The French episcopate seemed to develop rather differently, as an alternative model to that of its Spanish counterparts, especially in the early decades of the seventeenth century. France was a country with a strong and active Calvinist minority, recognized by the Edict of Nantes in 1598. With the end of the wars of religion, a reconstruction of Catholic religious and ecclesiastical life became necessary. This was pursued within the framework of the approximately 130 French dioceses, dioceses which differed dramatically in size from the very large in the north of the country, to the very much smaller in the south. Here, as in the Iberian peninsula, the nomination of bishops was the monarch's privilege, and in the seventeenth century these appointments were generally successful. There was an increasing preference for candidates from the upper nobility, so that the aristocracy controlled all the French dioceses by the late eighteenth century.
Though in all Catholic European countries, the episcopate formed a prestigious ecclesiastical elite, in France the bishops were at the head of the first order of the state, with its own unique representative system (the Assembly of the Clergy). This Assembly was first convened in 1561 to contribute an agreed amount of money for the financial needs of the monarchy. Rapidly developing into a permanent body meeting every five years, the Assembly of the Clergy sought to overcome various financial and administrative problems within its areas of competence and to support the Gallican policies of the monarchy. Thus, it generally approved the four Gallican articles of 1682 and the king's repressive policies against the Calvinists, especially those in the dioceses of the Midi. Initially somewhat divided on the problem of Jansenism, a large anti-Jansenist majority developed among the bishops, as the effects of this opposition movement began to be felt in the religious, political, and cultural life of eighteenth-century France.
There was certainly no lack of abuses and scandal within the ranks of the seventeenth-century French episcopate, abuses which were reinforced by the sumptuous lifestyle and the irregular residence of the bishops. But a new model for the bishops was also emerging, based on a new theological and pastoral concept of the episcopacy, influenced by Saint Francis de Sales, by the Jansenist Duguet, and by the Borromaic and Vincentian movements. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the bishops increased their efforts to train the diocesan clergy, creating many new seminaries and improving the pedagogy in those already established. Above all, the eighteenth-century
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