Josef Ignaz von Döllinger

The German historian and theologian Johannes Josef Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1890) represented the Catholic wing of the great German historical movement of the 19th century.

On Feb. 28, 1799, J. J. I. von Döllinger was born in Bamberg. His father was professor of physiology and anatomy at Bamberg and later at Würzburg and, though Catholic, markedly anticlerical. This influence was offset by the piety of Döllinger's mother, and the boy's interest turned to theology after a few semesters in Würzburg studying philosophy and philology. He entered the seminary at Bamberg and was ordained a priest in 1822. Disillusioned with academic studies, he desired only a country pastorate but, after serving as curate for barely a year, he was prevailed upon by his father to return to academic life.

Döllinger then taught canon law and Church history at the gymnasium in Aschaffenburg. His interests turned to patristic studies, and he published the first of many books on Church history, for which he achieved wide recognition. In 1827 he accepted the chair of Church history at the University of Munich, a post he held until 1872. In Munich he joined the circle of F. X. von Baader and J. von Görres. This group was monarchist in politics, strongly influenced by German romanticism, and inclined toward strengthening Church ties with Rome. Thereafter Döllinger became increasingly active in public life, always working to spread the influence of religion. He represented Lower Bavaria at the Congress of Frankfurt in 1848-1849.

In his historical studies Döllinger stressed historical continuity and organic development. Arguing that the Reformation represented a breach in this continuity, he led a counterattack against the influential school of Leopold von Ranke and other Protestant or liberal historians.

Döllinger's efforts to revive German Catholicism gradually led him to minimize dependence on Rome, and increasingly after 1850 he argued for a German national church. He also insisted on the right of scholars to be free from ecclesiastical censorship. Just prior to the opening of the Vatican Council in 1869, his book The Pope and the Council, which argued the supremacy of a general council, was condemned in Rome. During the proceedings he corresponded with the minority who opposed the infallibility decree. But his publication of Roman Letters from the Council (1870) injured the cause by its intemperate and sarcastic tone. In 1871 he was excommunicated for refusing to subscribe to the Council decrees on papal prerogatives and a year later was forced out of his professorship.

Döllinger was friendly with leaders of the schismatic group called the "Old Catholics" but refused to join their movement. In later years he worked to promote reunion among the churches. Accepting the last rites from an Old Catholic priest, he died in Munich on Jan. 10, 1890.

Further Reading on Josef Ignaz von Döllinger

Louise von Kobell, Conversations of Dr. Döllinger (1891; trans. 1892), provides personal reminiscences. Lord Acton gives a lengthy estimate of Döllinger's historical work in his History of Freedom, and Other Essays (1907).

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