Reformist bishops – the forerunners of the Enlightenment

Patent abolishing serfdom (1)

Patent abolishing serfdom (2)

Patent abolishing serfdom (3)

Patent abolishing serfdom (4)

Porcelain plate with a portrait of Prince Wenzel von Kaunitz

In Austria, reformist bishops were the conduit through which Enlightenment ideas were disseminated, paving the way for Joseph II’s reforms.

Patent abolishing serfdom (1)

Patent abolishing serfdom (2)

Patent abolishing serfdom (3)

Patent abolishing serfdom (4)

Porcelain plate with a portrait of Prince Wenzel von Kaunitz

In the eighteenth century the reformist bishops in Austria were part of the Jansenist tradition. This movement had arisen 200 years earlier in Belgium and reached Austria from France via Italy. As a movement within the Church the Jansenists were informed by the ideals of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. They believed in particular that human beings should be liberated from subjection to heteronomous constraints and that prevailing conditions should be examined critically – everything, naturally, in the service of the State. For example, the reformist bishops criticized in particular the authorities within the Catholic Church and the primacy of the Jesuits. Their aim was to reorganize the Church on centralist principles. Maria Theresa’s State Chancellor, Prince Wenzel von Kaunitz , who supported Jansenist ideas, worked out a scheme for overcoming the extravagances of Baroque Catholicism.

Kaunitz demonstrated his plans for a state Church with the abolition of small religious foundations before the Joseph II’s ‘storm’ on the monasteries began in 1782. Church and clergy were to be made subordinate to the state. Equally the study of theology was to be reformed. In 1773 the Jesuit Order was abolished in the Habsburg Monarchy. Under Maria Theresa the idea of tolerating non-Catholic denominations began to gain acceptance, and during the reign of Joseph II corresponding reforms were duly implemented: the ‘Tolerance Patent’, the abolition of serfdom in 1781, and the abolition of the Jesuit Order in 1773 were all clearly indebted to the influence of the enlightened reformist bishops.

Anita Winkler