Falk Laws

The Falk Laws, named after education minister Adalbert Falk, (or the May Laws) of 1873-1875 were legislative bills enacted in the German Kingdom of Prussia during the Kulturkampf conflict with the Catholic Church. The May Laws had the fullest support of Bismarck, though their actual author was Falk, the Prussian minister of public worship. Preliminary to the May Laws was the abolition of the Catholic department in the ministry of public worship (1871), the placing of the State in exclusive control of education, and the expulsion of the Jesuits from the empire (1873). A year later a like expulsion was decreed against the Redemptorists; Lazarists; Priests of the Holy Ghost, and Nuns of the Sacred Heart as being religious associations allied to the Jesuits. The May Laws proper of 1873 were chiefly as follows:

  • 95.The law of May respected the education and nomination of the clergy. According to this, ecclesiastical positions were open only to native Germans who had been educated at the German gymnasium, who had spent three years pursuing theology at a German university, who had passed the state examination, and who upon presentation by the bishop were accepted by the president of the province.
  • 96.The law of May 12, respected the disciplinary powers of ecclesiastical superiors and established a secular court for deciding ecclesiastical questions, bestowing on it the right, under certain circumstances, of dismissing the clergy from their posts.
  • 97.The law of May 13, restricted the Church's power of punishing.
  • 98.The law of May 14, laid down rules for those who desired to leave the Church, declaring it sufficient for them to manifest their intention before a secular judge.
Education minister Falk, Die Gartenlaube, 1872

So much at variance with the Constitutions were these laws that the two paragraphs (15,18) guaranteeing the independence and self-government of the Church, had first to be amended (1873) and finally together with another (16) entirely abrogated. Although serious punishments were threatened violators of these laws, the Prussian Episcopate rejected them as a whole. Foremost, they refused to present the government with candidates for nomination, which led to a conflict between Church and State. The bishops, and many of the clergy, were fined or imprisoned—and some were removed from posts, notably, two archbishops, Ledochowski of Gnesen-Posen and Melchers of Cologne; four bishops, Brinkman of Munster, Blum of Limburg, Forster of Breslau, Martin of Paderborn; one auxiliary bishop, Janiszewski of Posen. Moreover, the May Laws were made more severe. By the military law, the divinity students lost their privilege respecting military service. Salaries due from the state were withheld from episcopal administrators and bishops until they would write their submission to the laws of the state; religious orders were dissolved except for those devoted to the care of the sick (1875). A law was passed enacting that clergy who refused to submit when ejected from office by the secular court might be expelled either from a certain locality or from the empire (1874). The government made great efforts to execute its laws against the Church but it was in vain. Most of the clergy and laity remained loyal to the bishops, and the Center Party under the leadership of Ludwig Windthorst, each year increased its membership in the Imperial Parliament. The May Laws were finally modified by two comprehensive laws (May 21, 1886, and April 29, 1887), which in substance yielded to the Church the control of ecclesiastical education; permitted the reassertion of the papal disciplinary authority over the clergy; allowed the restoration of public worship and the administration of the sacraments; the application of ecclesiastical disciplinary measures; and held out to the religious orders the hope of returning. In 1905 the last remnant of the May Laws disappeared when the anti-Jesuit Law was modified.


During the Italian unification affecting the Papal State, Pope Pius IX in 1864 had published his Syllabus Errorum of 80 thesis statements denounced as false teaching and the encyclical Quanta cura against freedom of religion and separation of church and state. In summer 1870 the First Vatican Council had affirmed the jurisdictional authority of the Pope and proclaimed his infallibility as a dogma. These developments were suspiciously viewed as "ultramontanism" by liberal circles in the newly established German Empire, dominated by the mainly Protestant Prussian state, while the forces of political catholicism organised themselves in the Centre Party. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck especially noted their patronage of the Catholic Polish population in the Prussian Province of Posen, in West Prussia and in Upper Silesia as well as of the French in Alsace-Lorraine.

In 1871 Bismarck had the Pulpit Law implemented into the German Strafgesetzbuch Penal Code, prohibiting any public statement of priests in political affairs. The Gniezno archbishop Mieczysław Halka Ledóchowski was sentenced to two years in prison for violation. The "Jesuits' Law" of 1872 banned any branch establishment of the Society of Jesus on the territory of the German Reich. On 11 March 1872, Minister Adalbert Falk by law abolished any Catholic or Protestant administration of schools in Prussia and assigned the supervision solely to the ministry of education. German relations with the Vatican were cut after Pope Pius IX had rejected the ambassador Gustav Adolf Hohenlohe, commented by Bismarck with his "We will not walk to Canossa" speech in the Reichstag parliament on March 14.


In view of the Catholic resistance, the May Laws of 1873 gave responsibility for the training and appointment of clergy to the state, which resulted in the closing of nearly half of the seminaries in Prussia by 1878. Any cleric had to prove a university education and take a state examination. His appointment was subject to an obligation of disclosure to the Province's Oberpräsident (Upper President), who had the power to veto. During the reading in the Prussian Landtag in January, the Progressive deputy Rudolf Virchow had called the bill a Kulturkampf struggle for freedom from the church, a term soon adopted by both sides. The regulations translated into fewer seminarians and more parishes without priests, so that in many places half the parishes stood vacant, leaving hundreds of thousands of Catholics without regular spiritual care. In Trier, Catholics responded to the closing of the seminary by hosting seminarians in their homes and classes were conducted less formally. More commonly, seminarians were sent abroad for training, although such stop-gap measures did not nearly make up for the losses imposed by the May Laws.

At the same time a Prussian court for church matters was established. Those bishops acting contrary to the state laws were to be declared deposed. In October 1873 the Mainz bishop and Centre Party founder Wilhelm Emmanuel Freiherr von Ketteler, having publicly condemned the May Laws on a pilgrimage to Kevelaer, was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison, resulting in fierce protests. In March 1874 the Trier bishop Matthias Eberhard was put under arrest and died shortly after he was released from nine months of custody in 1876. Those assisting priests in contravention of the May Laws were subject to fines, arrest and imprisonment, and 210 people were convicted of such crimes in the first four months of 1875. On 13 July 1874 an assault on Bismarck's life by a Catholic journeyman at Bad Kissingen failed.

The May Law of 1874 even enabled the state administration to expatriate reluctant clergymen, one year later all congregations were dissolved except for those engaged in nursing. In April 1875 the Prussian Landtag passed the "Breadbasket Law", divesting clerics of any state support, as long as they did not officially acknowledge the primacy of the German Empire.

In January 1876 the Bavarian Pfaelzer Zeitung reported that the Bavarian Minister of War had been admonished to discontinue the exemptions from conscription previously accorded to priests and theological students.[1]


The May Laws succeeded in making life harder for the clerics, but the failure of the May Laws to cause the total collapse of Catholic resistance and allow for complete control of the Church by the state is one facet of the broader failure of the Kulturkampf. Bismarck ultimately precipitated the unification of the German Catholics—despite the split-off of the Old Catholic Church—and strengthened their ties with the Roman papacy. In the federal election of 1874, the Catholic Centre Party gained 27.9% of the votes cast, confirming their status as the second strongest parliamentary group in the Reichstag. Furthermore, the chancellor's measures offended several of his Protestant national liberal allies. Bismarck had spotted a new and more serious threat in the rise of the Social Democratic Party, and was aware that he could not go without the Catholics' support to enact his Anti-Socialist Laws.

Pope Pius IX died on 7 February 1878, and in the negotiations with his successor Leo XIII the implications of the May Laws were attenuated. Diplomatic relations were resumed in 1882 and the Kulturkampf officially ended by the "Peace Laws" of 1886/87.


  • This article incorporates text from the 1910 version of the New Catholic Dictionary article "Laws, May", a publication now in the public domain.