Freethought and Freedom: Jean Meslier and the Catholic Church
Smith explains the role of the Catholic Church in the French government, and how Meslier reconciled his atheism with his role as a priest.
As I explained in last week’s essay, the atheist‐priest Jean Meslier (1664–1729) indicted both church and state for their roles in oppressing the people of France, especially the poor. As he wrote in his Testament: “Religion supports the political government as malicious as it may be; and in turn, the political government supports religion as vain and false as it may be.” Meslier continued:
On the one side, the priests, who are the ministers of religion, advise you, under penalty of wrath and eternal damnation, to obey the magistrates, princes, and other sovereigns as being established by God to govern others; and on the other side, the princes make you respect the priests, they give them good stipends and incomes, they maintain them in the vain and abusive duties of their ministry, they compel the ignorant to look upon as holy and sacred everything they do and everything they order others to do and believe, on the good and specious pretext of religion and the divine cult. And that, once again, is how the errors, abuses, superstitions, impostures, and tyranny were established and how they are maintained to the great misfortune of the poor people who groan under such hard and heavy yokes.
If we are to appreciate Meslier’s perspective, we must understand that in his day the Catholic Church of France did not merely work hand‐in‐glove with the state; rather, it was an essential part of the state, one of the three basic political “estates” of the realm. The “Gallican Church” was more thoroughly integrated with secular authorities than in other Catholic countries. The French king exercised many powers that were normally reserved for the pope, such as the right to assemble church councils and the right to appoint bishops and archbishops. As a consequence of the latter power, almost all the bishops and archbishops in France were noblemen or sons of the king’s ministers—men who often had little interest in religion, who lived worldly lives, and who owed allegiance to the king. A bishop need not even reside within the territory of his diocese, and his practical duties were typically performed by canons, an administrative position usually reserved for men who could prove descent from several generations of noblemen. Abbots, abbesses, and priors (those who administered monasteries and convents) were also subject to approval by the king. Again, these positions were usually held by noblemen, noblewomen, and other favorites of the king, and some offices were claimed by bishops who desired extra income but who never lived in monasteries or performed any additional duties.
In short, the most lucrative positions in the French church were generally reserved for the younger sons of noblemen who, because of primogeniture, could not inherit their fathers’ estate. As the historian John Lough observed in An Introduction to Seventeenth Century France (2nd ed., 1969):
In a nobleman’s family it was the recognized thing that the younger sons and daughters should be found a safe and comfortable existence in the Church….The children of noblemen did not enter the Church because they felt it to be their true vocation….The result was that the highest posts in the Church were often filled by extraordinary misfits.
Clerics, like noblemen, were exempt from taxes (though the higher clergy would sometimes vote for voluntary contributions to the king), so taxes fell almost entirely on the working people. Those people, in addition to paying secular taxes (the most onerous direct tax was a land tax known as the taille), also paid a compulsory tithe to support the clergy—a tax that sometimes exceeded taxes paid to the state. John Lough said of the tithe:
[T]he method of collection was an additional source of grievance. As the tithe was a first charge on the crop, the collectors had to be informed in advance of the day when it was to be harvested. Meanwhile, until they arrived, the peasant was forbidden to remove his crop. When they came, they proceeded to take the pick of his produce and even carried off the straw, which the peasant could not well do without. To add to the peasant’s resentment, tithes were often collected by a wealthy chapter or abbey, instead of going to maintain the poor curé and keep the parish church in a proper state of repair. Occasionally, indeed, the tithe…went to a layman.
With this cursory overview we can better understand why Meslier condemned the French church as a branch of government that ruthlessly exploited the poor people of France. Although Meslier exempted some bishops and priests from his wrath, noting that they did their best to help the poor despite the thoroughly corrupt system in which they worked, he also maintained that many members of the clergy were in it for the loot and pursued their own interests as much as any secular ruler or bureaucrat. Indeed, Meslier, speaking from his years of experience as a parish priest, recounted how many of his colleagues didn’t believe what they preached any more than he did, and how they mocked their parishioners for their credulity.
I was never able to take a liking to most of those good and hardy gentlemen who took such great pleasure in greedily receiving the fat payments for the vain functions of their ministry. I hated even more the mocking and clownish attitude of those other gentlemen who only think of having a good time with the large incomes of their good benefices and who among themselves cheerfully mock the mysteries, maxims, and the vain and deceitful ceremonies of their religion, and who even mock the simplicity of those who believe and who in this belief supply them so piously and so lavishly to enjoy themselves and live so well at ease.
Since Meslier also believed that the “mysteries and mummeries” of the Christian religion are “things worthy of mockery and contempt,” he did not fault others for agreeing with him on this point. What he had a problem with was the “burning, insatiable greed” found in fellow clerics who took advantage of “the public errors” to fatten their own purses, and who then mocked “the simplicity of those who are in ignorance and whom they themselves maintain in error.” If clerics were able “to live so fatly and peacefully at the public expense,” then the least they could do was to empathize with the dire circumstances of their parishioners and understand how uneducated peasants were especially liable to believe whatever they were told by religious authorities, however absurd those doctrines may have seemed to educated people. It is an “enormous ingratitude” and a “detestable treachery” for clerics to “mock the simplicity” of the common people, “seeing that it is only from the work and sweat of the bodies of the poor that these men get all their livelihood and abundance.”
This brings us to an obvious problem, namely: Given his long service as a parish priest, how did the atheist Meslier justify teaching doctrines that he personally regarded as false and even as absurd? I regard Meslier’s thoughts on this topic, which appear in the second chapter of his Testament, as the most interesting part of the book. Although it would be easy for critics to charge Meslier with outright hypocrisy and to dismiss his explanation as nothing more than a convenient rationalization, his account strikes me as a sincere effort to explain the situation in which he found himself. But however we may assess Meslier’s explanation, it qualifies as a fascinating psychological document.
According to Meslier, “I was easily led in my youth to the ecclesiastical state to please my parents, who were pleased to see me there because it was a state of life softer, more peaceful and more honorable in the world than that of the common man.” Was Meslier an atheist at this point? Unfortunately, he didn’t say; but, at the very least, he apparently had strong doubts about the truth of Catholic doctrine: “I can truthfully say that the truth of any temporal advantage and the prospects of the fat payments of the ministry never brought me to love the duty of a profession so full of errors and impostures.”
Meslier obviously felt guilty about teaching his parishioners doctrines that he himself regarded as ridiculous, so he offered a posthumous apology of sorts in his Testament.
I declare to you that I was never without pain and extreme loathing for what I was doing. That is also why I totally hated all the vain functions of my ministry, and particularly all the idolatrous and superstitious celebrations of masses, and the vain and ridiculous administrations of sacraments that I had to do for you. I cursed them thousands of times to the core when I had to do them, and particularly when I had to do them with a little more attention and solemnity than normal when I saw you come to your churches with a little more devotion to attend some vain solemnities or to hear with a little more devotion what they make you believe to be the word of God, it seemed to me that I was abusing your good faith much more shamefully and that I was, consequently, much more worthy of reproach and condemnation, which increased my hatred of these kinds of ceremonies and pompous solemnities and vain functions of my ministry so much that I was hundreds and hundreds of times on the point of indiscreetly bursting out with indignation, almost not able to hide my resentment any longer to keep to myself the indignation I felt. However, I did, in a way, keep it to myself, and I struggled to keep it to myself until the end of my days, not wanting to expose myself during my life to the indignation of the priests or to the cruelty of the tyrants who, it seemed to me, would not have found cruel enough tortures to punish me with for such so‐called recklessness.
Meslier’s fear of the legal consequences if he said what he truly believed or quit the priesthood was realistic. An apostate priest, especially an atheist, would have faced imprisonment at the very least, or he could have been sentenced to years as a galley slave or possibly executed. The prediction of many defenders of religious freedom, to the effect that the threat of persecution breeds hypocrisy among even good people who fear the legal consequences of intellectual candor, proved accurate in Meslier’s case. He concealed his true beliefs and continued his career as a priest because he had no other option short of risking severe punishment. Meslier hoped his parishioners would sympathize with his plight, understand the dilemma in which he found himself, and appreciate how he attempted to make the best of a bad situation. Meslier never solicited contributions from his flock; he never sought higher offices for financial gain or exploited the financial opportunities of his position; he never looked down upon his parishioners or treated them with contempt; he helped them financially and in other ways whenever he could; he refrained from preaching the torments of hell and other especially absurd doctrines; and he used his pulpit to denounce the local lord for his cruelty. These and other facts, Meslier hoped, would be remembered by his parishioners when they learned of his intellectual deceit.
I am pleased, my dear friends, to die as peacefully as I lived. Moreover, having never given you any reason to want to harm me or to enjoy any harm that might come to me, I also do not believe that you would be happy to see me persecuted and tyrannized for this matter. That is why I resolved to keep silent until the end of my days.
Meslier left his Testament containing his real thoughts about religion because he had no fear of what might happen to him after his death. Heaven and hell were childish fictions. Death brings the total extinction of consciousness, so he could not be harmed or punished in any afterlife. Meslier therefore thumbed his nose at those who predicted that he would suffer in hell for his atheism.
Let the priests, preachers, scholars, and all the instigators of such lies, errors, and impostures be scandalized as much as they want after my death; let them treat me, if they want, like an impious apostate, like a blasphemer and an atheist; let them insult me and curse me as they want. I do not really care since it will not bother me in the least.
Since Christian authorities sometimes exhumed and consigned to the flames the previously buried bodies of heretics, apostates, and disbelievers, Meslier sarcastically added that he couldn’t care less what outraged authorities did with his body after his death.
Likewise, let them do what they want with my body; let them tear it apart, cut it to pieces, roast it or fricassee it and then eat it, if they want, in whatever sauce they want, it will not trouble me at all. I will be entirely out of their reach; nothing will be able to frighten me.
These are remarkable statements, especially when we recall that Meslier was writing 300 years ago, in the early eighteenth century. He was clearly an extraordinary man.