to Mr. Evarts
Brussels , February 9, 1881. (Received February 24.)
Sir: My predecessor, in his dispatch No. 70, gave an account of the controversy over the new school law of 1879 for Belgium. He stated that the law was resisted by the Roman Catholic priesthood as an attempt to overthrow the religion of the country, while it was admitted by the liberal party and the state ministry that it was designed to lessen the priestly domination in secular affairs; that by the law of 1842 the priests had the right, in common with the civil authorities, to have committees selected from their order to inspect all the public schools, and the right of appointment of teachers, and, in fact, had almost exclusive management of the secular education of the youth of Belgium; that in the normal schools from which school instructors came it was [Page 63] taught that Leopold and Belgium were second to the Pope and Rome; that under the new law a state normal school superseded that institution, and priests could no longer act as school inspectors, public secular education being wholly placed under control of officers of the state, and that a bitter controversy had grown out of this movement.
As this domestic question of Belgium has attracted wide attention, I have thought a brief statement of its present status and relations might be of interest. For a just appreciation of the subject, two facts in Belgian politics and society should be noted. First, that Belgium is, and for centuries has been, an intensely Roman Catholic country. The Protestant element numerically is so insignificant that it is not a considerable factor in Belgian society. The “liberal” element not in sympathy with any religious organization, yet intense in its political character, is undoubtedly strong in the large towns, and acts politically with the “liberal” in contradistinction from the ultramontane party.
The second fact is the liberal character of Belgian political institutions. Monarchical in form, the government has the spirit of a free republic, and has laid the basis of individual liberty as maintained by modern constitutional governments in its fundamental law. The following are some of its provisions relating to education and worship:
Freedom of worship and its public exercise, as well as the right of expressing opinions upon every question, guaranteed, saving the punishment of crimes committed during the exercise of these rights. No person can be required to take part in any manner whatsoever with the acts or ceremonies of any form of worship, nor to observe any days of rest.
Teaching is free. Every preventive measure is prohibited; the repression of crimes is regulated only by law.
Founded in 1830 by a revolution which separated the kingdom from Holland, the first two years after its independent organization the exigencies of the new state prevented the development of sharply defined parties, and it was not until the country felt well assured of its unquestioned independence that radical differences of opinion sought very distinct party organization.
The policy of King Leopold I of selecting a mixed ministry of strict Catholics and Liberals, with the hope of preventing the antagonism of parties, largely contributed to this passive condition.
But it is no less true that in the very beginning there were the elements which would not permit Belgium to escape the internal collisions incident to all free states. The attitude of Gregory XVI toward the liberal features of its constitutional power fully contributed to shape the future politics of the country. In his Encycle of 1832 he declared that—
Indifferentism alone could flow from that absurd and erroneous maxim, that it was necessary to guarantee and assure to all liberty of conscience.
He condemned the liberty of the press and declared that—
Calamity to religion and governments must be the result of following the wishes of those who would separate the church from the state, and would break the mutual concord between the priesthood and the civil authority.
The leading Catholic press of Belgium, as well as the Catholic colleges and seminaries, took the position of hostility to the liberal features of the constitution before the famous syllabus of Pius IX, and since that time that attitude has been uncompromisingly maintained by them.
In a dispatch of Frère Orban, minister of foreign affairs, to the chargé d’affaires of Belgium near the Holy See, of date November 12, 1878, he says: [Page 64]
Liberal Catholics have been pursued in later years with great rigor. Their opinions have been condemned by Pius IX, and themselves declared more dangerous than communists. They are denounced as enemies of religion, although the immense majority of them profess the Catholic faith. In the schools opened by the clergy all the public liberties are treated as dangerous heresies.
To maintain his declarations he quotes from several Belgian Catholic journals. From the Bien Public as follows:
What is liberal Catholicism except an absolute error which expects excellent results from a policy based upon the false and mischievous principle of liberty in all things, and for all. We cannot see in the provisions of our constitution fundamental laws which are appropriate for a people ripe for their liberty. We believe, on the contrary, that legislation full of scepticism, neutral between error and truth, as foreign to religion as to geometry, indifferent to the rights of God, opening the door to blasphemy and corruption.
The Gazette de Liege says:
In presence of the false principles laid down in the Belgian Constitution, the ecclesiastical authority discharges its duty in making known to the people the points which need amendment.
The Catholic et Politique, of March, 1878, says:
We shall make the complete modification of the constitution in a Catholic sense the end of our efforts. To be a child of the church, it is necessary to accept with all our hearts the condemnation recently uttered by her in the syllabus of 1864 and the encycles of 1832 and 1864. It is hard for some, but not less an obligation indisputable. Our adversaries know this as well as we do, and on every occasion they repeat it to the good members of the right and blow the constitutional trumpet as if there had been no syllabus. * * * We shall accord nothing to them which can harm the church; neither the constitution nor justice can make us yield such concessions.
Our adversaries have liberty of press, liberty of education, liberty of worship, liberty of association. Let them keep them so long as we have not the right by a revised constitution to take them from them.
The following is from an address of the Bishop of Liege:
No Catholic can, in conscience, hereafter vote at any political or administrative election in favor of a candidate belonging to the so-called liberal associations, or patronized by them.
The foregoing will, I think, sufficiently illustrate the antagonism of which I have spoken. It has been a cardinal doctrine of the liberals, that the state schools should be wholly separated from the control of the church, and whenever they have been in power they have proposed a modification of the school law which would transfer the control of the public education of the youth of the country from the priests to the officers of the state and the municipalities, and in this have been opposed by the Catholic party. As a very able and devoted press was in the hands of the latter interest, and as all the educational institutions of the country were under priestly management, it is easy to see that the liberals would regard the lessening of that clerical influence over the peasant population a first necessity, not only on the lower ground of fortifying their own position as a party, but from the higher motive of bringing the educational system of the country into harmony with the constitution.
Therefore, it was almost a matter of course that upon the advent to power of the liberals in 1878, under the leadership of Mr. Frère Orban, the modification of the school system should be a foremost measure of their administration.
In January, 1879, the new school law was passed. It transfers the entire control of public education to the state and municipal governments, and wholly separates the secular side of the schools from the church. But while it does this, it makes certain provisions for the [Page 65] religious education of the children in accordance with the faith of their families, and leaves absolute freedom to establish private or parochial schools. Article 4, of Title 1, of the law is as follows:
Religious instruction is left to the care of families and to the clergy of the different forms of worship. A room in the school is put at the disposition of the clergy to give therein, either before or after school hours, religious instruction to the children of their communion attending the school.
Art. VII. The teacher shall neglect no occasion to inspire the pupils with respect for the national institutions and the public liberties.
Accompanying the law is an “exposé” of its motives, in which it is stated that—
the school law of 1842 imposed upon the state the obligation to include in public primary instruction, a religious dogmatic education; that experience had demonstrated the impossibility of reconciling the application of that principle with the spirit of the Belgian constitution, which separated in the most absolute manner the state from churches; that the constitution established among different faiths absolute equality; that the law of 1842, relating to primary education, had, in violation of this principle, required the state to associate its action in the school with the action of a favored church, that representing a majority of the pupils of the school.
Recognizing the fact that the immense majority of the pupils are of the Roman Catholic religion, provision had been made by the new law by which the clery could give daily religious instruction to the pupils; that if this privilege was not availed of, the teachers, if willing so to do, would hear reciations from, the religious text-books of the church, and if unwilling, some other proper person would be appointed for that purpose.
Before the passage of the law the church authorities resisted its passage with all their ability, and after it was put in operation, their opposition was uncompromising. The state schools were declared to be “Godless” and nurseries of atheism and immorality.
The following is from a mandate of the Catholic bishops to the lower orders of their clergy:
The holy communion must be publicly refused—
- To instructors who without special license or dispensation exercise their functions in an official school.
- To active members who serve upon the school committees.
- To school inspectors, principal or cantonal.
- To all persons who publicly and actively favor the state schools, and are their defenders and protectors. All to be first forewarned.
- When it is a question of administering the last sacraments, one rule must be observed. In extremes, extremes must be resorted to. So that if nothing else can be obtained, it will suffice if the sick will promise to do everything which the church requires of him.
The clergy at once organized church schools in their parishes throughout the kingdom, to which Catholic parents were required to send their children.
The state schools suffered so much under these attacks from pulpit, press, and the execution of the mandate of the bishops, losing, as they did, a large percentage of their pupils, although in many instances the old teachers were retained, that at the succeeding session of the House of Deputies a committee was raised to take testimony in the different cantons as to the operation of the law and the action of the church authorities. That committee has been engaged for several months, taking testimony in the different cantons, and hundreds of witnesses have been examined; with few exceptions they reveal a single line of action. The testimony of most any one of the witnesses taken at random will reveal about the same facts.
Refusal of the sacraments to teachers, to school committees, and to parents sending their children to the state schools.[Page 66]
Refusal of the holy communion to the dying except upon promise to transfer their children to the church schools.
Refusal of absolution to the same parties.
Refusal of first communion to the children attending the state schools.
Some of the witnesses testify that wives who are named were in some instances advised by their priests to desert their husbands and to beg from door to door with their children, rather than live with the fathers who would send their children to the state schools. In other cases, according to the evidence, children are advised to leave their parents for the same reasons.
Such is the present attitude of the controversy and both parties are preparing to make their appeal upon the school-law issue to the ballot in 1882.
As the suffrage is qualified in Belgium by a small tax-paying test, a large majority of the peasant population who mostly support the clergy in the conflict, have no vote for members of either house of Parliament. This gives to the liberal party, which is strong in the large towns, an advantage they seem confident of maintaining. But should a reaction restore the Catholic party to power, and they should be able by a two-thirds vote to change the organic law by broadening the basis of suffrage so as to include the peasantry in the voting class, such a change would enable them to establish and long maintain the former system. It may be doubted whether any party will attempt so radical a measure.
To one who has witnessed the conflicts of parties over the slavery question in the United States, or noted the political struggles of the century under constitutional governments, there is nothing in this controversy to surprise; it is Belgium’s “irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces.” The Catholic party accepts the doctrines of the syllabus, and believe there can be no virtuous society and no pure and stable government except in accordance with the principles of that authoritative declaration. The liberals on the other hand, as absolutely accept the modern doctrine that the state is and should be supreme and wholly separate from any church; that the citizen should look to it for his secular education and that while seeking religious guidance at the hands of a consecrated clergy, his manhood should be trained to intelligent and independent individualism in all citizen relations.
The struggle is interesting as it represents a leading conflict between opposing ideas of the century. Incidental to this controversy occurred the rupture of diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Through a voluminous correspondence and in many speeches before the House of Deputies, Mr. Frère-Orban, secretary of foreign affairs, represents the alleged approval by the Pope of the hostile action of the bishops to the school law, while, as the secretary insists, the Pope was representing to the Belgian Government his disproval of it to have been the immediate cause of the rupture. The cardinal secretary, on the other hand claims that the attitude of his Holiness had been uniform.
It should be added that it is the theory of the liberal party that since the suppression of the temporal power there is no good reason why Belgium should maintain diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
I have, &c.,