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Hermes, Georg


Philosopher and theologian whose thought aroused great controversy in nineteenth-century German Catholic theology; b. Dreierwalde, Westphalia, April 22, 1775; d. Bonn, May 26, 1831. During his philosophical studies at the University of Münster (179294), Hermes was very much influenced by his reading of Kant and Fichte. This initial contact with philosophy was a disturbing experience that unsettled his own faith and led him to study theology in an attempt to resolve his personal religious difficulties. When, however, his theological studies did not give him the certainty for which he had hoped, he resolved to hold to the fundamental truths of Catholicism, while undertaking what was to be a lifelong attempt to establish the rationality of Christian faith in a way consistent with the thought of the Enlightenment. After teaching for two years at the Gymnasium in Münster, he was ordained a priest in 1799. In 1805 he published his first work, Untersuchungen über die innere Wahrheit des Christentums, which was enthusiastically received and which led to his being named in 1807 professor of dogmatic theology at Münster. Both as a priest and as a professor of theology Hermes was highly respected by his students and colleagues, although there were some, notably Clement August Droste zu Vischering, the future archbishop of Cologne, who were disturbed by Hermes's apparent deviations from traditional methods in teaching theology. In 1819 Hermes published the first part of his major theological work, Einleitung in die christkatholische Theologie: Philosophische Einleitung. This work, in which he attempted to establish the philosophical presuppositions of religious faith (i.e., the possibility of knowing the truth, the existence and attributes of God, the possibility and knowability of a supernatural revelation), was also enthusiastically received in German academic circles. Shortly after its publication, Hermes accepted a professorship in the theological faculty of the newly established University of Bonn.

Despite the continuing opposition of some professors and bishops, Hermes was greatly respected by the majority of his colleagues at Bonn and was appointed by his friend and patron Archbishop Ferdinand August von Spiegel to important posts in the Diocese of Cologne. By reason of his close association with the archbishop and his acceptability to the Prussian government, his students were, moreover, appointed to theological professorships throughout Germany; after 1826 the faculty at Bonn was staffed almost exclusively by Hermes's followers. While enjoying this academic success, he published in 1829 the second part of his introduction to theology, Einleitung in die christkatholische Theologie: Positive Einleitung, in which he sought to work out an apologetic that would establish the factuality of that revelation whose possibility he had established in the earlier, philosophical, part of his work.

The opposition that Hermes's theology had aroused during his lifetime became more effective soon after his death. As a result of a denunciation made by German bishops, his works were examined at length by a group of Roman theologians, including the Jesuit G. Perrone, and in the brief dum acerbissimas (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 27382740), issued on Sept. 26, 1835, Gregory XVI condemned the rationalism judged to be implicit in Hermes's teaching and placed his works (including part of an incomplete work, Christkatholische Dogmatik, published in 1834 by Hermes's disciple, J. H. Achterfeldt) on the Index. In the following year a subsequent decree placed on the Index those parts of Hermes's Dogmatik that had not been listed in the original decree.

This papal condemnation, which astonished Hermes's followers and which the Prussian government prevented from being published in Bonn, intensified rather than settled the controversy over Hermes's orthodoxy. The controversy became even more bitter when in 1836 Droste zu Vischering succeeded von Spiegel as archbishop of Cologne and required all his candidates for the priesthood to subscribe to 18 anti-Hermesian propositions. In 1837 two of Hermes's most prominent followers, P. J. Elvenich and J. W. Braun, went to Rome to appeal the condemnation. When Roman authorities rejected both this and all subsequent attempts to justify Hermes's orthodoxy, most of the Hermesians accepted the papal brief, and those who did not were removed from teaching. In 1852 the Hermesian Zeitschrift für Philosophie und katholische Theologie ceased publication. With that, hermesianism, later to be condemned at vatican council i, ceased to be an active theological movement.

See Also: semirationalism.

Bibliography: a. thouvenin, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, 15 v. (Paris 190350) 6.2:22882303. r. schlund and e. hegel, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 10 v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 195765) 5:258261. a. fortescue, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. j. hastings, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 6:624. h. reusch, Allgemeine deutsche Biographie (Leipzig 18751910) 12:192196. p. tschackert, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, ed. s. m. jackson, 13 v. (Grand Rapids, Mich. 195154) 5:242243. r. aubert, Le Problème de l'acte de foi (3d ed. Louvain 1958) 103112. e. hocedez, Histoire de la the théologie au XIX esiècle (Brussels-Paris 180031) 1:177203.

[j. w. healey]

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