Church property and rights to the tithe

In Protestant Europe, the Reformation had stripped away a considerable amount of church property, much of it coming from monasteries that were dissolved. The land, real estate, and other assets that had once belonged to the church fell into the hands of secular authorities or served to fund schools, universities, and charities. Protestant churches did possess some property and still retained most rights to the tithe, but they owned far less than religious institutions in Catholic territories.

Precisely how much property the Catholic Church had is not easily determined. One reason is that contemporary accounts of the church's assets and early historical analyses of what it owned were often biased. Eighteenth-century reformers who wanted their governments to confiscate church land often exaggerated the church's holdings. Nineteenth-century historians of suppressed religious houses, who lamented what the church had gone through, would do the same, while their anticlerical opponents might be tempted to minimize the damage. Further complicating the task of estimating the church's wealth is the way it varied from country to country, from region to region, and over time as well. If we limit ourselves to real estate, then in France, for instance, the clergy held some 6 per cent of the land on the eve of the French Revolution, but their holdings dropped to below 2 per cent in parts of the south and rose to nearly 40 per cent in parts of the north. In Bavaria, the percentage is even higher: over half the forest and farm land was in church hands. For Catholic Europe as a whole, it has been asserted that the regular clergy alone possessed perhaps 10 and even as much as 30 per cent of the real estate in Catholic countries, but the true figure, which we will never know, may well be different. And real estate was not the Catholic Church's only asset. It also had pensions, the tithe, cash gifts from the faithful, and rights to a variety of seigniorial dues, and the income from its land and other assets made it a major employer not just of artists, musicians, craftsmen and servants, but of lawyers and estate managers as well.

The wealth the Catholic Church had was not evenly distributed - some (though not all) parish priests might have very little, while the abbot of an ancient monastery might have a great deal - but it turned the richer Catholic institutions into political plums for rulers and the aristocracy. In France and Spain, monarchs exercised control over a number of the major benefices and used them as a form of patronage to reward supporters and officials and their families. The practice was pushed to extremes in France, where the king could give supporters (or a member of their families) control over wealthy

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