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Dear visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find helpful? Please make a gift today. Thank you. Wishing you a blessed Lenten season.

George Hermes

Philosopher and theologian, b. at Dreierwalde near Rheine (Westphalia), April 22, 1775; d. at Bonn on the Rhine, May 26, 1831

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Hermes, GEORGE, philosopher and theologian, b. at Dreierwalde near Rheine (Westphalia), April 22, 1775; d. at Bonn on the Rhine, May 26, 1831. After completing his course in the gymnasium, or high school, at Rheine, Hermes studied philosophy at the University of Munster from 1792 until 1794. He then took up theology in order to remove the doubts regarding faith awakened in his mind by the study of Kant and Fichte. Initiated as he was into the science of theology by professors of limited ability, and altogether dissatisfied with the traditional methods of proof, he determined for the time being to adhere to the faith of the Church as set forth in the Catechism, but afterwards to seek on his own account a better basis for the truths of Christianity. In 1797 Hermes became professor at the Munster gymnasium; in 1799 he was ordained a priest. The first work he wrote, “Untersuchung uber die innere Wahrheit des Christentums” (Munster, 1805), in which he sought to demonstrate the harmony between reason and revelation, was received with so much favor that in 1807 its author, warmly commended by the Protestant theologian Niemeyer, at Halle, was appointed to a chair of theology at the University of Munster.

Hermes lectured on dogmatic theology, and, with especial zest, on the introduction to theology. Impressive and attractive in appearance, he was highly esteemed by his students because of his extraordinary pedagogic ability and his exemplary priestly bearing. He also earned the respect and appreciation of his colleagues by his zealous devotion to the interests of the university; up to 1819 they elected him dean three times. But his rationalistic methods of instruction, which were out of harmony with the theology of the past, roused opposition among the ruling circles at Munster including several men of eminence, such as Clement August von Droste-Vischering (later Archbishop of Cologne), Frederick von Stolberg, Overberg, Katerkamp, Kistemaker, Kellermann. When the Vicar-General von Droste-Vischering, who was at the head of the administration of the diocese during a vacancy of the see, demanded that Hermes should continue the use of the Latin tongue in the dogmatic lectures, the latter refused to obey. The same prelate, by order of the pope, denied the legality of the uncanonical reorganization of the cathedral chapter by Napoleon I, refused to acknowledge the wrongful appointment of Baron von Spiegel (later Archbishop of Cologne) as vicar-general, and on March 31, 1813, took back into his own hands the government of the diocese. Thereupon Hermes published a voluminous opinion disputing his right to such a procedure (“Gutachten in Streitsachen des Munsterschen Domkapitels mit dem Generalvikar des Kapitels. Mit Bewilligung des hochwurdigen Domkapitels herausgegeben”, Munster, 1815). As confidential adviser of the Prussian ministry he wrote at its request, particularly between the years 1815 and 1819, several important opinions, e.g. the one published in 1818 concerning the establishment of a theological faculty at the new University of Bonn. His loyalty to the Church is attested by the opinion he wrote condemning the inaccurate and erroneous translation of the Bible by Carl and Leander van Ess and the first-named author’s “Geschichte der Vulgata”. Although the Prussian ministry, to his deep regret, reduced the Munster University to the rank of an academy in 1818, Hermes refused a call to the new University of Bonn just as firmly as he had declined, in 1816, the offer of a professorial chair at the University of Breslau.

In 1819 Hermes published “Die philosophische Einleitung”, the first part of his principal work “Einleitung in die christ-katholische Theologie” (Munster, 1819; 2nd ed., 1831). The purpose of this book was to put an end to all doubts regarding three questions which are of fundamental importance to all religious conviction, and especially to that of the Christian. These questions are: Whether there is any truth at all; whether God exists, and what are His attributes; whether a supernatural revelation is possible, and under what conditions. The theological faculty of Breslau conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Theology honoris causa for his “Philosophische Einleitung”. After that Hermes, yielding to the persistent urging of the Prussian Government, accepted the chair of dogmatic theology at Bonn, April 27, 1820. His inaugural lecture dealt with the relation of positive theology to the general principles of science (see “Zeitschrift fur Philosophie und katholische Theologie”, 1833, pp. 52-61). His election, August 3, 1820, as “Rector Magnificus”, which he declined, and the degree of Doctor of Philosophy honoris causa, which the philosophical faculty of Bonn subsequently conferred on him, in 1821, are ample evidence of the respect paid to him in Bonn. The University of Freiburg im Breisgau tried in vain to secure him for its faculty. His lectures on philosophy, the introduction to theology, and dogmatic theology attracted a tremendous following in Bonn, being attended even by large numbers of philologists and jurists. The Prussian ministry suspended the theological faculty in Munster for six months, on account of the interdict which the Vicar-General Clement August issued against Hermes, forbidding all theological students in the Diocese of Munster to attend any outside university without his permission. It was revoked immediately upon the retirement of the vicar-general. The theologians in the Diocese of Paderborn were also forbidden by the ecclesiastical authorities to attend Hermes’ lectures. To please Hermes, the Government in 1825 dismissed his colleague Seber who was not in sympathy with him. Moreover, the Archbishop Baron von Spiegel, who had been a patron of Hermes even in his Munster days, appointed him a member of the cathedral chapter, examiner to the synod, and ecclesiastical counsellor in Cologne, without disturbing his professorial duties or obliging him to reside at Cologne.

As examiner, Hermes was a bitter opponent of all ecclesiastics who did not share his views. Like the theological faculty at Bonn, to which only pupils of Hermes had been appointed since 1826 (Achterfeldt, Braun, Vogelsang, Muller), the seminary at Cologne and a large part of the clergy were soon imbued with his ideas. Even the other faculties of Bonn included followers of his, particularly Professor Clement August von Droste-Hulshoff in law and Elvenich in philosophy. In a very short time the theological faculties of Breslau, Munster, and Braunsberg, the seminary at Trier, many cathedral chapters and instructorships in religion at the gymnasia were filled with Hermesians. In 1830 Hermes cast the decisive vote against calling Mohler and Dollinger to the chair of ecclesiastical history at Bonn. On the other hand the appointment of Professor Klee for Biblical exegesis and dogmatic theology implied a distinct concession to the anti-Hermesian movement which in the meantime had been slowly gathering strength. Hermes began to publish the second part of his “Introduction to Theology“, the “Positive Einleitung”, or “Positive Introduction”, in 1829 (Munster, 1829, 2nd ed., 1834). Therein he sought to demonstrate the truth of Christianity by way of completing the “Philosophical Introduction”. “The ‘Philosophical Introduction’ having shown the possibility of proving that Christianity is both extrinsically and intrinsically true, and having shown also how the demonstration should proceed, we have now got to the point of furnishing this proof—such is the purpose of the ‘Positive Introduction'” (Positive Introduction, 1). In carrying out this purpose he investigates five questions: (I) Are the books of the New Testament externally (historically) true? (2) Is the so-called oral tradition likewise historically true? (3) Are the expositions and interpretations of Jesus’ doctrine, as communicated by the oral teaching of the Catholic Church, infallibly correct? (4) Are the teachings of Jesus contained in the books of the New Testament intrinsically true? (5) Are the teachings of Jesus that have been handed down by oral tradition likewise intrinsically true?

In its essence Hermes’ theological system, or “Hermesianism”, was rationalism; and, though in many respects opposed to the doctrines of Kant and Fichte, it was strongly influenced by them. According to Hermes our knowledge is subjectively true when we are convinced in our minds that it coincides with its object. This conviction, however, becomes a certainty when it is irresistible. The necessity of our conviction, therefore, is the criterion of objective truth. This necessity is either physical or moral, that is, it is either independent of, or dependent on, duty and conscience. It comes to pass in two ways: it is either forced upon us, or we admit it freely. In the first case, we call our conviction belief in a truth, in the second, acceptance of a truth. Belief in a truth is a matter of theoretical reason, while acceptance is a matter of practical, or obligating, reason. Belief in a truth is in part the result of mediate necessity, in which case it is founded either on imagination, i.e. on the clearness and vividness of the mental content, or on insight (understanding); in part, also, it springs from immediate necessity, and only in this case is knowledge philosophically certain. “It is of immediate necessity that we must accept the following proposition as true, together with all propositions subordinate to it: ‘Everything that is must have a sufficient reason'” (Philosophische Einleitung, § 14). Now the first and most immediate reality, that is forced upon the reason of direct necessity, is inseparably connected with the consciousness that I know, and with the thought that something is there. In order to discover the sufficient reason for this first reality, we are referred to the world as it appears to us, both within and outside of ourselves. The variations which occur in these phenomena require a sufficient reason in order to account for them; the variations in the origin of things call for a sufficient and absolute reason for their origin, and this ultimately can only be found in the idea of God. In such wise Hermes proves the existence of God along the lines of theoretical reason in contradistinction to Kant, who treated the acknowledgment of God‘s existence as a postulate of practical reason.

The knowledge of the existence of God and of His attributes, which determine His relation to the world and to mankind, is a preliminary condition indispensable to the solution of the question as to whether supernatural revelation is possible. Hermes answers this question in the affirmative, first, because God is able directly to produce representations in the human mind, and secondly, because by means of representations man can be convinced of the intrinsic truth of conceptions supernaturally imparted to him, and also of conceptions naturally produced by himself, the truth of which he cannot himself demonstrate (cf. Philosophische Einleitung, § 74). The question of the fact of a supernatural revelation must be distinguished from the question of its possibility. Revelation, said Hermes, must be admitted as a fact so soon as it can be shown that a message has emanated super-naturally from God. But the duty of the practical reason to admit revelation as a fact is demonstrated if in any alleged Divine revelation all the conditions are present on fulfilment of which it can and must be accepted for what it purports to be. Hermes, however, deems it necessary to make a very questionable distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers in regard to the duty of accepting revelation. No precept of practical reason, he says, can oblige the philosopher, who has a well-founded confidence in his knowledge, to accept a revelation that was imparted to him supernaturally, even if he had ascertained its supernatural character, and even if it fulfilled all the conditions of a Divine origin. For the philosopher can through his own discerning perceive very definitely his natural duties, and he will always be convinced that he does so perceive them. Consequently, practical reason cannot oblige him to look for this perception outside of himself, or to accept it if offered to him unsought, whether by another person or by superhuman agency.

On the other hand, when a revelation known to be supernatural is offered to a person unversed in philosophy, he is bound by practical reason to accept it in order that he may learn his natural obligations. He must accept it, since he could not otherwise acquire the sum total of needful knowledge, being unable to attain it by philosophical methods. If, however, it is incumbent on the great majority of mankind—consisting, of course, of non-philosophers—to obey the behests of practical reason by believing in revelation, then neither can the philosopher refuse to accept the truth of revelation; reflective theoretical reason obliges him to accept it. At the most he could refuse to do so only on the ground that he had not yet been convinced of its Divine origin, since the fact that it could not be of any advantage to him would be no reason for withholding his acquiescence in its Divine origin. In order, therefore, to deny this certainty of the Divine origin of revelation, he must assume that what others, millions in fact, are in strictest duty bound to assume as true may possibly be untrue, and that obligatory reason when it leads mankind of absolute necessity to believe something to be true can guide them to the opposite of objective truth. Hermes’ rationalistic conception of the idea of revelation follows from this line of argument; and furthermore he says expressly that reason cannot teach the existence of truths of such primary importance and yet declare that it is unable to know them.

Again, Hermes’ opinions on the motiva credibilitatis were quite absurd. Theoretical reason, he said, can accept the probability of the Divine origin of extraordinary phenomena (miracles and prophecies) only because it does not know all the laws of the natural world, while practical reason, for the sake of duty, can accept their supernatural origin as certainly true. Theoretical reason, for example, could not assert with certainty that the revival of a decomposing corpse was of supernatural origin, whereas practical reason could. For, if such a phenomenon could have a natural cause, men should be allowed to act accordingly and, in this case, to delay the burial of the corpse because the possibility of a natural reanimation was as yet by no means excluded. In this way Hermes sought to demonstrate the moral duty of accepting miracles under certain circumstances, in opposition to Kant who had laid it down as a moral principle never to presuppose the miraculous. Furthermore, Hermes denied that miracles afforded conclusive testimony in favor of revelation; he distinguished between the proof of the supernaturalness of miracles and the proof of the Divinity of a revelation. That many of the supernatural miracles worked by higher intelligent powers are of Divine origin can only be proved by the contents of the revelation and its moral character. A revelation shown to be genuine to the satisfaction of practical reason demonstrates the Divinity of the miracles.

According to Hermes, the starting-point and chief principle of every science, and hence of theology also, is not only methodical doubt, but positive doubt. One can believe only what one has perceived to be true from reasonable grounds, and consequently one must have the courage to continue doubting until one has found reliable grounds to satisfy the reason. We may follow only where reason leads us, because this is the only guide that the Author of our being has given us for this life. Hermes differentiated the Herzensglaube, or belief of the heart, i.e. the accepting of revealed truths dictated by the will, from the Vernunftglaube, or belief of the reason, brought about by scientific demonstration. “In order that one’s faith may be efficacious it is not enough”, he says, “for the intellect, impelled by the laws of our cognitive faculties, to acquiesce in the evidence of all these truths which reason or revelation teaches or establishes, nor to adhere firmly to the same in consequence, but it is also required that men should surrender themselves to these truths (realities). Efficacious faith is not the faith dictated by reason, which is subject to necessity and can, therefore, be demonstrated, but the faith of the heart, that cannot be compelled by any proof, but is accepted by a free, unconditional surrender of the will. It is for reason to prevent us from believing blindly or in a visionary way, but it is for the will as a free agent to impel us to work by faith” (Christkatholische Dogmatik, III, § 285).

Although he was absolutely lacking in originality as a philosopher, and although as a theologian his acquaintance with the traditional theology was very limited, Hermes soon acquired a following. In philosophy there were Esser, Biunde, and Elvenich; in ethics G. Braun and Vogelsang; in natural and ecclesiastical law Droste-Hulshoff, all of whom treated their subjects according to the Hermesian way of thinking, while Achterfeldt and Siemers wrote for use in the higher schools textbooks of religious instructions incorporating his views. Among his other disciples were Baltzer, Hilgers, Rosenbaum, and J. W. J. Braun. The last-named, together with Achterfeldt, founded the “Zeitschrift fur Philosophic and katholische Theologie” (1832-52) in defense of Hermes’ ideas. The Archbishop of Cologne, Baron von Spiegel, continued to champion Hermesianism even after the death of its author, and he silenced by repeated favorable reports the doubts that had been awakened in Rome as to the correctness of the new doctrine.

Hitherto only individual attacks had been made on the Hermesian theology. With the exception of a few anonymous articles in Mastiaux’s “Literaturzeitung” (1820, p. 369-394), and in the “Aschaffenburger Kirchenzeitung”, Windischmann was the first to write an incisive and thorough criticism of Hermes’ doctrines, in the “Katholik”, 1825. But the controversy became sharp and bitter when Pope Gregory XVI, in a Brief of September 26, 1835, condemned the Hermesian system and placed both “Introductions” as well as the first part of the “Dogmatik” on the Index. The same fate befell the second and third parts of the “Dogmatik” in a decree of January 7, 1836. Prior to the issuing of this condemnation, the Holy See, at the solicitation of several German bishops, advised by Windischmann and Binterim among others, had ordered the most thorough investigation possible. Prominent theologians, such as Reisach, director of studies in the Propaganda and later cardinal, and Father Perrone, the Jesuit dogmatist, were entrusted with the task of examining Hermesian doctrines. The papal Brief characterized the theological errors of Hermesianism as “false, rash, captious, leading to scepticism and indifferentism, erroneous, scandalous, harmful to Catholic schools, subversive of Divine faith, savoring of heresy, and already condemned by the Church“. The decree expressly designated the doctrinal points in which Hermes had diverged from the Catholic Church, namely: on the nature and rule of faith; on Holy Writ and tradition, Revelation, and the teaching office of the Church; the motiva credibilitatis, the proofs of the existence of God, and the doctrines concerning the nature, holiness, justice, and freedom of God, and His ultimate purpose in His works ad extra; on the necessity of grace and its bestowal; on the reward and punishment of men; on the original state of our first parents; on original sin and on the powers of man in the fallen state.

The Hermesians tried to weaken the force of the impression produced by this unexpected condemnation and to prevent the carrying out of the Brief. In fact, they succeeded in inducing the Prussian Government to forbid the publication of the Brief, and Husgen, Vicar Capitular of Cologne, enjoined “strict silence” on his clergy in respect to the condemnation, on the pretext that the document had not come to him in the regular course of official procedure, through the Prussian Government. On the contrary, the new Archbishop of Cologne, Clement August von Droste-Vischering, former Vicar-General of Munster, demanded the submission of the theological professors at Bonn, forbade theological students to attend the lectures of recusant professors, and compelled the clergy, on their appointment, to repudiate the Hermesian errors in eighteen theses. Although it was not in sympathy with the archbishop’s measures, the Prussian Government, on April 21, 1837, forbade the theological professors at Bonn, as well as the philosopher Windischmann and the canonist Walter, to take part in any controversy on the subject of Hermesianism. The Bonn professors, Braun and Elvenich, made a last attempt to vindicate the system, journeying to Rome in May, 1837, in order to prevail upon the pope to withdraw the condemnation by emphasizing the (Jansenist) distinctio juris et facts. The repeated personal interviews they had with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Lambruschini, and with the General of the Jesuits, Father Roothan, who had been entrusted with their case, were just as fruitless as was their comprehensive treatise on Hermesianism entitled: “Meletemata theologica”, which was handed back to them unopened (printed, in Latin, at Leipzig, in 1839; in German, at Cologne, in 1839, under the title “Theologische Studien”). After their return in April, 1838, they both gave a one-sided version of their unsuccessful mission in the monograph “Acta Romana” (printed at Hanover and Leipzig, 1838).

Most of the Hermesians now gave up their cause for lost and submitted, some of them spontaneously, and some at the demand of their bishops. Thanks to the energetic action of CardinalArchbishop von Geissel of Cologne in particular, Hermesianism was completely eradicated, and in 1860 even the most stubborn Hermesians, Braun and Achterfeldt, returned to their allegiance. Since their dismissal from their academic professorships in 1844, they had for a long time continued their defense of Hermesianism in their periodical and in polemical pamphlets, but they had only a few followers. The Vatican Council, with special reference to the doctrines of Hermes (cf. Conc. Coll. Lac., VII, 166d, 184bc), in the “Constitutio de fide catholica”, cap. iii, can. v, defined the freedom of the act of faith and the necessity of grace for faith (see Denzinger-Bannwart, 1814).


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