What Did the Civil Constitution of the Clergy Do?

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was a severe legislative action initiated by the French revolutionary government that aimed to subordinate the Catholic Church to the new social and political order. It recreated the diocesan and monastic character of the Catholic Church in France and drastically reduced papal influence.

Because the Catholic Church in France was considered by revolutionaries as one of the principle agents of the old order, it was both ideologically and practically targeted for reform, if not dismantling. The number of bishops active in France was reduced from 137 to 83, with new bishops and priests selected by local electors, the latter having already sworn loyalty to the new constitution. Perhaps counterintuitively, there was no requirement that such electors were Catholic themselves, creating conditions whereby local Catholic priests could be elected by people outside their congregations, such as Protestants or Jews. Upon election, these bishops and priests were then also required to swear loyalty to the state, rather than the papacy, as was protocol. The French state in turn, rather than Rome, would subsequently pay the clergy's wages. The Pope retained only the right to be informed of election results. Additionally, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy destroyed all monastic orders still residing in France at the time, which essentially legislated them out of existence. Furthermore, because revolutionary social thought equated marriage with loyalty to the state, the long-held practice of clerical celibacy was implicitly recast as protest, if not treason, against the new regime. Finally, this legislation ended the practice of passing down church offices to hereditary heirs, a practice that had been frequently exploited with impunity by noble families before the revolution.