Saint Vincent’s Reading List: LXVIII: The General Assemblies of the Clergy of France

Title page of Procez Verbal de l’Assemblée Générale du Clergé de France, 1625

Procez Verbal de l’Assemblée Générale du Clergé de France, Tenue à Pris, au Convent des Augustins, en l’année M.DC.XXV. Les Sieurs de Peyrissac, & de Richard P. de Lansac, Secretaires. A Paris: Par Antoine Etienne, Imprimeur ordinaire du Roy, rüe Sainct Jacques, à l’Olivier de Rob Estinne, M.DC. XXV. Avec privilege de sa Majesté.

SpC. 282.4409032 C363p1625

Scholars of French history know that the famous Estates General of France did not meet between 1614 and 1789.  The Bourbon monarchy’s desire to preserve the absolute power of a divine right king, and the contemporary example of the struggles between parliament and the monarch in England for power sharing with the nobility told a cautionary tale that successive Bourbon monarchs understood well. In contrast to the Estates General, France did have a functioning national representative body in the Ancien Regime, the General Assemblies of the Clergy of France.

Meeting since the reign of Henry III, the Assemblies represented a “distinct legal, corporate, structural entity with an elaborate and effective central administration…with broad, legislative, temporal and financial authority—rivaling that of the state itself—over a clerical society estimated at between 130,000 and 200,000 members.”[1] Over and above its direct control over the institutions, personnel, and wealth of the Church in a confessional state such as France, the Church was solely responsible for the “national religious conscience”[2] through its control of worship, education, civil record keeping, and the supervision of charity and all forms of public assistance.  Under royal authority, the Assembly became the “sovereign authority and official spokesman of the French Church in matters of administration, discipline, and justice.”[3]

After decades of religious civil war and wars of succession, Henry IV came to full possession of his throne through his conversion to Catholicism. The Bourbon vision of “One law. One faith. One king” was the foundation for rebuilding France. The Bourbon monarchs knew they could not build a strong kingdom without a strong Church. The Church, for its part, believed the surest way to exterminate Protestantism in France and preserve its authority everywhere over everyone was in a strong alliance with a divine right king who put his full authority behind the Church. Royal authority and Church authority joined in an effective alliance first to reform the Catholic Church in France and build an absolute monarchy, and then to maintain this status quo of “privilege and tradition” for the rest of the Ancien Regime. In this arrangement, the church remained in control of its vast wealth and resources, but recognized a commitment to use these resources to fulfill its national responsibilities and to support the Crown.

Vincent de Paul was very familiar with the ordinary and extraordinary functioning of these Assemblies, their importance for Church reform, and for effective Church government. Vincent also relied on the authority of the Assemblies for the condemnation of Jansenism.[4]

Typically, the Assemblies met in Paris every five years. The Assembly always published its minutes and decrees under royal authority. The present volume represents the minutes of the General Assembly held in Paris in 1625.

[1] Louis S. Greenbaum, “The General Assembly of the Clergy of France and Its Situation at the End of the Ancien Regime,” The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 53, No. 2 (July 1967), 153.

[2] Ibid., 154.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See for example, Coste, CCD, 6:101-102.

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