Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
CONGREGATIONS. Monastic life had its origin in the east, but the monk, properly speaking, was not introduced there by Christianity. A love of contemplation, a disposition to solitude, a willingness to sacrifice self which hesitated at no bodily mortification, had peopled the deserts long before Christ, with ascetics and hermits. Cenobitism was the sole creation of the new religion. But if, in the east, desire for retirement, love of contemplation and the éclat of an open rupture with civil society, were the principal motives which led to monastic life, it was the horror excited by the state of public affairs that created the monks of the west. In the corrupt society of the Roman world, in its decline, when the most shameful exaction dried up the fruitful sources of labor, weariness and disgust drove into exile some of the men who still nourished in their hearts the love of liberty.
—The beginnings of monastic life were strange. All those, men or women, who revolted against the abuses of the old Roman world, sought refuge either in isolated places or in a kind of fortress. Those proscribed or fugitives, the malcontent, philosophers, slaves who had broken their chains,—all sought, in these solitudes, refuge from the fury of the barbarians, an oasis where they might think and live in peace. Fixed rules of life were not followed by these first members of a monastic community. A common belief and a common hatred for society in its decay, were the bond of union between these men.
—St. Pachomius, who lived in the fourth century, was the first to establish regular monasteries for men and women, where they could abide under the authority of a superior. Later, St. Basil drew up monastic rules which became the law of all the eastern monasteries until the time of St. Benedict.
—The monks at this period were not ecclesiastics, but laymen, who did not form a part of the clergy. Although sheltered from the numberless dangers of the civil life of that time, they did not keep entirely aloof from social action; and they took a willing part in the intrigues which disturbed the corrupt and almost barbarous courts of the last Merovingian kings. Their hands assisted in the overthrow of Brunehault, while they cleared the road to rule for Pepin of Heristal. Even in the bosom of the monastery there was neither calm nor order. Obedience was a thing unknown. The most worthless monk turbulently intrigued for the most important position. Ancient Roman society had crumbled, but nothing new had taken its place, and the monastery was a reflex of the disorder which was destroying the last remnants of social order. Such disorder would have been certain death to the system, if a fixed rule had not rescued the monasteries from inevitable ruin. St. Benedict, born in Italy, in 480, gave to the world, about the year 529, the famous rule which soon after governed all the monasteries of the west, and became so universal that, toward the end of the eighth century, "Charlemagne," says Guizot, "had inquiry made in the different parts of his empire if there existed other monks besides those of the order of St. Benedict." Among other laws, St. Benedict imposed labor on his followers as a religious duty and, of all kinds of manual labor, he particularly recommended agriculture. There was in this a social reform. The order of St. Benedict replaced the labor of slaves by the labor of free men. "The Benedictine monks," says Guizot, "became the clearers (défricheurs) of Europe by the association of agriculture with preaching."
—In turn inventors, laborers, writers, painters, or artisans, the Benedictines were the civilizers of five centuries.
—We shall pass rapidly over the events which illustrate monastic life from the seventh to the fourteenth century, and call attention to the founding of military orders in the Christian world at that time. The templars were the most celebrated of the monks who put the sword in the place of the missal. It was upon them that civil authority in France made the first trial of its strength. The knights of the temple, who were numerous and powerful, had become a formidable body at the service of the aggressive despotism of the sovereign pontiffs. Civil right triumphed when the jurists of Philip the Fair sent Jacques Molay and his knights to the stake. Among the most celebrated military orders we ought to mention the Teutonic knights, in the north; the Calatrava knights in Spain; and the knights of St. John of Jerusalem, who afterward became the knights of Malta—To the military orders succeeded the mendicant orders. Franciscans and Dominicans, in the name of equality and poverty, attained, the former, the extreme limits of human folly, and the latter, the limits of the most monstrous cruelty. The inquisition, as is known, was the offspring of the Dominican order. The creation of the mendicant orders was considered as a necessity, both political and religious. "Gregory IX.," says M. Theophile Lavallée, in his Histoire des Français, "wished to dip the clergy in the plebeian source from which they had come, and founded the mendicant orders of St. Francis and St. Dominie. These monks of a new species were supposed to lead, not a contemplative but a practical life, in order to replace the secular clergy in all their functions. They were to put themselves in the lowest of social conditions, to recall evangelical poverty and humility. They were to have no superiority except that of knowledge and devotion. They were to travel, and have no country. To crown all, they were to have but one master, the pope, and, devoted completely to him, were to be his missionaries and his messengers." By an inconsistency, to say the least, strange, the princes of Europe at first extended their protection to the mendicant monks. The reason was, that the nations of Europe had then had a touch of liberty and revolution, and that cost what it might, it was imperative on kings to put a damper on the aspirations of their subjects, the realization of which would have been attended by all the dangers of the unknown in politics. And who better than the mendicant monks could perform this rude task? "Enemies of the national clergy," adds M. Lavallée, "withdrawn from episcopal jurisdiction, intrusted with the education of the common people, the mendicant monks were a formidable body of militia recruited from the people, who always mixed with them, wore the same coarse garments, ate the same black bread, and shared with them their joys and sorrows. Unrestrained, cynical, austere, popular, apostles of grace, theologians, clever and popular orators; full of mystic exaltation, of humility, and a spirit of penitence, they regenerated the church in the estimation of the people, and silenced their just murmurs against the wealth, the pride, and the debauchery of the clergy."
—But Rome was threatened with the loss of her power which she had thus strengthened; and, from the seclusion of a German monastery, the reformation went forth full armed. Luther attacked monastic institutions in that which is most essential to them. The reformation extended to the north. It won England and Germany. The Theatins, and, later, the Jesuits, come forward to take up the defense of orthodoxy.
—The society of Jesus is admirably adapted to the requirements of modern society. Jesuitism, the art of easy salvation, yet of moral restraint, alone was capable of keeping within the bounds of belief men who were quite willing to be saved but only on condition of not surrendering the material advantages of this world. The Jansenists, a species of Benedictines, rose up against the worldly doctrine of the Jesuits; and these last, the chief defenders of the absolute power of the popes, did not surrender without a fierce fight. The society of Jesus had great vitality, since it was able to recover from the blows inflicted on it by the popes themselves.
—It remains now for us to say to what legal restrictions religious congregations have been and are still subjected in France.
—It was an invariable principle under the ancient régime, that no religious association could exist in France except in so far as it had been formally authorized. After the edict of Nov. 21, 1629, came that of August, 1790, ordaining that no religious establishment could be founded without the express authorization of the king, an authorization evidenced by letters patent, sealed with the great seal, countersigned by a secretary of state, and registered in the parliaments after investigation de commodo et incommodo. This authorization was always revocable. The constituent assembly, in virtue of a right sanctioned by usage, declared, Feb. 13, 1790, that it no longer recognized solemn monastic vows, and consequently suppressed the orders and regular congregations. The secular congregations, lay brotherhoods and confraternities, which, properly speaking, constituted mere corporations, were only affected by the law of Aug. 18, 1792, which suppressed all associations, no matter what their origin or aim. The concordat brought no amelioration to the state of religious congregations. Nevertheless, the decree of the 20th Prairial, year X., which suppressed the regular congregations in some departments, spared the establishments devoted to public education, and care of the sick.
—Under the protection of this authorization, the regular orders made no delay in reorganizing. The decree of 3rd Messidor, year XII., brought back the orders to respect for the law. The decrees of Feb. 18, 1809, Jan. 3, 1812, and Jan. 23, 1813, had the same object in view.
—In spite of the favor which the religious associations enjoyed under the restoration, the law of May 14, 1825, reserved to the legislative power the right to authorize religious orders of men; those of women might be established by royal ordinance, and continue to be recognized by decree. The civil law of France does not recognize perpetual vows. It does not annul, it simply ignores them.
—The following words, spoken June 12, 1845, by president Portalis, sum up completely the opinion of the French government on the law in the matter of religious congregations. "It is asked if the laws at present in force do not give the government the power, and impose on it the duty, according to the urgency of the case, to dissolve non-authorized religious associations, when, originating outside, they endeavor to impose themselves on the country, and make themselves recognized independently of the laws. The answer can not be doubtful: Live in the interior of your own houses as you like. "Obey, while living under the same roof, the rule which you have chosen: that is for you legal and permissible: the state will not seek to know what it has no interest in knowing: public authority will supervise, but not trouble a pious and retired life: matters touching only conscience are sacred for the government: public demonstrations alone provoke, alone justify, its intervention.
—But, if you wish the public informed of your existence; if you pretend to make your action felt, to exercise a collective influence without the influence of an association; if you proclaim yourselves connected with another religious order known and existing outside our borders; if you correspond openly and hierarchically with other houses similar to your own in France; if you acknowledge publicly regular administrative organization which embraces all the territory and forms it into a province of a religious order; then, if you can not produce a legal authorization, you fall under the prohibition of the law."
—M. Billault, in 1861, interpreted the law as M. Portalis had done in 1845. The law has never considered the decree of the year XII. as abrogated. The government enforced it, in July, 1830, against the congregation of missions in France; in 1831 against the Trappists; in 1839 against the Capu chins of Lyons; in 1842 against the Trappists of Tarn; and in 1861 against the Capuchins of Hazebruck and the Redemptorists of Douar. More recently still, the society of St. Vincent de Paul was subjected to the necessity of authorization.
—The necessity of asking for an authorization imposed on religious communities by the laws of France and most other countries, has been frequently attacked. The arguments brought up as weapons to combat this restrictive measure are very imposing. It is in the name of liberty, and liberty of conscience, that the opponents of the measure speak. But as the congregations are reproached, either rightly or wrongly, with a tendency to aggressiveness, monopoly, and even undue influence, many are of the opinion that the weak should be protected against these influences, as they are, for instance, against excess of labor in manufactures. To protect men liberty of discussion would suffice. It might still be objected that convents for women, authorized or not, are not the only establishments which increase in a manner astonishing at an epoch decried as irreligious. These are very delicate questions, and many persons would prefer not to touch them if the religious feeling which founds convents were not intolerant (see
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