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My birthday, January 12, is also the anniversary of an event that had a more fundamental and fatal effect on Catholicism in Austria than most people realize.

I refer to the 1782 Decree on the Dissolution of Religious Orders, by which Emperor Joseph II gave the coup de grace to the empire’s contemplative houses. This came as a bolt from the blue. In retrospect, people today see many of the reforming emperor’s radical measures—today generally given the name “Josephism” (or “Josephinism”)—as positive, or excuse their heavy-handedness. But when confronted with his zealous crusade against the contemplative religious houses, which he regarded as useless “sources of superstition,” we should be speechless.

First we need to grasp the figures. We need to realize the immense volume of (specifically contemplative) monasteries and convents that existed in Austrian crown lands and in Hungary in the wake of the Counter-Reformation. In 1770 there were 2,163 monasteries with about 45,000 monks and nuns. (To get an idea of this vast reserve of spirituality, note that in Austria today there are only 192 religious communities, totalling about 5,000 persons.) Nowadays we can hardly imagine a world that was so rich in spiritual culture. Among these 2,000 were hundreds of genuinely contemplative religious houses: Capuchins, Carthusians, Camaldolese, Brothers of the Forest, Hermits, Carmelites, Poor Clares, Capuchin Sisters, Paulists, Premonstratensians, and scores of others.

Some readers may have never been guests in a contemplative monastery or convent. Today, genuine contemplation can be hard to find. Several times in recent months I have had the privilege of being a guest in such a place. This enclosed and protected environment, with its total concentration on prayer, sacrifice, spirituality, great simplicity, purity, and the contagious cheerfulness of the sisters behind their grilles—all this is infinitely valuable and easily damaged. It is something that every town, every country should thank God for; the contemplative life bears the most precious spiritual fruit. It is something for which, if it were threatened, one would give life and limb.

We must imagine this kind of life and world—innocent, vulnerable, full of the most profound trust in state and Church, where everything is ordered for the sake of prayer and community life—that suddenly was overtaken by an unprovoked and undeserved apocalypse of destruction, simply because an emperor decided that it was “useless.”

The storm began to wreak havoc at the beginning of 1782, although it was brewing in the time of the Empress Maria Theresia, and that of her father, Charles VI. For decades there had been talk of reforming the religious houses. At the end of 1781, however, problems had arisen at the Carthusian house of Mauerbach, and Emperor Joseph II's anger grew. This is what he wrote on December 6, 1781:

There is longstanding evidence that those Orders that are of no practical use to their neighbors are not pleasing to God: accordingly I have commanded the Chancellery to send Commissioners to list those Orders (of men and of women) in all crown lands that neither maintain schools nor care for the sick, nor are prominent in other useful activities: their inmates shall be ejected and given their liberty. Those who are not so numerous may leave our lands without a pension, or else they may apply to the local authorities to be dispensed from their vows... These Orders I understand to include all the Carthusians, Camaldolese and Hermits, and also all the women Carmelites, Poor Clares, Capuchin Sisters, and the like, who neither educate the young nor maintain schools, nor take care of the sick, but, whether men or women, merely lead a contemplative life.

On January 12, 1782, judgment was served on places of “uselessness.” One hundred and forty contemplative houses were closed in the first wave: This meant that around 1,500 religious sisters and brothers had to leave. Just imagine: All the contemplative monasteries and convents that could not be turned into schools and hospitals were shut—thereby putting a definitive end to their “enclosure.” In certain cases, members of the Orders were settled in other, non-contemplative houses, but in most cases they were simply “sent home.” Only a small number managed to make the change into a “life of usefulness.” Joseph II did not stop here, however. He began closing non-contemplative monasteries and convents also, with the result that in this first wave (1782–83), 400 religious houses were closed.

In 1782, Pope Pius VI made a fruitless journey to Vienna to discuss the matter with the emperor. This visit achieved nothing. Dissolutions continued and even increased. A second wave, beginning in 1783, engulfed another 800 houses in Austria and the crown lands. In 1791 Emperor Joseph II had envisaged a third wave of 450 closures; only his death prevented them from being carried out. In the end, two-thirds of all religious houses were closed, and not a single contemplative Order was left.

Historians like to highlight the impoverished, badly organized, and positively ramshackle conditions of some of the religious houses. They also like to point to the magnificent results of the reforms: They brought about a reorganization of the parish system, a network of 3,000 well-organized parishes where Enlightenment ideas could be injected into the most remote corners of the empire. This was the embryonic modernization of Austria.

But we rarely read about the terrible consequences suffered by the most vulnerable, the monks and nuns. In the first phase of the dissolution their reaction was emotional. The commissar in charge of dissolution wrote from Vienna’s Queen’s Monastery that “there was general dismay, weeping and wringing of hands.” In Vienna’s Carmelite Monastery of St. Joseph, the commissar commented: “The sisters, in extreme distress and shock, showed their accustomed firm resolution.”

The Decree of January 12 was followed by a concrete Decree of Dissolution from the Court Chancellery. Some weeks later, this document was read out to the distressed nuns. For instance, in Maria Steinach, in Meran (now South Tyrol, Italy), the Decree was issued on March 18 and read to the sisters on April 10. Once this had taken place, those concerned had to make an exact list of everything; they had a few weeks in which to decide whether to find another religious house to reside in or become laicized. By September they had to leave; the convent was shut. In Maria Steinach there had been about 50 sisters; seven joined a convent of Dominican nuns, and the others (no doubt under pressure) had to return to the world.

Even more heartbreaking was the situation in the convent of the Poor Clares in Villingen (now part of Baden-Württemberg, Germany), which at that time was in Austrian possession and had been a center of spiritual life since 1482. This is what the chronicle says:

…on February 8, 1782, it occurred that the town parish priest, Dominicus Lutz, brought and read out an episcopal decree, to the effect that we should submit to the Will of God and open the enclosure in order to admit into the convent the Commissioner, Marquard von Gleichenstein, and his Secretary. All the women and sisters of the convent were summoned: they were told that the convent of Poor Clares in Villingen was suppressed, and that the sisters had five months in which to leave the convent and renounce their membership of the Order. Either they could enter another convent that was responsible for a school, or they could live as laypeople on a small pension. All the convent’s keys, including that of the church, had to be surrendered to the Commissioner.

The sisters were horrified; their dismay and grief intensified when the great Commission arrived. The sisters had to prepare a midday meal for the Commissioner, the Father Provincial, the Magistrate, Secretary Chorhummel, and Broz, the Administrator. The chronicler (one of the nuns) wrote:

The gentlemen were all relaxed and at ease, and tried (in vain) to lighten our spirits. We were appalled, for it was the first occasion, in the convent’s entire existence, that the Poor Clares had eaten in the refectory with people from the world…

We must not forget that the sisters had been in an enclosed Order from their youth; they had hardly any contact with the outside world. They kept to their hours of prayer while the Commissioner was present. They omitted neither their night prayer nor the solemn choir office during the day. They redoubled their prayers in front of the Image of Grace (Ecce Homo) and called on their foundress, Ursula Heider, to intercede for them. In the case of Villingen the majority of the sisters were able to find a home with the Dominican Sisters; but as for the contemplative life, it was over.

Reading these and other reports, I feel indignation and anger. How could anyone do this, and in a Catholic land, too? What had the Carmelites, the Poor Clares, and the Capuchin Sisters done? They were regarded as useless since they were involved neither in charitable work nor schools, nor in caring for the poor. They were persecuted because they did nothing but “pray.”

Sometimes people ask why Austria's Catholic roots do not seem as deep as those of Poland and other “Catholic lands.” Some point to the crises of the 1970s, but I think the death blow came earlier. It was delivered by Joseph II, and the year was 1782.

I conclude with a list of a few—a very few—of the religious houses dissolved in the years after 1782. They are representative of the hundreds of forced closures that took place.

In Vienna:          

The Queen’s Convent of Poor Clares, dedicated to Our Lady and all Angels, January 22, 1782

The St. Nicholas convent in the Singerstrasse (the second foundation of Poor Clares in Vienna), with 33 sisters, January 24, 1782

The Siebenbüchner convent on the Kienmarkt, January 26, 1782, and the Camaldolese convent on the Kahlenberg, February 4, 1782

The Trinity convent (“Weiss-Spanier”), February 25, 1783

The little residence of the Theatines (also called “Cajetans”), December 18, 1782, and the Oratorians (of St. Philip Neri), May 14, 1783

The branch of the Hieronymitans (Hermits of St. Jerome) in the Kölnerhof, December 18, 1782

The House of Benedictines of Our Lady of Montserrat, July 16, 1783

The Convent of the Nuns of St. Laurence, September 18, 1783

The sisters (Doorkeepers) of St. Agnes, September 24, 1783

The sisters of St. Jacob auf der Hülben, September 25, 1783

The convent of Paulists in Hernals, 1784

Also the Poor Clares in Judenburg, Styria (1782), in Valduna in Vorarlberg (1782), and in All Saints in Graz (June 1782). In each case, the official record of the closure ends with the words, “closed under Joseph II.”

Eduard Habsburg is Hungary’s ambassador to the Holy See.

This essay was translated from the German by Graham Harrison.

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