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French Revolution
French Revolution

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3.3 The divide over the Church, 1790

The revolutionaries of 1789 also aspired to reform the Catholic Church in France, though not to disestablish it, still less to de-Christianise the country. Many of the clergy themselves favoured reform. In August 1789 the Assembly deprived the Church of its income by abolishing the tithe. In November it decreed the sequestration (nationalisation) of church lands, roughly 10 per cent of all land in France, for public sale. The Assembly was prompted by the same need to raise revenue to pay off the national debt which had led to the summoning of the Estates-General.

But the programme of church reform was also ideological, inspired by the rationalism and humanitarianism of the Enlightenment. In February 1790 the Assembly abolished the monastic orders and also proclaimed civic equality for Protestants. In July 1790 it introduced the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which cut the number of Catholic bishoprics from 135 to 83, allocating one diocese for each department, and made provision for a salaried clergy appointed by popular election. These startling changes were introduced by the Assembly without consulting the Catholic Church.

A deep and lasting break between Catholic opinion and the Revolution came in November 1790, when the Assembly forced the issue by requiring the clergy to swear allegiance to the constitution (including the Civil Constitution of the Clergy). Almost half the ordinary clergy refused to take the oath, and only seven bishops assented, while the Pope denounced the Civil Constitution (and by implication the Revolution) in April 1791. The clergy who refused to take the oath (known as non-jurors) were imprisoned or went into exile – 30,000 priests had left France by 1799 – swelling the ranks of the émigrés and turning tensions between church and state into an ideological divide between supporters and enemies of the Revolution.

A published protest by a former deputy of the nobility to the Estates-General shows how divisive the issue of the oath could be. Marat's L'Ami du peuple from December 1790 provides evidence of the mounting extremism threatening the moderates.