The French Revolution & the Catholic Church

Chartres was one of the few French cathedrals that remained intact during the Revolution.
... Jupiterimages/ Images

The French Revolution was a watershed event for the Catholic Church, not just in France but eventually across all of Europe. By stripping the Church of all its property and political power, then attempting to dechristianize all of France, the revolutionary government severely restricted the Church's political power and severed the church from its influence on the state, even after the Catholic Church returned to France.

1 The Church and the Ancien Régime

Prior to the French Revolution, the Catholic Church in France -- known as the Gallican Church -- was enormously powerful. The official religion of France, nearly the entire population was Catholic, and those that weren't -- mainly Protestants and Jews -- did not enjoy equal citizenship under the law. Being French meant being Catholic. In addition, the Church owned about six percent of land in France, paid no taxes and collected a national tithe that was ten percent of all agricultural production. As one of the three estates, or social classes, governing France, the Church also wielded considerable political power disproportionate to the number of its representatives.

2 Early Revolution

Revolutionaries did not set out to remove the Catholic Church from France, but from the beginning of the revolutionary period in 1789 there were tensions arising from the perceived inequality of wealth enjoyed by the clergy. In a matter of months, the Church gave up its tithe, Church property was declared to be at the disposal of the state, and monasteries and property were seized and sold. In July of that year, the National Assembly drafted a Constitution of the Clergy, which redrew the boundaries of the diocese according to state administrative lines, and in November the state demanded an oath of allegiance to the Constitution rather than the Pope.

3 Reign of Terror

Because of the Pope's disapproval of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the Church's association with the Ancien Régime, there was a growing sentiment in France that to be pro-Gallican also meant one was against the Revolution, and it was not a good time to be a counter-revolutionary in France. The majority of Church officials fled the country, and those who stayed ran the risk of being arrested or attacked in the street.

With the arrival of the Reign of Terror and the Revolutionary Tribunal in 1793, it became clear the government intended to remove the Catholic Church from France altogether, with the elimination of the Christian calendar and establishment of "cults" to take the place of Christianity. In many homes, however, Catholic practice was carried on in secret and performed by the laity.

4 Napoleon and the Concordat

When Napoleon came to power in 1799, he saw the re-establishment of the Catholic Church in France as a way to unite the people. After months of negotiation with the Pope, an agreement, also known as a Concordat, was reached to reintroduce the clergy into France. Much of what the revolutionary government had established remained in place, however: the Catholic Church was only the church of the majority of the French people, not the official state religion; diocese were still drawn according to state lines and Napoleon reserved the right to name bishops himself. Never again would the Catholic Church enjoy the sponsorship or autonomy it had under the Ancien Régime, and the laity would continue to be more involved in church practice.

Natasha Brandstatter is an art historian and writer. She has a MA in art history and you can find her academic articles published in "Western Passages," "History Colorado" and "Dutch Utopia." She is also a contributor to Book Riot and Food Riot, a media critic with the Pueblo PULP and a regular contributor to Femnista.