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Bishop Kettler

WILHELM EMMANUEL FREIHERR VON KETTELER,(1811-1877) made his national debut in 1848, and in the following decades became the leading Catholic social thinker in Germany. Born to a district administrator and estate owner in Westphalia, Ketteler completed his university studies and entered the Prussian civil service in 1835. Three years later, he left state service when the Berlin government took police action against the Catholic church hierarchy, in particular Cologne's archbishop. The "Cologne Troubles Kölner Wirren" marked the onset of a Catholic revival in Germany, which inspired men such as Ketteler to take up the Cathol ic cause. Ketteler studied theology in Munich, the intellectual hub of the revival, and upon completing his studies, was ordained and returned to Westphalia to serve as a parish priest.

In 1848, Father Ketteler was elected to the Frankfurt national assembly. In Frankfurt he joined the Catholic club, whose members were trying to utilize the democratic rights and freedoms to strengthen the influence of the Catholic church and to enshrine freedom of the church in any future constitution of t he Reich. Ketteler was anti-absolutistic, he rejected the aims of the progressive, liberal and democratic camps and advocated a greater Germany under the Hapsburg monarchy. His activities as a deputy were insignificant, but his public eulogy for two deputies assassinated during the September uprising in Frankfurt made him a national figure. In this famous oration honoring General Hans von Auwerswald and Prince Felix Lichnowsky, Ketteler lashed out against progressive ideology for its departure fr om Christian principles, blaming it for the senseless massacre, and warning of its deleterious effects on the people. In October 1848, his oratorical skills galvanized the general assembly of Pius Associations, renamed the Catholic Association of Germany (Katholischer Verein Deutschlands). In this national Catholic assembly, Ketteler put forth a Christian social mission in the modern world, calling on Catholics to respond to the so-called "Social Question," the socioeconomic dislocati on caused by early industrialization. He further articulated the social question in a series of sermons delivered at Mainz cathedral during the 1848 Advent season and subsequently published.

Ketteler's speeches and sermons in 1848 were the prelude to the Catholic-social movement in modern Germany, known as Social Catholicism. Ketteler argued that the social question was the essential problem of the time. Seeing the connection between revolution and religious indifference, he produced a romantic-patriarchal critique of capitalism. Appealing to the social conscience of believers and basing his arguments on the Thomistic theory of property, Ketteler called for increased charitable activity. His social program did not encompass any material demands in the interests of working people, the poor, and the needy, which was commensurate with his lack of insight into the concrete living conditions of the different social strata. His program was essentially designed to strengthen the powe r of the Catholic church and give it exclusive authority in moral and ethical matters. Thus, the effects of his endeavors for the social question during the revolutiona and the following years were considerable.

In January 1849, with the failure to establish a greater Germany under Austrian leadership, the Catholic Club dissolved and Ketteler left Frankfurt to become provost in Berlin. He was later elected Bishop of Mainz, due to the direct interference of the Roman Curia. As bishop, he began his career as a prominent figure in political Catholicism, in the course of which he became the most important German Catholic social reformer of the nineteenth century. After the onset of workers' agitation led by Ferdinand Lassalle, Ketteler again took up the social question and in 1864 published his programmatic study The Workers' Question and Christianity. From then on he displayed greater socio-political versatility in discussions with liberals and socialist workers, es pousing workers' rights and legislation to protect the trade union movement. Ketteler's social thought had a profound impact on Pope Leo XIII and his encyclical Rerum novarum which laid the foundation of modern Catholic social teaching.
Rolf Weber(edited by Eric Yonke)


Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler. Kritische Ausgabe der Werke und Briefe. Erwin Iserloh and Christian Stoll (eds.) (1977).

Ludwig Lenhart. Bischof Ketteler. 3 vols., Mainz 1966-68.

Paul Misner. Social Catholicism in Europe from the Onset of Industrialization to the First World War. (1991).

Jonathan Sperber. Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Germany. (1984).

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