Henri Gregoire - Encyclopedia

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HENRI GREGOIRE (1750-1831), French revolutionist and constitutional bishop of Blois, was born at Veho near Luneville, on the 4th of December 1750, the son of a peasant. Educated at the Jesuit college at Nancy, he became cure of Embermenil and a teacher at the Jesuit school at Pont-a-Mousson. In 1783 he was crowned by the academy of Nancy for his Eloge de la poesie, and in 1788 by that of Metz for an Essai sur la regeneration physique et morale des Juifs. He was elected in 1789 by the clergy of the bailliage of Nancy to the states-general, where he soon became conspicuous in the group of clerical and lay deputies of Jansenist or Gallican sympathies who supported the Revolution. He was among the first of the clergy to join the third estate, and contributed largely to the union of the three orders; he presided at the permanent sitting of sixty-two hours while the Bastille was being attacked by the people, and made a vehement speech against the enemies of the nation. He subsequently took a leading share in the abolition of the privileges of the nobles and the Church. Under the new civil constitution of the clergy, to which he was the first priest to take the oath (December 2 7, 1790), he was elected bishop by two departments. He selected that of Loire-et-Cher, taking the old title of bishop of Blois, and for ten years (1791-1801) ruled his diocese with exemplary zeal. An ardent republican, it was he who in the first session of the National Convention (September 21, 1792) proposed the motion for the abolition of the kingship, in a speech in which occurred the memorable phrase that "kings are in the moral order what monsters are in the natural." On the 15th of November he delivered a speech in which he demanded that the king should be brought to trial, and immediately afterwards was elected president of the Convention, over which he presided in his episcopal dress. During the trial of Louis XVI., being absent with other three colleagues on a mission for the union of Savoy to France, he along with them wrote a letter urging the condemnation of the king, but omitting the words a mort; and he endeavoured to save the life of the king by proposing in the Convention that the penalty of death should be suspended.

When on the 7th of November 1793 Gobel, bishop of Paris, was intimidated into resigning his episcopal office at the bar of the Convention, Gregoire, who was temporarily absent from the sitting, hearing what had happened, hurried to the hall, and in the face of a howling mob of deputies refused to abjure either his religion or his office. He was prepared to face the death which he expected; but his courage, a rare quality at that time, won the day, and the hubbub subsided in cries of "Let Gregoire have his way!" Throughout the Terror, in spite of attacks in the Convention, in the press, and on placards posted at the street corners, he appeared in the streets in his episcopal dress and daily read mass in his house. After Robespierre's fall he was the first to advocate the reopening of the churches (speech of December 21, 1794). He also exerted himself to get measures put in execution for restraining the vandalistic fury against the monuments of art, extended his protection to artists and men of letters, and devoted much of his attention to the reorganization of the public libraries, the establishment of botanic gardens, and the improvement of technical education. He had taken during the Constituent Assembly a great interest in Negro emancipation, and it was on his motion that men of colour in the French colonies were admitted to the same rights as whites.

On the establishment of the new constitution, Gregoire was elected to the Council of 500, and after the 18th Brumaire he became a member of the Corps Legislatif, then of the Senate (1801). He took the lead in the national church councils of 1 797 and 1801; but he was strenuously opposed to Napoleon's policy of reconciliation with the Holy See, and after the signature of the concordat he resigned his bishopric (October 8, 1801). He was one of the minority of five in the Senate who voted against the proclamation of the empire, and he opposed the creation of the new nobility and the divorce of Napoleon from Josephine; but notwithstanding this he was subsequently created a count of the empire and officer of the Legion of Honour. During the later years of Napoleon's reign he travelled in England and Germany, but in 1814 he had returned to France and was one of the chief instigators of the action that was taken against the empire.

To the clerical and ultra-royalist faction which was supreme in the Lower Chamber and in the circles of the court after the second Restoration, Gregoire, as a revolutionist and a schismatic bishop, was an object of double loathing. He was expelled from the Institute and forced into retirement. But even in this period of headlong reaction his influence was felt and feared. In 1814 he had published a work, De la constitution francaise de l'an 1814, in which he commented on the Charter from a Liberal point of view, and this reached its fourth edition in 1819. In this latter year he was elected to the Lower Chamber by the department of Isere. By the powers of the Quadruple Alliance this event was regarded as of the most sinister omen, and the question was even raised of a fresh armed intervention in France under the terms of the secret treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. To prevent such a catastrophe Louis XVIII. decided on a modification of the franchise; the Dessolle ministry resigned; and the first act of Decazes, the new premier, was to carry a vote in the chamber annulling the election of Gregoire. From this time onward the ex-bishop lived in retirement, occupying himself in literary pursuits and in correspondence with most of the eminent savants of Europe; but as he had been deprived of his pension as a senator he was compelled to sell his library to obtain means of support. He died on the 20th of May 1831.

To the last Gregoire remained a devout Catholic, exactly fulfilling all his obligations as a Christian and a priest; but he refused to budge an inch from his revolutionary principles. During his last illness he confessed to his parish cure, a priest of Jansenist sympathies, and expressed his desire for the last sacraments of the Church. These the archbishop of Paris would only concede on condition that he would retract his oath to the civil constitution of the clergy, which he peremptorily refused to do. Thereupon, in defiance of the archbishop, the abbe Baradere gave him the viaticum, while the rite of extreme unction was administered by the abbe Guillon, an opponent of the civil constitution, without consulting the archbishop or the parish cure. The attitude of the archbishop roused great excitement in Paris, and the government had to take precautions to avoid a repetition of the riots which in the preceding February had led to the sacking of the church of St Germain l'Auxerrois and the archiepiscopal palace. On the day after his death Gregoire's funeral was celebrated at the church of the Abbaye-aux-Bois; the clergy of the church had absented themselves in obedience to the archbishop's orders, but mass was sung by the abbe Grieu assisted by two clergy, the catafalque being decorated with the episcopal insignia. After the hearse set out from the church the horses were unyoked, and it was dragged by students to the cemetery of Montparnasse, the cortege being followed by a sympathetic crowd of some 20,000 people.

Whatever his merits as a writer or as a philanthropist, Gregoire's name lives in history mainly by reason of his wholehearted effort to prove that Catholic Christianity is not irreconcilable with modern conceptions of political liberty. In this effort he was defeated, mainly because the Revolution, for lack of experience in the right use of liberty, changed into a military despotism which allied itself with the spiritual despotism of Rome; partly because, when the Revolution was overthrown,, the parties of reaction sought salvation in the "union of altar and throne." Possibly Gregoire's Gallicanism was fundamentally irreconcilable with the Catholic idea of authority. At least it made their traditional religion possible for those many French Catholics who clung passionately to the benefits the Revolution had brought them; and had it prevailed, it might have spared France and the world that fatal gulf between Liberalism and Catholicism which Pius IX.'s Syllabus of 1864 sought to make impassable.

Besides several political pamphlets, Gregoire was the author of Histoire des sectes religieuses, depuis le commencement du siecle dernier jusqu'i l'epoque actuelle (2 vols., 1810); Essai historique sur les libertes de l'eglise gallicane (1818); De l'influence du Christianisme sur la condition des femmes (1821); Histoire des confesseurs des empereurs, des roil, et d'autres princes (1824); Histoire du mariage des pretres en France (1826). Gregoireana, ou résumé general de la conduite, des actions, et des ecrits de M. le comte Henri Gregoire, preceded by a biographical notice by Cousin d'Avalon, was published in 1821; and the Memoires ... de Gregoire, with a biographical notice by H. Carnot, appeared in 1837 (2 vols.). See also A. Debidour, L' Abbe Gregoire (1881); A. Gazier, Etudes sur l'histoire religieuse de la Revolution Francaise (1883); L. Maggiolo, La Vie et les oeuvres de l'abbe Gregoire (Nancy, 1884), and numerous articles in La Revolution Francaise; E. Meaume, Etude hist. et biog. sur les Lorrains revolutionnaires (Nancy, 1882); and A. Gazier, Etudes sur l'histoire religieuse de la Revolution Francaise (1887).

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