Skip to main content
Select Source:

Anticlericalism

ANTICLERICALISM

ANTICLERICALISM. The idea of "anticlericalism" as such does not belong to early modern Europe. The word describes a range of attitudes and behaviors toward clergy, ranging from mild criticism to loud protest and violence. Anticlericalism was in evidence both in the Middle Ages and the early modern era; it was expressed by laity and clergy alike, whether Catholic or Protestant; and it arose in response to actions, policies, and attitudes perceived as contrary to the ideals and duties of the clerical profession. By the eighteenth century, in France especially, anticlericalism developed into a hostile, self-conscious reaction against the Catholic Church, culminating in the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790), which subordinated the church to the French state. In the nineteenth century anticlericalism led liberal movements to abolish the church as a state institution.

Anticlerical criticisms in early modern Europe arose from various sources, including the clergy's insistence on its social superiority, privileges, prerogatives, tax exemptions, immunities from civil jurisdiction, and the payment of tithes and contributions. Other causes included resentment of the demand for blind acceptance of clerical direction and of measures to enforce orthodoxy or punish social, political, and sexual behavior seen as objectionable. Still other causes were clerics' intellectual arrogance, the punitive withholding of the sacraments, widespread clerical ignorance, theological rigidity, or lay hostility toward the papacy. In some cases, anticlericalism arose in response to outright ecclesiastical abuses such as simony, plurality of benefices, absenteeism, concubinage, nepotism, and scandalous or extravagant behavior.

Anticlericalism was not restricted to laypeople, as the clergy themselves often vented anticlerical sentiments toward fellow clergy whom they perceived as acting contrary to their calling. Such forms of anticlericalism ran the gamut from explicit, public denunciations to indirectly censorious and benignly tacit comments. Examples of the latter tactic are St. Francis of Assisi's (11821226) admonition to his friars that they not judge others for their luxurious raiment or choice foods and drink, but instead judge themselves (The Later Rule, ch. 2), or Ignatius of Loyola's (14911556) "Rules for Thinking with the Church," which urged his fellow Jesuits to be more ready to approve and praise the commands, recommendations, and behavior of their superiors than to criticize them.

In the early modern era, as in every other, Scripture proposed a standard of clerical comportment and at the same time drew attention to clerical shortcomings. In the gospel of Matthew, for instance, Jesus stated, "You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold or silver, or copper in your belts . . ." (Matt. 10:89). Many other biblical passages, especially in Luke's Gospel, suggested that Jesus lived poorly and eschewed the haughty attitudes of priestly superiority in his judgments against the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem; these passages were used to reproach ostentatious and inappropriate clerical behavior and displays of pomp, wealth, or exclusivity.

The various medieval antecedents of early modern anticlericalism have roots in the early church, as do ecclesiastical efforts to reform clergy to thwart criticisms and hostilities. Some bishops set forth norms of clerical behavior that were cited throughout the early modern era. The motto of Pope Gregory I (reigned 590604), "the servant of the servants of God," expressed the attitude that the highest ecclesiastical dignity should be understood as an obligation to serve. Gregory's Regulae pastoralis liber (c. 591; Pastoral care) required that clergy value service, humility, and poverty and be single-minded about the things of God. Despite efforts to maintain these ideals, anticlerical attitudes escalated in the High Middle Ages, coinciding with the commercial revolution in Europe and the Crusades. Much anticlericalism was directed at the church's rapaciousness. The Franciscan movement spawned numerous offshoots that made poverty the foundation of Christian life. After the Black Death (13481350), deepening hostilities to clerical life and practices arose, which continued unabated into the Reformation era. The fourteenth-century humanist Petrarch (13041374) used biblical texts and imagery to lament clerical abuses of wealth and power at papal Avignon. In England the Lollards, followers of John Wycliffe (c. 13301384), were fiercely hostile to the institutional church and anticipated the Reformation in their demands.

On the eve of the Reformation, anticlerical sentiments were endemic throughout Europe, mostly from clergymen themselves. François Rabelais's Pantagruel (1532) and Gargantua and Pantagruel (15321564) and many works of Desiderius Erasmus (14661536), including Colloquies, Handbook of the Militant Christian, In Praise of Folly, and Julius Exclusus, are perhaps the best-known anti-clerical works. Ulrich von Hutten (14881523), Martin Luther (14831546), and many other Protestants wrote devastating attacks on the papacy and the Catholic Church, while numerous sympathizers chimed in with books, pamphlets, woodcuts, and poetry castigating the clergy for their ignorance, ineptitude, wealth, dereliction of duty, and dissolute behavior. The Protestant Reformation's criticisms against the clergy were further fueled by Luther's reframing of the very idea of a "clergy" in An Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520), which denied to the clergy their special "indelible character" or status. Luther and other Reformers' writings were enormously assisted by the printing industry, which made anticlerical writings and woodcuts widely available throughout Germany.

Ironically, much of the Reformers' criticism fell in line with criticisms voiced by high-ranking clergy and religious who sincerely wished to reform the behavior of fellow clergy. Such criticisms often led to church synods and councils where corrective action was taken, as at the Council of Trent (15451563), which looked into the reformation of doctrine and discipline. In the post-Reformation era, Roman Catholic authorities, aware of the damage incurred through public criticism of the church, intervened to quash it. Ignatius of Loyola's "Rules for Thinking with the Church" reflect these efforts, as do the establishment of the Roman Inquisition (1542) and the Index of Prohibited Books (1559).

Nonetheless, anticlericalism persisted unabated into the Enlightenment. This was especially the case among the educated elites in France, with the relaxation of censorship following the death of Louis XIV (ruled 16431715). Criticism of the church increasingly hardened into a secular stance among the philosophes, who polemicized against the dominance of the church in every area of life. Chief among these antagonists were Denis Diderot (17131784), Voltaire (François Marie Arouet; 16941778), and Jean Jacques Rousseau (17121778).

See also Diderot, Denis ; Enlightenment ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Ignatius of Loyola ; Luther, Martin ; Rabelais, François ; Reformation, Catholic ; Reformation, Protestant ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Trent, Council of ; Voltaire.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cohn, Henry J. "Anticlericalism in the German Peasants' War 1525." Past and Present 83 (1979): 331.

Dykema, Peter A., and Heiko A. Oberman, eds. Anticlericalism in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Leiden, Netherlands, and New York, 1993.

Haigh, Christopher. "Anti-Clericalism and the English Reformation." History 68 (1973): 391407.

Mellor, Alec. Histoire de l'anticléricalism français. Rev. ed. Paris, 1978.

Frederick J. McGinness

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Anticlericalism." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Anticlericalism." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/anticlericalism-0

"Anticlericalism." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/anticlericalism-0

anticlericalism

anticlericalism, hostility towards the church, occurs in every age, despite the existence of individual sanctity and devotion. One driving force behind the Cathar movement was abhorrence of ecclesiastical corruption and wealth. Later in England Wyclif criticized bishops as ‘dumb fools in the realm of hell’ and ‘devil's proctors for dispersing the flock of Christ’. Chaucer drew attention to clerical avarice and worldliness. In 1376 the Commons, in presenting a petition ‘against the Pope and the cardinals’, said that clergy and chivalry had given place to simony and greed; the pope in Avignon did not feed his flock but sheared it. The statutes of Provisors (1351) and Praemunire (1353) reflected not just the king's desire to protect his own authority, but also popular hostility towards clerical influence. This was also one of the driving forces of the 16th-cent. Reformation. Though ironically in England the years 1480 to 1530 were a great age of church building and piety, anticlericalism, strongly fuelled by lollardy and Lutheranism, was intense in the 1520s, for the church owned one-fifth of the wealth of England and its revenue was three times that of the crown. Besides ‘the pomp and splendour’ of worldly prelates, such as Wolsey, and criticism of ecclesiastical courts, pluralities, and tithes, articulated by increasingly well-educated lay contemporaries, many felt that this wealth could be better managed for educational and social needs. Even after the Reformation extreme sectarians despised Anglican clergy as ‘magicians, sorcerers, enchanters …’. The clergy's time-serving attitude in 1689 lost them further respect, for 95 per cent retained their benefices by readily transferring their allegiance from James II to William III. The removal of press censorship (1695) let loose a torrent of abuse which in Atterbury's words encouraged ‘a settled contempt of religion and the priesthood’. Clerical internecine strife and electoral machination under Anne caused another tidal wave of Whig anticlerical legislation in the 1730s. Later in 18th- and 19th-cent. England anticlericalism rumbled on, though never with the political or religious intensity of catholic Europe; Anglican prelates were seen to add ‘plural livings almost as monopoly players acquire first houses, then hotels, in desirable sites’. A strong anticlerical strain in chartism designated the clergy as ‘the Church of a Selfish Aristocracy’ (1841). More dedicated clerical attitudes engendered by both evangelical and tractarian movements did much to dissipate this age-old antipathy.

Revd Dr William M. Marshall

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"anticlericalism." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"anticlericalism." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/anticlericalism

"anticlericalism." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/anticlericalism

Anticlericalism

Anticlericalism. Hostility (expressed usually by laypeople) against the privileges enjoyed by the Christian clergy, and a criticism of their failure to maintain the undertakings of their calling, to look after those committed to their care and to preach and teach the Christian gospel. In the American Constitution (and subsequent amendments), Church and State were rigorously separated, with anticlericalism playing a part. The attacks made by Pope John Paul II on the Enlightenment as the source of ‘the culture of death’ (which now, in his view, is dominant), combined with issues of celibacy and child abuse among the clergy, have led to a resurgence of anticlericalism, as clergy become identified with an authoritarian Church not open to criticism.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Anticlericalism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Anticlericalism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/anticlericalism

"Anticlericalism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/anticlericalism