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The Plight of the Old Faith – Peter Canisius, SJ, to Giovanni Cardinal Morone (1576)

By the mid-1570s, the Catholic Church had lost vast sectors of the Empire: more than a dozen dioceses, including the archbishoprics of Magdeburg and Bremen, as well as hundreds of abbeys and convents. In the entire north, not one ruling dynasty had remained loyal to the old faith. Meanwhile, more than a decade after the Council of Trent, the Catholic bishops had yet to produce a general program for implementing a reform of themselves and their churches.

In 1576, the Dutch Jesuit Peter Canisius (Kanys, 1521-97) sent Rome his assessment of “means for helping Germany in its present state.” His correspondent was Giovanni Cardinal Morone (1509-80), president of the German congregation that oversaw reform efforts in the Empire and Rome’s leading expert on German affairs. Canisius’ report is above all a grim indictment of the German Catholic prelates of his day. It commanded notice, however, because it was composed by a man who, as a Jesuit and a Netherlander, had no personal stake in existing conditions in the German lands, but who had intimate knowledge of the situation in Rome with regard to the German College, the German Congregation, and papal policy. Lastly, Canisius’s report shows that in 1576, a half-century after the German Peasants’ War, Rome was still receiving realistic assessments of the situation from trustworthy informants.

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Some means by which Germany can be helped today.

Among the abuses which now flourish in Germany in the wake of Luther’s pernicious “gospel,” not least are those that reduce day by day the number of Catholics. These are, chiefly, complete ignorance of the faith and ignorance of and contempt for the Church. Furthermore, not only is the life of the laity ruined, but also that of the whole clergy and, above all, the prelates and the religious orders. These abuses, together with heresy, destroy what is left of the Church like a “boar out of the forest” [Ps. 79:14], so that absent opportune countermeasures, it will be impossible either to rescue the Catholics from apostasy or win back the heretics.

What makes these evils nearly incurable is that the clergy high and low refuse to recognize the Roman church as mother and head of all churches, the admonitions and teachings of which they will not heed. If the entire community would listen to the Roman church, as it should, and if everything were ordered according to its behest, then surely the walls of Jericho would collapse and victory for Israel be won. These injuries, to be sure, have grown like a cancer, so that countermeasures will apparently no longer be tolerated. Yet we must continue to seek the means by which such numerous and great abuses can be overcome and [we must] deploy them, so that the tares will be uprooted, and the fruit will flourish and be borne in abundance into the barns of the Lord [Matt. 13:24-30]. Of such countermeasures I will very briefly mention a few which can perhaps be introduced sooner, because they are easier, but they will nonetheless once again produce great fruit.

1. The first means and the readiest at hand – as Our Holy Father has already shown – is to supply German youth with a good education in various kinds of seminaries, which he is wisely building at his own expense. To be sure, the existing German College at Rome is already contributing greatly to this goal. Yet because the costs are higher there, and many, who can’t tolerate the climate, fall ill again and again, and because of other disadvantages, it seems more advisable to keep only a small number of Germans at Rome and to erect several seminaries in Germany itself. In this way, more students can be supported; it will be easier to form them in the truly Christian way of life; they will make faster progress in their studies; and the Apostolic See will become better known and more honored. From such seminaries, surely, will emerge not only scholars but also young men who have been tested in every way. Through such means, ignorance will disappear, along with the desire for material advantage and immorality, plus all of the other evils they produce. Once this is accomplished, what can we not expect for Germany! The unexpected beginnings of the seminary at Vienna are a good example of what can be done.

2. The second remedy is that the Holy Father continues to negotiate with the German bishops for the establishment of such seminaries until they finally take the matter in hand. If the prelates cannot or will not construct entire seminaries, then each should at the very least pay for eight, ten, or more students at one of the papal seminaries. In addition to learning about scholastic theology and current controversial questions, these students should especially hear lectures on matters of the conscience, for this is the area of greatest ignorance. One should also have particular concern for the way of life and see that alcoholism, a root of many outrages in Germany, is eliminated. For what a tragedy it usually is when an inferior way of life has the guise of learning!

3. Another remedy is to restore the monasteries to their earlier condition and reform them, for they bring forth much good when they are in good order and produce many abuses when they are in disorder. This will be, especially given the current state of affairs, extremely costly work. One could start in a province in Germany to which virtuous monks have been sent from elsewhere with the consent of secular princes. Moreover, it would be entirely appropriate if one not only gave the seminarians the opportunity to enter a religious order but also urged them to do so. Because they come from the seminary well mannered and well trained, and they could easily reform the monastery they entered over the course of time, if not immediately. The apparent effectiveness of this measure is confirmed by experience.

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