local administrators - assemblies which might even include Protestants or free thinkers, as long as such individuals were willing to attend a preliminary Mass. No confirmation of new bishops would be asked of the pope. Rome would simply be notified of the election in the name of 'the unity of the faith'.

In November 1790, the vast majority of the ancien regime bishops accepted an Exposition of principles, penned by the Archbishop of Aix, objecting to many elements of the Civil Constitution, but agreeing to cooperate temporarily while they awaited a decision from the pope. Yet some individual bishops were far less accommodating, issuing statements opposing the sale of church property or the suppression of their dioceses. On 27 November, in an atmosphere of growing impatience, the National Assembly took the fateful step of imposing a clerical oath of allegiance to the new Constitution. In the minds of the deputies, the oath was directed primarily against the bishops, viewed as the principal source of opposition. Almost as an afterthought, it was also required of parish clergymen and ecclesiastics who were serving as teachers. Anyone who refused to swear the oath would be stripped of his position.

At the end of December, after much soul-searching, the king formally sanctioned the oath legislation. During the next three months, tens of thousands of priests in cathedrals and parish churches in every corner of the kingdom were required to stand before their congregations following Sunday Mass and affirm their solemn, religious acquiescence to the Constitution in the precise words specified by the Assembly. To no one's surprise, virtually all of the bishops refused to comply. Only four diocesan prelates - along with two coadjutors -out of the eighty-three formally held to the oath ultimately accepted it. Far more unexpected and disconcerting were the results registered among the parish clergy. The vast majority were probably eager to show their acceptance of the Revolution in general, and almost all were willing to take some form of oath. But some 48 per cent of a total of 51,000 cures and vicaires insisted on amending various kinds of restrictions, typically specifying that their allegiance to the state could not extend to spiritual matters. According to the amended oath legislation, such restrictions were judged unacceptable and the priests in question would be forced to leave their posts.

The proportion of oath-takers varied enormously from region to region, with individual districts ranging from 100 per cent compliance to total rejection. The reasons for this regional diversity were complex. In some of the strongly 'constitutional' areas (Dauphine, Provence, portions of the Pyrenees) the parish clergy had been particularly disinherited from the wealth of the ancien régime church. Long-standing patterns of organized opposition to the episcopacy over economic and ecclesiological issues made a break in 1791

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment