With a career spanning five decades, Peter Canisius (1521–97) was instrumental in the protection of Catholicism in the Holy Roman Empire. In 1583, Canisius observed in a letter to Claudio Acquaviva that ‘most Germans are by nature straightforward, simple and good-natured, born and educated in the heresy of Lutheranism, they imbibe what they have learned partly in school, partly in church and partly in heretical writings, and that is why they have gone astray’.1 To save the erring from damnation, Canisius centred his career on the education of German society. This article examines the nature of the education that he promoted. The first part focuses on Canisius's German-language catechisms, while the second explores his response to the Index of Prohibited Books. The overall impression given by his activities and literary works is that Canisius fought to establish an educational programme influenced by, and designed for, German Catholics, as opposed to implementing the universal Catholicism advocated by the Council of Trent. The outcome was that he promoted an inclusive approach to religion for those identifying as Catholics, while remaining utterly opposed to Protestants.
Education was a crucial method by which the minds of the laity could be shaped. Attitudes towards education began to change in the early sixteenth century, when it came to be seen as vital for the formation of well-rounded, pious Christians.2 Pedagogical techniques developed and, in particular, catechisms for children grew in popularity, featuring prominently on curricula across the empire. Indeed, in 1516 Erasmus commented that ‘nothing makes so deep and indelible a mark as that which is impressed in those first years’.3 The drive to influence the minds of children coincided with growing efforts to teach the laity as a whole, and Canisius was but one of the many pedagogues of early modern Germany. Significant figures include Martin Luther, whose catechisms influenced the content and structure of other catechetical texts, as well as his colleague and friend, Philip Melanchthon, who formulated the Augsburg Confession of 1530 and whose educational efforts in schools and universities earned him the name ‘teacher of Germany’.4 Canisius shared similar pedagogical ambitions with these Lutheran educators: each sought to teach the tenets of Christian doctrine to the German laity, as well as the clergy, in an accessible and simple format.
Modern scholarship views Canisius in two opposing ways. The first stems from a nineteenth-century interpretation of Canisius, viewing him as a man ahead of his time with regard to ecumenical dialogue.5 Julius Oswald argues that Canisius engaged with Protestants in a ‘friendly manner’, and tried to ‘settle theological differences objectively’.6 Similarly, Rita Haub argues that Canisius relied on ‘objectivity, gentleness and understanding’, and suggests, in particular, that his catechisms were not polemical.7 In contrast, Hilmar Pabel views Canisius as a ‘typical Catholic controversialist’ who was ‘disposed to display hostility, more than good will to Protestants’ and argues persuasively that to see Canisius as ecumenical in his dealings with Protestants ‘distorts historical vision’.8 Indeed, it is evident from his wider literary career that Canisius was not gentle towards Protestants. Therefore, rather than focusing on his treatment of Protestants, this article examines his attitude towards his fellow Catholics, arguing that he adopted an inclusive pedagogical approach to those Catholics living on the fringes of orthodoxy. This did not extend to non-Catholics, but it permitted those who identified as Catholics to remain as such. In part, this was because Canisius had to engage with the political objectives of the emperor and the Bavarian dukes, particularly Duke Albrecht V (r.1550–79). Though Catholic, these rulers were influenced by political considerations in their dealings with Protestants and the Roman Curia, leading to the implementation of policies designed to minimize confessional tensions. Furthermore, Canisius recognized the realities of being a Catholic in a time of religious heterogeneity, leading him to adopt a policy of inclusion regarding wavering Catholics in his German catechisms and his interactions with the laity. This is not to imply that Canisius was an ‘ecumenicist before his time’, as Pabel accuses modern historians of suggesting, but to suggest that Canisius promoted a brand of Catholic orthodoxy to ordinary Germans that was influenced by the political and religious climate of Germany.9
In acknowledging Canisius's agenda, this article suggests that there was a difference between the developing Tridentine Catholicism and the Catholicism that was emerging in sixteenth-century Germany. It contributes to discourse on the nature of Jesuit political thought, as well as the development of German confessionalism in the sixteenth century, and enhances our understanding of early modern German education.10 It engages with R. J. W. Evans's interpretation of ‘aulic Catholicism’: a form of Catholic doctrine and practice which developed at a pace set by the Austrian authorities, rather than by Rome.11 Moreover, aspects of Canisius's pedagogical approach resonate with Howard Louthan's examination of the imperial court in the later sixteenth century, at which Viennese peacemakers searched for compromise between opposing confessions.12 By viewing Canisius's catechetical activities in the light of these broader themes, his attitude towards education can be better understood.
Born in Nijmegen in 1521, Canisius rejected his father's ambition for him to study law and get married, instead electing to join the Society of Jesus in 1543. Founded by Ignatius Loyola in 1540, the society's purpose was to strengthen Catholicism across Europe and beyond.13 After a series of wars and political setbacks, Emperor Charles V had lost his fight to prevent the spread of Lutheranism, and the Peace of Augsburg confirmed its legal status in the empire in 1555. This development was not welcomed by Catholics, with Canisius informing Cardinal Truchess in January 1556 that, in Austria and Bavaria, many people continued to ‘pester and attack rulers’ to adopt the ‘Confession, or rather, Confusion of Augsburg’.14 The peace made the containment of Lutheranism a far harder task for the Catholics and in despair Charles abdicated, leaving his brother Ferdinand to succeed as emperor. Unfortunately, the pope did not recognize Ferdinand's succession because Charles had not asked for permission to abdicate.15 This slight to Ferdinand's pride caused Canisius to worry that the new emperor might make ‘dangerous concessions’ to the Lutherans.16 Political considerations remained important to Canisius for the remainder of his life and, along with his concerns regarding the spread of heresy, featured prominently in his publications and activities.
Canisius's publications can be categorized broadly into two groups. One sought to challenge Protestant doctrines: his most polemical treatises were his works on John the Baptist (1571) and the Virgin Mary (1577). These were intended as a Catholic response to the Magdeburg Centuries, a thirteen-volume history of the Christian Church written in Magdeburg by a group of theologians under the direction of Matthais Flacius Illyricus and published between 1559 and 1574. In his polemical works, Canisius rejected the claims of ‘the corrupters of the word of God’.17 Personal correspondence echoed his disdain for Protestants: in a letter to the archbishop of Cologne written in August 1572, Canisius declared that if the leading Protestant figures ‘were all crushed up with a mortar, they would not produce one ounce of theology’.18 Such views earned Canisius the nickname ‘hammer of heretics’, as well as the scorn of Protestant leaders.19
However, the second category of Canisius's publications – those directed either to a general audience or to his secular patrons – stand in marked contrast to his polemical activities: his German catechisms refrained from intense polemic on disputed points, while his response to the Roman Index cautioned against banning all Germans from reading prohibited material in order to avoid antagonizing secular patrons and German students. This second category is all the more noteworthy because of the difference in approach compared to his other literary endeavours. It represents Canisius's understanding that a tailored response was needed to address the religious strife in Germany. This was summed up in a letter to Acquaviva in January 1583, in which Canisius warned that understanding the cause of the religious problems in Germany was the only way they could be addressed.20 Twenty-five years earlier, he had declared in a letter to Duke Albrecht that ‘we must forget Italy and Spain and devote ourselves only to Germany … . Here we must work with all [our] strength and with the greatest enthusiasm’.21
Soon after arriving in Germany in 1549, Canisius informed Loyola's secretary, Juan Alfonso de Polanco, that ‘it is useless to look for practical interest in religion among present-day Germans’, noting that they rarely attended church sermons, did not fast during Lent and read heretical books.22 To combat this apathy and the spread of heresy, Canisius advised that ‘various seminaries’ ought to be established.23 Children, too, were not to be overlooked: in a sermon delivered at Innsbruck in 1572, Canisius declared that children ‘are the best part of Christianity, the noblest provision of the Church’.24 His educational programme was intended not only to encompass the training of future clerics drawn from Germany to serve Germany, but also the general education of German children. The most popular tool Canisius used in his ambitious educational programme was the catechism.25
Canisius produced three versions of his catechism: the Large, the Small and the Smaller. The Large Catechism, aimed at university students and the clergy, was published in Latin in 1555 and a German translation followed in 1556.26 The Smaller Catechism, intended for young children, appeared later in 1556, and the Small Catechism, designed for older school children and ‘simple’ adults, in 1558.27 In his Testament, Canisius recalled that the Small and Smaller catechisms were used ‘in the schools for the first instruction of the children, and also in the churches, so that from them the faithful can be brought closer to the rudiments of Catholic piety’.28 The 1596 edition of Canisius's Smaller Catechism was ‘divided from syllable to syllable, so that [children may] with little difficulty learn to read quicker, which will then serve them well for writing’.29 In a similar manner to Melanchthon's pedagogical approach, Canisius merged educational and religious texts to teach the basics of religious doctrine and to offer direction on civic duty and obedience.30
The reality of early modern Catholic obedience should be noted: while in theory the papacy expected secular authorities to be subordinate to them, in practice this goal was incompatible with the secular interests of the princely powers in the context of imperial policy.31 The result was that Christians owed obedience to two sets of authorities with potentially conflicting demands.32 In Germany, this can be seen clearly in the actions of Duke Albrecht V, who ignored instructions from Trent that did not support his political ambitions. For example, while Philipp Apian, a Protestant, was expelled from Ingolstadt in 1568 for refusing to swear the professio fidei tridentinum, in other instances Albrecht allowed dynastic ambitions to undermine Tridentine decrees.33 In 1564 and 1567 Albrecht installed his eleven- and three-year-old sons as bishops of Freising and Regensburg respectively, in direct defiance of Trent's efforts to outlaw the appointment of minors to ecclesiastical benefices.34 It was under conditions such as these that Canisius adopted a policy of inclusion rather than exclusion in his educational programme.
In 1568, rumours began to circulate that Canisius had converted to Protestantism. In response, he began to include a confession of faith at the end of some of his publications.35 This ‘author's confession’ rejected the doctrines of Luther and Calvin, declaring that Canisius had ‘nothing in common’ with any heretic, and affirmed his adherence to the ‘one holy, Catholic, apostolic and Roman Church’.36 Canisius evidently was a ‘hammer of heretics’ but the question is, when, in his eyes, did one cease being a Catholic and become a heretic?37 The answer is not always clear in the catechisms. Instead, Canisius tailored his material to suit his audience: he was operating in Germany at a time when Lutheranism was a legal alternative to the Catholic faith; the Bavarian dukes and the emperor were making concessions to Lutherans; and he had first-hand experience of confessional diversity in Germany. To prevent the loss of those who identified as Catholics, Canisius forebore to attack those whose devotional practices verged on heresy but did not become heretical.
In 1558, Albrecht V ordered a visitation of the Bavarian dioceses. The results were disappointing, revealing a lack of Christian knowledge amongst the people, an alarming degree of clerical concubinage, the use of Lutheran practices and the inclusion of Lutheran hymns in churches, specifically Luther's Aus tiefer Not, which rejected works of penance through its emphasis on repentance and faith in God's word.38 In early 1558, Canisius spent six weeks in the Bavarian city of Straubing, which had witnessed the successful infiltration of Lutheranism. Canisius openly acknowledged the heretical faith and lack of Catholic devotion in his sermons there.39 In the same year, in response to Duke Albrecht's removal of a schismatic preacher in Straubing, Canisius counselled him to ‘act confidently in the matter of religion, do not allow wolves to rage in either the churches or in the schools’.40 Canisius did not accept Protestantism and strove to protect Catholicism, but the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy were not rigid. Indeed, in 1562, Canisius delivered a sermon in Augsburg which addressed the question of dancing on Sundays.41 Despite dancing and other such activities being ‘accompanied by many sins’, Canisius declared that he would ‘consider it an impertinence were anyone to judge, condemn and despise his neighbour because he indulged in such recreations’.42 Here he was teaching a lesson of coexistence, and this can be detected in his catechisms.
In 1563, a Bavarian territorial diet approved the granting of the chalice to the laity as part of a package of conciliatory measures designed to reconcile dissenters with the Catholic Church. Emperor Ferdinand pushed for a similar concession for the rest of Germany and, in 1564, Pope Pius IV allowed bishops in five German provinces, including Bavaria, to administer the sacrament in both kinds.43 Canisius's 1563 German edition of the Large Catechism appears to have predicted this papal concession because it did not forbid the chalice to lay people.44 Analysis of the precise wording employed in the Large Catechism reveals that there was a limited degree of flexibility in the Jesuit's discussion of communion in both kinds.
On the question on whether communion should be offered to the laity in one or two kinds, Canisius explained:
The faithful laity … are not obliged [verbunden] by the command of God to receive the sacrament in two kinds … the custom (that the laity receive under one kind) was established by the Church and the Holy Fathers, not without reason and has been so long held, [that] it is to be regarded as a law which may not be overturned or the Church's authority changed at the behest of a single person.45
Here, Canisius challenged the Protestant argument that divine law requires communion in both kinds, drawing on church teachings to argue that communion in one kind ‘is established not without reason’.46 He expressed astonishment regarding those who conspired with the ‘new despisers of the Church’ regarding communion in both kinds and he taught that the fruits of the sacrament are available only to those who ‘persist in the unity of the Church’, emphasizing that those who insisted on ‘the external signs of the sacrament’ would make themselves unworthy partakers and would not receive its fruits.47 Nonetheless, he taught that divine law did not ‘oblige’ the laity to receive communion under both kinds. In contrast, the Tridentine Catechism explicitly forbade the laity to receive the chalice. This is a subtle difference: Canisius defended the practice of administering only the bread to the laity without expressly forbidding them to receive the wine.
Secondly, Canisius taught that the ‘law’ of communion in one kind could not be changed ‘at the behest of a single person’. While this was probably a direct challenge to Luther and other reformers, it may also reflect Canisius's context. The policies adopted by the emperor and the Bavarian dukes indicate that there was a demand for the chalice from the laity. Moreover, the legalization of Lutheranism in the empire after the Peace of Augsburg meant that Catholics could find themselves living in areas where they had little choice but to receive communion in both kinds. Thus the question of audience becomes significant. Canisius's Large Catechism was intended primarily for the clergy and was designed, in part, to provide them with a defence against Protestant doctrines. Therefore Canisius provided a robust defence of communion in one kind, which could be used to support a priest in their administering of communion to the laity, but which stopped short of expressly forbidding communion in two kinds. The Small Catechism, however, was designed for the laity, some of whom could be living in Lutheran territories, or in a Catholic area where receiving communion in two kinds had been declared the normal practice. David Luebke has demonstrated that in Westphalian Haltern, for instance, which lay on the border between the Hochstift Münster and Recklinghausen Vest, the priest permitted those who wished to receive communion in both kinds to do so.48 Luebke argues that lay people ‘were fully equipped to pick and choose among the ritual offerings available to them’, despite their adherence to an otherwise orthodox Roman Catholicism.49 In the Small Catechism, Canisius taught that unbelievers, sectarians and heretics would not receive the sacrament worthily, so that only a Catholic would be a worthy partaker.50 However, Canisius was faced with a conundrum: if he excluded those Catholics who received communion in both kinds by prohibiting the lay chalice, this could potentially exclude otherwise loyal Catholics from the fold. Therefore, in not expressly forbidding communion in both kinds in the Small Catechism, Canisius left open the possibility that an individual who identified as a Catholic and participated in the sacrament as a repentant believer would receive the fruits of that participation. In this way, Canisius's Small Catechism seems to have been designed to promote inclusivity within Catholicism.
More broadly, this indicates that catechisms could offer a more fluid expression of confessional identity than existing scholarship has recognized.51 Canisius's audience was Catholic, but the practical expression of Catholic faith was not uniform across Germany. The subtleties in Canisius's catechisms acknowledge this confessional fluidity within German Catholicism, which arose from the political and social realities of being a Catholic in a bi-confessional empire, as well as from the pre-existence of local practices that were not all consistent with the developing Tridentine Catholicism of the later sixteenth century. Canisius's approach to communion in both kinds suggests that he tailored his catechisms to include as many as possible of those who identified as Catholic. In so doing, he made space to accommodate the experience of those Catholics living in areas where receiving the chalice was an established practice.
Despite Albrecht's conciliatory measures, in 1563 Graf von Ortenburg led an unsuccessful Lutheran conspiracy to overthrow Catholicism in Bavaria. As a result, in February 1564 Canisius informed Laynez that the duke was taking a much firmer position against the Protestants, and in April he asserted that ‘little by little’ Catholicism was strengthening in the duchy.52 Demonstrating this growing strength, in 1565 a territorial decree was issued that prohibited the sale or inheritance of books that were not printed in approved German cities.53 In the following year, the duke forbade books to be sold in Bavaria that were not included in his catalogue of permitted material.54 This catalogue was different to the Index of Prohibited Books, which had been issued by the pope in 1559. Canisius had immediately expressed doubts regarding the nature of the Roman Index, and in a letter to Laynez he confided that he would rather have a list of approved rather than prohibited texts.55 Despite official endorsement of censorship, enforcing the law was not straightforward and Canisius continued to push for a settlement that was suited to the political and religious conditions in Bavaria.
In October 1559, Canisius informed Laynez that he wanted to ‘obtain grace from the pope on behalf of our confessors, that they may not be kept from conferring absolution to students who have any impure’ texts.56 In other missives sent to Laynez that year, Canisius reported that the Catholics of Germany, Bohemia and Poland considered the ‘Index intolerably severe, nor can we obtain that which it prescribes’.57 He warned ‘we do not see how we are to maintain our classes and schools if we must obey this strict decree to the letter’.58 Certainly, Canisius was aware that his students possessed heretical books: while teaching at the University of Ingolstadt in 1549, his pupils had surrendered their copies of prohibited books over Christmas on the understanding that they would be returned in the new year.59 In 1561, the pope provided a dispensation for Germany, lifting the ban on classical texts and books that had been annotated or published by heretics, leaving prohibited only those books with expressly heretical content.60
Canisius's letters reflect the complex relationship between his obligations and the realities of being Catholic in early modern Germany. As a Jesuit, he owed allegiance to the pope and was expected to protect papal authority and interests. Concurrently, while in Germany he owed allegiance to the emperor, and while in Bavaria to the dukes. Each of these superiors demanded obedience from Canisius and his fellow Jesuits, but their individual policies and objectives did not always reflect the conditions facing Catholics in their daily lives. Canisius's responses to censorship mark him out as a keen defender of Catholicism, but his approach was inclusive rather than exclusive. Essentially, those who declared themselves Protestant would have no quarter from Canisius, but those who identified as Catholic could be treated with more discretion. This approach is exemplified in his evaluation of a library of books inherited by a member of the powerful Fugger family of Augsburg in 1577.
Canisius first became acquainted with the Fuggers when he converted Ursula Fugger to the Roman faith in 1559. Simone Laqua-O'Donnell comments that Canisius saw this conversion as particularly important because her elite status meant that she was a powerful tool in the promotion of post-Tridentine Catholicism in Augsburg.61 It was important, therefore, to ensure Ursula and her family were taught how to be good Catholics and acted in a manner that supported Trent's vision of Catholicism. However, in his examination of Philip's library, Canisius discovered texts that were annotated by heretics or contained material that was not strictly orthodox. Describing his findings in a letter to Scipione Rebiba, Canisius declared that ‘since the Index of Prohibited Books has not been published in Germany and since reading books on religious matters and using German Bibles is encouraged here … I thought it fit not to condemn books that have become familiar to Catholics here in their daily confrontations with heretics’. Moreover, ‘most Catholics here are used to reading just about everything that is not utterly impious’. While Canisius was no friend to heretics, Philip Fugger was not a heretic: he ‘is a good Catholic and he has inherited most of the books from his father’.62 Canisius knew that Fugger was a powerful ally to Catholicism, and therefore proposed that Fugger be granted a dispensation. In doing this, Canisius was acknowledging the nature of German Catholicism and the realities of living as a Catholic in a bi-confessional city. This was a radically different response to that shown by Canisius to members of his own family in 1565 when he burned their non-Catholic books, or when he wrote in 1583 that heretical books should be burned or removed from the empire.63 Canisius would have preferred heretical books to be expunged from the empire, but he knew that this was an unrealistic goal and recognized the dangers of excluding otherwise loyal Catholics from the fold.
Canisius's experience of confessional diversity was not limited to Germany: the ageing Jesuit spent his final years in Fribourg, a member city of the Swiss Confederation which had a strong Lutheran and Reformed presence. While Fribourg remained Catholic, the structure of the Swiss Confederation rested on a series of alliances, with bi-confessional territories developing in areas that were jointly ruled by Catholic and Reformed states.64 In his final sermon, delivered in Fribourg on 5 August 1596, Canisius reflected that one objective of the Jesuits was to ‘to bring [people] back from the error of heresy’.65 His activities in Germany were in line with this intention, and on his death in December 1597 he left a pedagogical legacy that was to last centuries.
Canisius's Testament expressed the hope that he had ‘remained within the limits of an orthodox teacher’; of that there is little doubt.66 However, although his activities and publications in the educational sphere reveal Canisius to be a skilful pedagogue, they also show how far he was prepared to go in the defence of his faith. He avoided taking unpopular actions, such as endorsing the Roman Index when it was practically and politically inexpedient; he minimized polemic in his German-language catechisms; and his teaching was conditioned by his daily interactions with ordinary Germans living on the brink of heresy. Recognizing the limits of a universal approach to education, Canisius explained to Cardinal Morone in 1576 that ‘it is not easy for any to understand the poor state and needs of Germany, except those who see it with their eyes and learn from long experience’.67 This experience led Canisius to develop a version of Catholic education that was suited to the needs of Germans.
The concept of identity and meaning is central to an understanding of the actions and events in early modern Germany and wider Europe. What did it mean to be a Catholic in Augsburg, or a Catholic in Straubing? Studies have demonstrated that identity and meaning varied across Germany, but how was this variety provided for in educational material intended for a wide readership?68 Focusing on education as a way to bridge the gap between orthodoxy and the reality of confessional pressures might be one way to address these questions. Rather than beginning with the hypothesis that education facilitated confessional division, it may enhance our understanding of early modern German education to see it instead as part of a broader process of accommodation or, for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, negotiated decision-making based on a pragmatic handling of religious pluralism.69