Conservative opposition to the religious reforms of Emperor Joseph II

Date

1974

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Abstract

During the eighteenth century--the age of reason--Austria remained a bastion of conservatism and religious orthodoxy. It was a state characterized by privilege, tradition, and particularism, and was therefore quite unprepared to accept the absolutism of Emperor Joseph II--the enlightened despot. The Emperor, during his short reign of ten years, tried to propel Austria into the mainstream of the age of reason with a series of administrative and ecclesiastical reforms which have come to be known as Josephinism. Josephinist reform had its basis in the formation of an enlightened state governed by utilitarianism, equality, and centralization. These unique reformist and egalitarian tendencies of Josephinism aroused and made vocal a whole camp of conservative opposition which fought against the new rationalism of enlightened rule. The political opponents of the Emperor's reform program fought to prevent the establishment of a state which would abolish special privilege. The religious opposition in turn set itself against Josephinist ecclesiastical reform which aimed to subordinate the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in Austria to that of the State. These two factions of opposition joined forces in an effort to defeat the Emperor's plans for reform. Both factions aligned themselves against a loss of privilege. Political particularism and religious orthodoxy had a common base in that one seemed to complement the other. To the political conservative the predominance of one religion was conducive to public order, and to the religious conservative the special privilege of certain political institutions provided a bulwark for the preservation of the authority and influence of the Church. Josephinism was successful in so far as it was able to reduce the influence of political and religious conservatives alike. The passage of Imperial edicts establishing religious toleration in the Empire ended the Austrian Catholics' privileged political position and established a new social and political order based on the individual's usefulness to the state. Josephinism was not entirely successful, however, in the creation of an enlightened State, and its failures were primarily due to the rashness of Joseph II. His despotic rule was based on a cold, logical, and unhesitating implementation of policy which cut against the grain of a basically conservative society. The conservatives did not completely defeat the Emperor's reform program, but they did much to compel Joseph II to limit its extent and to compel Joseph's successors to modify its implementation.

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Keywords

History, Austria, Eighteenth century, Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, 1741-1790, Holy Roman Empire. Emperor (1765-1790 : Joseph II), Church and state, Josephinism

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