The name applied to a series of laws enacted by the Prussian Diet May 1873-1875, marking the beginning of the conflict between Church and State in Germany, generally known as the Kulturkampf.
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:
So much at variance with the Constitutions were these laws that the two paragraphs (15 and 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.
First and foremost, they refused to present to the government the candidates for nomination which led to a conflict between Church and State.
The bishops and many of the clergy were fined or imprisoned, 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 save those which devoted themselves 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 (21 May 1886, and 29 April 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.
- 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.
- The law of 12 May 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.
- The law of 13 May restricted the Church's power of punishing.
- The law of 14 May laid down rules for those who desired to leave the Church, declaring it sufficient for them to manifest their intention before a secular judge.
New Catholic Dictionary