A Reflection on the French Revolution and the Struggle for Religious Liberty

There are many reasons to turn to the history of the Church in order to better understand contemporary situations. Being an institution nearly 2000 years old, and spread throughout the world, the Church has had a wealth of experience and, given human nature, has encountered many difficult situations in the past that can serve as guides for today.

One of the key issues that we face in the contemporary world is the “dictatorship of relativism,” especially where we see the rights of our Catholic consciences being rolled back in the name of science, progress, or any other buzzword employed to contradict our support of moral and natural law, as well as revealed truth.

During the French Revolution the Church also came under serious attack from the state. While it is true that there were many contextual reasons for this, nonetheless the tactics of those who attacked the Church, as well as the response of many in the Church, still remain very relevant today.

The sketch by David shown here demonstrates one of the key moments that launched the French Revolution: the “Tennis Court Oath.” The members of the Third Estate — representing the majority of middle and lower class French — had refused a royal order to disband, and had taken to meeting on a tennis court at the palace of Versailles. While they refused to disperse, they also knew that they did not have the political legitimacy to continue on their own.

In the name of liberty and fraternity, as well as wishing to go along with the “signs of the times,” the lower clergy defected from the First Estate and joined what became known as the National Assembly, thus granting it political legitimacy as representing the broad swath of the French population.

One can see this in the handshake of the friar with a member of the third estate at the bottom of the scene: the fatal compromise. It is certain that the priests who joined with the National Assembly could have had no idea that they had granted authority to the body which was to wage a bloody and brutal campaign to destroy the Church in France.

One thinks today of those Catholics who give political cover to anti-life, anti-religious liberty forces. The – sometimes innocent — compromise with such powers has led to awful results in the past. It is one of the ironies of history that the parish priests saved the Revolution, which would later consume many of them.

Almost immediately the character of the Revolution began to make itself felt.  In the first place the “useless” must be done away with in the name of fraternity. Monastic vows and orders were banned, and many were forced to leave the cloisters to which they had dedicated their lives.

It was astonishing to these prophets of “freedom” that few monks or nuns considered their lives useless, and many refused to disband. The pragmatic vision of the modern world has always been at war with the “useless” in society, in opposition to the Church, which has ever maintained that “utility” is not the criterion for the value of human life.

Of particular concern for the revolution was France’s debt. They were desperate to find new sources of revenue. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, the brilliant but traitorous bishop of Autun, came up with a plan. He would seize the property of the Church, and print new French bonds backed by Church lands. The clergy, deprived of their livings, would receive a stipend from the state, becoming wards and functionaries of the revolutionary government, an action intended to seem generous.

Several consequences followed. Whenever there has been seizure of Church lands it was the poor and sick who suffered the most. There was a further problem for the French government.

Now that they had seized the property, what could be done with it? What is the market value of Notre Dame Cathedral? Few buyers voiced concerns like “I’m in the market for something Romanesque, maybe a double transept? Of course a Gothic choir is a dealbreaker.”

It did not solve the financial crisis, but it did markedly weaken the Church. In every age the Church has had to defend the inalienability of its property, acquired for the support of her ministers and for the aid and succour of the weakest in society.

The revolutionaries did not end there. Determined to break the power of the Church, they drafted the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, promising independence for the Church, but forcing it from out of the control of Rome. With a national Church (long a French dream, well before the Revolution) the State would have sole competence over religious and educational life. Without its universal nature and fidelity to Rome, the Church cannot withstand tyrants.

In every age the Church has been able to outlast dictators because it had deeper loyalties beyond the state. To their credit only 4 out of 125 French bishops accepted this document. About half the parish priests did, some with the laudable intention of trying to salvage some sort of Catholic life in their villages.

The state had successfully divided the Church against itself, causing grave divisions not healed for a generation. Talleyrand, the scoundrel-Bishop, reluctantly consecrated a slew of “Constitutional” Bishops for the new French Civil Church.

As the Revolution waxed it became more and more violent and unstable. Not content with the division and subjugation of the Church, it began upon a path of radical dechristianization.  Churches were destroyed, images defaced, and all manner of indignities heaped upon the faithful.

Thousands of laity, priests, religious, and bishops went bravely to their deaths, some by popular violence, some under the “hygienic” guillotine after the sham trials of revolutionary “justice.”  Nor were the civil clergy spared, for compromise with a Revolution will not save one in the end, and in fairness many went to their deaths with bravery and true Catholic sentiment. Not even this was enough for the partisans of Liberty.

Every trace of Christianity had to be effaced from public life. The Calendar was changed, the seven day week was replaced with a 10 day week in order to dethrone Sunday. A substitute national cult was developed of “Reason” in some places, or of the “Supreme Being” in others.  Of course all of this was done in the name of the “Rights of Man.”

When the revolutionary insanity finally passed, the Church was bloodied certainly, but managed to survive, as she always does. Much damage had been done. France remained on a secular trajectory, though the violence mostly abated.  It is well to remember that these events happened in the “Eldest Daughter of the Church” under the rule of the “Most Christian King,” the hapless and holy Louis XVI.

As one can see, much is at stake in the battle for religious freedom, and in the resistance to the growing power of the political classes to advance their “dictatorship of relativism.” At least the French Revolutionaries claimed to honor reason.

Today the Absolute Relativists have discarded even that. For them only one thing is certain, that moral absolutes — hallowed by reason, tradition, and revelation — are the enemy. It is very possible that such people may be less kind to us in the end than the revolutionaries of Liberty and Fraternity.

Donald S. Prudlo is Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval History at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He is also Associate Professor of Theology and Church History at Christendom. His specialty is Saints and Sainthood in the Christian Tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (+1252) (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).
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