French Revolution, the Catholic Church and the fall of the Papacy.

What happened to France prior to the outbreak of the revolution?

The Estates

By the end of the 18th century, Europe had undergone a profound intellectual and cultural shift, known as the enlightenment, which valued human freedom over tradition and religion. The rise of a middle class and printed materials encouraged political awareness. The American revolution had turned a former English colony into an independent republic. Yet, France, one of the largest and richest countries in Europe was still governed by an ancient regime of three rigid social classes called Estates.

“You should hope that this game will be over soon.” The Third Estate carrying the Clergy and the Nobility on its back
-First estate: Clergy(bishops and priests)

-Second estate: Nobility

-Third estate: Commoners

The monarch King Louis 16th based his authority on divine right and granted special privileges to the first and second estates, the Catholic Clergy, and nobles. The third estate, middle-class merchants and craftsmen, as well as over 20 million peasants, had far less power and they were the only ones who paid taxes not just to the king but to the other estates as well. In bad harvest years, taxation could leave peasants with almost nothing while the king clergy and nobles lived lavishly on their extracted wealth.

Louis xvi
Louis XVI in Coronation Robes

French national debt

But France sank into debt due to its support of the American Revolution and its long-running war with England. These two costly wars contributed to the huge national debt and the King needed to raise revenues by imposing new taxes. However, taxes were unfairly levied on the commoners since clergy and nobility were exempt from paying taxes. This situation fostered a long-standing and deeply felt resentment on the part of the poor; what rights do the people have, and where do they come from? who gets to make decisions for others and on what authority? These questions challenged an entire nation during the upheaval of the French Revolution.

The Catholic Church and money

The  Catholic Church owned around 6% of the land in France and also controlled schools, hospitals, abbeys, and monasteries. Additionally, the church collected a tithe of about 10% on agricultural production and was exempt from taxation on its earnings. The wealth of the Catholic Church angered many.

Bread crisis

As the financial crisis escalated, the burden fell heavily upon the poorest. Adding to their misery, freakish weather arrived to decimate the harvest. For the people of France in 1788, bread was the essence of life itself. Most ordinary people in the country ate at least 2 pounds a day of bread. Since the bread was all important, it’s price was immediately felt by everyone. If the price doubled, the commoners were in big trouble. Under the financial mismanagement of Loui’s government, the cost of bread skyrocketed. Food supplies were hoarded by those that would profit until finally, the cost of a loaf of bread equaled a month’s wages.

Young Cosette sweeping: 1886 engraving for Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

The France Revolution had begun (1789-1794)

In response, thousands of outraged Parisians joined with sympathetic soldiers to storm the Bastille prison, a symbol of royal power and a large storehouse of weapons. As rebellion spread throughout the country, the feudal system was abolished. The revolutionists declared the rights of man and citizens.

Anonymous - Prise de la Bastille
The Storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789
The height of the French revolution was on Nov 10th, 1793. It was an uprising against an unjust ruler, for this revolution was a revolt against the Catholic Church’s authority.

Catholic priests and nuns were among those targeted by the revolutionaries. The revolutionaries put a prostitute in the Notre Dame Cathedral and called her the Goddess of reason to insult the Catholic Church. The French clergy abandoned the Gallicanism and church services were discontinued effectively closing churches. In the year 1798, a more impactful event would occur.

The fall of the Papacy:

The French army marched to Rome and extorted a huge protection fee from Pope Pius VI. Then, on Feb 10th, 1798, young General Berthier of Napoleon’s army conquered the various Italian states, and eventually took the reigning Pope, Pius VI, and all authority of the Papal Government was ended. The pope, whose authority was above all and superior, articulated how religious ideas were having an increase in power over the political imagination, the social imagination, and even the economy, for over a thousand years. He could make a flying bird fall to the ground dead, yet he lost all his power when the pope was taken by a mere General Berthier. Already the old and delicate Pope was shocked that he was imprisoned and became ill. Nevertheless, he endured his imprisonment for more than a year. Finally, he was dragged to a small town in France. There, in 1799, he died in an abandoned structure that was once used as a sheep pen.

Morte di S. S. Pio VI
The death of Pope Pius VI

It seemed to be no longer than the Pope was Europe’s supreme authority, and never again will the Catholic Church have such complete dominance over Western Europe. But, in 1929, the kingdom of Italy and Pope Pius 11th negotiated the Lateran treaty which recognized the full sovereignty of the Holy sea in the state of Vatican city.


Now, the Dark Ages has gone. In the 16th century, although some religious reformers pointed out the fallacies of Roman Catholic Church, crying for reform and freedom of faith, the Protestant churches have continued the custom from the Catholic Church.

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