The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/German Catholics

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GERMAN CATHOLICS, a religious sect which sprang up in Germany about the close of 1844, which rapidly increased during the four or five following years and then as rapidly declined. The immediate cause of the formation of this sect was the exhibition by Arnoldi, bishop of Trèves, of the holy coat preserved in the cathedral of that city and said to be the coat of Christ. The bishop accompanied the exhibition of the holy coat by a promise of plenary indulgence to whoever should make a pilgrimage to Trèves to honor it. The announcement of this proceeding on the part of the bishop of Trèves produced a feeling of general astonishment in Germany and drew from a Silesian priest called J. Ronge, who had already been suspended from his charge on account of his independent views, a letter protesting against the exhibition of the holy coat and denouncing the projected pilgrimage as idolatry. This letter was published in the ‘Sächsische Vaterlandsblätter’ on 16 Oct. 1844, and produced an amount of excitement that was quite unanticipated by the writer. Ronge was excommunicated, but this only increased the general enthusiasm in his favor, and when he entered into relations with Czerski, another independent priest who had seceded from the Church, and made along with him an appeal to the lower grades of the clergy to unite in founding a National German Church independent of the Pope and governed by councils and synods, the appeal received a ready answer from a considerable number of those to whom it was addressed. A number of congregations belonging to the new body were formed in the more important towns, especially in Leipzig, under the celebrated Robert Blum, and in Magdeburg under the teacher Kote. In the spring of 1845 there were already about 100. At this time (March 1845) a council was summoned to meet in Leipzig to deliberate on the affairs of the body. Only 20 congregations were represented there, but these nevertheless at once proceeded under the presidency of Professor Wigard to arrange a system of doctrine and practice which was to form the basis of union for the whole Church. The Bible was recognized as the sole standard of faith and its interpretation was left to reason, “penetrated and animated” by the Christian idea. Only two sacraments were admitted, baptism and the Lord's Supper. In matters of ritual each congregation was left free to carry into practice its own views. The organism of the new Church was almost the same as that of the Presbyterian dissenting churches of Scotland. Each congregation was to choose its own pastor and elders. Affairs of a general interest were entrusted to the management of a general council to meet every five years, but the decisions of this council were to be ratified by a majority of the congregations before they came valid. The confession of sins, the hierarchy of the clergy and the celibacy of the priests were abolished and the authority of the Pope was not recognized. On the subject of purgatory nothing was declared either for or against it. The constitution of the new Church was thus a Protestant one, but in some respects the German Catholics went even further than the majority of Protestants in a liberal direction, inasmuch as they claimed for all, complete religious liberty and declared their religion to be capable of development and modification with the progress of the human mind.

The Church established on this basis had at first, as has already been stated, great success. The most eminent men of the liberal party regarded the movement with sympathy, or at least with interest. Gervinus expressed his belief that great benefits might result from it. Many Protestants, dissatisfied with the subjection of their religion to state supervision, joined the body, which, at the end of 1845, counted 298 congregations. But it was not long before the spirit of opposition began to show itself. The majority of the governments in Germany at the instigation both of the Protestant and the Roman Catholic clergy began to use repressive measures against the new body. Prussia contented itself with regulating the exercise of their worship; but some of the other states went further. At Baden the adherents of the sect were deprived of their political rights. Austria took the course of banishing them from her dominions. But persecution from without did less hurt than the divisions within the body. Almost immediately after the meeting of the council at Leipzig a congregation had been formed at Berlin which refused to abide by its decisions. Czerski and Ronge, the two originators of the sect, became the leaders of two opposing parties within it, one of which, that headed by Czerski, clung to the traditions and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, rejecting only the supremacy of the Pope and the union between Church and State; while the other sought for more freedom, converted religion into a sort of popular philosophy and began to mix up with it questions of politics, exhibiting strong democratic tendencies. These were most plainly manifest during the revolutionary epoch of 1848. The schism between the two parties was then complete. One section of the congregations of German Catholics professed to have only religious ends in view, while another section openly pronounced itself in favor of socialistic principles.

From the year 1850, however, there were several attempts to re-establish the unity of the body. An effort was made to reintroduce harmony by widening the basis of union. Instead of founding a religion, a council held at Gotha in June 1859, proposed the formation of a religious association or confederation into which all free Protestant and even Jewish congregations were to be admitted. Legislation in the different states had become more tolerant and the carrying out of the scheme of the council of Gotha seemed to be at least practicable. But the result proved otherwise. The associations consisted of too heterogeneous elements. While some of the members receding further and further from orthodoxy proclaimed simple design as their religion and abolished baptism and the Lord's Supper, others on the contrary lost themselves in an exaggerated mysticism. According to the most recent statistics there are still about 100 congregations of German Catholics in Germany; but their numbers only amounted to about 6,200 in 1895. Consult Bauer, ‘Geschichte der Gründung und Fortbildung der deutschkatholischen Kirche’ (Meissen 1885); Kampe, ‘Wesen des Deutschkatholicismus’ (Tübingen 1850); Findel, ‘Der Deutschkatholicismus in Sachsen’ (Leipzig 1895).