Catholicism, Political

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the politicization of catholicism: 1789–1815
the mobilization of the laity: 1815–1870
the anticlerical challenge: 1870–1914

Political Catholicism evolved hesitantly in the aftermath of the French Revolution, establishing a presence in the 1830s and 1840s and finally becoming a prominent feature in the life of several nations, most notably Germany, France, and Belgium, by the close of the century. Never a single movement, it comprised several different initiatives, as Catholics debated how best to promote their interests. Their concerns seemed threatened in the post-1789 world when states, whatever their religious background, were less indulgent toward organized religion. Social and economic problems associated with the Industrial Revolution also demanded a reply if secularization was not to overtake the popular classes. These trends prompted Catholics, particularly members of the lower clergy and laity, to experiment with modern forms of popular representation, for instance political parties, trade unions, youth movements, study circles, journals, and newspapers. It also entailed Catholics embracing a multitude of issues, not just religious matters, that straddled the political divide.

the politicization of catholicism: 1789–1815

Under the old regime, the church routinely involved itself in political matters but felt no necessity to organize itself in a political manner. The French church was alone in having a single representative body, the Assembly of the Clergy, and even that did not speak for Catholics in the peripheral provinces of the kingdom. This lack of organization was largely because, in Catholic Europe, church and state enjoyed a mutually supportive relationship. Admittedly this was under strain. Driven by Enlightenment principles and a need to raise revenue, even the most pious governments interfered more and more in the internal affairs of the church. For the moment, however, it was left to high-ranking ecclesiastics to parry these demands. Even Catholics laboring under Protestant rule, for instance the Catholic majority in Ireland, were slow to mobilize politically, partly because discrimination was unevenly enforced and partly because they feared placing themselves outside the body politic. It is frequently said that accommodation, not opposition, was their aim.

It was the French Revolution of 1789 that forced Catholics into the political domain. This tumultuous event articulated notions of social organization and citizenship that ended the privileged position that the church had hitherto enjoyed. The revolutionaries' initial design, embraced in the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790), was to turn the church into a department of state, concerned above all with the promotion of social good rather than with popular piety. The French clergy was not altogether hostile to this ideal but was alienated by two things: first, by the introduction of clerical election, which implied that a secular rather than a divine authority was the source of their power; and second, by the leftward drift of the Revolution. Under the Terror (1793–1794), the revolutionaries supplanted Catholicism with new cults of reason and the Supreme Being, accompanied by a violent dechristianizing campaign. Though dechristianization and the revolutionary cults were not enthusiastically exported abroad, French conquests in the 1790s meant that most Catholics in conquered lands lost any residual sympathy they might have had with the Revolution and came to see hereditary monarchy as the best guarantee of stability. This ensured that political Catholicism, at this stage, was associated with an early-nineteenth-century conservatism, expressed most eloquently by such writers as François René Chateaubriand, Louis de Bonald, and Joseph de Maistre. Together, they rejected the rationalism of the eighteenth century in favor of a romanticized, corporatist, and hierarchical world that would restore the pre-1789 standing of the church.

the mobilization of the laity: 1815–1870

That recovery, at least in France, was assisted by Napoleon (r. 1804–1814/15) who, in 1801, inaugurated a concordat regularizing church-state relations. Though the government firmly held the upper hand, in the Restoration period (1814–1830) the papacy saw concordats as the best means of protecting clerical interests. Not only did these arrangements facilitate secular support in the rebuilding of the faith, guaranteeing income, and ensuring clerical freedoms, they also acknowledged the supranational authority of the papacy, whose temporal power had nearly been extinguished by Napoleon. Concordats were also a valuable means of halting the growing independence of the laity. In the face of revolutionary persecution, many Catholics, especially women, had continued to practice their religion but often in secret and not always with a priest present.

A flurry of concordats were signed after 1815, but not all Catholics were pleased. A small group of intellectuals welcomed the ways in which the Revolution had both intentionally and unintentionally empowered the laity who, it was argued, had much to offer church and society. One such was the French priest Félicité de Lamennais. An early supporter of papal infallibility, he reconsidered his position after the 1830 revolutions in Belgium and Poland where Catholic majorities had been badly treated by non-Catholic rulers. Whether a state was Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, in his mind it was vital to separate throne and altar so as to allow Catholicism to breathe. "A free church in a free state" pronounced his newspaper, L'Avenir, founded in 1830. Similar views were expressed by Charles de Montalembert, a French nobleman, and Henri Lacordaire, a Dominican priest, who were insistent that the laity should be more active in the day-to-day activities of the church, championing Catholic freedoms through petitions, newspapers, and elections. Additionally, they espoused a social Catholicism, which echoed that being formulated by such paternalist thinkers as the Count de La Tour du Pin and Frédéric Le Play, who were alarmed at how industrialization was undermining religious observance among the working classes. Thereafter, political Catholicism was frequently interlarded with social Catholicism, making it difficult to tell them apart.

It was too much for the French episcopacy, as well as for Gregory XVI, who, in the encyclicals Mirari Vos (1832) and Singulari Nos (1834), condemned Lamennais' position. This injunction could not halt growing lay participation in politics. In the early 1840s, Catholics organized fledgling political parties in Belgium, Holland, and Prussia, and drew sustenance from the Catholic Association of Daniel O'Connor that, a decade earlier, had mobilized Catholic interests in Ireland. Paradoxically, liberal Catholicism was also given hope by the election in 1846 of Pius IX, a theological conservative mistakenly labeled "the liberal pope" because of his open manner, willingness to entertain radical thinkers, and dislike of Austrian rule in Italy.

Just as the 1848 revolutions revealed the strengths and weaknesses of liberalism and nationalism, so too did the disturbances unveil the contradictions within political Catholicism. Much to the dismay of Italian nationalists, Pius IX proved himself an arch conservative. Within France, Catholics such as Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam, Henri Lacordaire, and Lamennais put themselves up for election, but were alienated by the violence and social egalitarianism that accompanied the Revolution. Most Catholics sided with the reactionary Louis Veuillot, who welcomed Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte as a bulwark against a socialist republic. It was in the German lands that political Catholics were most sympathetic to revolution, believing this might offer the chance to slough off both Habsburg and Hohenzollern interference, and open the way to a united Reichskirche (state church) such as had existed under the Holy Roman Empire. To promote these ends, many Catholic associations and newspapers were established, but they proved a transitory phenomenon, as the old order was restored and a new conservative climate overcame Europe.

Part of that climate was shaped by a growing ultramontanism that asserted the primacy of the pope in a wide range of matters, not just theology. This was underpinned by a series of papal pronouncements, notably the Syllabus of Errors of 1864 that denounced liberalism and "recent civilization," specifically a reference to the unification process in Italy, and the proclamation of papal infallibility that accompanied the First Vatican Council in 1870. Few of the subtleties of Rome's position were understood at the time, and it seemed that Pius IX had placed the church firmly in the camp of reaction, much to the dismay of liberal Catholics who had assembled for an international conference at Mechelen (Belgium) in 1863.

the anticlerical challenge: 1870–1914

While ultramontanes seemed all powerful, in the final third of the nineteenth century it was clear that the church needed to engineer a more supple engagement with the secular world if it was to protect its interests. In the newly united states of Italy and Germany, in the newly created French Third Republic, in neighboring Belgium, and even momentarily in Spain and Portugal, Catholicism came under assault. In each of these states, middle-class liberals and radicals were generally in charge. Driven by positivist, materialist, and scientific ideals, these secular men were set on the promotion of nationhood, citizenship, and social harmony, ideals that would additionally fend off the challenge of socialism, something that also alarmed Catholics of all persuasions.

In the face of this hostility, Catholics fought in the political domain. This process was most marked in Bismarck's Germany, where the laity possessed a tradition of organization dating back to the Katholikentage (Catholic congresses) that had met since 1848. It was here, too, that state persecution, known as the Kulturkampf (culture struggle), was fiercest. Polish Catholics, whose loyalty was disputed, were openly persecuted and the place of religion within public life was steadily eroded. The Catholic response was spearheaded by a variety of agencies: the clergy who adopted a position of passive defiance; a large Catholic press represented by such titles as the Kölnische Volkszeitung; and the Zentrum (Center Party), created in 1870 by Ludwig Windthorst. The latter became a skillful player in the coalition politics of the Reichstag and won particular support among the industrial classes, though by 1914 the party had lost ground to the Socialists. By this time, the Zentrum had also become part of the establishment, keen to boast its patriotism and resist the "red menace." Left-leaning Catholics found a more welcoming home in the trade union organization Christliche Gewerkvereine Deutschlands, founded in 1899, whose membership in 1910 approached two hundred thousand.

Within Belgium, too, a tradition of organization helped withstand the anticlerical assault of the 1870s. In the period from 1884 to 1914, the Catholic Party, founded in the 1840s, secured a preponderance of seats, thanks to its ability to harness both middle and working-class support. In France, despite the heritage of Lamennais and the intensity of the anticlerical struggle of the 1880s, Catholics were slower to react. Only a minority, significantly the exmonarchists Albert de Mun and Jacques Piou, understood that the Third Republic had to be accommodated. This, too, was the position of Leo XIII, author of Rerum Novarum (1891), the encyclical defining social Catholicism. In the 1890s he urged a ralliement (reconciliation) between church and state. Emboldened by this support, in 1901 Piou established the Action Libérale Populaire, an embryonic Catholic party, but one that never broke out of the Catholic heartlands, despite a fresh round of anticlerical legislation resulting in the separation of church and state in 1905. Still, France could boast several popular movements addressing the "social question," most famously the Semaines Sociales and the Union Fraternelle du Commerce et de l'Industrie. While popular among workers, these movements were divided internally as to whether they should adopt a paternalistic approach to the social question or whether they should allow genuine worker participation. Favoring the latter course was Marc Sangnier's Sillon, which was banned by the papacy in 1910 as it came close to wholeheartedly embracing liberal values, a step too far for many Catholics in France and elsewhere. Two years later, Sangnier created a political party, Jeune République, though historians suggest it was perhaps the Rennes daily paper Ouest-Eclair, founded in 1899, that did most to promote Christian democracy.

Elsewhere, political Catholicism made less headway either because clerical interests were best represented by existing, nonconfessional parties (Austria), or because state hostility was short-lived (Spain and Portugal). Everywhere, initiatives depended on the support of local hierarchies. When that was not forthcoming, as in the Netherlands, political Catholicism was constrained. In Italy, especially, the pope forbade Catholics from partaking in the liberal state and, in 1904, disbanded the Opera dei Congressi (Catholic lay social and charitable organizations) influenced by Rerum Novarum, reconstituting them into the broader Catholic Action movement. Only with the electoral growth of the Socialists did the papacy lift restrictions on political engagement, although a Catholic party, the Partito Populare Italiano, was not founded until 1919. Tellingly, Rome did not discourage members of the faithful from involving themselves in those far right political organizations springing up at the turn of the century, such as the Italian Nationalist Association and the Action Française of Charles Maurras. Intensely nationalistic and openly racist, these bodies valued religion primarily as a social cement and had particular allure for Catholics struggling to come to terms with a modern world. It is no wonder that such Catholics would later rally to authoritarian and fascist regimes. Only after 1945 did Christian democracy become the dominant force within political Catholicism.

During the nineteenth century, political Catholicism had been shaped primarily by the challenges confronting the church: the French Revolution; social and economic change; and growing state indifference and hostility toward organized religion. The answers to these challenges were inevitably diverse: the conservatism of de Maistre, the social paternalism of La Tour du Pin, the embryonic Christian democracy of Lamennais and Lacordaire, and the integralism of Charles Maurras. What politically active Catholics, both lay and clerical, had in common was a willingness to mobilize, albeit through many agencies. This troubled the papacy, which was eager to maintain clerical discipline. Before 1914, with the assistance of national episcopacies, that discipline was mostly upheld; in the twentieth century it proved difficult to preserve, creating tensions between Rome and the remainder of the church, not just in Europe, but in North America and the developing world.

See alsoCatholicism; Center Party; French Revolution; Kulturkampf; Lueger, Karl; Secularization; Socialism, Christian; Windthorst, Ludwig.


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Nicholas Atkin

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