Voltaire’s Criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church

Famously referred to as Voltaire, Francois-Marie Arouet was a philosopher, historian, and writer who singlehandedly defined the 18th century Enlightenment movement. He was famous for his wit, style, and intelligence which made him one of the greatest philosophers in history.  Voltaire was a man of controversy and a vocal supporter of the rights of the people to freedom of speech, freedom to trade, and freedom of religion. He was also a prolific writer, producing writings in almost all the literary forms, including poems, essays, historical works, novels, and scientific works. He wrote over 2,000 pamphlets and books and more than 20,000 letters. He went against the strict censorship laws of his time and advocated for civil liberties even at the risk to his life. He employed satire as a medium in his writings to criticize his government institutions, religious dogma, and intolerance.

Like other Enlightenment philosophers, Voltaire was a skeptic who was suspicious of anything that could not be supported with reasonable evidence. He was against the monarchy system of government and believed that the citizens should have a part to play in choosing their leaders. He was not a fan of the traditional economic system because he saw it as a tool to enrich the elite at the expense of the masses. He also rejected the idea that women and men should be restricted to jobs and lifestyles based only on their gender. Even though Voltaire was very vocal against the social vices in his day, it is for his attacks on the Catholic Church that he is most famous for.

Why did Voltaire have such an intense dislike for the Roman Catholic Church?

To answer this question, we must first of all understand that the Roman Catholic Church at that time was very much different from the one we have now. Back then, the Catholic Church was the predominant and the most prominent religious institution in the world. Due to the immense power and influence it wielded, it supported and upheld questionable vices without being challenged. For instance, the Catholic Church opposed any form of religious toleration, censored the press, discouraged research in science, endorsed slavery, and opposed freedom of speech. These evils condoned by the Church angered philosophers like Voltaire. He was an unrepentant critic who ceaselessly attacked the Catholic Church because he saw it as the source of all evil and an inhibition to progress. He also believed that no change or progress would happen in the society until the power of the church is undermined. It is for this reason Voltaire spent a majority of his life attacking and ridiculing the Catholic Church. And he kept on with this act until he breathed his last. So, in this article we shall examine some of those criticisms: 

He criticized the church’s belief on souls

One of the cardinal beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church is the doctrine of souls. This doctrine states that the body is a different entity separate from the soul. Furthermore, they believe that when a man dies, it is only the body that perishes, not the soul. Voltaire saw these ideas as ridiculous and counted them as superstitious beliefs that cannot be proven. According to him, humans are just part of a natural cycle with plants and animals. And in his bid to prove that a soul is not separate from the body, he used the Newtonian theory of gravitation. For instance, he observed that the characteristics of heaviness in rocks is not separate from their nature, rather rocks are just heavy. Similarly, humans are not alive because of the presence of souls in their body to animate them. They are simple exhibiting one of the characteristics that comes with being a living thing, which is life. He saw the concept of soul as a false doctrine perpetrated by the Catholic Church and founded on superstitions and not reason.

He faulted the apostle’s creed

The apostle’s creed is one of the foundations of the Roman Catholic Church. It is basically seen as a brief summary of what the Church believes in. Voltaire saw the creed as a chain made up by the Church to keep the people in bondage. Also, he believed that the creed does not reflect the teachings of Jesus since they were created a long time after his death. There is a paragraph in the creed that states that Jesus descended into hell. According to Voltaire, the Church added that because they were influenced by an extinct publication called the Harrowing of Hell which was quite popular in the medieval age.

He criticized the Church’s lack of tolerance

Voltaire was angry about the attitude of religious intolerance that was prevalent in the Catholic Church. In his time, the Church was extremely powerful, wealthy and influential. Citizens could not openly claim to be members of another religion as this could lead to persecutions or worse, death. Also, the Roman Catholic Church viewed the beliefs of Jews, Muslims, and atheists as invalid. They persecuted and forced the conversion of non-believers into their church. And they justified their actions by claiming that they have been granted universal authority by God. However, Voltaire dismissed this claim as false and denounced the Church as a haven for the perpetration of evil.

He condemned the Church’s clergy

The Roman Catholic Church was the wealthiest religion at the time. Its clergymen lived in the laps of luxury and had acquired a reputation for spending time on trifling and pleasurable things. This picture was in stark contrast to its followers who were mostly poor and destitute. In spite of their situation, the members were often urged and cajoled to give money to the Church’s purse so their names could be written in heaven. Voltaire considered this act as a daylight robbery of the people. He also wondered why the clergy kept themselves away from the individuals they were supposed to serve. He declared that they were all useless and only fit to serve on the battlegrounds. In addition, he urged the people to open their eyes and see that the clergymen were only interested in using them to finance their excessive lifestyles.

Conclusion

Voltaire’s outspokenness and lack of fear resulted in him making many enemies in the Church. Even though he was imprisoned and exiled severally, he never relented in his attacks. Finally, his many works and thoughts have over the years influenced the emergence of revolutionary ideas.

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