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Assemblies of the French Clergy

Meetings for apportioning the financial burdens laid upon the Church by kings of France

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Assemblies of the French Clergy, quinquennial representative meetings of the Clergy of France for the purpose of apportioning the financial burdens laid upon the Church by the kings of France, and incidentally for other ecclesiastical purposes.—The Assemblies of the French Clergy (Assemblies du Clerge de France) had a financial origin, to which, for that matter, may be traced the inception and establishment of all deliberative assemblies. Long before their establishment, however, the State had undertaken to impose on the Church her share of the public expenses. The kings of France, powerful, needy, and at times unscrupulous men, could not behold side by side with the State, or within the State, a wealthy body of men, gradually extending their possessions throughout the kingdom, without being tempted to draw upon their coffers and, if need were, to pillage them. During the Middle Ages the Crusades were the occasions of frequent levies upon ecclesiastical possessions. The Dime Sala-dine (Saladin Tithe) was inaugurated when Philip Augustus (1180-1223) united his forces with those of Richard of England to deliver Jerusalem from Saladin. At a later period the contributions of the clergy were increased, and during the reign of St. Louis (1235-70) we find record of thirteen subsidies within twenty years, while under Philip the Fair (1285-1314) there were twenty-one tithes in twenty-eight years. It has been estimated that the latter monarch received altogether from the clergy the equivalent of 400,000,000 francs in the present currency ($80,000,000). The modern era brought no decrease in the taxes imposed on the Church. Francis I, for example (1515-48), made incessant calls on the ecclesiastical treasury. The religious wars stirred up by Protestantism furnished the French kings with pretexts for fresh demands upon the Church. In 1560, the clergy held a convention at Poissy to consider matters of Church-reform, an occasion made famous by the controversy (Colloque de Poissy) between the Catholic bishops and the Protestant ministers, in which the chief orators were the Cardinal of Lorraine and Theodore Beza. At this assembly the Clergy bound themselves by a contract made in the name of the whole clerical body to pay the king 1,600,000 livres ($320,000) annually for a period of six years; they also bound themselves to restore to him certain estates and taxes that had been pledged to the Hotel de Ville of Paris for a (yearly) rente, or revenue, of 630,000 livro s ($126,000). In other words, the clergy bound themselves to redeem for the king in ten years a capital of 7,560,000 livres ($1,512,000). The French monarchs, instead of settling their debts, made fresh loans based on this rents, or revenue, paid by the Church, as if it were to be something permanent. After lengthy discussions, the clergy assembled at Melun (1579-80) consented to renew the contract for ten years, a measure destined to be repeated every decade until the French Revolution. The “Assemblies of the Clergy” were now an established institution. In this way the Church of France obtained the right of freely meeting and of free speech just when the meetings of the States-General (Etats-Generaux) were to be discontinued, and the voice of the nation was to he hushed for a period of 200 years.

At a very early date, these assemblies adopted the form of organization which they were to preserve until the French Revolution. The election of the deputies forming the body was arranged according to ecclesiastical provinces. It was decided in 1619 that each province should send four deputies (two bishops and two priests) to the assemblies de contrat held every ten years, and two to the assemblies des comptes which met once during the interval of ten years. Under this arrangement an assembly was convened every five years. There were two steps in the election of deputies. First, at the diocesan assembly were convened all holders of benefices, a plurality of whose votes elected two delegates. These then proceeded to the metropolitan see, and under the presidency of the metropolitan elected the provincial deputies. Theoretically, parish priests (cures) might be chosen, but as a matter of fact, by reason of their social station, inferior to that of abbes and canons, they seldom had seats in the assemblies. The rank of subdeacon sufficed for election; the Abbe Levendre relates in his memoirs as a contemporary incident that one of these young legislators, after an escapade, was soundly flogged by his preceptor who had accompanied him to Paris. The assemblies at all times reserved to themselves the right of deciding upon the validity of procurators and the authority of deputies. They wished also to reserve the right of electing their own president, whom they always chose from among the bishops. However, to conciliate rivalries, several were usually nominated for the presidency, only one of whom exercised that function. Under a strong government, withal, and despite the resolution to maintain their right of election, the Assemblies were unlikely to choose a person not in favor at court. We know that during the reign of Louis XIV Harlay de Champvallon, Archbishop of Paris, was several times president. Finally, Saint-Simon tells us the royal displeasure deprived him of his influence with the Clergy, and even shortened his life. The offices of secretary and “promotor”, being looked on by the bishops as somewhat inferior, were assigned to deputies of the second rank, i.e. to priests. Like all other parliaments, the Assemblies of the French Clergy divided their work among commissions. The “Commission of Temporal Affairs” was very important and had an unusually large amount of business to transact. Financial questions, which had given rise to these assemblies, continued to claim their attention until the time of the Revolution. Beginning with the seventeenth century, the payment of the rentes of the Hotel de Ville was an item of slight importance as compared with the sums which the Clergy were compelled to vote the king under the name of dons gratuits, or free gifts. It had been established during the Middle Ages that the Church should contribute not only to the expenses of the Crusades, but also towards the defense of the kingdom, a tradition continued to modern times. The religious wars of the sixteenth century, later the siege of La Rochelle (1628) under Richelieu, and to a still greater extent the political wars waged by Henry IV, Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI occasioned the levying of enormous subsidies on the Clergy. The following example may serve as an illustration; the Clergy, who had voted sixteen million livres ($3,200,000) in 1779, gave thirty millions more ($6,000,000) in 1780 for the expenses of the French Government in the war of the American Revolution, to which they added in 1782 sixteen millions and in 1785 eighteen millions. The Church was then to the State what, under similar circumstances, the Bank of France is today. The French kings more than once expressed their gratitude to this body for the services it had rendered both monarchy and fatherland in the prompt and generous payment of large subsidies at critical moments when, as now, money was the sinews of war. It has been calculated from official documents that during three, quarters of a century (1715-89) the Clergy paid in, either for the rentes of the Hotel de Ville or as “free gifts,” over 380 million livres ($76,000,000). We may well ask ourselves if, with all their prerogatives, they did not contribute towards the public expenses as much as the rest of the nation. In 1789, when accepting, with all the cahiers or propositions emanating from the Clergy, the law imposing on the Church of France an equal share of the public expense, the Archbishop of Paris, Monseigneur de Juigne, was able to say that the Church already contributed as much as the other orders (nobility, bourgeoisie, and people); its burdens would not be increased by the new law that imposed upon all an equal share in contributing to the expenses of the State.

The Assemblies of the Clergy conducted their temporal administration in a dignified and imposing manner, and with much perfection of detail. They appointed for ten years a receiver-general (Receveur-General), in reality a minister of finance. The office carried with it a generous salary, and for election to it a two-thirds majority was required. He was bound to furnish security at his residence in Paris and render a detailed account of his management to the assembled Clergy. In each diocese there was a board of elected delegates presided over by the bishop, whose duty it was to apportion the assessments among the beneficed ecclesiastics. This Bureau diocesain de decimes (Diocesan Board of Tithes) was authorized to settle ordinary disputes. Over it were superior boards located at Paris, Lyons, Rouen, Tours, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Aix, and Bourges, courts of appeal, whose decisions were final in all disputes concerning the contributions of the dioceses within their jurisdiction.

In this way the Clergy had an administration of their own, independent of the State, a very important privilege under the old regime. It may be added that they knew how to merit such a favor. In the whole nation their credit stood highest; the archives have preserved for us many thousands of rental contracts made in the utmost confidence by private individuals with the Church. Certain details of the ecclesiastical financial system are even yet worthy of study. It has been said that M. de Villele introduced into France the conversion of annuities and the consequent reduction of interest; as a matter of fact this was practiced by the Clergy from the end of the seventeenth century when they were forced to negotiate loans in order to furnish the sums demanded by Louis XIV. Necker, a competent judge, commended the Clergy for the care they took in liquidating these debts. He also praised the clerical system of the distribution of taxes, according to which the beneficed ecclesiastics throughout the kingdom were divided into eight departements, or classes, in order to facilitate the apportionment of taxes in ascending ratio, according to the resources of each. This shows that even under the old regime the Clergy had placed on a practical working basis, in their own system of revenues, the impot progressif or system of graduated assessment of income. It may be said that the system of administering the ecclesiastical temporalities as developed by the Assemblies of the Clergy of France was remarkably successful. Possibly, they succeeded only too well in maintaining the financial immunities granted the Church. These they gave up on the verge of the Revolution, when they accepted the principle that the public burden should be equally divided among all classes of the nation, a step they had delayed too long. Public opinion had already condemned in an irresistible manner all privileges whatsoever. The Assemblies of the Clergy did not confine their attention to temporal matters. Doctrinal questions and spiritual matters held an important place among the subjects discussed in them. Indeed, the Colloquy of Poissy, the original germ of the Assemblies, was expressly convened for the discussion of Protestantism, and in opposition to schism and heresy. Practically every Assembly, from the first in 1560 to the last in 1788, dealt with the problem of Protestantism; it may be added that their attitude was scarcely favorable to liberty of conscience. In its turn, Jansenism received much attention from these Assemblies, which always supported with great loyalty the papal Bulls that condemned this heresy. Indeed, some of the severest measures against Jansenism came from this quarter. The eighteenth century, with its philosophers and encyclopaedists, brought the Assemblies of the Clergy anxieties of a new and alarming character. They did their best to withstand the progress of infidelity, stirred up and encouraged Christian apologists, and urged the king to protect the Church and defend the faith of the French people. They were less successful in this task than in their previous undertakings. The philosophical and political movement which the Clergy had found themselves powerless to block, was to involve even them in the catastrophe that demolished the old regime.

Among the doctrinal questions brought before the Assemblies of the Clergy particular note should be taken of the Four Articles voted on by the famous Assembly of 1682. We know that this Assembly was convened to consider the Regale, a term denoting the right assumed by the French kings during the vacancy of a see to appropriate its revenues and make appointments to benefices. For centuries, even back in the Middle Ages, such seizure of ecclesiastical rights on the part of the State had given rise to innumerable abuses and depredations. The kings of France had often affirmed that the right of Regale belonged to them in virtue of the supremacy of the Crown over all sees, even those previously exempt from the assertion of this right. Under Louis XIV, these claims were vigorously enforced. Two prelates, Pavillon, Bishop of Alet, and Caulet, Bishop of Pamiers, made a lively resistance to the royal pretensions. The pope sustained them with all his authority. Thereupon the king convoked the famous Assembly of 1682, presided over by Harlay de Champvallon, and Le Tellier, Archbishops, respectively, of Paris and of Reims. Bossuet, though firm in his allegiance to the Holy See, was convinced of the danger menacing the Church, and on the 9th of November, 1681, preached in the church of the Grands Augustins at Paris his celebrated sermon “On the Unity of the Church“. This immortal masterpiece of eloquence was so fortunate as to secure the approbation of both pope and king. Contrary to its custom, the Assembly ordered the discourse to be printed. Thereupon, the question of the Regale was quickly decided according to the royal wish. A far graver question, however, was laid before the Assembly when Louis XIV asked them to pronounce upon the authority of the pope. Bossuet, who felt the peril lurking in such discussions, tried to temporize and requested that, before proceeding further, Christian tradition on this point be carefully studied. This move proving unsuccessful, the Bishop of Meaux stood out against the (Gallican) propositions presented in the name of the commission by Choiseul-Praslin, Bishop of Tournai. Thereupon the propositions were turned over to Bossuet himself; he succeeded in eliminating from them the irritating question of appeals to a future council, a proposition several times condemned by the Holy See. It was then that the Assembly voted (March 19, 1682) the famous “Four Articles” that may be briefly summarized as follows:

1. The pope has no right, direct or indirect, over the temporal power of kings.

2. The pope is inferior to the General Council, and the decrees of the Council of Constance in its fourth and fifth sessions are still binding.

3. The exercise of pontifical authority should be regulated by the ecclesiastical canons.

4. Dogmatic decisions of the pope are not irrevocable until they have been confirmed by the judgment of the whole Church.

Bossuet, who was drawn into the discussion in spite of himself, and who in all questions inclined towards the least arbitrary solution, wrote his Defensio Declarationis in justification of the decisions of the Assembly. It was not published, however, until after his death. The king ordered the “Four Articles” to be promulgated from all the pulpits of France. Innocent XI (1676-89), notwithstanding his dissatisfaction, hesitated to pass censure on the publication of the “Four Articles”. He contented himself with expressing his disapproval of the decision made by the Assembly on the question of the Regale, and refused the papal Bulls to those members of the Assembly who had been selected by the king for vacant sees. To lend unity to the action of the Assemblies, and to preserve their influence during the long intervals between these meetings, two ecclesiastics were elected who were thenceforth, as it were, the executive power of the Church of France. They were known as Agents-General (Agents-Generaux) and were very important personages under the old regime. Although chosen from among the Clergy of the second order, i.e. from among the priests, they were always men of good birth, distinguished bearing, and quite familiar with the ways of the world and the court. They had charge of the accounts of all receivers, protected jealously all rights of the Church, drew attention to whatever was prejudicial to her prerogatives or discipline, and in the parliament represented the ecclesiastical authority and interest in all cases to which the Church was a party. They enjoyed the privilege of committimus, and were specially authorized to enter the king’s council and speak before it on ecclesiastical matters. On the occasion of each Assembly these agents rendered an account of their administration in reports, several folio volumes of which have been published since the beginning of the eighteenth century under the title of: Rapports d’agence. The usual reward for their services was the episcopate. Their duties prepared them admirably to understand public affairs. Monseigneur de Cice, Monseigneur de La Luzerne, the Abbe de Montesquiou, and Talleyrand, all of whom played important roles in the Constituent Assembly, had been in their time Agents-General of the Clergy.

The reader may now judge of the importance attaching to the Assemblies of the Clergy under the old regime. The mere fact that they could meet the king, converse with him on questions of finance, religion, administration, even of politics, and, when necessary, lay complaints before him, was in those days a very great privilege. At a time when the public were without a voice, the Nobility forbidden to assemble (enjoying, indeed, special favors, but without rights; forming no distinct corps, and with no official organ of their interests), the Clergy were represented, had a voice in affairs, could defend themselves, attack their opponents, offer remonstrances. It was a unique position, and added still more to the prestige already enjoyed by the first order of the nation. It was truly extraordinary that they should have so jealously preserved the right of voting on their taxation, a right which for three centuries the people had allowed to lapse. It was an evidence of great power when the Clergy could force an absolute monarchy to discuss with them grave questions of finance, could vote freely on their own contributions and set forth their demands, could seize the occasion of their “free gifts” to draw to all manner of religious interests the royal attention and good will—in a word, could practice the policy of do ut des (I give that you may give), efficacious even under a Louis XIV. It is worthy of note that in the suspension of the meetings of the States-General, of councils national or provincial, these Assemblies enabled the Clergy to exercise a correctional surveillance over all the interests of the Church. As for the temporalities, the Assemblies ensured to the Clergy an autonomous financial administration by which they might better defend themselves against the menace of the taille, or land tax, escape the often odious interference of the royal treasury, redeem the new assessments known as the capitation (poll-tax) of the tenth, the fiftieth, and twentieth—all which favors could be obtained only in consideration of contributions, of prompt authoritative decisions. We have, indeed, already remarked that these Assemblies succeeded all too well in retaining the ecclesiastical exemptions until 1789, just before the States-General were again convoked, when, yielding to the pressure of public opinion, and in their own interest, the Clergy were induced to relinquish them. In the eyes of posterity the doctrinal role of the Assemblies of the Clergy was more striking than their administration of the ecclesiastical temporalities. If they were unable to weather the storm that laid low all institutions of the old regime, it was due in great part to the fact that their share in the interests and life of the people was inconsiderable. By defending ecclesiastical privilege with so much heat and constancy these Assemblies appeared to be occupied almost solely with clerical interests. Moreover, the method of their recruitment, almost exclusively from the higher Clergy, begot a temper of indifference towards their fate on the part of the cures, or parish priests, who were soon called to exercise a decisive influence on the course of the States-General. Had the Assemblies been less attached to the prerogatives of absolute power, even at a time when ideas of liberty were gaming a hold on public opinion in France, they might have become what they were qualified for by their organization and their operation—a standing invitation to a parliamentary form of government and a preparation for the same. The tardy stand taken by the Assembly of 1788, with its bold plea to the King for the rights of the people and for the convocation of the States-General, came a trifle too late; the effect produced was lost sight of in the general ferment. The vote by which the national parliament was assured of equal taxation for all deprived these Assemblies of their raison d’etre; it was precisely for the regulation of special contributions from the Clergy that they were established and had been kept up. Henceforth, like the parlements and other bodies apparently detached from, or loosely connected with, the life of the nation, they were fated to be merged in its new and larger unity. Despite the manner of their ending, shared by so many other institutions of the old regime, the Assemblies had been one of the ornaments—it might be said, one of the glories—of the Church of France. During centuries of political servitude they offered the example of a free parliament in regular operation; their financial administration was successful and was conducted with much dignity; in time of war they rendered the State notable services, and some of their meetings will be always remembered for the important religious and political discussions they provoked. For these reasons the Assemblies fill a brilliant page in the annals of the French Clergy, and will merit at all times the attention of the historian.


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