Civil constitution of the clergy

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I swear that I will do everything I can to keep the Constitution alive.
Swearing clergyman on a revolution plate (1791)

The civil constitution of the clergy (also: civil constitution , French: Constitution civile du clergé ) of 1790 was the basis for the integration of the Catholic Church into the political system in France that was changed by the French Revolution . It made clergymen elected by the people and paid by the state in their parishes and dioceses.


The French National Assembly had already repealed the Catholic orders on February 13, 1790 . Since May 22nd, the assembly debated the secular clergy . On July 12, 1790, the civil constitution was passed and promulgated on August 24. The Concordat that had been in force since 1516 was thus repealed.

The adopted civil constitution was made up of four parts. These dealt with ecclesiastical offices, the payment of clergy and other questions. The areas of responsibility of the dioceses were adapted to the new state units of the départements . Each department received a diocese. This reduced the number of bishoprics from 139 to 83. The parishes should be set up in such a way that one pastor should be responsible for 6,000 inhabitants.

The bishops and pastors were elected like state officials. For the episcopal elections, there were electoral assemblies of priests and lay people at the level of the department. The appointment of the bishops should be done by the archbishops without confirmation from the Pope . The election of pastors at the local level should also be comparable. The previous cathedral chapters were abolished and replaced by so-called episcopal councils, a kind of priestly council that controlled the administration of the bishop.

After the extensive church property , the basis of the pre-revolutionary benefice system , had been nationalized, the constitutional clergy was now paid by the state. However, significant hierarchical differences remained. The Archbishop of Paris received a salary of 50,000 livres , but a village pastor only received 1,200 livres. Another point of the civil constitution was the firm commitment of the clergy to the place of their office ( residence obligation ).

The civil constitution completed the development of the French church into a national church and implemented the essential demands of Gallicanism of the 18th century. The bond with the Pope was loosened. Instructions from Rome were controlled by the government, taxes to Rome suspended, and the Pope stripped of all ecclesiastical jurisdiction. The curia was informed about the elections of bishops and pastors without the latter being able to influence the decision. The Pope was only recognized as a symbol, as the “visible head of the universal Church”.

The oath of loyalty and the consequences

The oath of the civil constitution

All clerics paid by the state had to take an oath on the constitution:

"Je jure de veiller avec soin sur les fidèles du diocèse ou de la paroisse, qui m'est confié, d'être fidèle à la nation, à la loi et au Roi, et de maintenir de tout mon pouvoir la Constitution décrétée par l 'Assemblée nationale et acceptée par le Roi. »

"I swear to carefully supervise the faithful of the diocese or parish entrusted to me, to be loyal to the nation, to the law and to the King and, with all my might, to the Constitution adopted by the National Assembly and accepted by the King, to be maintained. "

- Compulsory oath for bishops and priests : Constitution civile du clergé of July 12, 1790

The wording was similar to the civic oath, introduced around the same time and included in the first French revolutionary constitution of 1791 , which all politically active citizens of France had to swear.


Percentage of priests who took the oath on the civil constitution of the clergy in 1791. The boundaries entered on the map do not correspond to the historical ones, but to those of the départements as of 2007, as the underlying data was collected in the département archives.

It was not until March 1791 that Pope Pius VI condemned . the civil constitution with its Breve Quod aliquantum and declared the ordinations of the constitutional bishops on April 13, 1791 to be illegitimate and uncanonical, so that a schism arose. The diplomatic relations between Rome and Paris were aborted. At that time, about 55% of priests in rural parishes and between 25% and 48% in urban parishes had taken the required oath. Two thirds of the clergymen and almost all bishops, with seven exceptions, had refused to take the oath.

In the course of 1791 60 new bishops were ordained according to the specifications of the civil constitution; the first constitutional episcopal ordinations were made by Charles Talleyrand . After the declaration of the Pope, there was a division within the Catholic Church of France between clergy loyal to Rome and those who swore the oath on the civil constitution, with strong effects on the population. The refusals, called réfractaires , who made up 45 to 47% of the parish clergy, were subjected to persecution and sanctions; a large number were executed, imprisoned or deported. About 40,000 priests had to leave France.

The dispute reached its climax in October 1791 after the establishment of the Legislative National Assembly to which 26 state clergymen, including ten bishops, belonged. A decree of November 29, 1791 declared those priests who did not agree to the clergy's constitution and who refused to take the oath to be “ suspects de révolte ”. The priests who refused to oath were threatened with dungeon and completely disenfranchised, their services were banned, while the king vetoed what the Jacobin side accused him of as treason. Pope Pius VI threatened with a brief from March 19, 1792. excommunicate the constitutional clergy . From April, the situation escalated, also due to the war between Austria and France . On April 6, 1792, the wearing of clerical robes and badges was forbidden, on May 27 it was decided to expel those who refused to oath, from July there were deportations to southern France and in the months that followed, numerous priests were murdered in the prisons.

Parts of the rural population, especially in the rural west of France, decided to revolt against the central government, mainly because of the harsh church persecution, which is why the Vendée revolt and the establishment of the Jacobin rule, which can be interpreted as a response to internal resistance, were partly also a consequence of the conflicts over the Civil Constitution to be assessed.

Bishops of the Ancien Régime who swore the oath on the civil constitution of the clergy

1 Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord Autun Member of the National Assembly
2 Jean Baptiste Gobel Paris Member of the National Assembly
3 Étienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne Sens
4th Louis-François-Alexandre de Jarente Orleans
5 Charles de La Font de Savine Viviers
6th Jean-Baptiste Dubourg-Miroudot Babylon
7th Pierre-François-Martial de Loménie Traianopolis Coadjutor Archbishop of Sens

The "Liberté-Égalité" oath

After the abolition of the monarchy in August 1792, the oath was tightened again considerably, in that it now had to be praised "that I want to assert freedom and equality with all my strength and that I am ready to die in defense of it." This oath , which was popularly called "Liberté-Égalité" and reformulated again in September 1792, could now also be demanded from clergy who had not fallen under the previous system of state-paid clergy, which was regulated by the civil constitution, which led to renewed tensions and divisions within the clergy and led to new sacrifices. Among the possibly up to 1,400 clerics captured in the so-called September murders after the king's overthrow, there was also his former confessor , the 87-year-old Bishop Dulau , who was later beatified . While the majority of the emigrated French bishops opposed the new oath and at the same time emphasized their loyalty to the crown, within France high-ranking theologians, church superiors and bishops from the ranks of the previous oath refusers were of the opinion that the new oath, which had no direct reference to the civil constitution of the clergy possessed, was purely political and therefore to be accepted.

End of the civil constitution

During the rule of the Jacobin Welfare Committee in November 1793, along with other revolutionaries, the creators of the civil constitution of the clergy were executed. Nine out of ten of the constitutional clergy swore off the priesthood and left the church or went underground like the oathers. After the end of the reign of terror in the summer of 1794, the National Convention resolved on September 18 to separate church and state and abolished all support services for the clergy, so that the civil constitution of the clergy became irrelevant. On February 21, 1795, freedom of worship was enshrined in law. The constitution of the Directory of the autumn of 1795 only required the priests to declare their obedience to the laws of the republic, as prescribed for all citizens. In an unofficial brief of July 5, 1796, the Pope, who had come under pressure from Napoleon's Italian campaign , declared the mere promise of obedience to be permissible. Nevertheless, even after 1795 there were still repressive decrees that ordered the expatriation of those clergymen who had been banished for refusing to oath or who still did not recognize the republic. In particular, the annexation of Belgium to France in the years 1795 to 1797 led to conflicts with the local clergy; 1798/99 there were there - partly because of the prescribed Priestereids - a peasant uprising ( " Boerenkrijg ").

It was not until 1797 that freedom of worship was effectively realized, and Sunday masses were gradually held again. Numerous emigrated clerics returned, but the opponents of the republic among them had to reckon with persecution - albeit less effective - in 1798/99. The Concordat of 1801 put an end to the repressive phase of French church policy and the system of “constitutional” church organization and put the relationship between the state and the Roman Catholic Church on the basis that was valid until the 1905 law separating church and state .


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Frz. Version quoted from Philipp Hofmeister : The bishop's oath to the state. In: Münchener Theologische Zeitschrift 6 (1955), No. 3, pp. 195–214 (here: p. 204, with the source in footnote 38).
  2. ^ Winfried Steffani : Pluralist democracy. Studies on theory and practice. Leske + Budrich , Opladen 1980, p. 177. The citizens' oath of 1791 read:
    I swear to be faithful to the nation, to the law and to the king and to uphold with all my might the constitution of the kingdom, which was passed by the constituent national assembly in the years 1789, 1790 and 1791 (translation after Steffani, limited preview in the Google Book Search).
  3. a b c d e f Stefan Samerski : Public materials for the lecture Church History of the Modern Age II (PDF; 141 kB). Pp. 2–4, viewed in January 2019.
  4. Ralph Rotte : The Foreign and Peace Policy of the Holy See. An introduction. 2nd, completely revised edition, Springer VS , Wiesbaden 2014, ISBN 978-3-531-19959-7 , p. 35.
  5. ^ Peter Claus Hartmann : The French kings and emperors of the modern age 1498-1870. From Louis XII. until Napoleon III. Beck, Munich 2006, ISBN 3-406-54740-0 , p. 18.
  6. Klaus Martin Reichenbach: Florilegium Martyriologii Romani. Cologne 2006, entry as of September 2nd (published online in ÖHL ).
  7. ^ A b Paul Christophe: 1789, les prêtres dans la Révolution. Paris 1986, pp. 124-126. The citizenship oath prescribed on September 3, 1792 read:
    Je jure d'être fidèle à la nation, de maintenir de tout mon pouvoir la liberté, l'égalité, la sûreté des personnes et des propriétés, et de mourir s'il le faut pour l'execution de la loi (quoted in Christophe , limited preview in google book search; translation: “I swear to be loyal to the nation, to do with all my might to uphold freedom, equality, security of people and property and to die if it is for the execution of the law should be necessary. ").