FREE Catholic Classes
I. THE NAPOLEONIC ERA
The victory of Fleurus, gained by the French army over the Austrian forces, 26 June, 1794, gave to revolutionary France all the territories which constitute Belgium of today: the Austrian Netherlands, the ecclesiastical principality of Liège, the little monastic principality of Stevelot-Malmedy, and the Duchy of Bouillon. The French, who professed to have entered the country to deliver the Belgians form the yoke of tyranny and to liberate them, in reality gave themselves up to such pillaging and extortion that, as a Brussels magistrate said, they left the inhabitants nothing but their eyes to weep with. After this, in alleged compliance with the express wish of the Belgians, who as a matter of fact had not been consulted, a decree of the Convention, dated 1 October, 1795, proclaimed the annexation of the Belgian provinces to France.
At the beginning of the French rule, which was to last twenty years (1794-1814), religious conditions were not identical in the annexed countries. Religion was deeply rooted in what had formerly been the Austrian Netherlands. They had revolted in 1789 against the reforms of Joseph II , which were inspired by the spirit of sophistry. Jansenism, Febronianism, and Josephinism had gained but few partisans there; the University of Louvain was a bulwark of Catholic orthodoxy ; even the Vonckist party, which in 1789 had been clamouring for political reforms, showed great respect for religion and had taken as its motto Pro aris et focis . On the other hand, in the ancient principality of Liège, which, since the fourteenth century had shown the deepest sympathy with France, public sentiment was gallophile, revolutionary, and even somewhat Voltairean; the predominant desire was to throw off the yoke of the priests, and the principality had literally cast itself into the arms of France through hatred of the theocracy. But the French Government soon caused these local differences to be lost sight of in the common hatred of the foreign oppressor.
The Directory began by enforcing, one after another, the French revolutionary laws concerning monastic orders and public worship in Belgium. Religious houses, except those devoted to teaching or to the care of the sick, were suppressed; it was forbidden to wear an ecclesiastical garb; the clergy were forced to publish a declaration recognizing the people of France as the sovereign authority, and promising submission and obedience to the laws of the Republic; the communes were forbidden to contribute to the expenses of public worship and every external symbol of religion was prohibited. The Belgians stood firm, and the elections of the fifth year having shown an undeniable reaction of public opinion against the revolutionary spirit, the clergy appealed to the Five Hundred ( Cinq Cents ) to demand a suspension of the declaration until a papal decision should be received settling the question its licitness. In the meanwhile, the priests who had not made the declaration continued to exercise their priestly functions in the Belgian provinces, and the tribunal of La Dyle acquitted those who were brought before it. At this juncture, Camille Jordan made a favourable report to the Cinq Cents on the clergy's request, and thus the Belgians had the honour of changing the current of French legislation for the better.
The coup d'état of the fifth Fructidor, however, carried out by the revolutionary members of the Directory, destroyed all hope. The victorious conspirators dismissed many Belgians who had been elected, and the elections of the sixth year, conducted under the violent pressure of republican deputies, gave the Government the wished-for results. Then persecution began again. The observance of the decadi , or the last day of the republican decade (week of ten days), was made obligatory and the Sunday rest was forbidden; for the second time, the wearing of any ecclesiastical garb was prohibited; in the suppression of religious orders no exception was made for nursing and teaching orders; seminaries and secular chapters were likewise abolished. The University of Louvain was closed on the ground of not having "the kind of public instruction conformable to Republican principles". As if the "declaration" had not sufficiently overtaxed consciences, priests were compelled to take an oath of hatred for royalty. On the refusal of the great majority, they were banished en masse and a decree issued, closing all churches served by recalcitrant priests. The officials of many communes ignored this order, and in more than one respect, it became a source of trouble. The interdicted priests continued to exercise their functions in the woods, or in private houses which afforded them places of retreat ; in many places the faithful, deprived of the clergy, assembled in churches or in barns, to celebrate "blind Masses" as they were called, viz. Masses without consecration, or any services at the altar. The French deputies daily devised new methods of persecution in revenge for the opposition of public opinion, all the more unconquerable by reason of its silence and its tranquillity.
Things did not rest here. The spark that started the conflagration was the enforcing (1798) in the Belgian provinces of the French conscription laws requiring the enlistment of young men in the armies of the Republic. Rather than shed their blood for masters whom they hated, they rose in revolt, first in Waesland and in Campine, then in Flanders and in German Luxemburg. The Walloon provinces took part in the movement, but with much less energy. This was "the peasants' war " called in Luxemburg, "the war of the cudgels" ( Klöppelkrieg ). There was no lack of courage and devotion among the combatants, and some among them afforded admirable examples of heroism. However, they were poorly armed, had inefficient commanders, and were totally lacking in discipline and military organization; they were deprived of the support of the nobility and of the middle class, who remained absolutely inactive, and they were abandoned even by the Austrian Government which had every reason to stir up a Belgian insurrection. Consequently they could offer no serious resistance to the French troops. They fell back every time they met the enemy in open field; those who did not die in battle were later shot.
After this rising had been quelled, the persecution of the clergy was resumed; 7,500 priests were illegally condemned to be deported. The great majority escaped, only four or five hundred being arrested. Of this number, the oldest and those who were ill were detained in Belgium and in France ; about three hundred were sent to Rochefort with Guiana as their ultimate destination, and, in the interval, were held at the Ile de Re and the Ile d'Oleron where they had much to undergo from ill treatment. It was the darkest hour during the French domination, and was terminated by the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire, 1799. The new Government did not persecute on principle, but only in so far as it was believed necessary to enforce the revolutionary laws to maintain the interests of the party in power. A solution of difficulties was supposed to have been discovered when the clergy were required to take merely an oath of "fidelity to the Republic as resting on the sovereignty of the people". The Belgian bishops who were refugees in England condemned this oath because the doctrine of the sovereignty of the peopled seemed to them heretical. They also refused to sanction the promise of fidelity to the Constitution of the seventh year, which the Government exacted of the clergy before permitting them to exercise the duties of their ministry, because the Constitution rested on false bases and contained articles deserving of condemnation. The leader of this opposition was a priest named Corneille Stevens (1747-1828), who, appointed administrator of the Diocese of Namur (1799) by Cardinal Frankenberg, Archbishop of Mechlin, forbade the clergy to promise fidelity to the Constitution, and who, in a series of pamphlets appearing under the pseudonym of Lemaigre, continued to advocate resistance. Finally, the Concordat of 15 August, 1801, brought, if not final peace, at least a truce. At the pope's request, the four Belgian bishops who had survived the persecutions tendered their resignations and of the nine episcopal sees into which Belgium had been divided since 1559, five only were retained: Mechlin Tournai, Ghent, Namur, and Liège. The bishoprics of Antwerp, Bruges, Ypres, and Ruremonde were suppressed. This organization of 1801 is still effective with this difference, however, that the See of Bruges was re-established in 1834, and that of Ruremonde in 1840.
Great was the rejoicing in the Belgian provinces when, on Pentecost day, 1802 (6 June), Catholic worship was solemnly re-established throughout the country. For some years, the name of Bonaparte, the First Consul, was most popular, and it even seemed as if the "new Cyrus", by the great boon which he had granted Belgium, had gained the support of the Belgians for a foreign government. The bishops appointed by Napoleon fostered in the people sentiments of personal devotion to him, and to such an extent that today they cannot be acquitted of the charge of exceeding all bounds in the adulation and servility. There were, it is true, protests against the new regime. The "non-communicants", as they were styled, refused to recognize the Concordat, contending that it had been forced upon the pope, and they formed a schismatical group, termed the "little church" ( la petite église ), which, though continually falling off in numbers, has preserved its existence, until very recent times. The members have often been erroneously designated as Stevenists. Stevens did not oppose the Concordat. The champion of a rigorous and uncompromising orthodoxy, he recognized the authority of the bishops of the Concordat, but mercilessly condemned their cringing attitude towards the civil authorities, against whose religious policy he never ceased protesting. Form the recesses of his retreat he sent forth brochures, training his guns upon "Saint Napoleon", whose feast day had been fixed by the Government as the 15th of August. He also attacked bitterly the imperial catechism of 1806 already adopted by the great part of the French clergy, which contained a special chapter upon the duties of the faithful toward the emperor. This uninterrupted propaganda struck a responsive chord in the national consciousness and was doubtless responsible for the courage displayed by the Belgian episcopacy in refusing to accept the imperial catechism, which was adopted only in the Diocese of Mechlin. Stevens was perhaps the most unbending adversary Napoleon ever encountered, and their contest was extremely interesting. Although the emperor offered thirty thousand francs to anyone who would deliver Father Stevens into his hands, the priest was never seized; nor was he silenced as long as the Empire lasted. When Napoleon fell (1814) he came out of his retreat, entered the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Namur, and submitted all his writings to the judgment of the Holy See, which, however, never pronounced upon them.
The Belgian bishops were wearied with the exactions of the Government, which went so far as to require every year special pastoral letters impressing upon the people their military duty on the occasion of each call for conscripts, and they, as well as the body of the people, had already lost confidence in Napoleon, when, in 1809, he made the tremendous mistake of suppressing the temporal power of the pope and of annexing the States of the Church to the Empire. From that day, he was regarded by the Belgians as a persecutor. Count de Morode-Westerloo, a Belgian, and Prince Corsini, an Italian, alone dared to express publicly in the Senate their disapproval of this usurpation, and thus prevent it from receiving a unanimous ratification. The more anti-religious the policy of the emperor, the more energetic became the resistance of the Belgians, and the more spirited the conduct of their bishops, who discarded the language of the courtier for that of the pastor. While the bishops of Mechlin and Liège, recently appointed by the emperor, denounced their own clergy, at Ghent, Tournai, and Namur, Bishops de Broglie, Hirn, and Pisani de la Gaude, respectively gave examples of noble firmness. Named Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, Bishop de Broglie declined on the plea of being unable in conscience to take the oath to maintain the territorial integrity of the Empire which thenceforth would comprise the States of the Church. "Your conscience is a fool", said the Emperor, turning his back. At the famous council of 1811, convoked by Napoleon without the authorization of the imprisoned pope, the attitude of de Broglie and of Hirn was no less courageous ; they, together with the Bishop of Troyes, succeeded in inducing the council to defeat the imperial decree limiting the pope's right of institution. The very next day, the council was dissolved by imperial command, and the three bishops were arrested and thrown into prison, not to be released until they had been forced to tender their resignations. Their successors appointed by Napoleon were not recognized in their respective diocese, in which the clergy and the faithful were a unit in their resistance. More and more incensed, the emperor fell to striking blindly; numbers of priests were imprisoned, and all the seminarists of Ghent were drafted into the army and dispatched to Wesel on the Rhine, where forty-nine of them succumbed to contagious diseases (1813). Such was the end of a regime which had been acclaimed by the Belgians with universal joy. The fall of Napoleon was greeted with no less satisfaction, and many Belgian volunteers took up arms against him in the campaigns of 1814 and 1815. In this nation of loyal Catholics, it was Napoleon's blundering religious policy which alienated his subjects.
II. THE KINGDOM OF THE NETHERLANDS (1814-30)
Soon after the victory of the Allied Powers, who became masters of Belgium, they established there a provisional government under the Duke of Beaufort (11 June, 1814). The new governing powers promptly proclaimed to the Belgians that, in conformity with the intentions of the Allied Powers, "they would maintain inviolable the spiritual and the civil authority in their respective spheres, as determined by the canonical laws of the Church and by the old constitutional laws of the country". These declarations roused hopes which, however, were destined to be disappointed; for by the secret treaty of Chaumont (1 March, 1814), confirmed by Article 6 of the Treaty of Paris (30 May, 1814), it had even then been decided that Holland should receive an addition of territory, and that this addition should be Belgium. The secret Treaty of London (23 June, 1814) furthermore provided that the union of the two countries was to be internal and thorough, so that they "would form one and the same State governed by the constitution already established in Holland, which would be modified by mutual consent to accord with new conditions ". The new State took the name of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and was placed under the sovereignty of William I of Orange-Nassau.
The object of the Powers in creating the Kingdom of the Netherlands was to give France on her northern frontier a neighbour strong enough to serve as a barrier against her, and with this aim in view they disposed of the Belgian provinces without consulting them. The State resulting form this union seemed to offer numerous guarantees of prosperity from the standpoint of economics. Unfortunately, however, the two peoples, after being separated for more than two centuries, had conflicting temperaments; the Dutch were Calvinists, the Belgians Catholics, and the former, although greatly in the minority, 2,000,000 as against 3,500,000 Belgians, expected to rule the Belgians and to treat them as subjects. These differences could have been lessened by a sovereign who would take the duty on himself; they were, however, aggravated by the policy adopted by William I. Arbitrary, narrow-minded, obstinate, and moreover an intolerant Calvinist, he surrounded himself almost exclusively with Dutchmen, who were totally ignorant of Catholic matters and of the Belgian character. In addition, he was imbued with the principles of "enlightened despotism" which made him regard his absolutism as the form of government best suited to the needs of his kingdom, and thus he was unequal to his tasks from the very outset. While still Prince of Fulda, he had persecuted his Catholic subjects until the Diet was forced to check him. As King of the Netherlands, he showed that he had learned nothing by experience, and imagined that he could effect the fusion of the two peoples by transforming Belgium into Holland as far as possible.
FREE Catholic Classes Pick a class, you can learn anything
On the other hand, the Belgians, passionately attached to their national traditions, and even more to their religious unity, did not take sufficiently into account the profound changes which had taken place in the conditions of the two peoples. Forgetful of the French Revolution and the consequent upheaval of Western Europe they were convinced that past conditions could be restored even in the midst of a society that had outgrown them; nor did they grasp the fact that as the Treaty of London established freedom of worship in the Kingdom of the Netherlands they were under an international obligation which could not be put aside. They calmly demanded, first of the Allied Sovereigns, then of the Congress of Vienna, not only the restoration of the former rights of the Church, but the re-establishment of their old constitution in its entirety. Their disappointment was great when their sovereign, obeying the provisions of the Treaty of London, submitted for their acceptance the "Fundamental Law of Holland ", with some modifications. Leaving out of the question the initial injustice in granting each country the same numerical representation in the States-General, despite the fact that the population of Belgium was almost twice that of Holland, it entirely overthrew the old order of things, suppressed the clergy as an order, abolished the privileges of the Catholic Church, and guaranteed the enjoyment of the same civil and political rights to every subject of the king, and equal protection to every religious creed. The Belgian bishops promptly made respectful appeals to the king. William having disregarded these, they issued a "Pastoral Instruction" for the use of the prominent Belgians summoned to present their views on the revised Fundamental Law. This condemned the Law as contrary to religion and forbade its acceptance. The high-handed course taken by the Government to hinder the effectiveness of these measures proved unavailing; of the 1,603 prominent Belgians consulted, 280 did not vote, 796 voted against the Fundamental Law, and only 527 declared themselves in favour of it. The Fundamental Law was therefore rejected by the nation; for, adding to the 527 favourable votes the 100 unanimous votes of the States of Holland, there was a total of only 637 votes. Nevertheless, the king declared the Fundamental Law adopted, because, according to him, those who did not vote were to be regarded as favouring it, while of the 796 who opposed it, 126 did so only because they misunderstood its meaning. Owing to this "Dutch arithmetic", as King William's computations were termed, Belgium found itself under a constitution which it had legally repudiated, a constitution too which proved to the Kingdom of the Netherlands a heavy burden during its brief, stormy existence.
The adoption of the Fundamental Law, by the king's decision, did not end the conflict between the civil authority and the Belgian conscience. Besieged with questions as to whether it was permissible to take the oath of fidelity to the Fundamental Law, the bishops published their "Doctrinal Decision", which condemned it (1815). In consequence, many Catholics in obedience to their religious superiours, refused to take the oath, resigned their offices and their seats in the legislature. On the other hand, the Prince de Méan, former Prince- Bishop of Liège, took the required oath, and the king immediately appointed him to the archiepiscopal See of Mechlin , then vacant. The king next had attempted to gain the Holy See for his side in his struggle with the Belgian episcopacy, by practically demanding of it Bulls of canonical investiture for his candidate as well as a formal censure of the "Doctrinal Decision". The pope replied gently but firmly, condemning the words of the oath of allegiance to the Fundamental Law, sending a Brief of commendation to the bishops, and refusing investiture to the Prince de Méan until he should have publicly declared that his oath had not bound him to anything "contrary to the dogmas and laws of the Catholic Church, and that in swearing to protect all religious communions, he understood this protection only in its civil sense". The condescension of the Holy See in this matter, instead of winning the king to moderation, seemed to make him bolder. Reviving the obsolete claims of the old Gallican and Josephinist governments, and determined to overcome the opposition of the Bishop of Ghent, he had the bishop prosecuted for having published the "Doctrinal Decision"; for having corresponded with Rome without authorization; and for having published the papal Bulls without approbation. The Brussels Court of Assizes condemned the bishop to be deported for contumacy (1817), and the Government, carrying the sentence even farther, had the bishop's name written on the pillory, between two professional thieves sentenced to be pilloried and branded. The clergy of the Diocese of Ghent who remained faithful to the bishop were also persecuted by the State. The conflict would have continued indefinitely had not the prelate died in exile, in 1821, after having had twice confessed the Faith in the face of persecution. After his death, the Government conceded that the oath should be binding only from the civil point of view, which set at rest the Catholic conscience and ended the difficulties which had beset the first six years of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
If there had been any real desire on the part of King William to respect the conscience of Catholics, who constituted the greater part of the nation, he would now have inaugurated a policy, which would have set aside religious differences, and started the kingdom along lines leading to the frank and cordial fusion of the two peoples. This was not done. On the contrary, in his obstinate determination to treat the sovereign pontiff as an outsider, and to bring the Catholic Church under the omnipotence of the State, William in his blind fury continued his policy of oppression. Before the above-mentioned conflict, the king had created a State commission for Catholic affairs and had declared in the decree that "no church ordinance coming from a foreign authority — [i.e. the pope ] could be published without the approval of the Government". This was equivalent to re-establishing in the full dawn of the nineteenth century the placet of the despotic governments of the former regime. Going farther, he instructed this commission "to be on their guard in maintaining the liberties of the Belgian Church ", an extravagant formula borrowed from defunct Gallicanism, implying that the commission should take care to withdraw the Belgian Church from the legitimate authority of the pope. The men he had chosen to help him pushed their distrust and hatred of the Catholic hierarchy farther than he did. Baron Goubau, the head of the board of Catholic worship, and his superior, Van Maanen the minister of justice, by a system of petty persecutions soon made their names the most hated in Belgium, and largely increased the unpopularity of the Government.
In 1821 the Government began to be chiefly occupied with the suppression of liberty in the matter of education. Since the foundation, in 1817, of the three State universities, Liège, Ghent, and Louvain, higher education had been entirely under the control of the State, which now assumed control of middle inferior education (20 May, 1821) by a ministerial ordinance which allowed no free school to exist without the express consent of the Government. Lastly, a decree of 14 June, 1825, suppressed free middle superior instruction by determining that no college could exist without being expressly authorized, and that no one could teach the children of more than one family without an official diploma. A second decree of the same date declared anyone who made his studies abroad ineligible for any public office in the kingdom. The State having monopolized all lay education, there still remained the training of the clergy, which by the general canons of the Church, and those of the Council of Trent, in particular, belonged exclusively to the bishops. By a third decree, 14 June, 1825, said to be a revival of that of Joseph II, establishing the General Seminary, a State institution was erected under the name of Philosophical College ( College philosophique ), in which every aspirant for the priesthood was obliged to make a course of at least two years before he could be admitted to a grand séminaire .
On this occasion, the Archbishop of Mechlin, whose servility toward the king had till then known no limit, did not hesitate to make some respectful remonstrances to the Government, declaring that he could not in conscience accept these decrees. Goubau, in answering, repeated in substance Napoleon's gibe to the Prince de Broglie, "Your conscience will be regarded as a mere pretext and for good reasons". The other bishops, however, the capitular vicars of vacant sees, and the rest of the clergy, unanimously took sides with the Archbishop of Mechlin and joined in his protest. The Catholic Belgian deputies to the States-General protested; the Holy See protested in its turn. Nothing availed; the Government closed the free colleges one after another, thereby ruining a flourishing educational system in which Belgian families had absolute confidence; the Philosophical College was opened with great pomp, with a corps of instructors little thought of, either from a scientific or a moral point of view; students were drawn thither by bursaries or scholarships, and by exemption from military service. The Government becoming more radical than ever, then undertook to create schism in the Belgian Church by elaborating a plan, whereby the authority of the Holy See would be abolished and the bishops placed immediately under the Government.
But all these measures only increased the discontent of the Belgians and their passive resistance. To get the mastery, the Government conceived the idea of having recourse a second time to the sovereign pontiff, and broaching again the project of a Concordat, which had failed in 1823, on account of the king's inadmissible claims. The king counted, on the one hand, on wresting as many concessions as possible from the Holy See , and on the other, on gaining popularity among the Belgians through the arrangement he would make with the pope. These calculations failed, and once more the superiority of papal diplomacy was made manifest in the difficult negotiations which finally resulted in the Concordat of 1827. The Philosophical College ceased to be obligatory for clerics and became a matter of choice; in place of having the right of designating the bishops, the king was obliged to content himself with that of vetoing the choice made by the Chapters. The Concordat, which filled the Catholics with joy, excited the ire of the Calvinists and the Liberals, and the Government tried hard to quiet the latter by showing the worst possible will in the application of the treaty which it had just concluded with the Vatican. The Philosophical College was not declared optional until 20 June, 1829; vacant episcopal sees were provided with titulars elected according to the conditions laid down in the Concordat, but a royal decree rendered the recruiting of the clergy almost impossible save from the ranks of the old pupils of the Philosophical College. The Catholic opposition, headed by Bishop Van Bommel, the new Bishop of Liège, was so vigorous, and political complications so grave, that the king at last consented to permit the bishops to reorganize their seminaries as they wished (20 October, 1829). Then, as the crisis became more serious, he went farther, and on 9 June, 1830, entirely suppressed the Philosophical College, which had been deserted form the time attendance had become optional. On 27 May of the same year, the king even revoked his decrees regarding freedom in education ; he thanked Goubau and committed to Catholic zeal the direction of matters concerning Catholic worship, and would have left no ground for grievance on the part of Catholics had he not, at the last moment, seen fit, in the negotiations with the Holy See, to demand the right of approving appointments to canonries. But all the king's concessions, which were really extorted from him by force of circumstances, and despite his dogged reluctance, came too late, and the negotiations in regard to the question of canons were still in progress when the Belgian Revolution broke out.
As to the causes of an event so decisive for the future of the Belgian people, it is highly improbable that if King William had given them grounds for complaint only in religious matters, the public discontent would have culminated in a revolution. The Catholics, faithful to the teachings of the Church and to the counsels of their pastors, had no wish to exceed what was lawful and knew that they should confine themselves to peaceful protests. But the Government had injured many other interests to which a great number were more sensitive than they were to the oppression of the Catholic Church, at which they would have been wholly indifferent if, indeed, they would not have rejoiced. It will suffice to recall the principal grievances. Although Holland's population was less than Belgium by almost half, each nation was allowed the same number of deputies in the States-General. Acquaintance with the Dutch language was at once made obligatory for all officials. The greater number of institutions of the central Government were located in Holland, and the majority of the offices were reserved for the Dutch. Taxes on corn and on slaughtering weighed most heavily on the southern provinces. The press was under the arbitrary control of the Government and the courts, and they vigorously prohibited any criticism of the Government and its deputies. The Government stubbornly opposed the introduction of the jury system, the verdicts of which, inspired by a saner appreciation of public feeling, would often have calmed opinion instead of inflaming it. Lastly, as if wishing to fill the measure of its blunders, the Government shamelessly hired an infamous forger condemned by the French tribunals, a certain Libri-Bagnano, whose journal, the "National", never ceased insulting and taunting every Belgian who had the misfortune of incurring the displeasure of the Government. There came a time when the Liberals, who, as late as 1825, had applauded the Government in its persecution of the Church, found themselves attacked in their turn, and began to protest with more violence than the Catholics had ever done.
Then the inevitable happened. Equally oppressed, the two parties forgot their differences, and joined forces. The fiery anti-clerical Louis de Potter, author of various historical works extremely irreligious in tone, was one of the first to advocate, from prison in which he was confined for some violation of laws concerning the press, the union of the Catholics and the Liberals. This union was made the more easy because the greater part of the Catholics, under the influence of the teachings of Lamennais and the pressure of events, had abandoned their stand of 1815 and had rallied to the doctrine of "liberty in all and for all". Once effected, the union of Catholics and Liberals soon bore fruit. Their first step, proposed by the Catholics who wished to employ lawful means only, was the presentation of petitions by every class of society in turn. Hundreds of petitions piled up in the offices of the States-General, demanding liberty of education, freedom of the press, and the righting of other wrongs. While these petitions were being circulated the perfect order that was maintained deceived the king. On a tour which he made through the southern provinces, to convince himself personally as to the state of the public mind, he received such demonstrations of loyalty that he persuaded himself that the petition was a factitious movement, and went so far as to declare, at Liège, that the conduct of the petitioners was infamous (1829).
This false step was his undoing. In the face of his refusal to initiate any reforms, the country became incensed, and the direction of the national movement passed from the hands of the peaceful Catholics into those of the impatient Liberals. The resistance soon took on a revolutionary character. The ecclesiastical authorities had foreseen this, and had for a long time opposed both the "Union", and the petitions which were its first manifestation. The Bishops of Ghent and Liège had come forward to remind the faithful of their duties to the sovereign; the Archbishop of Mechlin had assured the Government of the neutrality of the clergy ; the nuncio had shown his disapproval of the "Union", and the Cardinal-Secretary of State had stigmatized it as monstrous. But the religious authorities soon found themselves powerless to control the movement. The Catholics, imitating the Liberals, had recourse to violent language; their most important periodical refused to print the conciliatory letter of the Bishop of Liège, which one of the Liberal leaders styled an episcopal-ministerial document; the lower clergy, in turn, allowed itself to be drawn into the current; the Government, wilfully blind, continued wantonly, in its imprudence, to pile up the materials for a great conflagration; at last nothing was lacking but a fuse. This came from France. The revolution of July, 1830, lasting from the 27th to the 29th, overthrew the government of Charles X; on 25 August, of the same year, a riot broke out in Brussels and brought on the revolution which culminated in the conflicts between (24-26 September) the Dutch troops and the people of Brussels assisted by re-enforcements of volunteers from the provinces. The whole country rose up; at the end of some weeks the Dutch army had evacuated the soil of the southern provinces, and Belgium was free.
III. INDEPENDENT BELGIUM (1830-1905)
As has been shown, not only was the revolution the work of two parties but the chief role in it had been played by the Liberals, and for a long time, although a minority in the nation, their ranks supplied the principal leaders in national life. The Catholics did not close their eyes to this state of things. Sincerely attached to the Union of 1828, they wanted a unionist policy without laying too much stress on party names. The provisional government which assumed the direction of affairs after the revolution had but one Catholic among its ten members, and had as head and inspiration, Charles Rogier, who, in September, 1830, had come, at the head of the Liège volunteers, to lend a strong helping hand to the combatants in Brussels. The constituent Congress, convoked by the provisional government, was in great majority composed of Catholics ; partisans of liberty "in all and for all", in conformity with the teachings of Lamennais. The Liberal minority was split into two groups; the stronger professed the same ideas of liberty as the Catholics ; the other was made up of a small number of sectarians and of State idolaters who had dreams of bringing the Catholic Church into subjection to the civil power. The leaders of the Catholic group were Count Félix de Mérode, a member of the provisional government, and Baron de Gerlache, President of the Congress; the most prominent among the Liberals were Charles Rogier, Joseph Lebeau, Paul Devaux, J.B. Nothomb , and Sylvan Van de Weyer; the group of sectarians followed the orders of Eugene Defacqz. The Constitution which resulted from the deliberations of the Congress reflected the dispositions of the great majority of the assembly and showed at the same time a reaction against the tyrannical regime of King William. It proclaimed the absolute freedom of worship and of the press, which the Liberals put first, and also freedom of education and association, two things especially dear to the Catholics ; concessions were even made to the prejudices of some, by rendering obligatory the priority of civil marriage over the religious ceremony and commanding that no one should be forced to observe the religious holidays of any denomination. The Congress showed the same broad-mindedness in the choice of a sovereign. The first selection fell on the Duke de Nemours, son of Louis Philippe, but the French king, fearing the jealousy of the European powers, dared not accept the throne for his son. Then, after having given the regency for some months to Baron Surlet de Chokier, the Congress declared in favour of Prince Leopold de Saxe-Coburg Gotha, widower of the Princess Charlotte, heir presumptive to the Crown of England. Though a Protestant prince, Leopold I (1831-65) showed himself worthy of the confidence of a Catholic people; during his entire reign he maintained an even balance between the two parties, and never lost his solicitude for the moral and religious interests of the nation. Owing largely to Leopold's wise policy, Belgium successfully inaugurated free institutions, and showed the world that a Catholic people is capable of progress in every field.
During the early years of the new kingdom both sides remained faithful to the union of 1828, the administration being divided between the Catholics and Liberals. The dominant thought was to defend against Holland the patrimony of independence and of liberty won by the revolution, patriotism inspiring unanimous opposition to the foreigner. The tendency towards mutual conciliation was evident in the organic laws perfected during these early years, especially in that of 1842 on primary education which was passed unanimously by the Chamber, save for three blank votes, and received the unanimous vote of the senate. This law, the work of J.B. Nothomb, the minister, made religious teaching obligatory, but dispensed dissidents from attendance. King Leopold expressed his gratification on signing it. For thirty-seven years this remained the fundamental charter of public education. At this time, everyone of whatever party was convinced of the necessity of religion in the education of the people. The clergy readily rallied to the support of the bill and even suffered a great number of the 2,284 private schools which they had opened to be closed that they might co-operate in the establishment of the public schools.
The law of 1842 was, in a way, the last product of Unionist principles. Since the treaty of 1839 had definitely regulated Belgium's position in regard to Holland, the fear of an outside enemy had been removed, and the Liberal party was convinced that there was no longer anything to hinder its political doctrines from prevailing in the national government. This attitude was partly justified by the state of affairs. The Catholics were weak, without organization, without a press, without consciousness of their own strength; they had no relish for partisan contests, and they counted on Unionism to maintain public life along the lines of 1830. In contrast to the Catholic masses who lacked cohesion, and consciousness of their strength, the Liberals formed a young, spirited, united party, gaining recruits form the bourgeoisie and the learned classes alike, commanding much sympathetic support from official circles, in possession of a press with twenty times the influence of the Catholic press, in a word, master of the Belgium Government since 1830. Paul Devaux, one of the most remarkable men of this party and one of the organizers of the Union in 1828, became the apostle of Liberalism in its later development, which implied the abolition of the Union and the victory of a policy exclusively Liberal in character. The articles which, beginning with 1839, he published in the "National Review", founded by him, exerted an enormous influence upon his party and even gradually won over to his ideas a large number of moderate Liberals.
While the Union of 1828 was being dissolved and some of its promoters were seeking to give a partisan predominance to mixed ministries, the dissenters, who cherished an implacable hatred for the Catholic Church, wished to profit by the new turn of affairs in Liberal ranks to avenge the defeat they had met with at the hands of the constituent Congress. The Masonic lodges entered on the scene with the avowed intention
Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.
Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.