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Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal in Antwerpen, Hong Yong Lim / Flickr / CC

‘Relationship between the state and religious and ideological beliefs in Belgium has reached its best-before date’

In Belgium, officially recognised religions receive financial support from the state. Partly as a result, there is no clearly implemented secularism (separation of church and state) though this is considered to be a guiding notion in modern constitutional theories. PhD candidate Alain Vannieuwenburg delved into the history books and defends his dissertation on 5 February.

'Many agreements on ideological matters clearly stem from a certain period and appear to have a high level of compromise which is now outdated', says Vannieuwenburg. 'The existing agreements in the area of the recognition and funding of ideological beliefs are regarded as unwavering. For many decades it was possible to maintain the compromise, but in the twentieth century the system came under pressure. Besides blatant discrimination in favour of the Roman Catholic Church, other concerns include financial sustainability, the uncompromising response to developments in society and the lack of transparency. How the relationship between the government and ideological beliefs came about in Belgium makes any intervention very difficult.' Nevertheless, in 2016 liberal politician Patrick Dewael (Open VLD) pressed for a review of certain sections of the Constitution.  

Spirit of the times

Fascinated by these issues, Vannieuwenburg began his research which he labels a 'historical exploration'. Interventions during the French and Dutch period were also investigated in the process. 'The object, therefore, was to investigate what impact politics had under the French and Dutch regime on the current specific Belgian constitutional system. To clarify the spirit of the times, the atmosphere and the structured character of the opposition within the Roman Catholic Church, a number of pamphlets distributed by Catholic clergymen were studied.'

Much attention is also paid to why there was a compromise between Catholics and liberals, and to the consequences of what was often hasty consent to certain proposals. 'In contrast to a political-philosophical doctoral thesis, which defends secularism compared to competing models, by conducting a historical study I wish chiefly to contribute to a reminder of the explanation how the Belgian constitutional thinking on ideology developed.'

Vannieuwenburg clarifies, among other things, how the relationship between the state and ideological beliefs in the current Belgian Constitution (1831) came about and has remained more or less unchanged up to now. Although six officially recognised religions receive state subsidies, the government may not interfere with the doctrinal content of the services. 'The church, for example, is entitled to appoint new bishops and establish new dioceses, without requiring permission from the civil authority. The ministers of religion, though paid for by the government, are not civil servants.'

Voices are increasingly being raised calling for the removal of ideological and religious subjects in education. This is not in conflict with the Constitution.

The Belgian freedom of education is also discussed. 'A distinction can be made between public and free education. The GO! or community education, also known as public education, must offer all ideological and religious subjects. In addition there is the publicly subsidized education. This education includes the schools that correspond to certain cities, municipalities and provinces.  The free confessional education, organized by private persons or private institutions, is often referred to as the Catholic education. The founders of the Catholic schools are congregations or dioceses. Today, the free, Catholic network of schools is slowly dominating the education market at all levels. This type of education, however, is not required to maintain a certain level of neutrality or to offer all ideological or religious subjects.

Vannieuwenburg concludes that voices are increasingly being raised calling for the removal of ideological and religious subjects in education and using the time that is freed up to introduce a civil education subject or the subject philosophy. 'This is not in conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or with the Constitution. After all, it does not prevent a person from voluntarily receiving instruction on a certain religion or ideology.'

Best-before date reached

His historical exploration brings Vannieuwenburg to a clear conclusion: the current Belgian system has reached its best-before date, if not gone beyond it. 'Immigration, multiculturalism, ideology shopping and multi-religiosity colour society. The compromise politics that developed over time, the lack of transparency, the multiple ad-hoc constructions, the cost of the compromise politics, linked to the fear of being accused of religious intolerance in particular, endanger all forms of good governance.' Vannieuwenburg believes that if political willingness can be found, adjustments are possible in the existing system of recognising and subsidising religions and the existence of separate types of education.

Instead of the current system, the researcher calls for assertive secularism. The system in which ideologies are recognised and subsidised should be extensively reviewed and the education system should be replaced by one neutral pluralistic education project that is set up integrally by the government in response to today’s complex reality. The researcher also calls for the implementation of legally sound measures to enable the punishment of religious organisations recognised by the government, if they disregard Belgian fundamental values or clash directly with the values of the liberal rule of law.

'The secular society - guardian of human rights, education, science and emancipation - is vulnerable. In a process of stagnating societal secularisation, we need more than ever strictly implemented state secularisation.  It is up to the secular society – in everyone’s interest – to position itself distinctly.'

Professor P.B. Cliteur on Alain Vannieuwenburg’s research:

'How should the State act in relation to religion? May a State uphold a state religion? Is religious education a good idea? May religious believers violate statutory provisions which non-believers must respect? The relationship between a State and religion is the centre of attention again.

The comparison between the Netherlands and Belgium is of interest for a number of reasons. Although the Dutch and Belgians share the same language, they have a different model for State/religion relationships. In Belgium a system exists of ‘recognised religions’; that is to say that certain religions are officially recognised and also receive government support.

In a thorough study Alain Vannieuwenburg presents an analysis and criticism of the Belgian system. He calls for a layman’s renaissance: a renaissance of secular thinking in politics. He also presents an extensive overview of the history of the Belgian system. Anyone interested in the issues at stake here, cannot ignore Vannieuwenburg’s work.'

Text: Floris van den Driesche
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