Richard Mullen defends the Church of Louis XVI
Church and Society in Eighteenth Century France by John McManners; Volume One: The Clerical Establishment and Its Social Ramifications; Volume Two: The Religion of the People and the Politics of Religion, Clarendon Press £29.95 each
EVERYONE KNOWS that the Catholic Church in France in the 18th century, that age of elegance before the hellish crucible of the Revolution, was corrupt and ineffective. As usual, "everyone" is wrong. There is no longer any excuse for repeating this trite opinion because a distinguished historian has produced a masterly piece of scholarship that shows the many strengths as well as the few but glaring flaws of the Church in France. This great work appeared in 1998 and is now available in two hefty paperbacks at £29.95 each.
John McManners is one of a line of Anglican clergymen who have written with sympathy and scholarship about the Catholic Church: one thinks of' Bishops Mandall Creighton and John Moorman or Owen and Henry Chadwick, who are, incidentally the editors of the Ozfind History of the Christian Church in which these %,olumes appear. It will eventually reach some 20 volumes, of which these two are glittering ornaments.
This is well written, traditional, narrative history, free from the linguistic horrors that stifle so much present-day historical writing. Admittedly any reader would need some cursory knowledge of the reigns of the autocratic Louis XIV, the contemptible Louis XV and the noble Louis XVI. He should also have some understanding of the disputesbetween Rome and Gallicanism and between traditional Catholicism and the more rigorous Jansenism.
Professor McManners gives us all the threads in the complicated tapestry that was the French Church. As an historic and established church and as a product of aristocratic French society. it was "a patchwork of traditional agreements and exceptions". In this sense it was closer to the Church of England of recent times than to the modern Catholic Church in France.
There was an old French proverb that you could never cross the Pont Neuf without seeing a monk, a whore and a white horse. Certainly the number of clergy in France was staggering: 60,000 parish clergy, 26,000 monks and 56,000 nuns. This book demonstrates that the religious orders were doing valuable work among the poor. Nevertheless vast parts of the Church's wealth were wasted on the younger sprigs of the nobility.
Perhaps nothing has given the French Church such a bad repute as the behaviour and beliefs (or rather lack of them) of a few bishops. Two stand out: the crafty Talleyrand, forced into a clerical career because of physical handicap, and Lomenie de Brinne, whom Louis XVI refused to promote on the grounds that "the Archbishop of Paris must at least believe in God". Yet these were exceptions.
McManners' main criticism of the French Church is that the nobility had a virtual monopoly on all the profitable positions in the Church. He gives us a valuable account of the Abbe's, those curious and often scandalous persons. A man had to be in clerical orders to hold valuable livings, so many families arranged for their sons to take the tonsure as young boys. They did not need to proceed any further in clerical orders, and a host of rich pickings became available.
MANY Abbes were at the most some form of polite deists, but they swarmed about the court and aristocratic salons. Many of them were philosophes who spread a cult of sensibilite that sounds quite familiar to us. indeed, the author comments that it is from them "that the religion populaire of today arises, a creedless hope of reunion beyond the grave, a lingering residue of an abandoned Christianity, all that is left to cling to in the shadow of death".
These volumes would make the perfect gift for any priest or layman interested in history. They offer the now rare delight of knowing that one is reading a work by a Christian priest who believes in the majesty of God, the fallibility of humanity and the efficacy of the sacraments.