The 'Free French' Church
"From 1054 A.D. to the very threshold of our own times, the
question of defining the extent of Papal authority continually occupied the growing
Catholic Church in the West. A struggle was manifested in two distinct schools of thought.
One school of thought maintained the belief that the supreme teaching authority within the
Church rested in the Ecumenical Councils on the ground that all Catholic Bishops have
equal pastoral authority. The other school in opposition advanced the principle called
ultra-montanism, which maintained that the Pope was above the authority of the
"During the 17th Century ultra-montanism found its
principle resistance in the Church of France, and its principle support among the Jesuits.
The Faculty of the Sorbonne proved to be a great bulwark against ultra-montane theories
and championed scholars maintaining the French cause.
"The entire body of French clergy drew up a declaration in 1682
A.D. in order to protect the canonical rights of the French Church against the
encroachments of the Ultra-montanists. In writing this declaration of 1682, the French
clergy were mindful of the primitive teaching of the Catholic Church, restated by the
Council of Constance (1414-1418), which decreed, it had its authority immediately
from Christ, and everyone, whatever his rank or position, even if it be the Pope himself,
is bound to obey it in all things which pertain to the Faith, to the healing of schism,
and to the general renewal of the Church. This document, a contemporary
historian says, is an important document in the history of Old Catholicism.
Its contents may be summarized as follows: (1) The Pope could not release subjects from
obedience to temporal power. The authority received by the Church from God is spiritual,
not temporal (i.e., My Kingdom is not of this world.). (2) The Decrees of the
Council of Constance remain in full force in the Church. The Papal authority in no way
affects the perpetual and immovable strength of the Decrees of the Council. (3) The
independence of the French Church must be maintained (the authority of the Apostles must
be exercised in accordance with the mind of the whole Church). (4) The decisions of the
Pope are not infallible -- his judgment is not irreversible until confirmed by the
consent of the whole Church (Jervis, Hist. Ch. France ii.p. 50). The Declaration,
signed by 34 Archbishops and Bishops and formulated under the guidance of Bossuet, Bishop
of Meaux, reaffirmed the position which had at all times been dear to the French Church.
This document became a norm for the conduct of relations between the National churches of
Northern Europe and the Roman Curia.
"Italian Ultra-montane writers attacked the French clergy. In
response, Bishop Bossuet wrote a Defense of the Declaration which so
powerfully influenced belief in the principles held by the French Church that his learned
opponent, Cardinal Orsi, advised the Roman Theologians to abandon ultra-montanism as a
hopeless cause. However, the most powerful factor in preserving the
Old Catholic tradition in France was the support of such scholars as Arnauld,
Pascal, Cyran, Tillimont and others. They carried the standards of Port Royal, the envy
even today of scholars, theologians, educators, and churchmen.
"Francois Mauriac, whose judgment of Port Royal is obviously
biased by personal predilections, nevertheless admits, in his recent book on Port Royal's
most celebrated son, that after three centuries Blaise Pascal is still alive. His
slightest thought troubles or charms or irritates, but he is understood instantly. Pascal
is the brother of all sinners, of all converts, of all wounded men whose wounds may reopen
at any instant, of all whom Christ has pursued from afar, and who trust only in His
"Port Royal in France was not only the vessel containing the
mental and spiritual giants of its day, but it proved a major influence in preserving for
our time the Tradition of the Church that her children believe and that the Saints knew,
loved, lived, and died for.
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The Heritage of Port