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Heretic of the week: Ignaz von Döllinger

Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1890) was one of the 19th century’s best-known Catholic historians – at least for the first part of his career. Born in Bamberg, Bavaria, to a highly intellectual family, he was drawn to the study of philosophy and history. This was in the immediate post-revolutionary era in Europe, when great minds such as Chateaubriand, von Baader and de Maistre were rediscovering the intellectual and artistic heritage of Catholicism, and making it widely available. Döllinger was caught up in the spiritual excitement of that era.

In 1822 he was ordained a priest, and four years later became a professor of history at the University of Munich, which was to prove a lifelong appointment. Ten years later he visited England and met such luminaries as Gladstone and John Henry Newman. Back in Munich, he attracted a number of English students, of whom the best known was Lord Acton. But some feared his scholarly studies detracted from his spiritual life: while a canon at Munich’s church of St Cajetan, it was noted that he read histories while his brethren chanted the hours.

A friend of the excommunicated French priest Lamennais and various other leading Catholic liberals, he visited Rome with Lord Acton in 1857, whereupon he became opposed to the Papal States and the pope’s temporal authority. When papal infallibility was defined at Vatican I, he refused to accept it and was excommunicated by the archbishop of Munich. In response, the university faculty elected him rector. The Old Catholic Churches in Germany, Switzerland and Austria – featuring bishops consecrated by the Jansenist Church in the Netherlands – asked and received advice from him in their foundation, although he refused to join and condemned their abandonment of clerical celibacy.

Döllinger did not accept the Last Rites from his local pastor, as the cleric would have required submission. Instead they were given by a priest colleague from the university.