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Relations between the Catholic Church and the state

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Relations between the Catholic Church and the state

The relations between the Catholic Church and the state have been constantly evolving with various forms of government, some of them controversial in retrospect. In its history it has had to deal with various concepts and systems of governance, from the Roman Empire to the medieval divine right of kings, from nineteenth and twentieth century concepts of democracy and pluralism to the appearance of left- and right-wing dictatorial regimes. Although the Second Vatican Council's decree Dignitatis humanae emphasized that people must not be coerced in matters of religion, it "leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ", i.e., that in an ideal society the Catholic Church would be recognized as the official religion of the state.


  • Catholicism and the Roman Emperors 1
  • The papacy and the Divine Right of Kings 2
    • The French Revolution 2.1
    • France after the Revolution 2.2
    • Catholicism in the United Kingdom and Ireland 2.3
    • Leo XIII 2.4
  • The Church and the twentieth century 3
    • Spain 3.1
    • France 3.2
    • Ireland 3.3
    • Elsewhere in Europe 3.4
    • Fascism 3.5
      • Italy 3.5.1
      • Germany 3.5.2
      • Slovakia 3.5.3
      • Croatia 3.5.4
      • Belgium 3.5.5
    • The United States 3.6
    • Argentina 3.7
    • Brazil 3.8
    • Australia 3.9
    • International Law 3.10
  • Communism 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6

Catholicism and the Roman Emperors

Christianity emerged in the 1st century as one of many new religions in the Roman Empire. Early Christians were persecuted as early as 64 A.D. when Nero ordered large numbers of Christians executed in retaliation for the Great Fire of Rome. Christianity remained a growing, albeit, minority religion in the empire for several centuries. Roman persecutions of Christians climaxed with the Diocletianic Persecution at the turn of the 4th century. Following Constantine the Great's victory on Milvian Bridge, which he attributed to a Christian omen he saw in the sky, the Edict of Milan declared that the empire would no longer sanction persecution of Christians. Following Constantine's deathbed conversion in 337 all emperors adopted Christianity, except for Julian the Apostate who, during his brief reign, attempted unsuccessfully to re-instate paganism.

In the Christian era (more properly the era of the First seven Ecumenical Councils) the Church came to accept it was the Emperor's duty to use secular power to enforce religious unity, anyone within the Church who did not subscribe to Catholic Christianity was seen as a threat to the dominance and purity of "the one true faith" and they saw it as their right to defend this by all means at their disposal.[1]

Beginning with

  1. ^ "The First Christian Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Early Church", Edited by Gillian Rosemary Evans, contributor Clarence Gallagher SJ , "The Imperial Ecclesiastical Lawgivers", p68, Blackwell Publishing, 2004, ISBN 0-631-23187-0
  2. ^ On Pagans, Jews, and Christians, Arnaldo Momigliano, p. 158, ISBN 0-8195-6218-1
  3. ^ Summa Theologica on The power of human law
  4. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia
  5. ^ Code of Canon Law 285 §3; 287 §2
  6. ^ Quoted by Horacio Verbitsky, in The Silence, extract transl. in English made available by openDemocracy: Breaking the silence: the Catholic Church in Argentina and the "dirty war", July 28, 2005, p.4
  7. ^ [1]


See also

Pope John Paul II offered support to the Polish Solidarity movement. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev once said the collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II.[7]


In 2003, Pope John Paul II also became a prominent critic of the United Nations to solve the international conflict through diplomacy and that a unilateral aggression is a crime against peace and a violation of international law.

International Law

Prominent Catholics in the Liberal-National coalition, the main centre-right political force in Australia, include Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Christopher Pyne. Prominent Catholics in the Labor Party, the main centre-left party, include former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Links between the Catholic Church and Australian politics strengthened when the Australian Labor Party split and the Democratic Labour Party was founded, chiefly under the influence of Bob Santamaria. In one state, the Catholic Church threw its institutional support behind this party and the movements upon which it relied. However, after the Archbishop died, the party and the Industrial groups upon which it was based no longer had any Church support.

Traditionally, Catholics in Australia had been predominantly of Irish descent. They have also been traditionally in the working-class. As a result, for much of its early history, the Australian Labor Party had a significant proportion of Catholics as members and supporters. However, this historical link has eroded over time and Catholics are now present across the political spectrum. Prominent Archbishop Daniel Mannix was perhaps the most politically vocal Catholic figure, including in his opposition to conscription. This conscription debate was often framed in terms of a divide between Protestants and Catholics.



Secularism became enforced in Argentina in 1884 when President Jean Ousset (former personal secretary of Charles Maurras, the leader of the Action française)'s theories on counter-revolutionary warfare and "subversion" in Argentina.[6]


Catholics currently active in American politics are members of both major parties, and currently hold many important offices. The most prominent include Chief Justice John Roberts, former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, and former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger. Additionally, Democratic former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and Republican former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, both Catholics, sought the nomination for their respective parties in the 2008 presidential election. Five associate justices, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Sonia Sotomayor, and Anthony Kennedy, are members of the Supreme Court, resulting in a Catholic majority on the court. Vice President Joe Biden is also a Roman Catholic.

Robert Drinan, a Catholic priest, served five terms in Congress as a Democrat from Massachusetts before the Holy See forced him to choose between giving up his seat in Congress or being laicized. The Church forbids Catholic priests from holding political office anywhere in the world.[5]

Since the late 1960s, the Catholic Church has been politically active in the U.S. around the "life issues" of abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia, with some bishops and priests refusing communion to Catholic politicians who publicly advocate for legal abortion. This has created stigma within the Church itself however. The church has also played significant roles in the fights over capital punishment, gay marriage, welfare, state secularism, various "peace and justice" issues, among many others. Its role varies from area to area depending upon the size of the Catholic Church in a particular region, also it depends on the region's predominant ideology. For example, a Catholic church in the Southern U.S. would be more likely to be against universal health care than a Catholic church in New England.

Prior to 1960, the U.S. had never had a Catholic president. Many Protestants were afraid that if a Catholic were elected president, he would take orders from the Pope; this was one reason why Al Smith lost the 1928 election. Decades later another Catholic, John F. Kennedy, spoke to a convention of Baptist pastors in Texas during his election campaign. He assured them that, if elected, he would put his country before his religion.

The United States

  • The Belgian Fascist movement Rexism arose out of a conservative Catholic movement and its publications. The full names of the Rexists was Christus Rex or "Christ the King"


The issue of clerical fascism in wartime Croatia is further discussed in the article Involvement of Croatian Catholic clergy with the Ustaša regime.

"Brethren, up to now we have worked for the Holy Roman Apostolic Church with the cross and the missal. Now the moment has come to work with a knife in one hand and a gun in the other. The more Serbs and Jews you succeed in eliminating, the more you will be raised in esteem in the heart of the Roman Catholic Church".

Controversy surrounds the depths of the involvement of the Roman Catholic clergy with the Ustaše, a Croatian Fascist movement in the former Yugoslavia. According to Branko Bokun, a Roman Catholic priest made the following remarks on 13 June 1941:

Notice the absence of a mention of Bosnian Muslims. Unlike Serbs, they were considered Croatian brothers whose ancestors converted to Islam.

"The Ustashi movement is based on the Catholic Religion. For the minorities, Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, we have three million bullets. A part of these minorities has already been eliminated and many are waiting to be killed. Some will be sent to Serbia and the rest will be forced to change their religion to Catholicism. Our new Croatia will therefore be free of all heretics, becoming purely Catholic for the future years."

Mike Budak, the Minister of Religion of Independent State of Croatia, said on 22 July 1941:


During World War II, Jozef Tiso, a Roman Catholic monsigneur, became the Nazi quisling in Slovakia. Tiso was head of state and the security forces, as well as the leader of the paramilitary Hlinka Guard, which wore the Catholic Episcopal cross on its armbands. The Catholic clergy was represented at all levels of the regime and its corporatist were based on papal encyclicals.


In Catholic bishops in Nazi Germany remains a controversial aspect of the study of Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust.

The division of Germans between Catholicism and Protestantism has implicated German politics since the Protestant Reformation. The Kulturkampf that followed German unification was the defining dispute between the German state and Catholicism.


Fear of communism, and a certain disdain for the liberal democracy that had revoked the long-standing privileges enjoyed by the Catholic Church, were made explicit in such papal documents as Quanta cura and the Syllabus of Errors. These documents have been interpreted by some as showing Church support for Fascism, or at least with leanings toward fascism. By the Lateran Treaties, Mussolini granted Pope Pius XI the crown of Vatican City as a nation to rule, made Roman Catholicism the state church of Italy, and paid the Pope compensation for the loss of the Papal States. This indicates at de facto recognition by the Pope of Mussolini's coup. The relationship to Mussolini's government deteriorated drastically in later years.

In 1924, Pope Pius XI forbade the Catholic Popular Party to work with the Socialist Party against Mussolini's Fascist Party (whose politics at that time were a complex amalgam of left and right). The pope later dissolved the Catholic Popular Party .


The closest ties of Roman Catholicism to fascism may have come in the clerical fascism in wartime Croatia; see Involvement of Croatian Catholic clergy with the Ustasa regime.

Modern researchers are divided the degree of the Church's connection to fascism. Most historians of the period reject most claims of active complicity or active resistance, painting a picture of a Catholic leadership who chose neutrality or mild resistance over an explicit ideological struggle with fascism.

For strategic reasons, it was desirable for the (essentially agnostic) fascist movements of Benito Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany not to alienate Catholics en masse.


  • In Poland, in 1920s Józef Piłsudski founded a military-style government (Sanacja) that incorporated Catholic corporatism into its ideology. After the Second World War the Catholic Church was a focal point of opposition to the Communist regime. Many Catholic priests were arrested or disappeared for opposing the communist regime of People's Republic of Poland. Pope John Paul II encouraged opposition to the Communist regime in such a way that it would not draw retaliation, becoming (in a quote from CNN) "a resilient enemy of Communism and champion of human rights, a powerful preacher and sophisticated intellectual able to defeat Marxists in their own line of dialogue." After the fall of the Soviet Union, Poland became a multiparty democracy and several parties which professed to defend Catholicism were legalised, like Akcja Wyborcza Solidarność or Liga Polskich Rodzin.
  • In Austria, Engelbert Dollfuss turned a Roman Catholic political party into the single party of a one-party state. In rural Austria the Catholic Christian Social Party collaborated with the Heimwehr militia and helped bring Dollfuss to power in 1932. In June 1934, he produced his authoritarian constitution which stated "We shall establish a state on the basis of a Christian Weltanschauung". The Pope described Dollfuss as a "Christian, giant-hearted man ... who rules Austria so well, so resolutely and in such a Christian manner. His actions are witness to Catholic visions and convictions. The Austrian people, Our beloved Austria, now has the government it deserves".

The association of Roman Catholicism, sometimes in the form of the hierarchical church, sometimes in the form of lay Catholic organisations acting independently of the hierarchy produced links to dictatorial governments in various states.

Elsewhere in Europe

The Roman Catholic Church was granted "special recognition" in the Constitution of Ireland when it was drawn up in 1937, although other religions were also mentioned. This remained the case until 1972, when the constitution was amended by plebiscite. The considerable influence of the Church over Irish politics since independence in 1922 declined sharply in the 1990s after a series of scandals. In 1950 the Church helped force the resignation of the Minister for Health Noel Browne over his controversial proposals to provide free healthcare to mothers and children. The Government of Northern Ireland gave the Church considerably more responsibility for education than they enjoyed in the Republic and this remains the case today.


The pro-Catholic movement OAS terrorist group created in defense of "French Algeria" during the Algerian War. Furthermore, the archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, one of the leading Catholic figures opposed to the reforms brought by the Second Vatican Council, created in 1970 the Society of St. Pius X. This finally led to the Ecône Consecrations during which Lefebvre consecrated four bishops without authority from the Vatican which was thought to have incurred automatic excommunications. However, these excommunications were nullified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Since then, the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei has been in dialogue with the Society of St. Pius X to resolve matters of doctrine and discipline in question.


During the 1960s and the 1970s, the movement of Marxism led many to join leftist groups or to secularize. An agreement of Church and State turned one seminary into a special jail for prisoners who were priests.

Franco received the privileges of proposing trios of candidates from which the Pope would select a bishop in Spain, inheriting it from Spanish monarchs, and of being covered by a palio in processions.

Association with monarchists was particularly clear in the case of Carlism, while Basque nationalism saw the majority of Basque priests break ranks with the Church to support the Republican government. This led to them being branded traitors and communists by Franco.

These attacks were frequent in the first months of the civil war, and radicalised a large number of Catholics, including clergy, who had previously tended to support the reformist right wing Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right party. A number of Catholics decided that the liberal state could not (or would not) protect them or their Church and switched to supporting Franco's rebel Nationalists.

In Spain, the Falange enjoyed the support of many in the Roman Catholic Church. Spain had a long history of contention between Catholic, largely monarchist, traditionalists and advocates of secular liberal democracy, or of more radical anticlerical views. Traditionalist Catholics, already alienated by the liberal secularism of the Second Spanish Republic whose democratically elected government imposed limitations and government intrusion upon the Church, were moved to outright hostility by what they viewed as the governments failure to prevent or punish attacks on churches and the killing of priests and others in religious orders by the various groups supporting the Republican government. Almost 7,000 clergy were killed, despite the fact that very few actively engaged in the opposition.


The Church and the twentieth century

Seeking to find some principle to replace the threatening guilds. Under corporatism, your place in society would be determined by the ethnic, work, and social groups you were born into or joined. A one-person, one-vote democracy was rejected in favour of representation by interest groups. A strong government was required to serve as the arbiter among competing factions. Forty years later, the corporatist tendencies of Rerum Novarum were underscored by Pope Pius XI's May 25, 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo anno ("In the Fortieth Year"), which restated the hostility of Rerum Novarum to both unbridled competition and class struggle.

This document was rightly seen as a profound change in the thinking of the Holy See about political matters. It drew on the economic thought of St Thomas Aquinas, whose "just price" theory taught that prices in a marketplace ought not to be allowed to fluctuate on account of temporary shortages or gluts.

On May 15, 1891, Leo XIII issued an encyclical on political issues known as Rerum novarum (Latin: "About New Things"). This addressed politics as it had been transformed by the Industrial Revolution and other changes in society that had occurred during the nineteenth century. The document criticised capitalism, complaining of the exploitation of the masses in industry. However, it also sharply criticized the socialist's concept of class struggle, and their proposed solution to eliminate private property. It called for strong governments to undertake a mission to protect their people from exploitation, and asked Roman Catholics to apply principles of social justice in their own lives.

Pope Leo XIII, seeing that popular democracy seemed to be on the ascendant, tried a new and somewhat more sophisticated approach to political questions than his predecessor Pius IX.


However, towards the end of the eighteenth century a rapprochement began to develop between London and the Vatican. Britain's activities abroad and relations with Catholic countries were hampered by the tension that existed between it and the Church, and it was eager to persuade the Church to end its moral support for Irish separatism. Likewise, the Church was keen to send missionaries to the newly conquered colonies of the British Empire, especially Africa and India, and to ease the restrictions on its British and Irish adherents. Britain began to phase out the penal laws, and in 1795 it financed the building of St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, a seminary for the training of Catholic priests, in County Kildare. In return, the Church agreed to actively oppose Irish separatism, which it duly did in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. It has continued this policy right up to the present day, condemning each successive attempt by Irish republicanism to achieve independence from Britain through violence. Catholic missions to Africa began early in the 1800s.

Following William of Orange's victories over King James II, by 1691 the supremacy of Protestantism was entrenched throughout the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. The economic and political power of Catholics, especially in Ireland, was severely curtailed. This was reinforced by the introduction of the Penal Laws. The practice of Catholicism (including the celebration of Mass) was made illegal as Catholic priests celebrated the sacraments at risk of execution by law.

Catholicism in the United Kingdom and Ireland

The Church itself remained associated with the Comte de Chambord, the Legitimist pretender to the throne. It was only under Pope Leo XIII (r: 1878-1903) that the Church leadership tried to move away from its anti-Republican associations, when he ordered the deeply unhappy French Church to accept the Third French Republic (1875–1940) (Inter innumeras sollicitudines encyclical of 1892). However, his liberalising initiative was undone by Pope Pius X (r: 1903-1914), a traditionalist who had more sympathy with the French monarchists than with the Third Republic.

However, Napoleon III's regime did support the Pope, helping to restore Pope Pius IX as ruler of the Papal States in 1849 after there had been a revolt there in 1848. Despite this official move, the process of secularism continued throughout the 20th century, culminating with the Jules Ferry laws in the 1880s and then with the 1905 law on separation of the Church and the state, which definitely established state secularism (known as laïcité).

When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in 1799, he began the process of coming back to terms with the Catholic Church. The Church was reestablished in power during the Bourbon Restoration, with the ultra-royalists voting laws such as the Anti-Sacrilege Act. The Church was then strongly counter-revolutionary, opposing all changes made by the 1789 Revolution. The July Revolution of 1830 marked the end of any hope of a return to the ancien regime status of an absolute monarchy, by establishing a constitutional monarchy. The most reactionary aristocrats, in favor of an integral restoration of the Ancien Régime and known as Legitimists, began to retire from political life.

France after the Revolution

As a large-scale landowner tied closely to the doomed ancien regime, led by people from the aristocracy, and philosophically opposed to many of the fundamental principles of the revolution, the Church, like the absolute monarchy and the feudal nobility, was a target of the revolution even in the early phases, when leading revolutionaries such as Lafayette were still well-disposed toward King Louis XVI as an individual. Instead of being able to influence the new political elite and so shape the public agenda, the Church found itself sidelined at best, detested at worst. As the revolution became more radical, the new state and its leaders set up its own rival deities and religion, a Cult of Reason and, later, a deistic cult of the Supreme Being, closing many Catholic churches, transforming cathedrals into "temples of reason", disbanding monasteries and often destroying their buildings (as at Cluny), and seizing their lands. In this process many hundreds of Catholic priests were killed, further polarising revolutionaries and the Church. The revolutionary leadership also devised a revolutionary calendar to displace the Christian months and the seven-day week with its sabbath. Catholic reaction, in anti-revolutionary risings such as the revolt in the Vendée were often bloodily suppressed.

In speaking of "the Church and the Revolution" it is important to keep in mind that neither the Church nor the Revolution were monolithic. There were class interests and differences of opinion inside the Church as well as out, with many of the lower clergy—and a few bishops, such as Talleyrand—among the key supporters of the early phases of the revolution. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which turned Church lands into state property and the clergy into employees of the state, created a bitter division within the church between those "jurors" who took the required oath of allegiance to the state (the abbé Grégoire or Pierre Daunou) and the "non-jurors" who refused to do so. A majority of parish priests, but only four bishops, took the oath.

The revolution was widely seen, both by its proponents and its opponents, as the fruition of the (profoundly secular) ideas of the Enlightenment. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, voted by the National Constituent Assembly, seemed to some in the church to mark the appearance of the antichrist, in that they excluded Christian morality from the new 'natural order'. The fast-moving nature of the revolution far outpaced Roman Catholicism's ability to adapt or come to any terms with them.

Under the doctrine of the divine right of kings, only the Church or God could interfere with the right of a monarch to rule. Thus the attack on the French absolute monarchy was seen as an attack on God's anointed king. In addition, the Church's leadership came largely from the classes most threatened by the growing revolution. The upper clergy came from the same families as the upper nobility, and the Church was, in its own right, the largest landowner in France.

At the same time, the revolution also challenged the theological basis of royal authority. The doctrine of popular sovereignty directly challenged the former divine right of kings. The king was to govern on behalf of the people, and not under the orders of God. This philosophical difference over the basis of royal and state power was paralleled by the rise of a short-lived democracy, but also by a change first from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy and finally to republicanism.

The central principle of the medieval, Renaissance and ancien régime periods, monarchical rule 'by God's will', was fundamentally challenged by the 1789 French Revolution. The revolution began as a conjunction of a need to fix French national finances and a rising middle class who resented the privileges of the clergy (in their role as the First Estate) and nobility (in their role as the Second Estate). The pent-up frustrations caused by lack of political reform over a period of generations led the revolution to spiral in ways unimaginable only a few years earlier, and indeed unplanned and unanticipated by the initial wave of reformers. Almost from the start, the revolution was a direct threat to clerical and noble privilege: the legislation that abolished the feudal privileges of the Church and nobility dates from August 4, 1789, a mere three weeks after the fall of the Bastille (although it would be several years before this legislation came fully into effect).

The French Revolution

During the French Wars of Religion, the Monarchomachs began to contest the divine right of kings, setting up the bases for the theory of popular sovereignty and theorizing the right of tyrannicides.

Besides advising monarchs, the Church held direct power in mediaeval society as a landowner, a power-broker, a policy maker, etc. Some of its bishops and archbishops were feudal lords in their own right, equivalent in rank and precedence to counts and dukes. Some were even sovereigns in their own right, and the Pope himself ruled the Papal States. Bishops played a prominent role in Holy Roman Empire as electors. As late as the 18th century, in the era of the Enlightenment, Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, preacher to Louis XIV, defended the doctrine of the divine right of kings and absolute monarchy in his sermons. The Church was a model of hierarchy in a world of hierarchies, and saw the defense of that system as its own defense, and as a defense of what it believed to be a god-ordained system.

During early medieval times, a near-monopoly of the Church in matters of education and of literary skills accounts for the presence of churchmen as their advisors. This tradition continued even as education became more widespread. Prominent examples of senior members of the church hierarchy who advised monarchs were Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in England, and Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin in France; prominent, devoutly Catholic laymen like such as Sir Thomas More also served as senior advisors to monarchs.

The doctrine of the divine right of kings came to dominate mediaeval concepts of kingship, claiming biblical authority (Epistle to the Romans, chapter 13). Augustine of Hippo in his work The City of God had stated his opinion that while the City of Man and the City of God may stand at cross-purposes, both of them have been instituted by God and served His ultimate will. Even though the City of Man --- the world of secular government --- may seem ungodly and be governed by sinners, it has been placed on earth for the protection of the City of God. Therefore, monarchs have been placed on their thrones for God's purpose, and to question their authority is to question God. Although it is worth mentioning that Augustine also said "a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all" and Thomas Aquinas indicated laws "opposed to the Divine good" must not be observed.[3] This belief in the god-given authority of monarchs was central to the Roman Catholic vision of governance in the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Ancien Régime. Although this was most true of what would later be termed the ultramontaine party and the Catholic Church has recognized, on an exceptional basis, Republics as early as 1291 in the case of San Marino.[4]

The papacy and the Divine Right of Kings


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