What 19th-century German anti-Catholicism can teach us about our own church
Picture this scene: A group of Catholic priests move into a new neighborhood, just weeks after the latest scandal concerning clergy and sexual abuse. Their religious garb gives them away, and a concerned group of neighbors protests their presence, claiming concern for the safety of their children against these sexually suspect priests. Tensions rise, the police get involved, and violence follows, all stemming from the imaginative fusion of “celibate clergy” with “sexual predator.”
Such a scene did take place 150 years ago, and too few Catholics know about it. In the working-class Berlin neighborhood of Moabit—in the heart of Protestant Prussia—a group of Dominicans attempted to open an orphanage for the growing population of neglected and abandoned children until the continued and real threat of violence led them to give up the project. The 1869 event, known as the Moabit Klostersturm, was a key precipitator for the coming Kulturkampf (culture war) that led to a series of laws targeting Catholics from 1872 to 1878. Among other things, the laws expelled the Jesuits, forbade criticism of the state from the pulpit (a prohibition that was eventually extended to Catholic newspapers) and banned clergy from the education of children.
This “storming of the cloister” highlighted nearly a century of tension between the dominant Protestant cultural and political powers and minority Catholics in Germany. We would be remiss, however, to conceive of the event through the narrow lens of political power and minority religious rights. The event and surrounding events have much to tell us about modern identity formation.
In light of the growing chasm between Catholicism and 21st-century forms of social and political life, a deeper consideration of the 19th-century German context can be productive for imagining how Catholicism can be rejuvenated.
Despite the long and illustrious history of the Catholic Church in Germany—harkening all the way back to St. Boniface and punctuated by figures like Hildegaard of Bingen and Albert the Great—Catholics became the great Other to modernizing, secularizing forces. From the war against celibacy in the 1820s, through the imprisonment of the archbishop of Cologne over marriage policy in 1838, to the hysterical fear in the face of rising monastic vocations in the 1850s, Catholicism presented a difficult-to-navigate social reality for the non-Catholic forces seeking to modernize German culture.
Recalling such events, historians have begun to theorize—with the help of Edward Said—how modernity and secularization required the creation of a Catholic Other in order to imagine itself and the community it wanted to create. In light of the growing chasm between Catholicism and 21st-century forms of social and political life, a deeper consideration of the 19th-century German context can be productive for imagining how Catholicism can be rejuvenated, rather than watching it continue to recede.
Imprisoned in the Cloister
In the summer of 1869, word got out that the Dominicans were moving in. The locals, stirred up by an anti-Catholic press as tawdry as the worst of Twitter and 4chan in our day, would not stand for this intrusion. They threw bottles, banged drums and made “rough music” with objects like pots and pans (charivari, or Katzenmusik), a custom associated with communal disapproval in the sexual realm. These fears did not come out of nowhere. Months earlier in a Polish convent, police discovered a woman, naked and deranged, who had been “walled in” inside a convent. This wall within walls had been constructed both to create solitary confinement and to keep this confinement a secret. The discovery of her imprisonment led to loud and continued outcries from the press. The incident had succeeded in sating the modern imagination about the immorality and backwardness of monastic life, not unlike today’s popular image of the veiled Muslim woman, beaten and abused in her home. The lack of visibility increases imaginative fancy.
In a period increasingly fixated on the expansion of freedom—understood as political and religious emancipation—the monastery was already an anti-modern prison and now one that created prisons within prisons. A leading genre in the dime-store novel of the day was the “cloister story,” which told of a young woman who gave up the prospect of middle-class respectability to join a convent, only to be subjected to abuses emotional, physical and sexual.
A leading genre in the dime-store novel of the day was the “cloister story,” which told of a young woman who gave up the prospect of middle-class respectability to join a convent, only to be subjected to abuses emotional, physical and sexual.
A few months ago, a colleague asked a group of us whether allowing one’s children to be altar servers would be the equivalent of playing with fire. The success of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, known as the Dallas Charter, has been overshadowed by high profile cases concerning the episcopate that date from before 2002. The fact is that the rules implemented in 2002 have been highly successful, albeit imperfect. My colleague is a faithful, practicing Catholic, yet the question caused me to wonder whether her vigilance was too narrow. Abuse occurs not just in sacristies but in schools and non-Catholic religious spaces, among scouting groups and on athletic teams, and even within nuclear and extended families. Is letting a child spend the night at a friend’s house not also playing with fire, regardless of how well one thinks one knows the parents?
Whatever the current fear of clergy might tell us, it is not hard to discern what it told us nearly two centuries ago in Germany. As Michael Gross details in his marvelous book, The War Against Catholicism: Liberalism and Anti-Catholic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Germany, liberals feared Catholics for good reason. After 1848 and a near revolution in Germany that frazzled citizens both urban and rural, a boom in religious sensibility took place. All across Germany, different religious orders preached “missions,” precipitating events similar to American tent revivals. The missions drew a mixed confessional audience, and the preaching often led to mass outbursts of weeping and conversion. At some sites, members stood in line for the entire night to make a confession. Not just Jesuits but Benedictines, Franciscans and Redemptorists preached missions with incredible success. Concurrently, monastic vocations boomed, and secular leaders interpreted the incursion of monasteries into Protestant territories in near-military terms.
Parallels to Today
For contemporary Catholics trying to read the signs of the times, it is hard to tell whether the larger culture now truly despises the Catholic form or merely finds it irrelevant. If it is the former, I suspect much of it has to do with the anthropology the church teaches that is so contrary to today’s dominant norms. Gender, embodiment, autonomy, identity—these terms animate so many of our current concerns, and it is no surprise that critical theory touching on issues of gender and race form such a neuralgic point of concern for theologians today. A look backward, but with those critical-theoretical lenses, offers insight.
By exalting celibacy, Catholicism threatened the model for progress advocated by the nation-state. Countries like Germany, with unstable, novel, or what Benedict Anderson calls “imagined communities,” felt this threat keenly. The state needed bodies to “man” factories and a growing population to defend new and porous national boundaries. It needed women’s wombs and domestic care to carry and nurture new citizens. With no corresponding theology of celibacy, Protestantism presented much less of a threat than did Catholicism. And no major social group besides Catholicism presented the slightest challenge to this reduction of women to the national womb until the Third Reich’s ideology of maternity came under scrutiny.
No ideology in Bismarck's Germany challenged the modern ideology of “sexually natural” more than Catholicism, which rejected the claim that married life was the highest state one could achieve.
As society became more urban, the situation for women seemed precarious. Modernizing economic patterns made it more likely for women to be uprooted from their families of origin. Childbirth still presented a grave danger, as did domestic violence, which tended to correspond to the financial and social instability created by modern, liberal economics. No ideology challenged the modern ideology of “sexually natural” more than Catholicism, which rejected the claim that married life was the highest state one could achieve. And no institution challenged the values of productivity and work more than the monastery, with its nonprofit-oriented telos.
Anti-Catholic religious literature attempted to persuade both men and women toward restricted gender norms. For women, this meant motherhood, and these tracts imagined their arguments to be rescuing naïve Catholic women from pointless and unproductive religious servitude. Since a woman would never freely choose the consecrated life, the argument went, she must be under the spell of duplicitous Jesuits. This same literature depicted the monk—shaven, tonsured, robed—as counter-masculine. In both cases, secular magazines and novels claimed to know what was natural, and it portrayed alternative forms of expressing one’s personhood as forms of life that could not possibly be freely chosen. The anti-Catholic literature mocking celibacy and monastic lifestyles was not just describing masculinity but attempting to forge it. Yet can today’s theorist of gender look back at these incidents and claim without qualification that the church oppressed and that secularism liberated?
The rewiring of desire
Catholic resurgence did not limit itself to the (still relatively small number of) people called to religious life. Lay organizations, publications like newspapers and books, and devotional practices all witnessed an upsurge. Over a six-week period in 1844, more than half a million pilgrims journeyed to Trier in order to see Jesus’ seamless tunic, representing the largest mass mobilization of citizens in the decade. This was an energized, publicly engaged Catholicism, not a proto-Benedict Option.
As the success of Dan Brown’s novel Da Vinci Code shows, contemporary anti-Christianity would just as soon prove Jesus had sex or that he was homosexual as disprove the resurrection. In other words, the problem that Catholic Christianity presents to modern secularism lies not in its supernatural worldview but in its bold attempt to reorder all desire. Nineteenth-century German Catholicism presented such a threat because it catechized citizens into a different order of desires. Regardless of whether every pilgrim to Trier thought the tunic was authentic (and it would be even more naïve for us to think they did than for them to believe in the tunic), pilgrims found the trip meaningful and worth undertaking.
What would it take in the parish of today for one family to invite another to a nearby shrine on a weekend afternoon? Or what would it take for a Catholic family to deem a trip to Disneyland as a failure of Catholic imagination?
It is clear what 21st-century neoliberalism wants for us: to swallow entirely and uncritically the anthropology of homo oeconomicus. The human being is a free agent, unencumbered by family, culture or geography, liberated to pursue economic purchasing power in whatever way possible and maximally free to use that power to fulfill desires economically. All relations are contracts, and all sex is economic: liberated from constraint and ordered toward fulfillment understood as orgasm or something like it (perhaps the perfect Instagram post).
Its hope for the twin obstacles of religion and family is that both institutions can provide a thin enough cover so that each individual can be unleashed as a consumer. The family with two teenagers simply becomes a “family” of four individual consumers, each on their own device, buying and streaming to come up with things to buy. Its hope for Christianity is that Joel Osteen wins and that zealous Christians really are the best consumers. Nothing salves the neoliberal fear that these institutions could be fueled by different, higher desires than scandal, the financial as much as the sexual. Priests and bishops and daily-Mass attending laypeople really are just like us!
It is clear what 21st-century neoliberalism wants for us: to swallow entirely and uncritically the anthropology of homo oeconomicus.
A community extended in both time and space
A deeper understanding of 19th-century Germany teaches us that there was a time, not so long ago, when the church persuasively taught a different order of desires that threatened modernizing hegemony. Study of this period also strikes a blow to the inevitability thesis that clings doggedly to theories of the secular. Secularism is not inevitable. Leading historians of secularism Olaf Blaschke and Todd Wier, among others, have persuasively demonstrated the abiding pull of confessional identity during this period. Catholic religious life did not just maintain its numbers during these decades; it experienced a rapid upsurge in vocations and a renewed enthusiasm for Tridentine practices that had been forgotten.
We have nearer and more familiar models, both in time and space, but the state-church strife in 19th-century Germany is just far enough away and the current wave of scandal is close enough to our hearts for us to look back and see more clearly. The German example, then if not now, is that decline is not inevitable. The challenge for the church, then and now, is to articulate and manifest the desires that led the disciples to drop their nets and follow Jesus. Renewal will not come, however, in wishing things to be as they once were. It will come from creative reordering and reimagining the Gospel into modern forms of life that make the life of the baptized believer—alive in Christ experienced through a eucharistic community—morally, intellectually and aesthetically more compelling. We need to tell stories to remind us who we are: a community extended in both time and space, gathered around a resurrected victim, ordered by liberating love.