1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/German Catholics

GERMAN CATHOLICS (Deutschkatholiken), the name assumed in Germany towards the close of 1844 by certain dissentients from the Church of Rome. The most prominent leader of the German Catholic movement was Johann Ronge, a priest who in the Sächsische Vaterlandsblätter for the 15th of October 1844 made a vigorous attack upon Wilhelm Arnoldi, bishop of Trier since 1842, for having ordered (for the first time since 1810) the exposition of the “holy coat of Trier,” alleged to be the seamless robe of Christ, an event which drew countless pilgrims to the cathedral. Ronge, who had formerly been chaplain at Grottkau, was then a schoolmaster at Laurahütte near the Polish border. The article made a great sensation, and led to Ronge’s excommunication by the chapter of Breslau in December 1844. The ex-priest received a large amount of public sympathy, and a dissenting congregation was almost immediately formed at Breslau with a very simple creed, in which the chief articles were belief in God the Father, creator and ruler of the universe; in Jesus Christ the Saviour, who delivers from the bondage of sin by his life, doctrine and death; in the operation of the Holy Ghost; in a holy, universal, Christian church; in forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting. The Bible was made the sole rule, and all external authority was barred. Within a few weeks similar communities were formed at Leipzig, Dresden, Berlin, Offenbach, Worms, Wiesbaden and elsewhere; and at a “council” convened at Leipzig at Easter 1845, twenty-seven congregations were represented by delegates, of whom only two or at most three were in clerical orders.

Even before the beginning of the agitation led by Ronge, another movement fundamentally distinct, though in some respects similar, had been originated at Schneidemühl, Posen, under the guidance of Johann Czerski (1813–1893), also a priest, who had come into collision with the church authorities on the then much discussed question of mixed marriages, and also on that of the celibacy of the clergy. The result had been his suspension from office in March 1844; his public withdrawal, along with twenty-four adherents, from the Roman communion in August; his excommunication; and the formation, in October, of a “Christian Catholic” congregation which, while rejecting clerical celibacy, the use of Latin in public worship, and the doctrines of purgatory and transubstantiation, retained the Nicene theology and the doctrine of the seven sacraments. Czerski had been at some of the sittings of the “German Catholic” council of Leipzig; but when a formula somewhat similar to that of Breslau had been adopted, he refused his signature because the divinity of Christ had been ignored, and he and his congregation continued to retain by preference the name of “Christian Catholics,” which they had originally assumed. Of the German Catholic congregations which had been represented at Leipzig some manifested a preference for the fuller and more positive creed of Schneidemühl, but a great majority continued to accept the comparatively rationalistic position of the Breslau school. The number of these rapidly increased, and the congregations scattered over Germany numbered nearly 200. External and internal checks, however, soon limited this advance. In Austria, and ultimately also in Bavaria, the use of the name German Catholics was officially prohibited, that of “Dissidents” being substituted, while in Prussia, Baden and Saxony the adherents of the new creed were laid under various disabilities, being suspected both of undermining religion and of encouraging the revolutionary tendencies of the age. Ronge himself was a foremost figure in the troubles of 1848; after the dissolution of the Frankfort parliament he lived for some time in London, returning in 1861 to Germany. He died at Vienna on the 26th of October 1887. In 1859 some of the German Catholics entered into corporate union with the “Free Congregations,” an association of free-thinking communities that had since 1844 been gradually withdrawing from the orthodox Protestant Church, when the united body took the title of “The Religious Society of Free Congregations.” Before that time many of the congregations which were formed in 1844 and the years immediately following had been dissolved, including that of Schneidemühl itself, which ceased to exist in 1857. There are now only about 2000 strict German Catholics, all in Saxony. The movement has been superseded by the Old Catholic (q.v.) organization.

See G. G. Gervinus, Die Mission des Deutschkatholicismus (1846); F. Kampe, Das Wesen des Deutschkatholicismus (1860); Findel, Der Deutschkatholicismus in Sachsen (1895); Carl Mirbt, in Herzog-Hauck’s Realencyk. für prot. Theol. iv. 583.