The Belgian School War

News stories about politicians being denied communion, high school coaches praying on the football field, and taxpayers being forced to support religious education remind me of why my ancestors came to this great country of ours. To be blunt, it was to get away from s*** like that.

My father loved to tell the story of how his DeBacker ancestors came over from Belgium after being forced out of business by other family members all because they were “Liberals.” It was later that I learned that their departure from Belgium coincided with the First School War, a political crisis that occurred in Belgium in the early 1880s. It is important to note that the School War in Belgium was not a religious dispute; it was purely political. It was a political dispute between the then-current ruling Liberal Party and the Catholic Party, and it ended with the Catholic Party forming a new government in 1884. Vital & family left the country at the end of 1883; just before the Catholic party’s victory.

Belgium is a predominantly Catholic country as much as Ireland, Italy, or Spain. The country is however divided linguistically/culturally. In the extreme southeast, there is a small German-speaking community, but most of the country is equally divided between the Flemish-speaking North and the French-speaking South. The city that my DeBacker ancestors come from sits right upon the borderline between the two regions and it in fact has two names; the French name is Renaix and the Flemish name is Ronse.

An illustration on the cover of a 19th-century magazine shows a cleric giving the side-eye to students attending a public school in Belgium in the 1840s. The caption reads “Revision De La Loi De 1842, Souvenirs et regrets.” which translates to “Revision Of The Law Of 1842, Memories And Regrets.”

The members of my DeBacker family, who came over from Belgium in 1883 from the town of Ronse, were a traditional Roman Catholic family that, by today’s standards, might be considered to be ultraconservative or maybe traditionalist. Yet ironically, before leaving Belgium, the family was considered Liberal; they were supporters and members of the Liberal Party of Belgium.

The story of the First School War which lasted from 1879 to 1884 began when the secular Liberals, who were currently in power, wanted to reduce the influence of the Vatican on Belgian politics. One of the first places to start reforming was the antiquated educational system. Since the late 1840s, the Liberal party, which was formed in 1846, had strived to reduce the influence of the Catholic Church on the educational system. They partly blamed the failure of the education system on “ignorant priests” who had no business teaching science and math. The worst part of it was the literacy rate. In the 1840s, over 50% of the Belgian population was illiterate. Yet, despite reform attempts, by the end of the 1870s, 40% of the population still were unable to read.

Belgium was a relatively young country. It had previously been the Spanish Netherlands, followed by the Austrian Netherlands. It was briefly part of the French Empire, and then the kingdom of the Netherlands. In 1830, the Belgians revolted successfully against the Dutch. The Liberals wanted to be more like France and the conservative Catholics wanted to be more like the Austrians. Nevertheless, in 1884 the Catholic party managed to form a new government and then they proceeded to stay in power for the next 50 years.

Apparently my great-great-grandfather, Vital Eugene Louis DeBacker, because of his support of the Liberal party had enraged relatives who finally bought him out of the windmill business forcing him to leave for the United States.

Vital DeBacker may have part of a moderate faction known as the “Liberal Catholics” who stood between the far left wing of the Liberal Party, who were accused of being extremely Anticlerical, and the far-right wing of the Catholic Party, who were accused of being Ultramontanists.

The Belgian School War was never an actual shooting war although there was some violence it was more a culture war than anything else. When I first read about it a number of years ago, I recall one example of the culture war in Belgium. Throughout the country, frequently there would be a situation where in a town they would be, for example, two butchers; there would be the Catholic Party butcher and the Liberal Party butcher. If you supported the Liberal party you went to the fishmonger, the druggist, the grocer, etc. who held the same political views as you. And I guess the same thing applied to millers, people such as Vital DeBacker, who owned and operated windmills in and around the city of Ronse.

The war lasted from 1879 to 1884 and resulted in a period of nearly 50 years of Catholic political dominance it was followed by a second school war between 1950 and 1959.

According to Wikipedia:

On 1 June 1879, a Liberal majority under Walthère Frère-Orban succeeded in passing an Education Act secularizing primary education. Frère-Orban, who was well known for his anti-clerical beliefs, was nicknamed the “Papist Biter” (Papenvreter). New “neutral” schools were to be established in all municipalities, funded by the local communes with assistance from the national government, while Catholic schools were to receive no support at all.[2] The Church encouraged a boycott of the new schools. By 1883, although 3,885 secular schools had opened across the country, attendance in private Catholic schools had actually risen from 13 percent to over 60 percent.

After fresh elections in 1884, a Catholic government under Jules Malou passed a new Education Law providing public support for religious schools, and, in 1895, religious education became compulsory in all schools.

The Catholic Party, under the leadership of Charles Woeste, gained an absolute majority in the Belgian Chamber of Representatives in 1884 from the Liberal Party in the wake of the school dispute. The Catholic Party retained its absolute majority until 1918.

Legacy: The resistance to the Liberal anti-Catholic legislation revitalized the Catholic Party and led to its re-election under Malou in 1884 and marked the start of a period of nearly unbroken government by the Catholic Party until 1917. Disputes over religion in education continued, extending to university education, where secular universities like the Free University of Brussels competed with Catholic universities like the Catholic University of Leuven.

So, even though they supported secular education and opposed Vatican influence in Belgian politics, the DeBackers were still very much devout, traditional Catholics. In fact, I understand, before coming to America that my great-grandfather briefly attended the Catholic University of Louvain.

Fun fact: Today almost 60% of Belgians identify as Catholic yet only 5% regularly attend mass.

The Belgian national anthem en Français, Deutsch, and Vlaams.

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