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Liberalism and anticlericalism

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Liberalism and anticlericalism

Why was anti-clericalism such an important aspect of liberalism in France and Italy in the second half of the nineteenth century?

The mid-nineteenth century was a time of great change throughout Europe. Revolutions and social upheavals meant new ideologies and perspectives coming to the forefront as existing social orders began to crumble under popular pressure. Liberalism was one of these new causes, designed to make a fairer and more benevolent society for all its sectors. However Liberalism could not succeed in a church dominated state. Thus anti-clericalism came to become a symbolic part of the liberal cause.

Before examining separate aspects of the liberal struggle, it is necessary to look at the whole movement and its aims. The liberal idea was to make the government and economy fairer and more accessible to the lay person. They wanted a constitution with representational institutions which would make the wishes and opinions of the people known to the rulers without bias or cover up. They also wanted parliamentary representation of individual citizens rather than mass group electorates such as the estate system. Freedom of speech, freedom of press, and free trade were another liberal demand, as well as equality before the law, with open trials free from influence or interference. To accompany the new franchise system would be upgraded education and economic development to civilise the new nation.

The liberals were not necessarily atheists or even opposed to Christianity all, so why did anti-clericalism become such an integral part of their regime? In France one of the foremost reasons for this was the churches' views with regard to social change. The Catholic Church had always been a great advocate of traditionalism. They looked back to the ancien regime when the church had been all-powerful, and though since 1789 its influence had been in decline, it continued to believe in the rigid class structure which had set them ahead before. It was towards this end - retention, or better, resurrection of the old class structures that the church made their political perspectives clearly right wing, and increased links with the conservatives, thus setting itself against liberalism.

One of the key ideas of the liberal struggle was equality, both mercantile and jurisprudential . Yet the church has always regarded itself as blessed with divine right that sets its members ahead , and thus they should be owed special power and privileges. They fought for this because the church's self assumed right is the basis of its authority over the people. By cutting priests and bishops down to size, making them equal to the next man, perceptions of them would alter, making them more mundane and losing their spiritual power over the people.

The liberals also were not blind to the lessons of the past. They remembered the church as linked with both the ancien regime and the restoration monarchy. They remembered even two hundred years later the harsh seigneurial duties and the burden of church tithes upon the peasants, and seeing the church designs for return to the old system inspired a wave of antagonism toward the clergy. Even if the church was to no longer to impose fiscal or territorial taxes, it had still the reputation of a harsh tyrannical master and was associated with so many past injustices that for the liberals any alliance or even mutual coexistence could be injurious to the image that they tried to portray.

It was partly the church actions themselves which increased the whole fervour of the liberal anti-clerical feeling. The Catholic Church was never one to advocate docility to a threat, and thus during the nineteenth century when the possibility of power loss came, the church responded. Firstly in the mental sphere where the priests' tactics seemed to be to bully the public into obedience rather than foster spiritual devotion. Scathing attacks from the pulpit were launched upon drinking, dancing, failure to observe the Sabbath and of course contraception. People began to feel uncomfortable with church attitudes: many needed to work on Sunday to keep food on the table; others wanted to use contraception to keep family sizes small and affordable, and of course to forbid the youth drinking and dancing just meant incurring natural adolescent rebellion and making the event more enjoyable.

The Catholic Church has always preached hard line doctrine and this was nothing new or unacceptable except in its aggressive fervour. However what really did make the church unpopular was the use of spiritual blackmail for political ends. Even as early as 1827 the Bishop of Nancy responded to the liberal threat by ordering his clergy to refuse absolution to readers of liberal newspapers. Similarly the Bishop of Maret refused sacraments to the parents and teachers, and first communion to the pupils of lay schools using non-approved texts. Later again in 1891 the populous were told by the Archbishop of Rennes that it was a 'sin' to vote for men who were not resolute in the 'interests of religion'. Actions such as this served to change then liberals policies from mild aversion to the clergy, bordering on tolerance, to full-on warfare.

Eventually this political agitation was pushed too far and it was agreed that the priests were abusing positions of spiritual trust for temporal ends. The liberal response was to take action through the Emperor Bonaparte, against various Catholic papers and to review the Concordat, interpreting it in a distinctly less favourable view and placing restrictions on papal pronouncements in France. Also the priesthood was gradually phased out of the public education system, which they ...

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Keywords: anti liberal, liberalism and french revolution

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