Foto van een onderzoeker


Secularism in French-speaking Belgium

Caroline Sägesser

Secularism in French-speaking Belgium after 1945 has yet to be chronicled. While the struggles against clericalism in the nineteenth century are well documented, and while the School War of 1950 to 1958 has been studied extensively, construction of the French-speaking secular sphere in the post-war period remains largely unrecounted, as does the contribution of secularists to developments in legislation on women’s rights, equality for minorities and the right to die with dignity (euthanasia). Today’s shortage of literature1 is perhaps due to poor accessibility to sources,2 but also to the fact that the actions of secularist men and women cannot be attributed solely to secular organisations; unlike the Catholic sphere, which is pillarised and hierarchical, the sphere of secularists, in the sense of secularised humanists, consists of multiple affiliations that are sometimes conflicting, particularly from a political perspective. Therefore, this article shall simply retrace key stages in the development of the French-speaking secular sphere after 1945, with a particular focus on institutions.

Today, “Belgian-style laicity”3 is a concept that cannot be easily explained to the French, who consider themselves to be the fathers of the principle of laicity and to have a monopoly on its definition. In Belgium, “laicity” is understood to mean the existence of a network of secular organisations, that is to say, organisations which defend a humanist philosophy of life with no reference whatsoever to transcendence. These secular organisations are recognised and funded by public authorities in the same way as religious organisations; a situation which is encouraging to some and exasperating to others. Considering the funding of belief-based organisations has by and large remained a federal responsibility, the situation is the same across all of Belgium’s Regions. However, in French-speaking Belgium, the term “laicity” is rather ambiguous when it comes to the objectives and nature of secular organisations. While people in the Dutch-speaking region refer to themselves as “vrijzinnig”, French-speaking Belgium has opted to preserve the term “laicity” (laïcité), for example in the name of the main non-denominational philosophical organisation, the Centre d’action laïque (Centre for Secular Action – CAL). This can be attributed to both historical heritage and proximity to French culture; it also reflects a permanent commitment to the further separation of Church and State within Belgium.

A Catholic backdrop

Belgian politics have long been dominated by the philosophical question.4 The country’s emergence between 1830 and 1831 followed a period marked by political and institutional instability which frequently evolved around the role and power of the Catholic Church.

Already weakened by the emancipation and secularisation movement launched by the Austrian emperor Joseph II,5 the Catholic Church was then confronted by the French Revolution. The French Republic, which annexed the territories of the future state of Belgium in 1795, imposed a harsh process of secularisation on society, the main measures of which included nationalisation of church property, civil constitution of the clergy, suppression of religious congregations and a ban on public religious celebrations. While the new regime gained support among some progressives, the measures were opposed by a large portion of the religion-practising population. Relative tranquility was encountered when the Concordat was signed in 1801. However, following the defeat of Napoleon and the fall of the French Empire, the territories of the future Belgian state were amalgamated into the Kingdom of the Netherlands and thus came under the rule of a Protestant prince. The Dutch period (1815 to 1830) saw a new struggle between the Catholic Church and public authorities.

The upper middle classes of the early nineteenth century, who had conducted the Belgian Revolution of 1830, were already fractured into Catholics and anticlericals, also referred to as liberals, but they set aside their differences when Belgium was created. This union gave rise to an unprecedented regime for governing religion: it was neither one involving separation between Church and State, nor one based on an official religion in which the Church was controlled by public authorities. The Belgian Constitution granted freedom of worship to all – Catholics, unbelievers and other adherents – and established the Church as independent from the State; placing the two entities in what can be readily described as a relationship of reciprocal independence. Despite this independence, the new regime retained public funding mechanisms for the Church, like paying salaries, covering the deficit of “fabriques d’église”6 (which continued to be public establishments), maintaining churches and presbyteries, and so on. The benefits of the system were gradually extended to three other faiths over the course of the nineteenth century (the Protestant, Jewish and Anglican faiths), while the level of funding for the Catholic religion was increased, due to an extension of the number of parishes and to the payment of curates’ salaries.

In addition to the substantial resources placed at its disposal, the Church benefited from a dominant position in society. Specifically, it had developed a powerful network of schools, having taken advantage of the constitutional principle of freedom of education. By drawing on its proximity to the monarchy (despite being Protestant, the first king, Leopold I, maintained an effective policy of alliance between the throne and the altar) as well as to the political sphere in general, it intended to govern the daily existence of citizens up to their death (by monopolising the management of the cemeteries it preserved); an intention which led to the development of an increasingly forceful anticlerical movement. This anticlerical trend, which was especially present in the fast-growing Masonic lodges and the Université Libre de Bruxelles (Free University of Brussels – ULB), founded in 1834, prompted the creation of the first Belgian political party, the Liberal Party, whose manifesto called for the secularisation of institutions.

This is not the place to retrace the development of the secular movement in the nineteenth century; it is simply worth noting the context in which it emerged, and the main objectives with which it was initially associated: to oppose the tutelary power of the Church, to emancipate citizens from its tutelage, and to create conditions which allowed citizens to thrive outside the Church, particularly when it came to educating themselves.

The conflict between Catholics and liberals worked to the advantage of the former; the brief period between 1878 and 1884 that is sometimes referred to as “l’État laïque éphémère” (the short-lived secular State), which saw the secularisation of public education (the famous First School War), was followed by three decades of Catholic Party rule up to the First World War. The foundation of a second secular party in 1885, the Belgian Workers’ Party (POB), failed to erode Catholic rule. Belgium would never know anything equivalent to the 1905 French law of Church and State separation.7 After the First World War, and the adoption of universal (male) suffrage, one man one vote, and proportional representation, the obligation to form coalition governments – in which the Catholic Party, later the Christian Social Party (PSC) would most often be the majority party – made it impossible to reform the legislation about State and Church relations in Belgium. In fact, this regime would evolve no more in the twentieth century than it had in the previous century, except to incorporate the public funding of Islam in 1974 and of Orthodox Christianity in 1985.

However, the Catholic faith would suffer a considerable setback, and the power and influence of the Catholic Church would also dwindle. Although the moral authority of the Church appeared to be fully restored after the Second World War, and the popularity of the Christian Social Party in the 1950s may have created the illusion of a resounding Catholic revival, the 1960s would mark a decisive turning point.

The appeasement of the School conflict

The immediate post-war period saw an outbreak of hostility between the Catholic sphere on the one hand, whose representative, other than the Church, continued to be the Parti social-chrétienChristelijke Volkspartij (Christian Social Party – PSC/ CVP), the successor to the Catholic Party), and the secular sphere on the other hand, defended by the Parti socialiste belgeBelgische Socialistische Partij (Belgian Socialist Party – PSB/BSP), which was left-wing, and the Parti libéralLiberale Partij (Liberal Party – PL/LP), which was more right-wing. This hostility unfolded around two key issues: King Leopold III’s possible return to the throne (which came to be known as the Royal Question) and the funding of education (the School Question, often referred to as the Second School War, so bitter was the conflict).8 The results of the 1950 referendum on the King’s return,9 as well as the parties’ election results, when broken down geographically, revealed a Belgium that was divided both politically and philosophically.

Election results obtained by the main political parties over time (percentage, 1946-1958)10
  1946 1949 1950 1954 1958
  Flanders Wallonia Flanders Wallonia Flanders Wallonia Flanders Wallonia Flanders Wallonia
56.24 27.02 54.46 31.98 60.34 33.77 52.20 30.57 56.56 35.07
27.48 36.34 24.48 37.83 25.97 44.57 28.62 47.82 27.68 46.17
5.21 21.48 3.47 12.58 2.44 7.81 1.49 6.69 0.04 4.46
7.71 9.25 13.16 14.71 9.30 11.42 10.64 11.68 9.75 10.40

In every election in the 1940s and 1950s, the Christians achieved the absolute majority in Flanders, while the secular parties – the socialist, liberal and communist parties – dominated in Wallonia.11 Large numbers of French-speaking Belgians, belonging both to the working class of Wallonia’s industrial basins and to Brussels’ liberal upper middle classes, had already become dechristianised in the aftermath of the Second World War. Between 1950 and 1958, all of them would mobilise on a massive scale to defend public education. The political crisis, which essentially related to the level of funding for private (Catholic) education, ended with a compromise: the “Pacte scolaire” (School Pact) of 1958, which was accepted by the three main political groups.12

Enshrined in the law of 29 May 1959,13 the School Pact lays down the State’s obligation to pay salaries of teachers in the private school network and to subsidise this education. The Act was thus seen as a defeat for the secular movement, whose views in defence of state schools had always included a ban on state funding for denominational schools. This defeat was felt particularly strongly in French- speaking circles, for the most part secular, against the backdrop of growing regionalist sentiment; the School Pact has at times been regarded as a victory for Flemish Catholics. It also played a part in fueling militant secularists, determined to secure the secularisation of education and to keep up a secularist fight against an institutional landscape which was perceived as hostile, or in any case in need of substantial improvement.

However, the School Pact also recognised the existence of non-denominational ethics, and required that non-denominational ethics be taught in schools organised by public authorities, where – from then on – non-denominational ethics were offered as an alternative to religious education. In order to promote non-denominational ethics in French-speaking circles, la Fédération des Amis de la Morale laïque (the Federation of Friends of non-denominational ethics) was set up in 1969.14

Thus, with the emergence of the School Pact, the secular sphere became an integral part of Belgian pluralism: willy-nilly, it started its move from militant anticlericalism towards participation in the construction of a pluralist society.

The organisation of pluralism

As religion’s hold over Belgian society decreased, the need among secularists to fight the Church became less pressing. The decrease in intensity of the anticlerical struggle allowed secularism to acquire a more positive definition: the defence and promotion of its philosophy. In addition, the defence of secular ideas gradually disappeared from the political arena after 1958, as liberal or socialist political parties no longer placed as much emphasis on this aspect of their manifestos, before opening their ranks to believers. On the 1st of May 1969, the leader of the PSB-BSP, the Walloon Léo Collard, called for the ‘coming together of progressives’ regardless of their philosophical beliefs, marking the end of an era in which anticlericalism had been the party’s weapon of choice, although many delegates would continue to end the anthem “The Internationale” with an impassioned “À bas la calotte!” (“Down with the clergy!”) at party conferences.15 But for the Socialists, the social question clearly took precedence over the philosophical question. Additionally, throughout the country, language issues and the conflict between French speakers and Dutch speakers would dictate politics in the 1970s and early 1980s, before engendering a highly complex institutional system: federal Belgium.

With political groups focusing on other issues, secularist militants were forced at that point to rely on their own institutions to advance their ideals. The foundation of the Humanistisch Verbond (Humanist Association – HV) in Flanders – which by 1951 was pursuing its objective of defending a secular ideology through social and cultural action – was without equivalent in the French-speaking community; secular organisations were already more entrenched in Wallonia and Brussels. The first general French-speaking secular association, that is to say, whose aim was to defend secular views from an ideological but also a cultural and social point of view, was set up in response to the secular sphere’s need for media access. This was La Pensée et les Hommes (“The Mind and the Man”), which was founded as a non-profit association in 1961.

Fédération belge pour le planning familial et l’éducation sexuelle (Belgian Federation for Family Planning and Sex Education) in 1972.

Following the establishment of the Fondation pour l’Assistance Morale aux détenus (Foundation for the Moral Support of Prisoners) in 1964, a royal decree adopted the following year organised non-denominational moral support for prisoners;16 the State thus officially recognised the existence of a secular alternative for meeting spiritual support needs. The term “assistance morale non confessionnelle” (non- denominational moral support) was preferred to “assistance morale laïque” (secular moral support): some feared it would appear that otherwise the decree would be used by laypeople, (that is to say, Catholics who were not members of the clergy), to provide this moral support. Terminology similar to that used in the School Pact to denote the alternative to religious education in state schools (non-denominational ethics), was therefore adopted. This is the origin of the term “non-denominational philosophical community” used to describe secular humanist groups in Belgium. However, it should be noted that, from a legal point of view, the terms do not have the same scope; other organisations are able to define themselves as non-denominational philosophical organisations (and in fact, this is the route chosen by the Buddhist Union of Belgium, which has called for Buddhism in Belgium to be recognised as a non-denominational philosophical organisation). It was not until 1991, however, that secular moral counsellors were introduced into the Armed Forces.17

In 1970, the Fondation pour l’assistance morale laïque (Foundation for Secular Moral Support) was set up to provide non-denominational moral support in non- custodial settings, such as hospitals or airports, where religions already had chaplains. With the creation of the Centre universitaire de coopération au développement (University Centre for Development Cooperation) in 1975, the secular sphere moved into a new domain, which religions had long invested as a result of their missionary activities. The French-speaking arm of the Centre went on to become the Service laïque de coopération au développement (Secular Development Cooperation Service).

Creation of the Centre d’Action Laïque (CAL)

By the end of the 1960s, several general secular associations had emerged, and the secular community had received greater recognition, which translated, in particular, into the establishment of non-denominational support in prisons and other venues, and non-denominational ethics in education. It was at that point that a tragic event would hasten the mobilisation of the secular movement: the L’innovation department store fire on 22 May 1967.

The destruction of this major store in the heart of Brussels left more than 250 dead. At the collective funerals of the victims, homage was paid by ministers from the various religions, but there was nobody to represent non-believers. This vacuum spurred on the creation of the Centre d’Action Laïque – CAL (Centre for Secular Action) founded in Charleroi in March 1969 by a dozen secular associations:18 La Fondation Magnette-Engel-Hiernaux, L’Association Ernest De Craene, La Ligue de l’enseignement, L’Union rationaliste de Belgique, L’Union des anciens étudiants de l’ULB, La Pensée et les Hommes, La Libre pensée de Schaerbeek, La Ligue humaniste, La Fondation pour l’assistance morale aux détenus, La Famille heureuse, Les Amis de la jeunesse laïque, and Pensée et Morale Laïques. The social purpose of this non-profit association was as follows:

‘to defend and promote secularism. To this end, specifically, it shall assist existing or future secular associations by seeking to coordinate their efforts, by informing them about issues concerning secularism, by representing them and by defending their rights, at their request, as well as the rights associated with secularism, in relations with all public or private institutions, be it nationally or internationally, and, in general, by promoting the activities of these associations and by defending and propagating secularist ideals, in particular through the creation of appropriate secular associations wherever they are needed’.

Considering the strong attachment of secular associations to their independence, it was not a case of the CAL directing them, but rather of informing them, and, at their request, of representing them in relations with public authorities. This allowed the CAL, which did not incorporate the pre-existing secular associations, to equip itself with local bodies: seven regional CAL branches were set up (Walloon Brabant, Brussels, Charleroi, Liège, Luxembourg, Namur and Picardy). To this day, the CAL maintains this dual structure, consisting on the one hand of member associations, represented in the general assembly, and on the other hand of geographical bodies, the regional branches.

At the end of the 1970s, the first Maisons de la laïcité (secularist centres) were created in Wallonia, with the backing of the CAL. These were commune- level establishments where secularists could meet and the general public had the opportunity to discover the secular movement. Grouped within the Fédération des Maisons de la laïcité (federation of secularist centres), which was created in 1982, the Maisons are now present in 67 of the 281 communes of Wallonia and Brussels. This relatively close-knit territorial network is one of the hallmarks of the French-speaking secular sphere. These Maisons de la laïcité have benefited from the support of public authorities in Wallonia. Prior to the recognition of organised secularism at a federal level, the Walloon Region, anxious for equal treatment between the different belief- based communities, felt that the Maisons de la laïcité should receive financial support from the communes in the same way as the fabriques d’église; in 1989, a budget circular thus characterised commune spending on Maisons de la laïcité as “non- optional”. The law of 2002 (see below) once again made it optional for communes to support the Maisons de la laïcité. In this regard, the organisational structure of the secular community provided for in the new law, which did not account for the Maisons de la laïcité, was met with disappointment or incomprehension by many leaders of the Maisons. Today, the Federation of Maisons de la laïcité is mainly funded by the French Community (the Wallonia-Brussels Federation),19 under the rubric of lifelong education.

In 1988, the association Humanistische Präsenz was established in the small German-speaking area, which forms part of Wallonia. It is affiliated to the Liège regional branch of the CAL.

Parallel with the creation of the CAL, Flemish secular associations had founded the non-profit association Unie Vrijzinnige Verenigingen (Union of free-thinking associations – UVV) in 1971, to play a federative role in Flanders. The CAL and the UVV joined forces in 1972 to form the non-profit association known as the Conseil central laïque (Central secular council – CCL). Indeed, in a Belgium that was still unified, it was important for French-speaking and Dutch-speaking secularists to have a single voice, to add weight to the demands they made to political authorities: ‘The social purpose of the association is to combine the two bodies representing non- denominational philosophical communities in Belgium and to represent them in relations with third parties, particularly in relations with state institutions and public authorities’.20 This was a purely legal arrangement, however: the CCL is not equipped with its own staff or resources, and the CAL and UVV fulfil missions assigned to the CCL, each for its own community.

In a sense, the construction of the secular sphere that took place in Belgium from the 1960s onwards acted as a precursor to the country’s transformation into a federal state; to this day, organised secularism is the only belief-based organisation that is structured on the basis of language. During the 1970s and 1980s, the legitimacy and representational capacity of the CAL and UVV were gradually recognised: for the first time, their representatives were invited to an official ceremony at the Belgian Parliament in 1976, to commemorate 25 years of the reign of King Baudouin.

Secularism: a new religion?

Over time, the secular sphere, now commonly referred to as “laïcité organisée” (organised secularism), started offering citizens alternatives to religious rites, the most well-known of these undoubtedly being the “fêtes de la jeunesse laïque” (celebrations for secular youth): an alternative to Catholic confirmations. Other celebrations, such as secular weddings (a ceremonial complement to the civil marriage ceremony), secular baptisms and secular funerals also came to be offered.

The construction of the secular sphere, and specifically the creation of an organisation for national representation, namely the CCL, had two aims: a) to represent non-believers and b) to obtain financial support from public authorities, at a time when the recognised religions – and in particular the Catholic Church, which was by far the main beneficiary of the system – received substantial funding from the State. The booklet published by the CAL in 1993, entitled Les cultes en Belgique et l’argent des pouvoirs publics (Religions in Belgium and Public Money)21, would draw attention to this inequality. It informed a large audience about a generous system for publicly funding religions, which people had almost forgotten about at that time. Moreover, from the 1990s onwards, this topic would almost always be present in the political arena, given the numerous studies dedicated to it and the many system reform proposals that were put forward, including by the CAL.

Meanwhile, at the start of the 1970s, it was primarily a case of freeing up funds for secular action. When the Constitution was revised in 1970, a new article was added, which stipulated that “Enjoyment of the rights and freedoms recognized for Belgians should be ensured without discrimination. To this end, laws and federate laws guarantee among others the rights and freedoms of ideological and philosophical minorities”.22 This article provided a basis for the demands of the secular movement. In 1973, the law known as the Cultural Pact23 consolidated this basis. Specifically, the Pact guaranteed the protection of ideological and philosophical tendencies.

The CAL devoted considerable efforts to obtaining funding for organised secularism. By 1972, the first draft laws for the recognition of secularism had been tabled in the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives, by socialist, liberal and Volksunie members of parliament,24 proposing the joint recognition of the Islamic religion and the secular philosophy.25 One of them was examined by the Justice Committee of the Senate. Its report recognised the principle of protecting secular philosophical views, but rejected the possibility of recognising these in legislation on the temporal affairs of religions, as had been proposed.26 In 1973, the CAL expanded on its demands in the Livre blanc de la laïcité (“White Paper on Secularism”) and, the following year, in the booklet by Robert Hamaide entitled Pour la reconnaissance de la laïcité (“For the Recognition of Secularism”), which contained the text for draft laws about recognising and funding organised secularism through the same mechanisms as religions. This ambition was not without its critics in the secular sphere: many continued to regard secularism as an opposing force to religion, seeking to deepen the separation of Church and State in Belgium, and thus end state funding for religions. Demands for public funding similar to that provided to recognised religions were made mainly within the French-speaking secular sphere and in the CAL; Flemish secularists, still heavily involved in the struggle for emancipation from a Catholic Church which retained considerable power over the north of the country, were slower to come round to this point of view.

In 1978, Article 117 of the Constitution, which governed the public funding of religions, was opened for revision. The decision to do so was passed by Parliament in extremis, because the Social-Christian Party had feared that opening the article for revision would lead to the discontinuation of salary payments to religious ministers and pensions. Due to this concern, a vote was held on a declaration of justified revision: ‘The Chambers declare that there are grounds for revising Article 117 of the Constitution by adding a second subparagraph that would potentially extend the provisions of the first subparagraph to secular counsellors’.27 But it would be another 15 years before Article 117 was actually amended. In the meantime, another path would present itself to the secular movement. In 1980, a bill aimed at increasing payments to ministers of recognised religions was tabled in Parliament.28 Representatives of secular organisations in Parliament seized the opportunity and made the vote on the bill subject to a subsidy being granted for secularism. An agreement between the Minister of Justice, Renaat Van Elslande of the CVP, and the co-presidents of the CCL was concluded in 1980, and the law of 23 January 1981 granted the CCL a subsidy intended for ‘organising secular activity’.29 The debates leading up to the adoption of this law did not focus on whether it was appropriate to subsidise organised secularism but on the way in which this might be done. It was suggested that secularism belonged to the domain of cultural issues, and therefore fell within the remit of the Communities. Finally, an agreement was reached based on the idea that secularism was a philosophy and that its funding was thus a matter for central government, which was responsible for other belief-based organisations (in other words religions).30 This was the moment at which secularism definitively entered the realm of funding for belief-based organisations and came under the jurisdiction of central government, today the Federal Authority. Besides fundamental arguments about the nature of the secular movement, it appears that strategic considerations may have played a part in secular representatives’ desire to obtain recognition and funding at that level: the secular movement’s less favourable position in Flanders, where its political representatives were weaker than in Wallonia, could have hampered funding in the north of the country. In both the Chamber and the Senate, and in both a committee and a plenary vote, the bill granting public funding for organised secularism was adopted by unanimous vote, reflecting, if not an end to the conflict with the Church, at least a shift in the balance of power within the conflict.31 Moreover, making organised secularism a beneficiary of public funding, which in the past had been reserved solely for religions, was the best way to ensure the future of the public funding system in general.

Widespread support for recognising and funding secularism was as strong as ever by the time the Constitution was revised in 1993, when a second paragraph was finally added to Article 117 on the salaries and pensions of ministers of religions (from then on numbered as Article 181): ‘The salaries and pensions of delegates of organisations recognised by the law as providing moral assistance according to a non-denominational philosophical concept will be paid by the State; the required amounts will be charged annually to the budget.’ The draft passed by 163 votes (with 5 abstentions) in the Senate and by 196 votes to 13 in the Chamber, where the votes against were all cast by the far right (Vlaams Blok and Front National).32 This quasi- unanimity illustrates the general shift in society and the political climate: from now on, organised secularism was a part of the pluralism of Belgian society.

The public funding it obtained, on the same footing as religions, did put the Belgian secular humanist movement in an unusual position, which was unique in Europe. Not everyone within the French-speaking secular sphere welcomed it. Among those who publicly voiced their disapproval was the constitutionalist Marc Uyttendaele, who, in a column entitled Une religion de trop (One Religion Too Many), described the amendment that had been made to the constitution as ‘a historic mistake’.33 Via its president Philippe Grollet, the CAL pointed out that while the strict separation of Church and State remained a key objective of the secular movement, the addition of the second subparagraph was the only possible route to greater fairness in the implementation of public funding, given the impossibility of removing Article 117 from the Constitution altogether.34 To this day, the debate has not yet ended within the French-speaking secular sphere, where the question is still asked whether one can ‘get away with reducing secularism to an ideological component of society when it should form the very basis of it’.35

The new formulation of article 181 of the Constitution created the need for a law that governed the funding of organised secularism. Negotiations between the representatives of the CCL, with its co-presidents Philippe Grollet (CAL) and Michel Magits (UVV), and successive Ministers of Justice, Stefaan De Clerck and Tony Van Parys, both of whom Flemish Social-Christians (CVP), dragged on, as did the procedure for consulting the Council of State on the preliminary draft. Transforming the principle of equal treatment into reality, and agreeing on a budget, proved to be more complicated. A first draft of the law had failed to pass by the time the 1995- 1999 parliamentary term came to an end. Following the elections of June 1999, held against the unusual backdrop of a food scandal, a federal government was established from which the Social Christian parties were absent for the first time since 1958. The CCL seized this opportunity to renegotiate the content of the bill with the Minister of Justice, the Flemish liberal Marc Verwilghen (VLD). The final draft organised secularism on a provincial basis and brought the status and pay scales of secular representatives closer to those of federal agents, and not ministers of religions, who received a lower regular salary. This asymmetry in the treatment of secular delegates and ministers of religions triggered opposition to the draft from the CD&V, the renamed Flemish Social-Christian party. The party united with Volksunie and the far-right groups to speak out against the bill, which nevertheless passed with a large majority in both the Chamber and the Senate, after including the votes of French- speaking Social-Christians.36

Adoption of the law of 21 June 200237 marked the end of the process of securing recognition for organised secularism that had been initiated twenty years earlier and steadily pursued, particularly by CAL president Philippe Grollet (1950-2011), who played a decisive role in the matter.

Secular organisations benefit from a substantial portion of public funding: in 2017, the amount set aside by the FPS Justice (Ministry of Justice) for the salaries of secular delegates and the subsidisation of the CCL, 19.103 million euros, represented almost 17 % of the total amount earmarked by the Federal Authority for belief-based organisations.38 This sum makes secularism the second largest funded belief system in Belgium, after the Catholic Church.

Major advances in society

Along with its Flemish counterpart, the CAL and older secular associations were the driving force behind the adoption of progressive laws on ethical issues. By the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s, the secular movement had mobilised to support the right to abortion, in particular around doctor Willy Peers. Trained at the ULB and a founding member of the Société belge pour la législation de l’avortement (Belgian Society for the Legalisation of Abortion), he openly practised voluntary terminations of pregnancy, which led to him being arrested in 1973 and spending a month in prison. The Peers affair put the decriminalisation of abortion on the political agenda; in 1978, the CAL published a booklet entitled Propositions laïques pour la dépénalisation totale de l’interruption volontaire de grossesse (Secular proposals for the complete decriminalisation of voluntary terminations of pregnancy). But it was not until 1990 that the Lallemand-Michielsens law partially decriminalised abortion,39 despite strong opposition from the Catholic sphere and even the Royal Palace.40 Since 2016, the CAL has once again been taking the lead in the fight to remove abortion from the Criminal Code.

In 1999, the set-up of a federal government which, for the first time since 1958, excluded the Social-Christians opened up new prospects in the domain of ethics. In 2003, the Verhofstadt I Government (known as the Rainbow Coalition41) made Belgium the second country in the world, after the Netherlands, to allow marriage between gay couples,42 despite the hostility of the Catholic Church and following fifteen years of debate in which the secular movement had played a significant part. The parties left it to their representatives to decide how to vote on this ethical matter, and when the vote was held in the Senate, a split emerged between the north and the south of the country: on the side of the traditional Social-Christian parties,43 the Flemish CD&V approved the draft law, with one abstention, while on the French- speaking side, the CDH voted against the draft law, with one abstention. The same was true among the liberals: the (Flemish) VLD unanimously supported the draft while the (French-speaking) MR was divided, with five votes against, one vote for, and one abstention.44 Perhaps this difference can be explained by the fact that the debate had already reached Flanders, given the Netherlands’ adoption of a similar law in 2001, so Flemish people had had more time to get used to the idea. The subsequent votes in the Chamber reflected the same positions among the parties. Three years later, gay couples also acquired the right to adopt children.45 While these laws in favour of equal rights regardless of sexual orientation were backed by the majority of secular politicians, they were not one of the secular movement’s major battles.

The right to euthanasia, on the other hand, was a key demand of the secular movement and of the CAL, and was supported by the Association pour le droit à mourir dans la dignité (Association for the Right to Die with Dignity), which was founded in 1982. Progress was made in this area by the Rainbow Coalition. A draft law on euthanasia was brought before the Senate by six senators belonging to the six parties that formed the coalition government (thus not including the Social- Christians, as will be recalled). The parliamentary debates were long and fueled by some 40 hearings. The law of 28 May 200246 was adopted almost unanimously by the parties that formed the government majority, while CD&V, CDH and far-right groups voted against. Belgium was, in this respect too, ahead of its time, becoming one of the first countries in the world to legalise euthanasia.

Adoption of these laws under the Verhofstadt I Government certainly came as a surprise to observers: they noted that until the end of the 1990s, Belgium had cut a rather more conservative figure in matters of morality, having decriminalised abortion only partially and very late, fifteen years after France and ten years after the Netherlands. This Belgian “boost” can certainly be explained by the specific political circumstances of the 1999-2003 period, but aside from such circumstances, it can also be interpreted in the dual context of a Catholic Church that had been losing ground since the end of the 1960s and an organised secular movement that had been fueling public debate since the 1980s through its own publications and the involvement of its leaders in the mainstream media.

The position of secular organisations in a secularised Belgium

After the Second World War, the secular humanist movement took off in Flanders, particularly after the creation of the Humanistisch Verbond in 1951.47 In Wallonia, where it had already been entrenched since the second half of the nineteenth century, driven in particular by the early development of a large working class and the socialist movement, the secular movement would remain characterised by the anticlerical melting pot from which it emerged. This was paradoxical, since secularisation and the decline in the influence of the Catholic Church affected Wallonia first; moreover, since the 1960s, traditionally anticlerical parties, in other words socialist and liberal parties, held a majority in this Region and its state schools taught a (slim) majority of pupils, while Catholic education still largely prevailed in Flanders. Thus, in the s pace of fifty years, the percentage of Walloons attending Sunday Mass went from 33.9 % in 1967 to 4.2 % in 2009, while the percentage of Flemish citizens went from 52.0 % to 5.4 %.48

In some respects, the secular movement may feel that the battle for the secularisation of Belgian society has been won, mainly due to a shortage of troops on the Catholic side, but this position is as much due to the secularisation process as to the secular movement’s own momentum. In order to specifically reflect this change in context, the CAL amended its statutes in 2016. Since 1999, they had made a distinction between political secularism and philosophical secularism:

‘Secularism should be understood to mean, on the one hand: The desire to build a fair, progressive and fraternal society, equipped with impartial public institutions (...) which considers denominational or non-denominational choices to fall exclusively within the private sphere of individuals. And on the other hand: The personal elaboration of a philosophy of life based on the human experience, to the exclusion of all denominational, dogmatic or supernatural references, which involves adhering to the values of free inquiry, emancipation from any form of conditioning, and compliance with the requirements of citizenship and justice’.49

This distinction between two forms of secularism was at times a source of confusion. Nowadays, the social aim of the CAL is defined as follows:

‘To defend and (...) promote secularism. Secularism is the humanist principle that bases the regime of freedoms and human rights on the impartiality of democratic civilian power, free of all religious interference. It obliges the constitutional state to ensure the equality, solidarity and emancipation of citizens through the dissemination of knowledge and use of free inquiry’.50

In the words of the CAL’s Deputy General Secretary, Benoît Van der Meerschen, ‘if one wishes to achieve a peaceful coexistence where nobody is seeking to impose their own choices on the whole of society, secularism as it is now defined in Article 4 of the CAL’s statutes is the way forward. All of us have everything to gain from it, especially religions, whose continued existence it guarantees along with their followers’ freedom to practise the religion of their choice – or not to practise one at all’.51

Notwithstanding this emancipatory aim of secularism, which extends to every individual in the Belgium of 2018, the secular movement is regarded as one of the components of organised pluralism. The secularisation movement that affected the Catholic Church, but also the country’s long-established faiths, Judaism and Lutheran Protestantism, has gone hand in hand with the development of other religions: Islam, Evangelical Protestantism, and the Eastern and Orthodox Christian Churches form a fragmented landscape of belief systems, particularly in the cities. Fears surrounding the development of violent Islamic extremism following the terrorist attacks between 2014 and 2016 led to intercultural dialogue, aimed at promoting harmony between the citizens of different faiths. That is why the Prime Minister, Charles Michel (MR), has on several occasions been seen surrounded by representatives of Belgium’s various recognised religions and by the co-presidents of the CCL. The official status of secularism as a component of the belief-system landscape does not prevent a persistent split between religions on the one hand and secularism on the other.

Since 2012, the French-speaking secular sphere has been heavily involved in reform of religious education and non-denominational ethics in public education. With a backdrop of unanimous opposition from religious organisations, the CAL, the Fédération des associations de parents de l’enseignement officiel (Federation of Parents’ Associations in public Education – FAPEO) and the Centre d’étude et de défense de l’école publique (Centre for the Study and Defence of State Schools – CEDEP) proposed to replace religious education and non-denominational ethics with a single citizenship course for all pupils. Due to a decision by the Constitutional Court in 2015,52 it is now optional to attend religious education or non-denominational ethics courses in French-speaking schools, as already was the case in Dutch-speaking schools. In addition, reflections concerning the dangers of religious extremism and the need to strengthen citizenship education led to the introduction of philosophy and citizenship studies in the French Community, to replace one of the two hours of religious education or non-denominational ethics (from the 2016-2017 academic year onwards). Considerable debate surrounding this illustrated the extent to which, in a subject such as religious education, the old philosophical divide was still at play. This is despite the diversity of religious groups: in matters such as this, they form a united block against organised secularism, whose fight for secularising society and institutions does not yet appear to have reached its conclusion.

Development of the organised secular movement in French-speaking Belgium since the 1960s, underpinned by the recognition it has received from the public authorities, has undoubtedly allowed it to play a role in the evolution of Belgian society and, in particular, the adoption of a series of ethical laws. It has also enabled it to make an effective contribution to the development of the European Humanist Federation (EHF),53 in a context where issues that have been resolved in Belgium (such as abortion or euthanasia) remain unresolved in other European countries, where they face intense pressure from the Churches. The secular fight to emancipate citizens and the State from the influence of the Church continues to rage in many European countries, and indeed within European institutions themselves, where it was introduced by the EHF.

This article has retraced the development of the organised secular movement in French-speaking Belgium from an external perspective, with a focus on and political processes. A history of this movement described from an internal perspective, which would entail studying the archives of various organisations and collecting the accounts of the main authors of its development, remains to be written, and would make a more than welcomed complement to the brief overview provided in this article.


  1. The reference work edited by Hervé Hasquin: Histoire de la laïcité en Belgique (Brussels: Espace de libertés, 1994) has not been updated, and only one other summary piece has been published since: the dictionary edited by Pol Delfosse (Pol Defosse, Dictionnaire historique de la laïcité en Belgique (Brussels: Fondation rationaliste/Luc Pire, 2005). There is still no equivalent of the Flemish reference work on the subject: Gily Coene, Jimmy Koppen and Frank Scheelings, ed., Op zoek. De evolutie van het vrijzinnig humanisme in Vlaanderen sinds de Tweede Wereldoorlog (Brussels: Humanistisch Verbond – Centrum voor Academische en Vrijzinnige Archieven, 2017).
  2. There is no Francophone equivalent of the Centre for Academic and Secular Humanist Archives (CAVA); the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), the sister university of the Flemish Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), does not keep archives on the secular movement. It is thus necessary to consult the organisations themselves or certain archive centres like the Institut d’histoire ouvrière, économique et sociale (IHOES) in Seraing.
  3. The French word used to describe secular organisations in Belgium is “laïcité”. In France, the word refers only to a political principle, implying a strict separation of Church and State. While the word is not common in English, we chose to use here the word “laicity” to explain this peculiarity.
  4. As far as the political history of Belgium in the nineteenth century is concerned, particular reference shall be made to the works of Els Witte and Jan Craeybeckx. When it comes to developments in the relationship between the Church and State in the nineteenth century, the already dated work: G. Braive and J. Lory, ed., L’Église et l’État à l’époque contemporaine. Mélanges dédiés à la mémoire de Mgr Aloïs Simon (Brussels: Facultés universitaires Saint Louis, 1975) is still a useful source.
  5. Most of the territories of future Belgium were part of the Austrian Netherlands from 1713 to 1794 (with interruptions between 1789 and 1790 and between 1792 and 1793).
  6. A “fabrique d’église”, or church council, is a public establishment responsible for administering the property of a Catholic parish. It receives financial support from the commune in which it is based.
  7. Reference is made to French law on the separation of Church and State, of 9 December 1905, which laid the foundation for the principle of republican laicity.
  8. It is not possible here to provide a summary of the turmoil in Belgian politics during the post-war period. Curious readers are encouraged to refer to general overviews, such as X. Mabille, Nouvelle histoire politique de la Belgique (Brussels: Centre de recherche et d’information socio-politiques (CRISP), 2011) or V. Dujardin, La Belgique sans roi (1940-1950) (Brussels: Le Cri, 2010) and L’Union fait-elle toujours la force? Nouvelle histoire de la Belgique 1950-1970 (Brussels: Le Cri, 2008).
  9. On 12 March 1950, 57.7 % of Belgians voted in favour of the king’s return. However, this majority was achieved on the basis of the Flemish vote: 72.2 % voted “yes” in Flanders, compared to only 48.2 % in the Brussels arrondissement and 42.0 % in Wallonia.
  10. Pascal Delwit, “Élections et gouvernements en Belgique depuis 1945,” in Les partis politiques en Belgique, ed. Pascal Delwit, Jean-Benoit Pilet and Emilie van Haute (Brussels: Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2011), 322-323.
  11. Because political parties have now been split on the basis of language, and due to the emergence of regionalist and later environmentalist parties, it is difficult to further study how the results of traditional political groups have changed over time. However, the results of these groups’ successors in the last regional elections, in May 2014, are worth noting for information purposes. The successors to the PSC-CVP realised 15.17 % of the votes in Wallonia (CDH) and 20.48 % in Flanders (CD&V). Socialists garnered 30.90 % of the votes in Wallonia (PS) but only 13.99 % in Flanders (SP.A). Liberals obtained 22.6 % of the votes in Wallonia (MR) and 14.15 % in Flanders (Open VLD). While traditional Christian social parties have lost voters in huge numbers on both sides of the language border, the decrease is even more pronounced in the south of the country. The Socialist Party continues to dominate in Wallonia, but maintains a considerably more modest hold in Flanders.
  12. On the subject of how this conflict and its resolution unfolded, see Jeffrey Tyssens, Guerre et paix scolaires 1950-1958 (Brussels: De Boeck, 1997).
  13. Law of 29 May 1959 amending the legislation on pre-school, primary, secondary, ordinary, technical and artistic education, Moniteur belge, 19 June 1959.
  14. Moniteur belge, 8 May 1969.
  15. In 1978 PSB-BSP split into two different political groups, the French-speaking Parti socialiste (PS) and the Dutch-speaking Socialistische Partij (SP), following in the footsteps of the Christian Social Party, which split into the PSC and the CVP as early as 1968 as a result of the Leuven crisis, and the Liberal Party, which split into the Parti réformateur libéral (PRL) and the Partij voor Vrijheid en Vooruitgang (PVV) in 1972.
  16. Royal Decree of 21 May 1965, Moniteur belge, 25 May 1965.
  17. Law of 18 February 1991 on moral counsellors in the Armed Forces, pertaining to the Non-Denominational Philosophical Community of Belgium, Moniteur belge, 7 March 1991.
  18. Moniteur belge, 3 July 1969.
  19. The Belgian federal system consists of three main levels of authority: the Federal Authority (which, concerning the subject of this article, is responsible for recognising and funding organised secularism); the Regions (which are responsible for territorial matters, such as the economy or the environment), namely Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Capital; and the Communities (which are responsible for matters concerning people, such as education and culture), namely the Flemish Community, the French Community and the German-speaking Community.
  20. Moniteur belge, 14 September 1972.
  21. G. De Bievre, ed., Les cultes en Belgique et l’argent des pouvoirs publics (Brussels: Centre d’action laïque, 1993).
  22. Article 6bis, today Article 11.
  23. Law of 16 July 1973 guaranteeing the protection of ideological and philosophical tendencies, Moniteur belge, 16 October 1973.
  24. The Volksunie was a Flemish nationalist political party founded in 1954.
  25. Senate, Doc. parl., no. 293 (1970-1972); Chamber, Doc. parl., no. 72/2 (1971-1972).
  26. Senate, Doc. parl., no. 104 (1973-1974).
  27. Chamber, An. parl., 14 November 1978 and Senate, An. parl., 14 November 1978.
  28. Bill amending the law of 2 August 1974 on salaries for incumbents of certain public offices and ministers of religions, Senate, Doc. parl., no. 319 (1980-1981) and Chamber, Doc. parl., no. 675 (1980-1981).
  29. Law of 23 January 1981 on granting subsidies to the non-denominational philosophical communities of Belgium, Moniteur belge, 8 April 1981.
  30. Senate, Doc. parl., no. 512/2 (1980-1981).
  31. Senate, An. parl., 27 November 1980; Chamber, Doc. parl., no. 676/2 (1980-1981); Chamber, An. parl., 15 January 1981.
  32. Chamber, An. parl., 22 April 1993.
  33. S.n., “Carte blanche,” Le Soir, September 10-11 1994, 2.
  34. Le Soir, 26 September 1994, 2.
  35. The ULB philosopher Guy Haarscher expressed himself in these terms in La laïcité, 4th ed., PUF, Coll. Que sais-je? no. 3129, 2006.
  36. Chamber, An. parl., 25 April 2002 (afternoon); Senate, An. parl., 13 June 2002.
  37. Law of 21 June 2002 concerning the Central Council of non-denominational philosophical communities in Belgium and representatives and establishments responsible for looking after the material and financial interests of recognised non-denominational philosophical communities, Moniteur belge, 22 October 2002.
  38. Caroline Sägesser, Jean-Philippe Schreiber and Cécile Vanderpelen-Diagré, Les religions et la laïcité en Belgique, rapport 2017 (Brussels: Université Libre de Bruxelles, 2017), 30.
  39. Law of 3 April 1990 on the termination of pregnancy, amending Articles 348, 350, 351 and 352 of the Criminal Code and repealing Article 353 of said Code, Moniteur belge, 5 April 1990.
  40. King Baudouin’s refusal to sign the law passed by Parliament was circumvented by invoking the constitutional mechanism of declaring him “unable to govern”, provided for cases in which the monarch is incapacitated or must be forcibly removed.
  41. The government led by the Flemish liberal Guy Verhofstadt (VLD) is nicknamed “the Rainbow Coalition” not because of its sympathy for the demands of the homosexual community, but rather because of its unprecedented composition, which unites the blues (liberals), the reds (socialists) and the greens (environmentalists).
  42. Law of 13 February 2003 enabling marriage to persons of the same sex and amending certain provisions of the Civil Code, Moniteur belge, 28 February 2003.
  43. By that time, the Social-Christian parties had changed names, the Flemish CVP becoming Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams (Christian-democratic and Flemish - CD&V) in 2001 while the French-speaking PSC dropped the reference to Christianity and opted for Centre démocrate humaniste (Humanist Democratic Centre - cdH) in 2002.
  44. See Ch. Arend-Chevron, “La loi du 23 février 2003 ouvrant le mariage à des personnes de même sexe”, Courrier hebdomadaire, CRISP, no. 1780, 2003.
  45. Law of 18 May 2006 amending certain provisions of the Civil Code in order to enable adoption by persons of the same sex, Moniteur belge, 20 June 2006.
  46. Law of 28 May 2002 on euthanasia, Moniteur belge, 22 June 2002.
  47. See Niels De Nutte’s contribution to this publication.
  48. Lilane Voyé and Karel Dobbelaere, “De la religion: ambivalences et distancements,” in Belges, heureux et satisfaits. Les valeurs des Belges en l’an 2000, ed. Bernadette Bawin-Legros, Liliane Voyé, Karel Dobbelaere and Mark Elchardus (Brussels: Fondation Roi Baudouin/De Boeck Université, 2001), 149; Nele Havermans and Marc Hooghe, Kerkpraktijk in België: Resultaten van de zondagstelling in oktober 2009 (Leuven: Centrum voor Politicologie, 2011).
  49. Article 4 of the statutes of the Centre for Secular Action, adopted in 1999.
  50. Article 4 of the current statutes of the Centre for Secular Action.
  51. Benoit Van der Meerschen, “Droit au but (social)”, Espace de libertés, May 2016.
  52. Constitutional Court, judgement no. 34/2015 of 12 March 2015.
  53. s.n. “European Humanist Federation,” EHF, last accessed July 17, 2019,


  • Bolle, Pierre, and L. Dery. 1789-1989: 200 ans de libre pensée en Belgique [exhibition catalogue], (Charleroi: Centre d’Action Laïque, 1989).
  • Delfosse, Paul, ed. Dictionnaire historique de la laïcité en Belgique (Brussels: Fondation rationaliste/Luc Pire, 2005).
  • Dethier, Hubert. “Libre Pensée, Franc-Maçonnerie et mouvements laïques,” in La Belgique et ses dieux: Églises, mouvements religieux et laïques, edited by Lilane Voyé, Karel Dobbelaere, J. Remy and Jaak Billiet (Louvain-la-Neuve: Cabay, 1985).
  • Hasquin, Hervé, ed. Histoire de la laïcité en Belgique (Brussels: Espace de Libertés, 1994).
  • Husson, Jean-François. “Le financement public des cultes, de la laïcité et des cours philosophiques,” Courrier hebdomadaire, CRISP, no. 1703-1704 (Brussels, 2000).
  • Husson, Jean-François, and Caroline Sägesser. “La reconnaissance et le financement de la laïcité organisée,” Courrier hebdomadaire, CRISP, no. 1756 and 1960 (Brussels, 2002).
  • Javrau, Claude. “Une esquisse sociologique de la laïcité en Belgique francophone,” in La Belgique et ses dieux: Églises, mouvements religieux et laïques, edited by Lilane Voyé, Karel Dobbelaere, J. Remy and Jaak Billiet (Louvain-la-Neuve: Cabay, 1985).
  • Kengen, Yves. Découvrir la laïcité (Brussels: Centre d’action laïque, 2015).
  • s.n. Pour la reconnaissance de la laïcité (Brussels: Centre d’Action Laïque, 1974).
  • s.n. Pour l’égalité des communautés philosophiques confessionnelles et non confessionnelles devant la loi (Brussels: Centre d’Action Laïque, 1996).
  • s.n. Découvrir la laïcité (Brussels: Centre d’Action Laïque, 1999).
  • Sägesser, Caroline. Cultes et laïcité en Belgique (Brussels: Dossier du CRISP, 2011).
  • Sägesser, Caroline, and Jean-Philippe Schreiber. Le financement public des religions et de la laïcité en Belgique (Louvain-la-Neuve: Academia Bruylant, 2010).
  • Schreiber, Jean-Philippe, and Alain Dierkens, ed. Laïcité et sécularisation dans l’Union européenne, coll. Problèmes d’histoire des religions (Brussels: Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2006).
  • Tyssens, Jeffrey, and Els Witte. De vrijzinnige traditie in België: van getolereerde tegencultuur tot erkende levensbeschouwing (Brussels: VUBPRESS, 1998).
  • Tyssens, Jeffrey. “L’organisation de la laïcité en Belgique” in Pluralisme religieux et laïcité dans l’Union européenne, edited by Alain Dierkens (Brussels: Université libre de Bruxelles, 1994).

All rights reserved. No parts of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

This text was first published in 2019 as: Sägesser (Caroline). “Secularism in French-speaking Belgium.” In Looking Back to Look Forward, edited by Niels De Nutte and Bert Gasenbeek, 23-41. Brussels: VUBPress, 2019.

This page was last updated on 22 December 2020.