed the "Decree Upon Non-Juring Priests" on April 23, 1793. This act was extremely harsh against the non-juring clergy. It stated that all clergy who did not take the oath would be deported to French Guiana without delay, and, if the clergy returned to France, they would be killed within 24 hours.(57) This decree still did not solve the problem; thus, the Assembly was forced to pass another act.

     The "Decree Upon Dangerous Priests" was instituted on October 20-21, 1793. This act declared that priests subject to deportation who had taken up arms would be put to death within 24 hours.(58) Another provision of the decree was that every citizen who concealed a priest would be killed.(59) This act was a failure just like the other non-juring clergy decrees.

     Finally, the government took the first step toward establishing new relations with the Church. The "Decree Upon Religious Freedom" was enacted on December 8, 1793. It stated, "The Convention invites all good citizens, in the name of the fatherland, to abstain from all disputes that are theological...."(60)

     Next, the government passed the "Decree for Establishing the Worship of the Supreme Being" on May 7, 1794. This act recognized the existence of a higher being and asserted that it is man's duty to worship this being.(61) It called for festivals to be instituted to remind man of the Supreme Being.(62)

     Although steps were being taken to end the schism, some members of the Assembly wanted to punish those who created false assignats so the "Decree Upon Assignats" was passed on May 10, 1794. Those who created false paper money were sentenced to death.(63) This, however, only served as revenge because France's financial difficulties were not solved.

     France's financial difficulties were relieved somewhat when the "Decree Upon Expenditures for Religion" was enacted on September 18, 1794. It simply decreed that the "French Republic no longer pays the expenses or salaries of any sect."(64) Nevertheless, the state would remain in control over the Church despite this decree.

     The "Decree Upon Religion" was instituted on February 21, 1795. This act decreed that worship services would be under surveillance for security reasons and that no religious symbols could be put on any buildings, including sanctuaries.(65) This act did not give the Church any freedom, rather it displayed that the state was suspicious of the Church.

     The government proceeded to return the church buildings in the "Decree for Restoring Church Buildings," which was enacted on May 30, 1795. This act showed that the state remained wary of the Church. Under this decree, Church services would still be under surveillance, and permission would have to be obtained to hold worship services.(66)

     The final act which attempted to correct the problem of the schism was the "Organic Act Upon Religion" which was instituted on September 29, 1795. This decree guaranteed the free exercise of every worship.(67) The last provision of this act demonstrated that the members of the legislature did not accept that they had made a mistake. It stated "If a minister of worship claims that the sale of church lands was criminal he will be imprisoned for 2 years and fined 1,000 livres."(68) The schism would not be resolved until the Concordat of 1801 when Napoleon Bonaparte made peace with the French Catholic Church.

     The attempted subjugation of the Church by the Assembly was doomed to failure because, as Burke put it, "Who could doubt but that, at any expence [sic] to the state, of which they understand nothing, they must pursue their private interests, which they understood but too well? It was not an event depending on chance or contingency. It was inevitable."(69)

     The members of the Assembly had too much power and no knowledge about its use. Ultimately, this corrupted the legislators. The government had no right to subjugate the Church simply because the state could not afford to be a charitable organization like God commanded the Church to be. The state is a necessary evil and nothing more. Today, society can learn a great deal from the study of religious reforms during the French Revolution. When government forces its way into a matter over which it has little or no control, the result is always failure.




1. Adrien Dansette, Religious History of Modern France, Vol. 1, From the Revolution to the Third Republic (New York: Herder and Herder, 1961), 5.

2. Leo Gershoy, The French Revolution and Napoleon (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1973), 164.

3. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1973), 55.

4. Ibid., 167.

5. Daniel Hailes, "Despatches From the British Embassy," in French Revolution Documents, Vol. 1, ed. J.M. Roberts and R.C. Cobb (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966), 25.

6. Dansette, Religious History of Modern France: 50.

7. Ibid.

8. "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen," in A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution. ed. John Hall Stewart (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1951), 113.

9. "August 4th Decrees," in ibid., 107.

10. Albert Mathiez, The French Revolution, trans. Catherine Allison Phillips (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1964), 95.

11. Ibid.

12. lbid.

13. Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution: A History, Vol. 1 (Chicago: Donohue, Henneberry and Co., n.d.), 324.

14. Ibid.

15. Dansette, Religious History of Modern France: 7.

16. Ibid., 9.

17. Mathiez, French Revolution. 97.

18. Crane Brinton, A Decade of Revolution 1789-1799 The Rise of Modern Europe, ed. William L Langer (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1963), 47.

19. Mathiez, French Revolution, 97.

20. Ibid., 98.

21. Decree Confiscating Church Property," in A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution, 158.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid., 157.

24. Ibid.

25. "Decree on Assignats," in ibid., 160.

26. Ibid., 158.

27. Gouverneur Morris, A Diary of the French Revolution, Vol. 1, ed. Beatrix Cary Davenport (1939; reprint, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1972), 372.

28. Earl Gower, The Despatches of Earl Gower, ed. Oscar Browning (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1885), 12.

29. Lord Dorset, "Deadlock," in English Witnesses of the French Revolution, ed. J.M. Thompson (1938; reprint, Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1970), 34.

30. "Decree Prohibiting Monastic Vows In France," in A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution, 168.

31. Ibid., 168.

32. George Duruy, Memoirs of Barras. trans. C.E. Roche (New York: Harper and Brothers Franklin Square, 1895), 70.

33. "Decree Prohibiting Monastic Vows in France," in A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution, 168.

34. M. Guizot and Madame Guizot De Witt, France, Vol. 6, trans. Robert Black (New York: Peter Fenelon CollIer, 1878), 45.

35. "Grant of Religious Liberty to Protestants" in A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution, 168.

36. "Civil Constitution of the Clergy," in ibid., 171.

37. "Decree Requiring the Clerical Oath," in ibid., 181.

38. Ibid.

39. Mathiez, French Revolution, 114.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid., 115.

42. Ibid.

43. Dansette, Religious History of Modern France, 58.

44. Georges Lefebvre, The French Revolution: From Its Origins to 1793 Vol. 1, trans. Elizabeth Moss Evanson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), 170.

45. Dansette, Religious History of Modern France: 58.

46. Ibid., 57.

47. lbid., 61.

48. "Charitas," in A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution. 186.

49. Lord Gower, "The Pope," in English Witnesses of the French Revolution, 116.

50. Ibid.

51. "Decree Restricting the Publication of Papal Documents in France" in A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution 189.

52. "Decree Upon Non-Juring Clergy," in The Constitutions and Other Select Documents Illustrative of the History of France 1789-1907, ed. Frank Maloy Anderson (1908; reprint, New York: Russell and Russell, 1967), 99.

53. Ibid., 101.

54. Ibid., 105.

55. Ibid.

56. Ibid., 106.

57. Ibid., 135.

58. Ibid.

59. Ibid., 137.

60. "Decree Upon Religious Freedom," in ibid., 137.

61. "Decree for Establishing the Worship of the Supreme Being," in ibid., 137.

62. Ibid., 138.

63. "Decree Upon Assignats," in ibid., 205.

64. "Decree Upon Expenditures for Religion," in ibid., 139.

65. Ibid.

66. Ibid., 140.

67. Ibid., 142.

68. Ibid., 145.

69. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 55.