‘Clericalism – that is our enemy!’: European anticlericalism and the culture wars

Wolfram Kaiser*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Spaniards always stand behind their priests – either with candles in hand to light a procession, or with sticks to beat them up. As this old joke suggests, both Catholic popular piety and militant anticlericalism took on forms in the Iberian peninsula that were extreme by European standards. But the joke also reminds us that the culture wars waged across Europe against clerical influence and ultramontanism were not confined to liberal elites and were not fought solely with parliamentary speeches, secularising legislation and state repression of church autonomy. 

German and Italian liberals used anticlerical rhetoric and parliamentary initiatives to expedite national integration at the expense of the Catholic church; moderate French republicans sought in the tradition of Voltaire to purge the secular state of all political activity by priests and church institutions. But political activism of this kind constituted only one level of the European culture wars. Anticlericalism was also a mass phenomenon with deep social roots. In the extra-parliamentary sphere, its primary agents included religious groups and institutions. The most important of these were liberal Catholicism, nonconformist liberal Protestantism in the predominantly Protestant states of central and northern Europe, and the various religious minorities who anticipated that a political victory over ultramontane or orthodox Protestant clericalism would bring about their complete legal and social emancipation. Equally important, however, were those emphatically anticlerical organisations, such as the freemasons and the free-thinkers of France, Belgium and Italy who cultivated close ideological and personal links with the progressive parties.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCulture Wars
Subtitle of host publicationSecular-Catholic Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Europe
EditorsChristopher Clark, Wolfram Kaiser
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages30
ISBN (Electronic)9780511496714
ISBN (Print)0521809975, 9780521809979
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2003


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