Blog Post

Was Meister Eckhart a Heretic?

meister eckhartNo, and the Dominican Order has been told by Rome that they are free to refer to him as a good and orthodox theologian.

Even though Eckhart was investigated for being a heretic during the Inquisition and some of his works were found to be heretical, he was never personally condemned as a heretic.

According to Father John Hardon’s Catholic Encyclopedia, Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) was a German Dominican mystic. “In 1329, Pope John XXII condemned twenty-eight of Eckhart's sentences as heretical or dangerous, e.g.: ‘We are totally transformed into God and changed into Him . . . Though a person commits a thousand mortal sins, if he is rightly disposed, he should not wish not to have committed them … A good man is the only begotten Son of God.' Investigation of his doctrine has since indicated Eckhart's personal orthodoxy, while admitting indiscretion in language and the fact that his writings have been used by persons unfavorable to the Church, as Kant to defend agnostic idealism, Hegel to defend pantheism, and Rosenberg to defend Nazism.”

Meister Eckhart is thought to have been born between the years 1250 and 1260 in the village of Tambach, near Gotha, in the German Landgraviate of Thuringia. Little is known about his family and early life except that his Christian name was Eckhart and his surname was von Hochheim. He joined the Dominican order at the age of 18 and is believed to have studied at Cologne and perhaps also at the University of Paris.

The first real evidence of his existence is found in 1294 when he preached the Easter Sermon at the Dominican convent of St. Jacques in Paris. Later that same year, he was made prior at Erfurt and Provincial of Thuringia. His first work entitled The Talks of Instructions/Counsels on Discernment, was a series of talks delivered to Dominican novices. In 1302 he was given the Dominican chair of theology at Paris where he remained for one year before returning to Erfurt where he was given responsibility for 47 convents.

It was about this time when complaints began to be made against him but they were not serious enough to deter an appointment to serve as vicar-general for Bohemia with authority to restore the monasteries located in the area. He served as Provincial of Saxony until 1311 during which time he founded three convents. Thereafter, he served as a teacher in Paris, a magister (a prestigious position previously granted only to Thomas Aquinas). This was followed by a long period of time spent in Strasbourg where he seems to have been involved with spiritual direction and preaching in Dominican convents.

In 1320, a passage in a manuscript refers to a prior Eckhart at Frankfurt who was suspected of heresy – a reference many believe concerned Meister Eckhart, even though it is considered unusual that a man under suspicion of heresy would be permitted to teach at Dominican schools. His detractors were mostly Franciscans and by the 20th Century, many scholars believed that accusations of heresy were largely a result of tensions between the two orders.

Nevertheless, The Eckhart Society reports that he was indeed called before the Inquisition in 1326 by the Franciscan Archbishop of Cologne, Henry of Virneburg.

“It is not clear why the Archbishop proceeded against Eckhart, but it is known he was very conservative and may have found some of Elkhart’s ideas troublesome. Further, at this time the feud between the Franciscans and the Dominicans was at its height. Eckhart objected to being tried by the Archbishop’s court and appealed to the Pope to judge his case. When this was granted he walked the 500 miles to Avignon.," The Society reports.

Eckhart died in Avignon in 1328 while participating in the Papal enquiry into his writings and teachings which had not yet concluded.

“Eckhart was never himself condemned as a heretic. Twenty eight of his articles out of a total of 108, which were objected to by the Inquisitors in Cologne, were condemned by Pope John XXII who was himself later condemned as a heretic,” the Society reports.

In 1980, a group of prominent people within the Dominican Order requested the General Chapter of the Dominican Order “to examine the possibility of issuing an official declaration of orthodoxy of Meister Eckhart and rescinding the condemnation of some of his teaching contained in the Bull . . .”

This request was made due to the fact that modern scholarly consensus found that Eckhart's teachings were not heretical. The Master of the Dominican Order agreed to set up the Eckhart Commission to study his writings. In 1986, the Commission concluded that “on the basis of our studies it is already clear to us that a reconsideration of the teaching of Meister Eckhart is justified.”

In 1992, a request was made to then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to lift the censure on Eckhart’s 28 articles.

It was not until the spring of 2010 that Timothy Radcliffe, then Master of the Dominicans, received a response. As Radcliffe explains, “We tried to have the censure lifted on Eckhart [...] and were told that there was really no need since he had never been condemned by name, just some propositions which he was supposed to have held, and so we are perfectly free to say that he is a good and orthodox theologian.”

Atlhough Radcliffe himself has come under fire for questionable teaching, I could find no evidence that the Vatican has ever disputed this statement.