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Johannes von Geissel

Johannes von Geissel (1796-1864), Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne, became the undisputed leader of the Catholic Church in Germany during the 1848 revolution. The eldest son of a vintner in the Rhineland-Palatinate, Geissel was educated in Mainz and then ordained a priest in 1818. He moved rapidly up the church hierarchy in Bavaria during the Vormärz. At age twenty-six in 1821, Geissel was appointed canon of the cathedral chapter in Speyer; in 1837, bishop of Speyer. He became archbishop of Cologne in 1845, after serving three years as the apostolic administrator there. The Bavarian crown had recommended Geissel to Prussia in 1841 to fill the vacancy in Cologne, and thus resolve a five-year conflict between Cologne, Berlin and Rome, known as the "Cologne Incident" (or Cologne Troubles, Kölner Wirren). Despite his humble origins, Geissel enjoyed excellent personal relationships with conservative Catholic officials in Bavaria, as well as with the Bavarian and Prussian royal houses.

Geissel was a prominent figure in the early ultramontane movement. Ultramontanism sought to promote greater centralization of power in the church hierarchy, strict clerical discipline, the revival of Thomistic theology, and mass demonstrations of popular piety. As a proponent of ultramontanism, Geissel openly opposed Josephinist state bureaucracies while remaining a staunch defender of monarchic rule. He was also a frequent contributor to Der Katholik, the journal that helped establish Mainz as the center of ultramontanism in the Vormärz. In Cologne, Geissel proved to be an energetic reformer; disciplining the clergy, persecuting advocates of enlightened theology (Hermesianism) at Bonn University, introducing Jesuit spiritual exercises into the priestly regimen, and reforming seminary education. He helped create associations to promote piety and charity among the laity. Most notably, Geissel brought Father Adolph Kolping to Cologne to establish the Catholic Journeymen's Association. Although generally unpopular with the older generations of lower clergy, Geissel had made Cologne the center of a Catholic renewal.

The 1848 revolution proved a boon for Geissel and the ultramontane movement, despite a "clerical fronde" in his own archdiocese. Geissel led efforts to shape the Catholic response to the changing social and political order. True to the ultramontane cause in 1848, Geissel determined to "free the church from the state's authority by means of the parliamentary system." He was elected to the Prussian national assembly along with five priests of the archdiocese. In Berlin, however, Geissel attended the constituent assembly only occasionally, never addressing the body which he described as "too sickeningly boring." Geissel's influence was outside the assembly halls. He and the parliamentarian Peter Reichensperger gathered Catholic representatives to help form the nucleus of the future Catholic fraction in Berlin, and, even though he was not a representative in Frankfurt, Geissel helped organize representatives there to create a Catholic club under the direction of General Joseph Maria von Radowitz.

Geissel's crowning achievement in 1848 was the conference of German bishops that met in Würzburg from October 23 to November 26, which he initiated and chaired. Earlier in the year, he invited his suffragan bishops to Cologne for a meeting at which he defined the ultramontanists' goals in 1848: freedom of the church from the state; oversight and control of elementary schools; and establishment of a separate government ministry for Catholic affairs. In Würzburg, the twenty-six bishops recommended to all German states that the church be granted uninhibited administrative authority and the right to found schools. Although the German bishops did not adopt the entire ultramontane agenda, they looked to Geissel for the future direction of German Catholicism.

In 1848/49, Geissel ushered in what church historians call the period of "ultramontane victory." Geissel persecuted the enemies of the movement, thwarted progressive and liberal reform efforts within the church, and harnessed the popular religious revival to the ultramontane cause. The "clerical fronde" of 1848 was a legitimate attempt by the archdiocesan clergy to hold a synod according to the directives of the Council of Trent. Geissel saw in it only the machinations of his opponents, whom he condemned universally as Hermesians. In 1850, Geissel was rewarded for his efforts when Pope Pius IX elevated him to cardinal. Until his death in 1864, Geissel worked to consolidate the ultramontane movement, and to use the newly gained freedoms of the Prussian constitution to promote the Catholic revival. It was Geissel's reign, particularly his successful leadership during the 1848 Revolution, that helped make ultramontanism and Catholicism nearly synonymous.

Eric Yonke


Eduard Hegel, Das Erzbistum Köln zwischen der Restauration des 19. Jahrhunderts und der Restauration des 20. Jahrhunderts (1815-1962) Vol. V Geschichte des Erzbistums Köln (Cologne: Bachem, 1987).

Otto Pfülf, Cardinal von Geissel: Aus seinem handschriftlichen Nachlass geschildert, 2 vols. (Freiburg i.B.: Herder, 1895-6).

Jonathan Sperber, Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Princeton NJ: Princeton U.P., 1984).

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