So, by the time of the Revolution, we see a French Church:
1) Divided emotionally from the mainstream West by an firm and principled independence—Gallicanism.
2) Weakened by the abuse of the Church's resources, material and spiritual, to benefit the crown and state.
3) Weakened by the Wars of Religion, and the legacy of blood and bitterness.
4) Despised by the intellectual classes of the 'Enlightenment' who find different ways to express religion: Deism, a sort of Roman Revival Classicism, Agnosticism or even Atheism. This group felt themselves profoundly to hold the moral high ground.
5) Internally divided between Jansenism and orthodox Catholicism.
6) And yet still capable of producing saints.
This is what I call the French paradox; that you can have a situation that is from one perspective disastrous, and yet from another perspective, vibrantly alive and functioning. It is as true today as it was then, and I will be returning to this. I think that perhaps it has something to do with the French character, which, simply, is never lukewarm, but is always passionate and tending to the extreme. Rabbi Lionel Blue once described his mother (or perhaps his grandmother) as being the kind of woman who never had a headache; it was always a brain tumour. I don't think the lady was French, but the French, like her, tend to adopt radical positions and defend them passionately.
We see this most clearly in the spirituality of that pre-revolutionary age. On good Gallican principles, France had never implemented the decrees of the Council of Trent, or at least only did so very slowly. But that didn't mean to say that the spirit of reform had passed France by; it just wanted to implement reform in its own way. Dioceses retained their old mediæval rites, but instead of Romanizing them, they further distanced themselves from the mainstream. Inspired by Jansenism, they, for instance, removed from liturgical texts anything that was not strictly scriptural, and warmly approved the findings of the (Pseudo-) Synod of Pistoia, which advocated an awful lot of things that we would be familiar with today.
If you want to know more about Jansenism, Fr Anthony Chadwick has a very good trot-through the subject here.
French spirituality was very popular even outside France until quite recently. Mgr Ronald Knox famously remarked that he needed to read spiritual books in French; no other language would quite do. Sometimes its severity and austerity were characterized as Jansenist, but really I am not sure that all schools of French spirituality didn't have that mark.
As in all other things, the French wanted to do spirituality their own way. International religious orders, like the Jesuits, were not popular in France, and even the (itself very independent) Oratory would be transformed to French taste. The founder of the French Oratory, Cardinal de Bèrulle, approached St Francis de Sales and begged him to lead the new Congregation. St Francis refused, though he professed admiration from afar. One can scarcely think of a wider gulf between his spirituality and that of the French Oratory! One of its greatest luminaries, Père de Condren was described by St Jane Francis de Chantal as having a spirituality more suited for angels than human beings.
Seminaries were finally beginning to be founded at this time (priests were still being formed according to the pre-tridentine model), and the movement for seminary formation took on a huge momentum. Two whole religious congregations were founded to do this job (itself a strange concept of the time, that Religious should form secular priests), both influenced by the French Oratory, one by St Vincent de Paul, and the other by Père Olier, the Sulpicians.
Olier was a hugely apostolic and holy man whose foundation and inspiration provided generations of good and even saintly secular priests in France and Canada. I myself was formed in the only English seminary founded according to Sulpician principles. But the principle was a very strict one indeed. Again, we experience that French extremity.
Corporal mortification, for instance, has always been considered a healthy remedy for sin. But in French spirituality it became almost a good in itself. One would withdraw from every pleasure and comfort, deny all joy unless it be in God alone. Olier taught a strict custody of the eyes, and one day taking seminarians to Chartres on pilgrimage, one lad dared to lift his eyes to the great windows there and involuntarily gasped, expecting a harsh rebuke. But for once Olier said that it was all right to have a quick goggle, as Chartres was built to the glory of God.
This seems to me somewhat inhumane, and very alien to the Irish school in which I was brought up. That one might not look at a tree or a sunset lest it give one pleasure, it seems to me, is contrary to the evidence of God's goodness in his creation. It reflects a real pessimism about creation, that it is somehow totally depraved and incapable of leading us to God. Trent taught that nature (including human nature) was 'in deterius commutatur', changed for the worse, but its inherent goodness was not wiped out.
For the same reasons, extreme forms of mortification were encouraged and admired. This has often been called 'Jansenist', and I'm sure that the Jansenists were very enthusiastic about it, but I think that it also had widespread currency among those who would not call themselves Jansenists. Fr Chadwick in the article linked to above mentions that Jansenism is alive and well in the Society of St Pius X. I wonder, really, if it is really classical Jansenism, or whether it is simply this traditional French extreme approach to spirituality?
A friend, who was for a time a seminarian in the Society, was taken with his year group from Ecône to visit the new preparatory seminary at Flavigny, sited in a former religious house. There they inspected the cemetery and found many graves of men in their late teens and early twenties, worn out, it was explained, by the extremity of their mortifications.* The Rector smacked his lips with satisfaction: 'c'est bon, ça!' he said, 'c'est Catholique!'
* More likely tuberculosis, which was rife in such institutions.