By Christopher Zehnder

What follows comes from my book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. For more information on this book, please visit the site of the Catholic Textbook Project.


Clemens August von Droste-Vischering

It was silent night, November 20, 1837. By order of the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, troops surrounded the archiepiscopal palace in Köln, on the lower Rhine in Germany. Escorted by police, the governor of the province entered the palace and arrested the 64-year-old archbishop, Clemens August von Droste-Vischering. After being taken from his diocese, the archbishop was imprisoned at the fortress of Minden, about 147 miles northeast of Köln. Such was the price Clemens August had to pay for defending the rights of the Church against the Prussian government.

Archbishop Droste-Vischering had insisted that children of mixed marriages (between Catholics and Protestants) had to be raised Catholic. The Prussians, who had taken control of the very Catholic Rhineland in 1815, insisted that in such marriages some children had to be raised Catholic and others, Protestant. This had been the custom in Prussia. The Catholic Church in the Rhineland, said the Prussians, also had to go along with this custom. But, no matter how long-standing the custom was, it violated the law of the Catholic Church—and in a contest between the king and the Church, Archbishop Droste-Vischering knew whom he had to obey.

The imprisonment of Archbishop Droste-Vischering was an inspiration to many German Catholics. It even influenced one young nobleman to change his career plans. The 26-year-old Baron Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler had been preparing to enter the service of the Prussian government; but with the archbishop’s arrest and imprisonment, Ketteler decided he could not serve a government that committed such injustices. Instead, he ended up studying theology; and in 1844, he was ordained a priest.

The German National Assembly (Frankfurt Diet), meeting in Frankfurt-am-Main, 1848

Priest though he was, Ketteler did not stand aside from any of the great events of his time. In 1848, while serving as rector of the parish of Hopsten in Westphalia, he was elected as the local representative to the Liberal Frankfurt Diet. Though not a Liberal himself, Ketteler was able to respect the truths that were mixed up with the errors in Liberalism. “I love the age in which we live for its mighty wrestling, however far it is from attaining [its sublime ideals],” he said in 1848. For Ketteler, there was only one means of realizing these sublime ideals—“by returning to him who brought them into the world, to the Son of God, Jesus Christ.”

Ketteler was a great lover of liberty—of true liberty. Inspired by Droste-Vischering, he would spend his life fighting for the right of the Catholic Church to be free of state control. Ketteler believed the Catholic Church possessed the truth that prepared men and women not only for eternal life but also for a fully human life in this world. To preach this truth to the world, the Church had to be free. When in 1850 Pope Pius IX named him bishop of Mainz, Ketteler did everything he could to strengthen the autonomy of his diocese and to organize the German bishops so that they could put up a united front against the attempts of kings and princes to rob them of their independence.

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Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, in 1865

History, however, remembers Bishop Ketteler not primarily for standing up against governments, but for his contributions to the social teaching of the Catholic Church. … The Church’s social doctrine is her answer to the social question—or to all the questions that arise about how we ought to behave toward one another in society. Nineteenth-century Catholics had seen that they could not ignore the challenges offered by Liberalism, capitalism, socialism, Communism, and anarchism. The Church had to provide solutions to the serious problems troubling men. She had to look into her tradition for the truths that could shed light on the serious crises of the time.

Bishop Ketteler, like many Catholics of his time, particularly in France and Germany, delved deeply into Catholic tradition and theology for answers to the social question. It was in St. Thomas Aquinas’s teachings on the nature of man, human society, and the state that he discovered the principles or ideas that he thought could direct men toward the right solutions to the problems they faced.

Drawing from Catholic tradition, Ketteler clearly saw that all the evils of his age could be traced back to one source—sin. Sin, he said, makes the rich man ignore the plight of his poor brothers. Sin, according to Ketteler, made men foolish enough to look to Communism “for salvation, though it is so evident that it would drag all humanity down to its ruin.” Only sin, thought the bishop of Mainz, could explain the evils of the world.

‘Economic Liberalism,’ said Ketteler, ‘Not only degenerated labor to the level of a commodity, but looked on man himself with his capacity for work simply as a machine bought as cheaply as possible and driven until it will go no more.’

But Ketteler knew that to combat and overcome these evils, something more was needed than simply acknowledging the existence of sin. First and foremost, class divisions had to be overcome by Christian charity. “We joyfully confess that every dock-hand, every day laborer, every peasant is of as much moment to us as any prince or king, and that we place human dignity far above all class distinctions,” said Ketteler. “We feel nothing but pity for those who esteem the wealthy manufacturer higher than the poor farmhand.”

Ketteler understood that both the defenders of laissez-faire capitalism and the socialists had fallen into dangerous errors. The capitalists, he acknowledged, were correct in defending the right to private property; and the socialists were wrong in attacking it. Yet, socialists and Communists, Ketteler found, were not entirely wrong, either. Ketteler discovered that Catholic tradition taught the right to private property while insisting that whatever we own is finally just on loan to us from God. No man, says Catholic tradition, has the right to do whatever he wants with his property; for a man’s property is finally God’s property. Further, God gives men property to take care of not only their own needs, but the needs of others as well. According to St. Thomas, said Ketteler, every man should look upon his property as not only his own, “but as the common property of all, and should therefore be ready to share [it] with others in their need.”

Bishop Ketteler condemned laissez-faire capitalism as well as Communism. By saying men have the absolute right to use their property as they see fit, laissez-faire denies the lordship of God and the brotherhood of mankind. If in using his own property every man is to seek only what benefits himself, people will tend to treat others not as human beings, but as less worthy of honor than beasts. Economic Liberalism, said Ketteler, “Not only degenerated labor to the level of a commodity, but looked on man himself with his capacity for work simply as a machine bought as cheaply as possible and driven until it will go no more.”

Though Ketteler insisted that Europe had to return to Christ in order to bridge the gap between rich and poor, he offered more than just spiritual solutions for the problems of his day. Ketteler believed strongly that workers had to be part of any solution to improve their condition, and so he favored the establishment of associations, or unions, where laborers could cooperate not only in bringing aid to one another but in achieving higher wages, safer working conditions, and other advantages. At first, Ketteler hoped that Christian capitalists would provide the funds to help workers establish such unions or cooperatives, for he feared giving governments too much power. But as it became clearer that even Christian capitalists had little concern for the lot of the workers, Ketteler came to think that the state would have to be involved in the struggle for justice.

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Bishop Ketteler’s coat of arms

By 1869, Ketteler had developed his program for society. The Church, he said, had a right to speak about economic and political affairs because they involved morality—and the Church is mankind’s guide to the moral life. Indeed, he thought some priests in every diocese should undertake studies in economics to address the problems of the day from knowledge instead of ignorance. The state, he said, needed to recognize cooperative organizations of workers. It needed to pass laws to prohibit child factory labor, limit the working hours of youth and adults, and assure that Sunday would be a day of rest for all. In addition, Ketteler said the government should inspect factories and close dangerous and unsanitary workshops. The government had to be involved, as well, in making sure workers were paid just wages and that they received support if they were injured and unable to work.

Ketteler favored higher wages for workers in part because, by them, men could support their families without girls and mothers having to work. Ketteler thought all women should be freed from factory labor—especially if they were mothers. “Religion,” he said, “wants the mother to pass the day at home in order that she may fulfill her high and holy mission towards her husband and her children.” If mothers are forced to work, he said, “there can be no question of a Christian family.”

‘Religion wants the mother to pass the day at home in order that she may fulfill her high and holy mission towards her husband and her children.’ If mothers are forced to work, he said, ‘there can be no question of a Christian family.’

Bishop Ketteler encouraged practical private measures to help the poor workers of his day—for instance, homes for servant girls, associations for journeymen workers (which developed into Christian labor unions), and loan and credit banks for the working class. Many such measures he funded himself from his personal fortune; others were begun by others with his urging and encouragement.

By his love for the poor and his zeal for justice, Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler developed the most complete Catholic response of his day to the problems of industrialism and Liberal capitalism. His ideas became very influential in the Church. They eventually served as the basis of what would become known as the Social Teaching of the Church.