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Clergy's oath to the constitution: 1791

In 1789, when the Constituent Assembly at Versailles deprives the church of all its property, it also decrees that the salaries of the clergy will be paid by the state. This implies a break with the old hierarchy headed by the pope, and by July 1790 there is promulgated a new Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Bishops and clergy are henceforth to be elected, like civil officials, and they are to take an oath of allegiance to the French constitution.

About half the priests in France take the oath on the scheduled day, 16 January 1791. The others wait for guidance from the indecisive pope, Pius VI.

In March 1791 the pope finally declares against the oath to the constitution. The French clergy are therefore split into two irreconcilable camps, known as 'refractory' (the non-jurors) and 'constitutional'.

The non-jurors are deprived of their livings and soon, as the revolution progesses, are in danger of their lives. Many flee abroad, becoming an important element among France's émigré population. Only three of the country's bishops take the oath to the constitution. One of them is Talleyrand.

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