Johannes Ronge (1813-1887) was founder successively of the “New” or “German” Catholics, and of several “Free Thought” groups.
Born during the Napoleonic Wars at Bischofswalde, Prussia (now Biskupów, Poland), Ronge grew up during a period of intellectual and cultural ferment. Ordained in 1840, within a year he published an article attacking the primacy of the pope over local churches, leading to his suspension from the priesthood in 1843.
As it happened, the accession of a new, pro-Catholic king to the Prussian throne allowed the bishop of Trier to revive a custom the following year that had been disused since 1810 – the display and pilgrimage around the Holy Coat of Christ in that city. Ronge wrote a blistering attack on the whole thing, denouncing it as rank superstition – for which he was excommunicated.
In 1845, he gathered with 8,000 like-minded souls from north-eastern Germany to establish a new faith. This “German” or “New” Catholicism did away with five of the seven sacraments: Latin, prayer for the dead, priestly celibacy, oral confession and required belief in the Divinity of Christ.
For the next three years, he tried to organise his followers, with little success. The revolutionary year of 1848 saw him join political as well as religious revolts, and he fled to London when these failed. Once in England, he married Bertha Meyer, a pioneer in kindergarten education.
After his amnesty and return to Prussia in 1861, he continually attempted, again with little success, to forge a Church out of Catholics, Protestants and even advanced Jewish congregations. His work was further obscured by the emergence of the Old Catholic movement after 1870. His political views were of little interest to the religiously inclined, but his religious beliefs did not interest his political friends – a not uncommon dilemma for self-proclaimed “reformers”.