History of the Church: Later Modern Times - Notre Dame

The French Revolution, 1789–1799

[Illustration] from Church - Later Modern Times by Notre Dame

I. Decline of the Monarchy

France looms large in the threatening atmosphere of the last decade of the eighteenth century. The imposing personality of Louis XIV., shining with the reflected rays of the genius, valour, and wealth which surrounded him in the earlier years of his reign, had raised her to the pinnacle of earthly grandeur. But the great monarch found in glory nought save vanity and vexation of spirit. His ruinous wars reduced his subjects to the verge of destitution, and long before his death his kingdom had shrunk back into a mere shadow of its former magnificence.

The guilty negligence and extravagance of his successors, the Regent Orleans and Louis XV., brought the country still nearer to financial ruin, at the same time that infidelity and corrupt morals sapped its strength from within. The impetus given to arts and letters during the seventeenth century continued, nevertheless, to urge the learned forward in the paths of philosophical speculation and independent criticism. The utterances of Frenchmen were still listened to with attention, though France was no longer recognised as holding a first place among the nations. But, however low might he her fall, her influence must ever remain, for good or for evil, a power to be reckoned with in the history of Europe and the Church.

The old order of things was about to pass away, and in the passing, was to shake the civilized world with convulsions hitherto unknown. The originating causes of this volcanic outburst lay deeply buried under the wreckage of the faith wrought among the Teutonic races during the sixteenth century. France was once again to serve as the instrument by which the elements of change were to be brought into immediate action. The secret societies, and chief among them Free-masonry, with its handmaid Philosophism, combined with infidel literature and the pernicious example of many in high places, had gained ground with alarming rapidity. No other result could have been expected from the working-out of the principles of the so-called Reformation which, by its repudiation of authority, loosened the bonds of society and disintegrated the solid foundations so carefully laid by the Church in the Ages of Faith.

"Let the Deluge come if it will, when we are gone," was the sentiment more than once expressed by Louis XV. and his boon companions, knowing as they did that they were helping to bring destruction on their country. The King had not long gone to his account when the pent-up waters burst their barriers, and in their fury, swept all before them. Yet for a moment before the catastrophe there was a lull of expectancy and almost of hope. The new sovereign, Louis XV was just twenty years of age; his wife, Marie Antoinette, was nineteen. "The Dauphin and Dauphiness," says Carlyle, "are King and Queen i Overpowered with many emotions, they two fall upon their knees together, and, with streaming tears exclaim: ` O God, guide us, protect us; we are too young to reign!' "Their very youth, however, with its bright hopes and promises, was for the time being their protection, and there was a general feeling that all might yet be well.

From his accession in 1774 to the outbreak of 1789, Louis worked courageously and conscientiously at the complicated problem which confronted him. He was not wholly lacking in capacity, but the present emergency would have taxed the powers of a much greater statesman. Marie Antoinette was thoughtless and inconsiderate, often giving occasion by her imprudence to accusations which, whether true or false, were most injurious to the royal cause. Hence, the dislike of the French for this "Austrian woman," as her enemies called her, was one of the most disastrous factors in the troubles leading to the downfall of the Monarchy.

[Illustration] from Church - Later Modern Times by Notre Dame

The fruitless attempts of successive ministers of State to set things right, were followed by the desperate measure of calling a general parliament. If the momentous events to which this meeting of the States-General gave rise are matters of political history, there is, nevertheless, one aspect of them to which we must here give special attention. When the "National Assembly" had once been formed, its irreligious proceedings speedily inflicted irreparable injuries on the Church in France. This body, called in turn "Constituent "and "Legislative," need not trouble us by its various names; it was practically the "National Assembly "throughout its duration. Originating as it did in the independent action of the "Third Estate," or representatives of the people, its members were naturally opposed to the privileged, or untaxed, classes which included not only the nobility but the higher clergy. The abolition of privilege, by the extension of taxation to the rich, was the first object in view. It was just and reasonable that an effort should be made to relieve the poor from the excessive burdens to which they were subjected. Had a double reform of this kind been adopted, the exhausted treasury might have been filled, the credit of the nation saved, and France spared torrents of the blood of those whose only crime was religion or nobility. Want of wisdom to make opportune concessions brought the penalties of exile and death upon the King and his Ministers.

In the debates held for the purpose of obtaining redress of grievances, the more violent party gained the ascendency. Their attention was soon diverted from the question of taxation to the consideration of the immense wealth of the Church, and especially that of the Religious Orders. A proposal to confiscate such property was enthusiastically received by the Assembly as the surest means of paying off the nation's debts.

A preliminary measure was the abolition by law of the vows of religion. The next step was to suppress all monastic and conventual establishments and to turn their inmates adrift on the world. After this, the Church lands were handed over to the State, and paper money was adopted to represent their revenues. These "assignats," as the notes were called, not having the real value of gold or silver, caused distrust and a sense of insecurity throughout the country. Decrees were passed in rapid succession, each encroaching more than the previous one on the rights of clergy and nobility. Seized with terror, the aristocracy and many of the clergy began to provide for their individual safety by leaving the country. By the end of the month of April, 1790, the "Nation "had taken complete charge of the temporalities of the Church. It was not long before a deadly blow was struck at the spiritual power also.

II. Anarchy

The King was now treated as a simple citizen, and the National Assembly proceeded to remodel the constitution. To form a new basis for electoral representation, eighty-three departments took the place of the ancient provinces of France. The dioceses were rearranged so that there might be one Bishop in each department, his jurisdiction being made coterminous with the political division. This led to a further invasion of the spiritual domain. The authority of the Pope was ignored, and the appointment to ecclesiastical posts was declared to be henceforth in the power of the electoral bodies of the departments. Thus was formulated the "Civil Constitution of the Clergy," and it was enforced by an oath of fidelity to the Nation, without reference to any spiritual authority. The notification to the Pope of an appointment was, indeed, tolerated, but merely as a matter of courtesy, to be observed or neglected at the pleasure of the nominee. Such ecclesiastics as refused to take the oath were not to be allowed to exercise their functions.

The "Civil Constitution of the Clergy" aroused the indignant resistance of those against whom its measures were directed. The whole Episcopate, with four exceptions, absolutely refused to agree to the articles, preferring loss of property, or even of life, to separation from the Pope, the Centre of Unity. The great majority of the inferior clergy stood in firm phalanx round their bishops, allowing themselves to be dispossessed of their livings in favour of the constitutional priests who usurped their places. To make assurance doubly sure, the framers of the law called upon the three hundred clerical members of the Assembly to take the oath on the spot. Those who consented to do so were promoted to important positions, in the room of their non-juring brethren.

Finally, the King was requested to accept the new Constitution. The helplessness of his condition left Louis no choice, but he boldly refused to agree to the articles concerning the clergy, without the Pope's consent. He therefore placed his difficulty before Pius VI., who referred the decision to the Archbishops of Vienne and Bordeaux. After consideration, the two prelates came to the unfortunate conclusion that the King should be advised to accept the "Civil Constitution of the Clergy." With them, consequently, rests the responsibility of the line of action pursued by Louis. The false step was taken and led to the direst results. None were more conscious than the two Archbishops that their error was irretrievable, and, perhaps, inexcusable. They sincerely repented, and spent the rest of their days endeavouring to atone for their fault. The Archbishop of Vienne, in particular, is said to have died of grief.

As soon as Pius VI. became aware of the full purport of the articles, he issued a condemnation of the appointments already made by the secular power, and ordered all ecclesiastics who had taken the oath to retract within a given time, on pain of suspension. The Assembly retaliated by decreeing that non-jurant clergy should be transported beyond seas. The consequence was that the portion of the clergy who rejected the Pope's decision were in a state of open schism. The legitimate pastors were forced to live in concealment, while mercenary shepherds held their posts, and reduced their unhappy flocks to the most miserable condition.

The sad years which followed saw many martyrdoms of faithful priests, seized in the act of fulfilling secretly their sacred functions, while many of those who escaped with their lives passed through all the terrors of death. The wretched men who took the oath fared but ill between their infidel masters and a Catholic population who distrusted and despised them. Some joined the ranks of the revolutionists; others, more fortunate, recognised their errors and returned to the one fold.

A King in name only, Louis nevertheless held out against the godless measures of the self constituted government. Though he had formally accepted the Constitution, he could not give his consent to schismatical separation from Rome, nor sanction persecution of the Church. His firmness in refusing to participate in the crimes of his subjects led to his deposition and imprisonment. Marie Antoinette and their children, the Dauphin and the Princess Royal, with the King's sister, the saintly Madame Elizabeth, shared his fate. They were subjected to the most cruel treatment, and cut off from all their friends and supporters. At last, on January 21, 1793, after a mock trial, the King was brought to the guillotine, where many priests and nobles had preceded him. "Son of St. Louis, ascend to heaven," were the words by which the Abbe Edgeworth is said to have encouraged him to mount the scaffold. His unfortunate Queen passed through the same ordeal; as did also Madame Elizabeth, whose only offence was that she was sister to a King. The Princess Royal, afterwards Duchess of Angouleme, then in her sixteenth year, though rigorously imprisoned, was more leniently dealt with, and lived to see the restoration of royalty.

The Dauphin, who was only eight years old, became Louis XVII., a poor little uncrowned monarch, treated by his subjects with barbarous cruelty. He lingered on for about two years, until he was stifled by the noisomeness of his gloomy dungeon. The fate of this innocent child is a dark stain on the records of humanity, while it remains one of the unsolved problems of history.

III. A Triumphant Republic

The heroic deeds and enormous sacrifices of Catholic Brittany and La Vendee in defence of religion and royalty were all in vain. Prussia and Austria sent troops into the field to fight for the cause of the banished French aristocrats. But the Republicans were more than equal to any such resistance. With astonishing vigour they organised armies and placed them under the command of generals taken from the ranks. Men of genius came to the front, and proved to the world that old-fashioned methods of warfare must now give place to the new spirit, which found its ultimate impersonation in a young Corsican whose military studies were scarcely yet completed.

Still, Europe, as if paralysed, looked on without interfering. Not till the danger of revolution threatened her own shores did England rouse herself and prepare to fight. France offered assistance to any nation which should imitate her in throwing off the yoke of tyrants, as all sovereigns were called by the Republicans. In alarm at the possible results of such invitations, Pitt formed a coalition with the chief powers of Europe, and England entered upon a war against France, which was to last with various vicissitudes for more than twenty years.

In 1795 the task of governing France was taken up by a committee of five members, known as the Directory. Patriotism alone kept up French courage in the struggle against the monarchies of Europe, for the finances of the country were at the lowest ebb. Negotiations having been opened with the Italian revolutionists, an army under Napoleon Bonaparte was despatched to assist them in rebelling against their rulers. This young artillery officer had first distinguished himself in 1794, at the siege of Toulon, and early in 1796 had contracted a civil marriage, unblessed by the Church, with Josephine, widow of the Viscount de Beauharnais. Placed in command of the half-starved, ragged and unpaid troops, he provided a remedy for their distress by pointing out to them the fertile plains of Italy, and promising them the spoils of any city they could conquer. The soldiers took full advantage of the permission, and spread ruin and devastation far and wide. Revolution triumphed in the Peninsula, and the new hero, flushed with victory, returned to Paris, leaving Republican Italy to take care of itself under the protection of France.

For reasons best known to himself, Bonaparte had respected Rome and the States of the Church. The Directory, less far-sighted, allowed his successors in command to pour French troops into the Papal territory, and finally to call upon the Sovereign Pontiff to renounce his temporal possessions. Pius VI. refused to give up what was his only on trust, and in consequence was forced to leave his capital and to take whatever road his enemies chose. Their first idea was to relegate him to Sardinia, but fear of the English prevented this. He was dragged to Siena, and thence to Florence. The attitude of Austria rendering the rescue of the Holy Father likely if he remained in Italy, it was decided to transfer him to France. Imprisoned, first at Grenoble and then at Valence, the "Pilgrim Pope," worn out by weariness and afflictions, died in August, 1799.

The prospects of the Church might well seem hopeless. Rome was occupied by the French, Italy was Republican, the Pope had died in exile. Yet, however dark the heavens, there was light beyond the clouds, and it must shine forth again, even though it should come from the most unexpected quarter. England was chosen to herald the dawn of better days and to guide the way to Rome.

Nelson's victory at the Nile, and Sir Sidney Smith's gallant stand against Napoleon at Acre, gave Pitt the opportunity of forming a Second Coalition in 1799. France was for a moment kept at bay, and the Cardinals were able to meet in Conclave at Venice. After some delay the Bishop of Imola was elected Pope, and took the title of Pius VII. In July, 1800, the new Pontiff entered Rome, greeted by the plaudits of an enthusiastic people.

In the meantime Napoleon had returned to France, and by a clever stroke of policy had over-thrown the weak government of the Directory. He caused himself to be proclaimed First Consul, and set to work to secure his position. Once more he invaded Italy, and with more startling effect, by crossing the Alps, as Hannibal had done. The victory of Marengo opened a way for him to Rome, but it was not Napoleon's object to offer violence to the Sovereign Pontiff. His eagle-eyed ambition led him to uphold religion, and he knew that with the Holy See on his side he could accomplish great things.

Blessed Julie Billiart


Negotiations were opened between the Pope and the First Consul with regard to the restoration of the Catholic religion in France. A "Concordat "was proposed, and, in spite of many obstacles, was carried through. The Pope's advisers feared that he was endangering the authority of the Church by too great leniency, while the French ministry were inclined to blame Napoleon for his concessions to the Holy See. The articles of the Concordat were at last signed by both parties; the civil Constitution of the clergy was abolished in France; the bells rang out once more from the long-silent belfries, and a general festival of thanksgiving was celebrated by the entire nation on April 18, 1802.

The embers of Faith hidden away during the Terror burst into new and exultant life. Lawful pastors took possession of the posts from which the constitutional clergy disappeared, and all liturgical ceremonies were resumed. It was like the removal of an interdict in the Middle Ages. The Religious Orders applied themselves to the duties of their apostolate, and new congregations arose to meet the more pressing needs of the times. The instruction of children had been sadly neglected, and labourers were urgently needed in this portion of the vineyard of the Lord. Then it was that Blessed Sophie Barat provided for the education of girls of the upper classes by the institution of the Ladies of the Sacred Heart.

Blessed Julie Billiart, a peasant herself, devoted her life to the instruction of the poor, and, migrating to Belgium, founded at Namur the Mother House of the Sisters of Notre Dame. Both these institutes were the direct and necessary remedy for one of the most threatening dangers following in the wake of the great Revolution.

Blessed Sophie Barat.


Napoleon had done marvellous things, and by the restoration of religion had earned the gratitude of every true Catholic. Had he but continued to serve the good cause he might have become one of the greatest sovereigns of history, and France might have escaped the conflict still, in our own day, raging between rival political parties. But he preferred to make the Church a stepping-stone to his ambition, and, dashing against the rock, he perished. So has it ever been, and so shall it be to the end.