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Melchior Diepenbrock

MELCHIOR DIEPENBROCK Baron Melchior von Diepenbrock (1798-1853), Cardinal Archbishop of Breslau, served as a representative to the Frankfurt parliament in 1848, and like many Catholics advocated a Greater Germany under monarchic rule. His most notable achievement during the revolution was the founding of a Catholic Club of parliamentarians in Frankfurt, which he did before falling ill and leaving Frankfurt in August, 1848. Diepenbrock thus helped lay the basis for political Catholicism, though he personally represented a passing age; not in his preference for a Greater Germany, which he could not avoid as archbishop of a diocese sprawling into Prussian and Austrian territories, but in his Romantic Catholicism.

Unlike Archbishop Geissel of Cologne, whose statesman-like handling of affairs secured the power of the Catholic Church in Prussia, Diepenbrock possessed a non-political nature and a Romantic spirit. Born of a patrician family in Westphalia and, as a difficult boy, sent to the military lyceum in Bonn, Diepenbrock volunteered at age sixteen to fight against Napoleon. Dissatisfied with the military, Diepenbrock returned to his family's estate in 1815. In the Catholic circles of Westphalia, Diepenbrock came to know the Romantic writer Clemens Brentano, who introduced him to the priest and Romantic theologian Johann Michael Sailer and the mystic Anna Katharina Emmerich. Deeply influenced by Romantic spirituality, Diepenbrock studied theology under Sailer, was ordained in 1823, and appointed Sailer's secretary. Diepenbrock became a noted preacher and spiritual writer, and in 1829 a cathedral capitulary i n Regensburg. By 1835 he was dean of the cathedral chapter, and later served as general vicar. In appreciation for his service, the Bavarian crown granted him the title of baron.

Diepenbrock's Romanticism and his aversion to the ultramontane movement separated him from the future course of German Catholicism. Ultramontanism was a movement to promote greater centralization of power in the hierarchy, a revival of Thomistic theology, strict discipline of the clergy, and mass demonstrations of popular piety. As a Romantic, Diepenbrock advocated mystical piety and asceticism with obedience to spiritual authority, but the church politics of the ultramontane movement and the revival of Thomistic theology were unpalatable to him. His personal career reflected the growing rift between the conservative Catholicity of the older Romantic movement and that of the newer ultramontane movement.

Diepenbrock became Archbishop of Breslau in 1845, and witnessed firsthand the human suffering in Silesia that had become notorious in the Vormärz. Unemployment, poverty, and hunger struck there harder than elsewhere and showed no signs of relenting. The cholera epidemic in 1849 claimed nearly fifty people each day in Breslau alone. Diepenbrock estimated there were four thousand orphans in his diocese. Silesia was sorely afflicted by the so-called "brandy pestilence" as well, against which the archbishop helped establish temperance leagues. Silesia was the evidence of gross hum an suffering that fueled debates in Frankfurt and elsewhere over the "social question."

In addition to seeing the human suffering, Diepenbrock came to Breslau at the high tide of a dissident religious movement known as German-Catholicism. A Silesian priest named Johannes Ronge attempted to create a German-Catholic church in which priests could marry, celebrate the mass in German, and consult with lay-people in church administration. Ronge's followers reached the thousands in Silesia, but were sparse elsewhere in Germany. Diepenbrock responded to the movement by excommunicating its members. Due to Geissel's diplomatic intervention, the Prussian throne refused public recognition of the new sect. By 1848, the German-Catholic movement in Silesia began to ebb, many followers joining Protestant churches or the Friends of Light (Lichtfreunde). Ronge went to Vienna where a fairly numerous enclave of German-Catholics continued to exist.

As German-Catholicism ebbed, Diepenbrock turned his mind to the pastoral care of his deeply impoverished region. Like Archbishop Geissel, he took advantage of the new freedoms granted the church by the Prussian constitution to build up charitable associations, found orphanages and hospitals, and establish convents of nursing and teaching nuns. For their efforts in renewing the church, Pope Pius IX elevated both Geissel and Diepenbrock to the college of cardinals in 1850. Diepenbrock was also appointed to the general headquarters of the Prussian military chaplaincy.

Although his efforts resembled those made by the ultramontane movement, Diepenbrock followed the Romantic impulse. In the last years of his life, for example, he opposed the dogmatization of the Immaculate Conception. Because he died of intestinal cancer on January 20, 1853, he experienced only the first few years of the triumph of ultramontanism in Catholic Germany.
Eric Yonke


Thomas O'Meara, Romantic Idealism and Roman Catholicism: Schelling and the Theologians (Notre Dame: Notre Dame U.P., 1982).

Franz Schnabel, Deutsche Geschichte im neunzehnten Jahrhundert IV, Die religiösen Kräfte (Freiburg i.B.: Herder, 1937).

Bernhard Stasiewski, "Melchior von Diepenbrock," in Die Bischöfe der deutschsprachigen Länder 1785/1803 bis 1945: Ein biographisches Lexikon Erwin Gatz (ed.) (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1983), 126-130.

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