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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 263-280

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The Problem of the Middle Class in German Catholic History:
The Nineteenth-Century Rhineland Revisited

Eric Yonke*

In March of 1857, Matthias Aulike, Director of the Catholic Division in the Prussian Ministry for Church Affairs, wrote to the Catholic parliamentarian August Reichensperger:

Most of our bishops maintain that they want everything handled exclusively by the clergy and push the well-intentioned laity into the background. Every true Catholic layman recognizes his place in the Church and demands nothing beyond that which the clergy grants him. There is a middle way, however, that would spare the laity from feeling superfluous, except merely for donations, and perceive its interest as actual co-operation. 1

The immediate circumstances of this letter were both personal and political. Aulike was frustrated that the bishops in Prussia did not support his bureau. His position was on the administrative chopping block, and the entire division remained there until its end in the early Kulturkampf. As a Catholic layman and civil servant, he had hoped the bishops would work with the educated laity to improve church-state relations, but by 1857 Aulike recognized that he was a mediator where none was wanted. 2

From his social and professional vantage point, Matthias Aulike articulated a problem that has persisted into the twentieth century and ranges [End Page 263] beyond Germany: the place of the "well-intentioned laity" in the modern Catholic Church. By well-intentioned laity, Aulike meant those Catholics possessing the means and desire to support the Church, such as himself and Reichensperger, but being neither peasants nor aristocrats, belonged to a middling social group whose place was ill-defined in the Catholic world. The corporatist social ideal of the Church attempted to deny modern class society, which made the middle class an anomaly in the all-embracing "people's church" (Volkskirche). Just as many Catholic social thinkers belatedly struggled with the problem of the working class, most dismissed the middle class as an outrider of modernism, an agnostic or culturally Protestant group. Yet a small Catholic middle class did endure into the twentieth century, despite the ideological conflict between Catholics and Liberals, and continued to argue for a "middle way... that would spare the laity from feeling superfluous."

The problem of the Catholic middle class is also one of definition. Who is to be considered a member of the middle class and who a member of the Catholic community? Over the past two decades, a primary focus of German historical research has been the Bürgertum, defined either as an exclusively upper-middle class group espousing a set of cultural and civic ideals (Bürgerlichkeit) or a legally defined towndweller holding traditional privileges and rights in a German city. 3 Applying these definitions to the Catholic community, Thomas Mergel has studied the development of a liberal Catholic upper-middle class in nineteenth-century Germany, an elite whose influence lay outside institutions of the Church or the Catholic Center Party. These bourgeois Catholics kept their religion largely a private affair, while keeping active membership in their local parishes. 4

Yet the middle class can be understood as a much broader social category than the Bürgertum, one encompassing not only the wealthy elites but local artisans and retailers, the traditional Mittelstand or lower-middle class, as well. This larger group of middle-class Germans matured dramatically over the nineteenth century, combining remnants of [End Page 264] the old town patricians with the new industrialists in its upper stratum and local shopkeepers with white collar employees in its lower stratum. This definition based solely on social and economic status includes both the financially independent and the financially dependent, such as technically trained civil servants and office employees, 5 and allows us to consider as an aggregate the non-noble Catholic laity who possessed the means and the "free" time, whether modest or extravagant, to devote to the parish and the community. At the risk of being too diffuse, a definition reaching beyond the...


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