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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.


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


views updated May 23 2018


This is a term whose prefix and suffix render it equivocal. "Anti" indicates that the word is the contrary of clericalism. Clericalism, however, has two principal meanings very different from one another; sometimes it is considered as an abuse and is reproved by the ecclesiastical magisterium; at other times it is identified with the Church itself. "Ism," the suffix, intimates that the term deals with a doctrine. But the best-known type of anti-clericalism, that which is opposed to the Church and generally to other religions, is much less a doctrine than a practical attitude, whose aims and themes vary according to circumstances. To avoid confusion it is preferable to distinguish two kinds of anticlericalism. The first is that of Catholics, anxious to maintain the dignity of the clergy and the abstention of the Church from state affairs. The second is that of adversaries of religion, which is sometimes so ardent that it resembles a religious faith that revolves around belief in humanity, in reason, and in liberty.

Catholic Anticlericalism. An anticlericalism that seeks to remain Catholic obviously cannot be destructive of the Church's hierarchical order. Theories claiming to suppress differences between clerics and laymen pertain, properly speaking, to laicism. Catholic anticlericalism presents itself under a double guise in two epochs far distant from one another.

Medieval. During the Middle Ages secular and regular clergy were very numerous in western Europe, but their quality was much inferior to their quantity. Clerics were recruited from all classes of society and mixed intimately with all classes. When clerics deviated from their obligations, their ecclesiastical confreres, and laymen too, constituted themselves censors and thereby practiced a kind of fraternal correction. Not all of them were as severe in criticism as St. Bernard; many preferred a comic tone: Castigat ridendo mores. Pleasantries against lazy, greedy, ribald monks developed into almost a literary genre, in which the Latin language in particular ventured to defy what is nowadays regarded as propriety. erasmus in his Praise of Folly and rabelais in Gargantua and Pantagruel prolonged a medieval tradition into the Renaissance with a sense of opportuneness that was, to say the least, questionable. Critics who practiced this rather smirking type of anticlericalism did not do so without peril, even in the Middle Ages. No doubt they acted from a praiseworthy desire to possess a clergy worthy of its vocation and of its ministry; but they risked scandalizing the weak, who inclined to form generalizations as hasty as they were unjust.

20th Century. Catholics before the Second Vatican Council ran the same risk by openly calling themselves anticlerical. They often preferred to take this stance in another fashion, by posing as adversaries of a certain type of clericalism and by repeating with Cardinal Saliège that "the Church is not clerical." They mistrusted the distinction between a country that is supposedly unanimous in its Catholic belief and a religiously divided (pluralistic) country in which the State must allow each citizen to practice his religion freely. These Catholics were aware of the unwarranted conclusion drawn from this distinction, namely, that wherever Catholics were in the majority their consciences obliged them to oppress those who disagree with them, but wherever Catholics were relatively few and powerless to impose their doctrines, only there did they consent to religious liberty. These anticlerical Catholics asked themselves if unanimity of belief was not a figment of the imagination, and if any Catholic country existed without free thinkers. It is not by religious indifference, they said, but by respect for persons and for the complete liberty of the act of faith (1917 CIC c.1351) that the Church must preserve itself from becoming servile to the State, which will be more tempted to promote its own interests than to serve the Church. Fear of clericalism did not lead necessarily to a regime of separation of Church from State; it was compatible with a concordat such as that of Portugal (see Maritain, 140149).

Antireligious Anticlericalism. This type of anti-clericalism, as the words indicate clearly, is aggressive. It is not to be confused with simple irreligion, which skeptics, atheists, and merely tolerant persons can profess. Antireligious anticlericalism regards religion as an error and an evil, something that must be extirpated. Nothing prevents it from sparing the faithful in order to strike harder at the clergy who guide them, or from flattering the secular clergy by picturing the regular clergy as competitors who are harmful to the influence and wellbeing of the seculars. This kind of anticlericalism gives little heed to religions with few adherents and directs its blows at the strongest, particularly at the Catholic Church in countries where the majority is Catholic. It has preceded, prepared, and accompanied laicism. Since the 19th-century anticlericals of this type have venerated as their ancestors the rationalists of the 16th century, the libertines of the 17th, and especially the philosophers of the Enlightenment of the 18th, whose actions and writings continue to inspire them. Although the term "anticlericalism" was not part of the 18th-century vocabulary, it was then that the phenomenon took shape.

18th Century. The 16th and 17th centuries supplied the themes destined to undermine religion, but it was the 18th century that discovered the art of popularizing them and placing them within reach of wide circles of readers, even those deprived of philosophical formation. The 18th century began by using irony to sow doubts; it imagined Chinese, Persians, Congolese, Hurons, and other "good savages" who came to Europe, only to meet there Christians who massacred in the name of religion, while recommending to others charity and pardon for injuries. Another tactic was to mock at mysteries as offensive to reason and at biblical accounts as contrary to scientific discoveries. Still another strategy was to interpret current events in a manner injurious to religion. Thus divine providence was denied because Lisbon, with all its churches and convents, was leveled by an earthquake (Nov. 1, 1755). Suspicion was directed at the faith of priests, because a pastor who had been very exact in the fulfilment of his ministry had left a will that was a profession of atheism. voltaire declared war c. 1760 on the infamous thing (l'infâme ), by which he meant Christianity. St. Francis of Assisi and Dante, as he pictured them, were fools. From Voltaire's literary mill in Ferney flowed an endless stream of pamphlets that were more dangerous to believers than the productions of Amsterdam, London, Paris, or Berlin. The same negation appeared under a thousand guises, according to Paul Hazard. This century prided itself on being the age of light (enlightenment, Aufklärung ), in which experience and reason would expel faith and its obscurities. To speed this process Denis Diderot launched a voluminous Encyclopédie, among whose mass of notions about history, geography, physics, and other subjects the essential concept, a "firm, audacious philosophy," was adroitly distributed, a tactic that Diderot himself admitted in a letter to his publisher (1764). After sowing the wind, these men reaped the whirlwind. During the french revolution, c. 1793, everything that tended to discredit priests and religion became acceptable, including the filth in which the journal Le Père Duchesne, published by Jacques Hébert, specialized. Despite the Reign of Terror, the faithful churchgoers (calotins ) and the "papists" were not annihilated. In vain did the Directory attack "the infernal empire of priests." For many decades afterward, however, this style remained in fashion among anticlericals.

19th Century. napoleon i, although a free-thinker, ended this odious and sterile combat by concluding with Pius VII the concordat of 1801. Priests were placed on the payroll of the State and were directed to teach Frenchmen their duties toward their emperor (see catechism, imperial). It sufficed, however, for the clergy to be "grenadiers in long vestments and short ideas," a role that was anything but enviable. After Napoleon's downfall, the bourgeoisie, which remained Voltairean, profited from its liberty to ridicule the clergy, who were rendered still more unpopular by the royal government's maladroit measures, such as the law regarding sacrileges (1825). Caricatures, songs, novels, and theatrical productions did not spare clerics. Anticlericalism of the most violent type was at times furnished with weapons by Catholics such as Count François de Montlosier, whose famous Mémoire (1826; placed on the Index June 12, 1826) denounced Jesuitism, ultramontanism, and the "priest party," which was "composed of those who will brave any risk or peril to hand over society to the priesthood."

The "tyranny" of the jesuits became, between 1830 and 1848, the theme preferred by anticlericalism. At the Collège de France in Paris, Edgar Quinet and Jules Michelet presented the Revolution of 1789 as the new revelation, denigrated the Church, and thundered against the Jesuits. The publication of a collaborative work, Des Jésuites (1843), did nothing to moderate the irritation of these two professors against the Society of Jesus, according to the testimony of a student who audited their lectures (M. Minghetti, Miei ricordi [2d ed. Turin n.d.] 2:131132). Eugène Sue increased the circulation of the journal Le Constitutionnel by publishing in serial form The Wandering Jew (Le Juif errant ). When these episodes were collected, they formed a 10-volume novel, which went through many editions and translations into English and several other languages; it concentrated on the dark intrigues and infamies attributed to the sons of Loyola.

In Italy, the struggle for political unification provoked a rash of anticlericalism that supposedly revealed the imprisonments, hangings, and other atrocities practiced by the clergy in collusion with the Austrian army (see V. Gorresio, Risorgimento scomunicato, Florence 1958). Francesco Crispi, president of the Chamber of Deputies (1876) and premier (188791, 189396), was considered the "high priest of anticlericalism" in Italy and in Europe. At a meeting in 1877 with Léon Gambetta and Otto von Bismarck, the inaugurator of the kulturkampf, Crispi persuaded them that the peace of Europe was menaced by only one man, the pope, who aspired to the reestablishment of the States of the Church. The renewal of the Senate in 1879 permitted French anticlerical opinion to take root in a body of laic laws. Until World War I, anticlericalism permeated the government of the Third Republic.

20th Century. Other countries copied France and Italy, notably Portugal (191018) and Mexico (191120). In the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics the government forbade all religious propaganda and established the Union of the Militant Godless, which claimed in 1930 a membership exceeding two million. National Socialism in Germany combined anticlericalism with anti-Semitism. In Spain during the civil war (193639), 4,184 priests or seminarians were executed, along with 2,635 religious.

Bibliography: g. de bertier de sauvigny, "French Anti-clericalism since the Great Revolution: A Tentative Interpretation," Historical Records and Studies of the U.S. Catholic Historical Society of New York 42 (1954) 321. l. l. rummel, "The Anticlerical Program as a Disruptive Factor in the Solidarity of the Late French Republics," American Catholic Historical Review 34 (194849) 119. c. a. whittuck, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. j. hastings, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 3:689693. c. j. h. hayes, A Generation of Materialism, 18711900 (New York 1941). p. hazard, European Thought in the Eighteenth Century: From Montesquieu to Lessing, tr. j. l. may (New Haven 1954). j. maritain, Man and the State (Chicago 1951; repr. 1956). v. giraud, Anticléricalisme et catholicisme (Paris 1906). É. faguet, L'Anticléricalisme (Paris 1906), liberal viewpoint by an agnostic. b. emonet, Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique, ed. a. d'alÈs, 4 v. (Paris 191122; Table analytique 1931) 2:177181. j. lecler, "Origines et évolution de l'anticléricalisme," Études 253 (1947) 145164; Catholicisme. Hier, aujourd'hui et demain, ed. g. jacquemet 1:633638. l. capÉran, L'Anticléricalisme et l'affaire Dreyfus, 18971899 (Toulouse 1948); Histoire contemporaine de la laïcité française, 3 v. (Paris 195761). Dictionnaire de sociologie, ed. g. jacquemet (Paris 1933) 1:936951. i. martÍn martinez, El desarrollo de la Iglesia Española y sus relaciones con el Estado (Madrid 1963). b. duhr, Jesuiten-Fabeln (4th ed. Freiburg 1904). a. brou, Les Jésuites de la légende, 2 v. (Paris 190607). e. m. acomb, The French Laic Laws, 18791889 (New York 1941).

[c. berthelot du chesnay/eds.]


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Anticlericalism, understood as opposition to the clergy's powers and attitudes, and often colored by antireligious and/or anti-Catholic sentiment, is a reactive ideology of opposition. It therefore depends on the power and attitudes of the clergy and on how these are perceived. It has been most prevalent in those countries where, for centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has been the majority religion and a dominant political and cultural force.

There are two major forms of anticlericalism: political and social. Political anticlericals have traditionally opposed favored legal status for the clergy, and thus have wanted separation of church and state; they have opposed clerical control of public (and often private) education; they have opposed the retention in the hands of the clergy of substantial property and landholdings; and they have generally favored replacing Catholic clerical cultural and moral values with secular and humanistic values. Their aims have generally been amenable to legislation. Social anticlericals, on the other hand, are more concerned with the clergy's support of one class in preference to another. They have generally been proletarians, supporters of socialist and anarchist movements, and they have accused the clergy of favoring the upper classes, violating the Christian ethic of helping the poor. The social anticlericals have frequently been violent, believing that nothing less than a class revolution can change the clergy.

For the first half of the twentieth century, anticlerical conflict was a feature of the history of those countries that had been hotbeds of anti-clerical tension in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, principally France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and thus these struggles were simply a continuation of those earlier centuries' conflicts. By midcentury, after the cataclysmic conflicts of the two world wars, and the Spanish civil war (1936–1939), anticlericalism was no longer a major issue. Other factors rendering traditional political and social anticlericalism quiescent were: the reforms of Vatican II (1962–1965), especially the proclamation of religious toleration, along with the acceptance of nonfavored status for the clergy; the declining numbers of clergy after the 1960s; and the rise in living standards, which tended to limit class conflict.

By the 1970s and 1980s a new anticlericalism arose, aimed at the clergy's attempts to prevent legislation dealing with sexual mores, particularly divorce, contraception, and most especially, abortion. However, because the clergy had lost their political power, opposition to the clergy's stands was nonviolent, and the general acceptance of democratic procedures confined the conflicts to the popular press and national legislatures. In addition to this new anticlericalism, a movement of lay Catholics wanting a larger role in the making of church policy, and therefore opposed to the clergy's traditional dominating role, added a distinctive element to these conflicts. Furthermore, new social anticlericals appeared in the form of traditional, conservative Catholics opposed to the clergy's support of proletarian movements, particularly in Third World countries. All of these movements and factors have yet to work themselves out in the twenty-first century.

The history of anticlerical movements in the twentieth century is best seen in the histories of the different countries.


In France, after a century and a half of anticlerical conflict, by 1914 the anticlericals had won most of their battles. In the Third Republic, through a series of legislation from 1879 to 1905, the clergy lost their favored status, including state salaries and property; the regular clergy were suppressed and forbidden to teach; and public education was out of clerical hands. Relations with the Vatican were broken off, and church and state were formally separated. But within a few years, the regular clergy were back in charge of their private schools, enrolling by the 1920s more than a fifth of French schoolchildren. This relaxation in the application of the laws was the result of World War I and the surge toward national unity, which did more than anything else to end the religious conflict. There were attempts to enforce the anticlerical legislation in the 1920s, largely because government leaders, usually Radical Party members, tried as they had in the past to use anticlericalism as a means of reviving weak coalition ministries. These attempts were unsuccessful. The Vatican helped to defuse tensions by abandoning its disapproving policies and pursued moderation with the government; and in a twist on the traditional conflict, French extremist clericals, led by Charles Maurras (1868–1952) and the Action Française attacked the Vatican for its accommodating policies and dredged up all of the anticlerical myths of the nineteenth century.

When France was defeated by Germany in 1940, clericals ascribed the defeat to the anticlerical secularism of the Third Republic, and the Vichy government annulled the anticlerical laws, and while some of the clergy backed the Vichy regime, many did not. With the end of World War II and the repeal of the Vichy laws, the need for national unity overrode the anticlerical conflict, even to the extent that religious schools received government subsidies in the new governments.

Anticlericalism after 1945 tended to be a matter of historical opposition, favored by communist, socialist, and some middle-class parties, rather than a response to actual circumstances. The numbers of clergy were in decline and were split between traditionalist and progressive groups. Freemasonry, the traditional vehicle of anticlericalism in France, was also in decline. Evidence of the quiescence of anticlerical conflict was the lack of widespread protest (and hence counter protest) over the 1975 law permitting abortion.


As in France, Italy's anticlerical conflicts had occurred largely in the nineteenth century, and laws restricting the clergy were on the books by 1914. However, they were not enforced, and the clergy lived much as they had before the legislation. One reason for this was that the anticlerical conflict was subordinated to the struggle for national unification, and despite papal opposition to the struggle, for it meant the loss of Rome and the Papal States, the Italian clergy were in favor of unification. The papacy and the Vatican were dominated by Italians, and the church was such an integral part of Italian history (and tourism) that once the anticlerical legislation was passed, the various governments saw no need to enforce it. By the time Italy entered World War I in 1915, the only major problem between church and state was the Roman Question—the refusal of the papacy to recognize the Italian state, and the papal decree that Catholics neither run nor vote for national office. The clergy had no fear of social anticlericalism, because church organizations provided most of the welfare for the poor.

By the end of the war in 1918, Pope Benedict XV (r. 1914–1922) rescinded the ban on Catholic voting, and the Popolare, a Catholic party, was founded. Despite the new party's favoring social welfare legislation, the Socialists considered it a bourgeois party, which they saw dominated by priests. An opportunity to prevent the rise of the Fascist Party of Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) by a Popolare-Socialist electoral union was prevented by both Socialist anticlericalism and the condemnation of such a union by the new pope, Pius XI (r. 1922–1939), after Mussolini had promised to end the Roman Question in favor of the papacy.

In the wake of political stalemate and growing fear of socialist revolutionary upheaval, Mussolini's Fascists won the king's support; and il duce became prime minister in 1922 and dictator within a few years. True to his promise, he negotiated an end to the Roman Question and signed the Lateran Pacts in 1929 with the pope's emissary. The anticlerical laws were nullified, but there was no outcry from anticlericals, now more concerned with opposing the Fascists. Despite some clerical support for the Fascists for Mussolini's aggressive foreign policy and conquests, there were enough clergy supporting the resistance movements so that when World War II ended there was no anticlerical conflict. The Socialist and Communist parties were more interested in economic reform than in raising the clerical issue, despite the Vatican's public support for the Christian Democratic Party for decades after 1945.

Agreements and legislation ended the privileged status of the clergy and updated the Lateran Pacts in the 1980s, and by the postwar constitution there were no subsidies for Catholic schools. Anticlericals protested the presence of crucifixes in public schools and government buildings, and these were removed, but there was no further anticlericalism. As in France and Spain, there were protests against the clergy's opposition to divorce, contraception, and abortion, but again, these were reactive stances on the part of the clergy.


Despite attempts by political anticlericals to legislate the Spanish clergy out of power during the nineteenth century, they were unsuccessful; but the clergy came to depend on middle- and upper-class support against anarchist violence by the end of the century, a phenomenon that was most clearly shown in the burning of churches in Barcelona in 1909. Anticlerical violence continued until a dictatorship was established under Primo de Rivera in 1923. But the clergy remained fearful, and all of the reformist groups—liberal democrats, socialists, and anarchists—called for anticlerical reforms, often making the clergy scapegoats for unsolvable national problems.

The opportunity came in 1931 with the ouster of the monarchy and the establishment of the Second Republic. The Republican-Socialist governing coalition legislated the end of clerical salaries, separated church and state, dissolved the Jesuits, and prohibited the regular clergy from teaching. More frightening to the clergy were anarchists and agents provocateurs who burned churches in Madrid and southern Spain. A right-wing party, the Confederation of Autonomous Right-wing Parties (Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas, or CEDA), was formed, which won power in 1933 in coalition with the ancient anti-clerical party, the Radical Party. The anticlerical legislation was allowed to lapse, and where churches were burned, arsonists were jailed.

In the elections of February 1936, a Popular Front coalition of all the leftist parties was formed, and one of their electoral pledges was the implementation of the anticlerical legislation. When they won the election and began to enforce the legislation, there were more church burnings and some attacks on the clergy. Civil war erupted in July 1936 when the army rebelled against the government. This rebellion, backed by the conservative classes, including some clergy, led to an anticlerical fury unequaled in modern times. Nearly seven thousand priests, nuns, and religious brothers were killed, mainly by anarchists. Churches were burned or closed all over government-held Spain, and religious objects were destroyed, clerical graves profaned, and innumerable laypersons killed simply for having been practicing Catholics. This fury was over by the end of the first six months of the war, but those churches not destroyed remained closed until the end of the war and the victory of the Nationalists under General Francisco Franco (1892–1975) in 1939.

In the new Francoist Spain, the clergy were restored to power, but the anticlerical fury had spent itself. Under the heavy hand of the dictator, order was restored in Spain. In the 1960s a new form of anticlericalism appeared when younger clergy began supporting clandestine proletarian groups, and the Franco regime created a special prison for those priests. Basque priests who had opposed the Nationalists during the civil war and after were also imprisoned. When Franco died in 1975, all the priests were released, and in the spirit of Vatican II, the restored monarchy under King Juan Carlos I (r. 1975–) decreed religious toleration in the new constitution and later renounced the privileges of the concordat of 1953. As in France and Italy there were clerical protests against divorce and abortion legislation, but anticlericals ignored them.


In Portugal, the other Latin European country that was the scene of anticlerical conflict in the nineteenth century, anticlericals used the overthrow of the monarchy in 1910 to pass laws restricting the clergy; there were also a few instances of violence against priests.

But the problems facing the new republic were so great that anticlerical activity did not continue. National unity was needed and anti-clericalism served only to divide. The military coup of 1917 established a dictatorship, ultimately in the hands of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar (1889–1970) after 1928, and all of the anticlerical laws were nullified.

In Poland and Ireland, both devout Catholic countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the clergy supported movements for independence from the Soviet Union and Britain respectively, so that there was little anti-clericalism in those countries, and despite gaining independence, nominally in the case of Poland until the Soviet Union lost control in the 1990s, and actually in Ireland by the 1930s, the clergy were still generally respected and were powerful. The only other European country in which action was taken against the clergy was Nazi Germany, but the moves of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) were less anticlerical than they were anti-Catholic.

See alsoCatholic Action; Catholicism.


Birmingham, David. A Concise History of Portugal. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K., 2003.

Callahan, William. The Catholic Church in Spain, 1875–1998. Washington, D.C., 2000. The single best study of the Spanish church.

Grew, Raymond. "Catholicism in a Changing Italy." In Modern Italy: A Topical History since 1861, edited by Edward R. Tannenbaum and Emiliana P. Noether, 254–273. New York, 1974.

McCarthy, Patrick. "The Church in Post-War Italy." In Italy since 1945, edited by Patrick McCarthy, 133–152. Oxford, U.K., 2000.

Sánchez, José. Anticlericalism: A Brief History. Notre Dame, Ind., 1972. Comprehensive study but now outdated.

Schapiro, J. Salwyn. Anticlericalism: Conflict between Church and State in France, Italy, and Spain. Princeton, N.J., 1967.

Sowerwine, Charles. France since 1870: Culture, Politics, and Society. New York, 2001.

Zeldin, Theodore. France, 1848–1945. Vol. 2: Intellect, Taste, and Anxiety. Oxford, U.K., 1977. Chapter on anticlericalism is the best for understanding the phenomenon in every country.

JosÉ M. SÁnchez


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social resentment of the clergy
political anticlericalism
cultural anticlericalism

The word anticlericalism can first be found in the correspondence of French officials in the 1850s, and it became an important term in the religious and political vocabulary of Europeans in the last third of the nineteenth century. But resentment of the power of the clergy can be found in the Middle Ages, and was a central element in the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. In the nineteenth century Protestant ministers sometimes had strained relations with the laity and political establishments, but anticlericalism most often refers to antipathy directed at the Roman Catholic clergy and, to a lesser extent, the clergy of the Anglican Church in Great Britain. Anticlericalism is a complex phenomenon, which varied significantly depending on time and place. For purposes of analysis we can look at anticlericalism in its social, political, and cultural manifestations. These different strains of anticlericalism came together at certain moments to produce culture wars that defined sharply different positions and in some cases violent conflict over the role of the clergy and the church in modern Europe.

Anticlericalism was particularly potent in France during the 1790s and throughout Europe in the early 1830s. In the last third of the nineteenth century anticlericalism was an important political and cultural force that produced major legislation on church-state relations and expressed anxieties about the loyalty of citizens and the solidarity of families.

social resentment of the clergy

The Catholic clergy constituted a powerful elite in Catholic Europe as religious leaders charged with defining and defending the moral values of their communities. In carrying out this role they inter-acted with the laity in a number of ways that generated conflict and resentment. Clerical control of the sacraments was one important source of trouble, for many parishioners resented the efforts by priests to use these rituals as a way of imposing their will. French archives, for example, contain numerous complaints in which priests are accused of rejecting parental choices about godparents, of prohibiting children from receiving first communion, of deferring absolution in the confessional, and of refusing the last sacraments and religious burial to people as they faced death. Such selective prohibitions were aggravated by the fees clergy charged for the performance of their duties. Preaching directed against communal festive events was another source of tension, with dancing a particularly contentious issue. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century the clergy fought a losing battle against the growing popularity of the waltz, which they saw as a source of moral corruption for the young. Conflicts over the costs of maintaining churches, presbyteries, and cemeteries could also threaten relations between clergy and laity. Many clergy managed to get along well with the people they served, but even in the best of circumstances some tension was inevitable, and when priests took an imperious manner and played favorites communities could dissolve into hostile factions. There is no solid evidence that clerical behavior became worse in the nineteenth century and some reason to believe that priests became more accommodating to those who came to church. But the political and cultural critics whose agenda included control of and in some cases elimination of the clergy could rely on a base of social resentment based on experience and memory.

political anticlericalism

As monarchical states accumulated more and more power over their subjects in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they acted to control the wealth and influence of the clergy, who were feared as alternative sources of authority. In the late eighteenth century this policy led to a series of measures directed against the clergy, summarized as "Josephism," because they were most fully articulated by the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (r. 1765–1790). Joseph seized the property of monastic houses and interfered with the communications between the pope and the churches in the empire. Joseph's assault on religious congregations was part of a larger pattern, exemplified most dramatically in the suppression of the Jesuits by Pope Clement XIV (r. 1769–1774) in 1773, who acted under the pressure of several Catholic monarchs. Policies targeting the clergy, especially religious congregations, were adopted in some form by almost all the European states in the course of the nineteenth century.

Political anticlericalism was a central element in the revolutionary legislation enacted by the French National Assembly in 1789, which released monks and nuns from their vows, abolished monasteries and convents, and seized church property as a way of dealing with the national debt. The refusal of about half of the clergy to swear an oath to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (July 1790), which called for the lay election of curés and bishops, was a major source of political conflict in France, which lasted until the Napoleonic treaty with Pope Pius VII (r. 1800–1823) was signed in 1801. The Catholic clergy were among the most visible targets of the Reign of Terror (1793–1794), when hundreds of priests were murdered as defenders of the fallen monarchy, and as proponents of superstition who kept the people in ignorance as a way of maintaining their own power.

This association of the clergy with political reaction and the pursuit of ecclesiastical power remained a central theme in European political life, with the French Revolution setting a pattern for popular violence and legislation directed against the clergy that was repeated at several times and in several places throughout the nineteenth century. In the wake of the French Revolution of 1830 mission crosses raised by preachers during the Bourbon Restoration (1814–1830) were torn down, and the palace of the archbishop of Paris was sacked in February 1831. In England the bishop of Bristol's palace was sacked in October of 1831 by a crowd angered over his opposition to the Reform Act that was intended to expand the suffrage. In Spain anticlericalism was a particularly potent force linking liberal reformers and urban workers and producing periodic outbursts of legislative repression and crowd action. About one hundred members of religious orders were killed in Madrid and Barcelona in 1834 and 1835, where they were suspected of supporting the pretender Charles against Queen Isabella in the Carlist war over the succession to the Spanish throne. A liberal government in Spain abolished monasteries and seized their property in 1837.

A second major wave of anticlerical political activity occurred in the last third of the nineteenth century. The clergy were targeted by a number of radical leaders of the Paris Commune of 1871, such as Raoul Rigault, a disciple of the socialist and militant atheist Louis-Auguste Blanqui. Inspired by Blanquist ideals the police of the Commune took a number of clerical hostages, including the Archbishop Darboy, who was among the dozen or so priests executed in the chaotic last days of the Commune in May 1871. A more moderate version of anticlericalism was a basic element in the establishment

and development of the French Third Republic. In the 1880s the state began enforcing restrictions on religious congregations, and forced priests, brothers, and nuns out of the public school system. As a result of the Dreyfus affair, when the Assumptionist fathers took a leading role in attacking Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859–1935), the government passed a Law of Associations (1901) that prohibited religious congregations and led to the exile of thirty thousand clergy. The separation of church and state, enacted in 1905, abolished the Concordat of 1801, and thereby eliminated the state salaries that had supported the clergy throughout the century. The program of laïcité defended by the Fifth Republic, which seeks to exclude religious expression from the public sphere, is a direct descendent of the policies put in place by the anti-clericals of the Third French Republic.

Political anticlericalism was a potent force throughout Europe in the last years of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. A wave of anticlerical legislation followed the Spanish revolution of 1868, and in 1909 workers in Barcelona destroyed forty convents and twelve parochial churches in a series of riots known as "the tragic week." As a result of the repression that followed, including the execution of the anticlerical Francisco Ferrer, workers in Barcelona and elsewhere in Spain were even more convinced that social and political progress depended on eliminating the power of the clergy. The animosity of Spanish anticlericals and supporters of the clergy that developed in the nineteenth century set the stage for much of the violence that occurred during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939).

In Italy and Germany political anticlericalism was a prominent force insofar as many politicians suspected the clergy of being more loyal to the church than to the nation. During the German Kulturkampf (culture war) in the 1870s Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (r. 1871–1890) won approval for laws that established Prussian state control over clerical education (1873) and abolished religious orders and congregations (1875). Opposition resulted in at least some time in jail for five of the twelve German bishops and hundreds of prosecutions directed at the lower clergy. The Kulturkampf ended in 1887, in part because Bismarck sought Catholic support in his attack on the socialists, but the Protestant League formed that year became a powerful mass organization that saw Catholics, and particularly their clergy, as disloyal to the nation.

cultural anticlericalism

Anticlericalism as a political force has sometimes been viewed as a maneuver by liberal politicians to draw in a working-class constituency without having to offer any fundamental social reforms. Anticlericalism did provide an agenda for cross-class alliances, an obvious benefit that was apparent to liberal politicians. In addition to such political motives anticlericalism became increasingly fueled by an intense hatred of the clergy, who were seen as destroying the emotional lives of families and ruthlessly seeking to defraud them in order to accumulate wealth. These attitudes were conveyed in a growing literature that included pamphlets and press reports highlighting clerical scandals, as well as novels by some of the leading literary figures of the late nineteenth century. Masonic lodges and societies of freethinkers were also conduits for attacks on the clergy, and were particularly important in France and Belgium in the last third of the century.

The French historian Jules Michelet gave powerful expression to some of the most important cultural complaints of anticlericals in Le prêtre, la femme, et la famille (1845; The priest, the woman, and the family), where he attacked priests for using the darkness and isolation of the confessional to form an intimate bond with wives and daughters of French families, alienating them from their husbands and fathers. For many anticlerical writers this intimacy led easily into the seduction of young women, a central element in the plots of Émile Zola's La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret (1875; The Sin of Father Mouret) and José Maria Eça de Queriós's O crime do Padre Amaro (1880; The Crime of Father Amaro). Stories of such sexual misconduct were common in newspapers as well as in novels in the last third of the century, with nuns as well as priests being accused of immorality. The heavily sexualized content of much of the anticlerical writing suggests that the clergy were in part a useful screen on which people projected anxieties about the separate spheres that determined the lives of middle-class men and women, a social pattern that coexisted uneasily with a desire for domestic intimacy.

The Jesuits were the most widely loathed religious congregation among anticlericals, and the target of some of the most lurid literature. Eugène Sue's Le Juif errant (The Wandering Jew), which first appeared as a popular serial in the French newspaper Le Constitutionnel (1845), revolves around a Jesuit plot to seize the inheritance of the Rennepont family, part of their larger conspiracy to dominate the world through wealth and intrigue. This "Jesuit myth" resembles much of the anti-Semitic literature of the period, for both drew on simplistic and titillating scenarios that described villainous enemies conspiring to destroy the social order. In its moderate form anticlericalism pushed European states toward policies directed against religious congregations, clerical influence on education, and the exclusion of Catholicism from the public sphere. In its more radical form anticlericalism is part of a larger history of the demonization of political and cultural enemies, of the use of distorted and invented images that carry a religious charge, and which propose a Manichean view of history as the battle of good against evil.

See alsoCatholicism; Catholicism, Political; French Revolution; Kulturkampf; Separation of Church and State (France, 1905).


Primary Sources

De Queirós, Eça. The Crime of Father Amaro: Scenes from the Religious Life. 1880. Translated from the Portugese and with an introduction by Margaret Jull Costa. New York, 2003.

Zola, Émile. The Sin of Father Mouret. 1875. Translated by Sandy Petrey. Lincoln, Nebr., 1983.

Secondary Sources

Aston, Nigel, and Matthew Cragoe, eds. Anticlericalism in Britain, c. 1500–1914. Phoenix Mill, U.K., 2000.

Callahan, William J. Church, Politics, and Society in Spain, 1750–1874. Cambridge, Mass., 1984.

Cubitt, Geoffrey. The Jesuit Myth: Conspiracy Theory and Politics in Nineteenth-Century France. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1993.

Evans, Eric. "Some Reasons for the Growth of Anti-Clericalism in England." Past and Present, no. 66 (1975): 84–109.

Gross, Michael B. The War against Catholicism: Liberalism and the Anti-Catholic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Ann Arbor, Mich., 2004.

Lalouette, Jacqueline. La république anticléricale: XIXe–XXe siècles. Paris, 2002.

Rémond, René. L'anticléricalisme en France, de 1815 à nos jours. Paris, 1976

Sánchez, José. Anticlericalism: A Brief History. Notre Dame, Ind., 1972.

Smith, Helmut Walser. German Nationalism and Religious Conflict: Culture, Ideology, Politics, 1870–1914. Princeton, N.J., 1995.

Ullman, Joan Connelly. The Tragic Week: A Study of Anti-clericalism in Spain, 1875–1912. Cambridge, Mass., 1968.

Thomas Kselman


views updated Jun 11 2018


Anticlericalism was both a widespread attitude and a deeply ingrained sentiment among Latin America's intellectual and political elites who viewed organized religion, especially the Roman Catholic Church, as a threat to the state and an obstacle to social change. Although anticlericalism reached its zenith in the nineteenth century, it had its roots in the eighteenth and perdured as a powerful force well into the twentieth. It was an attitude shared by both conservatives and liberals, although not always for the same reasons.

Conservative anticlericalism was rooted in the struggle of the enlightened Catholic monarchs of Europe and their liberal advisers to reform the church and to subordinate it to the crown's interests. Charles III, influenced by the count of Aranda, Pedro Rodríguez de Campomanes, and others, represented the apogee of regalism, the Spanish form of Gallicanism. Both doctrines claimed that the king had the right to exercise temporal authority over the church, including the power to name bishops and collect tithes. The marquis de Pombal, with the full approval of the Portuguese crown, led the way by expelling the Jesuits from both Portugal and Brazil in 1759. These governing elites believed that in order for their nations to be great once again, they must modernize themselves. To do so would involve, most of all, reforming the church, which in Spain, Portugal, and the New World had come to resemble the church as it had been on the eve of the Reformation. The eighteenth-century church in the Hispanic-Lusitanian world had acquired enormous properties held in mortmain; monasteries and convents were overpopulated; and a tradition-laden clergy was a source of frequent scandal. Many of the reform measures that the newly independent states in Hispanic America enacted to limit the number of the clergy or to reduce church wealth were in fact modeled on earlier Bourbon Reforms.

The regalist tradition, fashioned in Spain and Portugal, resurfaced in one way or another in every one of the new republics. Simón Bolívar, although not unfriendly to the church, sought to impose restraints and controls on it. But other leaders, such as José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia in Paraguay and Guzmán Blanco in Venezuela, subjected the church to harsh scrutiny and did not hesitate to expel or even to execute priests, confiscate church property, and curtail clerical influence in every way possible. Even where conservatives considered the church an ally, they nonetheless viewed with suspicion any independent activity on its part. They resented any outside influence on the church, which meant especially the pope. In Brazil, relations between Dom Pedro II and the church, with the exception of a clash with the bishops (1873–1875), were in general rather harmonious, and the church survived the monarchy relatively unscathed.

Liberals shared with the conservatives the belief that the church should be subordinate to the aims of the newly independent states. In this sense most Latin American liberals were essentially regalists in their treatment of the church. But unlike the conservatives, they also wanted a more open, democratic society based on law. For this reason they, like liberals in Europe, considered the church, with its landed estates, special privileges, and extraordinary influence in society as the primary obstacle in the way of implanting republican ideals and bringing about social change. The liberals were influenced by the criticism the philosophers of the Enlightenment had leveled at organized religion, by the example of Protestant Europe and America, and by certain liberal doctrines within Catholicism itself that called for church reform. In particular, the ideas of the Gallicanist Abbé de Pradt and other European thinkers who proposed the creation of a national church freed from the tutelage of Rome, were well received by Bolívar, Bernardino Rivadavia in Argentina, and certain liberals in Peru.

Liberal anticlericalism mirrored the same phenomenon in Europe, but given Latin America's slower development, it arrived in the New World in smaller dosages and in differentiated phases. In general, three distinct phases can be discerned: an incipient but rather tepid anticlericalism at the time of Independence; a more aggressive mid-century anticlericalism, which coincided with the rise of liberal capitalism; and in the latter part of the century a more socially minded and openly antireligious anticlericalism, which reflected the influence of positivism.

In general, most liberals at the time of Independence were neither antireligious nor desirous of destroying the church. Rather, they sought to control it, reform it, and place it at the service of the new republics. Many of the first liberals were priests who supported the reforms. Singled out for reform from the beginning, however, were the religious orders. The liberals, not unlike the Protestant reformers, viewed religious life as an aberration in the history of Christianity. Also, given the fact that there were far more Spanish missionaries among the religious than among the secular clergy before Independence, the former were more readily associated in the public mind with the colonial past. Early on in Mexico, Peru, Gran Colombia, and Argentina, liberals enacted laws that severely limited the number of religious and that placed them under the control of the local bishops. The Jesuits in particular were the bête noire of the liberals, who had the newly returned Society of Jesus expelled from many of their countries.

As the century wore on, in Europe liberal hostility toward the church increased, and the church in turn, especially during the pontificate of Pius IX (1846–1878), assumed a more defiant attitude toward liberalism. In Latin America a second generation of liberals, determined to bring about social reform and influenced by utilitarian philosophies, became considerably more outspoken in its criticism of the church. In Chile, Francisco Bilbao, essayist and politician, equated Catholicism with absolutism. In Peru, Francisco de Paula González Vigil was excommunicated for championing the cause of freeing both the church and governments from the influence of the Roman Curia.

By mid-century, liberal minorities in Peru, Colombia, and Mexico had declared open war on the church's wealth, properties, and privileges, especially the ecclesiastical fuero. In Mexico the church decried the Reform Laws of Benito Juárez and welcomed Maximilian's rule. Liberalism in Mexico in particular made control of the church a cornerstone of its reformist thrust. The strong anticlerical articles in the Constitution of 1917 reflected the liberals' perception of the church as both a conservative and an antinationalist force. In a similar way, in Ecuador toward the end of the century José Eloy Alfaro Delgado swept aside all of the church's privileges, which had been created in Gabriel García Moreno's time, and opened the door to Protestant missionaries.

Finally, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, anticlericalism entered a third phase by assuming the mantle of positivism and scientific progress. Intellectuals such as Manuel González Prada in Peru went beyond denouncing church privileges; they attacked religion itself. González Prada, like other pro-Indian advocates, singled out clerical influence on the indigenous population as one of the principal reasons for Latin America's backwardness. In universities and avant-garde circles, intellectuals accused the clergy of maintaining women, children, and the lower classes in ignorance by appealing to their emotions and catering to their superstitions.

The greatest number of anticlerical laws in Latin America were enacted in the decade of 1880–1890. These laws called for obligatory civil marriage, the end of clerical control of the civil registry, the secularization of cemeteries, the end of the church's monopoly over public charities, and in some cases the laicization of education. Separation of church and state, unrestricted tolerance for non-Catholics, and the right to divorce were measures that only gained acceptance in most countries in the twentieth century.

Anticlericalism was an attitude most prevalent among the emerging capitalistically oriented middle and upper classes, usually centered in the capital and port cities. These classes were especially receptive to innovative and radical ideas from Europe. Masonic lodges in particular became the nerve centers of hostility toward the church. Anticlericalism, by way of contrast, was much less observable among the traditional upper-class families of the rural interior or the urban lower middle classes, for whom Catholicism was perceived as a source of stability. In general, anticlericalism was not a common attitude among the lower classes, least of all the Indians and blacks.

As a psychological phenomenon, anticlericalism can be explained in part as an expression of the liberals' frustration over the survival of the colonial mentality and its tenacious hold over the majority of Latin Americans long after Independence, and the subsequent lack of social progress that resulted from that influence. For many liberals and social reformers, hostility toward the church became the principal mode of rejecting that colonial past. Anticlericalism was also primarily a masculine attitude. Most women, even the wives of leading liberals, continued to practice their religion as in colonial times. Insofar as liberalism stood for freedom and the use of reason, Catholicism symbolized passive submission to authority and dogma.

In time classical liberalism was superseded by reform ideologies and thinkers with a more subtle and sophisticated view of religion and social change, and anticlericalism began fading away. Most important, since the Second Vatican Council, the church has undergone a historic reform and renewal, relieving some of the old sources of antagonism.

See alsoCatholic Church: The Colonial Period; Catholic Church: The Modern Period; Francia, José Gaspar Rodríguez de; González Prada, Manuel; Liberalism; Masonic Orders; Mexico, Wars and Revolutions: The Reform.


On regalism in Bourbon Spain see Richard Herr, The Eighteenth-Century Revolution in Spain (1958) and John Lynch, Bourbon Spain, 1700–1808 (1989). An overview of church-state conflicts can be found in J. Lloyd Mecham, Church and State in Latin America: A History of Politico-Ecclesiastical Relations, 2d ed. (1966). To understand the intellectual background of anticlericalism see Leopoldo Zea, The Latin American Mind, translated by James H. Abbot and Lowell Dunham (1963). On González Prada and other Peruvian anticlerics see Jeffrey Klaiber, Religion and Revolution in Peru, 1824–1976 (1977). On anticlericalism in Mexico see Robert E. Quirk, The Mexican Revolution and the Catholic Church, 1910–1929 (1973).

Additional Bibliography

Butler, Matthew. Faith and Impiety in Revolutionary Mexico. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Chasteen, John C., and James A. Wood, eds, Problems in Modern Latin American History: Sources and Interpretations: Completely Revised and Updated. Wilmington: SR Books, 2004.

Hamnett, Brian R. Juárez. New York: Longman, 1994.

                                    Jeffrey Klaiber S.J.


views updated Jun 08 2018

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


views updated Jun 11 2018

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.