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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > K > Wilhelm Emmanuel, Baron von Ketteler

Wilhelm Emmanuel, Baron von Ketteler

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Bishop of Mainz, b. at Münster, in Westphalia, 25 Dec., 1811; d. at Burghausen, 13 July, 1877. He was about to enter the Prussian bureaucracy when, in 1837, the persecution conducted by Prussia against Archbishop Droste-Vischering of Cologne touched Ketteler's religious spirit and led him to resign. In 1841 he studied theology at Munich University, and in 1843 he completed his preparation for the priesthood at the Seminary of Münster. In 1844 he became a curate at Beckum and in 1846 rector of Hopsten in Westphalia. Elected by the District of Tecklenburg und Warendorf to the Frankfurt Parliament in 1848, Ketteler distinguished himself by his broad and discerning intelligence of the social movements of his time. In the oration which he delivered, 21 Sept., 1848, at the funeral of General Auerswald and Prince Lichnowsky, victims of a riot, he exonerated the great body of the German people from responsibility for the crime. At the Catholic Congress of Mainz (Oct., 1848), one of the first of the great meetings of German Catholics, he offered a toast to "the plain people" and declared that as religion has need of freedom, so has freedom need of religion. Finally, during the Advent of 1848, he preached at Mainz two sermons, on the Catholic theory of property and on the duties of Christian charity, developing the sociology of St. Thomas Aquinas, and demonstrating the manner in which it answered every social need of the times. He became rector of St. Hedwig in Berlin, Oct., 1849, where Bishop Diepenbrock of Breslau entrusted him with the task of bringing back to Catholicism the famous Protestant novelist, Ida von Hahn-Hahn. He reorganized the large St. Hedwig Hospital, and for the first time since the Reformation led a Corpus Christi procession through the streets of Berlin.

In 1849 the nomination of Professor Schmid as bishop by the canons of Mainz was rejected by Pius IX, to whom Schmid's views were justly an object of suspicion. The chapter after some opposition proposed three names to Pius IX, among them Ketteler's and on 15 March, 1850, the pope named him bishop of that see. The circumstances of his nomination and its acceptance by the grand-ducal Government of Hesse marked a defeat for the Josephist bureaucracy which for twenty-five years had tyrannized over the Church in all the small states of the ecclesiastical province of the Upper Rhine. Ketteler immediately inflicted two more defeats upon this bureaucracy: he re-opened in 1851 the theological seminary of Mainz and thereby freed his clergy from the influence of the theological faculty of Giessen, where the State had hitherto required Catholic seminarians to study; moreover he called a "concursus" for some vacant rectories without asking the permission of the State. Through his institution of diocesan conferences and the introduction of numerous male and female congregations, Mainz became a model diocese. The Brothers of St. Joseph and the Sisters of Providence, two orders founded by Ketteler, were destined to a larger growth. As to the relations between the Church and the State in the Grand Duchy of Hesse, they rested chiefly on the good understanding between Ketteler and Dalwigk, the minister. Their written agreement (1854) was not approved by Rome, which preferred that all the bishops of the ecclesiastical province of the Upper Rhine should act as a unit in their struggle against the legislation which the smaller German states were seeking to impose on all of them. The new agreement, which after a visit to Rome, Ketteler negotiated with Dalwigk (1856), was sent to Rome by the bishop for approval, but was never returned. Until 1870 religious peace was maintained in Hesse through the harmonious relations between the bishop and the minister.

Religious conflicts in Baden

Ketteler played a very active part in the difficulties which broke out between the Baden government and Archbishop Vicari; he published a brochure defending the latter and a visit of Ketteler's to Karlsruhe, in January, 1854, almost brought about an understanding between Vicari and the Prince Regent of Baden. Bismarck, however, then Prussia's plenipotentiary at Frankfurt, exercised such a strong influence over the Baden ministry that the attempted reconciliation failed. In 1865, when the opposition of the Catholics to the Baden school law caused a severe persecution, Ketteler invoked the intervention of Emperor Francis Joseph, and in two pamphlets refuted the formula of Minister Lamey, according to which "law was the public conscience superior to private consciences." After Archbishop Vicari's death (1868) it was again Ketteler who defended against Minister Jolly the electoral right of the Freiburg canons. At Ketteler's suggestion, on the occasion of the eleventh centenary of St. Boniface, were inaugurated the conferences of German bishops; since then they have grown more frequent and are almost annual since 1869. In this way he was the chief promoter of an institution which for the past forty years has greatly aided the cohesion and strength of the German episcopate. During 1864-66 his name was mentioned for the archbishoprics of Posen or Cologne, and Bismarck seemed for a moment to favour the nomination.

Ketteler as a social reformer

Ketteler thought that he was not exceeding his rights as a bishop when he spoke authoritatively on social questions. In 1848 he believed that social reform had to begin with the interior regeneration of the soul. Later he was to enter more deeply into economical problems. When about 1863, the Liberal Schulze-Delitzsch and the Socialist Lassalle made forcible appeals to the German workingmen, Ketteler studied their doctrines and even consulted Lassalle in an anonymous letter on a scheme of founding five small co-operative associations of workingmen.

The labour question and Christianity

In a book published in 1864, "The Labour Question and Christianity," he adopted Lassalle's criticism of the modern treatment of labour, and admitted the reality of an insurmountable law. In opposition to Schulze-Delitzsch he pointed out the futility of the remedies proposed by the Liberals; he advocated labour associations, and even accepted the idea of co-operative unions to be established, not as Lassalle wished, by state subvention, but by generous aid from Christian capitalists. In a Socialistic meeting at Rondsdorf, 23 May, 1864, Lassalle paid homage to Ketteler's book. On his side, Ketteler, whom three Catholic workmen had asked in 1866 if they could conscientiously join the "workingmen's association" founded by Lassalle, was disposed to dissuade them from so doing owing to the anti-religious spirit of Lassalle's successors; nevertheless in his reply he duly acknowledged Lassalle's "respectful recognition of the depth and truth of Christianity." At this time he counted particularly upon the initiative of Christian charity for the organization of productive co-operative associations destined to restore social justice on a more equal scale. In 1869 he went still further: in a sermon preached near Offenbach, 25 July of that year, he particularized certain urgent reforms (increase of wages, shorter hours of labour, prohibition of child-labour in factories, prohibition of women's and young girls' labour); these claims, he thought, should be presented to the public authorities. In Sept., 1869, at the Fulda conference of the German bishops, he showed how necessary for the removal of economic evils was the intervention of the Church in the name of faith, morals, and charity. He also made clear the right of workingmen to legal protection and urged that in every diocese some priests should be selected to make a study of economic questions. This Fulda discourse of Ketteler brought the Church of Germany into closer relations with the new social activity; on the other hand, his programme for protection of labour, taken up again in 1873 in his pamphlet on "Catholics in the German Empire," long served the German Centre as a basis for their social claims.

Doctrinal controversies; the Vatican Council

Though not professionally a theologian, Ketteler made his influence felt in the various doctrinal controversies of his time. In his "Liberty, Authority, and Church" (1862) he took a stand on the question of Liberalism and set forth the Christian attitude towards the various meanings of the word liberty. The theological "school" which Ketteler established in his seminary at Mainz, and whose chief representatives were Moufang and Heinrich, was noted for its adherence to Scholastic theology and its hostility to the anti-Roman tendencies of "Germanism" and "German Science" represented by Döllingerer and the Munich School. The former urged with much tenacity the theological seminaries, as preferable to the theological faculties of the universities, for the education of the Catholic clergy, and earnestly strove since 1862, for the establishment of that free Catholic university in Germany which is yet a desideratum. Despite this firm attitude, Ketteler had great intellectual charity, and could understand theological views that differed somewhat from his own, and when necessary could be their advocate; it was doubtless to him that Kuhn of Tübingen was indebted for escaping condemnation at Rome.

On the eve of the Vatican Council, Ketteler was not very favourably inclined towards the dogmatic definition of papal infallibility: "In our time it is not opportune to increase the number of dogmas," he wrote to Bishop Dupanloup. Enemy as he was of political absolutism and centralization, he feared that a declaration of papal infallibility would result in religious absolutism and centralization. He submitted to the episcopal assembly at Fulda (1 Sept., 1869) a series of observations which he had asked from Francis Brentano, professor at Würzburg, and in which the definition of papal infallibility was treated as inopportune; at the same time he rough-drafted the letter in which this assembly urged all Christians to submit to the future council. Though belonging to the minority in the council, he protested more than once against the "Roman Letters" of Döllingerer, published at Munich under the pseudonym of "Quirinus." He circulated in the council a pamphlet of the Jesuit Quarella, which in some respects seemed to militate against the doctrine of infallibility, but he did not personally accept all the theories of this work. It was he who suggested the petition of May, 1870, in which a number of bishops demanded that the eleven charters of the "Schema" on the Church be taken up before entering on the discussion of infallibility. On 23 May he declared in a plenary meeting that he had always believed in papal infallibility, but he asked whether the theological proofs put forward sufficed to justify its dogmatic definition. He was not present at the final vote and left Rome after a written declaration that he submitted beforehand to the decision of the council. In September, 1870, he signed, with other German bishops, the Fulda declaration in favour of the newly defined dogma.

Ketteler and German unity

The political changes that now took place in Germany, and the indirect effect they might have upon Catholic interests, were a source of much anxiety to him. When Austria's defeat at Sadowa (1866) filled the Catholics of Germany with consternation, and proved that their dream of an Austrian Germany was quite over, Ketteler tried to revive their courage in his "Germany after the War of 1866." He advised them to meet halfway the coming changes, and to let no one surpass them in their love of the German Fatherland. On the other hand, he besought Prussia not to be misled by those who would make her an instrument of Protestantism or of certain philosophical theories, and urged the respect of all existing political and social autonomies.

After the establishment of German unity (1870-71) Ketteler's chief concern was to obtain for German Catholics in the new empire such liberties and guarantees as the Constitution granted them in Prussia. This much he demanded in a letter to Bismarck (1 Oct., 1870), also during a visit he paid him in the spring of 1871, and in a speech in the Reichstag (3 April, 1871), where he served as a deputy from the Baden constituency of Waldürn-Tauberbischofsheim. The National Liberal party, on the contrary, urged the new empire towards religious persecution. Ketteler conferred once more with Bismarck, on 16 March, 1871, again pleaded with him for the Catholics, and then, on 14 March, 1872, resigned his seat in the German Parliament. He kept in touch, however, with religious polities, and wrote important pamphlets against the Prussian Kulturkampf, also against similar measures which the National Liberals, yet influential with Dalwigk's successors, were inaugurating in Hesse. During the Kulturkampf his share in the Fulda episcopal conferences was often predominant. He and Archbishop Melchers of Cologne were potent in the decision passed in 1873 urging the bishops to oppose the May Laws by absolute passive resistance, and, on the other hand, advocating a conciliatory attitude towards the Prussian law on the administration of church property. In 1873 his views on the rights of Christianity and of a bishop led him to enter the broader political field in his book on "The Catholics in the German Empire" in which he drew up a platform for the Centre Party and offered wise direction to the State. He contrasted frequently the Liberalism of 1848, sincerely respectful of religious belief, with the "National Liberalism" of Bismarckian Germany, the old German idea of local autonomy with the idea of centralization borrowed from France. He hated in Bismarckian Germany the spread of political absolutism quite as in modern industrialism he hated the development of capitalist absolutism. The spirit of initiative which characterized this bishop is well set forth in a letter written, 6 May, 1870, to Haffner, future Bishop of Mainz: "I am heart and soul attached to the new forms which in days to come the old Christian truths will create for all human relations." Of him Windthorst said, in 1890: "We venerate him unanimously as the doctor and leading champion of Catholic social aspirations."


RAICH, Briefe von und an Ketteler (Mainz, 1879); PFUELF, Bischof Ketteler (Ibid., 1899), a three volume work of first-class importance; IDEM, in Stimmen aus Maria Laach (1908), 550-561, an account of Ketteler's ideas on the school question and on ecclesiastical reforms; DE GIRARD, Ketteler et la question ouvriere (Berne, 1896); DECURTINS, preface to Oeuvres choisies de Mgr de Ketteler (Bale, 1892); GOYAU, L'Allemagne religieuse: le catholicisme, 1800-1870, II-IV (Paris, 1905-1909); IDEM, Ketteler (Paris, 1907), treats of the principal social ideas of Ketteler. A complete bibliography of Ketteler's works is given at the end of the third volume of Pfuelf.

About this page

APA citation. Goyau, G. (1910). Wilhelm Emmanuel, Baron von Ketteler. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Goyau, Georges. "Wilhelm Emmanuel, Baron von Ketteler." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by John Fobian. In memory of Robert John Fobian.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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