The doctrine originated in France (the term derives from "Gaul"). In the 18th century it spread to the Low Countries, especially the Netherlands, as well. It is unrelated to the first-millennium Christian Gallican rite.
Gallicanism tended to restrain the Pope's authority in favor of that of bishops and the people's representatives in the State, or the monarch. But the most respected proponents of Gallican ideas did not contest the Pope's primacy in the Church, merely his supremacy and infallibility. They believed their way of regarding the authority of the Pope—more in line with that of the Conciliar movement and akin to the Orthodox and Anglicans—was more in conformity with Holy Scripture and tradition. At the same time, they believed their theory did not transgress the limits of free opinions.
According to the initial Gallican theory, then, papal primacy was limited first by the temporal power of monarchs, which, by divine will, was inviolable. Secondly, it was limited by the authority of the general councils and the bishops, and lastly by the canons and customs of particular churches, which the pope was bound to take into account when he exercised his authority.
Gallicanism was more than pure theory — the bishops and magistrates of France used it, the former to increase power in the government of dioceses, the latter to extend their jurisdiction so as to cover ecclesiastical affairs. There also was an episcopal and political Gallicanism, and a parliamentary or judicial Gallicanism. The former lessened the doctrinal authority of the pope in favour of that of the bishops, to the degree marked by the Declaration of 1682, and the latter augmented the rights of the state.
There were eighty-three "Liberties of the Gallican Church", according to a collection drawn up by the jurisconsults Guy Coquille and Pierre Pithou. Besides the four articles cited above, which were incorporated, these Liberties included the following:
Parliamentary Gallicanism, therefore, was of much wider scope than episcopal; indeed, it was often disavowed by the bishops of France, and about twenty of them condemned Pierre Pithou's book when a new edition of it was published, in 1638, by the brothers Dupuy.
For the more moderate among them, Gallican ideas and liberties were simply privileges — concessions made by the popes, who had been quite willing to divest themselves of a part of their authority in favour of the bishops or kings or France. It was thus that the latter could lawfully stretch their powers in ecclesiastical matters beyond the normal limits. This idea made its appearance as early as the reign of Philip the Fair, in some of the protests of that monarch against the policy of Pope Boniface VIII. In the view of some partisans of the theory, the popes had always thought fit to show especial consideration for the ancient customs of the Gallican Church, which in every age had distinguished itself by its exactitude in the preservation of the Faith and the maintenance of ecclesiastical discipline. Others, again, assigned a more precise date to the granting of these concessions, referring their origin to the period of the earliest Carlovingians and explaining them somewhat differently. They said that the popes had found it impossible to recall to their allegiance and to due respect for ecclesiastical discipline the Frankish lords who had possessed themselves of episcopal sees; that these lords, insensible to censures and anathemas, rude and untaught, recognized no authority but that of force; and that the popes had, therefore, granted to Carloman, Pepin, and Charlemagne a spiritual authority which they were to exercise only under papal control. It was this authority that the Kings of France, successors of these princes, had inherited.
This theory has difficulties so serious that it was rejected by the majority of Gallicans as well as by their Ultramontane adversaries. The former by no means admitted that the Liberties were privileges since a privilege can be revoked by him who has granted it; and, as they regarded the matter, these Liberties could not be touched by any pope. Moreover, they added, the Kings of France have at times received from the popes certain clearly defined privileges; these privileges have never been confounded with the Gallican Liberties. As a matter of fact, historians could have told them, the privileges accorded by popes to the King of France in the course of centuries are known from the texts, of which an authentic collection could be compiled, and there is nothing in them resembling the Liberties in question. Again, why should not these Gallican Liberties have been transmitted to the German Emperors as well since they, too, were the heirs of Pepin and Charlemagne? Besides, the Ultramontanes pointed out there are some privileges which the pope himself could not grant. It is hardly conceivable that a pope should allow any group of bishops the privilege of calling his infallibility in question, putting his doctrinal decisions upon trial, to be accepted or rejected; or that he would grant any kings the privilege of suppressing or curtailing his liberty of communication with the faithful in a certain territory.
Most of its partisans regarded Gallicanism as a revival of the most ancient traditions of Christianity, a persistence of the common law, which law, according to some (Pithou, Quesnel), was made up of the conciliar decrees of the earliest centuries or, according to others (Marca, Bossuet), of Canon laws of the general and local councils, and the decretals, ancient and modern, which were received in France or conformable to their usage. "Of all Christian countries", says Fleury, "France has been the most careful to conserve the liberty of her Church and oppose the novelties introduced by Ultramontane canonists". The Liberties were so called, because the innovations constituted conditions of servitude with which the popes had burdened the Church, and their legality resulted from the fact that the extension given by the popes to their own primacy was founded not upon Divine institution, but upon the false Decretals. If we are to credit these authors, what the Gallicans maintained in 1682 was not a collection of novelties, but a body of beliefs as old as the Church, the discipline of the first centuries. The Church of France had upheld and practised them at all times; the Church Universal had believed and practised them of old, until about the tenth century; St. Louis had supported, but not created, them by the Pragmatic Sanction; the Council of Constance had taught them with the pope's approbation. Gallican ideas, then, must have had no other origin than that of Christian dogma and ecclesiastical discipline.
In truth, that Church, during the Merovingian period, testifies the same deference to the Holy See as do all the others. Ordinary questions of discipline are in the ordinary course settled in councils, often held with the assent of the kings, but on great occasions – the Councils of Epaone (517), Vaison (529), Valence (529), Orleans (538), Tours (567) – the bishops declare that they are acting under the impulse of the Holy See, or defer to its admonitions; they take pride in the approbation of the pope; they cause his name to be read aloud in the churches, just as is done in Italy and in Africa they cite his decretals as a source of Canon Law; they show indignation at the mere idea that anyone should fail in consideration for them. Bishops condemned in councils (like Salonius of Embrun, Sagitarius of Gap, Contumeliosus of Riez) have no difficulty in appealing to the pope, who, after examination, either confirms or rectifies the sentence pronounced against them.
With the first Capets the secular relations between the pope and the Gallican Church appeared to be momentarily strained. At the Councils of Saint-Basle de Verzy (991) and of Chelles (c. 993), in the discourses of Arnoul, Bishop of Orléans, in the letters of Gerbert, afterwards Pope Sylvester II, sentiments of violent hostility to the Holy See are manifested, and an evident determination to elude the authority in matters of discipline which had until then been recognized as belonging to it. But the papacy at that period, given over to the tyranny of Crescentius and other local barons, was in a period of temporary decline. When it regained its independence, its old authority in France came back to it, the work of the Councils of Saint-Basle and of Chelles was undone; princes like Hugh Capet, bishops like Gerbert, held no attitude but that of submission. It has been said that during the early Capetian period the pope was more powerful in France than he had ever been. Under Gregory VII the pope's legates traversed France from north to south, they convoked and presided over numerous councils, and, in spite of sporadic and incoherent acts of resistance, they deposed bishops and excommunicated princes just as in Germany and Spain.
In the following two centuries we can still see no clear evidence of Gallicanism. The pontifical power attains its apogee in France as elsewhere, St. Bernard and St. Thomas Aquinas outline the theory of that power, and their opinion is that of the school in accepting the attitude of Gregory VII and his successors in regard to delinquent princes. St. Louis IX, whom some tried to represent as a patron of the Gallican system, is still ignorant of it — for the fact is now established that the Pragmatic Sanction of 1269, long attributed to him, was a wholesale fabrication put together (about 1445) in the purlieus of the Royal Chancellery of Charles VII to lend countenance to the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges. (Löffler 1911)
At the opening of the fourteenth century, however, the conflict between Philip the Fair and Boniface VIII brings out the first glimmerings of the Gallican ideas. That king does not confine himself to maintaining that, as sovereign, he is sole and independent master of his temporalities; he haughtily proclaims that, in virtue of the concession made by the pope, with the assent of a general council to Charlemagne and his successors, he has the right to dispose of vacant ecclesiastical benefices. With the consent of the nobility, the Third Estate, and a great part of the clergy, he appeals in the matter from Boniface VIII to a future general council — the implication being that the council is superior to the pope. The same ideas and others still more hostile to the Holy See reappear in the struggle of Fratricelles and Louis of Bavaria against Pope John XXII; they are expressed by the pens of William of Occam, of John of Jandun, and of Marsilius of Padua, professors in the University of Paris. Among other things, they deny the divine origin of the papal primacy, and subject the exercise of it to the good pleasure of the temporal ruler. Following the pope, the University of Paris condemned these views; but for all that they did not entirely disappear from the memory, or from the disputations, of the schools, for the principal work of Marsilius, Defensor Pacis, was translated into French in 1375, probably by a professor of the University of Paris. The Western Schism reawakened them suddenly.
The idea of a council naturally suggested itself as a means of healing that unfortunate division of Christendom. Upon that idea was soon grafted the conciliary theory, which sets the council above the pope, making it the sole representative of the Church, the sole organ of infallibility. Timidly sketched by two professors of the University of Paris, Conrad of Gelnhausen and Henry of Langenstein, this theory was completed and noisily interpreted to the public by Pierre d'Ailly and Gerson. At the same time the clergy of France, disgusted with Benedict XIII, withdrew from his obedience. It was in the assembly which voted on this measure (1398) that for the first time there was any question of bringing back the Church of France to its ancient liberties and customs — of giving its prelates once more the right of conferring and disposing of benefices. The same idea comes into the foreground in the claims put forward in 1406 by another assembly of the French clergy; to win the votes of the assembly, certain orators cited the example of what was happening in England. Haller concluded from this that these so-called Ancient Liberties were of English origin, that the Gallican Church really borrowed them from its neighbour, only imagining them to be a revival of its own past. This opinion does not seem well founded. The precedents cited by Haller go back to the parliament held at Carlisle in 1307, at which date the tendencies of reaction against papal reservations had already manifested themselves in the assemblies convoked by Philip the Fair in 1302 and 1303. The most that we can admit is, that the same ideas received parallel development from both sides of the channel.
Together with the restoration of the "Ancient Liberties" the assembly of the clergy in 1406 intended to maintain the superiority of the council to the pope, and the fallibility of the latter. However widely they may have been accepted at the time, these were only individual opinions or opinions of a school, when the Council of Constance came to give them the sanction of its high authority. In its fourth and fifth sessions it declared that the council represented the Church and that every person, no matter of what dignity, even the pope, was bound to obey it in what concerned the extirpation of the schism and the reform of the Church; that even the pope, if he resisted obstinately, might be constrained by process of law to obey it in the above-mentioned points. This was the birth or, if we prefer to call it so, the legitimation of Gallicanism. So far we had encountered in the history of the Gallican Church recriminations of malcontent bishops, or a violent gesture of some prince discomforted in his avaricious designs; but these were only fits of resentment or ill humor, accidents with no attendant consequences; this time the provisions made against exercise of the pontifical authority had a lasting effect. Gallicanism had implanted itself in the minds of men as a national doctrine and it only remained to apply it in practice. This is to be the work of the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges. In that instrument the clergy of France inserted the articles of Constance repeated at Basle, and upon that warrant assumed authority to regulate the collation of benefices and the temporal administration of the Churches on the sole basis of the common law, under the king's patronage, and independently of the pope's action. From Eugene IV to Leo X the popes did not cease to protest against the Pragmatic Sanction, until it was replaced by the Concordat of Bologna in 1516. But, if its provisions disappeared from the laws of France, the principles it embodied for a time nonetheless continued to inspire the schools of theology and parliamentary jurisprudence. Those principles even appeared at the Council of Trent, where the ambassadors, theologians, and bishops of France repeatedly championed them, notably when the council discussed whether episcopal jurisdiction comes immediately from God or through the pope, whether or not the council ought to ask confirmation of its decrees from the sovereign pontiff, etc. Then again, it was in the name of the Liberties of the Gallican Church that a part of the clergy and the Parlementaires opposed the publication of the Council of Trent; and the crown decided to detach from it and publish what seemed good, in the form of ordinances emanating from the royal authority.
In 1663 the Sorbonne solemnly declared that it admitted no authority of the pope over the king's temporal dominion, nor his superiority to a general council, nor infallibility apart from the Church's consent. In 1682 matters were much worse for the Pope. Louis XIV having decided to extend to all the Churches of his kingdom the droit de regale, or right of receiving the revenue of vacant sees, and of conferring the sees themselves at his pleasure, Pope Innocent XI strongly opposed the king's designs. Irritated by this resistance, the king assembled the clergy of France and, on 19 March, 1682, the thirty-six prelates and thirty-four deputies of the second order who constituted that assembly adopted the four articles summarized above and transmitted them to all the other bishops and archbishops of France. Three days later the king commanded the registration of the articles in all the schools and faculties of theology; no one could even be admitted to degrees in theology without having maintained this doctrine in one of his theses and it was forbidden to write anything against them. The Sorbonne, however, yielded to the ordinance of registration only after a spirited resistance.
Pope Innocent XI testified his displeasure by the Rescript of 11 April, 1682, in which he voided and annulled all that the assembly had done in regard to the regale, as well as all the consequences of that action; he also refused Bulls to all members of the assembly who were proposed for vacant bishoprics. In like manner his successor Alexander VIII, by a Constitution dated 4 August, 1690, quashed as detrimental to the Holy See the proceedings both in the matter of the regale and in that of the declaration on the ecclesiastical power and jurisdiction, which had been prejudicial to the clerical estate and order. The bishops designate to whom Bulls had been refused received them at length, in 1693, only after addressing to Pope Innocent XII a letter in which they disavowed everything that had been decreed in that assembly in regard to the ecclesiastical power and the pontifical authority. The king himself wrote to the pope (14 September, 1693) to announce that a royal order had been issued against the execution of the edict of 23 March, 1682.
In spite of these disavowals, the Declaration of 1682 remained thenceforward the living symbol of Gallicanism, professed by the great majority of the French clergy, obligatorily defended in the faculties of theology, schools, and seminaries, guarded from the lukewarmness of French theologians and the attacks of foreigners by the inquisitorial vigilance of the French parliaments, which never failed to condemn to suppression every work that seemed hostile to the principles of the Declaration.
From France Gallicanism spread, about the middle of the eighteenth century, into the Low Countries, thanks to the works of the jurisconsult Zeger Bernhard van Espen. Under the pseudonym of Febronius, Hontheim introduced it into Germany where it took the forms of Febronianism and Josephism. The Synod of Pistoia (1786) even tried to acclimatize it in Italy. But its diffusion was sharply arrested by the French Revolution, which took away its chief support by overturning the thrones of kings. Against the Revolution that drove them out and wrecked their sees, nothing was left to the bishops of France but to link themselves closely with the Holy See. After the Concordat of 1801 — itself the most dazzling manifestation of the pope's supreme power — French Governments made some pretence of reviving, in the Organic Articles, the "Ancient Gallican Liberties" and the obligation of teaching the articles of 1682, but ecclesiastical Gallicanism was never again resuscitated except in the form of a vague mistrust of Rome. On the fall of Napoleon and the Bourbons, the work of Lamennais, of "L'Avenir" and other publications devoted to Roman ideas, the influence of Dom Guéranger, and the effects of religious teaching ever increasingly deprived it of its partisans.
When the first Vatican Council opened, in 1869, it had in France only timid defenders. When that council declared that the pope has in the Church the plenitude of jurisdiction in matters of faith, morals discipline, and administration that his decisions ex cathedra are of themselves, and without the assent of he Church, infallible and irreformable, it dealt Gallicanism a mortal blow. Three of the four articles were directly condemned. As to the remaining one, the first, the council made no specific declaration; but an important indication of the Catholic doctrine was given in the condemnation fulminated by Pope Pius IX against the 24th proposition of the Syllabus of Errors, in which it was asserted that the Church cannot have recourse to force and is without any temporal authority, direct or indirect. Pope Leo XIII shed more direct light upon the question in his Encyclical Immortale Dei (12 November, 1885), where we read: "God has apportioned the government of the human race between two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the former set over things divine, the latter over things human. Each is restricted within limits which are perfectly determined and defined in conformity with its own nature and special aim. There is therefore, as it were a circumscribed sphere in which each exercises its functions jure proprio". And in the Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae (10 January, 1890), the same pontiff adds: "The Church and the State have each its own power, and neither of the two powers is subject to the other."
After the first Vatican Council, Gallicanism was no longer a permissible opinion within the Roman Catholic Church. A variation of Gallicanism, a more generalized Conciliar movement, has survived for some time among the Old Catholics.