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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 306-308

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Johann Michael Sailer: Das postume Inquisitionsverfahren. By Hubert Wolf. [Römische Inquisition und Indexkongregation, Bd. 2.] (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh. 2002. Pp. 273. €29.80.)

From the eighteenth century until Vatican Council I, several German Catholic theologians, including Sailer, attempted enthusiastically to engage the culture of the Goethezeit in an attempt to contextualize the doctrines of the Church and [End Page 306] to remain in the mainstream of German thought. Wolf's scholarly and lucid analysis of Sailer's role in this reforming movement and the accusations lodged against him is not meant to explicate Sailer's theological contributions as much as it is to plunge into church politics through the use of the records of the Congregation of the Index, which were opened in 1998.

Along with Johannes Kuhn (1860-1887), Sailer (1751-1831) was also a victim of the Vatican's attempt to consolidate power during the second half of the nineteenth century by attacking Catholic theology that did not adhere to Neo-Scholastic forms. Wolf provides a solid introduction (sixty-five pages) to outline Sailer's life and role in his theological environment as well as to delineate the process of the Inquisition. His description of the machinations of the church officials involved and the ecclesial as well as political reasons for their concern with Sailer's works provides the needed background for understanding the Latin document that forms the core of the case, which was developed by the Neo-Scholastic theologian, Constantin von Schaezler. Philipp Schäfer has provided a concluding essay examining the theological assault in 1873 against Sailer's position.

Sailer's works sought to infuse life into theology for a generation of Catholics, and, despite the attacks of some critics, he was appointed Bishop of Regensburg before he died. During his lifetime and thereafter he was reviled as a rationalist, deist, Febronian, pseudo-mystic, a friend of Protestantism, and a new Erasmus. His critics contended that he was propagating a Pelagian understanding of the Church's doctrine of grace, an erroneous Christology, and a completely unacceptable ecclesiology. During the post-Vatican I era he was accused of being the Urvater of the Old Catholic movement in Germany. Those who defended Sailer insisted that he had tried to attach Catholicism to the positive forces of the Enlightenment and attempted throughout his life to revitalize the pastoral mission of the Church.

Ultimately, John Paul II vindicated this theologian and commended him in 1982 for his dedication to the renewal of Catholic theology. How could Sailer be condemned and later commended? Wolf has carefully delineated the process used by the Inquisition by focusing on Ignatius von Senestrey, Bishop of Regensburg during the reign of Pius IX, the theologians Constantin von Schaezler and Johann Baptist Franzelin, and the Assessor of the Holy Office, Lorenzo Nina.

Sailer's case was never brought to a conclusion, since Pius IX never made a decision. Those who favored Sailer and were part of the Inquisition process, buried the documents in the file of the Congregation and so short-circuited the process. Wolf has revealed the bureaucratic channels of power and intrigue that helped create the centralized pre-Vatican II Church. He shows how processes can be accelerated, delayed, and aborted depending on the desires of the actors involved. The Pope, it seems, did not enjoy monolithic control in the nineteenth century. Wolf's work also suggests that scholars will really have a task in discovering documents that the Vatican does not want found, and this study [End Page 307] should be relevant for those who hope to bring to light the documents that can help explain the activities of Pius XII.


Donald J. Dietrich
Boston College



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