I would argue that this story stands as a work that says that men of reason are more ethical than the morally corrupt men of the cloth. The whole work praises the optimist teachings of a philosopher named Dr. Pangloss whilst it demonizes Catholic Church leaders. The only religious person to be displayed in a positive light is a Protestant who appears only briefly in the text. This argument is supported every time we encounter a religious person.
The first mention of religion comes in the form of James, an Anabaptist that helps Candide. James, who is described as “good” and “honest”, saves Candide’s life but is then subsequently drowned by a sailor. This positive portrayal of a Protestant then sets up a dichotomy where all of the other Catholic Church leaders are then found to have committed one or more sins and are contributors to Candide’s disillusionment of the morals of humanity rather than confirming the positive outlook on the world taught to him by Dr. Pangloss.
Then the first mention of a Jesuit is when Pangloss traces the origins of an STD that he contracted from a “pretty wench”. The Jesuit supposedly got the disease from novice under the service of Christopher Columbus and then the Jesuit gave the disease to a page. Thus with at least two sexual partners the Jesuit is not following his celibacy vows and is thus made a hypocrite.
The next holy man we meet is an Inquisitor that burns, hangs, and whips so-called offenders in a ritual called auto-de-fé in order to “hinder the earth from quaking” including: a Biscayner that married his godmother, two Portuguese men who rejected bacon that larded a chicken they were eating, Dr. Pangloss for “speaking his mind” and Candide for listening to Dr. Pangloss. This same Inquisitor threatened Don Issachar with the auto-de-fé if he does not share Cunegonde with him. So a holy man who is supposed to be celibate is actively pursuing a woman, violently murdering or injuring men in a ritual that seems less Christian and more of a human sacrifice akin to the Aztecs. And he also threatens a man’s life which paints a far from devout portrait of a priest.
Then when the priests of the Brotherhood find both the Inquisitor and Don Issachar slain they interred the Inquisitor into a “handsome church” and then they threw the body of Don Issachar (a Jewish man) on a dunghill. It would make perfect sense that they would take special care of a fallen brother (even though he was corrupt) because it is respectful to do so. Even though Don Issachar was a man of questionable morals and of a different faith, the priests should have given him a proper burial out of the mere shred of respect that the deceased deserve. Instead they defile his remains because of, I presume, primarily due to his faith rather than the circumstances surrounding his death.
Then further into their travels, a Grey Friar steals the money and jewelry of Cunegonde and this is confirmed later when he is caught.
The next and more detailed portrait is that of a Jesuit Commander who also happens to be the Baron (Cunegonde’s brother). Even though the Jesuits take a vow of poverty, he goes against that vow with home filled with expensive furnishings including gold marble, rare birds, gold vessels, and crystal goblets. In fact Cacambo comments before they even reach Jesuit territory that the “…Fathers possess all, and the people nothing; it is a masterpiece of reason and justice”. Furthermore the Commander strikes Candide in the face with the back of his sword prompting Candide to kill him with one blow. This priest, though an old friend of Candide, lives a life of luxury and is prone to violence. The local people attack Candide when they think he is a Jesuit and then praise him when they find out that he has murdered a Jesuit.
And lastly another portrait, this time of Friar Giroflée is one of a priest who hates the holy life and says that his brothers in the monastery have the same disgust at their lives. He said that his parents forced him into this life and that jealousy and fury run rampant in his heart. Also he says that the Prior steals half of his money and that he himself spends the rest on girls. In his portrait he says that all priests despise their lives and are envious of those who do not have to live the holy life. He also hints to church corruption in how much money is taken from him as well as his own corruption as a priest who lusts after women.
Considering all of this, Candide is the hero for whom we sympathize and yet he kills two priests. This plot point gets to the heart of the matter that the Catholic Church is corrupt in the portrayal given in this narrative. Modern examples of books that have been banned for attacking the Catholic Church or Christianity in general include The Da Vinci Code as well as The Golden Compass. In these novels the main villain is a murderous Monk who is a member of the sinister Catholic group Opus Dei in The Da Vinci Code and The Golden Compass supposedly attacks organized religion and was banned by The Catholic League.