Anti-clericalism is opposition to religious authority, typically in social or political matters. Historical anti-clericalism has mainly been opposed to the influence of Roman Catholicism. Anti-clericalism is related to secularism, which seeks to remove the church from all aspects of public and political life, and its involvement in the everyday life of the citizen.[1]

Some have opposed clergy on the basis of moral corruption, institutional issues and/or disagreements in religious interpretation, such as during the Protestant Reformation. Anti-clericalism became extremely violent during the French Revolution because revolutionaries believed the church had played a pivotal role in the systems of oppression which led to it. Many clerics were killed, and French revolutionary governments tried to control priests by making them state employees.

Anti-clericalism appeared in Catholic Europe throughout the 19th century, in various forms, and later in Canada, Cuba, and Latin America.



Illustration in the French anti-clerical magazine La Calotte in 1908.


The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was passed on July 12, 1790, requiring all clerics to swear allegiance to the French government and, by extension, to the increasingly anti-clerical National Constituent Assembly. All but seven of the 160 bishops refused the oath, as did about half of the parish priests.[2] Persecution of the clergy and of the faithful was the first trigger of the rebellion; the second being conscription. Nonjuring priests were exiled or imprisoned and women on their way to Mass were beaten in the streets.[2]

The anti-clericalism during the French Revolution initially began with attacks on church corruption and the wealth of the higher clergy, an action with which even many Christians could identify, since the Roman Catholic church held a dominant role in pre-revolutionary France. During a two-year period known as the Reign of Terror, the episodes of anti-clericalism grew more violent than any in modern European history. The new revolutionary authorities suppressed the church; abolished the Catholic monarchy; nationalized church property; exiled 30,000 priests and killed hundreds more.[3] Many churches were converted into "temples of reason," in which atheistical services were held.[4][5][6][7] There has been much scholarly debate over whether the movement was popularly motivated.[8] As part of the campaign to dechristianize France, in October 1793 the Christian calendar was replaced with one reckoning from the date of the Revolution, and Festivals of Liberty, Reason and the Supreme Being were scheduled. New forms of moral religion emerged, including the deistic Cult of the Supreme Being and France's first established state sponsored atheistic Cult of Reason,[9][10][11] with all churches not devoted to these being closed.[12] In April and May 1794, the government mandated the observance of a festival of the Cult of the Supreme Being.[12] When anticlericalism became a clear goal of French revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries seeking to restore tradition and the Ancien Régime took up arms, particularly in the War in the Vendée (1793 to 1796). Local people often resisted dechristianisation and forced members of the clergy who had resigned to conduct Mass again. Eventually, Maximilien Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety denounced the dechristianization campaign and tried to establish their own religion, without the superstitions of Catholicism.[13]

When Pope Pius VI took sides against the revolution in the First Coalition (1792–1797), Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy (1796).[14] French troops imprisoned the Pope in 1797, and he died after six weeks of captivity.[14] After a change of heart, Napoleon then re-established the Catholic Church in France with the signing of the Concordat of 1801,[14] and banned the Cult of the Supreme Being. Many anti-clerical policies continued. When Napoleonic armies entered a territory, monasteries were often sacked and church property secularized.[15][16][17][18]

Third Republic

A further phase of anti-clericalism occurred in the context of the French 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 (formally along with the Jewish, Lutheran and Calvinist minority religions, but in practice with much more influence than those). During the 19th century, public schools employed primarily priests as teachers, and religion was taught in schools (teachers were also obliged to lead the class to Mass). In 1881–1882 Jules Ferry's government passed the Jules Ferry laws, establishing free education (1881) and mandatory and lay education (1882), giving the basis of French public education. The Third Republic (1871–1940) firmly established itself after the 16 May 1877 crisis triggered by the Catholic Legitimists who wished for a return to the Ancien Régime.

Forcible closure of the Grande Chartreuse monastery in 1903

In 1880 and 1882 Benedictine teaching monks were effectively exiled. This was not completed until 1901.[19][20][21][22][23]

A law of 7 July 1904 preventing religious congregations from teaching any longer, and the 1905 law on separation of state and church, were enacted under the government of Radical-Socialist Émile Combes. Alsace-Lorraine was not subjected to these laws as it was part of the German Empire then.

In the Affaire des Fiches (1904-1905), it was discovered that the anticlerical War Minister of the Combes government, General Louis André, was determining promotions based on the French Masonic Grand Orient's card index on public officials, detailing which were Catholic and who attended Mass, with a view to preventing their promotions.[24]

In the years following their relocations, boarding schools of congreganists were accused by some senators of trying to "recruit" French youth from abroad, placing the French Republic "in jeopardy":

— Second sitting of the French Senate on 4 July 1911.[25]

Republicans' anti-clericalism softened after the First World War as the Catholic right-wing began to accept the Republic and secularism. However, the theme of subsidized private schools in France, which are overwhelmingly Catholic but whose teachers draw pay from the state, remains a sensitive issue in French politics.

Austria (Holy Roman Empire)

Emperor Joseph II (emperor 1765-1790) opposed what he called "contemplative" religious institutions — reclusive Catholic institutions that he perceived as doing nothing positive for the community.[26] 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 1,700 new parishes and welfare institutions.[27]

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.[28]

Catholic Historians have claimed that there was an alliance between Joseph and anti-clerical Freemasons.[29]


"Between Berlin and Rome", with Bismarck on the left and the Pope on the right. Kladderadatsch, 1875

The Kulturkampf, (literally "culture struggle") refers to German policies in reducing the role and power of the Catholic Church in Prussia, enacted from 1871 to 1878 by the Prime Minister of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck.

Bismarck accelerated the Kulturkampf, which did not extend to the other German states such as Bavaria (where Catholics were in a majority). As one scholar put it, "the attack on the church included a series of Prussian, discriminatory laws that made Catholics feel understandably persecuted within a predominantly Protestant nation." Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans and other orders were expelled in the culmination of twenty years of anti-Jesuit and antimonastic hysteria.[30]

In 1871, the Catholic Church comprised 36.5% of the population of the German Empire, including millions of Germans in the west and South, as well as the vast majority of Poles. In this newly founded Empire, Bismarck sought to appeal to liberals and Protestants (62% of the population) by reducing the political and social influence of the Catholic Church.

Priests and bishops who resisted the Kulturkampf were arrested or removed from their positions. By the height of anti-Catholic measures, half of the Prussian bishops were in prison or in exile, a quarter of the parishes had no priest, half the monks and nuns had left Prussia, a third of the monasteries and convents were closed, 1800 parish priests were imprisoned or exiled, and thousands of laypeople were imprisoned for helping the priests.[31]

The Kulturkampf backfired, as it energized the Catholics to become a political force in the Centre party and revitalized Polish resistance. The Kulturkampf ended about 1880 with a new pope Leo XIII willing to negotiate with Bismarck. Bismarck broke with the Liberals over religion and over their opposition to tariffs; He won Centre party support on most of his conservative policy positions, especially his attacks against Socialism.


Anti-clericalism in Italy is connected with reaction against the absolutism of the Papal States, overthrown in 1870. For a long time, the Pope required Catholics not to participate in the public life of the Kingdom of Italy that had invaded the Papal States to complete the unification of Italy, prompting the pope to declare himself a "prisoner" in the Vatican. 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. Throughout the history of Liberal Italy, relations between the Italian government and the Church remained acrimonious, and anticlericals maintained a prominent position in the ideological and political debates of the era. Tensions eased between church and state in the 1890s and early 1900s as a result of both sides' mutual hostility toward the burgeoning Socialist movement, but official hostility between the Holy See and the Italian state was finally settled by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI: the Lateran Accords were 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 during the 1980s 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.


Your Movement is an anti-clerical party founded in 2011 by politician Janusz Palikot. Palikot's Movement won 10% of the national vote at the Polish parliamentary election, 2011.


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 revolution and the republic which took a "hostile" approach to the issue of church and state separation, like that of the French Revolution, the Spanish Constitution of 1931 and the Mexican Constitution of 1917.[32] As part of the anticlerical revolution, the bishops were driven from their dioceses, the property of clerics was seized by the state, wearing of the cassock was banned, all minor seminaries were closed and all but five major seminaries.[33] A law of February 22, 1918 permitted only two seminaries in the country, but they had not been given their property back.[33] Religious orders were expelled from the country, including 31 orders comprising members in 164 houses (in 1917 some orders were permitted to form again).[33] Religious education was prohibited in both primary and secondary school.[33] Religious oaths and church taxes were also abolished.


Anticlerical cover of a magazine published in Valencia in 1933.

The first instance of anti-clerical violence due to political conflict in 19th century Spain occurred during the Trienio Liberal (Spanish Civil War of 1820–1823). During riots in Catalonia, 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 Ecclesiastical Confiscations of Mendizábal (Spanish: Desamortización) promulgated by Juan Álvarez Mendizábal, prime minister of the new regime abolished the major Spanish Convents and Monasteries.[34]

Many years later the Radical Republican Party leader Alejandro Lerroux would distinguish himself by his inflammatory pieces of opinion.

Second Republic and Civil War (1931-1939)

The Republican government which came to power in Spain in 1931 was based on secular principles. In the first years some laws were passed 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"[35] Religious vestments, liturgical instruments, statues, pictures, vases, gems and other valuable objects were expropriated as well.[36]

During the Civil War in Spain started in 1936, Catholics largely supported Franco and the Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939. Anti-clerical assaults during what has been termed by the Nationalists Red Terror included sacking and burning monasteries and churches and killing 6,832 members of the clergy.[37]

Prior to the falangists joining Francisco Franco's unified alliance of right-wing parties, the party exhibited anti-clerical tendencies. the party was less ferverent in its support for the catholic church which it saw as an elite being an obstacle for the movement to be able to fully control the state. Despite this, no massacres of Catholics have been caused by falangists, whom supported the church as a result of their alliance to monarchists and other nationalist movements.

This number comprises:

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.[39][40] The Catholic Church has canonized several martyrs of the Spanish Civil War and beatified hundreds more.

Other Languages
asturianu: Anticlericalismu
azərbaycanca: Antiklerikalizm
Esperanto: Antiklerikalismo
한국어: 반교권주의
Bahasa Indonesia: Anti-rohaniwan
Lëtzebuergesch: Antiklerikalismus
Nederlands: Antiklerikalisme
日本語: 反教権主義
português: Anticlericalismo
slovenčina: Antiklerikalizmus
slovenščina: Antiklerikalizem
українська: Антиклерикалізм