Civil Constitution of the Clergy

Following the August Decrees, there were a series of reforms made by the National Assembly to the Church, done through the Civil Constitution of the Clergy on 12 July 1790. These included the abolition of tithes, allowing religious freedom through the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the sale of Church lands (2 November 1789) and monastic vows forbidden – that is, vows had to be made to France, not God. All congregations which did not attend to children or the sick were dissolved and all other Church property was transferred to the State, with state-paid clerical salaries. From the perspective of the National Constituent Assembly, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was viewed as a simple reorganisation of the Gallican Church, rather than an attack on religion.

There were some positives associated with the Civil Constitution, such as the more efficient organisation of Church bureaucracy, the mandate that all clergy live in or near their diocese (addressing the previous corruption which existed in the Church) and the representative reflection of all 83 newly-created departements (regions) in the number of bishops.

However, the document assumed an obvious division between secular issues and theology, which did not exist in such neat dichotomies in actual society. The primary causes of dissent here stemmed from the removal of the role of the Pope as the Head of the Church, which was now under state control. Appointment of clergy was now also democratised and moved away from the Pope’s domain of power, as active, land-owning males were able to vote for bishops and vicars, and all French citizens were now forbidden from contacting “foreign Church representatives”, that is, the Vatican.

The Civil Constitution divided the revolutionaries themselves, with the majority of the population being Gallican Christian. In response to both the Clerical Oath and the Papal Bull Charitas, which was a document issued by Pope Pius VI on 13 April 1791 which essentially offered French citizens a choice between supporting the Revolution which he perceived to be attacking the Church, and the keeping their religion, with no compromise possible. This moral conflict caused support for the Revolution to wane, as many peasants very quickly sided with the Church, fearing eternal damnation, and division in the clergy itself to develop.


See Also

Clerical Oath