The French constitutional reformers of 1789 had no intention of assailing the Church. As late as June 1793, in the midst of the terror, government still paid the clergy in office, that is such clergy as accepted its policy and laws, and that same month the feast of Corpus Christi was celebrated with public processions at which passers-by knelt in the streets.
Yet the overthrow of the Church in the French Revolution was one of the momentous events of modern history. Its land and buildings were taken by the State, constitution knocked about, monasteries made illegal, many priests expelled, no small number guillotined. The astonishing fate which befell the rich, powerful, and prosperous Church of Louis XIV had consequences which still work within Christendom. France contained more Catholics than any other state. It housed the headquarters of historic religious orders, Cluny, Cîteaux, Premontré, the Grande Chartreuse, La Trappe. Its theologians and Church historians were respected throughout Europe and America.
In the quest for a new French constitution many clergy voted for the abolition of feudal privileges and of tithes. Nearly bankrupt France could hardly save itself without taking the lands of the Church. To the proposal that the State should take the endowments, pay the clergy, maintain church buildings, and use the remainder for the good of the nation, many clergy were reluctant to consent. That they should become employees or stipendiaries of the State denied axioms, centuries old, about the constitution of the Church and the freedom of its officers. The Assembly carried the law of nationalization (2 November 1789) because it feared bankruptcy. It inserted one undertaking to pay parish priests a minimum wage (1,200 livres) substantially higher than many then received, and another undertaking to administer the relief of the poor.
This act was not anti-Christian. It was like the act of the kingdom of Naples, six years before, which took with the Pope's leave church endowments of southern Italy in face of a people's desperate plight after the earthquake.