Welfare or Persecution?
The French Revolution and the Catholic Church
How many times one hears that the French Revolution aimed to eliminate what oppressed the people and to establish what was best for them? What an erroneous idea this is! The French Revolution aimed to eliminate what was best for the people, the Holy Catholic Church, and to establish an order of things which was hostile to the salvation and well-being of the faithful. However, this war against the Church especially in France did not erupt suddenly and without warning. It gradually increased momentum through a chain of events; the preceding events paving the way for those that followed. In order to understand this persecution better, it is necessary to see what influenced it.
Eighteenth century France was affected by the upheavals of the Protestant pseudo-Reformation which spread its deadly poison of revolt against ecclesiastical authority, and of the free interpretation of the Scriptures. The heresy of Jansenism did much to instill spiritual decay in France. This sort of "Calvinized" Catholicism believed that God did not wish to save all of mankind and that He only gives graces to those whom He wishes to save. Man's will is powerless against the lures of concupiscence, they claimed, and grace is irresistible. They regarded Holy Communion as a reward only for the virtuous and it was more meritorious to refuse the reward than to accept it. Furthermore, they declared that the sacrament of Penance was only effective with perfect contrition. Devotion to the Blessed Mother and the saints was disregarded.1 This heresy did much to slacken the piety and spread skepticism among the faithful in France, preparing the way for worse evils to come.2
Another main element in the war against the Church in the French Revolution was the false philosophy of the period known as the "Enlightenment." This philosophy centered everything upon pure nature and the power of human reason, untouched by anything that may influence or guide it. It denied everything supernatural and, therefore, Divine Revelation as well. It held that if God did exist, He would not interfere in nature because it follows set laws and does not leave room for miracles.3 This erroneous philosophy was extremely hostile and sought to undermine and destroy the Church in France.
"Ecrasez l'infame" (Crush the infamous thing). Referring to the Catholic Church, this was the motto of Francçois Marie Arouet, known by the pseudonym of Voltaire. Out of all the false philosophers of his time, he did the most harm against the Church and had a considerable following among the “enlightened” ones. A highly intelligent and capable man of letters, he used all his intellectual qualities to wage war against the Church.4 He did not attack the Church openly, but did so through a kind of literary guerrilla warfare by writing sarcastic and ironic poetry, plays, and other works of literature that mocked and ridiculed the Church and her institutions.5
Other false philosophers were united with Voltaire in this war against the Bride of Christ. Diderot supervised the writing of the Encyclopedie (from which our present-day encyclopedias are derived), a dictionary on the sciences which carried atheistic teachings and openly attacked Sacred Scripture, Tradition, and the history of the Church.6 This atheist Diderot boasted that it would be easy for twelve philosophers to destroy what twelve fishermen had built up. Another time, he hatefully declared that the false philosophers would not rest until the last king had been strangled with the entrails of the last priest. D'Alembert, Holbach, Damilaville, known as "the hater of God," Condillac, Helvetius, de la Mettrie and many others were untiring in the dissemination of impious and immoral pamphlets, dialogues, parodies, letters, novels, scientific works, and plays that attacked the Church.7 They were determined to raze the Catholic Church to the ground.
The Society of Jesus was instrumental in the recovery of many lost sheep that were lost because of the Protestant pseudo-Reformation. The Jesuits were also flaming torches that rekindled the fervor of the faithful especially in France. Seeing this obstacle to the destruction of the Church, Voltaire wrote Helvetius, "Once we have destroyed the Jesuits, we shall have it all our own way with the infamous thing." The false philosophers joined ranks with the Gallicans, the Jansenists, the liberal ministers of the Bourbon courts of France and Spain, and prime minister Pombal of Portugal in the effort to crush the Jesuits. They launched every sort of calumny and intrigue to stigmatize the order. The Jansenists founded the so-called "Merchants' Bank" to spread slanderous books and pamphlets, including a book called Extracts which contained 758 text falsifications, charging the Jesuits of holding immoral and treasonable teachings. In their works, the French false philosophers lauded the persecution that Pombal was carrying out in Portugal.8 Finally, these detractors discovered a pretext to banish the order.
An ex-member of the Society, Fr. La Valette, who was the superior of the order on the Island of Martinique, was discovered to have been involved in some commercial transactions in which he failed. Besides breaking the rule, he made the transactions against express orders and had been expelled from the Society. The enemies of the Church saw this as a perfect opportunity to publicly prosecute the Jesuits. For the transgression of an ex-member, the Parliament of Paris made an uproar and accused the whole Society, forcing it to pay for Fr. La Valette's debts and closing their schools, colleges, and sodalities. At first, the Parliament of Paris had prohibited any Frenchman to enter the Society, but, not content with this, it suppressed the whole Society in 1762. Almost all the episcopate of France protested and Pope Clement XIII declared the suppression null and void. The Parliament of Paris, however, further decreed that every Jesuit in France should either break their vows or be exiled.9 Faithful to their mission, four thousand Jesuits went into exile, while only five broke their vows. Pope Clement XIII issued a bull on the innocence of the Society and confirmed it. Nevertheless, the detractors were not satisfied with the suppression of the French Society of Jesus. They were determined to have a universal disbanding of the order. Finally, in 1773, Pope Clement XIV, timid and under the pressure of the Bourbon courts, suppressed the entire order. Twenty-two thousand Jesuits on all four corners of the earth humbly submitted without a single cry of protest.10 With this great obstacle out of their way, the enemies of the Church prepared the grounds for an all out persecution of the Church during the French Revolution.
After the French Revolution exploded in 1789, the revolutionaries, imbued with the spirit of the false philosophers, did all they could in order to first control the Church and then destroy it. On November 2, 1789, the National Constituent Assembly issued a decree ordering the confiscation of all Church property, claiming that it was for the financial good of the Republic. However, the revolutionaries were not so concerned about solving the financial problems. They wanted to deprive the Church of its main instrument of influence and prestige.11 On February 13, 1790, the Assembly decreed the suppression of all religious orders and the taking of solemn vows. Convents were cleared out and the vows of religious were disregarded.12 Desiring complete control of the Church, her enemies, especially Jansenists and liberal lawyers, drew up the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the deputies of the Assembly approved it on July 12,1790. This decree reorganized—or rather, disorganized—the whole episcopal structure in France. It deposed forty-eight bishops, reduced the archbishops to ten, and limited only one parish priest for every town of ten thousand inhabitants. The nomination of bishops was to be done by election, and even Jews, Protestants, or heretics were allowed to vote. All priests were compelled to take an oath agreeing with the Civil Constitution under pain of imprisonment or exile.13 The enemies of the Church were not and will never be satisfied, however, and they wanted to enact a more profound destruction of Catholicism.
The French revolutionaries started a movement to dechristianize the measurement of time in France. Its aim was to alienate the people from the Catholic Church and anything that is related to Our Lord Jesus Christ. The anno Domini (year of Our Lord, or A.D.) 1789 was replaced with Year 1 of the Republic, replacing the birth of Our Lord with the birth of the Republic. The seven-day week which revolved around Sunday was replaced with a ten-day week to exchange the Day of the Lord with new-pagan feasts, worshipping the goddess of Reason. Instead of a day of twenty-four hours, a ten-hour day was instituted, abolishing the Angelus at six and twelve o'clock. As an intended result of this, the Gregorian Calendar was abolished together with all the traditional feasts of the Church, such as Easter and Christmas.14
All that was left was to exchange Catholicism for a religion of the French Revolution. This was done by the installing of the cult to Reason. Catholic churches were closed down and made into Temples of Reason with festivals, idolizing the goddess of Reason. In the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame, an actress was sacrilegiously placed on the high altar to personify the goddess, as strange neo-pagan rituals took place. Sacrilegious processions took place in the streets with men mockingly wearing the sacred vestments. It was an attempt to substitute God for the Patrie.15
There was, nevertheless, one region in France that was deeply devoted to the Catholic religion, to their priests and nobles. This region was known as the Vendée and had been influenced by the preaching of the great Marian apostle, St. Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort. Under the leadership of Stofflet, Cathelineau, Charette, Bonchamps, d'Elbee, and La Rochejacquelin, the peasants of this countryside region rallied to fight for altar and throne.16 At first, they were successful, capturing important cities and routing the infamous enemy. Sadly, however, the peasants were not disciplined and they were soon overwhelmed by the large revolutionary forces.17 In hatred for Catholicism, especially for a militant Catholicism, the revolutionaries massacred thousands of faithful Catholics. At Angers 1,896 were shot and 292 were marched until they fell dead. In Rennes, ninety were guillotined on Christmas Day. In Nantes, the bloodthirsty Carrier ordered that one hundred aged or infirm priests be bound in pairs and placed in a barge on the Loire River. The barge had holes in it and all drowned except one. At least eleven other of these noyades were carried out, taking a total of 4,800 faithful Catholics and this does not include the many other loyal Catholic priests and laity that were killed or exiled in other parts of France.18
Thus it is shown that the French Revolution was truly a persecution and an attempt to annihilate the Catholic Church in France. The influence of Protestantism and Jansenism made way for the false philosophy of the "Enlightenment." Through their impious literature and their connivance with the Jansenists in the suppression of the Society of Jesus, the "enlightened" philosphers began the persecution. The war against the Church was augmented in the French Revolution, through the confiscation of Church lands, the prohibition of solemn vows, and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The dechristianizing of the measurement of time aimed to separate the faithful more from the Church. To exchange the Catholic Religion for a religion of the French Revolution, the cult to the goddess of Reason was established. In the Vendée, the loyal Catholics were massacred for the Faith. Truly, this was a persecution of the Church that reminds one of the Roman persecutions, except that this was worse.
School year 1996-'97
1 Philip Hughes, A Popular History of the Catholic Church, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932): pp. 191 - 192.
2Plinio Correa de Oliveira, Revolution and Counter-Revolution, (York: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, 1993): pp. 16 - 17.
3 Edwin G. Kaiser, C.PP.S., S.TD., History of the Church, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1947): p. 442.
4 A. Guggenberger, S.J., General History of the Christian Era, (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Company): p. 111.
5 George Stebbing, C.SS.R., The Story of the Church, (St. Louis: Sands & Company, 1915): p.586.
7 Guggenberger, pp. 110 - 111.
8 Ibid., p. 115.
10 Ibid., p. 117.
11 Pierre Gaxotte, The French Revolution, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932): pp. 139 - 140.
12 Ibid., p. 148.
14 Kaiser, pp. 458 - 459.
15 John Hall Stewart, Ph.D., A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963): p. 506.
16 Gaxotte, p. 254.
17 Ibid., p. 271.
18 Ibid., p. 273 - 275.
Correa de Oliveira, Plinio . Revolution and Counter-Revolution. York, The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), 1993.
Gaxotte, Pierre. The French Revolution. New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932.
Guggenberger, S.J., A. A General History of the Christian Era. St. Louis, MO., B. Herder Book Company, 1918.
Hughes, Philip. A Popular History of the Catholic Church. New York, The Macmillan
Kaiser, C.PP.S., S.T.D., Edwin G. History of the Church. Milwaukee, The Bruce Publishing Company, 1947.
Stebbing, C.SS.R., George. The Story of the Church. St. Louis, Sands & Company, 1915.
Stewart, Ph.D., John Hall. A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution. New York, The Macmillan Company, 1963.