June 3, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Imperiled Church: Trying to destroy the Church in France

John F. Fink(Eighth in a series of columns)

A few years after the suppression of the Jesuits (see last week’s column), the French Revolution began. The situation of the Catholic Church went from bad to worse as many in France tried to wipe out the Church.

The ideas of secular intellectuals such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot, during what is known as the Enlightenment, also damaged the Church. Finally, in 1789, the lawyers of the French Assembly enacted a series of laws that secularized ecclesiastical property and suppressed all religious orders, as had been done earlier to the Jesuits.

In 1790, the Assembly passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. It reorganized the dioceses to correspond to the departments into which the country was divided. It decreed that all ecclesiastical offices, especially that of bishops, were to be elected and no religious qualification was to be required in voting in the elections.

Naturally, the pope, who was Pius VI, condemned the Civil Constitution, and most of the bishops and some of the clergy refused to accept it.

This was followed by a decree in November 1791 that ordered the expulsion of priests who didn’t accept the constitution. Another decree in May 1792 ordered their imprisonment, and still another in August 1792 ordered their deportation. One hundred bishops and between 30,000 and 40,000 priests went into exile (many escaping to the United States).

In 1792, the new Republic was proclaimed and King Louis XVI was executed. In June 1793, Maximilien Robespierre’s Reign of Terror began, lasting until July 1794. He condemned to death all priests suspected of hostility to the new regime. This, in turn, was followed by a counterterror when Robespierre and his allies were sent to the guillotine.

This is when Napoleon Bonaparte arrived on the scene. A graduate of France’s Ecole Militaire in Paris, he made a name for himself first when he helped break the English siege of Toulon. Now, in 1794, he led troops that suppressed a royalist uprising that threatened the French Revolution, thus preserving the new Republic.

The government of the Directory was set up in 1795, with Napoleon as its military leader. Among other things, the Directory ordered all ministers of religion to swear opposition to royalty, and it established a national religion under the name of “Theophilanthropy.”

Meanwhile, Napoleon went to war against the Austrians who were then in the Papal States of Italy. After several swift campaigns, he defeated the Austrians, occupied the Papal States, and forced Pope Pius VI to pay enormous sums of money (36 million francs) and many precious works of art.

Two years later, Napoleon again invaded the Papal States, occupied Rome and proclaimed the Roman Republic. Pope Pius VI was carried off to France, where he died in the prison at Valence in 1799.

Since he occupied Rome, Napoleon thought that he had destroyed the papacy. But the cardinals met in Venice, which was under Austrian protection. After 14 weeks, they elected Pope Pius VII in March of 1800. †

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