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The Catholic Church and the French Revolution

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The following essay is taken from An Outline History of the Catholic Church by Rev. Reginald F. Walker CSSP. (Gill & Son (Dublin) 1939).


How the Revolution happened may be briefly explained in the following points:

(i)The condition of the French peasantry before the eighteenth century varied. In some places they were much better off than the peasants of other lands, while in other provinces their lot was extremely hard. The people as a whole were attached to the Catholic monarchy, but there undoubtedly existed a number of social wrongs to be righted, particularly in the administration of the laws regulating the relations between the peasantry and the privileged nobility.

(ii) Between the peasantry and the nobility there existed a third social grade, the bourgeoisie or propertied middle class who exploited the grievances of the peasantry to their own advantage and were the real engineers of the Revolution. It was the old Catholic order of things which, they lyingly declared, was the parent of all the social injustice of the time and which had therefore to be ended. To achieve this purpose they worked up in Paris the mob-frenzy which carried out the Revolution.

(iii)The bourgeoisie were inspiried by the teachings of Voltaire and his fellow-scoffers nd Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These teachings were spread principally through the activities of the Masonic Lodges. The ultimate controlling force behind the French Revolution, therefore, was Freemasonry.

In 1789 at the opening of the States-General, the Freemasons boast, the great French Masonic family was in full vigour...It numbered amongst its members Condorcet, Mirabeau, Danton, Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins, Its Grand-Master was the Duke of Orleans. The reforms carried out by the Revolutionaries were based on cahiers or notebooks of suggestions sent up to Paris from the provinces. Recent research has shown that the substance of these cahiers originated in the Masonic Lodges.

In the pages which follow it will be our task to see how the wave of hatred of the Catholic Church in the French Revolution swiftly took shape, hurled itself upon its victim in an angry flood of persecution and finally ebbed sullen and exhausted, leaving the Church wounded, it is true, but gathering her energies for the glorious Catholic revival which, we shall see, heralded the opening of the nineteenth century. The Revolution may be said to have begun with the establishment of the National or Constituent Assembly (17th June, 1789). This government was succeeded by the Legislative Assembly (October, 1791), which in turn gave place to the National Convention (1792-1795). After the National Convention came the Directory and Napoleon Bonaparte who brought the French Revolution to a close (1815).

However they may have varied in other respects, the four succesive phases of the Revolution were at one in a common enmity to the Mystical Body of christ. Laws were passed which struck first at the Catholic priesthood and the religious life (the first victims of every satanic attack on the Church), private ownership and family life; the Christian calendar with its festivals, old and new, was abolished; churches and shrines were horribly profaned. Lastly, a veritable campaign of extermination was entered upon against both clergy and faithful, thousansd of whom perished together in the September Massacres of 1792 and the Reign of Terror (1793), or passed from life entombed in dungeons of death.

From all these sorrows God wrought mightily for His Church. The sympathy evoked by the sufferings of the Catholics of France, and the edification given by the exiled refugees of the Revolution to those who accorded them a welcome in other lands, led, as we shall see, to the softening of anti-Catholic feeling in England and elsewhere, and to the lifting of anti-Catholic laws. In the greater world of spiritual triumphs the Church was once more glorified in the blood of martyrs (one hundred and ninety-one victims of the September massacres were beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1926) whose sacrifices doubtless won for her much of the grace that helped to sustain her in subsequent trials.


1.The National or Constituent Assembly (1789) soon made clear to the world the real purpose of the Revolution:

  • Ecclesiastical goods were declared confiscated to the State (2nd November, 1789).
  • Religious orders of men and women were suppressed (13th February, 1790).
  • Clergy were required to accept, by oath, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (12th July, 1790), by which the entire control of ecclesiastical affairs in France was withdrawn from the Holy See.
Great numbers of the French clergy, supported by their flocks, opposed the Constitution and refused to take the oath. Some, however, were found to swear allegiance to the Civil Constitution. A number of the Constitutional clegry who took the oath were consecrated bishops by the apostate bishop Talleyrand, who thus became leader of a schismatic Gallican church. The Civil Constitution of the lcergy was, of course, condemned by Pope Pius VI (April 1791, March 17792).

2. The Legislative Assembly (1791) .- The second parliament of the Revolution- more extreme by far than the first- was not slow to shoe its hatred of the Church and her most sacred teachings:

  • Divorce was legalised.
  • Non-Constitutional clergy were declared suspect, decrees of banishment being promulgated against them in August, 1792.
  • All confraternities and charitable associations were suppressed. The remaining religious congregations devoted to hospital work and teaching were suppressed, the poor being thus deprived of education for their children and of the Christian charity of the nursing orders for their sick and infirm.

Finally, at the instigation of the infamous Danton, a war of extermination was entered upon against the Catholics. About four hundred priests and a thousand of the flower of the Catholic nobility were savagely put to death in the September Massacres (1792) in Paris alone. Similar atrocities were enacted in the provinces. Thousands of ecclesiastics were banished in poverty from France, to be received with the sympathy of Christian charity by the other nations of Europe.

Meanwhile the Legislative Assembyl worked to build the Revolution on a firm legal foundation by issuing edict after edict against private property, family life, the fair administration of justice and all that goes to maintain the Christian social order.

The National Convention (1792-1795).- The first act of the National Convention was the abolition of the monarchy and the proclamation of the Republic (September, 1792). The execution of King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, followed the year after (1793). Then came the Reign of Terror to finish the work of demolishing the old Catholic order and to establish the new Godless France.

The chief instruments of the Convention were the Committees of Public Safety and the guillotine. Armed with these dreaded weapons it proceeded to dechristianise the year by establishing a new calendar where feast days, the saints, the sbbath even, had no place. The magnificent Cathedral of Notre Dame became the Temple of Reason, a woman of evil life being sacrilegiously enthroned upon the principal altar amid an orgy of blasphemy. Thousands of priests were thrown into overcrowded prisons, many of them to die; thousands of others poured over the frontiers into exile. Churches were desecrated, utterly ruined in many places; priceless statues and paintings were destroyed, reliquaries profaned.

A series of laws was passed, directed chiefly against the Catholic priesthood, the clergy who had taken the oath of Allegiance to the Constitution being encouraged to still greater infidelity by contracting so-called marriage.

The guillotine worked so continuously that the streets of Paris, Lyons, Toulon, Nantes, and other provincial cities ran with the blood of its victims.

And yet the Catholic spirit of the real France- the eldest daughter of the Church- remained unbroken. In the western Province of La Vendee that Catholic spirit showed itself in no uncertain fashion in 1793 when the peasantry, armed with what poor weapons they could procure, but strong in the consciousness of the holiness of their cause, presented a united front against the forces of the Revolution. After a long and bloody war, during which La Vendee suffered greatly at the hands of the Revolutionaries, the heroic defenders of the faith, being guaranteed the free practice of their religion, apitulated to Bonaparte in 1799.



Although the Napoleonic era brought to a gradual ending the horrors of the Revolutionary persecution, it did not pass without inflicting its own measure of pain and sorrow on the Church. Under the Directory the persecution of priests not sworn to the Constitution, continued, many suffering death or exile. The practice of the Catholic faith remained forbidden, while stately cathedrals continued to be confiscated or destroyed. A French army entered Rome, declared Pope Pius VI deposed from his temporal sovereignity and proclaimed the Papal States a Republic. The proclamation was followed by looting and acts of blasphemous impiety on the part of the French soldiery. In spite of his four-score years, the Sovereign Pontiff was haled from the Eternal City through Italy into France, being received everywhere, however, with the greatest veneration by the faithful. He died in 1799 praying for his persecutors, a virtual captive at Valence in his ninety-second year.

By this time Napoleon had made himself virtually supreme in France and was entering upon his career of conquest in Europe. Untaught by the lessons of history, he, like many of his kind before and since, attempted to withdraw his subjects from allegiance to the worldwide spiritual power vested in the Vicar of Christ and even dared to challenge that power by laying hands on the sacred person of the Sovereign Pontiff himself. The story of the conflict and its inevitable result, may be summed up in four incidents:

  • The Question of the Concordat.
  • Napoleons Coronation.
  • The Marriage of Napoleon's brother Jerome.
  • Napoleon's attempted divorce.

The Concordat.- Napoleon had not long set his hand to the task of restoring order in France when he realised that the Churchs aid was indispensable to him. Shortly after his election as First Consul, therefore, he opened up with Pope Pius VII, negotions which led to a Concordat between France and the Holy See, concluded in 1802. By the terms of the Concordat: the public practice of the Catholic religion was to be once more made legal in France. some restitution was to be made for the havoc wrought by the Revolution on ecclesiastical property; proper ecclesiastical government was to be restored. The First Consul, however, was to nominate the bishops. To make the agreement acceptable to the French legislative body Napoleon added to the Concordat a series of 77 decrees known as the Organic Articles which would give the French State full control over all relations between the church in France and the Holy See. These Articles were never accepted by the Pope and were naturally a source of continual trial to the Church in subsequent years.

The general tenor of the Organic Articles may be summarised in three points:

  • Government permission was to be required for thepublication of all Papal Bulls, for the holding of councils, for ordinations and for exercise of the powers of Papal Delegates.
  • The Gallican Articles of 1682 were to be taught in the schools of theology, and clergy violating the so-called Gallican Liberties were to be dealt with by the State.
  • Other minor but vexatious restrictions on the freedom of the Church in France.

The Concordat, granting as it did to the State a certain degree of control over ecclesiastical affairs, was a measure tolerated only by the Church, in the interests of her sacred charge of souls and to avoid greater evils. Yet it was not unattended by profitable results. In the first place, it served to show forth to the world the undimmed glory of the Primacy when the Pope deposed some French bishops who refused to accept it. Secondly, the public restoration of Catholic worship (Easter Sunday, 18th April, 1802), occassioned a great renewal of spiritual fervour all over France- a renewal strengthened by the Jubilee granted by Pope Pius VII to celebrate the joyous occasion. Churche, seminaries and schools were reopened or rebuilt; priests and religious resumed their work in the classroom, the hospital and the prison, to some extent at least the faith came back to its proper place in the life of the nation.

The more noteworthy of the difficulties arising out of the Concordat were two:

(a) The reorganisation of the dioceses and the exercise of the First Consuls power to nominate bishops made necessary the retirement of a large number of French prelates. Whilst many submitted loyally there were many others who held out against the Holy See. These were formally deposed by Papal Bull. Some few, however, persisted in refusing their submission and formed a schismatic group- known as the Petite Eglise (Little Church)- which died out about 1852.

(b)Napoleons nomination of several Constitutional bishops created a further deadlock with the Holy See, which only consented to thenomination when the bishops in wuestion had made a submission.

(ii) Napoleon's Coronation.- Meanwhile Napoleons ambition mounted towards its yenith. Proclaimed Emperor on the 8th May, 1804, and wishing to strengthen his new position by the pomp of religion, he invited Pope Pius VII to preside at the Coronation ceremony in Notre Dame. He had brought all the influence he could command to secure the Popes consent, and accordingly the Sovereign Pontiff set out for Paris declaring that he felt it would be good for religion, and protesting that he had the glory of God and the good of souls solely at heart. Greeted everywhere by the faithful with reverent enthusiasm, the Holy Father was received by Napoleon with studied coldness: finally, when the actual moment arrived for the Coronation it was Napoleon who, with his own hands, crowned himself and his consort Josephine. The Pope accordingly returned to Rome in May, 1805, without having secured the restoration of the Churchs rights for which he had patiently suffered the slights of the Emperor. He was amply compensated, however, by the demonstrations of the loyalty of the faithful and by the complete submission of the few remaining bishops who had refused to accept the Concordat.

The Marriage of Napoleon's brother Jerome.- The third clash between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII concerned the marriage of the emperors brother Jerome. Desiring to have th emarriage dissolved Napoleon submitted the case to the Holy See. The Pope after a careful examination of the matter, pronounced the marriage valid and therefore indissoluble. The dicision coupled with the Popes refusal to co-operate in the Continental System (the exclusion of England from European trade) angered the Emperor. In May, 1809, the Papal States were seized by French troops and annexed to the French Empire. The excommunication of Napoleon which followed took little effect: in July, 1809, the Holy Father was taken prisoner and hurried to virtual captivity at Savona, the main body of cardinals being brought to Paris.

4. Napoleon's Attempted Divorce.- By this time a fourth crisis had arisen. Napoleon now wished to obtain a dissolution of his own marriage with the Empress Josephine (on the grounds that the officiating priest had had no jurisdiction) and, unwilling to approach the Pope in the matter, submitted his case to the diocesan authorities in Paris. While these inclined to the opinion that the marriage was null and void, the Cardinals of the Roman Court, now held by Napoleon at Paris, were divided, many holding that the Pope alone could pronounce judgment. These, absenting themselves from the EmperorS attempted second marriage (with the Arch-Duchess Marie-Louise of Austria) were deprived of their revenues by Napoleon, forbidden to wear Cardinals dress and expelled from Paris.

Meanwhile, a captive at Savona, Pope Pius VII had been asked for the usual canonical institution for some new bishops. The Pope naturally refused on the grounds that he was not free to make the necessary enquiries. Napoleon forthwith called a National Ecclesiastical Council (1811) which was brow-beaten into issuing a decree which, invalidly of course, took the matter of canonical institution out of the Popes hands. The Emperor, now at the height of his power and intoxicated with pride, further desired the Sovereign Pontiff, among other things,

  • to renounce the temporal power;
  • to desist from condemning the Gallican Articles of 1682;
  • to reside in France under Napoleon's authority.

In 1812 the Pope was brought from Savona, where he had been captive, to Fontainebleau; there, after considerable pressure had been brought to bear upon him, the aged Pius VII signed the Twelve Preliminary Articles of the Concordat of Fontainebleau, renouncing his temporal power and his right to give canonical institution to the French bishops. Shortly afterwards, recovered from his moment of weakness and counselled by his Cardinals, the Pontiff revoked his decision and declared the Articles void.

By this time Napoleon was too fully occupied defending himself against the rest of Europe to press the matter, and Pope Pius VII was released by an imperial decree of March, 1814. A month later (April) Napoleon, beaten on all fronts, signed his abdication in the very castle of Fantainebleau where he had shortly before held the Pope a prisoner. (*) In May of the same year the Pope re-entered Rome in triumph. Napoleon, armed with a political genius and a military strength before which all Europe stood amazed and trembling, had pitted himself against the spiritual authority of the Holy See in the meek person of Pope Pius VII and had fallen. Once again the world had beheld the spectacle of temporal power dashing itself against the Rock of Peter only to be itself crushed and broken.

(*) This is not the only incident in which the hand of Providence can be discerned in Napoleons downfall. "What does the Pope mean," Napoleon had said in 1807, "by the threat of excommunicating me? Does he think the world has gone back a thousand years? Does he suppose the arms will fall from the hands of my soldiers?" Napoleon was excomunicated in 1809. Four years later, the arms were literally torn from the grasp of his soldiers by famine and cold in the terrible retreat from Moscow. (Alison, History of Europe, Ch. 60)


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Further Reading:

Freemasonry in France, Belgium (E.U.), Monaco and French Africa