Anticlericalism

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The term "anticlerical" probably first appeared in the early 1850s in Catholic France. It indicated opposition to Ultramontane revival with its reassertion of the sacral power of priests and of the primacy of the pope in the church. A staggering battle in Italy and Europe over the temporal power of the pope focused anticlerical attitudes in the 1850s and 1860s, especially in Italy, Belgium, Spain, and France. Thereafter, to this day, anticlericalism as attitude and as movement has been a considerable political factor in every Roman Catholic area, notably in Europe, Latin America, and Quebec. Anticlericalism has condemned priestly participation in national governments, municipalities, elections, education, and land and capital ownership.

Opposition to clerical authority, as well as fear and ridicule of priests, are age old within Catholic Christendom. In Catholic tradition, both before and after the creation of Protestant churches, clergy have claimed to be the sole authority in church government and doctrine as well as the only exerciser of sacramental power. They have put themselves forward as the leaders in faith and morals, and often as the guides of the laity in politics, economics, and intellectual and social life. In response there is a long tradition of popular satire in songs and tales against any clerical failings, irregular sexual behavior, religious hypocrisy, social pomp, intellectual stupidity, and arrogance. Moreover, excessive use of clerical power or usurpation of political and economic power has again and again evoked vigorous resistance. Anticlericalism has assumed that priests are constitutionally unable to keep their own standards, and are by nature inclined to dominate the whole of life.

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The anticlerical factor in the Protestant movement of the 1500s contributed to the break with Rome and has continued to be a crucial element in anti - Catholicism to this day. In the 1700s the French philosophes were merciless against priests, and one Catholic state after another expelled the Jesuits. The French revolutionary governments tried to control priests by making them state employees. The revolutionaries in Catholic Europe in 1820, 1830, 1848, and 1870 explicitly regarded priestly power as an enemy. The Papal States, as a "government of priests," epitomized to anticlericals all that was evil.

The liberal republics in Latin America were anticlerical. After 1870, in France, Spain, Italy, and Quebec, as well as in much of Latin America, politics polarized as the church and most clergy sided with the right against liberals, republicans, and socialists who built anticlericalism into their programs. Anticlericalism has usually contributed to secularization in Catholic cultures: since clergy have been the main agents of Christian presence in public life, opposition to priests in politics has entailed opposition to Christianity in modern society. Following Vatican II opposition to clerical domination within the church itself has contributed to a lay revival, but not yet to a termination of exclusively priestly authority in the church.

Anticlericalism has not been absent among Protestants. Many a Baptist pastor, Reformed dominie, or Lutheran minister has evoked anticlerical responses. Charismatics, Brethren, and Quakers have found they can do without clergy entirely.

C T McIntire
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Bibliography
O Chadwick, "The Rise of Anticlericalism," in The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century; A Mellor, Histoire de l'anticlericalisme francais; R Remond, l'Anticlericalisme en France, de 1815 a nos jours; J M Diaz Mozaz, Apuntes para una sociologia del anticlericalismo.


The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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