Panat in postcardThe Ranums'

Panat Times

Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


Orest's Pages

Patricia's Musings



Musical Rhetoric

Transcribed Sources


Joseph Bergin on Religious Change in France, 1586-1730

Joseph Bergin, Church, Society and Religious Change in France, 1586-1730 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 506. (Reviewed in January 2010)

The final chapter in Bergin's Cardinal de La Rochefoucauld; Leadership and Reform in the French Church (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987) is entitled (partly in French, in a book in English), "La Réforme Introuvable: the Mathurins Step by Step." Bergin elucidates initiatives and responses in a very complex political-institutional structure that seemed to assure continuity in the religious lives of hundreds of French monastic communities. Who could legislate? Who and what institutions could enforce new conformities? What powers did La Rochefoucauld have as cardinal, grand almoner, head of a papally-established commission for reform, royal councilor, preacher, and author of devotional works? Every step toward reform, even prior to reform, required papal, royal, and sometimes parlementary approval, as well as assent by at least some of the "point monks" who spoke for the various communities, and by local "grands" and royal councilors. Individuals wrote the pope and the king directly, with success. Stopping change seemed to satisfy most, if not all, as plans for reform became so amended that the distinctions between continuity and change no longer seemed clear. La Rochefoucauld had some success in reforming the Cistercians and the canons-regular, but the Mathurins largely succeeded in defending the status quo. Just where did the money given to ransom enslaved Christians get spent?

Bergin found La Rochefoucauld's monumental efforts to reform the Church, especially the monastic orders, to be only moderately successful. Would the Assemblies of the Clergy effectively promote accepting the decrees of the Council of Trent? Bishoprics seemed to be like so many independent republics. Reform, in the sense of living according to the centuries-old religious principles known and accepted by the clergy, or the updated and sometimes more explicit decrees of the Council of Trent, seemed only remotely possible to those who sought it in the early decades of the seventeenth century. Only an educated and devout resident episcopacy, and a spiritually engaged laity, appeared to Bergin as possible foundations for building a truly reformed Church in head and members. The book under review is essentially this story.

Between 1996 and 2004, Bergin published 1,387 pages of remarkably deep, extensive research on the careers of French bishops in the seventeenth century. Here he found the important, yet not always consistent support by kings (Mazarin's ministry was less supportive) for more devout, educated, and administratively effective candidates to be recommended to the pope for all dioceses. Moving slowly, like a glacier prior to global warming, the institutional frame for improving the education and for verifying the devout status of parish priests and their commitment to evangelizing their flocks, made it possible to bring along an entire population to live an increasingly individualized and interiorized faith that had been articulated largely by reforming bishops and others (Sales, Bérulle, et al.), partly as an answer to Protestant lay vitality and partly by borrowing foreign religiously-inspired spiritual and social programs (e.g., Borromeo).

There was an almost immediate "take off" in the foundation of new regular communities, and a rapid extension into the mid-century. A royally supported episcopacy that was more devout, resident, and educated, would take longer to reach deeper into society; but the founding of seminaries to train parish priests, combined with administratively more detailed visitations, complemented the founding of new orders (especially the re-founding of the Jesuits) and the reforming of the older and as yet un-reformed regular communities by the State, on Colbert's initiative. The collèges that were founded by several religious orders but particularly by the Jesuits, no doubt slowly but surely brought about a more devout laity in the 32,000 parishes that extended over the whole realm.

In order for readers to comprehend these changes, Bergin presents in detail the "état de l'Eglise" in the early seventeenth century, a remarkably engaging and fascinating historical description reminiscent of the intendants' reports ordered to educate the Duke of Burgundy!

After an initial chapter on the geography of dioceses and parishes, there is a general one on the legal and customary appointments and duties of benefice-holders. Part 2 of the book is mainly on the regular clergy, reforms or the lack thereof in the older communities, and the foundation of new communities, particularly by and for women. The heart of the book, Part 3, asks the question: "a new clergy?" It discusses the actions on the part of bishops, and particularly emphasizes visitations and founding seminaries in order to make educated and devout priests available to parishes. Part 4 is titled "Instruments of Religious Change"; it is an assemblage of what is currently known about seventeenth-century religious life as it was actually thought and practiced. The saints, the sacraments, catechization, and approaches to interiorizing the faith are all presented with great care and judiciousness. After beginning with a synthesis of what is currently know about confraternities, the fifth and last part centers on the dévots, the Company of the Holy Sacrament, and the Jansenists. Thanks to the author's mature learning and judgments and his well-written "thick description," accompanied by occasional forays into presenting little-known persons and institutions, the reader is able to perceive an architecture.

Readers who think they are familiar with the subject will be surprised at how many new facts they will pick up, some of them simply curious, others significant. There was no single grand prelate who could do in the Church what Henry IV did for the Monarchy, that is, restore respect for constituted powers, impose financial soundness, rebuild damaged churches and add new ones. The Leaguers' zeal had somehow to be channeled into a more general sensibility that could be extended throughout parishes and monastic communities.

In order to clarify more exactly what Bergin's general approach to the history of the Church is, it may be useful to discuss a recent work that takes a different approach. Eric Nelson's The Jesuits and the Monarchy: Catholic Reform and Political Authority in France (1590-1615)
(Aldershot and Rome: Ashgate and Institutum Historicum Societatis Jesu, 2005) works out the intricate relations between the Society of Jesus and Henry IV. Seen as a dangerous foreign order by Gallicans as well as by a sizeable part of French society, the Society's step-by-step accommodation to French ways and fears (A. Lynn Martin's book on Auger published in 1973, comes immediately to mind) earned the king's cautious support, not only because it helped him in his stormy relations with Rome, but also because this new religious order supported the Crown in its efforts to return France to stability. As with the Huguenots, the Etat de droit provided the possibilities provided the possibilities for legislating from on high what were really terms that consolidated the Gallicanization of the Society in France and the Jesuits' virtually absolute support for the Crown. Here was a success story, perhaps somewhat at the expense of papal power, yet providing the Crown with an influential corps that could help dampen Ultramontane sentiments in France and serve as exemplary priests and Gallican judges in the Parlement had to weaken their opposition to the Jesuits teachers, which would not have happened without accommodation and royal support for the Society. Nelson's is a history of ideas, institutions, and personalities.

Throughout the book under review, Bergin presents all the various approaches to the study of the Church and alerts his readers to the difficulties inherent in the vocabulary he must use. Words such as "success" and "effective" come to mind the minute the historian states human or institutional intentions. Change comes about, but just how does it relate to intentions? Bergin solves this dilemma by concentrating on aggregates: for example, he does not concentrate on what a single bishop does, but on what hundreds of bishops did over the century. The result is very convincing. "Ideas," or legally-established discourses such as the decrees of the Council of Trent, are evoked whenever reform or continuity become a matter of political, individual, or corporate decision. Beyond the royal policy of favoring more devout, reformist, and better-educated candidates for the pallium, the Crown does not always turn up --- no more frequently than the Jesuits --- in bringing along reforms. In the index there are 121 references to the Jesuits (not individual Jesuits) and 134 to the first three Bourbon kings. The overwhelming majority of them involve decisions on behalf of reform made at important turning-points, the interlocking and atomized structures of power that had nearly stymied La Rochefoucauld. But this is not a book about all-powerful prelates who act in the Church in the ways that Sully, Richelieu, and Colbert did in affairs of State. Borromeo's actions as bishop would be very influential on French bishops; but as the century drew to a close, contemporaries would have noted that none of those inspired to follow him had attained his degree of recognition, indeed, his greatness and glory as a saint-bishop.

The new spirituality that arose partly in response to Huguenot devotional practice, and partly from foreign inspiration (Bergin has several pages on translation of works of piety), would become manifest in literally hundreds of writings in various genres. Of the handful with staying power through the century, it would be St. Francis of Sales, Bérulle, and his very influential "disciples" that would nourish the souls of clergy and literate laymen alike, as the duties of curés became more explicit in preaching, catechizing, and confession. Within the wilderness of routine in the French Church, it would be the dynamic resident bishops, seminary-trained priests, and the graduates of Jesuit collèges who would lift up the whole society toward the model church laid out in the Tridentine decrees. Newly-founded missionary orders like the one founded by Father Eudes, Mézéray's brother, aroused religious sensibilities in the countryside, sometimes in lock-step with curés' efforts to instill the minimum: annual confession, mass, and absolution.

When Richelieu sought to deepen the faith of his ouailles in the diocese of Luçon, where the Huguenot presence was strong, he called upon Father Joseph and his Capuchin brothers to help. The mendicants, especially the Franciscans, had already been strong for centuries in the cities; now their offshoots, the Capuchins, Recollets, and Observants, not only continued but increased their day-to-day charitable activities, sustaining the dying, burying the dead in their grounds and chapels, and of course preaching. Bergin (p. 113) often notes topics for further research, for example, the "internal" history of the Society of Jesus which, by 1715, numbered about 2,800 highly-educated priest-teachers in their 115 collèges, novitiates, and other residences. The sources for such a study abound in Rome.

There were, of course, "pockets" of unreformed clergy (chiefly regulars, which did not at all mean that all were not devout or living according to their vows) and folk religious customs and beliefs (J.B. Thiers called them "superstitions") that were unacceptable to the more doctrinaire priests coming out of seminaries. Still, as Western religious history goes, there were very few squabbles over doctrine in the first half of the century. Currents of spirituality there were, and the libertins roamed theologically around the fissures in the Tridentine edifice, as had their learned pre-Tridentine forebears; but they did not oblige bishops to accommodate their doctrines.

After noting the research of Gabriel Le Bras and his students, primarily on medieval confraternities, Bergin squarely confronts the problem of how to characterize the complexity, multiplicity and vitality, or the lack thereof, of this most popular institution in the universal church. With the Monarchy hostile toward them, and the Council of Trent indifferent, confraternities were first and foremost extremely local, with their principal functions being to bury the dead in a pious manner and to provide a specific altar or place of worship for members. In many cases, perhaps thousands of cases, bishops had little or no authority over confraternities, and the authority of the curés only slowly increased over the century.

Here again the Jesuits saw a niche for their own simplified but eloquent Marian spirituality; they assumed a firm leadership in older confraternities, and they responded to expressed the faithfuls' desire for new ones. Confraternities of the Rosary (one was founded at Panat in the 1640s), of the Holy Sacrament, and of the Sacred Heart often owed their creation to the initiative of lay people, sometimes with the support of the fabrique, rather than of the curés. Their links to the mendicant communities were often strong. Pierre Lançon's research on the Jacobins in Rodez finds a synthesis in how piety became individually expressed by the devout who took the time to say a brief prayer and light a candle purchased for a mite. The same probably can be said about confraternity altars. There would seem to be no reference to bells in the work under review; but their use, purchase, and upkeep was a preoccupation of longue durée (see Alain Corbin). In his Traité des cloches (1701), J.B. Thiers describes in great detail the proper ceremony for their baptism. Montaigne grew accustomed to the Ave Maria intoned by the bells of the village church (Essais, 1, 23).

The "indifference" of the prelates of the Council of Trent toward reforming confraternities may be a clue to understanding early-modern reform in general. Elitism, and diffusion of legislation or decrees by clergy possessing authority, in a "trickle down" process that calibrated powers with actions almost all the way down to the powerless in the church. Conformities in society, from any and all, from the king down to the peasantry, without regard for their powers or the lack thereof, perhaps clarifies how large-scale institutions work. But then again, perhaps not.

In the index to Bergin's book, there are approximately 80 references to the decrees of the Council of Trent. Some of these simply refer to a period of time, for example, pre-Trent. Of the 80, about 25 belong to this "neutral" category, or refer to Trent's "indifference" to the confraternities. In 45 instances, the decrees of the Council of Trent initiated, supported, and sustained actions in the French Church.

Among these 45, a few characterize reforms as being "beyond" Trent (p. 115, p. 426), or refer to a "reinforced" Trent (p. 313) or a "superceded" Trent (p. 406). Alain Talon is cited to the effect that "France did not need the Council of Trent to deal with its problems" (p. 2). These remarks confirm the notion of a diffusion from the top, via conciliar authority and its powers to inspire and to decree. This diffusion worked in multiple ways within the French church; but there were also creative elements within that church. One thinks of Walter Ullmann's theory of descending powers. As Bergin puts it: "In few parts of Europe was the process of interpretation and adaptation [sic, not adoption] of Trent's work more intense and more sustained than in France, where Trent was more likely seen as a point of departure than as an obligatory model" (p. 205).. There is, in Bergin, an "ombre" or concetto of a more perfect institution consistent with its founding principles and beliefs that appears occasionally, a characteristic of what it truly distinguished in institutional history.
As an example, Bérulle's "theological concern" about the priesthood (p. 115) is not only "beyond Trent" but, by implication, it reaches toward a fulfilment of a more perfect Church, in conformity with historical origins, and perhaps with Tradition, that was a harbinger of the future.

Lax is too strong a term to describe the attitudes toward the sinner seeking forgiveness; but Henry IV encouraged his subjects to forgive and forget. A less rigorous, more on-the-surface, more social attrition prevailed before the pendulum swung toward increased rigor and a deeper, thought-out and sincere contrition came to the fore as part of a neo-Augustinian movement. Had the Jesuits not made clumsy efforts to refute them, then silence them, and then ostracize them, the synthesis of Gallicanism and this neo-Augustinianism might have become, like Quietism, a sub-culture or tendency rather than an increasingly alternative devotional, historiographical, and even philosophical party that would flourish under persecution. Or was the turn to greater "rigor" a logical, almost "organic" consequence of the increasing powers of the Church over the lives of the clergy and the faithful? The very success of efforts to promote interiorization may have fostered a felt need for a more rigorous contrition prior to less-frequent communion.

Nelson and numerous other historians who work out the relations between church and state often find that the powers of the latter increased across the century, as a result of support from the former. With the exception of episcopal nominations and possible support by the Crown for various regulars and for the Jesuits, Bergin does not see the state as playing a major role in the building of what is really a new, powerful institution that reaches and interacts with single individuals and that requires fiscal and other bureaucratic "statist" actions, long before the French state had extensive administrative powers. After civil war and the Molinist decades, the prise en main would seem to be a step in building a more perfect church, a church grounded in its own principles or constitutions, notably the decrees of Trent, that could increasingly expect obedience in the form of dîme payments, annual confession and absolution, and abstinence during Lent. One need not be a Burkean to characterize self-generating, organic, and developmental impulses in the French church. These overcame the turmoil of civil wars and revolution, with both "soft" and "hard" powers that were respected both by dissidents in the realm and by foreign states. Something as forceful or state-like as the French-Canadian, Polish, and Irish churches before the mid-twentieth century (albeit later for Poland) ought to be mentioned in this context. Bergin concludes by noting that the French church at the end of the seventeenth century (and beyond) constituted a choate institution that was more in conformity with Trent than any other church in Europe!

Armies, navies, and war-making. One must think hard to come up with an aspect of the Church's life in French society that Bergin does not at least mention; but the curés' help in recruiting sailors for the royal navy in the West may be mentioned here, if only to permit me to recall the late Eugene L. Asher, who wrote a book on the subject and whose premature death robbed the profession of a fine historian, and me of a friend. His The Resistance to the Maritime Classes: the Survival of Feudalism in the France of Colbert (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960) explores concretely one aspect of what the Church did in building the so-called Absolute State.