The French Revolution & Napoleon’s treatment of the church

In 1789, King Louis XVI of France was forced to call the Estates General to pay off some of his debts. The Estates General was an assembly which consisted of representatives of three estates: the clergy, the nobility, and common people. The voting was by estate, with each estate having one vote. The Estates General was not a part of regular French life, as it was called very in frequently. In fact, the last time it was called was 1614!

When the Estates general was called, it was not clear that France was in a revolutionary situation. However, the third estate demanded that the voting be by head, and not by estate. They also demanded double the amount of delegates to be present for the third estate. The King’s council granted them double the delegates, but wouldn’t budge on the traditional method of voting.

In the Estates General, the first and second estates began organizing themselves and appointing leaders. The third estate, however, refused to get started. Eventually, they decided to establish a constitution for France, and called upon the other estates to join them in making one. Many members of the first estate began to join them as well.

The third estate decided to make a new assembly, the National assembly, for the nation. The third estate had no legal authority to do this, and Louis was caught completely off guard. When they were locked out of their meeting place, the members of the national assembly met in a tennis court instead. They swore never to disperse until they had constructed a constitution for France. When the king dismissed his top minister Jacques Necker, who was popular with the masses, they began to grow angry. As a result, the crowd stormed the Bastille, killed the guard, and released the prisoners. At this point, events began to spiral out of control. Eventually, many revolutionaries who were once seen as radical would not be considered conservative, and many others would jump off the revolutionary wagon altogether.

The French revolution continued for several years, getting more and more radical. Eventually, King Louis XVI was executed by guillotine in 1793. The church was also suppressed during this time. The government also fought many wars against outside forces.

The revolution culminated with the rise of Napoleon. Napoleon was a general in the French army, but eventually got the council to give him power. Napoleon favored some form of reconciliation with the church, which was led by the newly-elected pope Pius VII. Napoleon still wanted the church under his thumb, but Pius’ view was that at least the church was not being brutally suppressed like it was during the French revolution and that there was no schism like under Henry VIII in England.

Napoleon did not return church lands stolen during the French revolution, and continued to keep the priests as salaried workers of the state. He did, however, recognize catholicism as the religion of the majority in France.

Napoleon was to nominate bishops, which were to be approved by the pope. The priests were to be selected by bishops from a government approved list. Church marriages later were not recognized unless they were accompanied by a civil certificate. It was also required that bishops were never to leave their dioceses. Seminary training was also kept under government control.

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