Think Piece

Was There a “Catholic Enlightenment?”: Rethinking Religion and the Age of Lights

by guest contributor Shaun Blanchard

By Shaun Blanchard

When “the Enlightenment” is conceived of as a unitary phenomenon – as the harbinger of a modern secularism publicly committed to reason, democracy, rights, and tolerance – the Roman Catholic Church is often portrayed as its early modern antithesis. A “secular master narrative” (Sorkin, 3) of the Enlightenment, usually with its sun located in Paris and its rays wherever the influence of the philosophes shone, is the story of the dispelling of superstitious and bigoted darkness. This once-commonplace “triumphalist linear teleology” (Sorkin, 1) has been challenged for many decades and is now, for all intents and purposes, overturned. As Franz Fillafer and many other historians have convincingly demonstrated “the Enlightenment was many before it became one” (112). The rediscovery of a Catholic Enlightenment, according to Gabriel Glickman, “has become central to the larger redefinition of ‘Enlightenment’, as a phenomenon shaped just as strongly by reformist confessional [i.e. “religious”] cultures as by a rising tide of radical secularism” (290). As S. J. Barnett correctly argued, the “broad politico-religious struggle – rather than the actions of the philosophes – provided the most significant challenge to the status quo of Enlightenment Europe” (168). This was certainly true in the many lands ruled by enlightened Catholic sovereigns, especially the vast domains of the Habsburgs (including Austria, Tuscany, Lombardy, and the Austrian Netherlands) and the Bourbons of Spain, Naples, and Parma. Such historical facts force a reevaluation not only of the relationship between Catholicism and Enlightenment, but between Catholicism and modernity as a whole, the emergence of which was, to use Jeffrey Burson’s language in his recent monograph The Culture of Enlightening, a deeply “entangled” process, the product of interlocking and plural secular and religious-confessional phenomena.

Among the many “religious” enlightenments that have recently been recovered, a “Catholic Enlightenment” actually has one of the oldest historiographical pedigrees. Although some eighteenth-century Catholic intellectuals self-identified as “enlightened” (aufgeklärt, illuminato, etc.) or were called that by others, the concept of a “Catholic Enlightenment” is a twentieth-century one, introduced by the German scholar Sebastian Merkle in a landmark 1908 lecture in Berlin. Merkle’s historiographical account met with great controversy, including from myriad successors of the anti-Enlightenment – or, better put, counter-Enlightenment – tradition so strong in the Catholic Church. It had become commonplace within the Church to narrate the Enlightenment as a monolithic movement of organized skepticism, and the crucial link in the chain of destructive errors connecting the Protestant Reformation’s rejection of the Church’s authority to the French Revolution’s guillotines and cults of Reason. Indeed, as Ulrich Lehner has noted, it was often Catholics themselves who advanced narratives of the irreconcilability between Catholicism and Enlightenment just as strongly as did Protestants and freethinkers.

Definitions of Catholic Enlightenment, like definitions of Enlightenment itself, are varied, referring as they do to pluriform, transnational phenomena. A broadly acceptable use of the term Catholic Enlightenment describes varieties of positive Catholic engagement with the values and methodologies of the Enlightenment in the realms of philosophy, science, politics, and theology. Catholic Enlightenment thinkers shared aims and goals with other religious enlighteners and sometimes with anticlerical, secular, or anti-Christian philosophes, while attempting the harmonization of Catholic culture, society, and faith with the new learning. Intellectual orientations and values shared by enlightened Catholics included an openness to the new science and philosophy (Locke, Descartes, and Newton, to name a few), a vision for the holistic reform of society (by means of anything from enlightened despotism to republicanism and democracy), and a concern with “reasonable” theology or “rational” devotion which often took shape in efforts to rid the Catholic faith of bigotry and “superstition.”

Work in recent decades has advanced the conversation on Catholic Enlightenment. Mirroring wider Enlightenment studies, one fruitful approach has been to study Catholic Enlightenment from a national or regional perspective. The initial interest in Catholic Enlightenment in Germany and then France and Italy has been supplemented with scholarship from Latin America, Spain, Portugal, Malta, and Poland. The concept is also now firmly established in the Anglophone scholarly community, aided by studies of Catholic Enlightenment in England, Scotland, Ireland, and North America. Another fruitful approach is found in the study of emblematic intellectuals. To consider only Italy: the remarkable mathematicianMaria Gaetana Agnesi (1718–99), the groundbreaking historian Lodovico Muratori and the cultured prelate Prospero Lambertini (Pope Benedict XIV from 1740­–58). Focus on central Catholic institutions, like Christopher Johns’ study of the papacy’s patronage of an enlightened intellectual and artistic culture (especially from 1724–58), sheds light on the achievements but also limits of Catholic Enlightenment. The same can be said for examinations of innovative scholarly religious orders like the Benedictines, the subject of a fundamental study by Ulrich Lehner and an incisive recent contribution from Thomas Wallnig. Exciting work is underway on the global dimension of Catholic Enlightenment and the participation of women in enlightened scholarship, art, and religious reform. A dearth of primary sources in English translation – an obstacle for educators – is also beginning to be addressed, for example in an anthology edited by Lehner and myself.

Just as Kant’s archetypal question “Was ist Aufklärung?” still compels reflection, though, historians continue to debate the usefulness of the term Catholic Enlightenment – from its relationship to the long and diffuse legacy of Renaissance, early modern Humanism, and Tridentine reform (i.e. the reformist impulses linked to the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent, held 1545–63), to its identification or overlap with “Reform Catholicism,” to whether it is preferable to speak of “Enlightenment Catholicism” or “Enlightenment in Catholic lands.” Most scholars see the utility of the term Catholic Enlightenment despite tensions and ambiguities, though a few question the legitimacy of the term entirely.

Much of the definitional and terminological confusion that still hampers the scholarly conversation might be solved by distinguishing between three “streams” of the Catholic Enlightenment. The first and most diffuse stream corresponds to what I call the “scholarly Catholic Enlightenment”; that is, widespread phenomena of Catholic advancement of “enlightened” scholarly endeavors (e.g. critical historical and scientific research, Wolffian metaphysics, Newtonianism and Copernicanism). The second stream of the Catholic Enlightenment describes an essentially “Muratorian” project, so-called as a nod to the profound influence of the aforementioned Muratori. The Muratorian Catholic Enlightenment was a quest for a “reasonable” Catholicism shorn of “superstition” and “bigotry” (all rather loaded and contested words, then and now!). The limits and agenda of this Muratorian second stream are more definable than those of the first, and virtually all the actors in the second stream would be participants in or sympathetic to the scholarly activities of the first, not least because the second stream depended on a critical approach to history, especially church history and the lives of the saints.

Though there were certainly loose networks of collaborating individuals in streams one and two (for example, so-called “Muratori circles” in the Habsburg lands), the third stream is the only one to which the word “movement” could be applied, at least in the sense of a movement internally conscious of itself and externally identifiable as such. This third stream, the “Ecclesio-Political” Catholic Enlightenment, however, is best understood not as a single movement but as a series of ideologically overlapping and mutually reinforcing movements that enjoyed a zenith of influence in the final quarter of the eighteenth-century: “Josephinism” and Reformkatholizismus in the Habsburg domains and German-speaking lands, “late Jansenism” in Italy (especially Tuscany and Lombardy), “Cisalpinism” in the British Isles, etc. These enlightened, anti-papalist, Erastian (i.e. state churches), and rationalizing Catholics agreed with the aims of the first and second streams of Catholic Enlightenment but came to conclusions in the political and ecclesiastical realms that were unacceptably radical even to many otherwise “enlightened” Catholics. The decline and eventual defeat of this third stream is linked to the turbulent events set in motion by the French Revolution, a fact not without irony due to the support of many enlightened Catholics, like Henri Grégoire (1750–1831), for the National Assembly and for the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) that blew up ancien régime Catholicism in France.

This threefold schema certainly does not solve all the problems connected to the use of the term Catholic Enlightenment, and might even reveal some new tensions. Nevertheless, it is helpful, I hope, in preventing some of the most common misunderstandings that arise when scholars use the term Catholic Enlightenment to refer to different – sometimes conflicting – phenomena in the world of early modernity. For example, this schema avoids the pitfall of a use of the term Catholic Enlightenment that is so broad, it seems to include any erudite or scholarly activity by Catholics in the “long” eighteenth-century (ca. 1660–1815). On the other hand, some definitions are too narrow: they make choices about who “counts” as an enlightened Catholic that shed more light on internal tensions within Catholicism (past or present) than on the process of Enlightenment writ large. For example, any definition that excludes Jesuits or papalist Catholics privileges the theological, devotional, and ecclesio-political over scientific and scholarly endeavors. Likewise, an understanding that sees a putatively unified Catholic Enlightenment disintegrating or breaking up around the time of the death of Pope Benedict XIV in the late 1750s gives the impression of too much unity in the first half of the eighteenth century while also denying some of the very real ideological cohesion that existed in the second half of the century. When this threefold schema is deployed, the appropriate distinctions can be drawn such that a Jesuit scientist and a philo-Jansenist government minister in, say, Spain, can both be recognized as participating in Catholic Enlightenment and yet also be appropriately distinguished.

As I developed this schema for several forthcoming works, colleagues challenged me to think more about the many driving forces of these streams that pre-date the Enlightenment: about the great rivers, if you will, from which these three tributaries receive much of their water. A good deal of the “enlightened” phenomena I group into the second and third streams are at least partly explicable without the category of Enlightenment. For example, Muratori’s Della regolata devozione dei Cristiani(1747), which is widely regarded as a Catholic Enlightenment text par excellence, justifies religious reform primarily by appealing to a certain reading of the Council of Trent, St. Charles Borromeo, the Bible, and the Church Fathers. While an enlightened milieu and enlightened scholarly networks were no doubt central to Muratori, differentiating between what I call the second stream of the Catholic Enlightenment and the late implementation of a “Borromean” (in the sense of St. Charles Borromeo) and Tridentine reform agenda can be difficult. Likewise, in the third, Ecclesio-Political Stream, the legacy of late medieval conciliarism looms large, as does Gallicanism, Erastianism, and Jansenism – all of which interacted with the Enlightenment and yet predated it and are explicable apart from it.

Even regarding what I call the first stream (the scholarly Catholic Enlightenment), Thomas Wallnig shows in his excellent new monograph Critical Monks that one can argue that the culture of late humanism is the best category to apply to these scholarly endeavors and achievements. However, Wallnig, along with Franz Fillafer in his recent book Aufklärung habsburgisch, still sees the category of Catholic Enlightenment as useful, albeit with certain cautions. One of these, helpfully pointed out in Wallnig’s Critical Monks, is that the German origins of the term Catholic Enlightenment must be considered, and for reasons that are probably not intuitive for those in the English-speaking context. The foil that an account of “Catholic Enlightenment” was pushing back against in the early twentieth century, when the term originated, was not skeptical or secular but “Protestant” Enlightenment.

What is of vital importance is that any schematization delineates something much more specific than just erudition or intellectual life among Catholics in the eighteenth century, but does not, on the other hand, produce a monolithic and self-conscious conception of Catholic Enlightenment. This would raise essentially the same set of problems that are raised by such conceptions of Enlightenment writ large.These three streams are only heuristic devices, with very porous boundaries. Additionally, the complex fissures and disagreements within these Catholic communities, the roots of which were often centuries in the past, must also be acknowledged. Nevertheless, the conceptual mapping of a threefold schema of Catholic Enlightenment provides space for necessary distinctions while also successfully illuminating networks of affinity and delineating shared endeavors, methods, and goals.

Shaun Blanchard is Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Newman Studies. His first book, The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II, considers radical Catholic reform in the late eighteenth century. His next monograph project will explore the ecclesio-politics of English-speaking enlightened Catholics.

Featured Image: Girolamo Batoni, Pope Benedict XIV Presenting the Enyclical “Ex Omnibus” to the Comte de Stainville, 1757.

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