The Rise of “The People”

Reader Staci comments:

My impression has always been that Europe and especially countries like Spain and Portugal were very Catholic and religious, so I was surprised to read what you said about a ‘great religious upheaval.’ Aren’t those countries today still quite Catholic? Please explain.

Staci, I would be absolutely delighted. The question isn’t really whether or not countries like Spain and Portugal are Catholic today, but to what degree they’re Catholic. Once, and we’re going back hundreds of years now, the Catholic Church was the richest, most powerful single institution in Europe. It was involved in every aspect of European society including politics and commerce, and held property of all sorts all around the Continent, including opulent structures and gigantic land estates.

All that wealth and power inevitably led to abuses of the kind Martin Luther so brilliantly detailed in his Ninety Five Theses in 1517. They kicked off the Protestant Reformation, which was the beginning of the end of Catholic political dominance in Europe. It was the start of the so-called “anti-clerical” movement that brewed in Europe for over 200 years until it finally reached a head in the French Revolution in 1789.

French revolutionaries invented what we might call “secular ideology”, which is to say a concept of politics entirely divorced from royalty and, especially, religion. Indeed some of the first actions the Jacobins took was to destroy and/or confiscate Church property, kill and exile priests and generally attempt to de-Christianize the country. They even got rid of the (Christian-based) calendar, for goodness sakes.

Obviously the Jacobins never succeeded in their de-Christianization project. The early intensity of the French Revolution eventually petered out. Still, many of its ideals were carried forward by Napoleon as he set out to conquer Europe, generally undermine the concept of monarchy and the Church and spread the Napoleonic Code. That code abolished hereditary privilege, permitted freedom of religion, established civic (citizen-run) institutions and set up systems of civil laws that applied to all persons. That made Napoleon a hero to many, though he kinda blew his whole liberator-of-the-people image when he went on to crown himself Emperor in 1804. But that’s another story.

Napoleon eventually fell, and the wild revolutionary period that lasted from 1789 to 1815 ended. However the old order was never to be the same. Never again would the Church in concert with a small set of noble families hold absolute power of the peoples of Europe. Certainly many ruling families would return to power, but usually at the heads of elected governments, as leaders of constitutional monarchies (Portugal would become one of these). As for the Church, well, civic governments proceeded to divest it of power, seizing its holdings and abolishing many orders of monks and nuns, who were the de-facto administrators of Church power at the local level.

But just because the peoples of Europe dispensed with the Church as a political force didn’t mean they wanted to dispose of the Catholic religion altogether. Indeed most European peoples continued to be deeply religious. They simply found a new balance, one in which the people themselves had authority over their day-to-lives and the Church had authority over their spiritual lives. That balance largely continues to this day.

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