This February, St. Augustine Press will publish The French Revolution Confronts Pius VI translated by Jeffery J. Langan (Holy Cross College). The publisher’s description follows.
The writings of Pope Pius VI, head of the Catholic Church during the most destructive period of the French Revolution, were compiled in two volumes by M.N.S. Guillon and published in 1798 and 1800. But during the Revolution, the reign of Napoleon, and the various revolutionary movements of the 19th century, there were extraordinary efforts to destroy writings that critiqued the revolutionary ideology. Many books and treatises, if they survived the revolution or the sacking from Napoleon’s armies. To this day, no public copy of Guillon’s work exists in Paris.
Now, for the first time in English, these works comprising the letters, briefs, and other writings of Pius VI on the French Revolution are available. Volume I treats the first shock of the Revolution and the efforts of the Pope in 1790 and 1791 to oppose the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (which famous revolutionary and shrewd diplomat Talleyrand referred to as “the greatest fault of the National Assembly”). Volume II will be published later, and deals with the aftermath of the Civil Constitution through Pius’s death in exile). Editor and translator Jeffrey Langan presents the materials leading up to and directly connected with these decrees, in which the National Assembly attempted to set up a Catholic Church that would be completely submissive to the demands of the Assembly. Volume I also covers Pius’s efforts to deal with the immediate aftermath of the Constitution after the National Assembly implemented it, including his encyclical, Quod Aliquantum.
The letters will show how Pius chose to oppose the Civil Constitution. He did so not by a public campaign, for he had no real temporal power to oppose the violence, but by attempting to work personally with Louis XVI and various archbishops in France to articulate what were the points on which he could concede (matters dealing with the political structures of France) and what were the essential points in which he could not concede (matters dealing with the organization of dioceses and appointment of bishops).
Since the 1980s, with the writings and school that developed around François Furet, as well as Simon Schama’s Citizens, a new debate over the French Revolution has ensued, bringing forth a more objective account of the Revolution, one that avoids an excessively Marxist lens and that brings to light some of its defects and more gruesome parts – the destruction and theft of Church property, and the sadistic methods of torture and killing of priests, nuns, aristocrats, and fellow-revolutionaries.
An examination of the writings of Pius VI will not only help set the historical record straight for English-speaking students of the Revolution, it will also aid them to better understand the principles that the Catholic Church employs when confronted with chaotic political change. They will see that the Church has a principled approach to distinguishing, while not separating, the power of the Church and the power of the state. They will also see, as Talleyrand himself also saw, that one of the essential elements that makes the Church the Church is the right to appoint bishops and to discipline its own bishops. The Church herself recognizes that she cannot long survive without this principle that guarantees her unity.
Pius VI’s efforts were able to keep the Catholic Church intact (though badly bruised) so that she could reconstitute herself and build up a vibrant life in 19th-century France. (He did this in the face of the Church’s prestige having sunk to historic lows; some elites in Europe thought there would be no successor to Pius and jokingly referred to him as “Pius the Last.”) He began a process that led to the restoration of the prestige of the Papacy throughout the world, and he initiated a two-century process that led to the Church finally being able to select bishops without any interference from secular authorities. This had been at least a 1,000-year problem in the history of the Church. By 1990, only two countries of the world, China and Vietnam, were interfering in any significant way in the process that the Church used to select bishops.
Pius VI’s papacy, especially during the years of the French Revolution, was a pivotal point for the French Revolution and for the interaction between Church and state in Western history. All freedom-loving people will be happy to read his distinctions between the secular power and the spiritual power. His papacy also was important for the internal developments that the Church would make over the next 200 years with respect to its self-understanding of the Papacy and the role of the bishop.