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Suppression of Monasteries in Europe

Suppression of Monasteries in Continental Europe

Under this title will be treated only the suppressions of religious houses (whether monastic in the strict sense or houses of the mendicant orders) since the Reformation. The somewhat more general subject of state encroachments on Church property will be found treated under such titles as LAICIZATION; COMMENDATORY ABBOT; INVESTITURES, CONFLICT OF. The economic motives of state opposition to the tenure of lands by religious corporations (dating from the thirteenth century) are explained under MORTMAIN. The countries dealt with in the present article are Germany, the Iberian Peninsula, and Italy. The suppression of English monasteries is covered in its own article. (For French suppressions, see FRANCE, especially sub-title, The Third Republic and the Church in France.)

A. Germany (including all Austrian Dominions)

The confiscation of religious property following upon the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) had been for the benefit of Protestant princes only. More than a hundred monasteries and innumerable pious foundations disappeared at this time. Towards the middle of the eighteenth century a new movement tending to the destruction of monastic institutions swept over those portions of the German Empire which had remained attached to the Catholic Faith. "Josephinism", as this political and religious movement was afterwards called, taking its name from its foster-father, the Emperor Joseph II, made the Church subservient to the State. The supernatural character of the religious life was ignored; abbeys and convents could be permitted to exist only on giving proof of their material utility. A plan was formed at this period for the general secularization of monastic and other ecclesiastical property for the profit of the Catholic Governments in Germany. This was part of a general plan for a redistribution of territory. Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia had taken the initiative and had won over England and France to his idea. The opposition of Maria Theresa, of the Prince Bishop of Mainz, and of Pope Benedict XIV caused the project to fail. The Holy See kept the diplomacy of Prussia in check for some years. To counteract the action of Rome on public sentiment, the partisans of secularization encouraged in Germany the spread of those philosophical errors -- Materialism and Rationalism -- which were then gaining ground in France (see ENCYCLOPEDISTS). With this view they succeeded in withdrawing the universities from Roman influence.

Meanwhile the princes approached the task directly. The Elector Maximilian (Joseph) III (1745-77) began in Bavaria a work of destruction which was carried on by his successors down to the Elector Maximilian Joseph IV, Napoleon's ally, who became King Maximilian I of Bavaria in 1805 (d. 1825). Measures were taken first against the mendicant orders; the secular power began to meddle in the government of the monasteries, a commission being appointed by the civil authorities for that purpose. In the meantime (1773) the suppression of the Jesuits was decreed. About the year 1782 the Elector Charles Theodore (1778-99) obtained the assent of Pius VI to a project for the extinction of several religious foundations. The Elector Maximilian Joseph IV (King Maximilian I) of Bavaria completed the work of destruction, influenced by the policy of his ally, Napoleon I, and assisted by the Count of Montgelas, his chief minister. A rescript of 9 September, 1800, deprived the religious orders in Bavaria of all property rights and prohibited them to receive novices. The convents of the mendicant orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, Carmelites) and the religious houses of women were the first to fall. Then came the turn of the Canons Regular and the enedictines. The cathedral monasteries were not spared. Among the abbeys that disappeared in 1803 may be mentioned; St. Blasien of the Black Forest (the community, however, being admitted, in 1809, to the monastery of St. Paul), St. Emmeran of Ratisbon, Andechs, St. Ulrich of Augsburg, Michelsberg, Benedictbeurn, Ertal, Kempten, Metten, Oberaltaich, Ottobeurn, Scheyern, Tegernsee, Wessobrünn.

The monasteries in other parts of North Germany met with the common fate of all church property. On the left bank of the Rhine they were suppressed when that territory was annexed to France by the Peace of Luneville, 9 February, 1801. Their property was disposed of by the Diet of Ratisbon (3 March, 1801- February, 1803), the deplorable business having been negotiated in Paris with Bonaparte and Talleyrand. Besides her twenty-five ecclesiastical principalities and her eighteen universities, Catholic Germany lost all her abbeys and her religious houses for men: their property was given to Bavaria, Prussia, and Austria. As to the religious houses for women, the princes were to consult with bishops before proceeding to expel their inmates. The future reception of novices was forbidden. In the Netherlands, the Principality of Liège, and the portions of Switzerland annexed by France, the religious houses disappeared completely.

In the territories immediately subject to the House of Hapsburg, the secularization of monastic houses had begun more than thirty years before this. In pursuance of the policy with which his name has been especially associated, the Emperor Joseph II (d. 1790) forbade the teaching of theology in monasteries, even to the young religious, and also the reception of novices. Intercourse with the Holy See was placed under imperial control. It was forbidden to receive foreign religious. The civil authorities interfered in the regular discipline of communities. Commendatory abbots were appointed. Monasteries were deprived of the parishes belonging to them. Superiors had to account to the emperor's representatives for the disposition of their incomes. Theological works printed outside the Empire could not be used. -- Such were the principal lines of action of this administration, of which Kaunitz was the minister. All this, however, was but the prelude to a decree of suppression which was issued on 17 March, 1783.

This decree applied to all monasteries, whether of women or of men, judged useless by the standards of Josephinism; their revenues were taken to increase the salaries of the secular priests or for pious establishments useful to religion and humanity. The dioceses of the Low Countries (then subject to the House of Hapsburg) lost one hundred and sixty-eight convents, abbeys, or priories. In all, 738 religious houses were suppressed in the Empire during the reign of Joseph II.

In anticipation of this disaster, Pius VI had conferred on the bishops extensive privileges. They had power to dispense expelled religious, both men and women, from wearing their habit, and, in case of necessity, to dispense them from the simple vows. They were to secure for them a pension -- but, as this was generally insufficient, many were reduced to poverty. The Government transformed the monasteries into hospitals, colleges, or barracks. The victims of the persecution remained faithful to their religious obligations. Their ordinaries took great care of them. Cardinal de Frankenberg, Archbishop of Mechlin, affording a particularly bright example in this respect. The Abbey of Melk (q.v.) was spared; some of the suppressed houses were even affiliated to it; but on the death of Abbot Urban I (1783), the emperor placed over the monks a religious of the Pious Schools as commendatory abbot. The monasteries of Styria were soon closed, though some houses -- e.g., Kremsmunster, Lambach, Admont -- escaped the devastation. All those in Carinthia and the Tyrol were sacrificed. The religious in Bohemia had not yet recovered from the ravages caused by the wars of Frederick II and Maria Theresa, when they had to encounter this fresh tempest. Breunau, Emmaus of Prague, and Raigern, with a few monasteries of Cistercians and Premonstratensians, escaped complete ruin. The emperor showed no consideration toward the venerable Abbey of St. Martin of Pannonia and its dependencies. In Hungary the Benedictines were entirely wiped out.

The death of Joseph II put an end to this violence, without, however, stopping the spread of those opinions which had incited it. His brother, Leopold II (d. 1792) allowed things to remain as he found them, but Francis II (Francis I of Austria, son of Leopold II) undertook to repair some of the ruin, permitting religious to pronounce solemn vows at the age of twenty-one. The Hungarian Abbey of St. Martin of Pannonia was the first to profit by this benevolence, but its monks had to open the gymnasia in it and its dependencies. The monasteries of the Tyrol and Salzburg had escaped the ruin. These countries were attached to Austria by the Congress of Vienna (September, 1814 -- June, 1815). The monks were allowed to reenter. The celebrated Abbey of Reichenau alone did not arise from its ruins. The princely Abbey of St. Gall, too, had been dissolved during the Wars of the Revolution and the Empire, and there was a proposal, at the Congrss of Vienna, to re-establish it, but without giving it back its lands: the abbot would not accept the conditions thus imposed, and the matter went no further. The Swiss monasteries were exposed to pillage and ruin during the wars of the Revolution. The Government of the Helvetian Republic was hostile to them, they recovered a little liberty after the Act of Mediation, in 1803. But the situation changed after 1832. The Federal Constitution, revised at that time, suppressed the guarantees granted to convents and religious foundations. During the long period of persecution and confiscation in Switzerland, from 1838 to 1848 (for which see LUCERNE), the monks of Mariastein sought refuge in Germany, and then in France and Austria; those of Mury were sheltered at Griess (Tyrol), others like Disentis, fell into utter ruin. The Swiss Benedictines then went to the United States, where they founded the Swiss-American congregation.

B. The Iberian Peninsula

The constitution of 1812 given to the Kingdom of Spain by the government which Napoleon imposed on it suppressed all religious congregations and confiscated their property, in accordance with the conqueror's general policy. They were re-established in 1814 by King Ferdinand, whom the War of Independence had restored to the throne. Their existence was again threatened by the Revolution of 1820, when the Cortes decreed the suppression of the religious orders, leaving only a few houses to shelter the aged and infirm. It must be said that, in this case, the effect of the generally anti-religious principles actuating the revolutionists was reinforced by the impoverishment of the nation by the Napoleonic wars, by the revolt of its American colonies, and by changed economic conditions. Ferdinand III, who was restored to the throne by the French Army, hastened to annul the decrees of the cortes (1823). The monasteries and their property were given back to the religious, who were enabled once more to live in community. But in October, 1835, a decree of the government, inspired by Juan de Mendizabal, minister of finance, again suppressed all the monasteries in Spain and its possessions. The Cortes, which had not been consulted, approved of this measure next year, and promulgated a law abolishing vows of religion. All the movable and immovable property was confiscated and the income assigned to the sinking fund. Objects of art and books were, in general, reserved for the museums and public libraries, though many of them were left untouched, and many others dispersed. Large quantities of furniture and other objects were sold, the lands and rights of each house alienated, while speculators realized large fortunes. Certain monasteries were transformed into barracks or devoted to public purposes. Others were sold or abandoned to pillage.

In 1859 the Government gave to the bishops those religious houses which had not already been disposed of. Numerous conventual churches were turned over for parish use. The religious were promised a pension not to exceed one franc a day, but it was never paid. No mercy was shown even to the aged and the infirm, who were not allowed to wait for death in their cells. Almost all hoped for an approaching political change that would restore them their religious liberty, as had happened twice before, but the event proved otherwise. The destruction was irrevocable, some religious sought a refuge in Italy and in France. The greater number either petitioned the bishops to incorporate them in their dioceses or went to live with their families. The people of the Northern provinces, who are very devoted to Catholicism, did not associate themselves directly with the measures taken against the religious; so much cannot be said for those of the South and of the large towns, where the expulsion of religious sometimes took the appearance of a popular insurrection: convents were pillaged and burned, religious were massacred. Monasteries of women were treated less inhumanly: here the authorities contented themselves with confiscating property and suppressing privileges; but the nuns continued to live in community. With time the passion and hatred of the persecutors diminished somewhat. The monks of the abbey of Montserrat in Catalonia were able to come together again. The religious orders which supplied the clergy for the Spanish colonies, such as the Dominicans, Augustinians, and Franciscans, were authorized to retain some houses.

The monasteries in Portugal met the same fate as those in Spain, and at about the same time (1833). Only the Franciscans charged with religious duties in the Portuguese colonies were spared.

C. Italy

During the eighteenth century, while Josephinism was rampant in Catholic Germany, Leopold, afterwards the Emperor Leopold II, tried to emulate in some degree the emperor's anti-monastic policy. But the general persecution of religious orders in Italy did not begin until the wars of the Revolution and the Empire had effected a complete transformation in that country. France inspired with her anti-religious tendencies the new governments established by Napoleon, Church property was confiscated; monasteries and convents were suppressed, though congregations devoted to the care of the sick and to the instruction of poor children were tolerated here and there as, for instance, in the Kingdom of Italy, founded in 1805. The repressive measures could not be enforced in all localities with equal severity. Napoleon extended them to the city of Rome in 1810. At Naples the authorities proceeded to suppress all the orders and confiscate their property (1806-13). When the Congress of Vienna restored these states to their exiled rulers, the latter hastened to make the Church free once more. In Tuscany the duke made a grant to the monasteries, in exchange for the lands that they had lost. In the Pontifical States things reverted to the ancient order: 1824 houses for men and 612 for women were re-established. In Naples the religious had diminished by at least one-half.

The period of peace, however, was not destined to endure: the establishment of Italian unity was fatal to the religious orders. The persecution was resumed in the constitutional Kingdom of Sardinia, which was about to become the agent and the type of united Italy. Cavour imposed this anti-religious policy on King Victor Emmanuel. He proposed first to secularize the monastic property: the money thus obtained was to serve as a church fund to equalize the payment of he diocesan clergy. The king finally gave his sanction to a law which suppressed, in his own states alone, 334 convents and monasteries, containing 4280 religious men and 1200 nuns. This ruin and depredation proceeded uniformly with the cause of Italian unity, since the Piedmontese constitution and legislation were imposed on the whole peninsula. The religious orders and benefices not charged with cures of souls were declared useless, and suppressed; the buildings and lands were confiscated and sold (1866). The Government paid allowances to the surviving religious. In some abbeys -- as at Monte Cassino -- the members of the community were allowed to remain as care-takers. The Papal States were subjected to the same policy after 1870. The Italian authorities contented themselves with depriving the religious of their legal existence and all they possessed, without raising any obstacles to a possible reconstruction of regular communities. A certain number of monasteries have thus been able to exist and carry on their work, owing solely to the guarantee of individual liberty; their existence is precarious, and an arbitrary measure of the Government might at any time suppress them. After the general dissolution, some Italian religious -- for instance, the Olivetans and the Canons Regular of St. John Lateran -- crossed the Alps and established houses of their respective orders in France.


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