Pope Pius VI: “Charitas” (1791)


On April 13th 1791 Pope Pius VI issued “Charitas”, an encyclical on the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the unfolding situation in revolutionary France:


“To our beloved sons, the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, to our venerable brothers the Archbishops and Bishops, and to our beloved children the clergy and people of the Kingdom of France… We give you or greeting and our Apostolic Blessing…

We have just learned of the war against the Catholic religion which has been started by the revolutionary thinkers who as a group form a majority in the National Assembly of France. We have wept in God’s presence, shared our sorrow with the cardinals, and proclaimed public and private prayers. Then we wrote to King Louis on July 9th 1790 and repeatedly encouraged him not to confirm the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which would lead his people into error and schism. For it was intolerable that a political assembly should change the universal practice of the church, disregard the opinions of the holy Fathers and the decrees of the councils, overturn the order of the hierarchy and control the election of bishops, destroy episcopal sees and introduce a worse form into the Church after removing the better…

The king would certainly have refrained from approving the Constitution, but the National Assembly finally forced him to lend his authority to the Constitution, as his letters to us on July 28th, September 6th and December 16th attest. He besought us insistently to approve five, and later seven, articles at least provisionally. These articles were so similar in tenor that they formed a comprehensive summary of the new Constitution. We saw at once, of course, that we could approve or tolerate none of the articles since they were at variance with canonical regulations…

In the meanwhile we were greatly consoled when a majority of the French bishops firmly opposed the Constitution and attacked every point in it which referred to the government of the Church… We were further consoled because many other bishops joined the 30 in accepting this explanation. Only four out of 131 bishops dissented. A great number of capitulars and most of the parish priests and lower clergy also joined the bishops…

From [the Civil Constitution] schism is being introduced and spread in the kingdom of France, which is so dear to us and has served religion so well. Pastors of first and second rank are being everywhere elected as the days go by, legitimate ministers are ejected from their positions, and ravening wolves are put in their place. We are certainly saddened by this sorrowful situation.

Therefore, to hinder the spread of schism from the start, to recall to their duty those who have strayed, to fortify the good in their purpose… we proclaim that each and every cardinal, archbishop, bishop, abbot, vicar, canon, parish priest, curate and member of the clergy, whether secular or regular, who has purely and simply taken the Civil Oath as ordered by the National Assembly, is suspended from the exercise of his office and will act irregularly if he exercises his office – unless he abjures his oath within 40 days from this date. For the oath is the poisoned source and origin of all errors and the chief cause of the sorrow of the French Catholic church…

We similarly declare and decree that the consecrations [of several constitutional bishops and priests] were sinful and are illicit, unlawful, sacrilegious, and at variance with the regulations of the sacred canons. Since they were rashly and wrongfully elected, they lack all ecclesiastical and spiritual jurisdiction for the guidance of souls, and have been suspended from all exercise of the episcopal office.

We declare likewise that Charles, bishop of Autun; Jean-Baptiste, bishop of Babylon; and Jean-Joseph, bishop of Lidda have been suspended from all exercise of their episcopal office as sacrilegious consecrators or assistants; all who gave them help, consent, or counsel at those accursed consecrations have been suspended from the exercise of their priestly, or other, office…

We beseech you all, beloved Catholic children in the kingdom of France… as you recall the religion and faith of your fathers, We urge you lovingly not to abandon it. For it is the one true religion which both confers eternal life and makes safe and thriving civil societies. Carefully beware of lending your ears to the treacherous speech of the philosophy of this age, which leads to death. Keep away from all intruders, whether called archbishops, bishops, or parish priests; do not hold communion with them especially in divine worship. Listen carefully to the message of your lawful pastors who are still living… Finally, in one word, stay close to Us. For no one can be in the Church of Christ without being in unity with its visible head and founded on the See of Peter…

Given at Rome in St. Peter’s on April 13th 1791.”