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Anti-clericalism is a historical movement that opposes religious (generally Catholic) institutional power and influence, real or alleged, in all aspects of public and political life, and the involvement of religion in the everyday life of the citizen. It suggests a more active and partisan role than mere laïcité, and has at times been violent, leading to attacks and seizure of church property.

Anti-clericalism in one form or another has existed through most of Christian history, and is considered to be one of the major popular forces underlying the 16th Century Reformation. Some philosophers of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire, attacked the Catholic Church, its leadership and priests claiming moral corruption of many of its clergy.



The French Revolution, particularly in its Jacobin period, initiated one of the most violent episodes of anti-clericalism in pre-modern Europe. The church was outlawed, all monasteries destroyed, 30,000 priests were exiled and hundreds more were killed. As part of a campaign to de-Christianize France in October 1793 the Christian calendar was outlawed, replaced with one reckoning from the date of the Revolution, and then an atheist Cult of Reason was inaugurated, all churches not devoted to that cult being closed. In 1794, the atheistic cult was replaced with a deistic Cult of the Supreme Being. When anticlericalism became a clear goal of French revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries seeking to restore tradition and the Ancien Regime took up arms, particularly in the War in the Vendée. The Revolutionary state sought the "pacification" of the popular mostly Catholic uprising by intentionally seeking the almost complete destruction of the Vendean population in what many call the first modern genocide. Secher, Reynald. A French Genocide: The Vendée, University of Notre Dame Press, (2003), ISBN 0268028656. .

When Pope Pius VI took sides against the revolution in the First Coalition, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy. The Pope was imprisoned by French troops the following year and died after six weeks of captivity. After a change of heart, Napoleon then re-established the Catholic Church in France with the signing of the Concordat of 1801.However many anti-clerical policies continued. Wherever Napoleonic armies entered a territory, monasteries were sacked and church schools and charitable institutions were secularized.

Third republic

The further bout of anti-clericalism occurred in the context of the Frenchmarker Third Republic and its dissensions with the Catholic Church. Prior to the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State, the Catholic Church enjoyed preferential treatment from the French State (along with the Jewish, Lutheran and Calvinist minority religions). During the 19th century, priests were employed as teachers in public schools, and religion was taught in schools (teachers were also obliged to lead the class to Mass). But during 1880, Jules Ferry, Minister of Education, then President of the Council of Ministers, began to expel religious figures from public schools (expelling 5000 on November 29, 1880) . Then, in 1881-1882, his government passed the Jules Ferry laws, establishing free education (1881) and mandatory and lay education (1882), giving the basis of French public education. These laws were a crucial step in the grounding of the Third Republic (1871-1940), dominated until the 16 May 1877 crisis by the Catholic Legitimists who dreamed of a return to the Ancien Régime.

In 1880 and 1882, Benedictine teaching monks were effectively exiled. This was not completed until 1901.

The implementation of the 1905 law on secularism was enacted by strength and vigor by the government of Radical-Socialist Émile Combes, meeting violent protestation by the clergy. Most Catholic schools and educational foundations were closed, except in Alsace-Lorrainemarker which belonged at that time to Germanymarker — and which continues to retain today a derogatory status because of its specific history — and many religious orders were dissolved.

In the Affaire Des Fiches, in France in 1904-1905, it was discovered that the anticlerical War Minister under Émile Combes, General Louis André, was determining promotions based on the French Masonic Grand Orient's huge card index on public officials, detailing which were Catholic and who attended Mass, with a view to preventing their promotions.

Republican' anti-clericalism softened after the First World War, as the Catholic right-wing began to accept secularism. However, the theme of private schools in France, which are often Catholic, and whose teachers are paid by the state, remains a sensitive issue in French politics.

Austria (Austro-Hungarian Empire)

Emperor Joseph II opposed what he called “contemplative” religious institutions — reclusive Catholic institutions that he perceived as doing nothing positive for the community. His policy towards them are included in what is called Josephinism.

Joseph decreed that Austrian bishops could not communicate directly with the Curia. More than 500 of 1,188 monasteries in Austro-Slav lands (and a hundred more in Hungary) were dissolved, and 60 million florins taken by the state. This wealth was used to create 1700 new parishes and welfare institutions .

The education of priests was taken from the Church as well. Joseph established six state-run “General Seminaries.” In 1783, a Marriage Patent treated marriage as a civil contract rather than a religious institution .

Catholic Historians have claimed that there was an alliance between Joseph and anti-clerical Freemasons.


Anti-clericalism in Italymarker is connected with reaction against the absolutism of the Papal Statesmarker, overthrown in 1870. For a long time, the Pope required Catholics not to participate in the public life of the Kingdom of Italymarker that had invaded the Papal States to complete the unification of Italy, leaving the pope confined in the Vaticanmarker. Some politicians that had played important roles in this process, such as Camillo Benso, conte di Cavour, were known to be hostile to the temporal and political power of the Church.

The hostility between the Holy See and the kingdom was finally settled by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who sought an agreement with the Church to gain its support: the Lateran Treaty was finalised in 1929.

After World War II, anti-clericalism was embodied by the Italian Communist and Italian Socialist parties, in opposition to the Vatican-endorsed party Christian Democracy.

The revision of the Lateran treaties in the eighties by the Socialist Prime Minister of Italy Bettino Craxi, removed the status of "official religion" of the Catholic Church, but still granted a series of provisions in favour of the Church, such as the eight per thousand law, the teaching of religion in schools, and other privileges.

Recently, the Catholic Church has been taking a more aggressive stance in Italian politics, in particular through Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who often makes his voice heard commenting the political debate and indicating the official line of the Church on various matters. This interventionism has increased with the papacy of Benedict XVI. Anti-clericalism, however, is not the official stance of most parties (with the exception of the Italian Radicals, who, however identify as laicist), as most party leaders consider it an electoral disadvantage to openly contradict the Church: since the demise of the Christian Democracy as a single party, Catholic votes are often swinging between the right and the left wing, and are considered to be decisive to win an election.


Following the Revolution of 1860, US-backed President Benito Juárez, issued a decree nationalizing church property, separating church and state, and suppressing religious orders.

Following the revolution of 1910, the new Mexican Constitution of 1917 contained further anti-clerical provisions. Article 3 called for secular education in the schools and prohibited the Church from engaging in primary education; Article 5 outlawed monastic orders; Article 24 forbade public worship outside the confines of churches; and Article 27 placed restrictions on the right of religious organizations to hold property. Most obnoxious to Catholics was Article 130, which deprived clergy members of basic political rights. Many of these laws were resisted, leading to the Cristero Rebellion of 1927 - 1929. The suppression of the Church included the closing of many churches and the killing and forced marriage of priests. The persecution was most severe in Tabasco under the atheist governor Tomás Garrido Canabal.

The effects of the war on the Church were profound. Between 1926 and 1934 at least 40 priests were killed. Where there were 4,500 priests serving the people before the rebellion, in 1934 there were only 334 priests licensed by the government to serve fifteen million people, the rest having been eliminated by emigration, expulsion and assassination. It appears that ten states were left without any priests.


In 1940 Graham Greene wrote a fictional best selling book, The Power and the Glory, a story of an alcoholic priest persecuted in Mexico during the 1930s.


Kingdom of Poland

Since the founding of the Polish statemarker in 966 to its dissolution in 1795 Anti-clericalism was seldom observed in Poland mainly because the Catholic clergy, while being widely respected by the Polish, had never been the most powerful estate. Poland was well-known of its unique religious tolerance so the Polish society never felt threatened by the Church.

Second Polish Republic

Anti-clericalism in Poland in the years 1918-1939 was strong in the leftist groups affined to Józef Piłsudski and the Sanacja movement, opposing the far right National Democracy led by Roman Dmowski.

People's Republic of Poland

It became one of the policies of the Communist People's Republic of Poland. It was nonetheless not a policy that gained any significant public support, as the Catholic Church became one of the publicly recognized and respected centers of the opposition to the government.

Third Polish Republic

However, when the Polish Communism fell in 1989, the Catholic Church was granted with a lot of privileges. This led to the increase of Anti-clericalism, especially when the government consisted of the people strongly affined to the Polish Church (and one of its most radical groups - Radio Maryja), such as Law and Justice or the League of Polish Families.


A first wave of anti-clericalism occurred in 1834 when under the government of Dom Pedro all convents and monasteries in Portugal were abolished, simultaneously closing some of Portugal's primary educational establishments.The fall of the Monarchy in the Republican revolution of 1910 led to another wave of anti-clerical activity. Most church property was put under State control, and the church was not allowed to inherit property. The wearing of religious garb and religious instruction in schools were abolished, as well as religious oaths and church taxes.


The first instance of anti-clerical violence due to political conflict in 19th century Spain occurred during the First Spanish Civil War (1820-23). During riots in Cataloniamarker, 20 clergymen were killed by members of the liberal movement in retaliation for the Church's siding with absolutist supporters of Ferdinand VII.

In 1836 following the First Carlist War, the new regime abolished the major Spanish Convents and Monasteries.The Radical Alejandro Lerroux distinguished himself by his inflammatory pieces of opinion.

The Red terror

The Republican government which came to power in Spainmarker in 1931 was strongly anti-clerical, secularising education, prohibiting religious education in the schools, and expelling the Jesuits from the country. On Pentecost 1932, Pope Pius XI protested against these measures and demanded restitution. He asked the Catholics of Spain to fight with all legal means against the injustices. June 3, 1933 he issued the encyclical Dilectissima Nobis, in which he described the expropriation of all Church buildings, episcopal residences, parish houses, seminaries and monasteries.

By law, they were now property of the Spanish State, to which the Church had to pay rent and taxes in order to continuously use these properties. "Thus the Catholic Church is compelled to pay taxes on what was violently taken from her" Religious vestments, liturgical instruments, statues, pictures, vases, gems and similar objects necessary for worship were expropriated as well.

The Civil War in Spain started in 1936, during which thousands of churches were destroyed, thirteen bishops and some 7000 clergy and religious Spaniards were assassinated. After that, Catholics largely supported Franco and the Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War of 1936 – 1939.

Anti-clerical assaults during what has been termed Spain's Red Terror included sacking and burning monasteries and churches and killing 6,832 priests, including 13 bishops, 4184 diocesan priests, 2365 members of male religious orders, among them 259 Claretians, 226 Franciscans, 204 Piarists, 176 Brothers of Mary, 165 Christian Brothers, 155 Augustinians, 132 Dominicans, and 114 Jesuits.

13 bishops were killed from the dioceses of Sigüenzamarker, Lleidamarker, Cuencamarker, Barbastromarker Segorbemarker, Jaénmarker, Ciudad Realmarker, Almeríamarker, Guadixmarker, Barcelonamarker, Teruelmarker and the auxiliary of Tarragonamarker. Aware of the dangers, they all decided to remain in their cities. I cannot go, only here is my responsibility, whatever may happen, said the Bishop of Cuenca In addition 4172 diocesan priests, 2364 monks and friars, among them 259  Clarentians, 226 Franciscans, 204 Piarists, 176 Brothers of Mary, 165 Christian Brothers, 155 Augustinians, 132 Dominican, and 114 Jesuits were killed. In some dioceses, a number of secular priests were killed:

  • In Barbastromarker 123 of 140 priests were killed. about 88 percent of the secular clergy were murdered, 66 percent
  • In Lleidamarker, 270 of 410 priests were killed. about 62 percent
  • In Tortosamarker, 44 percent of the secular priests were killed.
  • In Toledomarker 286 of 600 priests priests were killed.
  • In the dioceses of Málagamarker, Minorcamarker and Segorbemarker, about half of the priests were killed"

One source records that 283 nuns were killed, some of whom were badly tortured.. There are accounts of Catholic faithful being forced to swallow rosary beads, thrown down mine shafts and priests being forced to dig their own graves before being buried alive. The Catholic Church has canonized several martyrs of the Spanish Civil War and beatified hundreds more.


Anti-clerical waves have been seen in Quebecmarker since 1960. The Quiet Revolution is characterised essentially by an opening toward socialism and the objection to the social model advanced by the church and the clergy.

United States

Although anti-clericalism is more often spoke of regarding the history or current politics of Latin countries where the Catholic Church was established and the clergy had privileges, Philip Jenkins in his The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice notes that the U.S., despite the lack of Catholic establishement, has always had anti-clericals.

Some of America's founding father had anti-clerical beliefs. Thomas Jefferson's letters contain the following observations: "History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government," and, "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own."

The role of Freemasonry

Freemasonry has historically been seen, especially by the Catholic Church as a principal source of anti-Clericalism - especially in, but not limited to, historically Catholic countries. Certain branches of Freemasonry are acknowledged by Masonic sources as a major source of anti-clericalism in Mexico, Italy and France.


Most Communist governments have been officially anti-clerical, abolishing religious holidays, teaching atheism in schools, closing monasteries, church social and educational institutions and many churches. In the Soviet Unionmarker, anti-clericalism was expressed through the state; some have estimated thousands of priests and monks were either executed or sent to forced labour camps to die during the Stalin era.

Anticlericalism in the Islamic world


As of the late 1990s and early 2000s anticlericalism was reported to be significant in the Islamic Republic of Iranmarker. Demonstrators have used slogans such as "The clerics live like kings while we live in poverty!" One report claims "Working-class Iranian lamented clerical wealth in the face of their own poverty," and "stories about Swiss bank accounts of leading clerics circulated on Tehranmarker's rumor mill."

Iran, although an Islamic state, imbued with religion and religious symbolism, is an increasingly anti-clerical country.
In a sense it resembles some Roman Catholic countries where religion is taken for granted, without public display, and with ambiguous feelings towards the clergy.
Iranians tend to mock their mullahs, making mild jokes about them ...

The sentiment there differs from Western anticlericalism in that it is/was associated not with irreligious beliefs but with dissatisfaction with theocratic rule there, the perceived misrule of Islamic clerics (particularly economic dissatisfaction) who rule under the principle of velayat-e faqih.

It is, however, associated with a decline in religious observance. According to The Economist, Iranian clergy have complained that more than 70% of the population do not perform their daily prayers and that less than 2% attend Friday prayers.

See also


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