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Johann Baptist Hirscher

Johann Baptist HIRSCHER (1788-1865) was a preeminent Catholic theologian in Germany, who saw in 1848/9 an opportunity to reform the church. Born to simple pious parents in a peasant village near Ravensburg in Baden, Hirscher received his first Latin lessons from his village pastor and attended the lyceum in Konstanz. Hirscher came under the patronage of Ignaz Heinrich von Wessenberg, one of Germany's leading "liberal" Catholic theologians who had served as vicar general in Konstanz since 1802. In 1807, Hirscher studied at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau, and at the seminary in Meersburg in 1809. Ordained a year later, Hirscher taught in seminaries and college preparatory schools in Baden until he was called to the University of Tübingen in 1817. Hirscher taught church law, morality, and pastoral theology, helping to establish the Tübingen School as one of the great centers of theological studies in Germany. In 1837, he accepted an appointment to the chair of moral theology at the University of Freiburg.

Hirscher's theology stemmed from the "German" tradition, which emphasized the organic and historic development of Christianity. He and other members of the Tübingen School led a movement to reform Catholicism from within, seeking to make the church more responsive to contemporary society without compromising its fundamental teachings. Among his reform ideas, Hirscher advocated German-language liturgies, a synodal structure in a national-church federation with Rome, and a married clergy.

As advocates of a strongly centralized church under the papacy, the ultramontanists in southern Germany roundly opposed the reform efforts stemming from Tübingen, and worked to undermine the "German" theologians. The ultramontanists enjoyed the favor of Munich's papal nuncio, and are generally suspected of using their influence to block Hirscher's advancement in the church hierarchy. Despite his tremendous theological contributions and popularity among the clergy, Hirscher was passed up as a candidate for bishop in Freiburg (1842) and Rottenburg (1844). < P> During the revolution, Hirscher helped lead the synodal movement, which grew rapidly in southern and western Germany. In his pamphlet, Die kirchlichen Zustände der Gegenwart (1849), Hirscher argued that the church must serve as the moral conscience of modern society and, in order to do so effectively, engage the educated laity in meaningful dialogue. Hirscher therefore supported lay-participation in the church's decision making processes through a synodal structure. He opposed the contemporary Pius Associations that were holding a Catholic conference in Mainz, or as it was known then, a Catholic Association of Germany (Katholischer Verein Deutschlands). That conference, led by a combination of ultramontanist clergy and laymen, was a poor substitution for the synods according to Hirscher, because it had no power in the church and simply supported the clergy's monopoly of church power under a strengthened papacy.

The German bishops countered Hirscher's synodal movement by holding their own conference in 1848, presided over by leading ultramontane bishops. Without the bishops' support, the synodal movement died by 1849, its failure mirroring the decline of revolutionary forces in German politics. Hirscher's pamphlet was condemned almost at the moment it was printed. With the revolution, the ultramontane movement gained the upper hand in the German church. Hirscher and other theologians branded liberal reformers looked on as the Roman church followed the ultramontanist course of conflict with the modern world--a course Hirscher had hoped the church could avoid.
Eric Yonke


Donald Dietrich, "Priests and Political Thought: Theology and Reform in Central Europe, 1845-1855," Catholic Historical Review LXXII(4) (Oct. 1985), 519-46.

Keller, Erwin, "Johann Baptist Hirscher," in Katholische Theologen Deutschlands,.Heinrich Fries and Johann Finsterhölzl (ed.), (Graz, Vienna, Cologne: Styria, 1969) II, 40-69.

Schatz, Klaus, Zwischen Säkularisation und Zweitem Vatikanum: Der Weg des deutschen Katholizismus im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert(Frankfurt am Main: Josef Knecht, 1986).

Schnabel, Franz, Deutsche Geschichte im neunzehnten Jahrhundert, vol. IV Die religiöse Kräfte (Freiburg: Herder, 1929).

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