French Revolution

The Revolution was not at the beginning a movement against the Church or clergy of France. The rank and file of the clergy were in favour of increasing the franchise of the Third Estate as representative of the people. However, no sooner had the Constituent Assembly established itself than the old Gallican contention for the ascendancy of the State above the Church asserted itself. As the need of money to carry on the Revolution became acute, it seemed advisable to the Assembly to stop the allowance for the salaries of the clergy and the upkeep of the clergy, and to seize on Church property and convert much of it to the support of the new regime.

Gradually the spirit created by Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot possessed the leaders in the Assembly, and soon they determined to reconstitute the clergy on a new basis by what was called the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. This created new dioceses and authorized the voters, whether believers or not, to nominate parish priests and bishops, forbidding the latter to seek confirmation in office from Rome.

The Assembly required all priests to swear to this Constitution. This Pope Pius VI forbade and a slight majority obeyed him. Soon those who would not swear became liable to transportation to Guiana and even to death. Under the Convention (1792 to 1795) which proclaimed the Republic, the Revolution became anti-religious. Catholics were persecuted; many priests were slain; at one time 1,500 were stabbed or clubbed to death in foul prisons. An altar was raised to the Goddess of Reason in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the goddess a woman of low character. Robespierre attempted to establish a cult in honor of the Supreme Being. Out of fear of incensing the people in the provinces, the leaders hesitated to abolish religion or close the churches entirely. This explains the vacillating policy of the revolutionists. They succeeded, however, in driving out of the country nearly 10,000 priests. All this ceased with the advent of Napoleon in 1799, and the Concordat, unsatisfactory though it was, secured for the Church in France well-nigh a century of peace.

Martyrs profiled on this site include