The " strange revolution" : the papal perspective of France, 1750-1763
- The period 1750 to 1763 was the setting for momentous debates and conflicts in France. The crown, parlements, clergy, and papacy continued their traditional conversation, each attempting to define the relationship between religion and politics. A weakened and ineffective king, however, made this era different than previous ones. Unable to dominate the language of politics, the crown was reduced to one among several competing voices. This created a situation in which sovereignty seemed to be up for grabs, at least from the papacy's perspective. New groups added to the confusion, including the parti janseniste in the parlements, Enlightenment philosophers, and ever more aggressive pamphleteers. The crown repeatedly attempted to police the public sphere, but its laws imposing silence were openly and consistently defied. Publicized in print, the disputes and competitions to control the monarchy's meaning and therefore direct its action destabilized the traditional conception of royal sovereignty. To understand how the papacy viewed these changes in Enlightenment France, I worked at the Archivio Segreto Vaticano studying the correspondence between the papal nuncio (ambassador) in Paris and the secretary of state in Rome during 1750 to 1763. These documents illuminate what the papacy thought the circumstances were in France: who the power players were, what issues were resonant, and what was threatening to papal authority, the monarchy, and religion. Papal nuncios were connected at Versailles and had one-on-one meetings with ministers, bishops, and members of the court. Subsequent reports reveal the political culture in action by describing the back channels of royal government and reflecting on the king's decision-making process and the opinions of those who surrounded him. The nuncio's conversations with ministers, moreover, provide us with the crown's explanations and justifications for its policies. They also provide the ministers' reactions to current events, including assessments of Louis XV's attitude. From the secretary of state's responses to the nuncio, we discover how events and people were evaluated at the Vatican. These letters explain the pope's reactions and include orders for the nuncio about how to steer the French crown in the right direction. Thus we discover how the papacy tried to adapt to a dynamic situation and why it failed to preserve its position in France. Papal observers saw the 1750s in France as a Reformation in the English fashion, but one that would go further and bring ruin to the monarchy and all religion, not simply Catholicism. France was a primary concern of the Vatican, a crucial leader and a matrix of intellectual and spiritual influences in Catholic Europe. By 1763, however, the French government had come to view the papacy's concerns as irrelevant. It no longer considered the papacy a necessary partner. Prolonged religious disputes had become more overtly constitutional, threatening the monarchy directly. The papacy's inability to restore calm rendered the alliance less necessary to the French. It showed that the era of the church's primacy had passed, and the state, rather than the church, was the supreme collective. After the 1763, royal policies aimed to assure the parlements' good will and generally ignored the papacy's admonishments and complaints. This alarmed the papacy because it considered the parlements to be without true belief, based on their arrogation of the authority that Peter had granted to the episcopacy to administer the sacraments and lead the church. Religion was totally ruined in France, the papacy concluded by the 1760s, because the king had abandoned it for political reasons. There was no absolute monarchy during the 1750s, the papacy believed, because Louis XV was absolutely unfit for his role. Papal officials criticized the king's frequent changes in his ministry, wavering support for the church, and what seemed to be a debilitating fear of the impudent magistrates. The papacy's concerns in the early 1750s were realized a decade later as it witnessed the destruction of the Society of Jesus in France. It seemed to the papacy that political life in France had been redefined, with influence and control no longer centered in Versailles. Papal observers increasingly saw negotiation and cooperation with the crown to be futile because there was no longer anyone to rely on at court and the king lacked the necessary power or volition to take control of the precarious situation. It was this process and its success that the nuncio Pamphili called a "strange revolution." The king's inability to stop the revolution was partially based on the fact that he was an unpopular king and he knew it. Papal officials considered him merely an indifferent spectator. A costly and humiliating war, followed by equally humiliating peace terms, near bankruptcy, an attempted assassination, and a decade of public squabbling with his magistrates had, from the papacy's perspective, removed the crown from Louis XV's head. There was a rising tide of irreligion and secularization, among the general public but also in the halls of justice and Versailles. Events in France indicated to the Vatican that a republican spirit pervaded and would lead to the parlements' temporal and spiritual dominance to the church's detriment. In many ways the papacy had a foretaste of the drastic changes in French political and religious life that were effected during the Revolution. The abolition of the monarchy (1792) enacted what the papacy had feared during the 1750s. Similarly, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1791) completed a process that the Vatican had identified in the 1750s: the secularization of religion, the transference of sacred authority from the church to the state. The excesses of the Revolution, the violence against the clergy, the destruction of sacred objects and the mockery of sacred places would have been further proof to Benedict XIV of the "bewitchment" that he thought had come upon the French.
|Type of resource
|electronic; electronic resource; remote
|1 online resource.
|St Meyer, Joseph Anthony
|Stanford University, Department of History.
|Statement of responsibility
|Joseph Anthony St. Meyer.
|Submitted to the Department of History.
|Thesis (Ph.D.)--Stanford University, 2013.
- © 2013 by Joseph Anthony St Meyer
- This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-NC).
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