Saturday, 18 February 2017

Religion and secularisation

The Church of Sacré Cour, 

Religion under threat?

Historians and sociologists have been interested in the phenomenon of ‘secularisation’, which had usually been linked with ‘modernisation’. The nineteenth century saw a continuous conflict (and sometimes attempts at reconciliation) between the forces of religion and those of ‘modernity’. Conflicts arose when the state began to assume the functions that had traditionally belonged to the Church over matters like marriage and education. As the Church lost its monopoly, the working classes seemed to be increasingly indifferent to religion.

Many saw the findings of science and the growth of biblical criticism as attacks on religion. Charles Darwin (1809-82)  argued that humans and apes shared a common ancestor. The German theologian David Strauss (1808-74) scandalised orthodox Christians with his his Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835). He argued that the New Testament should be read as any other historical text rather than as the divinely inspired word of God.

But it can also be argued that Europe was still fundamentally Christian. For people such as the Irish, the Poles, and the Russians, religion was tied up with national identity. Christian missionary work expanded in Asia and Africa. Popular religious movements often caused problems for the authorities.

Pius IX

The papacy of Pius IX (1846-78) saw powerful counter-blasts to the secularising trends of the age. In 1854 he proclaimed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.  In 1864 he issued the Syllabus Errorumwhich condemned most trends in the modern world and declared it a heresy that ‘the Roman pontiff can and ought to reconcile and harmonise himself with progress, with liberalism and with modern civilisation’.  Napoleon III responded by banning it in France. 

Pius IX ('Pio Nono')
Public Domain

The pope was deeply alarmed by the unification of Italy in 1861. Most of the Papal States, the territory in central Italy that had historically been part of the Holy See, had been annexed, leaving Rome itself dangerously exposed. Only a French garrison stood between Rome and the Italian army. He issued an interdict forbidding Italian Catholics to vote or to stand in elections. The Italian state responded in 1867 with the expropriation of church land, the closure of religious orders, a ban on pilgrimages, civil marriage and the extension of equal political and civil rights to non-Catholics. 

The First Vatican Council, 1870
On 18 July it proclaimed the doctrine of papal infallibility
Public Domain

In the summer of 1868 Pius summoned the Vatican Council, the first General Council of the Church for over three hundred years. Over 700 bishops convened at St Peter’s on 8 December 1869. In May 1870 the Council promulgated a constitution containing fundamental statements of faith. A separate constitution setting out the doctrine of papal infallibility in matters of faith and morals, was voted through on 18 July, though a minority of 150 refused to assent to the doctrine regarding it as either inopportune or untrue. 

The following day France declared war on Prussia and the last French troops were withdrawn from Rome. Following the defeat of the French at Sedan, Italian troops under General Rafaele Cadorna launched a successful assault on Rome, which was incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy. Pius retreated into the Vatican and its great gates were closed. It was not until 1929 that an agreement was reached and Vatican City became an independent state.

The pontificate of Pius IX, therefore, saw two major developments: the strengthening of the Pope's religious authority and the ending of his political power.

Germany: the Kulturkampf

The term, meaning ‘struggle of cultures’ was coined in Prussia and subsequently adopted by historians to describe the conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and the Prussian and imperial German governments. But what is called the Kulturkampf arose in every country that had a substantial Catholic population. 

In the newly united Germany, Catholics formed a third of the population. They reacted to unification by forging the Centre Party in 1870 to protect the Church and Catholic schools. Under its shrewd leader Ludwig Windhorst, it also prompted social reform.

Ludwig Windhorst
Reichstag Deputy and Centre
Party leader who outmanoeuvred
Commons: Bundesarchiv

For Bismarck, Catholicism was bound up with the regionalism of the south, potential separatism in Alsace and Lorraine and nationalism in the Prussian-ruled parts of Poland. When he failed to persuade the Pope and the German bishops to withdraw their support from the Centre Party, he stepped up his campaign against the Church. Across the Reich, the Jesuits were expelled. 

In Prussia the government claimed exclusive rights to inspect schools and the May Laws of 1873 obliged trainee priests to attend state universities; church appointments were to be vetted by the state and the registration of births, deaths and marriages was put under state supervision. In 1875 Prussia outlawed all religious orders. It was a situation reminiscent of the persecution of the Catholic Church during the French Revolution.

‘By the end of 1878 more than half of Prussia’s Catholic bishops were in exile or in prison. More than 1,800 priests had been incarcerated or exiled and over 16 million marks’ worth of ecclesiastical property seized. … As late as 1881 a quarter of all Prussian parishes remained without priests.' Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947 (Penguin, 2007, 568)

 But the Kulturkampf failed to destroy Catholicism as a political and social force and in the Reichstag elections of 1874 the Centre Party doubled its vote. In 1878 Pio Nono died and was replaced by the more conciliatory Leo XIII, causing Bismarck to abandon most of his anticlerical legislation, in spite of his previous declaration that he would never 'go to Canossa'

France: the Catholic revival

The bloodshed of the Paris Commune, especially the execution of the Archbishop of Paris and other priests by the Communards, revived the Catholic Church and led to a semi-revival of ‘throne and altar’ politics. In 1873 the right-wing National Assembly decreed that the basilica of the Sacré Coeur should be built in Montmartre to atone for the crimes of the Commune and the sins that had led to France’s defeat by Germany. But this inspired a fierce anti-clerical revolt. 

 The Third Republic saw a clash over education between Church and State. In the 1880s the Ferry laws which made primary education free (1881) and compulsory (1882) replaced the teaching of the catechism with ‘moral and civic education’ in the primary schools. By the law of 1886 teaching staff at primary schools for boys were to be laicized within five years. In 1901 a law on associations led to the banning of all religious orders not authorized by the state. This led to the closure of thousands of schools.  

From 1890 a Catholic movement, the Ralliement, led by Cardinal Charles Lavigerie and encouraged by Leo XIII, worked for reconciliation with the Republic. But this was ruptured by the Dreyfus affair

In 1902 the anti-clerical radical, Emile Combes, became Prime Minister. In 1903 Leo XIII was replaced by the less conciliatory Pius X. In December 1905 the French government passed the Law of Separation. This abandoned the concessions made by Napoleon’s Concordat, and brought about laïcité, the complete separation of Church and state. 

The Churches and social reform 

Leo XIII, the Pope who
propounded Catholic
social teaching
Public Domain

Faced with the problems of industrial society and the growth of socialism, the churches responded with projects for social reform: Protestant working men’s associations in Germany, Christian socialism in England. In 1889 Cardinal Manning successfully mediated in the London Dock Strike. The Salvation Army established food depots, night shelters and rescue homes for ‘fallen’ women. Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum set out Catholic teaching on social reform.


In the nineteenth century the power of the state advanced at the expense of the Church, particularly in education. In France, the chief educator was no longer the curé, but the instituteur. All the mainstream churches worried about declining numbers. But it is difficult to generalise because religious practice varied from country to country and region to region. Men tended to be more anti-clerical and less inclined to attend church. For many women, religion, though institutions such as religious orders or the Anglican Mothers’ Union, provided a semi-public role outside the home. In Britain in the 1890s most children attended Sunday school at some time in their lives.

Visions of the Virgin

Possibly as an unconscious response to secularism, spontaneous local cults grew up, notably many manifestations of the Virgin to poor peasant girls (including La Salette, 1847; Lourdes (left) 1858; Marpingen, 1876; Knock, 1879). The clergy’s attitude was ambivalent; it instinctively distrusted these manifestations of popular piety, but it saw that, once in male, clerical hands, they could be used to restore the Church’s authority. In 1908, three years after the Law of Separation in France, over a million people went on pilgrimage in Lourdes. See here for a review of Ruth Harris's magisterial book Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age.


  1. The 'secularisation narrative' is highly contested and not all historians or sociologists see a straightforward linear progress towards a secular society.
  2. As the state moved into areas of life previously the monopoly of religion, a degree of conflict was inevitable.

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