Anti-clericalism is not the same as anti-Christian movements. Most Roman emperors tried to stamp out Christianity from the death of Christ under Tiberius until Constantine the Great decided to adopt Christianity as an official religion within the Empire, thus ceasing the practice of pitting Christians against lions and other wild animals, such as hyenas, in the ring.

The name anti-clericalism applies in modern times to any policy bent on destroying the moral and political power of the Christian Church, and subordinating its non-spiritual functions within the State. Though there have been many instances of anti-clericalism at the expense of the Orthodox Church (Russia and Turkey), and even now in Moslem countries (see recent massacres of Christians in Iraq and Afghanistan), the term is usually restricted to aggressive hostility towards the Roman Catholic Church, its Pope, bishops, priests, monks and nuns.

The nature of the struggle to decrease or inhibit the everyday work of the Catholic Church has varied from country to country. It could have originated in France, with attacks against church property and the burning of priests, and later upon the identification of the Church with the Monarchy and its nobles. Papal condemnation of both nationalism and liberalism, as found in the Syllabus Errorum of 1864, made anti-clericalism one of the chief characteristics of the radicals of the French Third Republic.

A similar struggle took place in Spain, once a pre-dominantly Catholic country like Poland, in 1873, 1909 – 13, 1931 – 36, and 2004 to the present day and beyond. Before and during the Spanish Civil War anti-clericalism led to barbarities condoned by the Second Republic, which was itself violently laicist. One young communist became famous for using machine guns until the red-hot barrels had to be changed during the mass executions of nuns. He is still alive, and will I suppose, following today’s Scandinavian logic, eventually be given the Nobel Peace Prize – if he lives long enough and stops smoking.

South America too has often been the scene of violent demonstrations against the Church; modern Venezuela and Cuba are good examples. Italian anti-clericalism was principally concerned with the national issue, because of the Pope’s position as what might be called a temporary sovereign until 1870. In the Germany of von Bismarck (Germany is only half-protestant desite Martin Luther) anti-clericalism was elevated to the pompous-sounding ‘conflict of beliefs’ (Kulturkampf) though really the basic tenets of the argument were the same as in France, with particular emphasis in education and civil marriage.

Paying little attention to the universal good done by the Church, in many countries a campaign of hatred for priests has continued, and is continuing. It is particularly noticeable in the United States, where there is a very large congregation of Roman Catholics. Recent cases connect paedophilia (a cult word much employed by liberals) with parish priests who unconcernedly placed a comforting hand on the knee of a boy in 1957. It says much for the human spirit of fortitude that the affected child has managed to live more or less happily ever after, but the liberals crave for publicity in these dreadful cases of sexual abuse.

In modern Spain anti-clericalism appears in many forms: schools are denounced for fixing the crucifix on a wall, in case the sight of it may corrupt the young mind. Many churchmen prefer not to wear a clerical collar in public, except at Mass, because this symbol of profession may enflame the liberal mind. The Government of Spain is entirely laicist, but intrinsically delighted that the feeding of nearly five million unemployed families and individuals can safely be left in the hands of Caritas – a Roman Catholic institution devoted to charitable work. We must piously hope that no Caritas worker be ignorant enough to lay a sympathetic hand on the shoulder of an unemployed worker who cannot feed his family. Feed him, yes, but show no concern.

Somehow, even with venal Popes, the Inquisition and over-sexed priests, the Catholic Church has survived through centuries of virulent anti-clericalism. God (who of course must not be mentioned) knows how.

Dean Swift

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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