Revisiting the The Catholic Enlightenment

Ulrich L. Lehner’s new book on a mostly forgotten and misunderstood era reveals how much the post-Vatican II era resembles the post-Tridentine era.

It’s not just an era of change, but a change of eras. The world is moving fast, and the Church struggles to keep up, with many churchmen questioning whether she ought to try to keep up at all while others readily put their foot on the Barque of Peter’s throttle. Meanwhile, mighty tensions exist between the Pope in Rome and bishops and clergy in their dioceses, and estrangement exists between Catholics in Europe (especially Italy) and Catholics in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, with experiences in mission territories raising piercing questions about old orthodoxies. Some clergy remain rigidly rigorist, rejecting a Council as a modern overthrow of Catholicism, while others seem scandalously lax—especially in German-speaking regions, whose bishops and clergy seem all too eager to reduce the Church to an agency of the State in an age when many states wish to crush religion or make it their tool. The question of women’s places and roles in Church and society is raging. 

Change is happening fast, and the church is split on just how much to accommodate to the realities of the mores, ethos, and learning of the contemporary world.

It’s the 60s and 70s, obviously. The 1760s and 1770s. Or the 1660s and 1670s. Or the 1860s and 1870s. 

As Ulrich L. Lehner’s The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement demonstrates, much of the turmoil Catholics today associate with the revolutions of the 1960s and the Second Vatican Council was already roiling the Church for centuries. One might see Vatican II, then, as the result, not the cause, of ferment and change in Church and society going back to the sixteenth century. While mentioning Vatican II several times, Lehner doesn’t discuss it at length—it seems he’s saved the connections between Enlightenment history and the Second Vatican Council for a new book out July 1, On the Road to Vatican II: German Catholic Enlightenment and the Reform of the Church. Nevertheless, the first thing that immediately strikes the reader unacquainted with the true history of the Church’s interaction with the Enlightenment—and Lehner assumes that’s most everyone, including his fellow academics—is that the Church from Trent to the 1960s was not a perfect, monolithic institution faithful to Pope and magisterium, but has been wrestling with change since the challenges Trent itself addressed first emerged. 

Indeed, Lehner’s great burden in the book is to show that reform in the Catholic Church started with Trent as the Church wrestled with the Enlightenment and adapted much of it. Though Francis’ papacy is seen as a paradigm shift, Lehner asserts, “Pope Francis is merely continuing a long tradition of reforming popes of modernity, picking up ideas in particular of the so-called Tridentine Reform in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (p 1). Lehner believes his book necessary because his “learned colleagues harbor such simplistic views” of the Church’s relationship to modernity—that “Catholics did not believe in science, that they were superstitious, and that they were never great supporters of democracy,” and that the Church “had subjugated women…and its missionaries had helped destroy the Native American population” (pp 2-3). 

Lehner thus endeavors to demonstrate the falsity of the dominant narrative of the big, bad Catholic Church as the enemy of everything learned and humane by demonstrating the following: “Long before there was a Pope Francis, there existed an open-minded Catholicism that was in dialogue with cutting-edge intellectual trends” (p 3). Lehner will show that “a closer look at history reveals that many progressive reforms within the Catholic Church predate even the Enlightenment,” that indeed even “Some of the most cherished values of modernity can be traced to the pre-Enlightenment Catholic Reform that began in the sixteenth century” (p 3). The Council of Trent itself, Lehner avers, affirmed an optimistic view of the human person that was “the foundation of the Enlightenment’s belief in individual freedom and the natural capacities of the human person” (p 4).

Why the false narrative, then? Lehner blames the reactionary Church which developed after the French Revolution, particularly during the century between 1850 and 1950: “[T]he church retreated to an intellectual ghetto from which it did not emerge until the twentieth century” (pp 3-4). But Lehner reminds his readers, “Many proposals that are hotly debated by Catholics today—a new role for the papacy, a preferential option for the poor, married priests, divorce and remarriage—first emerged in the 1700s” (p 4) as “Catholic Enlighteners” attempted to do two things. First, “to use the newest achievements of philosophy and science to defend the essential dogmas of Catholic Christianity by explaining them in a new language,” and second, “to reconcile Catholicism with modern culture” (p 7). What holds them together as a coherent group for all their diversity is “their belief that Catholicism had to modernize if it wanted to be a viable intellectual alternative to the persuasive arguments of the anti-clerical Enlighteners” (p 7). Like non-Catholic Enlighteners, what united Catholic Enlighteners for all their differences was their agreement “that Aristotelian scholasticism could no longer serve as the universal foundation for theology” (p 7). 

This meant that Catholic Enlighteners adopted other philosophical bases for the intellectual side of their projects—Locke’s empiricism, or Kantian rationalism, or, later, Enlightenment-style historicism which influenced the understanding and evaluation of dogma and the acceptance of lower and higher criticism in biblical studies in particular. Catholic Enlighteners also endeavored to come to grips with the developments in the sciences and physics. They rejected what they perceived as fanaticism, superstition, and prejudice, and engaged in a spirit of ecumenism towards other Christians (for instance, the phrase “separated brethren” was first used by Catholic Enlighteners in the 1780s).

All this made them opponents of Roman control of local, particular churches, as they viewed certain popes as retrogrades or disappointments and the papacy itself as an obstacle. Many thus turned to the State, with whom they shared “common goals” regarding the advancing of Enlightenment ideals. Lehner observes:

Meaningful church reform could only be brought about, they thought, if the state forced the church’s arm. Catholic Enlighteners and the state had common enemies and common goals. Both identified papal influence as harmful and instead sought to strengthen the national character of the Church; both believed that the church’s freedom from taxation was no longer defensible, and thus they demanded that the church contribute more to national coffers; and both felt that the church should yield to modern states in disputes over jurisprudence. (p 10)

Conservative clergymen from priests to popes thus resisted Catholic Enlighteners, and after the French Revolution looked upon them largely as traitors and collaborators. The Revolution thus stalled the Catholic Enlightenment until the dam against “modernism” could hold no longer in the twentieth century, when Enlightenment philology and historicism led Catholicism deep into the world of modern biblical studies and when liturgical changes advocated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—such as Muratori’s emphases on “the Mass as a devotional act, the active participation of the laity in the Mass, and…[his] stress[] that it was all the faithful who offered the holy sacrifice,” or Werkmeister’s demand that the Mass be in the vernacular—finally came to a certain sort of fruition after the Council. 

That’s just a summary of the introduction. The bulk of the book following is a barrage of names and facts best described as a brute force attack on the false narrative. Organized by theme, region, and topic—chapter titles include “The Catholic Learning Curve: Toleration and Tolerance,” “Catholic Enlightenment in the Americas, China, and India,” and “Feminism, Freedom, and Faith: Catholic Women and the Enlightenment”—the book presents a parade of personalities and events to prove the simple thesis of the book, that there were indeed Catholic Enlighteners, which, again, Lehner thinks almost everyone has forgotten, if they ever new.

Given the recent and ongoing convulsions caused by the synods on the family and Amoris Laetitia, Lehner’s treatment of questions about marriage and the state operative in the late 1700s are of present interest while showing everything new is old again. The legendary Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa and her son, Joseph II, sought use the Church in service of their political agenda. (So too in Spain, where the idea was “to mold the clergy into civil servants who would support educational and governmental reforms, so that the church would become  force for societal progress” [p 38].) This “Josephinism”—the continental version of the English Erastianism more familiar to us, in which the Church is subservient to state interests, with the state supreme over religion and decisions regarding religion—drew deeply on Jansenist ideas about simple, austere popular piety which minimized the need for a church at all, particularly in the thought of radical Jansenist theologians like Joseph Valentin Eybel. Eybel argued that since faith was private and interior, “the state not only has the right to defend the church, to reform it in the case of harmful activities, and to inspect the church, but it also has the right to convene councils or synods to end theological controversies, to censor theological books, and to tolerate other religions” (p 26).

The state “also aimed at gaining sole control over matrimony” (p 26), with Joseph II issuing a decree making marriage a matter of civil contract, leaving civil authorities in charge of decisions regarding areas traditionally left to the church. Divorce, too, was on the agenda of Catholic Enlighteners, with scholars such as Karl Joseph Michaeler, Benedict Werkmeister, and Anton Frenzler contending that divorce was indeed a possibility for those in a valid, sacramental marriage, the latter even using the Council of Trent in service of his argument. Meanwhile opponents of priestly celibacy “claimed it was a violation of human rights and of natural law” and indeed even “detrimental to the economy because it slowed down population growth” (p 28).

With regards to marriage and family, Lehner shows that Catholic Enlighteners (as well as the Church more broadly) to have been humane and progressive whereas secular Enlighteners were often patriarchal, reducing women and wives to men’s servants and “breeders” (p 92) providing children to serve as drones for the nation state and its economy. While Rousseau taught wives existed for their husband’s enrichment, the Catholic Jeanne Marie Leprince du Meaumont—author as it happens of The Beauty and the Beast—presented a vision of marriage in which “two equal partners who contribute to one another’s mutual fulfillment through dialogue and tender love” (p 92).

One repeated theme in the book is the influence of Jansenism and their Jesuit opponents. The Jansenists, with a pessimistic, dark view of human nature, were rigorists who believed “that the Council of Trent had perverted to truth of Catholicism” (p 50) as presented by the Fathers of the Church, since Trent rejected doctrines like double predestination as Protestant. In pastoral care the Jansenists were rigorists; one’s penitence needed to be pure and sincere to receive absolution. The Jesuits, by contrast, were more practical, realizing that most people struggled with loving God perfectly and that withholding absolution “only deprived sinners of sacramental grace and might motivate them to turn their backs on a church that failed to help then in an hour of need” (p 50). If it feels familiar, it’s a preview of Pope Francis’ pastoral orientation over and against his perceived rigorist opponents.

The value of the book lies in the sheer amount of information recorded; the present reviewer is not a modern historian but a biblical scholar, and so learned many helpful and enriching things, and suspects that those who are modern historians would learn a lot as well about the personalities and events and movements Lehner describes. The difficulty is that the massive amount of material and the organization by theme, topic, and region makes it hard to follow a narrative thread, and one finds certain figures such as Spanish monk Benito Feijoo showing up in multiple locations in the book. Perhaps a more chronological order would have helped the present reviewer discern more coherence, or ordering by personalities, or by regions or nations, or by topic (such as church and state, liturgy, etc.). In any event, the broad thesis necessitated by almost total ignorance of the subject means a broad book is on offer, lacking an intricate, narrow story a precise, narrow thesis would require.

Very little in the book is evaluative, and one might be led to think that Lehner himself would be on the more Enlightened, modernist side of his Catholicism in the present day. Yet throughout the book Lehner drops hints that not all is well with Catholic Enlighteners’ ultimate positions and postures. For instance, on page 152 Lehner writes:

Nevertheless, unlike many proponents of the Tridentine Reform, Catholic Enlighteners lacked pastoral sensitivity: instead of constantly catechizing and carefully implementing changes of popular beliefs on the parish level, they tended to overwhelm the uneducated population with highly sophisticated homilies, treatises, and harsh attacks on their religious practices. Only the educated elite read their books and supported them; not even among the rural clergy could Catholic Enlighteners find a majority supporting them, because of their often arrogant attitude toward traditional piety.

Or again, on page 154: 

Catholic Enlighteners updated and reformed the devotional life of the church, though they sometimes acted without much pastoral sensitivity, especially when they robbed commoners of traditional forms of prayer.

Or again on pages 157-158, with regard to Werkmeister’s desired liturgical reforms, including the abolition of Marian feasts and the banning of the rosary(!):

Werkmeister particularly detested the popular practice of invoking the saints’ aid for temporal goods…Yet by ridiculing others, he made his own position look elitist and detached from the needs of the common man—a major problem for most Enlighteners…Werkmeister robbed the faithful of their simple devotional practices instead of slowly reforming them.

In a similar vein, Lehner also points out repeatedly that secular Enlighteners were harsh towards beggars and outcasts:

The Enlighteners wanted to lock them all up, force them to work, or punish them violently until they changed their behavior. Philosophers, in general, showed no mercy toward the poor (p 167)…According to secular Enlightenment critics, the church was supporting idleness, lack of hygiene, and superstitious enthusiasm. The pope should have arrested the beggar [Benedict Labre] and put him in a workhouse. A beggar was, in the eyes of the Enlightener, a worthless human being (p 170)…At a time in which secular Enlighteners argued for workhouses, sought rigorist punishments for beggars, justified slavery, and overemphasized the rights of the state, the Catholic Church commended their [St. Alphonsus Liguori’s and St. Benedict Labre’s] desire to elevate the poor and abandoned above all others (p 179).

It seems in any event that Enlighteners, whether Catholic or secular, are susceptible to elitism, a lesson well observed in our own day.

Lehner finally observes that the Second Vatican Council confirmed many of the concerns of Catholic Enlighteners, and that the Catholic Enlightenment itself was a mixed bag: “At its best, the Catholic Enlightenment was the resuscitation of the Tridentine Reform by modern means; at its worst, it amounted to subjugation of theology to the state—unsurprisingly, with heretical tendencies” (p 218). Perhaps the battles we’ve been fighting in the Church, then, really aren’t about the Second Vatican Council, or the First, but finally about Trent and its legacy as modernity has unfolded and continues to unfold.

The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement
by Ulrich L. Lehner
Oxford University Press, 2016
Hardcover, 216 pages

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About Dr. Leroy Huizenga 48 Articles
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is Administrative Chair of Arts and Letters and Professor of Theology at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. Dr. Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. During his doctoral studies he received a Fulbright Grant to study and teach at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2012), co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually (Baylor, 2009), and is currently writing a major theological commentary on the Gospel of Mark for Bloomsbury T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary series. A shorter work on the Gospel of Mark keyed to the lectionary for Year B, Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark, was published by Emmaus Road (2017), as was a similar work on the Gospel of Matthew, Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Emmaus Road, 2019).