Bernard Plongeron – The Practice of Democracy in the Constitutional Church of France (1790 – 1801) (1972)

[Originally published in the 1972 issue of Concilium Election and Consensus in the Church, Herder and Herder.]

The Church of France, the child of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of 12 July 1790, is despised by historians, who usually regard it as no more than a schismatic interlude in the life of Catholicism. And yet, behind the political decisions, the Constitutional Church taught and developed, until the Concordat of 1801, a theology and internal organization which in the light of Vatican II is impressively and admirably modern.

To understand their significance, we must find out what this Church was really like, in contrast to the caricatures offered by its opponents. Instead of imagining a handful of Gallican-Jansenist tub-thumpers, brought together by Abbe Grégoire with the aim of overthrowing Rome by means of the wild claims of demagogues, it would be necessary to rediscover the plan which these republican bishops and parish priests, many of whom were first-class theologians and who demonstrated their priestly courage during the crisis of the Terror, had for the Church.

It is worth while to recall this theology of the people of God, which grounded an elective principle bringing into play the consensus of bishops, priests and laity, with no schismatic intention and in conformity with the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Like Lamourette in 1791, the bishop of the Meuse in 1801 explained his position: both maintained a unity of faith, of the priesthood (without presbyterianism), and of genuine communion with Rome. Here I can only sketch the stages by which these principles were applied from 1790 to 1801.

I. Under the Protection of the State: 1790-1793

In order to govern the eighty-five dioceses established by the new regime, with their thousands of parishes, section II of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy laid down electoral procedure in detail, in departmental assemblies for the bishops and district assemblies for the priests. Two candidates were put forward. An absolute majority was requisite at the first vote, and a bare majority at the subsequent votes. The elder was elected if the votes were equal (cf. the Decree of 22 December 1789). Canonical requirements were laid down for the candidates: ten years of service in a parish for candidates for bishop, and five for candidates for parish priest. Canonical investiture was in the hands of the metropolitan, who could not refuse it except “after having consulted with the whole clergy of his church” (art. XVI). The bishop had to discuss with his council the institution of parish priests, whose election “will be carried out by separate votes for each vacant parish” (art. XXVIII). “In no case will there be any appeal except from the bishop to the diocesan synod and from the metropolitan to the metropolitan synod” (section I, art. V). Every active citizen who was an elector to the civil assembly could take part in the church elections. The bishop’s council had a consultative function and consisted of members selected by a double procedure: episcopal vicars chosen by the diocesan, and superiors of religious houses and directors of the seminary, who themselves were elected in synod “by means of separate ballots and with an absolute majority of votes”. They could not be deprived except in a synod, on a complaint laid by the bishop with knowledge of the facts (section II, art. XXIV). The legislator obviously intended to guarantee the independence of the elected member, within the council, against episcopal vicars who might be the “creatures” of the bishop and no longer have opinions of their own. This was a wise precaution, for in many dioceses experience was to show the servility of the episcopal vicars, whose suppression was called for in 1793. Although the parish priest chose his curates in the same way as the bishop his vicars, he had direct power over them. The curate had hardly any legal recourse against his parish priest.

In practice, and although the bishop of 1791 had much in common with his predecessor under the Ancien Régime as far personal and effective power was concerned, the procedure suffered from the complications and exceptions inherent in the political situation in the diocese. At the episcopal level, the civil authorities thought nothing of putting pressure on the electors. Thus the authorities of the Société des Amis la Révolution et de la Liberté at Soissons conducted an electoral campaign, in January 1791, on behalf of Abbe Grégoire, “parish priest of Emberminil (sic)” for his election to the see of the Aisne. Lafont de Savine, consecrated bishop of Viviers in 1778, one of the five bishops of the Ancien Régime to accept the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, made a great show of submitting to the laws of democracy. He resigned in order to be reinstated by popular vote. Going beyond the provisions of the Constitution, he made his episcopal vicars stand for election by the parish priests during a sumptuous banquet given in the park of his episcopal residence. In some places we hear of numerous Protestants and even Jews (in Alsace and Gard) as well as women in the electoral assemblies. But in general the procedure at episcopal elections followed the rules, the minutes were scrupulously kept, and the ceremonial of investiture observed perfectly.

The main sources of difficulty lay elsewhere. Presentation to parishes depended upon the geographical spread of priests who had taken the oath, and the rate of retractations. On various pretexts, those elected did not all accept the post to which they were sent. “In Sarthe, a quarter refused, in Ardèche, in Maine-et-Loire and the Vendée, three-quarters or at least a half” [1].

The result was that the system laid down by the Constituent Assembly was increasingly flouted. The length of service necessary to be nominated parish priest was reduced; priests from one department were allowed to stand in another; religious were drawn upon; and worse still, the bishops were given authority to nominate priests-in-charge.

Irregularities of this sort did not prevent the concerted action resulting from a church government that was both hierarchical and collegial from leading to methodical and fruitful work. In 1791, the thirteen episcopal vicars of the council of Loir-et-Cher, under the direction of Grégoire, shared out their tasks not on the pattern of the former archdeaconries, but on that of the districts. When parish priests addressed their request to the bishop they were to mark them “ecclesiastical affairs”, so that every member of the council could know of them. This was a neat way of indicating that there is no longer any sphere reserved to the bishop. Did this mean that the episcopal council was comparable to the Supreme Soviet? This is not so, and the State took care that episcopal prerogatives were respected. A notable example is where the bishop, as a member of the National Assembly, could no longer ensure the regular fulfilment of his functions in his diocese. As at Blois in the case of Grégoire, an order of the Departmental Directory of 25 May 1792 confers upon the chief vicar, Servier, for the church of Lyons, :the acts of jurisdiction which do not require the episcopal character”. These acts could only be carried out on the “advice of the council”, according to article XLI of the law of 24 August 1790.

Whether or not the Church remained master of the situation depended upon the interplay of personalities and influences within the council. Diverse reactions towards the marriage of priests from 1792 onwards are characteristic in this respect. At Paris, four parish priests combined in 1793 to denounce the scandalous decision of the council of Bishop Gobel to institute, as the new parish priest of Saint-Augustin, Aubert, a curate who married in 1792. “Surely the bishop cannot claim to be in charge of discipline throughout his diocese to such an extent that he thinks his personal authority, without even consulting his presbyterate, and of which we form an essential part, entitles him to do away with all general and particular, apostolic and modern regulations, without cause, without necessity, and for no good and plausible reason . . .?” [2] On the other hand, in March 1793, the episcopal council of Nord debated whether a married man who wished to remain in the married state could be admitted to orders. At the first session, the voting was equal. The bishop did not wish to give a casting vote. At a second meeting, on 29 March, the council voted in favour after hearing a long memorandum prepared by the second vicar [3]. Cooperation could easily turn into sometimes violent dispute, as the difficulties of the year 1793 grew greater. The bishop of the Somme, Desbois de Rochefort, one of the most outstanding personalities of the constitutional clergy, decided to rid himself of some of his episcopal vicars whom he regarded as too turbulent. The pretext he used was the decree of 1 July 1793 requiring bishops to send their surplus vicars to be priests-in-charge of the disendowed parishes in their diocese. The two vicars he had in mind joined with their colleagues in the council to protest to the civil authorities. The chief vicar, Brandicourt, pointed to his twenty-three years in charge of one of the most important parishes in Amiens, and recalled that he had forced the bishop to a further ballot at the two first votes in the episcopal election. On 12 August, the two elected commissioners, Peyssard and Lacost, rejected the bishop’s decision on the ground that he was exceeding his powers.

This was one of the last interventions of the State in the internal government of the Church. Soon afterwards the State did not recognize the privileged status of the Church.

II. Between the Charge of Feudalism and Anarchy (1793-1795)

“A privileged status”—a fatal charge for an individual or a body in 1793—was the somewhat paradoxical accusation made against the national Church. According to P. C. F. Bert, [4] its organization, based upon the civil institution, was democratic in appearance only. In his view, this is a result of the persistence of traditional offices, which always made churchmen “an order, and the first order in the State. This order has an existence so separate and independent of the authorities that in it not bodies but individuals form the legal hierarchy that constitutes it. One priest is a metropolitan, a bishop, etc…. By contrast, the departments, districts, municipalities and tribunals exist only because they are composed of a certain quantity of citizens, and because these individuals are gathered together where their meetings are taking place: none of their members is anything outside this meeting place, and none has any authority on his own . . .” (p. 21). Somewhat illogically, the same writer protests further on against the form of independence which the Constituent Assembly had created for parish priests: “The parish priest has nothing to fear from the council, which never hears anything of him, and never tries in any way to find out how he behaves” (p. 69). There is no mutual emulation, because the parish priest has nothing to look forward to after he is elected; he need not fear being called to order by a bishop trying to keep the goodwill of his council and consequently avoiding delicate inquiries, by contrast to the chief vicar of the past, to whom this Republican writer looks back with some nostalgia. This tendentious work drew attention to a gap in the new system: the absence of pastoral visitations, which in certain dioceses the parish priests refused as a survival of despotism. In 1797, the bishop of Amiens complained of the discredit into which the episcopal function had fallen: “The most sacred rules of ecclesiastical discipline have been broken: one might say that the church is without government. The parishes think that they can enjoy the benefits of Catholic worship and do without the parish priests; and if the bishop were not absolutely necessary for ordination and confirmation, his ministry would be called upon by no more than a tiny number of priests; he would not even be able to exercise his authority without danger to himself” [5]. The bishop of the Jura, Moise, described the disarray and confusion created in the parishes during the year II. In one place the Terror led to the desertion of a parish, in another it installed, in breach of an interdict, priests who had renounced their orders, had married or were simply in rebellion. He affirmed that ninety-eight per cent of his parish priests alleged to be in office in 1795 no longer possessed the legal document recording their election “and those who did have it, what did they possess? Improper and fundamentally invalid documents.” He also attacked the institution of episcopal vicars, “new canons”, seizing all powers for themselves and often unworthy in their conduct. “Unfortunately it was not thought possible in 1790, after the enlargement of the dioceses and the division of parishes, that all the parish priests, as co-operators with the bishop, could form his presbyterate and could be members of his council” [6].

III. A New Church Organization (1795-1801)

The moment the churches were reopened, in the spring of 1795, a committee of “United Bishops” (Évêques réunis) was formed at Paris under the leadership of Grégoire, bishop of Loir-et-Cher, with the assistance of the metropolitan bishop of Rouen, the bishops of the Somme, the Landes and the Ain. Three of them, Grégoire (Blois), Saurine (Dax) and Royer (Bellay) were former members of the Convention. In order to reach dioceses throughout the country, to publicize their decisions, and to get the pastoral and doctrinal movement under way again, they founded the Annales de la Religion, of which Grégoire and Desbois were joint editors. On 15 March 1795, by way of their periodical, the United Bishops sent an “Encyclical Letter to their Brothers, the Other Bishops, and to the Churches without Bishops“, which was also a manifesto of the religious revival, a profession of Roman Catholic faith, a charter for the reorganization of the Church which resulted from the reaction of Thermidor (27 July 1794), and an appeal for a national council.

Under the heading of reorganization, they specified as an urgent requirement that the bishop was to have two councils: the first was a survival of that set up by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the opinion of which must be taken regarding every general regulation to be applied in the diocese. The second was a creation inspired by the presbyterium of apostolic times, which included all priests regularly employed by the bishop. It must have twelve members at least, and in ordinary administration the bishop “will do nothing important without having conferred with them”. Another innovation is that if the see is vacant, the government of the diocese is taken over by the presbytery.

From the very first, the new organization was distinguished from that of 1790 by a collegiality of the bishops as a body, and of the priests with their bishop, together with a number of laymen who had the right to speak. Thirty bishops and three metropolitan presbyteries (Paris, Lyons and Angers) followed the Encyclical Letter and set about organizing diocesan presbyteries where they did not yet exist. The authority of the bishop was not yet clearly defined, as was admitted by one of the United Bishops, Gratian, metropolitan of Rouen. In 1797, he wrote to Grégoire: “It is certain that the bishop is obliged to consult the clergy of his own diocese on important matters; but a question which it seems to me remains undecided is whether he is obliged to follow the majority of even the virtual unanimity of pastors of the second rank. I see clearly that he cannot make a decision against their unanimous view. In any case he would do so in vain. But I do not see so clearly that he may not abstain from a decision in this case” [7]. Nevertheless, the central and painful issue remained the election of new bishops following the death, retirement or abdication during the Terror of those who held the post in 1791. In 1795, more than a quarter of the dioceses of 1790 were ‘widowed churches’. What electoral procedure was to be followed? What control could there be when the State no longer offered its official guarantee?

In one of the most important decrees, On Elections (eight sections) the National Council of August-November 1797, at which there were a hundred and one participants (thirty-one bishops and seventy priest delegates, with six theologians as experts) set about adapting the former Civil Constitution of the Clergy to the experience of the Church after 1795, and to the recasting of territorial divisions in the Constitution of the year III (1795).

Apostolic authority was handed down by election and ordination, to use Bossuet’s expression, from pastor to pastor, from bishop to bishop. There was an absolute respect for electoral freedom: “It is of little importance whether the people and the clergy take part in the election together or whether one or other of them takes the initiative.” The procedure of acclamation may even be used. But in order to be an elector, one must be a Catholic and twenty-one years of age, which the former Constitution did not lay down. More attention was paid than ever before to canonical institution, preceded in certain cases by a virtual interrogation on the subject of morals and faith, and also upon the past conduct of the candidate for consecration [8]. If for any reason the election of the bishop was not completed within two months, the metropolitan acting with his suffragans had an unrestricted right to nominate him. This was done in the case of Aubert, metropolitan of the Côtes de la Méditerranée, nominated in 1798 by his three suffragans of the Var, the Basses-Alpes and the Vaucluse, but acclaimed on the day of his consecration by the presbytery of Aix. There is a new intermediate authority: the archpriest, “The eye of the bishop”, elected by a synod based on the arrondissement and living in the canton (the sub-division of a department). The election of a parish priest was to be made from a list of three candidates, presented by the archpriest to the bishop: the laity were to vote on this list. In every election a majority of two-thirds of the votes was required. The curates continued to be chosen by the parish priest, but with the consent of the bishop; and they could not be removed except for good reason.

The real innovation lay in the activity of the diocesan synods, which were real diocesan parliaments in matters of doctrine and discipline, in which the laity could take part. The meetings of these synods were slow in getting under way, but were in full swing in 1800 for the preparation of the second National Council, in which priests of the second rank were more important as delegates than in 1797. By then thirty-five dioceses had held their first synod (the model of which remains that of the Jura with 168 participants). Between 1789 and 1800 fifty-three dioceses called their synod together for the first time.

Thus the twenty-five thousand or so members of the Constitutional Church, on the eve of the Concordat, were subject to a discipline which was not without its weaknesses, either in the form of internal struggles (e.g., the battle over the metropolitan of Paris) or of the ill-will and open opposition of the civil auth¬ orities; but at every level in the hierarchy they had recovered a sense of collegiality never before achieved in the Church in France. There was a reminder of this after the Revolution of 1830, when certain churchmen demanded a return to the elective and collegial principle [9].

Translated by R. A. Wilson

[1] J. Leflon, La crise révolutionnaire 1789-1846, Vol. 20 of L’Histoire de l’Église (Paris, 1949), p. 76.
[2] Réclamation adressée aux évêques de France, par des curés de Paris . . . (Paris, June 1793).
[3] La Feuille Villageoise, 42, 19 July 1792, pp. 369-70.
[4] Des prêtres salarié par la nation considérés dans leur rapports avec le gouvernement républicain (Paris, 1793).
[5] Lettre pastorale de l’évêque d’Amiens pour la convocation du Synode diocéain . . . (Paris, May 1797)
[6] Procès-verbal d’actes du Synode diocésain de Saint-Claude (5-6 August 1800), unbound, no date.
[7] Bibl. Soc. de Port-Royal, Grégoire correspondance, Seine Inférieure file
[8] Questions faites au R. évêque élu de Versailles, par son métropolitain et Réponses (Paris, 1797).
[9] Du système électif étendu aux membres du clergé ou de la promotion aux évêchés et aux curés (Paris, September 1832).