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note: Occassionally I post up old history essays of mine. Here is another one. See the comments for the bibliography.
Religious practice in Catholic Europe in the nineteenth century was a multifaceted thing, influenced by such factors as class, gender, and region. Despite nominally being members of the same faith, the religious experience of a Bavarian farmer was very different to that of an industrial worker in Barcelona and different again from that of a bourgeois woman in northern France. In previous centuries it can be argued that the Catholic 'community,' for lack of a better word, was a much more homogenous entity, despite cultural and class barriers. The enormous changes that transformed European society in the nineteenth century had an eroding effect on this uniformity, and the Church found itself having to respond to a variety of new and unique challenges across Europe.
The twin forces of industrialization and urbanization presented the greatest challenges to the Church, as they forced it to redefine its role in communities. Since the very beginnings of European Christianity the overwhelming majority of the population had lived in rural areas and lived quite traditional agrarian lives. The peer pressure and insularity that is rampant within small communities had the effect of keeping virtually everyone within the Church's sphere of influence. The Church was an accepted part of the establishment, consorting with the European political elite while also providing spiritual comfort to the masses. And like other pillars of society such as the military and government, those who had been born into privilege dominated the upper levels of the Church hierarchy. This was the way that things had been throughout Catholic Europe for centuries, remaining relatively unchanged in those areas that were not swept up in the Reformation. The one great exception, of course, was Revolutionary France, where the connection between the Church and the State that had been so strong was irreparably severed. Most people in Europe lived their lives in relative isolation from each other, and only the Church offered a semblance of a wider community, of a life beyond toil in the fields.
The nineteenth century changed this. The rise of industrialization and its crusading ideology, liberal capitalism, completely upset the balance of power in European society. Needless to say, this was a change that had a serious impact on the Catholic Church as well. It created a new social class of industrial tycoons whose power was based on wealth, not on their inherited status. Improvements in transport and communications technology drew together European societies in an entirely new way, creating the phenomenon of nationalism, a new way for people to connect their communities into a larger cultural whole. Industrialization drew people by the millions from the old way of life in the countryside to the booming cities. The negative side effects of industrialization, the poverty, the disease, the squalid housing, created socialism and the workers' movements, which were implicitly against the Establishment in all of its forms. The Church was, of course, an integral part of what they were fighting against. Essentially, these enormous changes created new communities of interests that were in many respects diametrically opposed to the old order dominated by the clergy and the aristocracy.
As important as the process of industrialization in the nineteenth century was, it was not the only area in which the Church was facing change. The fallout from the highly anti-clerical French Revolution continued to reverberate throughout the nineteenth century. The impact was strongest in France, of course, but the influence of the Revolution and then Napoleon reached across Catholic Europe. The phenomenon of dechristianisation spread across Europe like a virus as, without fanfare, huge numbers of rural people in some places simply stopped turning up to church. This is not the same thing as saying that people stopped believing in God, or identifying themselves as Christians, but that the Church had started to fade from its place at the heart of communal religious and social life. Since this wasn't an organised movement but a spreading apathy, there has never really been any succinct explanations as to why, using France as an example, people deserted the Church in the Ile de France region in such huge numbers when religious life continued virtually unchanged in the Massif Centrale.
In attempting to explain how religious life changed in Catholic Europe in the nineteenth century it is important to look at specific examples in parts of Europe where the Church was faced with organised anti-clerical movements, as well as at those parts where the Catholic Church retained its traditional influence. Before that, it is necessary to understand the mechanics of religious change, the terms that allow us to make decisions on the growing or waning strength of the Church. One crucial area is the issue of church attendance. Interpretations of church attendance are fraught with difficulties. Do you consider attendance at the important religious festivals (which, crucially, vary by region and sometimes even by community)? Or should those attending church only on those days be considered the equivalent of 'fair-weather fans' in modern sports, i.e. those who have no real interest besides the big event? How can you measure regular attendance when very few detailed week-by-week records exist? Indeed, even basic population records are patchy and incomplete for many areas of Europe at the time, so church attendance records are even more difficult to find. These difficulties become even more acute in urban parishes, where transient populations mean that religious authorities were faced with an enormous task in keeping track of their parishioners.
There are other ways to determine religious vitality beyond counting people in pews. The ordination rate, for instance (number of people entering the seminary per ten thousand people in a particular diocese) can serve as a barometer for religious feeling, but then it can also indicate other, non-religious factors such as relative lack of economic opportunity. Studying baptism delays, the time period between birth and baptism, is another way of tracking religious trends between regions and over time periods. People's actions in death provide another indicator as to religious feeling, by the proportion of people receiving the Last Rites and by those who, having Last Will and Testaments (a small sector of society, but a useful barometer nonetheless), bequeath part of their possessions to the Church.
These sorts of questions, and the difficulty in providing comprehensive answers to them, mean that it is difficult to feel entirely content with providing anything more concrete than qualified generalizations about the state of religious practice in the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, by looking at events in several markedly different areas it is possible to gain an understanding of the breadth of challenges that the Catholic Church was faced with in the nineteenth century. A good starting point is Bavaria, traditionally one of the most important centres of Catholicism in Germany. German unification meant that formerly independent states with Catholic majorities were now subsumed within a much larger nation-state where they were outnumbered by Protestants two to one. The effects of that change would come later, but in more immediate terms, the rising tide of political liberalism saw many of the Church's traditional rights in the Bavarian government disappear. As in other parts of Europe, liberals within the Bavarian government in the 1860's approved the confiscation of Church property, as well as the subordination to state control of traditional areas of Church influence, with limits placed on confessional schools, the introduction of civil marriages, and restraints placed on the activities of religious charities and seminaries.
In effect, this was a dry run for Bismarck's Kulturkampf a decade later. The activities of the Bavarian liberals created a defensive mood within the church, which manifested itself in the creation of a revivalist political party to reassert the authority of Catholicism over the affairs of Bavaria. "The organisational and spiritual renewal within the Church occasioned by these fundamental changes was, however, to undermine any possibility of a common front between liberals and Catholics against the arbitrary excesses of dynastic absolutism." (Farr, p.250) The creation of the Patriotic Party returned political power to Bavarian Catholics. Yet the liberals weren't finished as the Prussians, ever mistrustful of what they saw as the morally inferior Catholic Church, kept them on in administration. The kulturkampf, which saw the persecution of Catholics become an official part of state policy, meant that ordinary Catholics in Bavaria remained united around the Patriotic Party, even though as a political entity it was committed only to defending the interests of the local bourgeoisie and the Church.
When the Kulturkampf was wound down it presented the Patriotic Party with great problems. In its resistance to Bismarck it had focused almost exclusively on religious and clerical issues due to their ability to unite the the greatest number of the people of Bavaria behind the party, and also because the Church hierarchy was terrified that campaigning on social justice issues would give strength to the Catholic left. The fear of populism, and the challenge it represented, ran so deep that political organisation was entrusted in the hands of the parish clergy, with senior clerics involved in the selection of candidates. Bavaria was a de facto one-party state, so the only way to express dissatisfaction was to fail to vote, and the Bavarian working class did this in droves in the 1880's. This disillusionment manifested itself a decade later with the appearance of the Bavarian Peasant League, a populist force that quickly gained popularity throughout the region. The BPL had four main principles that brought disgruntled Catholic voters to them. The first was anger that the PP was devoting so much effort to religious issues in a time of growing poverty. The second was a suspicion that the clergy were misusing Catholic loyalties for political ends. The third was a call for complete state control of primary and secondary education, with the clerics relegated to the provision of religious instruction only. The final principle was an attack on the presumption on the part of the clergy that they could represent the interests of the peasantry. The immediate popularity of this protest party forced the Patriotic Party to entirely revamp the party structure and reduce the role of the clergy in its organisation, as well as to expand the provision of Catholic populist groups, such as the Christian Peasant Association. Ultimately, to retain power the PP had to sever all but the most formal links with the Church.
If the Bavarian experience can be seen as an example of anticlericalism arising from the Church cynically using its influence over the population to pursue its own political ends, then events in Spain show the failure of the Church to adapt to the new problems put forward by industrialisation. When industry began to blossom in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, and the Basque country in the middle of the nineteenth century there was no real effort on the part of the Church to systematically engage the new urban proletariat. The uneasy relationship between church and state, which was a holdover from the anticlerical legislation passed earlier in the century, further held back the church. As all priests were paid by the state, there was a real reluctance to fund new parishes, so that, for example, by 1920 Madrid had only thirty parishes to serve a population of seven hundred and fifty thousand people, and a disproportionately high number of those were in the wealthy inner core, leaving the masses in the suburbs almost entirely without access to religious services. Worse yet, most priests were still drawn from traditional rural areas, which made them patently unfit to deal with the new challenges presented by industrialisation.
The lack of a real church presence in the new industrial slums was a serious problem, but much more damaging was the Church's alliance with conservative bourgeois forces, which it saw as the lesser of two evils when compared with revolutionary socialism. This alliance with the class enemy meant that a very violent culture of anti-clericalism spread among the urban working class. For conservatives in the industrial regions, "religious practice was seen less as a road to salvation than as a sign of faith of testimony with a church believing itself surrounded by a host of sinister and dangerous forces." (Callahan, p. 53) The result of all this was that religion in urban Spain became an ideological issue, an enormous change from the past, where Catholicism had been a unifying force for all Spaniards.
Now, while the Catholic church failed to confront local issues effectively in Bavaria and urban Spain in the nineteenth century, in Rhineland-Westphalia in western Germany it managed to not only maintain its role in society, but actually to strengthen it. It experienced the wave of dechristianisation in the early nineteenth century that had spread across Europe in Napoleon's wake, but from 1850 onwards religious life in this part of Germany started to reconstitute itself. The Jesuits launched highly successful 'popular missions' to bring the rural poor back to the Church. After 1850, illegitimacy rates fell by over thirty percent. Religious bequests in wills rose sharply, especially amongst women. New populist religious organisations and local pilgrimages met with great approval from the general population. Even with industrialisation, religious fervour remained strong in the region, and the Catholic Church remained a very important part of the lives of the newly urbanised workers. Why were things so different in Rhineland-Westphalia than in either Bavaria or Spain? Well, the return to religious life was a way of restating a cultural identity obscured in the upheaval of the Napoleonic period. It was also a way of holding on to the past in the face of frightening new social and economic changes. Importantly, the local Church hierarchy made concessions to populist methods to tempt people back to religious life much earlier than their counterparts in Bavaria and Spain.
As a counterbalance to both the failures of Bavaria and Spain and the successes in Rhineland-Westphalia is bourgeois northern France, which split down the middle on religious matters between men and women. As one of the first parts of France to industrialise on a mass level it saw the pattern of decristianisation repeated in their region, as was happening elsewhere in Europe. Yet, funnily enough, this was limited mostly to the men in the community. They may have stopped bothering with religion, yet their women were becoming increasingly involved with the Church. For the men, the lack of any Catholic doctrine celebrating making money, in the way that some Protestant religious figures endorsed the fruits of capitalism, proved a turn-off. Faced with a bold new world where material wealth was there to be gained, they left the church in droves.
For women the impact of industrialisation was less marked. They did not have to conform to the same sort of time constraints as men, because they spent their lives at home. As such, they retained more of a link to the less regimented rhythms of life in the past. And in such uncertain times, these links to the past were treasured. In the same way, religion was clung on to as a source of meaning and comfort, especially the aspects of Catholicism that seemed to speak to their desires most directly. Scriptural celebrations of the Virgin Mary and paeans to women's virtue despite their powerlessness and fragility proved especially popular. These were not liberated women in any modern sense. They did not want to think of themselves as independent or powerful in any right, they wanted to feel protected and at spiritual peace. It is certainly significant that the most popular aspects of Catholicism among these middle-class women were among the most ethereal and least confrontational aspects to the religion. It was escapism, and can be understood as coming from the same impulse that sees modern middle-class women take up new age religions; the impulse that seeks escape from dull domesticity not through rebellion and conflict, but through a heightened spirituality that can provide an all-encompassing barrier to the problems of life.
In response to this, the Church in the region began to tailor its message to appease this hungry new constituency. Catholic social organisations for women began to merge with less religious right-wing anti-modernist movements, attacking godlessness, socialism and the evils of the modern world with a ferocious vigour. As one critic said of them they were "fanatical in observing Catholic ritual and ardent in their professions of faith, (but) cold in the face of human misery." (Smith, p. 105)
These four different examples provide a glimpse at the sheer diversity of issues facing the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century. Religion and its public expression had moved from being a part of everyday life, unremarkable in its ubiquity, to being a major ideological battleground. It marked out battle lines by class, region, political orientation and even gender. For some Christianity became synonymous with a system that needed to be completely overhauled, while for others it became something to latch on to in troubled times.
Beyond the ideological clashes that marked out the experience of the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century there was a deeper problem. Industrialisation and modernisation created new types of communities that found that they had, as a collective, a voice that was better suited to their needs than that provided by the 'Christian community,' whether they were socialist workers, or proponents of economic liberalism. The ending of the Church's role as protector of the only truly international community of ordinary people in Europe was a deep blow that it has never really recovered from. Suddenly people were not just 'Christians' they could also be 'capitalists' or 'socialists' or 'anarchists' or so on. This creation of interest communities undermined the church in its old role as one of the central parts of the social fabric, relegating religion to a side position as simply another ideological option.