The French Revolution (Belloc)/Chapter 6

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The last and the most important of the aspects which the French Revolution presents to a foreign, and in particular to an English reader, is the antagonism which arose between it and the Church.

As this is the most important so it is the most practical of the historical problems which the Revolution sets the student to solve; for the opposition of the Church’s organisation in France has at once been the most profound which the Revolution has had to encounter, the most active in its methods, and the only one which has increased in strength as time proceeded. It is hardly too much to say that the Revolution would, in France at least, have achieved its object and created a homogeneous, centralised democracy, had not this great quarrel between the Republic and the Church arisen; and one may legitimately contrast the ready pliancy of men to political suggestion and the easy story of their institutions where men knew nothing of the Church, with the great storms that arise and the fundamental quarrels that are challenged wherever men are acquainted with the burning truths of Catholicism.

Finally, the struggle between the Catholic Church and the Revolution is not only the most important and the most practical, but also by an unhappy coincidence the most difficult of comprehension of all the matters presented to us by the great change.

We have seen in this book that one department of revolutionary history, the second in importance, perhaps, to the religious department, was also difficult of comprehension—to wit, the military department. And we have seen (or at least I have postulated) that the difficulty of following the military fortunes of the Republic was due to the mass of detail, to the technical character of the information to be acquired and to the natural unfamiliarity of the general reader with the elements of military science. In other words, an accurate knowledge of great numbers of facts, the proper disposition of these facts in their order of military importance, and the correlation of a great number of disconnected actions and plans will alone permit us to grasp the function of the armies in the development and establishment of the modern State through the revolutionary wars.

Now in this second and greater problem, the problem of the function played by religion, it is an exactly opposite method which can alone be of service.

We must examine the field generally, and still more generally we must forget details that here only bewilder, and see in the largest possible outline what forces were really at issue, why their conflict occurred, upon what points that conflict was vital. Any more particular plan will land us, as it has landed so many thousands of controversialists, in mere invective on one side or the other, till we come to see nothing but a welter of treason on the part of priests, and of massacre upon the part of democrats.

Men would, did they try to unravel the skein by analysing the documents of the Vatican or of the French archives, come apparently upon nothing but a host of petty, base, and often personal calculations; or again, did they attempt to take a local sample of the struggle and to follow it in one department of thought, they would come upon nothing but a whirl of conflict with no sort of clue to the motives that lay behind.

The contrast between the military and the religious problem of the French Revolution is like the contrast between the geological composition and the topographical contours of a countryside. To understand the first we must bore and dig, we must take numerous samples of soil and subject them to analysis, we must make ourselves acquainted with detail in its utmost recesses. But for the second, the more general our standpoint, the wider our gaze, and the more comprehensive our judgment, the more accurately do we grasp the knowledge we have set out to seek.

We must, then, approach our business by asking at the outset the most general question of all: “Was there a necessary and fundamental quarrel between the doctrines of the Revolution and those of the Catholic Church?

Those ill acquainted with either party, and therefore ill equipped for reply, commonly reply with assurance in the affirmative. The French (and still more the non-French) Republican who may happen, by the accident of his life, to have missed the Catholic Church, to have had no intimacy with any Catholic character, no reading of Catholic philosophy, and perhaps even no chance view of so much as an external Catholic ceremony, replies unhesitatingly that the Church is the necessary enemy of the Revolution. Again, the émigré, the wealthy woman, the recluse, any one of the many contemporary types to whom the democratic theory of the Revolution came as a complete novelty, and to-day the wealthy families in that tradition, reply as unhesitatingly that the Revolution is the necessary enemy of the Church. The reply seems quite sufficient to the Tory squire in England or Germany, who may happen to be a Catholic by birth or by conversion; and it seems equally obvious to (let us say) a democratic member of some Protestant Church in one of the new countries.

Historically and logically, theologically also, those who affirm a necessary antagonism between the Republic and the Church are in error. Those who are best fitted to approach the problem by their knowledge both of what the Revolution attempted and of what Catholic philosophy is, find it in proportion to their knowledge difficult or impossible to answer that fundamental question in the affirmative. They cannot call the Revolution a necessary enemy of the Church, nor the Church of Democracy.

What is more, minds at once of the most active and of the best instructed sort are the very minds which find it difficult to explain how any such quarrel can have arisen. French history itself is full of the names of those for whom not so much a reconciliation between the Revolution and the Church, as a statement that no real quarrel existed between them, was the motive of politics; and almost in proportion to a man's knowledge of his fellows in Catholic societies, almost in that proportion is the prime question I have asked answered by such a man in the negative. A man who knows both the Faith and the Republic will tell you that there is not and cannot be any necessary or fundamental reason why conflict should have arisen between a European Democracy and the Catholic Church.

When we examine those who concern themselves with the deepest and most abstract side of the quarrel, we find the same thing. It is impossible for the theologian, or even for the practical ecclesiastical teacher, to put his finger upon a political doctrine essential to the Revolution and to say, "This doctrine is opposed to Catholic dogma or to Catholic morals.” Conversely, it is impossible for the Republican to put his finger upon a matter of ecclesiastical discipline or religious dogma and to say, "This Catholic point is at issue with my political theory of the State."

Thousands of active men upon either side would have been only too willing during the last hundred years to discover some such issue, and it has proved undiscoverable. In a word, only those Democrats who know little of the Catholic Church can say that of its nature it forbids democracy; and only those Catholics who have a confused or imperfect conception of democracy can say that of its nature it is antagonistic to the Catholic Church.

Much that is taught by the purely temporal theory of the one is indifferent to the transcendental and supernatural philosophy of the other. In some points, where there is contact (as in the conception of the dignity of man and of the equality of men) there is agreement. To sum up, the Republican cannot by his theory persecute the Church; the Church cannot by her theory excommunicate the Republican.

Why, then, it must next be asked, has there in practice arisen so furious and so enormous a conflict, a conflict whose activity and whose consequence are not narrowing but broadening to-day?

It may be replied to this second question, which is only less general than the first, in one of two manners.

One may say that the actions of men are divided not by theories but by spiritual atmospheres, as it were. According to this view men act under impulses not ideal but actual: impulses which affect great numbers and yet in their texture correspond to the complex but united impulses of an individual personality. Thus, though there be no conflict demonstrable between the theology of the Catholic Church and the political theory of the Revolution, yet there may be necessary and fundamental conflict between the Persons we call the Revolution and the Church, and between the vivifying principles by which either lives. That is one answer that can be, and is, given.

Or one may give a totally different answer and say, "There was no quarrel between the theology of the Catholic Church and the political theory of the Revolution; but the folly of this statesman, the ill drafting of that law, the misconception of such and such an institution, the coincidence of war breaking out at such and such a moment and affecting men in such and such a fashion—all these material accidents bred a misunderstanding between the two great forces, led into conflict the human officers and the human organisations which directed them; and conflict once established feeds upon, and grows from, its own substance."

Now, if that first form of reply be given to the question we have posed, though it is sufficient for the type of philosophy which uses it, though it is certainly explanatory of all human quarrels, and though it in particular satisfies a particular modern school of thought, it is evident that history, properly so called, cannot deal with it.

You may say that the Revolution was the expression of a spirit far more real than any theory, that this spirit is no more susceptible of analysis or definition than is the personality of a single human character, and that this reality was in conflict with another reality—to wit, the Catholic Church. You may even (as some minds by no means negligible have done) pass into the field of mysticism in the matter, and assert that really personal forces, wills superior and external to man, Demons and Angels, drove the Revolution against the Catholic Church, and created The Republic to be an anti-Catholic force capable of meeting and of defeating that Church, which (by its own definition of itself) is not a theory, but the expression of a Personality and a Will. To put it in old-fashioned terms, you may say that the Revolution was the work of antichrist;—but with that kind of reply, I repeat, history cannot deal.

If it be true that, in spite of an absence of contradictory intellectual theories, there is a fundamental spiritual contradiction between the Revolution and the Catholic Church, then time will test the business; we shall see in that case a perpetual extension of the quarrel until the Revolution becomes principally a force for the extinction of Catholicism, and the Catholic Church appears to the supporter of the Revolution not as his principal, but as his only enemy. Such a development has not arisen in a hundred years; a process of time far more lengthy will alone permit us to judge whether the supposed duello is a real matter or a phantasm.

The second type of answer, the answer which pretends to explain the antagonism by a definite series of events, does concern the historian.

Proceeding upon the lines of that second answer, he can bring his science to bear and use the instruments of his trade; and he can show (as I propose to show in what follows) how, although no quarrel can be found between the theory of the Revolution and that of the Church, an active quarrel did in fact spring up between the Revolution in action and the authorities of Catholicism; a quarrel which a hundred years has not appeased, but accentuated.

Behind the revolutionary quarrel lay the condition of the Church in the French State since the settlement of the quarrel of the Reformation.

With what that quarrel of the Reformation was, the reader is sufficiently familiar. For, roughly speaking, a hundred years, from the first years of the sixteenth century to the first years of the seventeenth (from the youth of Henry VIII to the boyhood of Charles I in England), a great attempt was made to change (as one party would have said to amend, as the other would have said to denaturalise) the whole body of Western Christendom. A general movement of attack upon the inherited form of the Church, and a general resistance to that attack, was at work throughout European civilisation; and either antagonist hoped for a universal success, the one of what he called “The Reformation of religion,” the other of what he called “The Divine Institution and visible unity of the Catholic Church.”

At the end of such a period it became apparent that no such general result had been, or could be, attained. All that part of the West which had rejected the authority of the See of Rome began to appear as a separate territorial region permanently divided from the rest; all that part of Europe which had retained the Authority of the See of Rome began to appear as another region of territory. The line of cleavage between the two was beginning to define itself as a geographical line, and nearly corresponded to the line which, centuries before, had divided the Roman and civilised world from the Barbarians.

The Province of Britain had an exceptional fate. Though Roman in origin and of the ancient civilisation in its foundation, it fell upon the non-Roman side of the new boundary; while Ireland, which the Roman Empire had never organised or instructed, remained, alone of the external parts of Europe, in communion with Rome. Italy, Spain, and in the main southern or Romanised Germany, refused ultimately to abandon their tradition of civilisation and of religion. But in Gaul it was otherwise—and the action of Gaul during the Reformation must be seized if its modern religious quarrels are to be apprehended. A very considerable proportion of the French landed and mercantile classes, that is of the wealthy men of the country, were in sympathy with the new religious doctrines and the new social organisation which had now taken root in England, Scotland, Holland, northern Germany and Scandinavia, and which were destined in those countries to lead to the domination of wealth. These French squires and traders were called the Huguenots.

The succeeding hundred years, from 1615 to 1715, let us say, were a settlement, not without bloodshed, of the unsatisfied quarrel of the preceding century. All Englishmen know what happened in England; how the last vestiges of Catholicism were crushed out and all the social and political consequences of Protestantism established in the State.

There was, even in that same seventeenth century, a separate, but futile, attempt to destroy Catholicism in Ireland. In Germany a struggle of the utmost violence had only led to a similar regional result. The first third of that hundred years concluded in the Peace of Westphalia, and left the Protestant and Catholic territorial divisions much what we now know them.

In France, however, the peculiar phenomenon remained of a body powerful in numbers and (what was far more important) in wealth and social power, scattered throughout the territory of the kingdom, organised and, by this time, fixedly anti-Catholic, and therefore anti-national.

The nation had recovered its traditional line and had insisted upon the victory of a strong executive, and that executive Catholic. France, therefore, in this period of settlement, became an absolute monarchy whose chief possessed tremendous and immediate powers, and a monarchy which incorporated with itself all the great elements of the national tradition, including the Church.

It is the name of Louis XIV, of course, which symbolises this great time; his very long reign precisely corresponds to it. He was born coincidently with that universal struggle for a religious settlement in Europe, which I have described as characteristic of the time; he died precisely at its close; and under him it seemed as though the reconstructed power of Gaul and the defence of organised Catholicism were to be synonymous.

But there were two elements of disruption in that homogeneous body which Louis XIV apparently commanded. The very fact that the Church had thus become in France an unshakable national institution, chilled the vital source of Catholicism. Not only did the hierarchy stand in a perpetual suspicion of the Roman See, and toy with the conception of national independence, but they, and all the official organisation of French Catholicism, put the security of the national establishment and its intimate attachment to the general political structure of the State, far beyond the sanctity of Catholic dogma or the practice of Catholic morals.

That political structure—the French monarchy—seemed to be of granite and eternal. Had it indeed survived, the Church in Gaul would doubtless, in spite of its attachment to so mundane a thing as the crown, have still survived to enjoy one of those resurrections which have never failed it in the past, and would have returned, by some creative reaction, to its principle of life. But for the moment the consequence of this fixed political establishment was that scepticism, and all those other active forces of the mind which play upon religion in any Catholic State, had full opportunity. The Church was, so to speak, not concerned to defend itself but only its method of existence. It was as though a garrison, forgetting the main defences of a place, had concentrated all its efforts upon the security of one work which contained its supplies of food.

Wit, good verse, sincere enthusiasm, a lucid exposition of whatever in the human mind perpetually rebels against transcendental affirmations, were allowed every latitude and provoked no effective reply. But overt acts of disrespect to ecclesiastical authority were punished with rigour.

While in the wealthy, the bureaucratic, and the governing classes, to ridicule the Faith was an attitude taken for granted, seriously to attack the privileges or position of its ministers was ungentlemanly, and was not allowed. It did not shock the hierarchy that one of its Apostolic members should be a witty atheist; that another should go hunting upon Corpus Christi, nearly upset the Blessed Sacrament in his gallop, and forget what day it was when the accident occurred. The bishops found nothing remarkable in seeing a large proportion of their body to be loose livers, or in some of them openly presenting their friends to their mistresses as might be done by any great lay noble round them. That a diocese or any other spiritual charge should be divorced from its titular chief, seemed to them as natural as does to us the absence from his modern regiment of some titular foreign colonel. Unquestioned also by the bishops were the poverty, the neglect, and the uninstruction of the parish clergy; nay—and this is by far the principal feature—the abandonment of religion by all but a very few of the French millions, no more affected the ecclesiastical officials of the time than does the starvation of our poor affect, let us say, one of our professional politicians. It was a thing simply taken for granted.

The reader must seize that moribund condition of the religious life of France upon the eve of the Revolution, for it is at once imperfectly grasped by the general run of historians, and is also the only fact which thoroughly explains what followed. The swoon of the Faith in the eighteenth century is the negative foundation upon which the strange religious experience of the French was about to rise. France, in the generation before the Revolution, was passing through a phase in which the Catholic Faith was at a lower ebb than it had ever been since the preaching and establishment of it in Gaul.

This truth is veiled by more than one circumstance. Thus many official acts, notably marriages and the registration of births, took place under a Catholic form, and indeed Catholic forms had a monopoly of them. Again, the State wore Catholic clothes, as it were: the public occasions of pomp were full of religious ceremony. Few of the middle classes went to Mass in the great towns, hardly any of the artisans; but the Churches were “official.” Great sums of money—including official money—were at the disposal of the Church; and the great ecclesiastics were men from whom solid favours could be got. Again, the historic truth is masked by the language and point of view of the great Catholic reaction which has taken place in our own time.

It is safe to say that where one adult of the educated classes concerned himself seriously with the Catholic Faith and Practice in France before the Revolution, there are five to-day. But in between lies the violent episode of the persecution, and the Catholic reaction in our time perpetually tends to contrast a supposed pre-revolutionary “Catholic” society with the revolutionary fury. “Look,” say its champions, “at the dreadful way in which the Revolution treated the Church.” And as they say this the converse truth appears obvious and they seem to imply, “Think how different it must have been before the Revolution persecuted the Church!” The very violence of the modern reaction towards Catholicism has exaggerated the revolutionary persecution, and in doing so has made men forget that apart from other evidence of the decline of religion, it is obvious that persecution could never have arisen without a strong and continuous historical backing. You could not have had a Diocletian in the thirteenth century with the spirit of the Crusaders just preceding him; you could not have had Henry VIII if the England of the fifteenth century just preceding him had been an England devoted to the monastic profession. And you could not have had the revolutionary fury against the Catholic Church in France if the preceding generation had been actively Catholic even in a considerable portion.

As a fact, of course it was not: and in the popular indifference to or hatred of the Church the principal factor was the strict brotherhood not so much of Church and State as of Church and executive Government.

But there was another factor. We were describing a little way back how in France there had arisen, during the movement of the Reformation, a wealthy, powerful and numerically large Huguenot body. In mere numbers it dwindled, but it maintained throughout the seventeenth century a very high position, both of privilege and (what was its characteristic) of money-power; and even to-day, though their birth-rate is, of course, lower than the average of the nation, the French Huguenots number close upon a million, and are far wealthier, upon the average, than their fellow citizens. It is their wealth which dominates the trade of certain districts, which exercises so great an effect upon the universities, the publishing trade, and the press; and in general lends them such weight in the affairs of the nation.

Now the Huguenot had in France a special and permanent quarrel with the monarchy, and therefore with the Catholic Church, which, precisely because it was not of the vivid and intense kind which is associated with popular and universal religions, was the more secretly ubiquitous. His quarrel was that, having been highly privileged for nearly a century, the member of “a State within a State,” and for more than a generation free to hold assemblies separate from and often antagonistic to the national Government, these privileges had been suddenly removed from him by the Government of Louis XIV a century before the Revolution. The quarrel was more political than religious; it was a sort of “Home Rule” quarrel. For though the Huguenots were spread throughout France, they had possessed special cities and territories wherein their spirit and, to a certain extent, their private self-government, formed enclaves of particularism within the State.

They had held this position, as I have said, for close upon a hundred years, and it was not until a date contemporary with the violent settlement of the religious trouble in England by the expulsion of James II that a similar settlement, less violent, achieved (as it was thought) a similar religious unity in France. But that unity was not achieved. The Huguenots, though no longer permitted to exist as a State within a State, remained, for the hundred years between the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the outbreak of the Revolution, a powerful and ever-watchful body. They stood upon the flank of the attack which intellectual scepticism was making upon the Catholic Church, they were prepared to take advantage of that scepticism’s first political victory, and since the Revolution they have been the most powerful and, after the Freemasons, with whom they are largely identified, the most strongly organised, of the anti-clerical forces in the country.

The Jews, whose action since the Revolution has been so remarkable in this same business, were not, in the period immediately preceding it, of any considerable influence, and their element in the coalition may be neglected.

Such, then, was the position when the Revolution was preparing. Within memory of all men living, the Church had become more and more official, the masses of the great towns had wholly lost touch with it; the intelligence of the country was in the main drawn to the Deist or even to the purely sceptical propaganda, the powerful Huguenot body was ready prepared for an alliance with any foe of Catholicism, and in the eyes of the impoverished town populace—notably in Paris, which had long abandoned the practice of religion—the human organisation of the Church, the hierarchy, the priesthood, and the few but very wealthy religious orders which still lingered on in dwindling numbers, were but a portion of the privileged world which the populace hated and was prepared to destroy.

It is upon such a spirit and in such conditions of the national religious life that the Revolution begins to work. In the National Assembly you have the great body of the Commons which determines the whole, touched only here and there with men in any way acquainted with or devoted to Catholic practice, and those men for the most part individual and eccentric, that is, uncatholic, almost in proportion to the genuineness of their religious feeling. Among the nobility the practice of religion was a social habit with some—as a mental attitude the Faith was forgotten among all but a very few. Among the clergy a very wealthy hierarchy, no one of them prepared to defend the Church with philosophical argument, and almost unanimous in regarding itself as a part of the old political machine, was dominant; while the representatives of the lower clergy, strongly democratic in character, were at first more occupied with the establishment of democracy than with the impending attack upon the material and temporal organisation of the Church.

Now, that material and temporal organisation offered at the very beginning of the debates an opportunity for attack which no other department of the old régime could show.

The immediate peril of the State was financial. The pretext and even to some extent the motive for the calling of the States-General was the necessity for finding money. The old fiscal machinery had broken down, and as always happens when a fiscal machine breaks down, the hardship it involved, and the pressure upon individuals which it involved, appeared to be universal. There was no immediate and easily available fund of wealth upon which the Executive could lay hands save the wealth of the clergy.

The feudal dues of the nobles, if abandoned, must fall rather to the peasantry than to the State. Of the existing taxes few could be increased without peril, and none with any prospect of a large additional revenue. The charge for debt alone was one-half of the total receipts of the State, the deficit was, in proportion to the revenue, overwhelming. Face to face with that you had an institution not popular, one whose public functions were followed by but a small proportion of the population, one in which income was most unequally distributed, and one whose feudal property yielded in dues an amount equal to more than a quarter of the total revenue of the State. Add to this a system of tithes which produced nearly as much again, and it will be apparent under what a financial temptation the Assembly lay.

It may be argued, of course, that the right of the Church to this ecclesiastical property, whether in land or in tithes, was absolute, and that the confiscation of the one or of the other form of revenue was mere theft. But such was not the legal conception of the moment. The wrath of the Church was not even (and this is most remarkable) defended as absolute property by the generality of those who enjoyed it. The tone of the debates which suppressed the tithes, and later confiscated the Church lands, was a tone of discussion upon legal points, precedents, public utility, and so forth. There was not heard in it, in any effective degree, the assertion of mere moral right; though in that time the moral rights of property were among the first of political doctrines.

It was not, however, the confiscation of the Church lands and the suppression of the tithe which founded the quarrel between the Revolution and the clergy. No financial or economic change is ever more than a preparation for, or a permissive condition of, a moral change. It is never the cause of a moral change. Even the suppression of the religious houses in the beginning of 1790 must not be taken as the point of departure in the great quarrel. The religious orders in France were at that moment too decayed in zeal and in numbers, too wealthy and much too removed from the life of the nation, for this to be the case. The true historical point of departure from which we must date the beginning of this profound debate between the Revolution and Catholicism, is to be found in the morning of the 30th of May, 1790, when a parliamentary committee (the Ecclesiastical Committee) presented to the House its plan for the reform of the Constitution of the Church in Gaul.

The enormity of that act is now apparent to the whole world. The proposal, at the bidding of chance representatives not elected ad hoc, to change the dioceses and the sees of Catholic France, the decision of an ephemeral political body to limit to such and such ties (and very feeble they were) the bond between the Church of France and the Holy See, the suppression of the Cathedral Chapters, the seemingly farcical proposal that bishops should be elected, nay, priests also thus chosen, the submission of the hierarchy in the matter of residence and travel to a civil authority which openly declared itself indifferent in matters of religion,—all this bewilders the modern mind. How, we ask, could men so learned, so enthusiastic, so laborious and so closely in touch with all the realities of their time, make a blunder of that magnitude? Much more, how did such a blunder escape the damnation of universal mockery and immediate impotence? The answer is to be discovered in what has just been laid down with so much insistence: the temporary eclipse of religion in France before the Revolution broke out.

The men who framed the Constitution of the Clergy, the men who voted it, nay, even the men who argued against it, all had at the back of their minds three conceptions which they were attempting to reconcile: of those three conceptions one was wholly wrong, one was imperfect because superficial, the third alone was true. And these three conceptions were, first, that the Catholic Church was a moribund superstition, secondly, that it possessed in its organisation and tradition a power to be reckoned with, and thirdly, that the State, its organs, and their corporate inheritance of action, were so bound up with the Catholic Church that it was impossible to effect any general political settlement in which that body both external to France and internal, should be neglected.

Of these three conceptions, had the first been as true as the last, it would have saved the Constitution of the Clergy and the reputation for common-sense of those who framed it.

It was certainly true that Catholicism had for so many centuries been bound up in the framework of the State that the Parliament must therefore do something with the Church in the general settlement of the nation: it could not merely leave the Church on one side.

It was also superficially true that the Church was a power to be reckoned with politically, quite apart from the traditional union of Church and State—but only superficially true. What the revolutionary politicians feared was the intrigue of those who commanded the organisation of the Catholic Church, men whom they knew for the most part to be without religion, and the sincerity of all of whom they naturally doubted. A less superficial and a more solid judgment of the matter would have discovered that the real danger lay in the animosity or intrigue against the Civil Constitution, not of the corrupt hierarchy, but of the sincere though ill-instructed and dwindling minority which was still loyally attached to the doctrines and discipline of the Church. But even this superficial judgment would not have been fatal, had not the judgment of the National Assembly been actually erroneous upon the first point—the vitality of the Faith.

Had the Catholic Church been, as nearly all educated men then imagined, a moribund superstition, had the phase of decline through which it was passing been a phase comparable to that through which other religions have passed in their last moments, had it been supported by ancient families from mere tradition, clung to by remote peasants from mere ignorance and isolation, abandoned (as it was) in the towns simply because the towns had better opportunities of intellectual enlightenment and of acquiring elementary knowledge in history and the sciences; had, in a word, the imaginary picture which these men drew in their minds of the Catholic Church and its fortunes been an exact one, then the Civil Constitution of the Clergy would have been a statesmanlike act. It would have permitted the hold of the Catholic Church upon such districts as it still retained to vanish slowly and without shock. It proposed to keep alive at a reasonable salary the ministers of a ritual which would presumably have lost all vitality before the last of its pensioners was dead; it would have prepared a bed, as it were, upon which the last of Catholicism in Gaul could peacefully pass away. The action of the politicians in framing the Constitution would have seemed more generous with every passing decade and their wisdom in avoiding offence to the few who still remained faithful, would have been increasingly applauded.

On the other hand, and from the point of view of the statesman, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy bound strictly to the State and made responsible to it those ancient functions, not yet dead, of the episcopacy and all its train. It was a wise and a just consideration on the part of the Assembly that religions retain their machinery long after they are dead, and if that machinery has ever been a State machinery it must remain subject to the control of the State: and subject not only up to the moment when the living force which once animated it is fled, but much longer; up, indeed, to the moment when the surviving institutions of the dead religion break down and perish.

So argued the National Assembly and its committee, and, I repeat, the argument was just and statesmanlike, prudent and full of foresight, save for one miscalculation. The Catholic Church was not dead, and was not even dying. It was exhibiting many of the symptoms which in other organisms and institutions correspond to the approach of death, but the Catholic Church is an organism and an institution quite unlike any other. It fructifies and expands immediately under the touch of a lethal weapon; it has at its very roots the conception that material prosperity is stifling to it, poverty and misfortune nutritious.

The men of the National Assembly would have acted more wisely had they closely studied the story of Ireland (then but little known), or had they even made themselves acquainted with the methods by which the Catholic Church in Britain, after passing in the fifteenth century through a phase somewhat similar to that under which it was sinking in Gaul in the eighteenth, was stifled under Henry and Elizabeth.

But the desire of the men of 1789 was not to kill the Church but to let it die; they thought it dying. Their desire was only to make that death decent and of no hurt to the nation, and to control the political action of a hierarchy that had been wealthy and was bound up with the old society that was crumbling upon every side.

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy failed: it lit the civil war, it dug the pit which divided Catholicism from the Revolution at the moment of the foreign invasion, it segregated the loyal priest in such a fashion that his order could not but appear to the populace as an order of traitors, and it led, in the furnace of 1793, to the great persecution from the memories of which the relations between the French democracy and the Church have not recovered.

It is important to trace the actual steps of the failure; for when we appreciate what the dates were, how short the time which was left for judgment or for revision, and how immediately disaster followed upon error, we can understand what followed and we can understand it in no other way.

If we find an enduring quarrel between two families whose cause of contention we cannot seize and whose mutual hostility we find unreasonable, to learn that it proceeded from a cataclysm too rapid and too violent for either to have exercised judgment upon it will enable us to excuse or at least to comprehend the endurance of their antagonism. Now, it was a cataclysm which fell upon the relations of the Church and State immediately after the error which the Parliament had committed; a cataclysm quite out of proportion to their intentions, as indeed are most sudden disasters quite out of proportion to the forces that bring them about.

It was, as we have seen, in the summer of 1790—upon the 12th of July—that the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was approved by the Assembly. But it was not until the 26th of August that the King consented to sign. Nor was there at the moment any attempt to give the law effect. The protests of the bishops, for instance, came out quite at leisure, in the month of October, and the active principle of the whole of the Civil Constitution—to wit, the presentation of the Civic Oath which the clergy were required to take, was not even debated until the end of the year.

This Civic Oath, which is sometimes used as a bugbear in the matter, was no more than an engagement under the sanction of an oath that the bishop or priest taking it would maintain the new régime—though that régime included the constitution of the clergy; the oath involved no direct breach with Catholic doctrine or practice. It was, indeed, a folly to impose it, and it was a folly based upon the ignorance of the politicians (and of many of the bishops of the day) as to the nature of the Catholic Church. But the oath was not, nor was it intended to be, a measure of persecution. Many of the parish clergy took it, and most of them probably took it in good faith: nor did it discredit the oath with the public that it was refused by all save four of the acting bishops, for the condition of the hierarchy in pre-revolutionary France was notorious. The action of the bishops appeared in the public eye to be purely political, and the ready acceptance of the oath by so many, though a minority, of the lower clergy argued strongly in its favour.

Nevertheless, no Catholic priest or bishop or layman could take that oath without landing himself in disloyalty to his religion; and that for the same reason which led St. Thomas of Canterbury to make his curious and fruitful stand against the reasonable and inevitable, as much as against the unreasonable, governmental provisions of his time. The Catholic Church is an institution of necessity autonomous. It cannot admit the right of any other power exterior to its own organisation to impose upon it a modification of its discipline, nor, above all, a new conception of its hieratic organisation.

The reader must carefully distinguish between the acceptation by the Church of a detail of economic reform, the consent to suppress a corporation at the request of the civil power, or even to forego certain traditional political rights, and the admission of the general principle of civil control. To that general principle the Assembly, in framing the Constitution of the Clergy, was quite evidently committed. To admit such a co-ordinate external and civil power, or rather to admit a superior external power, is in theory to deny the principle of Catholicism, and in practice to make of the Catholic Church what the other State religions of Christendom have become.

I have said that not until the end of the year 1790 was the debate opened upon the proposition to compel the clergy to take the oath.

It is a singular commentary upon the whole affair that compulsion should have been the subject for debate at all. It should have followed, one would have imagined, normally from the law. But so exceptional had been the action of the Assembly and, as they now were beginning to find, so perilous, that a special decree was necessary—and the King’s signature to it—before this normal consequence of a measure which had been law for months, could be acted upon.

Here let the reader pause and consider with what that moment—the end of 1790—coincided.

The assignats, paper-money issued upon the security of the confiscated estates of the Church, had already depreciated 10 per cent. Those who had first accepted them were paying throughout France a penny in the livre, or as we may put it, a penny farthing on the shilling, for what must have seemed to most of them the obstinacy of one single corporation—and that an unpopular one—against the decrees of the National Assembly.

It was now the moment when a definite reaction against the Revolution was first taking shape, and when the populace was first beginning uneasily to have suspicion of it; it was the moment when the Court was beginning to negotiate for flight; it was the moment when (though the populace did not know it) Mirabeau was advising the King with all his might to seize upon the enforcement of the priests’ oath as an opportunity for civil war.

The whole air of that winter was charged with doubt and mystery: in the minds of all who had enthusiastically followed the march of the Revolution, the short days of that rigorous cold of 1790-91 contained passages of despair, and a very brief period was to suffice for making the clerical oath not only the test of democracy against reaction, but the wedge that should split the nation in two.

With the very opening of the new year, on the 4th of January, the bishops and priests in the Assembly were summoned to take the oath to the King, the Nation, and the Law; but that law included the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, and they refused. Within three months Mirabeau was dead, the flight of the King determined on, the suspicion of Paris at white heat, the oath taken or refused throughout France, and the schismatic priests introduced into their parishes—it may be imagined with what a clamour and with how many village quarrels! In that same fortnight appeared the papal brief, long delayed, and known as the Brief "Caritas," denouncing the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Six weeks later, at the end of May, the papal representative at the French Court was withdrawn, and in that act religious war declared.

Throughout this quarrel, which was now exactly of a year’s duration, but the acute phase of which had lasted only six months, every act of either party to it necessarily tended to make the conflict more violent. Not only was there no opportunity for conciliation, but in the very nature of things the most moderate counsel had to range itself on one side or the other, and every public act which touched in any way upon the sore point, though it touched but indirectly, and with no desire on the part of the actors to rouse the passions of the moment, immediately appeared as a provocation upon one side or the other.

It was inevitable that it should be so, with a population which had abandoned the practice of religion, with the attachment of the clerical organisation to the organisation of the old régime, with the strict bond of discipline that united the priesthood of the Church in France into one whole, and above all with the necessity under which the Revolution was, at this stage, of finding a definite and tangible enemy.

This last point is of the very first importance. Public opinion was exasperated and inflamed, for the King was known to be an opponent of the democratic movement; yet he signed the bills and could not be overtly attacked. The Queen was known to be a violent opponent of it; but she did not actually govern. The Governments of Europe were known to be opponents; but no diplomatic note had yet appeared of which public opinion could make an object for attack.

The resistance, therefore, offered by the clergy to the Civil Constitution, had just that effect which a nucleus will have in the crystallisation of some solution. It polarised the energies of the Revolution, it provided a definite foil, a definite negative, a definite counterpoint, a definite butt. Here was a simple issue. Men wearing a special uniform, pursuing known functions, performing a known part in society—to wit, the priests—were now for the most part the enemies of the new democratic Constitution that was in preparation. They would not take the oath of loyalty to it: they were everywhere in secret rebellion against it and, where they were dispossessed of their cures, in open rebellion. The clergy, therefore, that is the non-juring clergy (and the conforming clergy were an experiment that soon became a fiction), were after April 1791, in the eyes of all the democrats of the time, the plainest and most tangible form of the opposition to democracy.

To the way in which I have presented the problem a great deal more might be added. The very fact that the democratic movement had come after a period of unfaith, and was non-Catholic in its springs, would have tended to produce that quarrel. So would the necessary attachment of the Catholic to authority and the easy confusion between the principle of authority and claims of a traditional monarchy. Again, the elements of vanity, of material greed, and of a false finality which are to be discovered in any purely democratic theory of the State, will between them always bring this theory into some conflict with religion. The centuries during which the throne and the altar had stood as twin symbols, especially in France, the very terminology of religious metaphor which had been forged during the centuries of monarchical institutions in Europe, helped to found the great quarrel. But, I repeat, the overt act without which the quarrel could never have become the terribly great thing it did, the master blunder which destroyed the unity of the revolutionary movement, was the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.

So much for the first year of the schism, May 1790 to May 1791. The second year is but an intensification of the process apparent in the first.

It opens with the King's flight in June 1791: that is, with the first open act of enmity taken against the authority of the National Parliament since, two years before, the National Parliament had declared itself supreme. Already the Court had been generally identified with the resistance of the clergy, and a particular example of this had appeared in the opinion that the King’s attempted journey to St. Cloud in April had been prompted by a desire to have communion at the hands of a non-juring priest.[1] When, therefore, the King fled, though his flight had nothing whatsoever to do with the clerical quarrel, it was associated in men’s minds with the clerical quarrel through his attempt to leave Paris in April and from a long association of the Court with the clerical resistance. The outburst of anti-monarchical feeling which followed the flight was at the same time an outburst of anti-clerical feeling; but the clergy were everywhere and could be attacked everywhere. The Declaration of Pillnitz, which the nation very rightly interpreted as the beginning of an armed European advance against the French democracy, was felt to be a threat not only in favour of the King but in favour also of the rebellious ecclesiastics.

And so forth. The uneasy approach of war throughout that autumn and winter of 1791-92, the peculiar transformation of the French temperament which war or its approach invariably produces—a sort of constructive exaltation and creative passion—began to turn a great part of its energy or fury against the very persons of the orthodox priests.

The new Parliament, the "Legislative" as it was called, had not been sitting two months when it passed, upon November 29, 1791, the decree that non-juring priests should be deprived of their stipend. And here again we must note the curious lack of adjustment between law and fact in all this clerical quarrel! For more than a year public money had been paid to men who, under the law, should not during the whole of that year have touched any salary! Yet, as in the case of the oath, special action was necessary, and moreover the Parliament added to this tardy and logical consequence of the law a declaration that those who had not so taken the oath within eight days of their decree should be rendered "suspect."

The word "suspect" is significant. The Parliament even now could not act, at least it could not act without the King; and this word "suspect," which carried no material consequences with it, was one that might cover a threat of things worse than regular and legal punishment. It was like the mark that some power not authorised or legal makes upon the door of those whom that power has singled out for massacre in some city.

Three weeks later Louis vetoed the decree refusing stipends to non-jurors, and the year 1791 ended with the whole matter in suspense but with exasperation increasing to madness.

The first three months of 1792 saw no change. The non-juring clergy were still tolerated by the Executive in their illegal position, and, what is more extraordinary, still received public money and were still for the most part in possession of their cures; the conception that the clergy were the prime, or at any rate the most obvious, enemies of the new régime now hardened into a fixed opinion which the attempted persecution of religion, as the one party called it, the obstinate and anti-national rebellion of factious priests, as the other party called it, was rapidly approaching real persecution and real rebellion.

With April 1792 came the war, and all the passions of the war.

The known hostility of the King to the Revolution was now become something far worse: his known sympathy with an enemy under arms. To force the King into the open was henceforward the main tactic of the revolutionary body.

Now for those whose object was forcing Louis XVI to open declarations of hostility against the nation, his religion was an obvious instrument. In no point could one come to closer grips with the King than on this question of the Church, where already, in December 1791, he had exercised his veto.

On May 27, 1792, therefore, Guadet and Vergniaud, the Girondins, moved that a priest who had refused to take the oath should be subjected to transportation upon the mere demand of any twenty taxpayers within that assembly of parishes known as a “Canton.” It was almost exactly two years since the Civil Constitution of the Clergy had first been reported to the House by the Ecclesiastical Committee of the Constituent or National Assembly.

It must not be forgotten under what external conditions this violent act, the first true act of persecution, was demanded. It was already a month since, upon the 20th of April, the war had opened upon the Belgian frontier by a disgraceful panic and the murder of General Dillon; almost contemporaneous with that breakdown was the corresponding panic and flight of the French troops in their advance to Mons. All Europe was talking of the facile march upon Paris which could now be undertaken; and in general this decree against the priests was but part of the exasperated policy which was rising to meet the terror of the invasion.

It was followed, of course, by the decree dismissing the Royal Guard, and, rather more than a week later, by the demand for the formation of a camp of volunteers under the walls of Paris. But with this we are not here concerned. The King vetoed the decree against the non-juring priests, and in the wild two months that followed the orthodox clergy were, in the mind of the populace, and particularly the populace of Paris, identified with the cause of the re-establishment of the old régime and the success of the invading foreign armies.

With the crash of the 10th of August the persecution began: the true persecution, which was to the growing bitterness of the previous two years what a blow is to the opening words of a quarrel.

The decree of the 27th of May was put into force within eleven days of the fall of the Tuileries. True, it was not put into force in that crudity which the Parliament had demanded: the non-juring priests were given a fortnight to leave the kingdom, and if they failed to avail themselves of the delay were to be transported.

From this date to the end of the Terror, twenty-three months later, the story of the relations between the Revolution and the Church, though wild and terrible, is simple: it is a story of mere persecution culminating in extremes of cruelty and in the supposed uprooting of Christianity in France.

The orthodox clergy were everywhere regarded by this time as the typical enemies of the revolutionary movement; they themselves regarded the revolutionary movement, by this time, as being principally an attempt to destroy the Catholic Church.

Within seven months of the fall of the monarchy, from the 18th of March, 1793, the priests, whether non-juring or schismatic, might, on the denunciation of any six citizens, be subjected to transportation.

There followed immediately a general attack upon religion. The attempted closing of all churches was, of course, a failure, but it was firmly believed that such attachment as yet remained to the Catholic Church was due only to the ignorance of the provincial districts which displayed it, or to the self-seeking of those who fostered it. The attempt at mere “de-christianisation,” as it was called, failed, but the months of terror and cruelty, the vast number of martyrdoms (for they were no less) and the incredible sufferings and indignities to which the priests who attempted to remain in the country were subjected, burnt itself, as it were, into the very fibre of the Catholic organisation in France, and remained, in spite of political theory one way or the other, and in spite of the national sympathies of the priesthood, the one great active memory inherited from that time.

Conversely, the picture of the priest, his habit and character, as the fatal and necessary opponent of the revolutionary theory, became so fixed in the mind of the Republican that two generations did nothing to eliminate it, and that even in our time the older men, in spite of pure theory, cannot rid themselves of an imagined connection between the Catholic Church and an international conspiracy against democracy. Nor does this non-rational but very real feeling lack support from the utterances of those who, in opposing the political theory of the French Revolution, consistently quote the Catholic Church as its necessary and holy antagonist.

The attempt to “de-christianise” France failed, as I have said, completely. Public worship was restored, and the Concordat of Napoleon was believed to have settled the relations between Church and State in a permanent fashion. We have lived to see it dissolved; but this generation will not see, nor perhaps the generation succeeding it, the issue of the struggle between two bodies of thought which are divided by no process of reason, but profoundly divorced by the action of vivid and tragic historical memories.

  1. This opinion has entered into so many Protestant and non-Catholic histories of the Revolution that it is worth criticising once again in this little book. The King was perfectly free to receive communion privately from the hands of orthodox priests, did so receive it, and had received communion well within the canonical times. There was little ecclesiastical reason for the attempted leaving of Paris for St. Cloud on Monday the 18th April, 1791, save the custom (not the religious duty) of communicating in public on Easter Sunday itself; it was a political move.