July 7, 2005

Debate About Faith and Politics in an Historical Context

The relationship between faith and politics was a frequently discussed theme in the nineteenth-century Dutch press. Throughout Europe Catholic publicists conducted polemics about political modernity and the public role of religion, with each other and dissidents.

Dutch language specialist and historian Henk van den Berg has shown in his Ph.D. thesis how the ideological controversy between faith and politics in the Netherlands became visible, for example in the relationship between the Catholic newspaper De Tijd and the liberal Algemeen Handelsblad.

The political support from Dutch Catholics for liberalism in the mid-nineteenth century, started to diminish in the second half of the 1860s. Almost a century later the catholic historian Rogier pointed out that this support had been based on more than pragmatism alone. Since then the precise character of the disunity that arose among the Catholics has remained unclear.

In his thesis Henk van den Berg systematically relates the question about the amount of liberalism in the socio-political views of Catholic publicists with the question as to how they justified this from the viewpoint of the Catholic faith. The researcher discusses many socio-political publications from Catholic laity and clergy who represented the views held by their fellow Catholics and who tried to exert an influence on these. He shows how these publicists responded to church pronouncements and how they drew inspiration from the press in neighbouring countries.

The socio-political views of Catholic liberals were not welcomed by many Catholics who adopted a critical stance towards liberalism. Yet barely six months after the death of the Liberal statesman Thorbecke, a Jesuit defended the proposition in De Tijd that Thorbecke's political legacy could best be managed by confessional politicians. The opponents in the ideological conflict eventually showed a comparable desire to put freedom in the service of a communal ideal.

Van den Berg's research is the first study to thoroughly consider the contribution of Catholic liberals in the public debate. The study therefore sheds new light on the ideological positioning of Catholics in relation to the constitution of 1848, education and the Dutch nation. It reveals how the attention of Catholics and liberals in the forming of public opinion shifted from the relationship between church and state to the relationship between faith and politics.

Henk van den Berg's research was partly funded by NWO.

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Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research