Born at Bamberg, Bavaria, Döllinger came from an intellectual family, his grandfather and father having both been eminent physicians and professors of medical science; his mother's family were equally accomplished. Young Döllinger was first educated in the gymnasium at Würzburg, and then began to study natural philosophy at the University of Würzburg, where his father now held a professorship. In 1817 he began the study of mental philosophy and philology, and in 1818 turned to the study of theology, which he believed to lie beneath every other science. He particularly devoted himself to an independent study of ecclesiastical history, a subject very indifferently taught in Roman Catholic Germany at that time.
In 1820 he became acquainted with Victor Aimé Huber (1800–1869), a fact which largely influenced his life. On April 5, 1822 he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest for the Diocese of Bamberg, after studying at Bamberg, and in 1823 he became professor of ecclesiastical history and canon law in the lyceum at Aschaffenburg. He then took his doctoral degree, and in 1826 became professor of theology at the University of Munich, where he spent the rest of his life. About this time he brought upon himself the criticism of Heinrich Heine, who was then editor of a Munich paper. The unsparing satirist described the professor's face as the "gloomiest" in the whole procession of ecclesiastics which took place on Good Friday.
It has been stated that in his earlier years Döllinger was a pronounced Ultramontane. This does not appear to have been altogether the case; for, very early in his professorial career at Munich, the Jesuits attacked his teaching of ecclesiastical history. The celebrated Adam Möhler pronounced in Döllinger's favour, after which they became friends. Döllinger also entered into relations with the well-known French Liberal Catholic Lamennais, whose views on the reconciliation of the Roman Catholic Church with the principles of modern society (liberalism) and the French Revolution had aroused much suspicion in Ultramontane, mainly Jesuit-dominated, circles. In 1832 Lammenais and his friends Lacordaire and Montalembert, visited Germany, obtaining considerable sympathy in their attempts to bring about a modification of the Roman Catholic attitude to modern problems and politico-liberal principles.
Döllinger also seems to have regarded favourably the removal, by the Bavarian government, in 1841, of Professor Kaiser from his chair, because he had taught the infallibility of the pope. As the Pope was head of state of the Papal States, this teaching was seen as politically troubling too.
On the other hand, Döllinger published a treatise in 1838 against mixed marriages, and in 1843 wrote strongly in favour of requiring Protestant soldiers to kneel at the consecration of the Host when compelled officially to be present at Mass. Moreover, in his works on The Reformation (3 vols. Regensburg, 1846–1848) and on Luther (1851, Eng, tr., 1853) he is very severe on the Protestant leaders, and he also accepts, in his earlier works, the Ultramontane view then current on the practical condition of the Church of England, a view he later changed. Meanwhile, he had been well received in England; and he afterwards travelled in the Netherlands, Belgium and France, acquainting himself with the condition and prospects of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1842 he entered into correspondence with the leaders of the Tractarian movement in England, and some interesting letters have been preserved which were exchanged between him and Edward Pusey, William Ewart Gladstone and James Hope-Scott. When the last-named joined the Church of Rome he was warmly congratulated by Döllinger on the step he had taken.
He regretted the gradual and very natural trend of his new English allies towards extreme Ultramontane views, of which Archdeacon, afterwards Cardinal, Manning ultimately became an enthusiastic advocate. In 1845, Döllinger was made representative of his university in the second chamber of the Bavarian legislature. In 1847, in consequence of the fall from power of the Abel ministry in Bavaria, with which he had been in close relations, he was removed from his professorship at Munich, but in 1849 he was invited to occupy the chair of ecclesiastical history. In 1848, when nearly every throne in Europe was shaken by the spread of revolutionary sentiments, he was elected delegate to the national German assembly at Frankfurt – a sufficient proof that at this time he was regarded as no mere narrow and technical theologian, but as a man of wide and independent views.
Views on Papal authority
It has been said that Döllinger's change of attitude to the Papacy dated from the Italian war in 1859. It is more probable that, like Robert Grosseteste, he had been attached to the Papacy as the only centre of authority, and the only guarantee for public order in the Church, but that his experience of the actual working of the papal system (and especially a visit to Rome in 1857) had to a certain extent convinced him how his ideal diverged from the reality. He may also have been unfavourably impressed with the promulgation by Pope Pius IX in 1854 of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
Whatever his reasons, he ultimately became the leader of those who were energetically opposed to any addition to, or more stringent definition of, the powers which the Papacy had possessed for centuries. In some speeches at Munich in 1861 he outspokenly declared his view that the maintenance of the Roman Catholic Church did not depend on the temporal sovereignty of the pope. His book on The Church and the Churches (Munich, 1861) dealt to a certain extent with the same question. In 1863 he invited 100 theologians to meet at Mechelen and discuss the question which the liberals Lamennais and Lacordaire had raised in France, namely, the attitude that should be assumed by the Roman Catholic Church towards modern ideas. His address to the assembled divines was "practically a declaration of war against the Ultramontane party."
He had spoken boldly in favour of freedom for the Church in the Frankfurt national assembly in 1848, but he had found the authorities of his Church claiming a freedom of a very different kind from that for which he had contended. The freedom he claimed for the Church was freedom to manage her affairs without the interference of the state; the champions of the papal monarchy, and notably the Jesuits, desired freedom in order to put a stop to the dissemination of liberal ideas and modern errors. The addresses delivered in the Catholic congress at Mechelen were a declaration in the direction of a Liberal solution of the problem of the relations of Church and State. Pius IX seemed to hesitate, but there could be little doubt what course he would pursue, and after four days' debate the assembly was closed at his command. On 8 December 1864 Pius IX issued the famous Syllabus Errorum, in which he declared war against liberalism and unbridled scientism. It was in connection with this question that Döllinger published his Past and Present of Catholic Theology (1863) and his Universities Past and Present (Munich, 1867).
It was about this time that some of the leading theologians of the Roman Catholic Church, wishing to emphasize, as well as to define more clearly, the authority of the pope, advised Pius IX to declare papal infallibility a dogma of the universal Church. Many bishops and divines considered the proposed definition a false one. Others, though accepting it as the truth, declared its promulgation to be inopportune. The headquarters of the opposition was Germany, and its leader was Döllinger. Among his supporters were his intimate friends Johann Friedrich and J. N. Huber, in Bavaria. In the rest of Germany, Döllinger was supported by professors in the Catholic faculty of theology at Bonn, including the canonist Johann Friedrich von Schulte, Franz Heinrich Reusch, Joseph Langen, Joseph Hubert Reinkens, and other distinguished scholars. In Switzerland, Professor Eduard Herzog and other learned men supported the movement.
Early in 1869 the Letters of Janus (which were at once translated into English; 2nd ed. Das Papsttum, 1891) began to appear. They were written by Döllinger in conjunction with Huber and Friedrich. In these the tendency of the Syllabus towards obscurantism and papal despotism, and its incompatibility with modern thought, were attacked; and the evidence against papal infallibility, resting, as the Letters asserted, on the False Decretals, was marshalled for the Vatican Council (1869–1870).
During the council, which convened on December 8, 1869, the world was informed of proceedings in the Letters of Quirinus, written by Döllinger and Huber. Some of these letters appeared in the German newspapers, and an English translation was published by Charles Rivington. Augustin Theiner, the librarian at the Vatican, then in disgrace with the pope for his outspoken Liberalism, kept his German friends well informed of the course of the discussions. The proceedings of the Council were frequently stormy, and the opponents of the dogma of infallibility complained that they were interrupted, and that endeavours were made to put them down by clamour. The dogma was at length carried by an overwhelming majority, and the dissentient bishops, who – with the exception of two – had left the council before the final division, one by one submitted.
Döllinger, however, was not to be silenced. He headed a protest by forty-four professors in the University of Munich, and gathered together a congress at Munich, which met in August 1870 and issued a declaration adverse to the Vatican decrees. An immense ferment took place. In Bavaria, where Döllinger's influence was greatest, the strongest determination to resist the resolutions of the council prevailed. But the authority of the council was held by the archbishop of Munich to be paramount, and he called upon Döllinger to submit. Instead of submitting, Döllinger, on March 28, 1871, addressed a memorable letter to the archbishop, refusing to subscribe the decrees. They were, he said, opposed to scripture, to the traditions of the Church for the first 1000 years, to historical evidence, to the decrees of the general councils, and to the existing relations of the Roman Catholic Church to the state in every country in the world. "As a Christian, as a theologian, as an historian, and as a citizen," he added, "I cannot accept this doctrine." From the Roman Catholic viewing point he thereby became an heretic as he clearly and publicly denied a doctrine proposed by the Church Magisterium to be divinely revealed (de fide divina).
The archbishop replied by excommunicating the disobedient professor. This aroused fresh opposition. Döllinger was almost unanimously elected rector-magnificus of the university of Munich. Oxford, Edinburgh and Marburg universities conferred upon him the honorary degree of doctor of laws and Vienna that of philosophy. The dissident Bavarian clergy invited Bishop Loos of the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands, which for more than 150 years had existed independent of the Papacy, to administer the sacrament of Confirmation in Bavaria. The offer was accepted, and the bishop was received with triumphal arches and other demonstrations of joy by a part of the Bavarian Catholics. The three Dutch Old Catholic bishops declared themselves ready to consecrate a "non-infallibilist" bishop for Bavaria, if it were desired. The momentous question was discussed at a meeting of the opponents of the Vatican Council's doctrine, and it was resolved to elect a bishop and ask the Dutch Old-Order bishops to consecrate him. Döllinger, however, voted against the proposition, and withdrew from any further steps towards the promotion of this movement. This was the critical moment in the history of the resistance to the decrees. Had Döllinger, with his immense reputation as a professor, as a scholar, as a divine and as a man, allowed himself to be consecrated bishop of the Old Catholic Church, it is impossible to say how wide the schism would have been. But he declined to initiate a schism. His refusal lost Bavaria to the movement; and the number of Bavarian sympathizers was still further reduced when the seceders, in 1878, allowed their priests to marry, a decision which Döllinger, as was known, sincerely regretted. The Old Catholic Communion, however, was formally constituted, with Joseph Hubert Reinkens at its head as bishop, and it still continues to exist in Germany as a whole and, more marginally, in Bavaria.
Döllinger's attitude to the new community was not very clearly defined. It may be difficult to reconcile the two declarations made by him at different times: "I do not wish to join a schismatic society; I am isolated," and "As for myself, I consider that I belong by conviction to the Old Catholic community." The latter declaration was made some years after the former, in a letter to Pastor Widmann. The nearest approach to a reconciliation of the two statements would appear to be that while, at his advanced age, he did not wish to assume the responsibility of being head of a new denomination, formed in circumstances of exceptional difficulty, he was unwilling to condemn those who were ready to hazard the new departure. "By conviction" he belonged to the Old Catholics, but he never formally joined them. Yet at least he was ready to meet their leaders, to address them, and to discuss difficult problems with them.
His addresses on the reunion of the churches, delivered at the Bonn Conference of 1872, show that he was by no means hostile towards the newly formed Old Catholic communion, in whose interests these conferences were held. In 1874 and again in 1875, he presided over the reunion conferences held at Bonn and attended by leading ecclesiastics from the British Isles and from the Oriental non-Roman churches, among whom were Bishop Christopher Wordsworth of Lincoln; Bishop Harold Browne of Ely; Lord Plunket, Archbishop of Dublin; Lycurgus, Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Syros and Tenos; Canon Liddon; and the Russian Orthodox professor Ossmnine of St. Petersburg. At the latter of these two conferences, when Döllinger was 76 years of age, he delivered a series of addresses in German and English in which he discussed the state of theology on the continent, the reunion question and the religious condition of the various countries of Europe in which the Roman Catholic Church held sway. Not the least of his achievements on this occasion was the successful attempt, made with extraordinary tact, ability, knowledge and perseverance, to induce the Orientals, Anglicans and Old Catholics present to accept a formula of concord drawn from the writings of the leading theologians of the Greek Church on the long-vexed question of the procession of the Holy Spirit.
This result having been attained, he passed the rest of his days in retirement, emerging sometimes from his retreat to give addresses on theological questions, and also writing, in conjunction with his friend Reusch, his last book, Geschichte der Moralstreitigkeiten in der römisch-katholischen Kirche seit dem sechszehnten Jahrhundert mit Beiträgen zur Geschichte und Charakteristik des Jesuitenordens (Nördlingen, 1889), in which he deals with the moral theology of St. Alfonso de' Liguori. He died in Munich at the age of ninety-one. Even in articulo mortis he refused to receive the sacraments from the parish priest at the cost of submission, but the last offices were performed by his friend Professor Friedrich. He is buried in the Alter Südfriedhof in Munich.
In addition to the works referred to in the foregoing sketch, we may mention:The Eucharist in the First Three Centuries (Mainz, 1826)
A Church History (1836, Eng. trans. 1840)
Hippolytus and Callistus (1854, Eng. trans., 1876)
First Age of Christianity (1860)
Lectures on the Reunion of the Churches
The Vatican Decrees
Studies in European History (tr. M. Warre, 1890)
Miscellaneous Addresses (tr. M. Warre, 1894)
Georg Denzler / Ernst Ludwig Grasmück (Eds.): Geschichtlichkeit und Glaube. Zum 100. Todestag Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllingers (1799–1890). Munich Erich Wewel Verlag, 1990, ISBN 978-3-87904-173-2
Stefan Leonhardt: "Zwei schlechthin unausgleichbare Auffassungen des Mittelpunktes der christliche Religion". Ignaz Döllingers Auseinandersetzung mit der Reformation, ihrer Lehre und deren Folgen in seiner ersten Schaffensperiode. Goettingen Edition Ruprecht, 2nd edition 2008, ISBN 978-3-7675-7096-2
Life by Johann Friedrich (3 vols. 1899–1901)
Obituary notice in The Times, January 11, 1890
L. von Kobell, Conversations of Dr Döllinger (tr. by K Gould, 1892)