Who Was Hubert Jedin?

In November, 1991, the Homiletic and Pastoral Review published a memorandum of Hubert Jedin written in 1968. But many in the English-speaking world were quite unaware of who this man was and what his contribution to the Church consisted of. What follows is a brief sketch of his life.

Perhaps the most outstanding church historian of the Catholic world died July 16, 1980, in Bonn, then–West Germany. He was born June 17, 1900, in Grossbriesen, near Breslau, Upper-Silesia. After World War II this became Polish territory and today the city is called Wrocław. He was ordained a diocesan priest on March 2, 1924, and did work in a parish for the next two years. Toward the end of his life he was awarded the title “monsignor.”

On September 1, 1933, his academic authorization was taken away by the German authorities because of his background. In 1936 he was named archivist of the Archdiocese of Breslau. Since his mother was a Catholic convert of Jewish ancestry, the Gestapo arrested Father Jedin in 1938, but he managed to get released and left Germany on November 1, 1939. He spent the next ten years in Rome, 1939–49, quietly researching the history of the Council of Trent concerning which he became the acknowledged expert. He used only the original documents in the archives.1 Luckily friends such as Karl August Fink helped him retrieve out of Germany his scholarly papers, which were of use to him in Rome when he lived at the Campo Santo Teutonico inside the boundaries of the Vatican City State.

This exhaustive and original study of the primary source materials resulted in the publication of four large volumes of The History of the Council of Trent, only two of which have yet appeared in English.2 Some smaller studies of his are also well known. One of them is his 1937 Papal Legate at the Council of Trent: Cardinal Seripando, appearing in English in 1947. Others were on Tommaso Campeggio (1958), Carlo Borromeo (1971), and Cardinal Caesar Baronius (1978). He was a lifelong specialist on councils, and on Trent in particular. One of his works was on the closing itself, Der Abschluss des Trienter Konzils 1562/63 (1964).3

After the announcement (1959) by Pope John XXIII Roncalli that an ecumenical council would be held, Jedin published that same year his Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church: An Historical Outline (English trans. 1960) and then, somewhat later, as Vatican II was in session, in 1964 mentioned just above, Crisis and Closure of the Council of Trent (English trans. 1967). These were prepared for seminarians and other interested students of ecclesiastical history who were in need of some perspective on just what an ecumenical council was supposed to be in the Catholic Church.

For all of this, Jedin was also a generalist. He launched the massive ten-volume series History of the Church under his own editorship. It was originally designed as a text for students, but soon the volumes became more elaborate and detailed. The series has been called “the Fliche-Martin of our time,”4 and is today a standard reference. It appeared in seven languages nearly simultaneously with the German original. The tenth volume was at last translated into English in 1981, one year after his death. An abridgement by D. Larrimore Holland of the first three volumes appeared in English in 1992. The introduction to the first volume, however, tells us about his motivation as well as his science: church history must be done from the point of view of faith. This was Jedin the Catholic speaking, not just Jedin the scholar.

Jedin had to suspend his work for four years, 1962–65, in order to serve as peritus at the Second Vatican Council. Very few historians of councils actually get to participate in one as he did! I know of no other who had this unique privilege. This also explains the lengthy interval of time between the publication of his first two volumes on Trent (1949, 1957) and the second two (1970, 1975).

From 1949 to 1965 he was professor in Bonn; before and after those years he received six honorary doctorates, including one from Louvain, and many other international awards and invitations. In 1970 Pope Paul VI had offered him the position of Prefect of the Vatican Library, though Jedin declined on the grounds of advancing age and infirmity. As early as 1951 Pius XII had offered him the post of Vice-prefect of the Vatican Library, but he had declined it even then, preferring to succeed Wilhelm Neuss in the chair of church history in Bonn. Poor health during the 1970s prevented him from making the kind of progress he wished, however, but, fortunately, in the end none of his projected works were left incomplete.

The autobiographical book Lebensbericht appeared posthumously in 1984. It was not the first such effort, since his early youth had already been presented as Eine Jugend in Schlesien, 1900–1925, and published in 1979 in the Archiv für schlesische Kirchengeschichte. This book about his later life outlines his professional career and productivity, rather than primarily providing us with personal reflections or a spiritual “journal of a soul.” Nonetheless, it received some negative reviews in the United States from those who said Jedin had become too alarmed and saddened toward the end of his life because of his conviction that Vatican II had been either tragically misunderstood or, even worse, betrayed.

He communicated his frank opinion on the matter in 1968 to the West German bishops shortly after the annual “Catholic Day” (Katholikentag)5 held at Essen that year. The event seemed to promote opposition to Humanae vitae more than anything else. He drew upon his knowledge of Trent and the Reformation process to illustrate for them a similar process underway in the postconciliar twentieth century. It had never been lost on the informed reader that the deliberate subtitle of his Crisis and Closure of the Council of Trent was “a retrospective view from the Second Vatican Council.” The translation of this memorandum emerged for the first time, perhaps belatedly, to benefit an English-speaking readership.6 It was an unusual “activist’s intervention” from a man who had been all his life a pure and almost reclusive professional.7


A shorter version of this article appeared in The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter, vol. 16, no. 1 (December 1992): 19–20.

  1. Archivist and his friend, Msgr. Hermann Hoberg (1907–92) assisted in the task, especially during the war years. Later, Hoberg was vice-prefect of the Archivio Segreto Vaticano from 1956–79.
  2. This was more than ambitious, and others before him had tried, notably Vincenz Schweitzer.
  3. A collection of about sixty of his principal articles was printed in 1966, in two volumes, as Kirche des Glaubens, Kirche der Geschichte. Ausgewählte Aufsätze und Vorträge (Fribourg-en-Br.-Baâle-Vienne: Herder). Some of these articles are on the philosophy and nature of the work of the church historian, while several others are short or medium-length biographies of principal figures.
  4. See Augustin Fliche and Victor Martin, Histoire de l’Église depuis les origines jusqu’à nos jours, vols. I–XXI (Paris: Bloud & Gay, 1934–52); English trans., A History of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (London–St. Louis: 1956). This series was originally planned in twenty-six volumes, but was never completed. It was intended to surpass other multi-volume works such as the Fernand Mourret Histoire Générale de L’Église. Martin died in 1945 and Fliche in 1951. Between the appearance of the first volume in 1934 and the year of Fliche’s death, only seventeen numbers had been published, fifteen of which were personally edited by Fliche. The editorship was continued by J.B. Duroselle and E. Jarry. In 1952 Roger Aubert wrote volume 21, and in 1964 republished it as Vatican I. These volumes were never in sequence: volume 19 appeared in 1955; volume 19, part II, in 1956; volume 18 in 1960; volume 14 in 1962; and its part II only in 1964. Some years later an Italian team published volume 22, which is not available in French or English translation. Works of this scope are so ambitious as to be nearly impossible in our age of specialization. Nevertheless, as a general church history, the collection “Fliche-Martin” is considered a classic.
  5. Holmes tells us: “The first meeting of a national assembly of German Catholics, the Katholikentag, had taken place in Mainz during 1848. This congress had opposed the last remnants of Josephinism or any movement toward establishing a national Church in Germany, while demanding the freedom ‘to implant Catholic principles in life as a whole and to work for a solution to the social problem.’ German Catholics at the time were becoming more conscious of their rights and their strength and more Ultramontane, but not more clerical. The Katholikentag, which eventually met annually, provided an obvious forum for the discussion of social issues and this emphasis on social problems was further stimulated by the formation of the Volksverein or meetings of Catholic workers.” From J. Derek Holmes, The Triumph of the Holy See: A Short History of the Papacy in the Nineteenth Century (London: Burns and Oates, 1978), 174. The 92nd Deutschen Katholikentag was held in Dresden in 1994.
  6. At least once, though, it had been referred to in print, without the full text given. See Robert A. Graham, SJ, in his “Vatican” column written for the Knights of Columbus magazine Columbia as “Byproducts of Vatican II: Is There Apostasy Ahead?” vol. LXV, no. 7 (July 1985): 4.
  7. Possibly the only other time was his public controversy with Archbishop Annibale Bugnini over the question of the liturgy. Jedin published an attack on the reform process in L’Osservatore Romano in 1969. Bugnini also had a conflict over the liturgy with Louis Bouyer. For Bugnini’s account, see The Reform of the Liturgy, 1948–1975 by Annibale Bugnini, trans. Matthew J. Connell (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990), 283–84.
Fr. Brian Van Hove, SJ About Fr. Brian Van Hove, SJ

Fr. Brian Van Hove, SJ, studied theology in Toronto, Ontario, and was ordained in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1982. He served for four years as assistant pastor of St. Francis Xavier (College) Church in St. Louis. He received his PhD in Church history from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, in 1999. He also served as chaplain to the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma in Michigan. Now retired, he lives in St. Louis, MO.