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Exchange of Letters between Empress Maria Theresa and her Son Joseph II, Austrian Co-Regent, on the Subject of Religious Toleration (1777)

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Maria Theresa to Joseph
July 5, 1777

This letter will reach you in Switzerland; those people do not appreciate the value of your presence. An asylum for all debauchees and criminals, it also shelters some of our women, whom you will not, I hope, see. They were shameless enough to try to arrange this, and to my great grief I have to say that there would be nothing more to corrupt in respect of religion if you intend to insist on that general toleration of which you maintain that it is a principle from which you will never depart. I hope it all the same, and I will not cease from praying myself, and causing those who are worthier than myself to pray, that God may protect you from this misfortune, the greatest which would ever have descended on the Monarchy. In the belief of having workers, keeping them, even attracting them, you will ruin your State and be guilty of the destruction of so many souls. What would it profit you to possess the true religion, when you appreciate it and love it so little, when you care so little to preserve and propagate it? I do not observe such indifference among the Protestants; I wish, on the contrary, that one might imitate them, since no [Protestant] State allows such indifference in itself. You will see this in that ugly Switzerland; there they watch and experiment daily with what is allowed in the German Empire, in England, Saxony, Baden, Holland, etc., with the exception of Prussia, but is the country the happier for it? Does it possess those workers, those people who are so necessary to make the State flourish? There are no lands less happy, none more backward in this respect than those provinces. One needs good faith and immutable rules; where will you find them or keep them?

Joseph to Maria Theresa
July 20, 1777

In answer to your long and gracious letter, you must permit me to tell you that the picture and conclusions which Your Majesty draws from what I ventured to write to you about the Protestants who were unmasked in Moravia so astounded and moved me that I cannot at this moment at all recollect whether anything of the sort escaped from my pen in error, whereas I am very far from thinking so. Fortunately, the word “toleration,” which you were good enough to repeat to me, dispelled my doubts and transformed my whole fear into a tender and lively gratitude for the truly moving, heroic, manly, and powerful goodness with which you revealed to me the conclusions you draw from it. But it is only the word “toleration” which has caused the misunderstanding. You have taken it in quite a different meaning. God preserve me from thinking it a matter of indifference whether the citizens turn Protestant or remain Catholic, still less, whether they cleave to, or at least observe, the cult which they have inherited from their fathers! I would give all I possess if all the Protestants of your States would go over to Catholicism.

The word “toleration,” as I understand it, means only that I would employ any persons, without distinction of religion, in purely temporal matters, allow them to own property, practice trades, be citizens, if they were qualified and if this would be of advantage to the State and its industry. Those who, unfortunately, adhere to a false faith, are far further from being converted if they remain in their own country than if they migrate into another, in which they can hear and see the convincing truths of the Catholic faith. Similarly, the undisturbed practice of their religion makes them far better subjects and causes them to avoid irreligion, which is a far greater danger to our Catholics than if one lets them see others practice their religion unimpeded. If the Protestants do not generally adopt this method in their States, this is because their governments lack the clarity and perceptiveness of ours, and because it is harder for Republicans to undertake such changes. Finally, if I had the leisure that a letter does not allow, I should be able to prove that, as I see the question, I could stand on my view before the awful judgment seat which will pronounce on my eternal destiny. Certainly no one would then turn Lutheran or Calvinist; there would be fewer unbelievers in all religions, the State would profit greatly thereby, and I cannot believe that all this together would make me appear guilty in the eyes of God. To me, at least, this would seem hardly compatible either with His all power, or with the office which He has conferred on me, in making me the servant of fifteen million human beings.

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