Religion, politics and society   >   Clericalism (testimony)

Clericalism, never again!

In the canton of Valais (Switzerland), Catholicism was the state religion until 1973, which meant that I spent my childhood and youth in a deeply clerical society. The present text aims to explain, in a particular case, the intimate workings of clericalism, seen from the inside by the teenager I was.

The primary school (1955 – 1960, Fully)

Boys and girls were separated in two different buildings. Although the school was public and compulsory, the typical day began with the recitation of the catechism. The book, consisting of questions and answers, had to be recited by heart. At the end of the book, we would start from the beginning, and so on for the duration of the primary school.

On Sundays, the pupils had an appointment in front of the school to go to mass, in columns of two, under the guidance of the teacher. Attendance was controlled.

In addition to the catechism, there were also courses of religious instruction. In preparation for the first confession, I memorized a list of sins with such insistence that I still know it today:

Prayers, Holy Name of God, Holy Mass, Parents, Teachers, Comrades, Purity, Theft, Lies, Friday, Pride, Laziness, Duty of State: school, home.

For the confessional, it was necessary to recite the list and comment on each heading: "Prayers: I sometimes miss my morning prayers once or twice a week. Holy Name of God: I say swearwords, but no blasphemy", and so on. Friday is a reference to the ban on eating meat on Fridays (still in force today).

As singing lessons, we spent several months preparing the Christmas Mass during which the school children had to sing " He was born the divine child", "Between the ox and the grey donkey", and so on.

I had to take part in the processions of Rogations and Corpus Christi.

One teacher awarded "good points" to students who attended Wednesday morning mass. I went there a few times to make up for my chatter and improve my grades.

The French courses could also contribute to our edification. At the age of eleven, I memorized Victor Hugo's "Awareness", a poem of 68 verses which ends with "The eye was in the grave and looked at Cain".

The president of the School Board, who was the parish priest, made periodic visits. He would ask us one question in French, one in arithmetic and one in catechism. This one often came up: "Why are we on earth?". The pupil had to answer "To save our soul", otherwise the teacher would spend a bad quarter of an hour!

At the confirmation, I recited, as it should be, "I renounce Satan and his pomps".

Politics in Valais around 1960

Party membership was primarily a question of heredity. One was born "conservative" (former denomination of the Christian Democratic Party) or radical, in the same way as everyone was born Catholic. Before becoming personal, political opinion was first of all a question of loyalty and fidelity to one's family, of esprit de corps. Of course, there were a few citizens "who let themselves be bought and turned over", but these defectors were watched, commented on and listed. The frequently asked question "You, whose son are you?" provided information not only on the state of fortune in buildings and farmland, but also on political affiliation.

By a large majority, the Conservatives imposed clericalism. [Historical background: before 1965, religious freedom was not recognized by the Catholic Church, i.e. it was morally legitimate for the state to force individuals to adopt a Catholic attitude]. Representing the opposition, the radical party was anticlerical. As a child, I believed that "anticlerical" meant "one who is against the clergy but for religion, that is, one who deals directly with God without going through intermediaries". Despite all the conversations I had overheard, the political aspect had escaped me, which shows that, in Valais, the radicals were moderate, or resigned. The adult radicals were Christians like the others, although less practising: some rarely went to mass, while others went every Sunday, but stood at the back of the church. In some radical families, parodies of the catechism were recited, for example:

"- What is a sacrament?
- A sacrament is a sack of wheat
That feeds two idlers
Like the priest and the teacher.

The intonation was more often humorous than sarcastic. It was a way of telling their children "Don't take everything you are taught at school literally".

"The blacks" was the nickname given to the conservatives, in allusion to the colour of the cassocks. The most zealous conservatives were going to make a spiritual retreat in Chabeuil (France). Many conservatives were already seeing "those ungodly radicals" roasting in hell. Symmetrically, many radicals imagined "these hypocritical blacks" under the devil's forks. Some conservatives addressed incisive remarks to practising radicals: "Why go to Mass since you will be damned anyway?" 1

1  No authentic Catholic can exist outside the Conservative party. According to the doctrine taught, "Outside the Church, there is no salvation". So all radicals will be damned.

The two camps were organised to meet as little as possible. All the bistros wore the political colours of their respective owners. In my municipality of residence there was a conservative and a radical brass band. No conservative child would have thought of doing gymnastics since the gym society was radical and it was shameless to display one's thighs in public. No radical child would have imagined becoming a boy scout since it was a conservative organization that met in the parish hall. There was a Conservative Children's Christmas and a Radical Children's Christmas which took place at the same time in two different halls: after the children's songs, a Santa Claus handed out an orange and a small bag of peanuts. But the political passions of the adults could not prevent children from all sides from playing together.

In another municipality, there was even a mountain pasture for conservative cows and another for radical cows. In yet another municipality, all the citizens were conservative; but there were still two brass bands and two political parties: the whites and the yellows, according to the colours of the instruments of their respective brass bands.

Political affiliation was an important criterion for getting a job. It was obviously impossible to become a state employee without being conservative. In order to obtain a public mandate, companies had to meet unwritten conditions: managers and employees had to be from the right political party. Subsequently, bosses had to control the political opinions of their workers.

1960 marks the end of a period: the evolution of customs, although still discreet, is underway and is preparing to turn everything upside down. The opening up to the world through tourism and television, the need to leave the canton to attend university, and the decline of agriculture will be important factors. Change will be rapid in many areas, but clericalism, which is particularly virulent and tenacious in Valais, will only slowly recede: the ban on unmarried cohabitation will not be lifted until 1995.

Secondary level I (1960 – 1963, Martigny)

There was less religious pressure: apart from a few weekly religion lessons, there was no more catechism, nor was there any control of attendance checks carried out by teachers at Sunday masses. However, as long as the child was of compulsory school age, almost all parents asked their children to go to mass on Sundays, even among non-practising radicals. From the age of 13, without letting it be known, some children no longer went to mass.

As I had to work in the gardens throughout the summer, I saw the start of the new school year as a liberation. I enjoyed school very much and decided to study.

At that time, career guidance was non-existent. I only found out later that I could have attended the science section of the Sion high school.

Secondary level II (1963 – 1968, Sion)

All secondary schools and high schools were run by religious congregations. Barring costly exile, there was no escape from systematic indoctrination.

At the age of 15, I have chosen the training school for primary school teachers in the canton of Valais (École normale des Instituteurs). As was only right, I visited the parish priest so that he could give me a certificate of good morals and support my project. Although the Teacher Training College was a strategic element of the conservative regime and my family was radical, I was admitted because I had lost both my father and mother.

We were to enter a boarding school for five years. All of our daily activities were accompanied by prayers: when we got up, at meals, at the beginning of classes, at bedtime. We cohabited with religious people, and five school years is a very long time!

About any breach of good conduct, we were told "It's unacceptable for a future teacher". For our leaders, this meant that we were the future catechists of all schoolchildren in the Valais. Missing Sunday mass was sanctioned by a warning. The third warning led to exclusion. This is how my comrade R. D. was expelled from the establishment.

In all disciplines, religious concerns were obsessive. In French, I checked once that the following method worked: by finishing an essay with a verse on gratitude to God for the blessings He showered upon us, I obtained a score that clearly exceeded my usual scores. However, I gave up on this comedy.

We had to avoid referring to "human rights", because the good Christian is first and foremost concerned about his duties; he relies on the Word of God, and not on a profane ideology inherited from the French Revolution. (Historical reminder: Human Rights, condemned by the Church, were rehabilitated by the Second Vatican Council in 1965; our teachers refrained from informing us about this).

We had to follow a course entitled "Sociology" which consisted of reading and commenting on the Pope's Social Encyclicals for a whole school year. "Socialism and communism are the enemies of the Church" was the hammered message. One of my classmates asked "What about English Socialism? Should we also condemn it?". The professor, a priest, saw this question as a form of protest. He then went wild, gave us a great lesson on the duty of obedience: before adopting an opinion, one must first find out what the Vatican's position is on the matter. He reminded us of the teaching of the Church (still in force today):

The Roman Pontiff and the bishops are "authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people entrusted to them, the faith to be believed and put into practice." The ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him teach the faithful the truth to believe, the charity to practice, the beatitude to hope for. The supreme degree of participation in the authority of Christ is ensured by the charism of infallibility. This infallibility extends as far as does the deposit of divine Revelation; it also extends to all those elements of doctrine, including morals, without which the saving truths of the faith cannot be preserved, explained, or observed. The authority of the Magisterium extends also to the specific precepts of the natural law, because their observance, demanded by the Creator, is necessary for salvation. In recalling the prescriptions of the natural law, the Magisterium of the Church exercises an essential part of its prophetic office of proclaiming to men what they truly are and reminding them of what they should be before God. The law of God entrusted to the Church is taught to the faithful as the way of life and truth. the faithful therefore have the right to be instructed in the divine saving precepts that purify judgment and, with grace, heal wounded human reason. They have the duty of observing the constitutions and decrees conveyed by the legitimate authority of the Church. Even if they concern disciplinary matters, these determinations call for docility in charity. [ ... ] At the same time the conscience of each person should avoid confining itself to individualistic considerations in its moral judgments of the person's own acts. As far as possible conscience should take account of the good of all, as expressed in the moral law, natural and revealed, and consequently in the law of the Church and in the authoritative teaching of the Magisterium on moral questions. Personal conscience and reason should not be set in opposition to the moral law or the Magisterium of the Church.

The Encyclicals ask us to vote for a Christian party. Questioning the authority of the Church's Magisterium is a serious offence. The conclusion is unassailable: whoever does not vote for the Christian Democratic Party (then called the Conservative Party) is committing a sin. What had to be demonstrated.

Religious indoctrination

Thus, Catholicism essentially consists in recognising this: "After recruiting me from the cradle, society gave me ecclesiastical authority to which I owe total submission. I am a little Vatican soldier who has to march in step."

Clericalism is a collusion between Church and State that aims at total control of society, from political organisation to the consciences of individuals. The state religion has a monopoly on conformist thinking. This exposes the strings of mental manipulation. I felt the revolt swell: in their prisons, the prisoners are freer than I am, because they retain the freedom to think what they want.

From that day on, everything was enlightened from another point of view: I understood that I could never renounce the exercise of free will and subordinate my judgement to the authority of the Church. I decided not to delegate to anyone else the task of deciding my opinions. Developing my intellectual self-defence became a vital necessity. I resolved to free myself gradually from the dominant ideology, the weight of which was becoming unbearable. I thought "Everything excessive is insignificant. So Catholicism is insignificant. I refuse to be recruited in this way and chained". Agnosticism and socialism became sympathetic to me but, knowing that an open revolt would lead to my exclusion, I kept a cautious silence.

As I had been taken far away in an unwanted direction and driven into a religious ghetto, the road back to reasonable views could only be long and painful.

Our singing teacher asked us to compose prayers, words and music to vary those at the beginning of the lessons. As we had just studied Jansenism (Jansen's heresy) in the French course, I proposed a theological banana peel: "Lord, may our prayer serve Your glory as Your grace for our salvation". It was with obvious trouble that our teacher discarded my project and put an end to the creation of prayers.

The reign of a state religion automatically leads to the reign of a state philosophy. In the course of philosophy, Thomism was the only reference; any other doctrine was stated only to be immediately condemned [Bibliography: Régis Jolivet, Cours de philosophie, Publisher: Vitte]. Under the effect of this ideological harassment, I felt a feeling of suffocation: an impregnable rampart against heresies was rising all around me. During a written interrogation about the evidence of the existence of God according to St Thomas Aquinas, I took the liberty of challenging it, which earned me a mark of 2 out of 6; the priest professor made it clear to me that the consequences of a repeat offence could be serious.

Since "Theology is the queen of sciences", the same book served as a textbook for large parts of the psychology course, a professional branch whose foundations we drew from Aristotle's doctrine. One chapter was devoted to the proofs of the immortality of the soul2. We were taught the mixture of genres: God is everywhere. The gaps in the psychology course have been replaced by the "cultural roots" that the Church forged in the 13th century.

Each teacher repressed the personal opinions of the students in his or her own way. In gymnastics class, this gave: "To philosophize, wait until you are over 40" 3.

2  6th edition, 1959, Proof of the immortality of the soul, p. 233.

3  Riddle: how old was the teacher?

For the handicrafts, we made a virgin and a Latin cross in wrought iron.

To top it all off, periods of full-time spiritual retreat were set aside for the personal deepening of our religious life.

I feel that the Teacher training college was a deception: I had come there to receive elements of culture, but it was essentially Catholicism that was inculcated there. While they vehemently denounced the indoctrination to communism in the USSR, our teachers could not perceive that they were operating in the same register. Thus, teachers, by trying hard to mould the thinking of others in a narrow and reductive mould, became jailers of a mental prison, a cultural dungeon. While it can be said in their defence that they have been indoctrinated and have only implemented the official positions of the Catholic Church, they can be blamed for the lack of the necessary critical distance in public education oriented towards compulsory education.

The feeling of having been manipulated and instrumentalised in religious matters traumatised and revolted me. This period leaves me with a bitter taste of brainwashing4.

4  In Valais, we rather say "My cup has been well filled and compacted.".

One exception however, a stroke of light in the dark: braving the warnings of the Holy See, a young religious taught us with fervour and passion the ideas of Theilard de Chardin who tried to merge evolutionism and Christianity. A new spiritual generation, trained at university and showing a measure of intellectual independence, had blossomed. Unfortunately, despite its sympathetic appearance, the process was burning with proselytism.

At the Teacher training college, I received a solid foundation in French and mathematics. I took advantage of the long hours of study to read a lot. I didn't waste my time and, what's more, I was able to enjoy the frank camaraderie that reigned. In 1968, I left the Valais to go to university. The work and the circumstances of life did not bring me back. It later turned out that a lack of basic English was a disabling deficiency.

Against the return to true values

History has shown that a strong influence of the Church leads to harmful abuses, but society has changed a lot since the 1970s. If "today, the Church is no longer like that", it is only to the extent that it has been sidelined from power. Since its official teaching has changed little, it is still necessary to guard against its influence.

I learned the following story from the press, which took place in a state school in the Upper Valais. In the spring of 2009, teacher Valentin Abgottspon took down the crucifix that was enthroned against the wall of his classroom. He was ordered to put it back in place under cantonal law, which states that the school must prepare the pupil "for his task as a human being and a Christian". Failing to comply, he was dismissed with immediate effect on 8 October 2010.

When I hear pious people moaning about the decline in religious practice and lamenting the good old days when true values were still prevalent, I feel like shouting "Never again!". I rejoice every day that the social control exercised by the Church over society has been eased. As we can see, yesterday among Christians, today among Muslims, a society is all the more backward when religion plays a dominant role in it. It is because I have lived in a clerical society that I knowingly advocate anti-clericalism, secularism and the complete separation of church and state. I include the rejection of the theological faculties outside state universities5. It is not the business of the state to legitimise the levying of an ecclesiastical tax by granting ecclesiastical status. Anticlericalism is not a religious opinion, but a political claim.

5  Of course, the study of religious facts has its place at all school levels in order to understand the evolution of societies, history, culture, literature, etc. However, this teaching must be protected from two aberrations: on the one hand, the confessing approach, which is proselytising, and on the other hand, the amalgam between faith and knowledge, which confuses belief and established facts.

As for those who claim that "Muslims who want to link politics and religion still think like in the Middle Ages", they would do well to fill their shortcomings in Swiss history. In the heart of Europe and elsewhere, the clerics have not ceased to make their presence felt. For them, knowing that they are deaf to the argument "Other citizens are entitled to the freedom to have other conceptions of happiness", I fall back on "Don't do to others what you don't want to be done to you".


The Church claims to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, but I fail to see the divine breath that would surpass a mere human construction.

Putting a religious community in charge of public education - claiming to respect the religious beliefs of minorities - is hypocritical. Far too many of my teachers, believing that they have been entrusted with a mission by God himself, have worked to ensure that we adhere to their religious obsession and have thus masterfully illustrated some of the unfortunate consequences of faith. The only credible remedy is the complete separation of Church and State.

6  To protect minorities, democracy must go hand in hand with secularism.

Instead of only admitting, in the register of values, the religious, and thus postponing our hopes to another world, let us give meaning to the universe in which we live. Let us return to the fundamentals: humanism inherited from the Enlightenment, with human rights, democracy, secularism6 and the search for the common good. Let us reserve our commitment to what is universal, away from the circles of believers. Infinity exists in what we can build, create or love. Let us base our teaching, not on the authority of the Church, but on the development of reason and critical sense in a secular framework. And if an irrepressible need for faith arises in you, know that it is not up to the State to propagate it.

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