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A Forgotten Hero In The Cause Of Truth

January 10, 2020 Frontpage No Comments


As we continue to reflect upon the legacy of the recently departed Alphonse Matt as a heroic defender of the truth in an age of rampant attacks upon our faith, it seems appropriate to share with you the story of another Catholic layman and family man who fought the good fight four centuries ago, but whose name is little known today — Georg Eder (1523-1587). I myself had never so much as heard of Eder until I discovered a book by him in the rare books collection of the seminary library where I work. What I was to learn of this forgotten hero of our faith is that like Alphonse Matt he fought his battles for the truth with the sword of the printed word.

For very many of us, when we think of traditional Catholic Christmas customs, one country that comes readily to mind is Austria. And the thought of Austria also brings to mind its magnificent Baroque Catholic churches and monasteries, the artistic effusion of the Church’s reaffirmation of her unshakeable beliefs in the confrontation with Protestantism. Perhaps what is not so much realized is the fact that things could have turned out quite differently for Austria, if it were not for the courage of men willing to stand up and defend the faith in that land.
In 1550 a young lay scholar from Germany named Georg Eder arrived in Vienna. His prior education in Cologne had been sponsored by the great Jesuit St. Peter Canisius, the latter using his inheritance to fund the schooling of this promising student.
In the years that followed, Eder earned two doctorates, one in law just a year after arriving in Vienna and the other in 1571, an honorary doctorate in theology, both received from the city’s university, where he served multiple terms as rector. Eder was also a family man, twice widowed in the course of his life, and the father of eight children. In 1581 an oration on “the praises of holy matrimony” was published in honor of the marriage of Eder’s daughter Regina to a nobleman named Geheimer Rat Leonhard Dillherr.
If on the one hand the University of Vienna was the principle venue for Eder’s achievements, it was also to be the focal point of the spiritual battles he was to fight. In 1564 Maximilian II acceded to the Hapsburg throne as holy Roman emperor. Although he was at least nominally a Catholic monarch, he was intent upon making compromises to accommodate the tide of Protestantism that had already swept across so much of Germany to the north. During Maximilian’s reign, Protestant professors gained a foothold at the University of Vienna, this despite the opposition of Eder and others to such a dangerous policy. Maximilian was a man of such inconstancy in matters of the faith that on his deathbed he made the dreadful decision of refusing Viaticum because the Church would not give the sacrament to him under both species as the Protestants had been demanding.
The emperor’s policies did not discourage Eder from fighting the spread of Protestantism in his own efficacious way. Articulate in Latin and well versed in Catholic theology, Eder penned twenty-two books, his writing devoted to defending the Church’s doctrines and refuting Protestant errors. He was likewise a prolific speaker in championing the Catholic cause, delivering in 1570 an “Oration for the Catholic Faith” to affirm the truth of Catholicism and denounce heresy. In a letter in which Eder spoke of how the battle for the faith had to be fought by the spiritual means of persuasion rather than by force of arms, he playfully said of himself, “I am a Latin soldier; I have nothing more than a few bread knives…” (letter to Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria, May 30, 1579, quoted in Elaine Fulton, Catholic Belief and Survival in Late Sixteenth-Century Vienna: The Case of Georg Eder (1523-87), Aldershot, England, Ashgate, 2007, p. 142, footnote).
Eder’s first two apologetic works were published in 1568. His Oeconomia bibliorum provided Catholic interpretations of all the books of the Bible as a practical aid to parish priests in explaining the Scriptures and refuting Protestant errors. His Partitiones, Catechismi, Catholici provided the complete teachings of the Council of Trent in a paraphrased form to help less advanced Catholic students to understand and embrace the Council’s decisions and definitions of Church doctrine. In both books Eder employs charts and diagrams as visual aids for his readers.
Soon after its publication, the Oeconomia bibliorum received an impressive endorsement from Pope Saint Pius V, who in a January 1569 letter to Eder observed, “…we have rejoiced in the Lord, and have judged your work well set forth; we have commended both your zeal for the Catholic faith, and your devotion in the Lord…” (Latin text in Georg Eder, Oeconomia bibliorum, sive Partitionum theologicarum libri quinque, Cologne, Gervinus Calenius and Johann Quentel, 1571, sig. *1v).
Both the Oeconomia bibliorum and the Partitiones bear on the final page a unique “coat of arms,” an emblem of Georg Eder in the form of a cross with the instruments of the Passion within an oval rimmed by the words from the Introit of Holy Thursday, “But it behooves us to glory in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ…” Scarcely could Eder have imagined the cross he himself was about to face.
Up until 1573, the emperor Maximilian seemed to have no problem with Eder’s spirited apologetics. In fact, for years Eder had served in high-ranking government posts under this monarch. But things changed dramatically when in 1573 Eder published an apologetic work in the vernacular, his Evangelische Inquisition. It was his answer to what was happening to his own university. Among other things, Eder warned of those he called “court Christians” (“Hofchristen”), Catholics steeped in worldly learning who were so lukewarm in the practice of their faith that they thought nothing of making compromises with Protestantism. He describes such people as a threat to the unity of the Catholic Church, sowing confusion by throwing into doubt the clear-cut distinction between right and wrong.
Perhaps because Eder gave the emperor the benefit of the doubt that he had never directly intended to make such compromises, he foresaw no objections to his book from Maximilian and even sent him a personal copy when it was published. But when “truth speaks to power” there is often a price to be paid. Maximilian knew that his policy had been precisely that critiqued by Eder, and he responded with rage. Almost immediately, the emperor issued a draconian decree commanding Eder never to write another word on the subject of religion and ordering the confiscation of every copy of Eder’s book. Maximilian also demanded from Eder the names of his publisher and the university faculty who had read and approved his book, as well as detailed information as to where every copy of the book had been sent. Eder was threatened with severe punishment if he failed to comply with any of these orders.
As a married man concerned for his family, Eder was terrified by the monarch’s threats and did all he could to comply with the decree. Eder clearly thought himself to be helplessly at Maximilian’s mercy. But news of what had happened to Eder reached the sympathetic ears of others in Catholic Europe who were willing to come to his defense. Among these was the illustrious Polish prelate Cardinal Stanislaus Hosius. In a letter written less than two months after Maximilian had issued his condemnatory decree, the cardinal told Eder, “The crown of justice has been set in store for you, which the Lord will grant you on that day as a just judge, since you will have suffered persecutions for His name’s sake…” (letter of Cardinal Hosius to Georg Eder, Nov. 21, 1573, in Fulton, Catholic Belief and Survival, p. 94).
An even more powerful ally soon stepped into the fray – Pope Gregory XIII. While the specifics of what the pontiff communicated to Maximilian are not known, it is clear from the emperor’s reply that he had received a potent reprimand from the pope. Maximilian’s response was that of a stubborn and arrogant man, in which he attempted to justify his actions by denigrating Eder. But Pope Gregory would hear none of it; not only did he reward Eder for his service to the Church with a papal medal and a monetary gift, as well as a personal letter of commendation, but the Holy See even floated for a time the idea of making the widowed Eder a bishop. Eder turned down this proposal, but just the mere suggestion of it spoke volumes for the depth of the pontiff’s confidence in this faithful son of the Church persecuted by a confessionally erratic monarch.
The very book that had brought down upon Eder the wrath of the emperor had won for him the admiration of another crowned prince of Europe, Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria. The duke had just finished reading Eder’s Evangelische Inquisition and had already penned a letter congratulating the author for his achievement in defense of the Catholic faith when news began to reach him of Maximilian’s punishment of Eder. Albrecht became a supporter and patron of Eder and his apologetic efforts, making it possible for Eder to resume his Catholic writing career with the publication of seven more books between 1579 and 1585. Eder for his part kept Albrecht and his successor Wilhelm informed of the dire situation of the Church in Austria over the years that followed, reporting on everything from the ruin caused by scandalous immorality in the ranks of the clergy to the monstrous desecration of a crucifix by fanatical Protestants.
A portrait of Georg Eder in the form of a copper engraving made in 1574 depicts the face of a careworn man; clearly the confrontation with the emperor Maximilian had taken its toll. Yet Eder knew it was a price worth paying. In a 1579 letter to Duke Albrecht V, he expressed succinctly the principle that had guided his apostolate of defending the faith: “The welfare of the Catholic religion is of more importance to me than my own welfare” (letter to Duke Albrecht V, May 30, 1579, in Fulton, Catholic Belief and Survival, p. 142, footnote).
Like Alphonse Matt, Georg Eder did not live to see the full victory of the Catholic cause in the battles of his day. But the flourishing of the Catholic faith that subsequently arose in Austria was built upon the labors, trials and sacrifices of men like Eder. And it will likewise be so, God willing, when at length the light of Christ ultimately triumphs over the darkness of our own age. Christus vincit. Christus regnat. Christus imperat.

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