In Favour of Anti-Clericalism

Anti-clericalism should be part of any decent theology. I always find a good bout of anti-clericalism exceedingly satisfying and pleasurable. To give a few examples from two of my favourite authors: Engels could, given his background and intimate knowledge of the church, produce some delightful observations. Priests – in bed with the ruling classes, whether the remnants of the older nobility or the new bourgeoisie –  often join a list of the corrupt: ‘Gendarmes, priests, lawyers, bureaucrats, lords of the manor in cheerful profusion and a total absence of any and every industry, so that one could barely conceive what all these parasitic plants live on, were there no counterpart in the wretchedness of the peasants’. And in one of his engaging pieces on the military, Engels engages in a tally of available men for service, making the following delightful comment on the exemption of theologians from armed service in Prussia:

Let us take this further. 1,638 men were deferred or exempted as theologians. Why theologians should be too grand to serve is incomprehensible. On the contrary, a year’s army service, living in the open air, and contact with the outside world can only benefit them. So without more ado we will recruit them; 1/3 of the total number for the current year, with 3/4 unfit, still leaves 139 men to be included.

Marx too could fire off a sharp remark, a skill he picked up when writing as a journalist and editor for the Rheinische Zeitung in the early 1840s. For example, commenting on the Paris commune and the clergy, he writes: ‘The priests were sent back to the recesses of private life, there to feed upon the alms of the faithful in imitation of their predecessors, the Apostles’. Or when he found himself on a train between Cologne and Frankfurt, he encountered a Roman Catholic priest (by the name of Mutzelberger), who loosened his tongue after Marx gave him a few swigs of his brandy bottle. At this point, ‘the Holy Ghost came to my aid’, for Marx was able to get quite a bit from him.

It’s bloody fun to track these comments in Marx and Engels, or, if you like, those other great anti-clericals, Luther and Calvin, Spinoza and Voltaire, Nietzsche and many others. I long for a work that catalogues the best of them, especially since my own background (Reformed Calvinist, albeit of a wayward type) made anti-clericalism its bread and butter. And I know the church and its small-minded bureaucrats only too well: the smarmy bishop who leans back, resplendent in his purple, and smiles broadly while quietly inserting the knife; the petty power brokers who make secular governments look tame in their efforts gain control over church coffers; the apologist for the latest round of employer tactics, who claim the that better conditions for workers will ruin their businesses. After all, the church has had a good two millennia to refine its skills, focusing on one’s most sensitive spot, turning it on the rack and extracting grovelling obedience. Or, as Marx put it: ‘General exploitation of communal human nature, just as every imperfection in man, is a bond with heaven – giving the priest access to his heart’. Fuck yeah!

All the same, anti-clericalism is not to be confused with atheism. Even more, anti-clericalism is not only the preserve of secular critics, especially on the left, for it should also be very much part of any theological reflection.


2 thoughts on “In Favour of Anti-Clericalism

  1. As a Catholic priest myself, I concur.

    Perhaps you have heard of the Catholic writer, defender of the poor and great anti-cleric Leon Bloy.

    He makes Nietzche and Marx look like members of Opus Dei.

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