Myth of the Ignorant Priest

What is the myth of the ignorant priest? This is the assumption made by many books, movies and even quasi-historical works that, in the old days, the Catholic clergy in Europe were ignorant, superstitious and of low morals. I can't even begin to say how many times I have seen this assertion made (without any evidence, of course). Though there are always bad apples, by and large this stereotype is simply false. The clergy were some of the best educated men of their age; this is especially true in the post-Tridentine age.

I would love to collect some more data on this, the general state of the clergy at various times in history, but since the pre-Revolutionary kingdom of France is often picked on the most, we will look at the French clergy during the 17th and 18th centuries, the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI, a time that is especially important since, according to the popular mythology, the Church was ignorant, corrupt and out of touch with the masses; indeed, the alleged neglect of the ecclesiastical order to the sentiments of the people is usually put forward as one of the factors which led to the French Revolution. Fortunately, there is ample evidence surviving from the period in question to debunk this myth.

Take this quote from English diplomat Edmund Burke, taken from Reflections on the Revolution in France, c. 1790. Now, remember two things as you read this: (1) Burke is an English Protestant, with a reputation for objectivity (2) According to secular history, the pre-Revolutionary period in France was one of widespread corruption and ignorance. Therefore, we should expect the clergy in this period to be extra devious.

Let's see what Burke says:

"When my occasions took me into France, towards the close of the late reign (c. 1780), the clergy, under all their forms, engaged a considerable amount of my curiosity. So far from finding the complaints and discontents against that body which some publications had given me reason to expect, I found the clergy in general persons of moderate minds and decorous manners...I had not the good fortune to know a great many of the parochial clergy; but in general I received a perfectly good account of their morals, and of their attention to their duties. With some of the higher clergy I had a personal acquaintance; and of the rest of that class, very good means of information...they were more fully educated than the military noblesse; so as by no means to disgrace their profession by ignorance, or by want of fitness for the exercise of their authority. They seemed to me, beyond the clerical character, liberal and open; with the hearts of gentlemen, and men of honour; neither insolent nor servile in their manners and conduct. They seemed to me rather a superior class...

I spent a few days in a provincial town, where, in the absence of the bishop, I passed my evenings with three clergymen, his vicars general, persons who would have done honour to any church. They were all well informed; two of them of deep, general and extensive erudition, ancient and modern, oriental and western; particularly in their own profession. They had a more extensive knowledge of our English divines that I had expected; and they entered into the genius of those writers with critical accuracy...

You had before your revolution about an hundred and twenty bishops. A few of them were men of eminent sanctity, and charity without limit. When we talk of the heroic, of course we talk of rare virtue...if this letter should ever come into their hands, I hope they will believe there are those of our nation who feel for their unmerited fall, and for the cruel confiscation of their fortunes, with no common sensibility."

They don't sound too ignorant and avaricious to me; and that quote is coming from an Anglican! Another valuable piece of testimony comes from the dramatist and writer Louis-Sebastien Mercier, who in his work Mon Bonnet de Nuit (c.1775), writes of the parochial clergy during the reign of Louis XV (r. 1715-1774) in this manner:

"I know many of these good country curates. Notwithstanding the extreme modicity of their livings, they find means of doing infinitely more good, than possessors, however generous, of millions. Their judicious and active charity creates for them a thousand resources. Their lives are innocent; their manners decent: they live far from the noise and notice of the world. Unknown, forgotten and content, their lives pass in the practice of the duties enjoined by the Gospel. How pleasing it is to me to render, thus publicly, justice to a portion of men, I so greatly honour!"
(Quoted in Charles Butler, Church of France, Hansard & Sons, 1817, pg. 221).

This passage is especially important since it speaks to the moral virtues possessed by the clergy. The clergy of this period are often presented as immoral, especially in France, with all the stereotypes of the rich, uncaring bishops and the ignorant, immoral and adulterous priests. Mercier's passage, on the contrary, presents them as the unparalleled lights of French society, full of virtue and charity, who were nevertheless unrecognized even in their own day. Mercier's accounts are generally considered very trustworthy on such matters; modern French historian Robert Darnton says of Mercier, "There is no better writer to consult if one wants to get some idea of how Paris looked, sounded, smelled, and felt on the eve of the Revolution."

Nor are we lacking in eminent examples of piety and education when we look to the episcopacy. Too often French bishops of this period are portrayed as thoroughly worldly men, more interested in politics, gluttony and amorous pursuits than spirituality or holiness. Though bishops like this certainly existed (as they do in every age), there are more than enough examples of holy bishops to contradict the stereotype. A great example is Paul Godet des Marais, Bishop of Chartres (1647-1709). His virtue and piety are praised by none other than Saint-Simon, himself not prone to flattery, especially towards members of the hierarchy. Saint-Simon says of the Bishop of Chartres:

"This prelate was very learned, and particularly skilled in theology. His possessed wit, firmness of character, and elegance...His disinterestedness, piety, and rare probity were his only lustre. His conduct, doctrine and discharge of episcopal duty were irreproachable; his visits to Paris were both few and short" (ibid., 19).

Another bishop, and adversary, the Bishop of Alais, tells the story of how Godet des Marais, already renowned for holiness, was first selected to be Bishop of Chartres, as well as the confessor to the Madame de Maintenon, mistress to Louis XIV. He relates:

"The person who took the news of his nomination to the bishopric of Chartres found him on his knees before a crucifix, in a small room, all the furniture of which consisted of a chair, a table, and a map of the holy land. He was only induced to acquiesce in his nomination by the order of his superiors. In 1693, the poor of his diocese being in great distress from a scarcity of provisions, he assigned over to them, without reserve, the whole of his revenue. All his stock of plate consisted of a single spoon, and a single fork; and these he once sold to relieve a poor man. Louis XIV wished to appoint him counselor of state and to nominate him to the rank of cardinal: he refused both dignities. He preached frequently and was little praised, though he made many converts to virtue. His letters to Louis XIV and other sovereign princes (to the pope, to the King of Spain) were worthy of the first ages of the Church."

The French church at the time contained many such bishops. The state of the episcopacy at the time may be summed up by French historian Jean Charles Dominique de Lacretelle, who said,

"Never did the clergy of France display greater dignity of conduct, or more exalted talents, than under Louis XIV. A considerable number revived in themselves the zeal and profound doctrine of the fathers of the Church, uniting the inspired tone of the sacred writings with a happy imitation of the best models of antiquity, and enforced their authority still more by their virtues than their writings" (Histoire de France durant le dix-septieme siecle livre, 4).

Besides the general quality of the episcopacy and the curates, which we have already mentioned, it is worthwhile to point out that the common folk were well looked after and educated by their pastors, especially in the phenomenon of the "parish missions" which were just then taking off during the late 17th century and have continued today. An insight into the lives and work of the mission priests is given by Jean-Sifrein Maury, Archbishop of Paris (1810-1817), who said:

"In the missions among the villagers...we find truly apostolical men, and real orators, gifted with a strong and bold imagination, acknowledging no other success than the conversions of repenting sinners and no other applause than their tears. Occasionally they fail in taste and descend into too familiar details, I admit it; but, they open a breach; they force their way and place themselves in the midst of conscience. They inflame the imagination, but they forcibly strike the senses. But the multitude follows and listens to them with enthusiasm" (Essay on the Eloquence of the Pulpit, 20).

Any age has its ignorant, dissenting or immoral priests and prelates; witness some of the poor examples just within the hierarchy of the United States. But to portray the French clergy of the Ancien RĂ©gime as wholly inept, worldly and unconcerned with their spiritual duties is a vast distortion of history. There are always tares along with wheat in the field of the Lord, but in France, just as anywhere, the truths of the Gospel never ceased calling men and women to live lives of radical dedication to our Lord in piety and holiness.