Free Online Bible Library | Anticlericalism

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A basic attitude of hostility directed against clerical power and civic privilege-especially that of the hierarchy-which in modern times has found expression at two levels, the religious and the political, and has been of two types, active and passive. Anticlericalism dates from the early days of institutionalized Christianity. Medieval anticlericalism was sporadic and most unorganized, but the Reformation stimulated its growth as Protestants assailed clerical abuses and proclaimed the priesthood of all believers. The impetus for modern political anticlericalism, however, came principally from the Enlightenment,* with its opposition to organized religion and its teaching that the clergy were a bulwark of political reaction. Thus nineteenth-century Europe saw numerous fierce battles between anticlericals and defenders of the traditional role of the established churches. This conflict intensified with the growth of liberalism and nationalism, especially in largely Roman Catholic countries like France, Italy, and Spain.

As a result of the Revolution of 1789 in France, the homeland of modern anticlericalism, Roman Catholicism was abolished as the state religion. Restored in 1815, the Roman Church became the focal point of a bitterly divisive political struggle which culminated in the permanent separation of church and state in France in 1905. In Italy, political anticlericalism climaxed with the liquidation of the Papal States in 1870, while in Germany the Kulturkampf* in the 1870s resulted in a large body of anticlerical legislation. Similar attempts to limit clerical power and privileges made at about the same time in Spain and Spanish America met with varying degrees of success.

In the USA, anticlerical feeling among radical political thinkers and religious nonconformists expressed itself in the constitutional separation of church and state after 1787. A similar alliance led to the reforms of the 1830s in Britain which virtually disestablished the Church of England. In the USA, however, anticlericalism subsided in the nineteenth century with the growth of civic religion; but since World War II there has been a resurgence of anticlerical feeling among American Christians with the “revolt of the laity” in many denominations and the advent of the Jesus Movement and Catholic Pentecostalism. Much recent anticlericalism is passive rather than active, religious rather than political. Nonpracticing Catholics reflect this trend, as do many active Protestants who exhibit considerable indifference toward the clergy. Such passive anticlericalism usually stems from the rejection by the laity of the traditional authoritarian role of pastor and priest.

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