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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)

These letters, originally written in French, reveal the gulf between Maria Theresa, who was unwilling to abandon the Habsburgs’ traditional equation of Catholic orthodoxy with Austrian state interest, and her son Joseph, who, as an Enlightenment rationalist and admirer of Prussia’s secular-minded Frederick II, invoked the justice and practical utility of religious toleration on the part of the state. The difference of opinion revealed in these letters was not the only one in their fifteen-year co-regency, but it was certainly among the sharpest. Still, the two cooperated to a remarkable extent in successfully governing the far-flung Austrian empire.

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Joseph to Maria Theresa
June 19, 1777

[ . . . ] In politics, difference of religions in a State is an evil only insofar as there exist fanaticism, disunity, and party spirit. It disappears automatically when one treats members of all sects with perfect equality and leaves the rest to Him Who alone rules hearts.

Joseph to Maria Theresa
late June, 1777

[ . . . ] If one does not accept this method, not only will one save no more souls; on the contrary, one will lose far more useful and necessary bodies. To take only half-measures does not agree with my principles: either one must allow complete freedom of worship, or you must be able to expel from your lands everyone who does not believe the same as you and does not accept the same forms of worshipping, the same God and serving the same neighbor. But if, in order that their souls shall not be damned forever after death, one expels excellent workmen and good subjects during their lifetime, and thereby deprives oneself of all the profit that one could derive from them, what power is one arrogating to oneself thereby? Can one extend it so far as to pass judgment on Divine mercy, which will save men against their will, order their consciences? So long as the service of the State is cared for, the law of nature and society observed, Your person not dishonored but respected and revered, what business have you temporal administrators to interfere in other things? The Holy Ghost is said to illuminate hearts; your laws will never be able to do anything more than weaken its effects. Those are my views; Your Majesty knows them, and I fear that my complete conviction will make it impossible for me to change them all my life long.

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