17th Century French Catholicism

Last month, I finally finished Joseph Bergin’s Church, Society and Religious Change in France, 1580-1730. It is a long book and it is not light reading, and I had to set it aside several times to read other books that I needed to review. But, I can scarcely recommend this book too highly because it shows how many of our preconceived notions about earlier times are astonishingly vapid, and also how some of the issues we face today can be more honestly addressed by considering how those issues manifested themselves in different cultural circumstances. The book is magisterial and I shall use my morning posts today and tomorrow to reflect on some of its major themes.

At first blush, the long seventeenth century in France had little in common with the early decades of the twenty-first century. Consider the relationship of religion and politics. No one back then had yet uncovered our Enlightenment ideas about the separation of Church and State, and John Locke’s treatise on tolerance would not be published until the end of the century and, seeing as Locke’s commitment to religious tolerance did not include Catholics, his treatise would not have been immediately useful in France. As well, despite all the chatter about a “war on religion” today, France had actually experienced religious wars in the latter half of the sixteenth century.

The relationship between politics and religion, then, was very different from what we have today but it was no less complicated. The role of benefices was frequently at the heart of controversy. The wealth of the Church, largely the result of sound agricultural management of its lands and the Church’s ability to avoid subdividing those lands as their secular neighbors often had to do, was distributed through a network of benefices to different members of the clergy. Originally conceived as a way to provide materially for those who held certain religious offices, the connection between the spiritual work and the material compensation of that work became blurred over time. The holder of a benefice could farm out the spiritual work to others, and keep most of the money for himself. Oftentimes, particularly fruitful benefices were so highly prized that families of the clergy who held them would connive ways to keep them in the family, by having an incumbent resign “in favor of” a designated replacement. To this day, the French word for “profit,” secular or otherwise, is “benefices.”

The wealth of the Church naturally caught the attention of civil authorities. In the 1560s, to avoid outright confiscation of Church properties, the clergy agreed to pay an annual sum to the monarchy to help pay off the national debt. These were known as the “decimes.” Deciding how to apportion the levies was frequently a source of some dispute and, consequently, regular meetings of the clergy were begun to decide the issue. Of course, regular meetings have a way of taking on a life of their own. Bergin writes, “by giving birth to the regular assemblies of the clergy, it transformed the church-crown relationship in enduring respects over the next two centuries, giving the French clergy a voice and a platform on which to discuss numerous other matters of interest to them beyond the financial one that was virtually unique in Catholic Europe. These assemblies were crucial to the gradual homogenization of the French church’s dominant groups but also to the diffusion of models of governance, reform and religious practices more generally.”

Bergin’s book is another nail in the coffin in the facile idea that the Council of Trent introduced, as if in one fell swoop, uniformity within the Catholic Church. The historiography of the post-Trent Church has been putting nails in that coffin for decades now. I was especially struck by the degree of diversity Bergin details not only within the Church as a whole but especially among and even within the various religious orders. Take the Franciscans. In 1517, the papacy had formally separated the Franciscans into two groups throughout Europe, the Conventuals and the Observants. In France, most of the religious houses sided with the Observants although some of those same houses actually declined to follow the reformed observance of their rule! But, the long seventeenth century also witnessed the growth of new forms of Franciscan life. The Recollets opened their first houses in 1583, but they grew to some 200 houses with 2,500 members by the second half of the seventeenth century. The Capuchins, who only became a distinct order in 1619, also experienced explosive growth in this period, becoming one of the leading Catholic Reformation orders. They grew to include some 5,000 members by 1643, and 6,500 member by 1726. Bergin also provides a thorough accounting of the growth of new orders such as the Jesuits, the Barnabites, the Doctrinaires, and the Community of St. John of God, each with different methods of operation, different charisms, and different ministries.

Bergin also gives a detailed look at the relationship of the female orders which flourished in these years to their male counterparts, including the delightful, if anomalous, example of the Abbey of Fontevraud. Whereas most female religious houses were linked to, and subservient to, male counterparts, the affluent and influential Abbey at Fontrevaud “subordinated its male houses and members to female rule.” It helped that the Abbey was frequently governed by members of the French royal family!

“Bishops might be entrusted with reforming those under their jurisdiction, but who would reform them?” This question posed by Bergin has a certain contemporary ring to it, does it not? He makes the point: “Trent itself used forthright language to express its disapproval of the worldliness of many contemporary bishops, but while it prescribed the kinds of attitude and behaviour that were desirable in a bishop, it said virtually nothing about how its ideal of the bonus pastor was to be realized.” He notes that the Concordat of Bologna, which Trent accepted, set minimum age requirements and the such, but that by vesting too much civil influence in the nomination of bishops, the quality of the episcopacy actually declined at first! The seventeenth century nonetheless still witnessed an episcopacy drawn from a range of social strata, unlike its successor century, the 18th, in which bishops would almost exclusively be drawn from noble blood.

The educational attainments of the bishops not only improved over the course of the century, they changed. Trent required candidates for the episcopacy to have a degree in either law or theology. In the early years of the seventeenth century, some bishops still had not taken degrees and those who did tended to take them in law which was seen as more useful for the task of governance. But, as the century progressed, and as the “new Jesuit, Oratorian and other colleges increasingly provided a full and more ‘modern’ educational menu,” and under pressure from Cardinal Richelieu who desired a more pastorally active higher clergy, increasingly bishops were selected from among those with degrees in theology.

No ecclesiastical change is more identified with the reforms of Trent than the establishment of seminaries. But, they did not get off to a great start in France with many small foundations being unable to stay afloat financially and, furthermore, proving themselves unable to actually produce a better quality of clergy. Bergin quotes from a letter of St. Vincent de Paul in 1644: “the decree of the council of Trent must be respected because it is of the Holy Spirit. Yet experience shows that the manner in which it is implemented in respect of the age of seminarians means that it does not work, neither in Italy nor in France. Some of them leave before finishing, while others have no attraction to the ecclesiastical state; some join religious orders, and other again flee the places where they have obligations arising from their education, preferring to try their luck elsewhere. There are four in France – at Bourdeaux, Reims, Rouen and one previously at Agen. None of these dioceses has benefited from them and I fear that, apart from Milan and Rome, things are no different in Italy.” Bergin rightly notes that de Paul was uniquely well placed to make this “devastating” judgment. De Paul, Pierre de Berulle, Adrien Bourdoise and the founder of the Sulpicians, Jean-Jacques Olier, would all become deeply involved in the largely successful effort to turn seminary education into something worthwhile and effective.

What you can see from just these few remarks is that the life of the Church is always fitful, there are always successes and failures, there is no “Golden Age,” and the history of our Church is astonishingly diverse. Where the divine and human meet, strange and wonderful things tend to happen. More on this wonderful book tomorrow.


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