Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIII: Of the Decrees of the Constituent Assembly in Regard to the Clergy. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XIII: Of the Decrees of the Constituent Assembly in Regard to the Clergy. - Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, edited, with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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Of the Decrees of the Constituent Assembly in Regard to the Clergy.
The most serious reproach made to the Constituent Assembly is that it had been indifferent to the maintenance of religion in France: hence the declarations against philosophy which succeeded those formerly directed against superstition. The intentions of the Assembly in this respect are to be justified by examining the motives of its decrees. The privileged classes in France embraced a mode of defense common to the majority of mankind, that of attaching a general idea to their particular interests. Thus the nobility maintained that valor was the exclusive inheritance of their order; and the clergy, that religion could not subsist without the possession of property by the church. Both assertions are equally unfounded: battles have been admirably fought in England, and in France since the fall of the nobility as a body; while religion would find its way into the hearts of the French if attempts were not incessantly made to confound the articles of faith with political questions, and the wealth of the upper clergy with the simple and natural ascendency of the curates over the lower orders.
The clergy in France formed a part of the four legislative powers;1 and from the time that it was judged necessary to change this singular constitution, it became impossible that a third2 of the landed property of the kingdom should remain in the hands of ecclesiastics: for it was to the clergy, as an order, that these great possessions belonged, and they were administered collectively. The property of priests and religious establishments could not be subjected to those civil laws which ensure the inheritance of parents to children; from the moment, therefore, that the constitution of the country underwent a change, it would have been imprudent to leave the clergy in possession of wealth which might enable them to regain the political influence of which it was intended to deprive them. Justice required that the possessors should be maintained in their incomes during life; but what was due to those who had not yet become priests, especially when the number of ecclesiastics greatly surpassed what the public service required? Will it be alleged that we never ought to change what once has been? In what moment then did the famous “once has been” become established forever? When did improvement become impossible?
Since the destruction of the Albigenses by fire and sword, since the torturing of the Protestants under Francis I, the massacre of St. Bartholomew, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and the war of the Cevennes, the French clergy have always preached, and still preach, intolerance. The free exercise of worship then could not accord with the opinions of the priests, who protest against it, if they were allowed to retain a political existence; or if the magnitude of their property placed them in a condition to regain that political existence the loss of which they will never cease to regret. The church does not become tolerant any more than the emigrants become enlightened; our institutions should be adapted to this.
What! it will be said, does not the church of England own property? The English clergy, being of the reformed faith, were on the side of political reform at the time when the last of the Stuarts wished to re-establish the Catholic religion in England. The case is not the same with the French clergy, who are naturally inimical to the principles of the Revolution.3 Besides, the English clergy have no influence in state affairs; they are much less wealthy than the old clerical body of France, as England contains neither convents, abbeys, nor anything of the kind. The English clergy marry, and thus become a part of society. Finally, the French clergy hesitated long between the authority of the Pope and that of the King; and when Bossuet4 supported what is called the liberties of the Gallican church, he concluded, in his Sacred Politics, an alliance between the altar and the throne; but he did so by founding it on the maxims of religious intolerance and royal despotism.
When the French clergy quitted a life of retirement to intermeddle with politics, their conduct in the latter was almost always marked by a degree of confidence and artifice very unfavorable to the public interest. The dexterity which distinguishes men early obliged to conciliate two opposite things, their profession and the world, is such that, for two centuries past, they have constantly insinuated themselves into public business, and France has almost always had cardinals or bishops for ministers.5 The English, notwithstanding the liberal principles which actuate their clergy, do not admit ecclesiastics of the second order into the House of Commons; and there is no example since the Reformation of a member of the higher clergy becoming a minister of state. The case was the same at Genoa, in a country altogether Catholic; and both government and the priesthood found their advantage in this prudent separation.
In what manner would the representative system be compatible with the doctrine, the habits, and the wealth of the French clergy, such as that body formerly was? A striking analogy naturally induced the Constituent Assembly no longer to acknowledge it as entitled to hold property. The kings possessed demesnes considered in former days as unalienable, and these properties were certainly as legitimate as any other paternal inheritance. Yet, in France, as in England, and in every country where constitutional principles are established, kings have a civil list; and it would be considered disastrous to liberty that they should be enabled to possess revenues independent of the national sanction. For what reason, then, should the clergy be better treated in this respect than the Crown? Might not the magistracy lay claim to property with more reason than the clergy, if the object of supporting them by an established land revenue be to exempt those who enjoy it from the ascendancy of government?
What signify, it will be said, the advantages or disadvantages of clerical property? The Assembly did not have a right to take it. This question is exhausted by the excellent speeches pronounced on the subject in the Constituent Assembly:6 it was there shown that corporate bodies (corps) did not hold property by the same title as individuals, and that the state could not maintain the existence of these bodies, but inasfar as they should not be in contradiction to public interest and constitutional laws. When the Reformation was established in Germany, the Protestant princes appropriated a share of the church property either to the public expenditure or to charitable establishments; and a number of Catholic princes have, on various other occasions, made a similar disposal of such property. The decrees of the Constituent Assembly, sanctioned by the King, ought, certainly, to have as much force in law as the will of sovereigns in the sixteenth and following centuries.
The kings of France used to receive the revenues of clerical benefices during the intervals that they were vacant. The religious orders, who in this question are to be distinguished from the secular clergy, have often ceased to exist; and one cannot conceive, as was said by one of the most ingenious speakers whom we heard in the last session7 of the Chambers, M. de Barante: “One cannot conceive in what manner the property of orders that are no more should belong to those who do not exist.” Three-fourths of the property of churchmen were given them by the Crown, that is, by the sovereign authority of the time; not as a personal favor but to ensure divine service. For what reason, then, should not the Estates General, in conjunction with the King, have had a right to alter the manner of providing for the support of the clergy?
But particular founders, it will be said, having bequeathed their property to ecclesiastics, was it lawful to divert it from this appropriation? What means does man possess to give the stamp of eternity to his resolutions? Are we to search in the darkness of time for titles that are no more, in order to oppose them to living reason? What connection is there between religion and that continued chicanery of which the sale of the national property is the object? In England, particular sects, and, above all, the Methodists, who are very numerous, provide regularly and spontaneously for the expenses of their worship. True, it will be said, but the Methodists are very religious, and the inhabitants of France would make no pecuniary sacrifice for their priests. Is not this incredulity produced entirely by the display of wealth in the church, and of the abuses which wealth brings along with it? The case is the same with religion as with government: when you endeavor to maintain by force what is no longer in consonance with the age, you deprave the human heart instead of improving it. Do not deceive the weak; neither irritate another class of weak men, the Free Thinkers,8 by rousing political passions against religion; separate entirely the one from the other, and solitary reflection will always lead to dignified thoughts.
A great error, and one which it seemed easier for the Constituent Assembly to avoid, was the unfortunate invention of a constitutional clergy.9 To exact from ecclesiastics an oath at variance with their conscience, and, on their refusing it, to persecute them by the loss of a pension, and afterward even by transportation, was to degrade those who took the oath, to which temporal advantages were attached.
The Constituent Assembly ought not to have thought of forming a clerical body devoted to it, and thus affording the means, which were afterward embraced, of distressing the ecclesiastics attached to their ancient creed. This was putting political in the place of religious intolerance. A single resolution, firm and just, ought to have been taken by statesmen under those circumstances; they ought to have imposed on each communion the duty of supporting their own clergy.10 The Constituent Assembly thought that it acted with greater political depth by dividing the clergy, by establishing a schism, and by thus detaching from the court of Rome those who should enroll themselves under the banners of the Revolution. But of what use were such priests? The Catholics would not listen to them, and philosophers did not want them: they were a kind of militia, who had lost their character beforehand, and who could not do otherwise than injure the government whom they supported. The establishment of a constitutional clergy was so revolting to the public mind that it was found necessary to employ force to give it effect. Three bishops were necessary to give consecration to the schismatics, and thus to communicate to them the power of ordaining other priests in their turn. Of these three bishops, on whom the founding of the new clergy depended, two were, at the last moment, ready to renounce their singular undertaking, condemned as it was equally by religion and philosophy.
We cannot too often repeat that it is necessary to act on all great ideas with sincerity, and to be careful how we admit Machiavellian combinations in the application of truth; for prejudices founded on time have more strength than reason herself from the moment that bad means are employed to establish the latter. It was likewise of importance in the contest still subsisting between the privileged classes and the people, never to put the partisans of the old institutions in a situation calculated to inspire any kind of pity; and the Constituent Assembly excited this feeling in favor of the priests from the time it deprived them of their life-hold estates, and thus gave a retroactive effect to the law. Never can the world disregard those who are in a state of suffering; human nature is, in this respect, better than it is thought.
But who, it may be said, will teach children religion and morality if there are no priests in the schools? It was certainly not the higher clergy who fulfilled this duty; and, as to the curates, they are more required for the care of the sick and the dying than even for education, excepting what regards a knowledge of religion: the time in which churchmen were superior to others in point of information is past. Establish and multiply the schools in which, as in England, the children of the poor are taught to read, write, and account: schools of a higher class are necessary for teaching the ancient languages, and universities for carrying still further the study of those beautiful languages and of the higher sciences. But it is political institutions that afford the most effectual means of laying the foundation of morals; they excite emulation and form dignity of character: we cannot teach a man that which he can learn only through himself. The English are not told in any catechism that they must love their constitution; there is no master for patriotism in the schools: public prosperity and domestic life are more effectual in inspiring religion than all that remains of the ancient customs intended for its maintenance.
[1. ] The four powers were the king, the clergy, the Estates General, and the parlements.
[2. ] According to Godechot, the real figure was approximately 10 percent, with important local variations. See Godechot’s notes to the French edition of Staël’s Considérations, 627.
[3. ] It is important to recall that on June 14, 1789, six clergymen joined the Third Estate, thus contributing to the formation of the National Assembly.
[4. ] Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet was a prominent French bishop and famous orator (1627–1704). He wrote many important books, including Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Holy Scripture, in which he defended royal absolutism and the divine right of kings.
[5. ] In fact, only four prime ministers were clergymen: Richelieu, Mazarin, Fleury, and Brienne.
[6. ] Reference to the speeches on this issue given, among others, by Thouret, Talleyrand, Le Chapelier, Boisegelin, and Mirabeau (October–November 1789). For more information, see Furet and Halévi, eds., Orateurs de la Révolution française, vol. 1, 141–70, 393–94, 511–37, 692–700, 1044–59, 1091–97.
[7. ] Reference to a speech given in 1816 by Baron Prosper de Barante (1782–1866), a prominent member of the French Doctrinaires and author of Histoire des ducs de Bourgogne (1824–26) and Des communes et de l’aristocratie (1821). Barante was a very close friend of both Madame de Staël’s and Constant’s. For more information, see Craiutu, Liberalism Under Siege, 30.
[8. ] In original: “esprit forts.” A paraphrase by the English translator.
[9. ] Reference to the division of the clergy triggered by the famous Civil Constitution of the Clergy, voted on July 12, 1790, that obliged all priests to pledge allegiance to the constitution. Some clergymen agreed (hence their name “constitutional”), but the majority refused to do it. It was at this point that the Revolution and the Catholic Church became implacable enemies. The conflict between the two hastened the fall of the monarchy and the civil war. For more information, see Furet’s entry in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 449–57; and Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution, 145–50.
[10. ] The duty of supporting their own clergy was decided by the Convention in February 1795.