Unigenitus (Constitution)

Catherine Maire


1At the end of his life, in his Mémoire sur le silence à imposer sur la Constitution, Montesquieu denied he had been interested in the developments around the bull Unigenitus: “The author of this statement admits he has not followed closely all the things that have been done on both sides in this matter” (OC, t. IX, p. 533). In reality, in addition to numerous detailed annotations in the Pensées and the Spicilège which attest to his sustained attention for the subject, Montesquieu devoted to it several short informed and analytical papers, particularly on the negotiations of the Cardinal de Polignac in Rome and the resistance of the parlements following the registration of the royal declaration of 1730 which conferred on the Constitution Unigenitus the status of law of the Church and state (Pensées, nos. 1226 and 2247, Spicilège, no. 618, Voyages, p. 277-278, 332).

2If he feels the need to minimize his curiosity, this is in reality a deliberate posture. He explains in a way, in passing, in Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence: “One needs to lend great attention to the disputes of the theologians, but also to hide this as far as possible: the care you appear to take to name them always accredits them, making clear that their manner of thinking is so important that it decides peace in the state and the security of the ruler. One can no more end their affairs by dismissing their subtleties than one could abolish duels by setting up schools refining the point of honor” (Romains, XXII). His essential objective is the pacification of religious disputes, which are among the greatest evil a state can undergo.

3In the Pensées, he thus confesses to having read Le Nouveau Testament en français accompagné de réflexions morales [‘The New Testament in French accompanied by moral reflections’] by the Oratorian priest Pasquier Quesnel, whose 101 propositions had been condemned by the bull Unigenitus of 8 September 1713, a book he judged “so much beneath its reputation” (Pensées, no. 166). The reading of the Témoignage de la vérité (1714) by Vivien de La Borde, superior of the Oratorian seminary at Saint Magloire and one of the premier theoreticians of the resistance to the Constitution Unigenitus, seems to have motivated him much more. He points out how much the ecclesiology of the small number, “sole true witness of faith in the Church” (Spicilège, no. 579) in reality lowers the bishops in their councils to the rank of simple “witnesses to the faith of their church” (Pensées, no. 320). His anti-Jesuit sensitivity makes him savor an disadvantageous portrait of Father Le Tellier after Tacitus (Spicilège, no. 579) as well as a description of the Jesuit corps based on unflattering quotations from Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (Catalogue, p. 31 of the manuscript preceding the rubric “Concilia”, no. 133 sqq.).

4In Persian Letters, he briefly evokes the early years of the resistance to the Constitution (LP, 24 [26], 46 [48], 75 [78], 101 [104]), without once mentioning the Appel au Concile movement which he moreover belittles in the Spicilège (no. 286). What strikes him above all is the driving role of women in what he calls a “revolt that divides the court, all the realm and all families” (LP, 24 [26]). That is explained, according to him, by the fact that women were explicitly forbidden in the Constitution Unigenitus to read the New Testament: “Women, indignant at the outrage done to their sex, are rising directly against the Constitution; they have put in their camp the men who, on this occasion, desire no privilege” (ibid.). Ironically comparing the Constitution to the Qur’an, Montesquieu has Usbek say that the pope/mufti does not reason badly because women are “of inferior creation” to men and “will not enter into paradise” (ibid.).

5He shows himself critical of the bishops, whether partisans or detractors of the Constitution: “The great evil of the Constitution is that all the bishops had conceived the hope of making their fortune, like all the lords in Mississippi” (Pensées, no. 1170; transcribed between 1734 and 1739). In his Mémoire sur le silence à imposer sur la Constitution [‘Note on the silence to impose on the Constitution’], Montesquieu returns again to the imbroglio of personal interests and individual prejudices that had been mixed into the theological quarrel: “these disputes have been the source of so many fortunes, so many people have gained influence through them who without these disputes would have been nothing in the state nor in the Church” (OC, t. IX, p. 533). Further to compound things is the confusion brought by “invisible champions” who entered the lists: “there are many Rogers who have combatted in the armor of Leon” (Heroes of Ariosto’s Orlando furioso: Pensées, no. 2247).

6He reproaches the archbishop of Paris, the Cardinal de Noailles, a Jansenist sympathizer, for his lack of firmness with Pope Clement XI “who was boastful and timid” and his shallow knowledge of Roman affairs (Spicilège, no. 477). On the contrary, he mocks the arrogance of the Cardinal de Rohan, a zealous partisan of the pure and simple acceptation of the bull (LP, 101 [104]). If he recognizes that the archbishop of Sens, Languet de Gergy,

7has “shown more zeal than passion” (Pensées, no. 2177) and evidenced a certain sense of the discussion which allows him not to take his adversaries for his “enemies”, he nonetheless accuses him of secret ambition: “Tencin and Languet must not hope for the [cardinal’s] hat for their excesses over the Constitution” (Voyages, p. 250).

8He has admiration only for those who tried to bring the Unigenitus quarrel to an end: the Cardinal de Fleury, principal minister from 1726 to 1743, and the Cardinal de Polignac, chargé d’affaires in Rome from 1728 to 1730. Around 1729, he noted that Fleury “has succeeded in defeating Jansenism and imposing the Constitution” (Pensées, no. 914, transcribed between 1734 and 1739). But he is obligated to add later that “this has much changed since” (ibid.). He salutes his tranquil and efficacious firmness in the face of “the self-contradictory rapidity of M. d’Orléans”, or “the impetuosity of most of the others” (ibid.). In 1738, he still felt the need to sing his praises: “We could not erect enough statues to the Cardinal de Fleury, who saw the evil, the causes, the effects, and sought throughout his ministry to diminish its evil, and did. And we can say that he prevented the schism that the lost children on both sides wanted to expedite with all their force. He gave positions to moderate persons; at least that is what he tried to do. He halted the outrage of the Molinists and slowly sapped the strength of the Jansenists by depriving them of their best subjects” (“On ne saurait ériger assez de statues au cardinal de Fleury, qui a vu le mal, les causes, les effets et qui a cherché, dans tout son ministère, à en diminuer le mal et l’a fait. Et on peut dire qu’il a empêché le schisme, que les enfants perdus des deux parts voulaient hâter de toute leur force. Il a donné les emplois à des gens modérés ; au moins il a cherché à le faire. Il a arrêté les emportements des molinistes et a ôté peu à peu les forces aux jansénistes, en les privant de leurs meilleurs sujets.”, Pensées, no. 1226). He must recognize, however, that “the ministry much soured the parlement” (ibid.).

9During his two stays in Rome in 1729, he much frequented the Cardinal de Polignac and was able to follow closely the negotiations between Rome and France over the Constitution and in particular the problem of its reception by the Cardinal de Noailles. In his Voyages, he gives a short résumé of the avatars of the “twelve articles”, explanations which the pope had consented to give in 1725 “to calm the party of the Cardinal de Noailles” (Voyages, p. 332). He denounces the subterranean intervention of the “alerted Molinists” and the “Jesuits” who had in mind only to scuttle the agreement which the Duc d’Orléans thought was settled: the pastoral letter of M. de Sainte against the twelve articles, the attempt to pass directly via the Holy Office and finally the intransigent letter of the three powers, the Cardinals de Bissy and de Rohan and M. de Fréjus, who refuse any form of explanation (ibid.).

10On 6 March 1729, Montesquieu met Pietro Marcelle Corrandini, Roman chancellor, a member of the Holy Office (inquisition) which was for the Court of Rome in charge of affairs concerning the Constitution, a “man of letters” as he styled him (Voyages, p. 246) “the knight errant of the Holy See” as the Cardinal de Polignac described him. The zelante cardinal supported the absolute necessity of a Roman reaction to such an attack on its pretentions and went so far as to request that they prescribe the infallibility of Unigenitus (Voyages, p. 332). Through him Montesquieu obtained information on the French strategy of going through the Holy Office to handle matters relative to Unigenitus, a position ardently defended in Rome by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, secretary of said Congregation. This mark of scorn toward the pope would have definitively made Ottoboni furious against Cardinal de Fleury (Voyages, p. 246, 255, 277). The information seems true, to judge by the letter from Fleury on 25 July 1729 to the nuncio, in which he recognizes that “unfortunately the pope is predisposed against me” (archives of the Holy Office, Stanza storica collection, E1-H, f. 232). Montesquieu does not fail to report the ironic words of Benedict XIII on the relations between France and the Holy Office: “That is the only time our popes have been asked for such a thing. Before that, the French wanted to receive nothing from this tribunal which now they want to make the law for myself” (Voyages, p. 246). He paints the pope as “more reasonable than Rome”, an allusion to the zealous current within the curia that insisted that Noailles, in addition to his accommodation, give the Jesuits back their power (Voyages, p. 278). He completely disengages his responsibility for the breaking off of the negotiations that makes him “disconsolate” (Voyages, p. 332)

11It was again the Cardinal de Polignac who was to renew the contacts with the pope and try to end the affair of the acceptation of the Constitution by the Cardinal de Noailles: “There was no question of explanation nor of the twelve articles. The Cardinal de Noailles accepted and he was accepted.” (Voyages, p. 332). Montesquieu attributes to the Cardinal de Polignac “the glory of having nearly put an end to the affair” (Voyages, p. 243), thanks to the secret which, this time, was indeed kept and prevented the two parties from “crossing” the accommodation.

12Beginning in the 1730s, he grants his attention to the political transformations of the religious quarrel, due to the promulgation of the Royal Declaration of 1730 which made of the bull Unigenitus a law of the Church and of the state all at once. It was its registration that brought the intervention of the Paris parlement onto the religious stage: “It is still to the Declaration of 1730 that we must return. A declaration that gives the Constitution Unigenitus as a judgment of the universal Church in a matter of doctrine of the Constitution Unigenitus, which is the principle of all our ills, and the true source of all the just complaints that the parlement has had the occasion to make since the arrival of this bull in France” (Spicilège, no. 618). Montesquieu was aware of the importance of the first great parlementary crisis of the years 1730-1732, for he devoted a long “Statement” [Mémoire imprimé] to it in the Spicilège: “Statement in which is given a correct and precise notion of the present affair of the parlement, followed by an extract of the principal facts that are relative to the content of the Statement” (no. 618). Montesquieu was mindful of the importance of the first great parlementary crisis of the years 1730-1732, for he inserted in the Spicilègei a printed memorandum “in which is given a good and precise idea of the present matter before the parlement, followed by an extract of the principal facts which are relative to the memorandum’s content” (no. 618). According to the Gallican and anti-Jesuit themes which it develops, it is very likely about one of the first writings of the young Louis Adrien Le Paige (or at the least the work of a stable of Jansenist lawyers and magistrates), published on 24 May 1732. Montesquieu obviously appreciated the dossier’s dramatic, precise and informed style. To go by the report in Nouvelles ecclésiastiques (21 September 1732, p. 183), the memoir was favorably received not only by the public but also by almost the entire parlement. Montesquieu preferred it to two other pieces published at the same time by the same medium: Succinct memorandum on the present procedure of the parlementary lords and Memorandum concerning the origin and authority of the French parlement, called Judicium Francorum, no doubt because there too polemical for his taste.

13In 1738, he decided to take stock of the last ten years of the Unigenitus quarrel and observes “that for ten years it has not been a question of the Constitution, but of whether there will be a schism or not” (Pensées, no. 1226). Jansenists and Molinists fan the dispute and seem to seek only to “get themselves hanged”, whereas the court of Rome “follows its principles of always pushing things to the extreme” ( ibid.). From this time on, Montesquieu advises calming the minds of the magistrates and not “suppressing”, “changing”, “taking away”, or “breaking” the parlement as he hears suggested: “It is thus by reason and gentleness that we must work on them (ibid.), and bring them little by little back to the straight path, in things where the disputes have taken them too far” (ibid.). He dissociates the magistracy of the kingdom from the extremists, “little minds who have let themselves get all heated up on petty things and Jansenist idioms”. The parlements simply remained faithful to the Gallican tradition that they have known. He finds it important not to let the clergy “go on to other pretensions, under pretext of said Constitution”, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to limit too much the jurisdiction of the bishops: “I have always thought that their jurisdiction for moral correction was only too restricted”. Finally, he explicitly defends the pope’s authority: “I think the authority of the pope is even politically speaking infinitely useful for us. For what would become of us in this turbulent nation where there is no bishop who thinks like his neighbor?” But in his balancing game, he concludes on a final moderation that proves he is indeed a Gallican in the line of the politicians: “But that does not mean that we should be taken violently and despotically to an authority which we are told is unconstrained and always, sometimes, and on all occasions, because it is on some occasions” ( ibid.).

14Towards 1753-1754, at the height of the new parlementary crisis enflamed by the affairs of sacraments refused to the dying suspected of Jansenism, he wrote again in the Pensées a short synthesis on the question of Unigenitus. He observes that in France there are three opinions on the bull: “the first is held by those who believe it to be a law of the Church and state; the second by those who regard it as a rule of faith and give it the greatest authority there is on earth; the third by those who regard it as a decree which is bad in itself, and condemns things that are good in themselves” (Pensées, no. 2247a). He is pleased that at this point the dispute “concerns less dogma than formalities” (ibid.). Indeed, he thinks it is easier to decide a dispute on “competence” than a question of faith. In this context, it is decidedly with the Constitution Unigenitus as law of the Church and state that he now sides, according to the opinion of “almost all the wise and enlightened magistrates and theologians” (ibid.).

15He who for forty years had stayed away from the quarrel of the Constitution Unigenitus finally had to get personally involved, at the king’s request. Towards June-July 1753, he was led to draw up a plan of pacification, the Mémoire sur le silence à imposer sur la Constitution, which may have contributed to the establishing of the Law of silence of 2 September 1754. In any case, in the Pensées Montesquieu declares himself clearly in favor of the policy of silence, scolding at the same time both Jansenists and zealous partisans of the Constitution: “You say the dying should be interrogated about the Constitution, and I say to you that it is accepted, and no one must be interrogated. You say it is not accepted and must not be accepted; and I tell you that it is accepted, and let it not be discussed further (Pensées, no. 2164). Against the resistance of the parlements which he judges self-interested (letter to Durey de Meinières, 9 July 1753), he advises all at the same time formal obedience to the Constitution, inner indifference with regard to “opinions” about it, so far from “eternal” religion, and above all a profound disinterest: “it is us watching your combatants that make your combats.” (Pensées, no. 2164).



Montesquieu, Voyages, OC, t. X, 2012.

Mémoire sur le silence [à observer sur la Constitution], OC, t. IX, 2006, p. 519-536 (ed. Catherine Maire and Pierre Rétat).

Pasquier Quenel, Le Nouveau Testament en français, avec des réflexions morales sur chaque verset, pour en rendre la lecture plus utile, et la méditation plus aisée, Paris: Pralard, 1693, 4 vol.

Vivien de La Borde, Du témoignage de la vérité dans l'Église, dissertation théologique, où l’on examine quel est ce témoignage tant en général qu’en particulier, au regard de la dernière Constitution, s. l., 1714.

Letter by Cardinal de Fleury, dated 25 July 1729 to the nuncio in Paris: Archives of the Holy Office, fonds Stanza storica, E1-H, fol. 232.

Secondary bibliography

A. Gazier, “Une lettre inédite de Montesquieu”, Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France 7, (1907), p. 20-133.

L. Ceyssens, “Autour de la bulle Unigenitus: Charles de Montesquieu (1689-1755)”, Jansenistica Lovaniensia 6 (1990), p. 1-2, 5-23.