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Littell's Living Age/Volume 169/Issue 2186/The Close of the Culturkampf

The speech of Prince Bismarck and the vote of the Upper House of the Prussian Chamber on Monday last may be regarded as virtually bringing the Culturkampf in Germany to an end. The famous Maigesetze or Falkgesetze — as they are variously named, from the date of their introduction or from the minister who had the charge of introducing them — were really Prince Bismarck’s laws, as he is now the real author of their abrogation, and their history is an instructive one. There is a curious analogy in some respects, and in others a no less obvious contrast, between the May Laws and our own abortive Ecclesiastical Titles Act. Both were special privilegia directed against a particular — and the same particular — Church; both were at once irritating and offensive to those at whom they were aimed, and, for any practical service to the interests supposed to be imperilled, wholly useless; both were enacted and abolished in the lifetime of their author and with his consent, though Lord Russell did not, like Prince Bismarck, take any active part in strangling his own progeny. And both, it may be added, have served on the whole, though in different ways, to bring a blessing on those whom their originators wished, or professed to wish, to curse altogether. On the other hand Lord Russell’s abortive measure had more of plausible excuse in what Mr. Greville calls “a most disgusting and humiliating agitation, founded on prejudice and gross ignorance,” while it had less semblance of reasonable justification than Prince Bismarck’s. It was at least an intelligible view that the late pope and those who acted with him were desirous of impeding German unity, while there was no ground whatever for assuming that it mattered twopence to the queen and constitution of Great Britain whether the ecclesiastical rulers of the English Roman Catholics chose to call themselves vicars apostolic or diocesan bishops. And, moreover, while the English premier barked, without seriously attempting to bite — never a very dignified or profitable procedure — the German chancellor discharged what was by no means a brutum fulmen at the heads of his victims, though it could be no adequate safeguard against the dangers, had they really existed, which he professed himself anxious to avert. He could hardly of course be expected to admit as much as that himself, but he has frankly avowed that “the May Laws had pretty well outlived their original purpose, which was a temporary and combative one;” he says he had never, and has not even yet, made himself acquainted with all their details; that he regarded them at the time “as a melancholy necessity,” but not as “a palladium of the State,” and that he never intended them to be permanent. He had declared “he would not go to Canossa,” and to that declaration he still adheres; but though he would not go to Canossa, he expressly informs us that he resolved to go to Rome, and that he holds deliberately to that resolution. On the accession of the present pope he determined to open negotiations with him, and preferred this course to negotiating with the socalled Catholic party at home. “Pope Leo XIII. has more good will and interest for the consolidation of the German Empire than the majority of the German Parliament … he is a wise, moderate, and pacific gentleman, which cannot be said of all the members of the Reichstag majority.” In short, the attitude of the late and the present pope reminds one very much of the old fable of the North Wind and the Sun. It is one thing to have to deal with an irreconcilable pontiff who only meets you with a non possumus, quite another thing to negotiate with a pontiff who, instead of summoning you to Canossa, indites a letter full of compliments to “the illustrious chancellor,” and bestows on him the order of Christ, set in brilliants, the highest secular distinction in his power to confer, and one never before conferred on a Protestant. If Leo XIII. could obtain in France the peaceful triumph his wisdom and moderation — which Prince Bismarck does not exaggerate — have already gained for his cause in Germany, he might indeed feel that he had not reigned in vain.

Meanwhile this little historical episode of the Culturkampf and the May Laws — which will not have remained on the German statute-book much more than half the time the toothless Ecclesiastical Titles Act disfigured our own — is instructive under several aspects. Some years ago, when calling attention in these columns to the first menace of such legislation, we observed that there was nothing in his character or antecedents to lead us to credit the prince chancellor with any marked religious antipathies, and that “his political instincts would probably incline him to favor rather than to distrust a Church with fixed dogmas and a strongly organized hierarchy.” To that opinion we adhere, and Prince Bismarck’s recent language about the pope’s not being” a Liberalist or a Social Democrat” tends to confirm it. In condescending to humor the No Popery cry of 1850 Lord John Russell, as he then was, knew well that he was simply yielding to a foolish and fruitless agitation in which he did not himself believe. If he had sincerely thought the constitution in danger, it was his imperative duty to provide securities which were not studiously rendered illusory before being placed on the statute-book. But there is no reason to doubt that Prince Bismarck imagined he was confronted with a real danger, and the Falk Laws, ineffectual as they necessarily were for any useful purpose, were no mere piece of ornamental verbiage. Their administration did for the time very seriously — and, as it appeared to most impartial onlookers, very unjustly — hamper the ordinary discipline and pastoral life of the Catholic Church in Germany. There is no need to go back here upon details sufficiently discussed at the time, and which the author of that legislation tells us he has even now failed adequately to master. But it is quite certain that some of the principal details constituted, from the received Roman Catholic standpoint, as direct and fatal a violation of the rights and liberties of the Church as the famous Auchterarder case in Scotland thirty years earlier constituted from the Presbyterian point of view. And in such controversies statesmen, however powerful and resolute, are apt to come off second best in the long run, because they are dealing with immaterial forces which they can neither gauge nor control. This was the fundamental flaw of Prince Bismarck’s ecclesiastical policy, even assuming that his estimate of the situation was a correct one, whereas he — to say the least — considerably exaggerated the hostile attitude of his supposed opponents. But in fact his policy was not merely ineffective; it directly served to strengthen the hands of his rivals. He committed in statecraft an analogous error to that of the logicians who undertake to prove too much.

It was natural enough that governments, especially those like Prussia with a large body of Catholic subjects, should take alarm at the startling novelties put forth at the Vatican Council. And if the Prussian government had been content to offer its support in all legitimate ways to that section — at first a very considerable one among both clergy and laity —of German Catholics who resented and repudiated the new teaching thrust upon them, in the teeth of the solemn and explicit declarations of their own bishops on the eve of their departure for Rome, it would have been entirely within its rights and would have occupied a very strong position. The bishops who had eaten their own words after the Council had provoked a storm of indignation, and what was called the Old Catholic movement was steadily growing, in the only way it could attain an effectual and lasting influence, within the borders of the Church. The Romanizing bishops, as the German phrase runs, had made themselves unpopular and a little ridiculous, and their leading man, Ketteler, who had been a prominent anti-infallibilist at the Council, might fairly enough be called upon to answer his own arguments, before he essayed to convert others to the tenets he had already himself so vigorously refuted. But when the political campaign was opened in force, not against any novel or questionable claim, but against the recognized and reasonable independence of the hierarchy in the ordinary administration of the Church; when a system of minute and vexatious interference was organized between bishop and priest, priest and penitent; when the government insisted on meddling with all the details of clerical education and appointments to benefices, and promptly visited resistance with suspension and imprisonment, so that after a while several sees and hundreds of parishes were left vacant, — revulsion of feeling naturally ensued, and thus the bishops were rehabilitated and the Old Catholics discredited by no merits or demerits of their own. That the Old Catholic leaders, such as Bishop Reinkens, helped to damage their own cause by too readily throwing themselves into the arms of what was looked upon not without some reason as a persecuting government, may be true. But the government policy, apart from such aid, had done for their opponents what they could never have done for themselves. It had made their position once more a respectable one; it had given them a strong case; and had even been indiscreet enough to invest them with something of the honors of martyrdom. It had done for them on a larger scale what the Public Worship Act did for the Ritualists; it imposed by violent means indefensible restraints on conscience. And, like all such methods of policy, it has broken down. To be sure the infallibilist policy of Pius IX. broke down also; it created the difficulty, but could not solve it. But a statesman like Bismarck could hardly fail to entertain for such a pope as Leo XIII. something of the feeling which prompted Queen Elizabeth to say that there was only one man in Europe fit to marry her, and that was Sixtus V. The Culturkarnpf originated in an honest, if rather blundering, distrust of ecclesiastical aggression, and it finds a solution in the mutual respect of prince and pontiff, who understand that their interests do not clash, but coincide. The fierce onslaught of the French republican government on the Church is a very different matter; it means an attack on religion. And its termination depends not so much on the wisdom and statesmanship of the pope as on the survival or decadence of the religious sentiment in France. In Prussia Leo. XIII. has had to deal with the most powerful, practical, and straightforward of living statesmen; in France he is confronted by a shifting coterie of feeble and fanatical politicians, whose intolerance is none the less virulent because it takes the shape of fanatical atheism