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"Disaffectation" of a church, Jacques François Joseph Swebach-Desfontaines, 1794.

“Disaffectation” of a church by Jacques François Joseph Swebach-Desfontaines, 1794 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Portrait de Talleyrand (1758–1823)  Pierre-Paul Prud'hon , 1817

Portrait de Talleyrand 
Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, 1817 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord

As I pointed out in my post dated 2 May 2014, the downfall of the Church of France during the French Revolution did not always stem from evil intentions. I am not about to suggest that Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, (1754–1838)[i], a priest, a bishop—l’Évêque d’Autun—and a delegate of the Church to the Estates-General, acted naively when, on 10 October 1789, he proposed that France confiscate the wealth of its very wealthy Church. France was facing bankruptcy, but that could be avoided by tapping into the vaults of its affluent First Estate: the clergy.

Talleyrand’s suggestion to confiscate the wealth of the Church may have been a stop-gap measure, but it was the “idée lumineuse,” the bright idea, that constitutes the first step in a process that would lead to the dechristianisation of the budding French Republic, founded on 22 September 1792.

But Talleyrand also proposed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (12 July 1790) empowering the State. It was the instrument used to destroy the Church of France. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy subjugated the Church to the State and is part of the very long debate concerning the respective power of Church and State in the government of a nation. It could be that Talleyrand did not plan the destruction of the Church of France, but he nevertheless set it in motion. He was excommunicated by Pope Pius VI in 1791 and, ten years later, Pope Pius VII, Pius VI’s successor would laicise Talleyrand.

The fact remains, however, that in the early years of the French Revolution, it would have been very difficult to predict that France would execute its king and his wife as well as thousands of its citizens, many of whom were priests and cloistered nuns. I can’t help thinking of Francis Poulenc‘s opera Dialogues des Carmélites (1956), based on a draft by Georges Bernanos. These nuns did not want to abjure their vows and were guillotined. No one could have imagined the Reign of Terror. But we do know that Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Talleyrand, was an opportunist who craved the comforts wealth brought. He was given 5,000 pounds for his involvement in the confiscation of the wealth of the Church.[ii] Talleyrand loved the luxuries money can buy, but he remains otherwise the extremely enigmatic figure, a “Man with Six Heads,” depicted below in a caricature, a coloured etching

Suffice it to say that he served:

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, caricature, "Floating with the Tide"

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, caricature, “Floating with the Tide” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Popular colored etching, verging on caricature, published by Décrouant, early 19th century: La famille royale et les alliées s'occupant du bonheur de l'Europe (The Royal Family and the Allies concerned with the Happiness of Europe)

Popular colored etching, verging on caricature, published by Décrouant, early 19th century: La famille royale et les alliées s’occupant du bonheur de l’Europe (The Royal Family and the Allies concerned with the Happiness of Europe) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “Programme”

We are already familiar with the “programme,” with the possible exception of the final demand: requesting that the Clergy pledge an oath of allegiance to the constitution (no. 5, below).

The programme was as follows:

  1. confiscation of Church lands, which were to be the security for the new Assignat currency
  2. removal of statues, plates and other iconography from places of worship
  3. destruction of crosses, bells and other external signs of worship
  4. the institution of revolutionary and civic cults, including the Cult of Reason and subsequently the Cult of the Supreme Being,
  5. the enactment of a law on October 21, 1793 making all nonjuring priests and all persons who harboured them liable to death on sight.

Once again I am quoting Wikipedia, but we will focus of number 5, the oath of allegiance demanded of the Clergy. The Church of France was divided between jurors and non-jurors, or clergy willing to pledge loyalty to the Constitution and clergy opposing this request. No, it had nothing to do with the separation of State and Church, achieved in 1905. (See Dechristianization of France during the French Revolution, Wikipedia.)

In this caricature, after the decree of 16 February 1790, monks and nuns enjoy their new freedom

In this caricature, after the decree of 16 February 1790, monks and nuns enjoy their new freedom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Clergy: Jurors and Non-jurors

Mental Assent
Schism in the Church of France
Previous vilification of the Church

The thorniest part of the programme was the oath to the Constitution imposed on the clergy. European monarchies were willing to fight the French Revolutionary Army (1792-1802) as the French Revolution was a threat to all monarchies. Consequently, they were acting in their own best interest. As we know, many émigrés, Chateaubriand among them, joined counter-revolutionary forces. However, if monarchies were alarmed, the Church was and was not. In the eyes of Pope Pius VI, accepting that the French swore loyalty to the State was unacceptable. Theoretically, he was right. Swearing allegiance to the State made the Church subservient to the State. Yet, it may have lessened the revolutionaries’ anti-clerical zeal and avoided unnecessary bloodshed. We cannot know.

“Under threat of death, imprisonment, military conscription, and loss of income, about twenty thousand constitutional priests were forced to abdicate and hand over their letters of ordination, and six thousand to nine thousand of them were coerced to marry. Many abandoned their pastoral duties altogether. Nonetheless, some of those who had abdicated continued covertly to minister to the people.” (See Dechristianization of France during the French Revolution, Wikipedia.)

Among prelates in the Church of France, some favoured mental assent, which consists in saying one thing, but thinking another. Mental assent is of course extremely hypocritical, not to say an ignominy, but for a Church facing annihilation, it may have appeared the only salvation. Most French prelates opposed the pledge to the State and paid the price. But would mental assent have saved the Church of France? The very idea created a schism within the Church of France.  

At any rate, when Cardinal Étienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne (9 October 1727 – 16 February 1794)[iii] and Louis XVI himself wrote to Pope Pius VI, asking for guidance and some leeway, Pope Pius VI would not bend, so King Louis XVI, who had waited as long as he could, ended up signing the oath into law. As for Cardinal Loménie de Brienne, he became a “juror.” 

Pope Pius VI (reigned 1775–99) denounced the Civil Constitution in 1791, and Catholic France was divided between adherents of the papal system and proponents of the new order.”[iv] 

It is unlikely that Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand knew, or wanted to know, the consequences of his suggestions; he was a survivor and he was making money. Philippe Égalité, on the other hand, Louis XVI’s cousin, but a member of the Jacobin Club and a Grand Master of the Masonic Grand Orient de France from 1771–1793, was guillotined on 6 November 1793. Philippe Égalité never anticipated the Reign of Terror.

At any rate, no one attempted to rescue the Church, with the exception of the Vendéans. In fact, the Church of France had been vilified for hundreds of yearsNivardus of Ghent‘s Ysengrimus(1149), the birthplace of Reinardus, the fox, or Reynard the Fox, long fabliaux that ridicules the clergy as was the case in shorter Frenchfabliaux.  There was considerable anti-clericalism in France and this state of affairs worsened during the Enlightenment. In the case of the French Revolution, State crushed Church.

“The Catholic Church may have been the church of the majority of the French people, but its wealth and perceived abuses meant that it did not always have their trust.”[iv] 


Thermidor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Dechristianization of the Church of France

The Church was victimized to an extreme degree ranging from several drownings in the Vendée, cruel and deadly detention, forced marriages, death by guillotine, public spankings to humiliate nuns working at l’Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, demeaning caricatures. When their vows were nullified, monks and nuns did not rejoice as is suggested in a caricature displayed above. (See Civil Constitution of the Clergy, Wikipedia)

Why would revolutionaries execute Carmelites (nuns) who had refused to renounce their vows? (See The Martyrs of Compiègne, Wikipedia.)  In fact, Wikipedia tells the whole story. The programme of dechristianisation included the deportation and execution of the clergy, priests, monks and nuns being forced to abjure their vows, the closing down of church (désaffectation), the removal of the word “saint” from street names, the War in the Vendée.

Three Church bishops and two hundred priests were massacred by angry mobs.” (See September Massacres, Wikipedia)

“Priests were among those drowned (noyades) in mass executions for treason under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Carrier; priests and nuns were among the mass executions at Lyons, for separatism, on the orders of Joseph Fouché and Collot d’Herbois. Hundreds more priests were imprisoned and made to suffer in abominable conditions in the port of Rochefort.” (See Dechristianization of France during the French RevolutionWikipedia.)

As for “jurors:”

“By the end of the decade, approximately thirty thousand priests had been forced to leave France, and others who did not leave were executed. Most French parishes were left without the services of a priest and deprived of the sacraments. Any non-juring priest faced the guillotine or deportation to French Guiana. By Easter 1794, few of France’s forty thousand churches remained open; many had been closed, sold, destroyed, or converted to other uses.” (See Dechristianization of France during the French Revolution, Wikipedia.)

Napoleon’s victory and the Pope’s Captivity

Ironically, Bonaparte attacked the future Italian lands and defeated the territory he attacked. Consequently Pope Pius VI died in captivity.

“The ultimate humiliation of the church took place in 1798 when Pius VI was driven out of Rome by French armies; in the following year he was taken captive and dragged back to France, where he died. As papal prestige sank to depths it had not reached since the crises of the 14th century, some critics called for abolishing the office altogether.”[v] (Britannica)

Allégorie du Concordat

Allégorie du Concordat de 1801, Pierre Joseph Célestin François (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Concordat of 1801

The Thermidorian Reaction (1794): repeal of the Civil Constitution of the Church (1791)
The Concordat

As mentioned in an earlier post, the “Concordat of 1801 was an agreement between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII, Pius VI’s immediate successor, signed on 15 July 1801. It solidified the Roman Catholic Church as the majority church of France and brought back most of its civil status.” Despite widespread anti-clericalism, France had been a Catholic nation. (See Concordat of 1801 [sometimes dated 1802], Wikipedia.) (Britannica)[vi]

The Concordat was also:

  • A declaration that “Catholicism was the religion of the great majority of the French” but not the official state religion, thus maintaining religious freedom, in particular with respect to Protestants and Jews. However, Metz resisted. Jews were scorned. See The Concordat of 1801, Wikipedia.

Finally, the Concordat stipulated that:

  • The Papacy had the right to depose bishops, but this made little difference, because the French government still nominated them.
  • The state would pay clerical salaries and the clergy swore an oath of allegiance to the state.
  • The Catholic Church gave up all its claims to Church lands that were confiscated after 1790.
  • The Sabbath was reestablished as a “festival[,]” effective Easter Sunday, 18 April 1802.
  • The rest of the French Republican Calendar, which had been abolished, was not replaced by the traditional Gregorian Calendar until 1 January 1806.
French Republican Calendar of 1794, drawn by Philibert-Louis Debucourt

French Republican Calendar of 1794, drawn by Philibert-Louis Debucourt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The programme of dechristianisation included the deportation and execution of the clergy, priests, monks and nuns being forced to abjure their vows, the closing down of church, the removal of the word “saint” from street names, the War in the Vendée. It was petty. It was cruel. And it made no sense. “The climax was reached with the celebration of the goddess Reason in Notre-Dame Cathedral on 10 November [1793].” Obvious worship was forbidden in the name of laïcité.

Celebrating the goddess Reason was not laïcité; it was public worship of a goddess and, consequently, the opposite of laïcité. Which is where I will close this post.

I will list related articles in another post.


Sources and Resources


[i] “Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, prince de Bénévent.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 05 May. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/581601/Charles-Maurice-de-Talleyrand-prince-de-Benevent>.

[ii] André Castelot, Talleyrand ou le cynisme (Paris: Librairie académique Perrin, 1980), p. 65.

[iii] Loménie de Brienne was arrested in 1794 and died that very night of natural causes or poisoned. However his brother, Louis-Marie-Athanase de Loménie, comte de Brienne (1730-1794), was guillotined on 10 May 1794, on the same day Madame Élisabeth, Louis XVI’s sister, was guillotined.

[iv] “Gemma Betros examines the problems the Revolution posed for religion, and that religion posed for the Revolution.” History Today. Published in History Review (2010). 

[v] “Roman Catholicism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 05 May. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/507284/Roman-Catholicism>. 

[vi] “Concordat of 1801.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 04 May. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/181059/Concordat-of-1801>.

Francis Poulenc (7 January 1899 – 30 January 1963)
Francis Poulenc, pianist
Temple of Reason, Strasbourg, 1793-1794

Temple of Reason, Strasbourg, 1793-1794 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

© Micheline Walker
5 May 2014