Priests, Prelates and People: A History of European Catholicism since 1750

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The following ISBNs are associated with this title:. ISBN - On the Content tab, click to select the Enable JavaScript check box. Click OK to close the Options popup. Refresh your browser page to run scripts and reload content. Click the Internet Zone. If you do not have to customize your Internet security settings, click Default Level. Then go to step 5.

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Click OK to close the Internet Options popup. Chrome On the Control button top right of browser , select Settings from dropdown. Under the header JavaScript select the following radio button: Allow all sites to run JavaScript recommended. Prices and offers may vary in store. Nicholas Atkin and Frank Tallett offer the first one-volume historical overview of European Catholicism from the 18th century to The authors record the Church struggling to adapt to the new political landscape ushered in by the French Revolution and show how the formation of nationstates and identities was both helped and hindered by the Catholic establishment.

They portray the Vatican increasingly out of step in the wake of world war, Cold War, and the massive expansion of the developing world, with its problems of population growth and under-development. Disputes were submitted to arbitration to prevent lawsuits and ill feeling. Wealthier members helped the poorer through loans or alms. And the group aided its members even in death, arranging funerals, accompanying bodies to burial, and paying for memorial masses. Rituals also cemented the social bonds of communities.

Processions, for instance, were held on important civic and religious holidays—the festival of a city's patron saint or the feast of Corpus Christi. And they were staged at moments of crisis—during military threats or epidemics. These groups marched in a hierarchical order that reflected their status in the community. Thereby, through Catholic ritual, the social body was created and displayed in pageant form. The most potent means of creating the "social miracle" was Catholicism's central ritual act, the Mass and its eucharistic service.

The Eucharist brought about reconciliation of social conflict through its symbolism of many parts united in a never divisible unity, the body of Christ.

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Confession, the repenting of sins, and the making of restitution for them, including those committed against one's neighbors, was the necessary preparation for partaking of communion. Thus Catholic belief and ceremony both mirrored and created the social structure, ensuring citizens a place within a divinely ordained system, and establishing social harmony.

However, we should be careful in assuming that religion's role was entirely efficacious. Religious practices could provoke disputes or provide the occasions for them. Members of social elites competed for prestige through their patronage of religious devotions or establishments. A community's poor might use the annual Carnival, the time prior to Lent when normal social rules and order were suspended or inverted, to riot and seek redress for the un-Christian inequities under which they suffered. Therefore, we must not simplify Catholicism's reinforcement of a traditional European social order ; its powerful effect could work in quite the opposite direction.

Much the same is evident in Catholicism's role in states. European monarchies were sacral political systems. Catholic teaching legitimated monarchy as a divinely ordained means of maintaining social order and justice. Kings drew authority from ceremonies derived from Catholic ritual, such as the French royal coronation during which new monarchs swore to defend the true faith and took communion in both kinds, the body and the blood, a privilege usually reserved for priests.

The ceremony lent rulers a semi-divine status, which was evident in the belief that they could cure scrofula by touching the afflicted. But the political role of Catholic belief and ritual did not function perfectly. We cannot assume that subjects were convinced by the claims kings made in ceremonies and political propaganda. Certainly the sacred character of the French monarchy did not prevent revolts. In another sense also, the fit between Catholicism and royal authority was not seamless.

Kings and popes frequently found themselves in conflict. Furthermore, kings could find themselves beset by quarrels within the church that weakened their power. The Jansenist controversy, for example, helped undermine the French monarchy in the decades before the Revolution see below. Nonetheless, as long as Catholicism remained a country's largely unanimous faith, it would continue to buttress its social and political systems.

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century challenged this unanimity. Protestant countries broke the web of connections between Catholicism, society, and the state. In Catholic societies these connections were, if anything, renewed and strengthened by the vast Catholic reform movement extending from the sixteenth century into the first half of the eighteenth.

Priests, Prelates and People

The church convened the Council of Trent between and , to set an agenda for combatting the spread of Protestantism, improving the quality of its clergy, and transforming the religious and social lives of the Catholic faithful. Bishops ensured these goals by frequent episcopal visits to their dioceses' communities to investigate the ritual practices, beliefs, and moral behavior of their flocks.

They targeted many customs of traditional local religion and tried to suppress those they found indecent or too independent of clerical control, such as confraternity banquets, nocturnal pilgrimages, or overly enthusiastic devotion to miracle-working relics and images. Reformers sought instead to encourage a piety based on the individual's examination of conscience, proper attention to the church's sacraments, and reverence for approved devotions.

On their visits, bishops also investigated illicit sexual behavior, drunkenness, familial conflicts, and a host of other social sins. Together governments and the church worked to create confessionalized Catholic states in which people were subjected to more political control and more religious discipline than ever before. With the political appointment of reform-minded bishops in countries like Spain and France, the Catholic Reformation advanced jointly with the extension of government control over autonomous regions and unruly subjects.

So described, the Catholic-Reformation church can easily appear as a modernizing institution in European society, one that rationalized its own internal structure, allied itself with states doing the same, imposed social discipline, and sought conformity and control. But the description exaggerates the repressive tendencies in the Tridentine program. Catholic reformers did seek to establish greater clerical control over religious practices and to focus them on the church's central doctrinal concerns, such as the Eucharist or the cult of Mary. They did insist on greater decorum in festivals, processions, pilgrimages, and confraternal celebrations.

And they did want to instruct the faithful in a better understanding of church doctrine. But Catholic reformers never opposed all popular religious practices; they permitted the cult of saints and relics, confraternities, and the belief in miracles. Indeed, many of the church's efforts revitalized religion's traditional local purposes.

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Authorized saints may have been substituted for unauthorized ones, but the faithful could still seek miraculous intervention to help with life's problems. And even if stern bishops disapproved of what people believed, nothing prevented these people from taking what the bishops offered and adapting it to their own purposes.

Hence the widespread Rosary devotion, with its individualized and meditative prayers, may have been a Catholic-Reformation style of worship, but Rosary confraternities also provided a new means to accomplish an old end by establishing bonds of affinity between their members. The church did not seek to create a modern society based on disciplined, isolated individuals. Such an idea was entirely foreign to its social conceptions and would remain so for a long time to come.

Insofar as efforts at increasing social discipline were successful, and success was partial at best, the Catholic Reformation reinforced the sense of a divinely ordained, and church-guided, society of estates or orders. In this way, the church was still congruent with the Catholic society around it.

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One can see this congruence at work, for example, in new religious groups established for laypeople, most notably Jesuit sodalities, which organized their members into the traditional corporate groups of European society, with separate associations for nobles, bourgeois, and artisans. But as European society changed in the early modern period, these old means of maintaining Christian charity and brotherhood would seem increasingly outmoded.

As long as the church maintained the allegiance of rulers and their people, Catholicism would remain the essential unifying principle of social order and monarchical political systems. The first disassociation of Catholicism and society, in what had been heretofore Catholic countries, appeared in the eighteenth century as certain social groups fell away from Catholic observance.

Royal governments, which had long seen the church as providing legitimacy for monarchs and stability for the social order, now looked to other ways of justifying their authority and of controlling their subjects. The impact of this development varied from country to country, and its reasons remain in some ways poorly understood. But they included disputes within the church, the impact of Enlightenment attacks on the church, and a process of dechristianization starting to take hold in certain places, notably France.

That the church's clergy had deep socioeconomic divisions was hardly a phenomenon new to the eighteenth century; however, it became at this time a source of growing conflict. In France, high-ranking aristocrats dominated the upper clergy.

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Parish priests, generally of middling social origins, were better trained and more conscientious in their duties than before the Tridentine reforms. They resented their inferior position in the church more than ever before, and their relations with their superiors became increasingly embittered.


One result of the spread of Enlightenment rationality in France was the demand for more socially responsible and useful priests. Antagonism between the lower and upper clergy resulted in their split in the Estates-General, which led to the formation of the revolutionary National Assembly. The priests had in no way sought to undermine the church's position in society, but as the Revolution progressed, their challenge to the institution's hierarchical order would have that effect.

In Spain, Italy, and elsewhere, the upper clergy was less aristocratic than that of France, but the rural clergy was also less well trained and supported.