Louis XIV was much occupied with religion and religious questions. His reign is generally considered as divided into two periods: (1) that of libertinage, during which his heart was ruled by Mlle de la Vallière, Madame de Montespan, and other favourites; (2) that of devotion, coinciding with the influence of Madame de Maintenon, the widow of Scarron, who, when Marie Therese died (31 July, 1683), secretly married the king, and who, for a quarter of a century, assisted him in ruling the kingdom. The second of these two periods was also that of the influence of Père Le Tellier (q.v.). This division is natural and accounts for certain developments of religious policy; but it must not be exaggerated. Even during his period of libertinage, Louis XIV took a passionate interest in religious questions; and during his devout period, he never altogether abandoned those Gallican principles which incessantly exposed him to conflicts with Rome. Certain pamphlets, published in the days of the Fronde, opposed to the doctrines of royal absolutism the old theological doctrine of the origin and the responsibilities of power. "Le Théologien Politique" declares that obedience is due only to those kings who demand what is just and reasonable; the treatise "Chrétien et Politique" asserts that kings do not make peoples, but that peoples have made kings. But the doctrine of the Divine right of kings succeeded in establishing itself upon the ruins of the Fronde; according to that doctrine Louis XIV had to reckon only with God, and the same doctrine served as one of the supports of the dictatorship which he pretended to exercise over the Church of France.
In the "Mémoires" of Louis XIV a whole theory of the relations between Church and State is expounded. He sets forth that the king is the proprietor of the Church's wealth, in virtue of the maxim that there is no other proprietor in the kingdom but the king. He holds that all the faithful, "whether lay or tonsured," are the sovereign's subjects; that the clergy are bound to bear their part pecuniarily in the public burdens, and that they "should not excuse themselves from that obligation by alleging that their possessions are for a particular purpose, or that the employment of those possessions must be regulated by the intention of the donors." The assemblies of the clergy, which discuss the amounts to be contributed by the clergy, are, in the eyes of Louis XIV, only tolerated; he considers that, as sovereign, he would be within his rights in laying imposts upon the clergy, and that "the popes who have wished to contest that right of royalty have made it clearer and more incontestable by the distinct withdrawal of their ambitious pretensions which they have been obliged to make;" he declares it to be inadmissible that ecclesiastics, "exempt from the dangers of war and the burden of families," should not contribute to the necessities of the State. The Minims of Provence had dedicated to Louis XIV a thesis in which they compared him to God; Bossuet declared that the king could not tolerate any such doctrine, and the Sorbonne condemned it. But at Court the person of the king was the object of a sort of religious worship, in which certain courtier bishops too easily acquiesced, and the consequence of which became perceptible in the relations between the Church and the State.
From these principles resulted his attitude towards the assemblies of the clergy. He shortened the duration of their sessions and caused them to be watched by his ministers, while Colbert, who detested the financial autonomy enjoyed by the clergy, went so far as to say that it would be well "to put a stop to these assemblies which the wisest politicians have always considered diseases of the body politic." From these principles, too, arose the fear of everything by which churchmen could acquire political influence. Unlike his predecessors, Louis XIV employed few prelates in the service of the State.
The Concordat of Francis I placed a large number of benefices at the disposal of Louis XIV; he felt that the appointment of bishops was the most critical part of his kingly duty, and the bishops whom he appointed were, in general, very well chosen. He erred, however, in the readiness with which he dispensed them from residence in their dioceses, while, as to abbacies, he too often availed himself of them to reward services rendered by laymen, and gave them as means of support to impoverished nobles. To the Comte du Vexin, his son by Madame de Montespan, he gave the two great Abbacies of Saint-Denis and Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Louis XIV was particularly fond of taking a hand in doctrinal matters; and those who surrounded him ended by believing that the king could supervise the Church and supply it with information on religious questions. Daguesseau, on 14 August, 1699, went so far as to proclaim that the King of France ought to be both king and priest. Thus it was that, for example, in the midst of the war of the League of Augsburg, Louis was careful to have a report prepared for him on a catechism which was suspected of Jansenism; and so, again, in 1715, he caused a lieutenant of police to be reprimanded for neglecting to report three preachers of Paris who were in the habit of speaking of grace in a Jansenistic manner.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IX