While the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council continues to be celebrated, 2014 also marks the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the Syllabus of Errors—the now notorious document, issued by the Holy See under Pius IX, which, in presenting a list of “condemned propositions” about liberalism, rationalism, papal powers, and civil society, marked a veritable collision of the Catholic Church with the “modern age” that had arisen after the American and French revolutions. While Vatican II eventually eased matters in this regard, it’s safe to say that the transition of the church from an age of feudalism and “prince bishops” to one of democratic pluralism has been anything but smooth. On a host of issues, such as religious liberty and ecumenism, change has taken place. Other issues, however—the nature of church authority, priestly celibacy, the role of the Curia, the place of women—sometimes appear, in the words of Matthew Arnold, to be “wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.”

Many U.S. Catholics find themselves stranded between those two worlds, especially when individual conscience comes into conflict with clear, if disputed, church teaching. Writing anonymously in these pages a few years back, an author summed up the nature of such conflict well: “I do not take the teachings of the church and its two thousand years of accumulated wisdom lightly.... But at the end of the day, one is left with oneself, one’s conscience (however formed), and the stirrings of the spirit” (“Sins of Admission”).

Some might be surprised to learn that the predicament described here has a long history. That history does not yield tidy lessons, but a glance back at the nineteenth century might yield insight for those unable to embrace certain church teachings yet still struggling to remain faithful Catholics—as well as for “separated brethren” attracted to Catholicism but unable to override the protest of conscience. Not only was the nineteenth century roiled by the Syllabus; it also witnessed the controversial definition of the Immaculate Conception (1854), the collapse of the Papal States, the First Vatican Council (1869–70), the emergence of Catholic social thought, and the early stirrings of ecumenism. One particularly fascinating figure embroiled in those conflicts was the German priest, theologian, and historian Ignaz von Döllinger (1799–1890). Among the most renowned of Catholic scholars in his time, Döllinger is regrettably among the least remembered today.

A critic of the temporal power of the pope, an inspiration behind the so-called Old Catholic movement in Europe, and an ecumenist avant la lettre, Döllinger is sometimes portrayed as an early “liberal” Catholic. That label only partly fits, for his life and outlook—like those of the anonymous author quoted above—resist simple categorization. Appealing to conscience, Döllinger finally could not accept the doctrine of papal infallibility promulgated at the First Vatican Council, and for this he was excommunicated. Too critical of the modern papacy to be embraced by ultramontanes, but too mindful of tradition to be yoked comfortably with modernists and progressives, he has experienced a posthumous fate of neglect punctuated by intermittent scholarly puzzlement and interest.

He deserves better. Whatever one makes of Döllinger’s excommunication, the arc of his life helps us better understand some of the signature Catholic issues of his time and perhaps of ours. Above all, he affords insight into an archetypal modern religious dilemma: when to submit to religious authority irrespective of personal conviction, and when to follow one’s own conscience—what John Henry Newman famously called “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”

Born in 1799 into a family of eminent physicians and professors, Döllinger was ordained in 1822 and went on to spend the lion’s share of his life teaching in Munich. Early in his career he leaned in a reactionary, ultramontane direction, joining a circle of conservative intellectuals, organized around the polemical journalist Joseph Görres and the short-lived journal Eos. This group has been described as “the living center of Restoration Catholicism” in central Europe. Yet Döllinger also established contact with Johann Adam Möhler and others on the Catholic theological faculty at Tübingen, where pioneering ideas about church unity and the “development of doctrine” were being hatched, and with such French Catholic liberals as Félicité de Lamennais and Charles de Montalembert. In 1836 Döllinger made his first visit to England, where he developed a firsthand appreciation of Anglicanism—a relative rarity for a Continental Catholic divine—and met a number of leading English intellectuals, including John Henry Newman and William Gladstone, with whom he maintained lifelong contact. For many years in Munich, a colony of young Englishmen boarded with him and received direction in their studies—among them Lord Acton, his most renowned and accomplished pupil.

By mid-century Döllinger had emerged as one of the most eminent Catholic theologians and historians in Europe, a man with the full confidence of Germany’s bishops. But changes were afoot. In 1848–49, he spent a year as a member of the German parliament (which ultimately failed to unify Germany under a liberal constitution) in the process gaining a deeper appreciation of the political complexities roiling Europe, not least those involving church and state. The church-state question was felt acutely on the Italian peninsula, where movers and shakers in the Risorgimento had begun to call for the end of the Papal States as a condition of Italian unification. (Their mantra was libra chiesa in libro stato—“a free church in a free state.”) This was blasphemy for ultramontanes, who, following Pius IX, regarded Italian church holdings as “the very robe of Jesus Christ on earth.”

IN 1857 Döllinger traveled with Lord Acton to Rome. What he saw there led him to view with mounting suspicion the direction of the papacy under Pius IX and his Jesuit backers. In his notes for a projected biography of Döllinger, Lord Acton offers the lapidary comment: “Experience of Rome. Luther not so very wrong after all.” Both men expressed grave concerns about the Inquisition, which had recently placed several works by German biblical scholars and theologians on the Index. The neo-feudal police state that held sway in the Papal States struck them as hostile to the liberal spirit of the times. Döllinger, Acton later wrote, viewed his visit to Rome as a moment of “emancipation.” In April 1861, he gave two lectures in Munich, in which he broke decisively with defenders of the pope’s temporal power, arguing that the church had existed for seven hundred years without the Papal States and could exist without them in the future. “Will the Head of the church remain a sovereign prince,” he asked, “or has the time arrived when the temporal power of the pope [should] be separated from the spiritual?”

From 1861 onward, distance grew between Döllinger and the Holy See; the papal nuncio in Munich, Flavio Chigi, had in fact stormed out of Döllinger’s first lecture in Munich. Undeterred, Döllinger expanded his lectures into a book, The Church and the Churches, or, The Papacy and Temporal Power: A Historical and Political Review, which emphasized the ecumenical significance of the church divesting itself of temporal authority. In the fall of 1863, Döllinger helped organize a major gathering of German Catholic scholars. His keynote address “On the Past and Future of Catholic Theology” made a sharp distinction between scholastic theology, which he associated with Rome, and historical theology, which he associated with the emergent German nation and its prestigious universities. Scholastic theology was not without abiding value, he held, but its exponents were constrained by their Aristotelian method; without embracing (German) biblical and historical scholarship they possessed only one eye of theology, when two were necessary for the tasks at hand. Döllinger stressed that intellectual errors should be met by sound scholarship and good philosophy, not by the abrupt intervention of church authority. “The faults of science must be met with the arms of science,” he urged, “for the church cannot exist without a forward-looking theology.”

Lord Acton hailed the address as “the dawn of a new era” in Catholic theology. But in ultramontane circles, skepticism of German scholarship in general and Döllinger in particular only grew. Shortly after the conference, Pius IX issued the apostolic letter Tuas libenter, to Archbishop Gregor von Scherr of Munich. In it, the Vatican contested the idea that modern scholarship was a self-correcting enterprise, that scholasticism was unprepared to meet the intellectual challenges of the times, and that (as some at the Munich conference held) the Roman See impeded the progress of modern knowledge. Several lines from Tuas libenter were taken over directly in the Syllabus of Errors, issued shortly thereafter. One section of the encyclical, in particular, seemed aimed right at Döllinger, condemning his contention that “the method and principles by which the scholastic teachers cultivated theology are not at all adapted to the needs of our age and the progress of the sciences.”

This was an extremely trying time for the church, with anticlerical vitriol in liberal and nationalist circles hardening the opinions of ultramontanes, and Döllinger was not without sympathy for the plight of Rome. But he felt that the remedy sought—a dogmatic declaration of papal infallibility—was theologically and historically indefensible. As the Vatican Council of 1869–70 drew near, he published numerous articles against the doctrine of infallibility under the pseudonym Janus. In 1869, he gathered these articles into a book, The Pope and the Council, which like his prior book quickly found itself on the Index.

Döllinger regarded the idea of infallibility as a relatively recent development, one lacking foundation in the ancient, apostolic church. The church, he asserted, could not create new dogmas, but only declare and define what had always been held (ubique, semper ab omnibus). Furthermore, coming on the heels of the Syllabus, the doctrine threatened scholarly development in the Catholic world while creating ecumenical barriers. Turning infallibility “into an article of faith,” he wrote, would “cripple all intellectual movement” in the Catholic Church even as it built up “a new wall of partition...between the church and the religious communities separated from her.”

Of course, in 1870 the doctrine of papal infallibility, along with the See of Rome’s jurisdiction over the universal church, was officially promulgated by the council, and from then on Döllinger found himself agonizingly at odds with the Vatican. Efforts were soon underway to secure his assent to the decrees. Numerous letters were exchanged between Döllinger and Archbishop von Scherr, who found himself uncomfortably tasked with procuring the assent of the man seen by many as the most learned Catholic in Europe. Döllinger for his part requested that a commission be assembled to meet and “in a calm discussion...refute me with reasons and facts.” “The matter is already decided,” von Scherr replied in frustration, and warned Döllinger against setting “historical scholarship above the church.” In a letter explaining his final refusal to assent, Döllinger protested that “as a Christian, as a theologian, as a historian, as a citizen...I cannot accept this doctrine.”

EXCOMMUNICATION CAME SWIFTLY, the official letter charging him with “conscious, obstinate, and public denial of clear and certain ecclesiastical doctrines.” It was a dark moment for Döllinger. “I have had only one sleepless night in my life,” he later wrote, “and that was when I was considering the impossibility of reconciling my conscience to the dogma of infallibility, thinking it over and over and coming to the conclusion that I could not.” His excommunication sparked a popular uproar across Europe and beyond; his letter was quickly translated into several languages and published far and wide. The New York Herald sized up the situation in May of 1871:

The Christian world is on the eve of a momentous crisis. The declaration of Döllinger [against papal infallibility] may mark a new era in the history of the Roman Catholic Church equal in importance to that of Luther in the sixteenth century.... It may give birth to a new religion under the name of a Reformed Catholic Church. We forbear giving any opinion as to the merits of the controversy on either side. We have only to consider the momentous prospects involved in the case.


Two competing interpretations of the excommunication arose, surrounding Döllinger in a controversy not unlike those that today surround Hans Küng and Sr. Margaret Farley or the U.S. women religious rebuked by Rome. From the ultramontane standpoint, Döllinger got what was coming to him, paying the necessary price for bucking legitimate church authority. Pius IX praised von Scherr’s action and, while admitting that Döllinger might have acted from honest motives, criticized him for displaying “the pride of a scholar” and a “spirit of opposition.” The ultramontane press went farther, portraying Döllinger as a crafty Luther redivivus, leading well-meaning souls astray. At the same time, he was celebrated as a hero by an assortment of Protestants, political liberals, and liberal Catholics. Oxford University gave him an honorary degree. The prime minister of Britain, William Gladstone, praised his independent and courageous mind.

From the “Whig” perspective, in short, Döllinger represented the voice of academic freedom, conscience, and true faith standing against a “reactionary,” “medieval” and “power-hungry” church. And while some prominent Catholics, such as Lord Acton and Newman, adopted more circumspect views, they also voiced misgivings about how the Döllinger affair was handled. Acton saw the excommunication as a species of persecution. Newman, too, was aghast. “My heart goes along with Dr. Döllinger with extreme sympathy in his cruel trial,” he wrote in a letter. “I can hardly restrain my indignation at the reckless hardheartedness with which he and many others have been treated.”

As for Döllinger himself, numerous attempts were made to gain his submission, but he remained firm. He regarded the actions against him as “an act of force and an injustice,” and remained outraged that “an old man who during the forty-five years he was a public teacher never incurred any blame or even remonstrance from his bishop, and whose orthodoxy up to that time had never been exposed even to an established suspicion, has been summarily…‘handed over to Satan.’” Until his death, he docilely abstained from administering or receiving the sacraments; yet he continued to believe in his ultimate vindication. “Convinced that the sentence decreed against me is unjust and legally null,” he wrote, “I persist in regarding myself as a member of the great Catholic Church; and it is the church herself, through her Holy Fathers, tells me that such an excommunication cannot harm my soul.”

Repeatedly Döllinger requested an “oral defense” to explain his position—requests that were routinely denied. In his reflections on his case, he again and again returned to the importance of historical scholarship and conscience. The decree on infallibility, he insisted, could not and would not stand up to historical scrutiny—and his conscience, he wrote shortly before his death in 1890, was “at rest and in safety.”

WHAT FINALLY ARE we to make of the “Döllinger affair” a century and a half later? In many respects the liberal or Whig perspective recommends itself. Döllinger reviled the ultramontane spirit that he saw at work behind the council and his excommunication. But as agreeable as it might seem to view him from the liberal point of view, some facts work against it. For starters, while Döllinger advocated academic freedom and modern critical scholarship, he envisioned them as tools of the church, not unfettered, autonomous enterprises; his primary case against infallibility was not its potential abuse of power, but merely that the doctrine was not taught by the ancient, undivided church. In short, Döllinger saw himself defending tradition against innovation, not vice versa. He also resisted those who sought to cast him as a “new Luther.” While he certainly sympathized with—and influenced—the Old Catholic movement, which rejected papal infallibility and grew rapidly in the 1870s and 1880s, he never fully signed on himself, but instead worried about the movement’s sectarian tendencies. “I do not wish to be a member of a schismatic society,” he wrote; rather, as he regularly insisted, his church remained the ancient Catholic Church, “the one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Indeed, the reason he was especially keen about ecumenical contact with the Orthodox and Anglicans after his excommunication was that these two church bodies, in his view, still carried on the doctrinal consensus of the ancient church councils.

Those inclined to lionize Döllinger must also take into account some unsavory aspects of his outlook. A pungent nationalism accents his writings, which are given to sweeping generalizations about “national character.” For example, he saw neo-scholasticism as a defective “Italian” phenomenon, and supported instead the enlightened “Germanic” way of scholarship; his advocacy of greater independence for German bishops from Rome is sometimes associated with “Febronianism,” a German counterpart of Gallicanism.

More confounding is the question of whether Döllinger misrepresented the Vatican Council and the Decree of Infallibility. His interpretation of it veered strongly toward what scholars today would call “maximal infallibility,” in which the pope is regarded as a veritable oracle of God. In fairness, this is how many of the ultramontane polemicists interpreted it—approvingly. Taking the bait, and often relying on partial knowledge of the council (much of it supplied by Acton, who attended in Rome; Döllinger did not), Döllinger was given to interpreting Vatican I in an unflattering light.

It is said that history is written by the winners. Döllinger was arguably a loser on two counts, first and most obviously vis-à-vis the ultramontanism that reigned triumphant within the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century. But even if one chooses to see the “Whig interpretation of history”—the eventual modern triumph of freedom, conscience, and individual rights—as the “big story,” Döllinger cannot really be counted as a winner either. In celebrating the abiding purchase of tradition on his intellect and conscience, he was no liberal in any conventional sense. He did not want to liberate himself—to become “Protestant”—but rather to proceed on the basis of a fairly traditionalist understanding of the ancient, undivided church. In this sense, one might even count him a conservative.

The nub of Döllinger’s case and his relation to modernity remains his embrace of historical inquiry and scholarship. This new scholarly historical consciousness—historicism, as it is sometimes called—carried enormous implications for both exegetical and dogmatic theology and, by extension, for the authority of the magisterium and the practical workings of the church. It was, in short, the “Copernicanism” of its day. By robustly championing it, Döllinger found himself, willy-nilly, on a divergent path from those at the Vatican who viewed a return to scholasticism as the only coherent way forward for the church intellectually.

Döllinger’s legacy has lived on despite neglect. His preference for earlier church fathers over scholastics can be seen as harbinger of the modern nouvelle théologie movement in France and Germany, which helped put the church on a path of ressourcement. His embrace of historical criticism foreshadows the work of the “Modernists” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—and, eventually, the church’s guarded acceptance of historical criticism at Vatican II. Finally, his interest in questions of church unity adumbrates the work of such figures as the Dominican ecumenist Yves Congar and the Jesuit Augustin Bea, who helped lay the groundwork for Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism and, later still, for John Paul II’s Ut Unum Sint (1995).

Prior to Vatican II, a number of important figures found themselves disciplined by Rome only to be rehabilitated in the postconciliar period. Yves Congar himself is a good case in point: mercilessly reviled by the Curia in the 1940s and ’50s, he was later made a cardinal by John Paul II. Another well-known example is John Courtney Murray, banned from teaching on church-state relations in the 1950s, only to have his ideas vindicated at the council. Döllinger, however, has never been rehabilitated. He took his criticisms too far; and he had the misfortune of living in the age of Vatican I instead of Vatican II. Perhaps the most appropriate thing we can conclude is that he represents a “tragic” figure in history of the church.

But tragedy has its purposes, as Aristotle reminds us in his Poetics. The tragic fate of a conscience-driven individual from another time helps us recognize more deeply the complexities and limitations of our own times—and the ambiguous role played by appeals to conscience in any age. For this reason, the Döllinger case serves as a mirror from the past, helping us see ourselves more clearly and live, if not more righteous, at least more examined lives. It teaches us not just about one man and his fate, but about the passage of the Catholic Church into the modern age, about the uses and complexities of knowledge in serving the church, and, not least, about the perpetual quandary of conscience and authority. Whatever our disagreements with the church, our first responsibility remains to take its two thousand years of accumulated wisdom as seriously as Döllinger did. His life shows that appeals to conscience, whether by Catholics or “separated brethren,” might lead one to wander between the worlds of the past and the future. But it also suggests such wanderers might in fact serve the church.

Thomas Albert Howard is professor of humanities and the holder of the Duesenberg Chair in Ethics at Valparaiso University. This essay is adapted from his new book, The Faiths of Others: A History of Interreligious Dialogue (Yale University Press).

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Published in the October 10, 2014 issue: View Contents
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