Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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First Pub. Date
New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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CLERICALISM. This new word, used only in religious and political discussion, is said to have been first employed by Belgian journalists, about the year 1855.


—The words "clerk," "clerical," "clergy," suggest ecclesiastical functions. "Clericals" and "clericalism," suggest the abuse of those functions.


—Abuse of priestly power is manifested, either by a tendency to an unlimited control of the faithful, or by encroachments of the clergy in the domain of civil and political authority. These usurpations of the clergy are possible only in churches which recognize the authority of a priesthood. They are dangerous only in those churches, which, united to the state, are really political establishments, whose only object, as such, is to increase their privileges, and whose aim, consequently, is to transform the government into a theocracy pure and simple. Those among the laity who declare themselves partisans of this religious mysticism, are termed "clericals" and accused of "clericalism." Religion, however, must be carefully distinguished from clericalism. If we compare the tendency of clericalism with that of Christianity, it seems to us that the salutary influence of the latter on modern civilization is much more beneficial when acting independently of any church establishment, which, following the example of Rome, puts itself in opposition to the liberal tendencies of evangelical doctrine, with its respect for the sovereignty of conscience. This tendency of Christianity, broad, tolerant and humanitarian, affords us the glorious spectacle of an interminable struggle against ignorance and superstition, and of its efforts to restore to conscience the feeling of individuality and liberty by the assimilation of the religious truth which propagates itself unaided by any external power. It is only by persuasion, unassisted by force, that Christian truth can influence morality and effect a moral reformation. In that way truth may prevail, even against those who arrogate to themselves the right to hold the exclusive monopoly of truth, and to propagate truth among the nations.


—The policy of clericalism, on the other hand, is sectarian and intolerant. In spite of the evidence of facts, priestly power persists in maintaining that, existing by divine right, itself and religion are identical, and that it is the church in all its original purity and integrity. By means of this confusion of the ideas of the temporal and spiritual power, of the times of the primitive church, and the time of the decay of its ecclesiastical institutions, clericalism troubles and demoralizes the timid, weakens character, and attracts to itself the weak by saving them the necessity of distinguishing between right and wrong, truth and falsehood. For the authority of the priest is ever present to the conscience of the true believer. It becomes a sort of artificial substitute for conscience itself, assuming to be an infallible criterion of religious truth.


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