Rethinking the Enlightenment from within the Catholic intellectual traditions

Modernity has many distinct and at times conflicting strands; Catholics must separate the wheat from the chaff.

Pope Benedict XIV, born Prospero Lorenzo Lambertini in 1675, was pope from August 1740 to his death on May 3, 1758. (Image: Wikipedia)

In my last column, I looked at the history of Hollywood film censorship as a specific example of a Catholic effort to engage the modern world. This month I will take a step back from the specifics of modernity to look at the Catholic encounter with the intellectual foundations of modernity in general, the movement we call the Enlightenment.

As a guide to this reflection, I will consider the arguments presented in Joseph T. Stuart’s recent Sophia Institute Press book Rethinking the Enlightenment: Faith in the Age of Reason (2020). In an age of increasing polarization within the Church, Stuart’s book is timely in its call for greater nuance in our approach to the relation between Catholic intellectual traditions and those of the Enlightenment. Stuart clearly wishes to offer a corrective to “conservative” Catholics often too quick to dismiss modernity and “liberal” Catholics often too quick to embrace it.

Modernity has many distinct and at times conflicting strands; Catholics must separate the wheat from the chaff. Stuart’s effort at discernment should inspire renewed respect for the Catholic intellectual achievements of the eighteenth century, but his Americanist pieties often obscure the continuity of principles across the range of the great political revolutions of the Enlightenment era.

For Catholics interested in the history of the Church, the Age of Enlightenment can often appear as a black hole separating the end of the Reformation and the onset of the French Revolution. Nineteenth-century historians told the story of this era with barely a mention of the Church as anything other than a source of reaction and obscurantism; their successors in the decidedly anti-historical “Great Books” movement invented a canon that included no serious Catholic thinker from this era.

Stuart wisely makes no effort to invent an alternative canon of “great” Catholic books: instead, he presents several compelling portraits of Catholic intellectuals who “engaged the Enlightenment.”

First among these is Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799). The eldest of twenty-one children, Maria was born in Milan, the daughter of Pietro Agnesi, a wealthy textile trader with aristocratic ambitions. Though never attaining a hereditary title, Pietro surrounded himself and his family with all the aristocratic trappings that money could buy. Aside from the usual display of conspicuous consumption, eighteenth century aristocrats also competed with each other in patronizing the literary and scientific cultural activities associated with the Enlightenment. Chief among these activities was the salon, an informal gathering where people assembled to discuss the new ideas of the day; often hosted by self-educated aristocratic women, these salons challenged convention simply by their social composition, which allowed for an unprecedented freedom of interaction across lines of class and gender. Pietro wished his eldest daughter to shine in this world. To that end, he gave her the best education that money could buy.

Far from merely jumping on the bandwagon of the latest fashionable trends, the Agnesi family’s participation in Enlightenment culture reflected the influence of older traditions of Catholic renewal, from late-Renaissance humanism to Tridentine reform. Milan was, after all, the city of St. Charles Borromeo; the great Counter Reformation saint established a commitment to education that remained strong in Milan well into the eighteenth century. These traditions also bequeathed a commitment to lay spirituality, which the Agnesi family nourished through their long association with the Theatines, an order cofounded by St. Gaetano Tiene (1480-1547). In making his case for a “Catholic Enlightenment,” Stuart rightly stresses the continuity with these earlier traditions.

Still, the phenomenon of a female mathematical prodigy could perhaps only have occurred in the Enlightenment’s climate of unprecedented intellectual openness. Geometry and arithmetic had of course been two of the liberal arts that comprised the medieval quadrivium, yet the new mathematics of the Scientific Revolution so often presented itself as a rival to the authority of the Church, most notoriously in the case of Galileo. Maria Agnesi embraced the new math of the new science, seeing in it a certainty of truth attainable by the human mind itself, without recourse to faith. She became the first woman to publish a book of mathematics under her own name: Analytical Institutions (1748), in which she offered an explanation of differential and integral calculus accessible to the general reader. In her person and her thinking, Maria transgressed many of the norms of the conventional Catholic society of her day even as she never set herself against the authority of the Church.

Stuart goes a bit too far in ascribing to Agnesi a “Catholic feminism.” She did not argue for the political equality of women, but rather demonstrated the possibility of intellectual excellence in women, much like women religious had demonstrated women’s spiritual excellence. In this, she also affirmed the traditional superiority of the spiritual to the intellectual, exercising what Stuart calls a “metaphysical modesty” that understood the proper place of mathematics in the hierarchy of goods. Maria maintained a vibrant and rich spiritual life alongside her intellectual pursuits, devoting herself to private prayer and public service through local confraternities, especially the Congregation of the Schools of Christian Doctrine.

With its relative distance from theological controversies, mathematics might seem to be a “safe” pursuit for Enlightenment Catholics. The real challenge of the Enlightenment lay not in any particular truths, but in its uncompromising commitment to the discernment of any and all truth through the process of free and open inquiry. Despite its limitations and contradictions, this Enlightenment ideal seemed to open up a much broader field for questioning than that allowed by traditional scholastic disputation and many churchmen understood it as a weapon to undermine the authority of the Church.

At least one significant churchman, Prospero Lambertini (1675-1758), Pope Benedict XIV (r. 1740-1758), thought that Church could incorporate some of the new spirit of free inquiry without compromising any essential dogmas. Like Maria Agnesi, he frequented the salons of his day, those of his native Bologna; his commitment to open inquiry extended to the world of the coffeehouse, a kind of lower-class, everyman’s version of the salon open to an even greater range of views. When elected pope, he even had a coffeehouse, the Caffeaus, built in the garden of the Quirinale Palace in Rome. There he received visitors, discussed the news of the day and drank coffee, all in a spirit of conviviality and good humor.

Like Agnesi, Pope Benedict found science to be the most fruitful area for Catholic engagement with new thought. As archbishop of Bologna, he sponsored public dissections—a practice dating back to the Middle Ages, but one that was becoming an increasingly sophisticated, technical activity with rise of the modern science of anatomy. He was also one of many Enlightenment churchman who called for a more scientific approach to the study of miracles, a case for reform put forward in his work, On the Beatification and Canonization of Saints (1734-1738). As pope, he spoke out against censorship and helped to revise the Index of Prohibited Books to allow for more open discussion. Like a later Pope Benedict, he believed that clerical pastoralism, charity and beauty—not the dogmatic assertion of truth—were the keys to communicating the Gospel to an unbelieving world.

Stuart offers many more inspiring examples of what he calls Catholic “Enlighteners.” He draws on the best of recent scholarship that has done much to revise the standard story of the warfare of science and religion, at least with respect to the Church’s attitude toward science. On this topic, his book certainly lives up to its titular purpose of “rethinking” the Enlightenment.

Sadly, when his narrative turns to politics, he provides comparatively little by way of “rethinking.” The first third of the book, which examines “Conflict and the Conflictual Enlightenment,” ultimately tells a very familiar tale of two revolutions: the “good” American Revolution and the “bad” French Revolution. True, Stuart offers some surprising twists, such as a curious and strained effort to rehabilitate Voltaire as something other than a rabid anti-cleric. Still, Rousseau predictably appears as the root of all the evil that would bear fruit in the Reign of Terror and the Anglo-American political tradition stands as a model of right reason, moderation, and respect for tradition.

In the popular journalism that accompanied the recent celebration of Independence Day, Catholic commentators across the political spectrum have reaffirmed this story, baptizing the Founding and the American tradition of religious liberty. It is this particular Catholic embrace of the Enlightenment that needs the most serious rethinking.

First, some basic historical facts. With respect to the Catholic Church, there is nothing moderate about the Anglo-American political tradition. The perpetrators of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 drove James II from the throne of England because they could not tolerate a Catholic king; if they did not march Carmelites off to the scaffold, it is only because Henry VIII had abolished the religious orders a century and a half earlier. During that century and a half, English Protestants fought endless, genocidal wars in Ireland to impose Protestantism on a Catholic people.

The Founding Fathers, heirs to the tradition of 1688, may compare favorably with their French counterparts only because the two political contexts were incomparable: the Founders neither overthrew an established Church nor abolished the landed aristocracy because the United States at its founding had neither. The appropriate point of comparison would be how the Founders dealt with those unwilling to accept their revolution: Loyalists who refused to submit lost their land and/or fled the country; Native Americans on the frontier endured a Reign of Terror that lasted for the next hundred years.

The point here is not simply to bash America, but to try to develop a proper Catholic way of understanding that particular manifestation of the Enlightenment that we call the American political tradition. We must first of all acknowledge the truth that the Constitution is godless: that is, it simply does not mention God and clearly asserts that the political order is created by the will of the people. Whatever religious or philosophical assumptions one might wish to read into the words of the document, they are simply background with no binding legal force. The Constitution is a largely procedural document laying out the mechanics of governance. These mechanics proved remarkably flexible and adaptable: by the end of the nineteenth century, the Constitution continued to be the law of the land in a country whose social, political, economic and cultural life would have been unrecognizable to the Founding generation. So much for Burkean tradition.

So what is a Catholic way of looking at this?

First, we need to reject nostalgia. There never was a “Christian” America as people talk about it today. Protestant Christianity was far from a source of stability; in its most dynamic form, evangelical revivalism, it undermined the authority of traditional churches and promoted a destabilizing religious individualism. Catholics who resisted such individualism within their Church were accused of being un-American and subject to a century and a half of anti-Catholic venom not so different from that of Reformation England. True, disestablishment and religious liberty spared American Catholics the oppression witnessed in other modern political regimes, but the cultural pressures to conform to America in all things except doctrine (and sometimes including doctrine) have been great: opinion polls indicate that on nearly every significant issue facing the country today, Catholics do not stand apart from their fellow Americans in any clear way.

When the Church comes under attack, Church leaders inevitably invoke the principle of religious freedom, a principle individual Catholics have obviously internalized all too well. It would be nice to think that Catholics could use the principle of religious freedom to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now that would be really “Rethinking the Enlightenment.”

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About Dr. Christopher Shannon 22 Articles
Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996), Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010), and with Christopher O. Blum, The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History (Christendom Press, 2014). His book American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey through Catholic Life in a New World was published in June 2022 by Ignatius Press.


  1. Dr. Shannon writes: “True, disestablishment and religious liberty spared American Catholics the oppression witnessed in other modern political regimes…”

    “The Catholic way of looking at this [today]” might be to notice that the Constitution itself has been subjected to a sex change, so to speak, in that we now have Secular Humanism as the fully “established” national religion… Established and enforceable, from kindergarten on up, by Supreme Court fatwa, from Roe v. Wade (abortion, 1973) to Obergefell v. Hodges (gay “marriage,” 2015) to Bostock v. Clayton County (gender theory, 2020).

    The First Amendment restrains only Congress from establishing a national religion, but the Founding Fathers never guessed at the need to restrain the other two branches of government—the JUDICIAL and the EXECUTIVE.

  2. Dear Dr. Christophor Shannon,

    Thank you so very much for the beautiful article! Very interesting. I didn’t know this, but it all makes sense now. Yes, I wholeheartedly agree and believe it is the time, “It would be nice to think that Catholics could use the principle of religious freedom to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now that would be really “Rethinking the Enlightenment.” In my small way, I am doing my best to bring this open as well. I am an author and a Catholic. My story is not a sermon but a certain clarity that brought me forward in life. There is nothing in this world that has pleased me more than this realization, in this later stage of life, and fearlessly writing about it. I have spent a lifetime being afraid of offending others who were not Catholic, hiding behind my devotion to God and Jesus between the pages. I created characters and stories from real-life experiences, fictionalizing them to avoid putting off people of other religions, even though my heart, mind, and soul related and depended on Christ. While all through the years, pursuing my spiritual needs through the Gospel of Christ.

    I have been off all social media since the beginning of the 2020 Covid pandemic. I stopped writing altogether after my last article was rejected for not properly fitting the platform. For the first time in my life, I became more interested in politics and the Covid virus news. I watched the news while quarantine, cancel culture, and lockdowns became news for everyone. There were new rules to follow. I was familiar with the instructions, and I was wounded more, watching this terrible news sweep the nation as more and more people were dying from the virus. I learned not to write anything showing bias, and then I stopped being a writer and I wore my mask. But the year of silence served me well, and it made me take a closer look at the words I was putting out to the public through my books. They were my words in print. They would be here long after I am gone. I needed to get an unchangeable message out to the world, and I found it this year through grace, and by listening carefully to those Catholic memories that gave rise to the beautiful things in my life.

    Perhaps this is what God means to be the Great Reset when we all can rewrite our own stories. It does not have to be on paper. Our memories of people we meet and live with are as powerful as any education. Let us invite God in and recall the Holy Family as we create our Catholic story with a beautiful end.

    God bless you and keep us all.

    Thank you again.

  3. Perhaps a bit of root cause analysis from the transition as the height of the orthodox Catholic Tradition was realized with the moderate realism of the Scholastics of St Thomas Aquinas the synergy of reason and revelation. The primary departure from moderate realism was the introduction of the speculative theology by Duns Scotus that man’s reasoning could infer from revealed and natural law into the Mind of God to demystify the Mystery of God that which was not included nor shared by neither natural law, the principals reasoning and logic or nor revelation. The traditional Catholic Church gradually embraced speculative theology with the reasoning if only St Thomas knew then what we know now St Thomas would be in agreement with us, evolving to the neo-Scholasticism.

    The then devoted Augustinian monk, Martin Luther taking a stand against the marketing and sale of future indulgences precipitated the Reformation rejecting the moderate realism of St Thomas for having conspired with the pagan Aristotle, hence Solo Scriptura rejecting the call by God to reason together.

    To suggest that it went downhill from there would be a simplification of Biblical proportions that formally introducing the marketing, embrace and perpetuation of seeds of irrationality to the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason. Soon after the beginning of the Reformation, of the Aristotles Four Causes, purpose and intent in concert with the Purpose and Intent of St Thomas attributed to God of Scripture were rejected by the secularists, the materialist, the atheists in favor of material and efficiency causes alone. No Intent, No Purpose, No God. On the religious side revelation has been increasingly privatized by protestants while the Roman’s have elevated great doctrine to dogmas with divides that cannot not be bridged prior to the 2nd Coming of Jesus thus the tensions of the irrational age in which we live.

    Only in the interest of space and time may I even offer such a gross simplification to offer such a simple strand from a major tapestry.

    • On the “privatized [religion] by protestants” versus the Roman’s elevation of “doctrine to dogmas with divides that cannot be bridged prior to the 2nd Coming of Jesus”…what if modernity’s impasse is actually triangular???

      Islam is repelled by Protestant/secularist individualism, because adhering to a progressive revelation (even involving “abrogation”), which also rejects any largely Roman crystalization into doctrines/dogmas, what Muslims dismiss as “biased” schools of thought (poetic, almost Buddhist in this allergy toward conceptualization).

      In this triangular setting of individualism, dogmatic clarity and Islam, Catholics here and abroad are called to profess and defend with clarity the (a) transcendent dignity of the human person (Vatican II, and Centesimus Annus), as elevated by (b) the Incarnation as the definitive self-disclosure of the Triune God. Eucharistic coherence is a minimal expectation…

      Catholic sacramentality rises above either disintegrative Western individualism or Islam’s rarified/sectarian, worldwide ummah. And is still protected from assault or erosion (we assume) by our constitutional “freedom of religion,” a personal freedom broader, deeper and more engaging than any patronizing freedom of (only) worship—-the hollowed out facsimile peddled by both Secularist ghettoization and Islamic dhimmitude.

  4. I am not sure what Dr. Shannon is proposing.

    Does he want the reader to conclude (by implication) that he dismisses the thesis of Robert Reilly, that “the American Founding” was a rejection of many pathologies emerging in “Modern” and “Enlightenment” Europe, and particularly in England, as manifested in the competing tyrannies of Kings and Parliaments over “the natural rights of men?”

    Does a rejection of nostalgia include, by way of his remedy, a forgetting and rejection of the memory and identity of American Founders like James Madison, or the memory and identity of the great Presidents Washington and Lincoln?

    Or to quote Reilly, does the author hold that the American Founding is Hobbesian, rather than Augustinian?

    It is remarkable that this article, as does a current article by Ross Douthat at First Things, tries to grapple with what American Catholics ought to think about this topic, yet does not even mention Reilly’s recent book “America on Trial” and the argument Reilly makes.

  5. The Protestants and Deists who founded the United States did not create a Catholic confessional state. It would have been a tad unrealistic to expect them to do so. Freedom of religion was a necessity in a country that, even in 1776, had numerous Christian denominations. It allowed Catholics to live in an environment far more hospitable than the Irish under British rule or the Poles in the Russian empire (to give two examples), anti-Catholic discrimination notwithstanding. The Constitution was not intended to be a document governing every facet of political and social life in America; it was designed primarily to establish the relationship of the Federal government with the largely independent states, which retained the responsibilities and powers not expressly delegated to the former. The point Reilly and others have made is that the most important principles of the American constitutional order (e.g. federalism) are remarkably consistent with Catholic social teaching. It is not clear to me that these principles were irrelevant or outdated by the late nineteenth century or now, for that matter. The degraded state of American society in 2021 results from the repudiation of the Founding principles as much the rejection of the nation’s Christian heritage. Surely, the Left’s hatred of the old America and its history indicates as much. They are pulling down statutes of Columbus, Washington and Serra. Nothing in America forced Catholics to conform to the Cultural Revolution, we did that to ourselves. Finally, to call the complicated and tragic relationship between American Indians and the United States a one hundred year “reign of terror” is a ridiculous exaggeration and distortion of history.

    • Agree, particularly the last point on the conflicts and wars with various Indian nations as “a reign of terror.”

      Reading De Toqueville’s history (the first half of Democracy in America) and “The Trail of Tears” about the Cherokee admit the complexities, crimes and betrayals that paint a sobering picture involving all men, in all factions of white men and red men.

  6. “It would be nice to think that Catholics could use the principle of religious freedom to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

    Roman Catholics can’t even police their own. “Physician, heal thyself” is applicable, and Catholics should be wary of any sort of superiority complex in dealing with Protestants.

  7. A false charge on the Catholic Church, Galileo, and the ‘new math.’

    Where does Shannon get the idea to put together a narrative of a ‘science-fearing’ Church when that Church fully supported Galileo before, during and after his trial in his scientific pursuits regardless of Galileo not wanting to wait for other scientists to confirm his main theory that would take 175 years to accomplish…as well as the Church supporting the universities without any math exception.

  8. Reading this “review” article that sinks into argument causes me to wonder if the good doctor has ever heard of natural law.

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