- Priests of the French Revolution: Saints and Renegades in a New Political Era by Joseph F. Byrnes
Of the approximately 115,000 priests serving in France at the debut of the 1789 Revolution, at least 50,000 went on to swear an oath mandated by the state that signified their acceptance of the religious reform decree called the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. This study by Joseph F. Byrnes considers the most prominent Catholic clerics who took the 1791 Oath and saw the Revolution as an opportunity either to regenerate France religiously or—in the more notorious cases—merely to advance their own careers, whether within the Church or well beyond it.
Dividing his narrative into three segments—“engagement, survival, and revival”—Byrnes centers on the words and actions of the most influential constitutional priests, many of whom became bishops during the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. Included among them are Henri Grégoire, Claude Fauchet, Claude Le Coz, and Adrien Lamourette. Nonetheless, other priests who not only failed to join the episcopacy but also ditched their vows during the Revolution are [End Page 943] discussed as well: a proponent for regicide, François Chabot; a brash enragé, Jacques Roux; an unabashed terrorist, Joseph Le Bon, just to name a few. In showcasing a wide array of characters, Byrnes demonstrates how varied clerical reaction was to the Revolution, and how events in France changed priestly champions of regeneration in myriad ways.
As Byrnes addresses the priests, he especially focuses on the writing of each one—often providing insight for how they saw themselves and their vocation amid revolutionary tumult. He thereby offers many examples of the discursive strategies that such priests pursued, as well as the common rhetorical tropes that they employed either to defend their own revolutionary choices or to castigate their political and religious enemies. He also follows a recent historiographical trend in emphasizing the strength of the Gallican Church (or what Byrnes calls the “Second Constitutional Church” [p. xvi]) that the 1791 Oath-takers were able to cobble together after the Terror. As Byrnes keenly shows, Napoleon’s contention that the French Church was in hopeless disarray at the end of the revolutionary decade reflected more of the myth on which the 1801 Concordat was promoted than it did of the reality on the ground.
Although Byrnes’s focus on priestly discourse greatly advances our understanding of the clerics in question, the structure of the book impedes a comprehensive take on the discourse that they employed. By choosing to take up and explain one priest at a time, and one after the other, he inhibits readers from establishing the rhetorical ties that bound many of the priests together. More problematic, however, is that Byrnes has little to say about most oath-taking parish priests—those at the Revolution’s front lines who often faced even more duress than the likes of Grégoire or Le Coz. Nor is it always clear how priestly interaction with the laity in a revolutionary context was responsible for forging the choices that these clerics made.
The supreme irony of the French Revolution is that in an attempt to make the Catholic Church more accountable to what the Second Vatican Council aptly called “the people of God,” it ended up only reinforcing clerical hegemony within the Church. Byrnes provides an excellent and largely unparalleled narrative for how and why such hegemony grew. Even so, little here suggests that these priests bypassed a golden opportunity to secure a principle central to the Revolution itself: greater autonomy and agency for the many who—for too long—had no voice in either the Church or the state. [End Page 944]