suppression of monasteries

Besides the extensive losses suffered by the Church as a result of the Reformation, civil authorities of certain European countries, desirous of the lands and income enjoyed by the religious orders, carried on a systematic seizure of monastic properties, notably in Germany, the Iberian peninsula, Italy, and England. In Germany and the Austrian dominions in the 18th century, Josephinism, a politico-religious movement named for Emperor Joseph II, made the Church subservient to the State. The continued existence of abbeys and convents was made dependent on their ability to prove themselves of material utility. Widespread secularization of monastic property for the benefit of Catholic German governments followed. The Netherlands, Liege, and certain regions of Switzerland annexed by France, witnessed the complete disappearance of their religious houses. During the reign of Joseph II, 1782, suppressions occurred within the Empire. In Switzerland, revolutionary wars brought destruction to the monasteries. In Spain, the government established by Napoleon authorized the suppression of all religious congregations, 1812. Restored and abolished several times, in 1859 houses of which disposal had not been made were given over to the care of the bishops. Certain orders which sent clergy to the colonial possessions, e.g., Augustinians, Dominicans, and Franciscans, were permitted to retain some of their foundations. About 1833 the monasteries of Portugal suffered similar treatment, with the exception of those of the Franciscans who ministered in the Portuguese colonies.

In Italy, Leopold, later Emperor Leopold II, sought the suppression of the monastic orders in the 18th century. The new Napoleonic governments were imbued with an anti-religious spirit which led to suppressions and confiscations in the various political sections of the country. With the establishment of Italian unity there came a general dissolution of the monasteries, those not charged with the care of souls being confiscated and sold. No decree was enacted against the reconstruction of communities, and some foundations have thus been able to carry on their work. The suppression of the English monasteries dates from the reign of Henry VIII. Thomas Cromwell, appointed by the king to visit the religious houses and to report on conditions found therein, delegated the task to certain commissioners. The fate of the monasteries, however, had been sealed before, and not as a result of, this visitation, designed to bring charges against the inmates. Chief of the investigators were Layton, Legh, Ap Rice, and London, who made their accusations in letters reporting on their work, and in the document “Comperta Monastica” which they drew up for Cromwell. The truth of the charges thus rests solely on the word of the inquisitors, whose careers make their testimony reasonably open to doubt. However, at the wish of the king, a decree of Parliament, enacted with reluctance, 1536, suppressed the smaller religious houses, i.e., those having a yearly income of less than £200. Popular resistance to the pillaging of these houses was organized in some sections of the country, and for the supposed “treason” of their superiors some of the larger abbeys were seized by the king. The wealth accruing to the crown as a result of these acquisitions did not fulfill Henry’s expectations, and he again sent out his agents, demanding the surrender of the larger monasteries, a work accomplished by cajolery, threats, and coercion. Parliament confirmed the new properties to the king in 1539.