Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Congress of Ems

Meeting of German Archbishops for purpose of protesting against papal interference in the exercise of episcopal powers

Click to enlarge

Ems, CONGRESS OF, a meeting of the representatives of the German Archbishops Friedrich Karl von Erthal of Mainz, Maximilian Franz of Cologne, Clemens Wenceslaus of Trier, and Hieronymus von Colloredo of Salzburg, at the little town of Bad-Ems, near Coblenz, in August, 1786, for the purpose of protesting against papal interference in the exercise of episcopal powers and fixing the future relations between these archbishops and the Roman pontiff.

The Gallican principles concerning the relation between the bishops and the pope, which had been disseminated in Germany by Hontheim, the Auxiliary Bishop of Trier (1748-1790), in his treatise “De statu ecclesiae et legitimae potestate Rom. Pontificis” (1763) under the pseudonym “Febronius”, were shared by some of the most influential archbishops of Germany. The archbishops became confirmed in the position which they took towards the pope by the encouragement and support of Emperor Joseph II, who arrogated to himself both temporal and spiritual jurisdiction. As early as 1769 the representatives of the Elector-Archbishops of Mainz, Cologne, and Trier, at a meeting held in Coblenz, had drawn up a list of thirty-one articles, most of which were directed against the Roman Curia. The proximate occasion of the Congress of Ems was the erection of an Apostolic nunciature in Munich (February 27, 1785) and the appointment of Zoglio, titular Archbishop of Athens, as nuncio (June 27), with jurisdiction over the entire territory of the Elector Karl Theodor, which then comprised Bavaria with the Rhine Palatinate and the former Duchies of Julich and Berg. Pius VI erected this nunciature upon the urgent request of the Elector of Bavaria, who was loath to have parts of his territory under the spiritual jurisdiction of bishops who, being electors like himself, were rather his equals than his subordinates. He had previously suggested to the Elector-Archbishops of Mainz, Cologne, and Trier to appoint special vicars-general for their districts in his territory. Upon their refusal he requested Pius VI to erect separate dioceses for his territory, but in deference to the wishes of the three elector-archbishops, the pope also refused. Finally the Elector of Bavaria asked for the above-mentioned nunciature, and despite the protests of the archbishops his wish was granted.

Meanwhile Bellisomi, the nuncio at Cologne, was transferred to Lisbon, and Pacca, the titular Archbishop of Damietta was appointed to succeed him at Cologne. Maximilian Franz, Archbishop of Cologne (a brother of Emperor Joseph II), refused to see him, and none of the three elector-archbishops honored his credentials. Despite protests, both Pacca and Zoglio began to exercise their powers as nuncios. Relying on the support which Emperor Joseph II had promised, the three elector-archbishops and the Archbishop of Salzburg planned concerted action against Rome and sent their representatives to Ems to hold a congress. Von Erthal of Mainz, who was the soul of the opposition, was represented by his auxiliary bishop Valentine Heimes; Maximilian Franz of Cologne, by his privy councillor Heinrich von Tautphaus; Clemens Wenceslaus of Trier, by his privy councillor and official representative in temporal matters, Joseph Ludwig Beck; Colloredo of Salzburg, by his consistorial councillor, Johann Michael Bönicke. On August 25, 1786, these archiepiscopal representatives signed the notorious “Punctation of Ems”, consisting of twenty-three articles which aimed at making the German archbishops practically independent of Rome. For the text of the articles see Münch, “Sammlung slier Älteren and neueren Concordate” (Leipzig, 1831), I, 404-423.

Assuming that Christ gave unlimited power of binding and loosing to the Apostles and their successors, the bishops, the “Punctation” maintains that all prerogatives and reservations which were not actually connected with the primacy during the first three centuries owe their origin to the Pseudo-Isidore decretals, universally acknowledged as false, and, hence, that the bishops must look upon all interference of the Roman Curia with the exercise of their episcopal functions in their own dioceses as encroachments on their rights. Upon these schismatic principles the four archbishops based their demands, which may be summarized as follows: all direct appeals to Rome must be discontinued; all exempt monasteries must become subject to the bishops in whose districts the monasteries are situated; no German monasteries must have generals, provincials, or other superiors who do not reside in Germany; the bishops need not obtain quinquennial faculties from Rome, because by virtue of their office they can dispense from abstinence, from matrimonial impediments, including the second degree of consanguinity and the second and first degrees of affinity, from solemn religious vows and the obligations resulting from Holy orders; papal Bulls and ordinances of the Roman Curia are binding in each diocese only after the respective bishop has given his placet; all Apostolic nunciatures must be abolished; the manner of conferring benefices and the procedure in ecclesiastical lawsuits must be changed in favor of the bishops; the episcopal oath must be changed so that it shall not appear to be the oath of a vassal, etc.

It may easily be seen that the articles of the “Punctation” lower the papal primacy to a merely honorary one and advocate an independence of the archbishops in regard to the pope which is entirely incompatible with the Unity and Catholicity of the Church of Christ. Still the “Punctation” was immediately ratified by the four archbishops and sent to Emperor Joseph II with an humble request for his support. The emperor was pleased with the articles and would have pledged his unqualified support if his councillors, especially Kaunitz, had not for political reasons advised him otherwise. In his reply of November 16, 1786, the emperor wisely makes his support dependent on the condition that the archbishops gain the consent of their suffragan bishops, the superiors of the exempt monasteries, and the estates into whose districts their spiritual jurisdiction extends. The suffragan bishops, especially the pious and learned prince-bishops August’von Styrum of Speier and Franz Ludwig von Erthal of Würzburg-Bamberg (a brother of the Archbishop of Mainz), protested against the schismatic tendency of the “Punctation” and saw in the anti-papal procedure of the archbishops merely an attempt to increase their own power to the detriment of their suffragans. The Elector of Bavaria likewise remained a zealous defender of the pope and his nuncio at Munich, and even the Protestant King Frederick II of Prussia was an opponent of the “Punctation” and favored the nuncio Pacca at Cologne.

Still the archbishops insisted on their demands. When the nuncio at Cologne by authority of the pope granted a matrimonial dispensation from the second degree of consanguinity to Prince von Hohenlohe-Bartenstein and Countess Blankenheim, Archbishop Maximilian Franz of Cologne addressed to him a strong protest forbidding him for the future the exercise of all jurisdiction in the Archdiocese of Cologne. The archbishops themselves now began to grant dispensations from such degrees of relationship as were not contained in their ordinary quinquennial faculties, just as if the “Punctation of Ems” were in full force. When the nuncio at Cologne, by order of the pope, informed the pastors that all marriages contracted by virtue of such dispensations were invalid, the archbishops ordered their pastors to return the circular to the nuncio and to obtain all future dispensations directly from their ordinary, the archbishop. The Church in Germany was now near to a schism. Fortunately, von Erthal of Mainz needed the services of Rome. He desired Karl Theodor von Dalberg as coadjutor, and, to obtain the consent of Rome, he withdrew, at least apparently, from the “Punctation” and obtained a renewal of his quinquennial faculties from Rome on August 9, 1787. Similarly the Archbishop of Trier asked for quinquennial faculties as Bishop of Augsburg, but not as Archbishop of Trier. Von Erthal’s submission to Rome was only a pretended one. He continued his opposition and on June 2, 1788, requested Emperor Joseph II, in the name of himself and the three other archbishops, to bring the affair concerning the German nuncios before a diet. But soon the archbishops discovered that all the estates were opposed to the “Punctation” and that a diet would rather retard than accelerate the fulfilment of their wishes. For this reason they addressed a letter to Rome (December 1, 1788) asking the pope to put an end to the unedifying ecclesiastical dissensions in Germany by withdrawing the faculties from the nuncios and by sending representatives to the German estates with authority to come to an amicable agreement regarding the other demands of the archbishops. In answer to this request appeared the publication of a memorable document composed by order of the pope and entitled: “Sanctissimi Dom. nostri Pii Papae VI responsio ad Metropolitanos Moguntinum, Trevirensem, Coloniensem et Salisburgensem super Nunciaturis Apostolicis” (Rome, 1789). It was a masterpiece in form and contents of Apostolic firmness and paternal reproof. After presenting a dispassionate and objective view of the whole litigation, the document refutes all the arguments of the archbishops against papal nunciatures, shows how wrong it was for the archbishops to rebel against papal authority, explains that the pope cannot send representatives to worldly estates who have no right to pass judgment on ecclesiastical affairs, and admonishes the archbishops to give up their untenable position towards the Holy See.

The papal writing was not without effect. Archbishop Wenceslaus of Trier, who had long desired an amicable settlement of the odious affair, into which, it appears, he was drawn against his will, publicly withdrew from the “Punctation” on February 20, 1790, and admonished his colleagues to follow his example. They, however, continued their opposition and on occasion of the imperial capitulation of Leopold II (1790) and that of Francis II (1792) obtained the promise that their complaints concerning the nunciatures would be attended to as soon as possible by a decree of the diet. The threatening progress of the French Revolution finally changed the attitude of the Archbishops of Cologne and Salzburg, but the Archbishop of Mainz clung to the “Punctation” until the victorious French army invaded his electorate, and he was deprived of all his possessions west of the Rhine, at the Peace of Campo Formio, in 1797.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!