Religion and popular culture in 19th century Europe

Religious practice in Catholic Europe in the nineteenth century was a multifaceted thing, influenced by such factors as class, gender, and region. Despite nominally being members of the same faith, the religious experience of a Bavarian farmer was very different to that of an industrial worker in Barcelona and different again from that of a bourgeois woman in northern France. In previous centuries it can be argued that the Catholic 'community,' for lack of a better word, was a much more homogenous entity, despite cultural and class barriers. The enormous changes that transformed European society in the nineteenth century had an eroding effect on this uniformity, and the Church found itself having to respond to a variety of new and unique challenges across Europe. The twin forces of industrialization and urbanization presented the greatest challenges to the Church, as they forced it to redefine its role in communities. Since the very beginnings of European Christianity the overwhelming majority of the population had lived in rural areas and lived quite traditional agrarian lives. The peer pressure and insularity that is rampant within small communities had the effect of keeping virtually everyone within the Church's sphere of influence. The Church was an accepted part of the establishment, consorting with the European political elite while also providing spiritual comfort to the masses. And like other pillars of society such as the military and government, those who had been born into privilege dominated the upper levels of the Church hierarchy.

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This was the way that things had been throughout Catholic Europe for centuries, remaining relatively unchanged in those areas that were not swept up in the Reformation. The one great exception, of course, was Revolutionary France, where the connection between the Church and the State that had been so strong was irreparably severed. Most people in Europe lived their lives in relative isolation from each other, and only the Church offered a semblance of a wider community, of a life beyond toil in the fields. The nineteenth century changed this. The rise of industrialization and its crusading ideology, liberal capitalism, completely upset the balance of power in European society. Needless to say, this was a change that had a serious impact on the Catholic Church as well. It created a new social class of industrial tycoons whose power was based on wealth, not on their inherited status. Improvements in transport and communications technology drew together European societies in an entirely new way, creating the phenomenon of nationalism, a new way for people to connect their communities into a larger cultural whole. Industrialization drew people by the millions from the old way of life in the countryside to the booming cities. The negative side effects of industrialization, the poverty, the disease, the squalid housing, created socialism and the workers' movements, which were implicitly against the Establishment in all of its forms. The Church was, of course, an integral part of what they were fighting against. Essentially, these enormous changes created new communities of interests that were in many respects diametrically opposed to the old order dominated by the clergy and the aristocracy.

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