The liberal and Catholic origins of the Belgian Constitution

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A recent volume makes the case for a revision of the standing interpretation of sovereignty in the Belgian Constitution. The book is the result of a four-years’ interdisciplinary collaboration between philosophers, lawyers, historians and political scientists to establish a historically and intellectually sound reinterpretation of sovereignty, and to formulate scenarios for political renewal in Belgium.  In today’s post, historian Stefaan Marteel considers the ideas of the liberals and Catholics who opposed the government of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, in the years preceding the Belgian Revolution.

The most influential members of the National Congress of 1830-1831 all obtained their political education in the opposition against the regime of William I of Orange, during the fifteen years that the Restoration state of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was in existence. How were their convictions shaped by this experience? Where did they stand in 1815 when the ‘reunion’ of the Netherlands under the House of Orange was brought about by the European powers? How did they evolve through the years? How did the Catholic opposition connect with the liberal one and what was the ideological dynamic of their ‘union’?

A dynamic of (not only) difference

My contribution to the recent book shows that the political views of the liberals and the Catholics, as they became expressed through journals, newspapers and pamphlets, originated in very different historic moments, traditions and sources. Nevertheless, even from the outset they were never diametrically opposed (as has traditionally been believed). Moreover, as much as some representatives of both sides polemicised against each other, others interacted in profound intellectual ways and learned to see each other’s preoccupations and political convictions as compatible and complementary. To understand the ideological itineraries of the Catholics and the liberals, the essential moment to look at is the moment when the 1814 constitution, adopted in the Northern Netherlands only (the previous Republic of the United Provinces), was revised in 1815 to suit a united kingdom consisting of both the former Northern and Southern (Habsburg) Netherlands.

Conflicting constitutional interpretations

Somewhat surprisingly, in view of how the Belgian Constitution of 1830 would, especially on the crucial issue of sovereignty, constitute a break with what came before, liberals in the South before 1830 never explicitly criticised or took issue with the constitution of 1815. This needs to be understood in light of the vagueness and incoherence of that ‘Fundamental Law’, which made it possible to advance different interpretations and project different ‘theories’ upon it. The government and the opposition in the South would in fact develop mutually exclusive interpretations of the constitution, with Northern moderates attempting, but failing miserably, to find middle ground on the basis of a strict or ‘literal’ lecture of the constitution.

For their radical and sometimes even ‘republican’ understanding of the constitutional order, the Belgian liberals supported heavily on the political ideas of the contemporary Swiss-French writer and politician Benjamin Constant. But what primarily defined their outlook was the general feeling that the new constitution of 1815, regardless of its (presumed) merits, had come about without ‘the concurrence of the will of the people’. Consequently, the only way in which the new order could obtain legitimacy, in their view, was through a full recognition of accountability of the government (ministerial responsibility) and of the political liberties (freedom of the press and association, the right to petition etc.), or, in the words of Louis de Potter, ‘the total execution of that Fundamental Law, which You have imposed on [the nation]’.

Catholics in a ‘national’ context

The demand for more accountability and political freedom had its own ideological drive, but would gain importance because of the growing opposition to the policies of the government aimed at ‘uniformization’, which primarily targeted the cultural and legal traditions in the South. This resistance against state reforms and increasing state control is what brought liberals and Catholics together, in a battle that eventually took the slogan ‘liberty in everything and for all’. Of the Catholics it is has generally been assumed that their agenda was exclusively to secure, and potentially expand, the position of the Church in Belgian society, and that to the extent that some truly made a liberal turn in the late 1820s, this was entirely due to the influence of the political ideas of the French priest Félicité de Lamennais. But this view fails to take into account the home-grown development of Catholic political ideas, going back to the eighteenth century.

Catholics had historically been opposing and fighting attempts by enlightened despots to increase control over and interference in matters of the Church, from the Habsburg emperor Joseph II to the French emperor Napoleon I. Catholic opposition against the new constitutional order of 1815, including against religious tolerance and equal protection of different Christian denominations, has to be understood in continuity with these previous religiopolitical battles. Furthermore, Catholics in the Southern Netherlands, having been involved in the dethronement of Joseph II during the Brabant Revolution, rejected the ultra-monarchism of their French counterrevolutionary counterparts (from Augustin Barruel to Joseph de Maistre), and adopted a much more open, ‘relativist’ approach towards the question what kind of government was most suitable.

Both these legacies combined opened up the path towards adopting liberal political positions. This was spearheaded by Flemish priest Leo de Foeren in his journal Le Spectateur belge, whenin 1816 already he wrote on the matter of the Catholics being obliged to take a constitutional oath: ‘We, who had to resign ourselves to the forced violation of our political rights …, do we now also have to abandon the exclusive sphere of our thoughts, consent to despotism and to the enslavement of our conscience?’

Increased division after the revolution

The ideas of the union of oppositions would find their way into the new Belgian Constitution of 1831, both with regard to questions of sovereignty and political freedom, as with regard to civil liberties and the relation between church and state. However, many of the ideas would, over time, come under threat as the union would dissolve, and as both the liberal and Catholic side turned towards different bodies of ideas.

On the Catholic side, the influence of Lamennais indeed became very strong in the euphoric, postrevolutionary climate. Whilst this initially seemed to have cemented the Catholic endorsement of liberalism, Catholics, under pressure from the higher clergy, took a conservative turn once Lamennais’ ideas became condemned by Rome in the encyclical Mirari Vos (1832). This turn caused the breaking off of the pro-liberal evolution Catholics had gone through in the pre-1830 period.

Liberals, on the other hand, started arguing for enhancing the state’s role in order to counter the social influence of the Church. Through this line of arguing they reconnected with the regalist-Jansenist tradition in the Southern Netherlands that saw the state as a vehicle for religious reform, as well as with the French Jacobin tradition that saw it as the sole guardian of the general interest.

Thus the original body of ideas that underpinned the Belgian Constitution became increasingly forgotten.

Stefaan Marteel, independent historian and author of The Intellectual Origins of the Belgian Revolution. Political Thought and Disunity in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, 1815-1830 (Palgrave, 2018).

Stefaan MARTEEL, "The liberal and Catholic origins of the Belgian Constitution", Leuven Blog for Public Law, 10 December 2021, (geraadpleegd op 19 May 2022)

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