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Catholicism and Liberalism in Nineteenth-
Century Spain

@Patrick Foley

As the 1989 bicentennial of the French Revolution approached, one of
the most salient concerns to surface about France's commemoration of
that historic upheaval involved the necessity to redefine the very
nature of what France would be celebrating.1 While the debate over
that query has ranged across a broad spectrum of attitudes toward the
Revolution which has led to various interpretations of that event,
far too little attention has been focused on the legacy of that
convulsion on the histories of other nations. Of utmost importance to
students of religion, such seems to be especially true where the
issue of the Revolution's treatment of organized Christianity demands
reassessment. The French nation can no longer justifiably acclaim
that aspect of the Revolution which _ in the name of liberty,
equality, and fraternity _ swept aside much of the country's
traditional Roman Catholic identity. In like manner, it will no
longer do to couch the interaction between the Roman Catholic Church
and the liberals of nineteenth-century Europe _ the latter to a
considerable extent being heirs of the French Revolution _ almost
exclusively in the terminology of utilitarianism, politics,
economics, and social reform. Perhaps more so than with any other
nation, that kind of interpretation has dominated the recent
scholarship of Spain, particularly in studies written in the English

Although in Spain the liberal assault against the Catholic Church was
not as devastating as in revolutionary France, it was nonetheless
outrageously destructive of the centuries-old sacral character of
that Iberian land. Nowhere was that more in evidence than in the
Spanish liberals' undermining of the Faith itself. During the First
Carlist War (1833-1840) widespread anticlericalism in the form of
rapine, clerical executions and assassinations, exilings, and other
such attacks occurred with regularity. Added to that, commencing in
January 1834 and lasting for four decades, liberals dominated the
ministry and cortes at Madrid and the politics of the provinces,
initiating at first moderate, then increasingly radical, measures
against the Church. However, the main focus of this essay must be one
which calls for a re-thinking of the nature of the interplay between
the Spanish liberals and the Roman Catholic Church in respect to the
impact of that development on the Catholic faith itself in Spain.

Turning to the French antecedents of the Spanish liberals' assault on
Roman Catholicism, Guillaume Bertier de Sauvigny, noted historian at
the Catholic Institute of Paris, has shown in his recent studies of
the Church during the French Revolution that during the years 1789
through 1795, France endured a devastating attack against not only
Roman Catholicism, but Christianity in general.2 A brief summary of
that anti-religious onslaught would highlight the following actions
of various revolutionary factions, as the most significant ones
relative to the undermining of the Catholic religion in France during
that period.

In May 1789 all ecclesiastical properties in France were
nationalized. That offensive, initiated before the French Revolution
actually broke out and carried out in the name of economic progress,
undermined the historical fiscal independence of the Church in
France. With its economic foundation seriously damaged, the French
clergy and religious were later less able to resist additional
revolutionary encroachments into ecclesiastical areas of concern.
Following those initiatives, in February 1790 the French government
outlawed all religious vows for both males and females, claiming that
such oaths were contradictory to basic human liberties. By that act
alone, the Revolution's leaders revealed their disrespect for natural
law as the basis for all jurisprudence: wherein human law must be
promulgated in harmony with natural law, that aspect of the eternal
law which, according to Etienne Gilson, is discovered inscribed in
our own nature.3 The need for human law to be based on natural law,
so thoroughly developed in Thomistic thought, had been central to
Roman Catholic thinking and French legal tradition for centuries.

Continuing on with their aggressions, the revolutionaries then
proclaimed the 1790 Civil Constitution of the Clergy: a set of
decrees which effectively cut off the Church in France from the Holy
See and threatened Roman Catholicism's ecclesiastical and canonical
structure in that country. Had the French clergy and Catholic laity
universally accepted the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, a state
church might have emerged in France.4 Some scholars have argued that
an organized attempt to dechristianize France began on 22 September
1792, when the National Convention substituted a revolutionary
calendar in France for the long-accepted Gregorian Calendar, first
used in Roman Catholic lands in 1582.5 Inasmuch as the new
revolutionary calendar eliminated the schema of days, weeks, and
months found in the Gregorian Calendar, Sundays were no longer
recognized, subverting the Church's Sunday Mass attendance
requirement. Moreover, with its adoption of the new calendar, the
revolutionaries expunged from the official national conscience of
France any concept of the Sabbath, religious feast days, and holy
days. Meanwhile, religious orders and congregations _ both male and
female _ were suppressed throughout France. It was perhaps inevitable
that, given the French acceptance of the ideas of the Enlightenment,
promotion of a religion of reason would emerge. Within a short time
"temples of reason" could be seen in several French cities, including
the most famous which was erected in Notre Dame Cathedral.6

As the bloodletting of the Reign of Terror was unleashed on French
society from 1792 through 1794, thousands of "citizens" lost their
lives, were imprisoned, exiled, or simply fled France for safe refuge
in other lands.7 Much of that havoc was wrought on the people under
the auspices of the Law of Suspects of 17 September 1793: a decree
which mandated the arrest, imprisonment, or possible execution of any
French man, woman, or child suspected of refusing to support the
revolution. As a result of that statute an estimated 35,000 to 40,000
French persons were put to death, among them many Roman Catholic
clergy and nuns. Bertier de Sauvigny estimates that an additional
300,000 people were incarcerated in prisons throughout France.8 Also,
during that terrifying era thousands of priests, brothers,
seminarians, nuns, and novices emigrated from France, many of them to
"safe" Catholic nations such as Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Other
religious emigres were to find their way to England, the United
States, or one or another of the countries of Latin America.9

The French Revolution's onslaught against the Catholic faith pervaded
French society even more completely than has been outlined here. The
assault touched virtually every aspect of Catholic life in that land,
even to the extreme of laying the groundwork for an attempt at
"secularizing" the sacraments in the eyes of the revolutionary
government of the First French Republic.10 Unfortunately, the
people's attraction for the words "liberty, equality, and fraternity"
has often obscured the disastrous impact upon Roman Catholic France
of the antireligious crusade of the French revolutionaries.

Within two decades a similar historical development surfaced in
Catholic Spain, where with the dawn of the nineteenth century and the
outbreak of the Napoleonic wars in Europe, the ideas associated with
the French Revolution found their way into the Iberian Peninsula.
According to William J. Callahan, Catholic Church historian at the
University of Toronto, the form of Spanish liberalism that developed
during that period found its origin in:

The utilitarian emphasis of state reform during the eighteenth
century, the critical spirit that had swept through educated opinion
from the 1780s on, the influence of the French revolutionary
constitution of 1791, and more individual patterns of economic

During the French occupation of most of Spain in the Peninsular War
(1808-1813), the Spanish cortes met at the city of Cadiz from 1810 to
1813 and fell under the influence of liberals. Seemingly more touched
by the utilitarian nuances of early-nineteenth-century liberalism
than by radically anti-religious attitudes, the Spanish liberals who
dominated the Cadiz cortes were determined to alter the Roman
Catholic Church's traditional posture in society in the name of
modernism. Committed to clerical reform and a diminution of
ecclesiastical institutional wealth and political influence, the
Cadiz cortes liberals offered no real challenge to Spain's historical
Roman Catholic heritage. And in fact the article on religion of the
Cadiz Constitution of 1812, which those very same liberals helped to
promulgate, stated that "the religion of the Spanish nation is and
shall be perpetually, the Apostolic Roman Catholic, the only true
religion. The nation protects it by wise and just laws and prohibits
the exercise of any other whatsoever."12

Once liberalism had made its appearance in Spain however, it became a
mere matter of time until the movement assumed a more radical
character. In power once again in 1820 _ this time at Madrid as a
result of the revolt led by Colonel Rafae