From the Renaissance to the French Revolution

Rev. James MacCaffrey, S.J., 1914



(a) Gallicanism.

For centuries France had been the zealous defender of the Church and of the Holy See. From the days of Clovis the French nation had never wavered in its allegiance to the successors of Saint Peter, many of whom had been obliged to seek refuge on the soil of France. In return for this support given ungrudgingly in many a dangerous crisis, several important privileges were conferred by the Popes on the French rulers, in which privileges moderate supporters of Gallicanism were inclined to seek the origin and best explanation of the so-called Gallican Liberties. But the extreme Gallicans, realising that such a defence could avail but little against the Pope, who could recall what his predecessors had granted, maintained that the Gallican Liberties were but the survival of the liberty possessed by individual churches in the early centuries, that these liberties had been restricted gradually by the Holy See, which succeeded in reducing the national churches to servitude, and that the French Church alone had withstood these assaults, and had maintained intact the discipline and constitution of the apostolic age. The rulers of France, well aware that every restriction upon the authority of the Church meant an increase of the power of the Crown, gladly fostered this movement, while the French bishops, unconscious of the fact that independence of Rome meant servitude to the king, allowed themselves to be used as tools in carrying out the programme of state absolutism.

The Pragmatic Sanction of Louis IX., referred to by many writers as the first indication of Gallicanism, is admitted by all scholars to be a forgery. The exorbitant demands formulated by Philip the Fair during his quarrel with Boniface VIII. are the first clear indication of the Gallican theory that confronts the historian. The principles laid down by the rulers of France during this quarrel were amplified considerably in the writings of William of Occam, Jean of Jandun, and Marsilius of Padua, and were reduced to definite form in the time of the Great Western Schism. At that time, mainly owing to the influence of Gerson, D’Ailly, and other French leaders, the doctrine of the superiority of a General Council over the Pope was accepted, and received official confirmation in the decrees of the fourth and fifth sessions of the Council of Constance (1414-17), and in the Council of Basle (1431-6). The decrees passed by the Synod of Bourges (1438) were strongly anti-papal, and despite of the efforts of Nicholas V. and his successors to procure their withdrawal most of them remained in force till the Concordat of 1516. Partly owing to this Concordat, by which the right of nomination to all bishoprics and abbacies in France was secured to the Crown, and partly to the strong feeling aroused in France during the conflict with Calvinism, little was heard of Gallicanism during the sixteenth century. It was mainly, however, as a result of the opposition of the French bishops that the decree of the Council of Florence regarding papal supremacy was not renewed at the Council of Trent, and it was in great measure due to the influence of Gallican principles that the decrees of the Council of Trent were not received in France for years.

Gallicanism was renewed in the beginning of the seventeenth century by Edmund Richer (1559-1631), syndic of the Paris University and editor of the works of Gerson. He was a man who held novel views about the constitution both of Church and State, and who professed his sincere admiration for Gerson’s exposition of the relations that should exist between a General Council and the Pope. In 1610 one of the Dominican students undertook to defend publicly the supremacy and infallibility of the Pope, whereupon a violent controversy broke out, but it was settled for a time by the prudent intervention of Cardinal Du Perron. The Parliament of Paris, however, undertook the defence of Richer and of the work that he published in explanation of his theories. In this book, De Ecclesiastica et Politica Potestate (1611) he laid it down that the Church was a limited not an absolute monarchy; that the whole legislative power rested in the hands of the hierarchy, composed according to him of both bishops and parish priests; that this legislative power should be exercised in a General Council, which as representing the entire hierarchy was the repository of infallibility, and was not subject to the Pope; that the power of executing the decrees of General Councils and of carrying on the administration of the Church rested in the hands of the Pope, who could not act contrary to the canons; that neither Pope nor hierarchy could undertake to enforce ecclesiastical decrees by any other means except persuasion; and that if force were required it could be exercised only by the head of the State, who was the natural protector of the Church, and responsible to God for the due observance of the canons.

This book was condemned by the provincial Synod of Sens, held under the presidency of Cardinal Du Perron in 1612, by the provincial Synod of Aix, by the Bishop of Paris, and by the Pope. The Parliament of Paris, however, supported Richer, who lodged an appeal with the civil authorities against the action of the bishops, and sought to secure for his theories the support of the Sorbonne. Though forced by the king to resign his office at the University he continued to defend his views stubbornly till 1629, when for political rather than for religious reasons he was called upon by Cardinal Richelieu to sign a complete recantation. Shortly before his death in 1631 he declared in the presence of several witnesses that this submission was made freely and from conviction, but some papers written by him and discovered after his death make it very difficult to believe that these protestations were sincere.

The writings of Pithou, Richer, and Dupuy, and above all the rising influence of the Jansenist party helped to spread the Gallican teaching among the French clergy, and to make them more willing to yield obedience to the king than to the Pope. The Abbot of St. Cyran attacked the authority of the Holy See, but fortunately the extreme nature of his views, and the need felt by both the priests and the bishops of France for the intervention of the Holy See against the Jansenists, served to restrain the anti-papal feeling, and to keep the leading theological writers, like Duval, Du Perron, Ysambert and Abelly, free from any Gallican bias. The accession of Louis XIV. (1661) marked a new era in the history of the Gallican Liberties. He was young, headstrong, anxious to extend the territories of France, and determined to assert his own supreme authority at all costs. With Louis XIV. firmly seated on the French throne, and with the Jansenist party intriguing in the Parliament of Paris, which had shown itself hostile to papal claims, it was not difficult to predict that the relations with the Holy See were likely to become unfriendly. The Duke of Crequi,1 Louis XIV.’s ambassador at Rome, set himself deliberately to bring about a complete rupture. Owing to an attack made by some Corsicans of the papal guard on the French embassy, the ambassador refused to accept any apology and left Rome, while Louis XIV. dismissed the nuncio at Paris, occupied the papal territories of Avignon and Venaissin, and despatched an army against the Papal States. Alexander VII. was obliged to yield to force, and to accept the very humiliating terms imposed upon him by the Peace of Pisa (1664).

The Jansenist party and the enemies of the Holy See took advantage of the policy of Louis XIV. to push forward their designs. A violent clamour was raised in 1661 against a thesis defended in the Jesuit schools (Thesis Claromontana) in favour of papal infallibility, and a still more violent clamour ensued when it was maintained in a public defence at the Sorbonne (1663) that the Pope has supreme jurisdiction over the Church, and that General Councils, though useful for the suppression of heresy, are not necessary. The Jansenist party appealed to the Parliament of Paris, which issued a prohibition against teaching or defending the doctrine of papal infallibility, but the majority of the doctors of the Sorbonne stood by their opinion, and refused to register the decree of Parliament. The opponents of the Sorbonne, hastening to avenge this first defeat, denounced the defence of a somewhat similar thesis by a Cistercian student as a violation of the prohibition. The syndic of the university was suspended from his office for six months, and the university itself was threatened with very serious reforms unless it consented to accept the Gallican theories. As a result of the interference of intermediaries a declaration satisfactory to the Parliament was issued by the doctors of the faculty (1663). In this document they announced that it was not the teaching of the university that the Pope had any authority over the king in temporal matters, that he was superior to a General Council, or that he was infallible in matters of faith without the consent of a General Council. On the contrary, they asserted that it was the teaching of the university that in temporal affairs the king was subject only to God, that his subjects could not be dispensed from their allegiance to him by any power on earth, and that the rights and liberties of the Gallican Church must be respected. This decree was signed by seventy-seven doctors, and was published by the Parliament as the teaching of the entire theological faculty and as a guide that should be followed in all theological schools. A violent agitation was begun against all who attempted to uphold the rights of the Holy See either in public disputations or in published works, an agitation that was all the more inexplicable, owing to the fact that at this time both the king and Parliament were endeavouring to persuade the Jansenists to accept as infallible the decrees by which the Pope had condemned their teaching.

Before this agitation had died away a new cause of dissension had come to the front in the shape of the Regalia. By the term Regalia was meant the right of the King of France to hold the revenues of vacant Sees and abbacies, and to appoint to benefices during the vacancy, and until the oath of allegiance had been taken by the new bishops and had been registered. Such a privilege was undoubtedly bad for religion, and though it was tolerated for certain grave reasons by the second General Council of Lyons (1274), a decree of excommunication was levelled against anyone, prince or subject, cleric or layman, who would endeavour to introduce it or to abet its introduction into those places where it did not already exist. Many of the provinces of France had not been subject to the Regalia hitherto, but in defiance of the law of the Church Louis XIV. issued a royal mandate (1673-75), claiming for himself the Regalia in all dioceses of France, and commanding bishops who had not taken the oath of allegiance to take it immediately and to have it registered.

The bishops of France submitted to this decree with two exceptions. These were Pavillon, bishop of Alet, and Caulet, bishop of Pamiers, both of whom though attached to the Jansenist party were determined to maintain the rights of the Church. The king, regardless of their protests, proceeded to appoint to benefices in their dioceses on the ground that they had not registered their oath of allegiance. They replied by issuing excommunication against all those who accepted such appointments, and, when their censures were declared null and void by their respective metropolitans, they appealed to the Holy See. During the contest Pavillon of Alet died, and the whole brunt of the struggle fell upon his companion. The latter was encouraged by the active assistance of Innocent XI., who quashed the sentence of the metropolitans, encouraged the bishop and chapter to resist, and threatened the king with the censures of the Church unless he desisted from his campaign (1678-79). The bishop himself died, but the chapter showed its loyalty to his injunctions by appointing a vicar-capitular in opposition to the vicar-capitular nominated by the king. A most violent persecution was begun against the vicar-capitular and the clergy who remained loyal to him. Both on account of the important interests at stake and the courage displayed by the opponents of the king the contest was followed with great interest not only in France itself but throughout the Catholic world. While feeling was thus running high another event happened in Paris that added fuel to the flame. The Cistercian nuns at Charonne were entitled according to their constitution to elect their own superioress, but de Harlay, Archbishop of Paris, acting in conformity with the orders of Louis XIV. endeavoured to force upon the community a superioress belonging to an entirely different order. The nuns appealed to Innocent XI., who annulled the appointment and insisted upon a free canonical election (1680). The Parliament of Paris set side the papal sentence, and when this interference was rejected by the Pope, the papal document was suppressed.

In view of the difficulties that had arisen an extraordinary meeting of the bishops of France was summoned. Fifty-two of them met in Paris (March-May, 1681). The two leading men in favour of the king were Francis de Harlay, Archbishop of Paris, and Le Tellier, Archbishop of Rheims. Acting under the influence of these men the bishops agreed that it was their duty to submit to the claims of the crown in regard to the Regalia; they condemned the interference of the Pope in favour of the Paris community of Cistercian nuns as well as his action against the metropolitan of the Bishop of Pamiers; and they expressed the opinion that a general assembly of the clergy of France should be called to discuss the whole situation.

The General Assembly consisting of thirty-four bishops and thirty-seven priests elected to represent the entire body of the French clergy met at Paris (October 1681-July 1682). The most prominent men of the Assembly were Francis de Harlay of Paris, Le Tellier of Rheims, Colbert of Rouen, Choisseul of Tournay, and Bossuet, the recently appointed Bishop of Meaux. The latter, whose reputation as a preacher had already spread throughout France, delivered the opening address, which was moderate in tone, and not unfriendly to the rights of the Holy See though at the same time strongly pro-Gallican. Certain minor rights claimed by the king having been abandoned, the bishops gratefully accepted the Regalia, and despatched a letter to the Pope urging him to yield to the royal demands for the sake of peace. But the Pope, more concerned for the liberty of the French bishops than they were themselves, reminded them sharply of their duty to the Church, while at the same time he refused to follow their advice. In their reply to the Pope the bishops took occasion to praise the spirit of religious zeal shown by Louis XIV., who, according to them, was forced reluctantly to take up the gauge of battle that had been thrown at his feet by Rome. Meantime an attempt was made by the Assembly to formulate definitely the Gallican liberties. These were: —

(1) That Saint Peter and his successors have received jurisdiction only over spiritual things. Kings are not subject to them in temporal matters, nor can the subjects of kings be released from their oath of allegiance by the Pope.

(2) That the plenitude of power in spiritual things by the Holy See does not contradict the decrees of the fourth and fifth sessions of the Council of Constance, which decrees, having been passed by a General Council and approved by the Pope, were observed by the Gallican church.

(3) That the apostolic authority of the Roman Church must be exercised in accordance with the canons inspired by the Holy Ghost, and with the rules, constitutions, and customs of the Gallican Church.

(4) That though the Pope has the chief part in determining questions of faith, and though his decrees have force in the entire Church and in each particular church, yet his decisions are not irreformable, at least until they are approved by the verdict of the entire Church.

This Declaration (the Four Gallican Articles) was approved by the king, who ordered that it should be observed by all teachers and professors, and should be accepted by all candidates for theological decrees. Although the Archbishop of Paris recommended warmly the acceptance of the Gallican Articles the doctors of the Sorbonne offered strong opposition to the new royal theology, so that it was only after recourse had been had to the most violent expedients that the consent of one hundred and sixty-two doctors could be obtained, while the majority against the Gallican Articles was over five hundred. The decision of the minority was published as the decision of the faculty, and steps were taken at once to remove the opponents of the articles, and to make the Sorbonne strongly Gallican in its teaching. While protests against the articles poured in from different universities and from many of the countries of Europe the Pope kept silent; but when two priests, who took part in the Assembly of 1682, were nominated for vacant bishoprics Innocent XI. refused to appoint them until they should have expressed regret for their action. The king would not permit them to do so, nor would he allow the others who were nominated to accept their appointments from the Pope, and as a result in 1688 thirty-five of the French Sees had been left without bishops.

In this same year another incident occurred that rendered the relations between the Pope and Louis XIV. even more strained. The right of asylum possessed by various ambassadors at the papal court had become a very serious abuse. Formerly it was attached only to the residence of the ambassador, but in the course of time it was extended until it included the whole of the quarter in which the embassy was situated, with the result that it became impossible for the guardians of the peace to carry out their duties. For this reason the right of asylum was suppressed by the Pope. All the other nations submitted to such a reasonable restriction, but Louis XIV., anxious rather to provoke than to avoid a quarrel, refused to abandon the privilege. He sent as his ambassador to Rome (1687) the Marquis de Lavardin, who entered Rome at the head of a force of five hundred armed men, and whose conduct from first to last was so outrageous that Innocent XI. was obliged to excommunicate him, and to lay the Church of Saint Louis under interdict. Immediately Louis XIV. occupied Avignon and Venaissin, assembled an army in Southern France to be despatched against the Papal States, and ordered that an appeal to a future General Council should be prepared for presentation. Twenty-six of the bishops expressed their approval of this appeal, and so successful had been the dragooning of the university that nearly all the faculties adopted a similar attitude (1688).

For a time it seemed as if a schism involving the whole of the French Church was unavoidable, since neither Pope nor king seemed willing to give way. But Louis XIV. had no wish to become a second Henry VIII. The threatening condition of affairs in Europe made it impossible for him to despatch an army against Rome. At the same time the fear of civil disturbance in France in case he rejected completely the authority of the Pope, and the danger that such a step might involve for French interests abroad kept him from taking the final plunge. He recalled the obnoxious ambassador from Rome (1689), abandoned the right of asylum as attached to the quarter of the French embassy (1690), and restored Avignon and Venaissin to the Pope. Alexander VIII. demanded the withdrawal of the royal edict of March 1683 enjoining the public acceptance of the Gallican Articles. He required also a retraction from the clergy who had taken part in the Assembly, and issued a Bull denouncing the extension of the rights of the Regalia and declaring the Gallican Articles null and void (1690). Louis XIV., finding that the public opinion of the Catholic world was against him, and that a reconciliation with the Papacy would be very helpful to him in carrying out his political schemes, opened friendly negotiations with Innocent XII. In the end an agreement was arrived at, whereby the clerics who had taken part in the Assembly of 1682, having expressed their regret to the Pope for their action, were appointed to the bishoprics for which they had been nominated; while the king informed the Pope (1693) that the decrees issued by him insisting on the acceptance of the Gallican Articles, would not be enforced.

But in spite of this royal assurance, Gallicanism had still a strong hold upon France. The younger men in the Sorbonne could be relied upon to support the Articles, and the influence of writers like John de Launoy (1603-1678) and of Dupin helped to spread Gallicanism among the clergy and laymen of the rising generation. Throughout the whole controversy Bossuet had shown himself too accommodating to the crown, though at the same time he was not unfriendly to the claims of the Holy See, nor inclined to favour such extreme measures as most of his episcopal colleagues. Acting on the request of the king he prepared a defence of the Gallican Articles, which was not published till long after his death. During the eighteenth century, when the crown and the Parliament of Paris interfered constantly in all religious questions, the bishops and clergy of France had good reason to regret their defence of the so-called Gallican Liberties. The Concordat concluded by Napoleon with Pius VII. and the action taken by the Pope with the approval of Napoleon for the carrying out of the Concordat dealt a staggering blow to Gallicanism, despite the attempt made to revive it by the Organic Articles. The great body of the bishops of the nineteenth century had little sympathy with Gallican principles, which disappeared entirely after the definition of Papal Infallibility at the Vatican Council.

Chapter VII Section (a) Footnote

1 De Mouy, L’ambassade du duc de Crequi, 2 vols., 1893.

Chapter VII Section (a) Bibliography

Richer, De ecclesiastica et politica potestate, 1611. Puyol, Edm. Richer, Etude sur la renovation du gallicanisme au XVIIe siecle, 2 vols., 1877. Lavisse, Histoire de France (vii.), 1905. Bossuet, Defensio declarationis cleri gallicani (ed. 1885). Gerin, Recherches historiques sur l’assemblee de 1682, 1878. De Maistre, De L’Eglise gallicane, 1821. Gerin, Louis XIV. et le Saint-Siege, 1894. Mention, Documents relatifs au rapport du clerge avec la royaute de 1682 a 1705, 1893. Picot, Memoires pour servir a l’histoire ecclesiastique pendan le XVIIIe siecle, 7 vols., 1853-57.

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Lane Core Jr. (lane@elcore.net)
Created November 22, 2000; revised November 23, 2000.