Accipe calamum administrativum: Canonical Life after Napoleon

death of napoleon
Napoleon I on his death bed,
 Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse (1843)

One of the causes for the virtual disappearance of canonical life in the West, even after the monstrous depredations of the Napoleonic regime, was the new system of ecclesiastical government that followed Napoleon’s re-organization of the Church. This short excerpt from the series Storia della Chiesa gives a brief summary of these changes.

A cura di H. Jedin, Storia della Chiesa, vol. 8.2, Liberalismo e Integralismo 1830–1870 Milano: Jaca, 2006, pp. 124–125.

German original: Handbuch der Kirchengeschichte (Freiburg: Herder, 1971)

Chapter 23

i.) Renewal of Ecclesiastical Institutions

Historians have frequently observed the lasting influence of Napoleonic institutions in the greater part of Europe: they were generally retained in those places where the French had introduced them and sometimes they were welcomed in nations that had never been occupied, a natural consequence of the fact that such institutions were the juridical translation of an irreversible economic and social evolution. The same happened in the ecclesiastical sphere, where the profound transformations of diocesan administration following the nationalization of ecclesiastical goods and the Concordat of 1801, which rendered the bishop a “prefect in violet” and substituted ecclesiastical benefices with a salary paid by the state to the clergy, spread like wildfire. Geissel in the Rhineland, Sterckx in Belgium, Mathieu and Bonald in France, were the most characteristic personalities of this new generation of bishops, which was conscious that the restoration of Catholic life, which had been so shaken, and the growing complexity of the problems that had to be resolved, required greater organization and a more solid administration than that of the old regime. With a clear understanding of their episcopal authority as defined by Napoleon’s Organic Articles, applied themselves to direct the pastoral activity of their priests with systematic efficiency. One contemporary witness to this evolution of episcopal practice toward a centralized and more or less bureaucratic ecclesial administration comes down to us from Abbé Combalot, who jokingly proposed modifying the formula of episcopal consecration Accipe baculum pastorale to Accipe calamum administrativum ut possis scribere, scribere, scribere usque in sempiternum et ultra.

The situation of the lower clergy was changed profoundly. Priests without precise duties, very numerous under the old regime, were gradually disappearing, though more slowly in the southern regions where the clergy remained numerous for a long time, than in Western Europe or the German countries. Some continued to exercise their apostolate at the margins of the diocesan sphere, as preachers, teachers or professors in the state education system, but the greater part went to serve in parochial ministries: a parochial clergy whose social standing had been completely transformed in only a few years. Instead of receiving goods from a benefice which assigned them a certain degree of independence, in most nations they now received a salary from the state. Moreover, they found themselves more and more strictly submitted to the power of the bishop. In practice the diocesan offices and tribunals came to have a very reduced importance compared to what they had under the old regime and in many nations parish priests especially  found themselves under the constant threat of being moved from one parish to another against their will. It is true that the obligation to confer parishes by competition and the canon law on immovability remained in place in Austria, Bavaria, and Southern Europe, but certain Spanish and Italian bishops modified the rule declaring that the bishop is the sole immovable person and Geissel was able to get the Prussian government to admit the principle of priest’s removability, introduced in France and Belgium following the Concordat of 1801. [….]

The chapters too lost much of their importance and independence. Their members, now chosen by the bishop himself from among ecclesiastical functionaries, became secondary figures who in practice avoided conflict with their superior. Further, the offices that were once fulfilled by the canons were now entrusted to secretaries who, with the vicar generals, are the true collaborators of the bishop in the modern age.

The bishop, with the increased authority that he found himself able to exercise on the clergy, was less and less elected by them. The concordats that have proliferated since the beginning of the 19th century usually accord the right of presentation to the governments, whose criteria for choosing is more administrative than pastoral.


Portrait of a Canon, Girolamo Forabosco

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