Religious institutes and political conflict in Belgium, 1830-1921.

Jimmy Koppen

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingMeeting abstract (Book)


Within a few months after Belgian independence in 1830, the Constitution was draw up by the two political families that had constructed the new nation. Liberals and Catholics had joined hands in liberating the country from failing Dutch politics. The Constitution guaranteed freedom of conscience, religion, education and association. The Catholic Church strived to gain as much advantages from the constitutional texts as possible; the monastic orders and religious congregations, suppressed during the French occupation and obstructed during the Dutch period, now had the opportunity to bloom as never before. There didn't exist a single legislative document to restrict their expansion. Furthermore, monasteries and religious institutes supervised a large part of charity. The French republican legislation dedicated itself to withdraw charity from Catholic hands, in favour of public charitable institutions. To prevent the congregations from extending their property, the legislator formally prohibited to grant them legacies. The Belgian liberals insisted on observing this legislation. However, in real terms the will of the deceased was usually carried out. For example: an individual could ask in his will to allocate an amount of money or even an estate for charity. This legacy eventually came into hands of congregations. Moreover, the religious institutes that administered these inheritances did not possess corporate personality. They were, in other words, acting illegal.
Meanwhile, the tensions between Liberals and Catholics increased. After 1847, the newly founded Liberal Party governed the country and tried to find legal measures to cut short the free implementation of wills. Liberal protagonists like Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen and Walthère Frère-Oban feared that the congregations abused the constitutional liberty of association and the credulity of their followers to expand their own wealth. The prevention of this practice, known as mortmain, became one of the main goals of Belgian anti-clerical liberalism.
From 1855 on, a new government lead by the Catholic writer and journalist Pierre De Decker, aimed to settle this matter once and for all. In January 1856, he introduced a bill in Parliament. Thereby he removed all restrictions regarding the execution of last wills. Liberal newspapers and anti-clerical pamphlets summoned fierce resistance against this so-called "Loi des Couvents". In May 1857, at the time of the vote, thousands of liberal supporters gathered in front of Parliament to demand the withdrawal of the bill. Riots and charivaris in down town Brussels and other Belgian cities addressed themselves to monasteries, Catholic schools and the homes of Catholic politicians. The government had no other choice than to comply with the demands. The year 1857 marked the rift between Liberals and Catholics, and only with the outbreak of the First World War they could become reconciled with each other. Only in 1921, with the promulgation of the Act on Non-Profit Organizations, the "monastic issue" in Belgium was finally appeased.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWorkshop Monastic Orders and Congregations in European Civil Society, 1789-1940.
Publication statusPublished - 8 Dec 2008
EventFinds and Results from the Swedish Cyprus Expedition: A Gender Perspective at the Medelhavsmuseet - Stockholm, Sweden
Duration: 21 Sep 200925 Sep 2009


ConferenceFinds and Results from the Swedish Cyprus Expedition: A Gender Perspective at the Medelhavsmuseet


  • History of monastic institutes in Belgium
  • History of Liberalism


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