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The Pope and the Professor:
Pius IX, Ignaz von Döllinger, and the Quandary of the Modern Age

by thomas howard
oxford, 312 pages, $45

John Henry Newman aside, Ignaz von Döllinger (1799–1890) was the greatest Catholic theologian of the nineteenth century. He came of age amid a golden period in German historical research, a moment that produced Leopold von Ranke and his attempt to know the past “how it actually was.” Döllinger hoped to use history to illustrate the truths of the gospel and to vindicate the Church. In this project, he enjoyed the patronage of a young Bavarian king who sought to cultivate in Munich a university to rival the new university in Berlin. He joined the legendary Munich circle that included Schelling, Joseph Görres, Franz von Baader, and later Johann Adam Möhler, the brilliant theologian from Tübingen whom Döllinger recruited to Munich. Yet the Catholic revival did not last: Schelling published nothing and eventually left for Berlin to take the chair left vacant after Hegel’s death. Möhler died of cholera just a couple years after arriving. Döllinger, meanwhile, began the slow transformation from conservative defender of the faith to skeptic. If scientific history was the test, then Catholic Christianity, in his judgment, was failing it.

In The Pope and the Professor, Thomas Howard juxtaposes Döllinger with Pius IX, the pope who became his nemesis. The young, reform-oriented pope interpreted nationalist infringements on the Papal States through the lens of the French Revolution and the imprisonment of his predecessors. The revolutionary year 1848 decisively shaped his thinking. Without it, he never would have denounced in the Syllabus of Errors the idea that “The Roman pontiff can and should reconcile and adapt himself to progress, liberalism, and modern society.” Nor would he have uttered in response to those doubting the case for papal infallibility, “I am the tradition.”

Döllinger moved in a different direction. His devotion to critical historical methodology made him more and more inclined to dismiss historical arguments that portended the new doctrine of papal infallibility. Claims about the antiquity of certain documents, especially the “False Decretals” of Isidore, could not withstand historical scrutiny. More decisively, papalism generally, and infallibility in particular, were counter to the modern, enlightened Christianity to which Döllinger aspired. It was the exaltation of historical method above all dogmatic claims rather than any particular historical judgment that separated Döllinger from Pius IX.

The First Vatican Council was planned for 1870. As it approached, both sides escalated the rhetoric and used any leverage they had to push for their cause. Döllinger’s former pupil, Lord Acton, stationed himself in Rome, created a salon of sorts for the bishops who opposed Pius IX, and spearheaded the anonymous reports, written by multiple authors under the name “Quirinus,” which gave curious bystanders an inside view of various machinations.

The bishops who argued and voted against papal infallibility—most of them German—returned to their dioceses with heavy hearts while the world speculated: What would happen if these bishops refused to comply and the Prussian government, which had already sparred with Rome, backed them? Would there be a new reformation, again centered in Germany, and inspired by a brilliant professor who would not breach his conscience? One by one, the bishops fell in line with Rome, with Bishop Hefele of Rottenburg, formerly a Tübingen theologian, the last to comply. To Döllinger, they were cowards who allowed brazen Jesuits and inferior, southern European theologians to distort the teachings of the true Church, which only superior, German historical scholarship could verify. But in truth these bishops were pastors who cared for the souls of their flock. They were also realists who felt the cold winds of the Kulturkampf gaining strength under Bismarck’s steady hand.

Döllinger’s stand against Rome made him a hero across the world. A group of disaffected educated German Catholics who gathered around him joined the Old Catholics, a schismatic group that elected its own bishop. The archbishop of Munich, meanwhile, needed to assure Rome by requiring the Catholic theology faculty to assent to the council’s decrees. Döllinger refused, which led to his excommunication. Curiously, he never joined the Old Catholics, and preferred to think of himself as an exiled member of the flock. He devoted much of his attention to meetings with the Eastern Orthodox and the Anglicans, and Howard seems keen to retrieve Döllinger as a proto-ecumenical theologian.

Upon reading The Pope and the Professor, one can ask, “What has really changed?” The Germans are still causing trouble, different church factions speak cacophonously, and La Civiltà Cattolica continues to make matters worse. Yet a book focused on perhaps the most controversial pope and the most controversial church historian of the past two centuries occasions some reflection on an office (the papacy) and a discipline (history) that, upon scrutiny, reveals certain ironies that are elided in Howard’s otherwise exemplary study.

The modern papacy extends its arm and influence much further than its premodern precursor. But the papacy has evolved in tandem with the surrounding political culture, and as the captivity of Pius VI (1796–1799) and Pius VII (1809–1814) demonstrated, the modern world order was not particularly friendly to the papacy. In Döllinger’s Germany, various Protestant sects were forced into the government-mandated “Prussian Union,” including, in some cases, a shared liturgy (the Agende) enforced within church doors by armed soldiers. Catholics, meanwhile, faced government incursions into the selection of bishops, laws about the number and funding of seminaries, and a requirement to recognize interconfessional marriages.

These manifestations of growing state power led Catholic theology’s other great church historian, Möhler, to recognize the need for a robust papacy. Although the young Möhler first made his name in 1825 by penning a Spirit-ecclesiology in which the hierarchy was merely an afterthought, by 1828 he changed his tune. He saw that only a strong papacy could vouchsafe Catholic freedom. The Prussian Union and Agende alerted Möhler to the vulnerability of Protestantism to the state, especially if it was too closely aligned with German nationalism. Against this alternative, he found the symbolism of papal strength liberating, remarking, “in the pope we are all free.”

With the archbishop of Cologne under arrest for refusing to abide by a new law requiring the Church to recognize Catholic-Protestant marriages, Möhler became convinced that a more vigorous papacy was the best bet for the future vibrancy of Catholicism. This case, which also shook Joseph Görres, had no parallel effect on Döllinger. Germany’s successful nationalist expansion in the following years only confirmed for him the superiority of all things German, including its wissenschaftliche theology.

Döllinger underestimated the advantages of a robust papacy and overrated the power of historical investigation to determine the apostolic truth. His papal history reads like the kind of history that a nineteenth-century German Gallican would write. Döllinger may have known more history than anybody else, but he did not understand the limits of that knowledge.

As Lessing observed, “Accidental truths of history can never become the proof for necessary truths of reason.” History has never been able to offer the same level of veracity as mathematics or science. No historical investigation can bridge the gap between the life of Jesus and the dogmatic and metaphysical claims of the fourth-century councils. No amount of changing water into wine yields “consubstantial with the Father.” History and theology operate in two different orders of truth-seeking. What Döllinger thought of as pure science involved a healthy dose of alchemy.

Whatever misgivings one may have about the First Vatican Council, one does not need to squint to see a providential hand in Pastor Aeternus. As secular governments continue to chip away at different forms of civil society, especially religious forms, a strong papacy can serve as a powerful counterweight. In Lumen Gentium, Vatican II rightly sought to fill out Vatican I’s terse declaration of papal infallibility by emphasizing episcopal collegiality. Still, the singular office of the papacy, given doctrinal heft through Pastor Aeternus, has kept the largest Christian flock united, while virtually every other Christian body has splintered. Döllinger may have been the greatest Catholic Herr Professor of his century, but he was no prophet.

Grant Kaplan is associate professor of theological studies at Saint Louis University.