Pope continues tradition of Catholic Enlightenment
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
The best cure for distorted media coverage is to acquire a serious knowledge of history. For example, the common dichotomy of “liberal” versus “traditional” propagates a limited notion of what “traditional” means.
In many ways, this false dichotomy warps our thinking and generates unhealthy, unproductive conflicts. Hence, it is a relief to discover it has only been around since the French Revolution.
A new book published this year by Oxford University Press, The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement, reveals the more complicated historical reality. Ulrich Lehner, a Professor of Historical Theology and Religious History at Marquette University, explores the extensive history of Catholics who have long been reform-minded in a good way.
“Long before there was a Pope Francis, there existed an open-minded Catholicism that was in dialogue with cutting-edge intellectual trends,” writes Lehner. This is true despite the unfortunate tendency to portray Catholic tradition as diametrically opposed to the modern ideals of the secular Enlightenment.
Lehner chronicles how many faithful Catholics rejected the anti-clerical, secular premises of the Enlightenment, and yet themselves were enlightened and reform-minded in commendable ways. Lehner describes a forgotten history of “Catholic Enlighteners” who opposed slavery, engaged with modern philosophical ideas, acted in favor of democracy and gender equality, and advocated for teaching modern science.
The Benedictines in Austria, for example, were the first Europeans to introduce experimental physics into the European university curriculum, in the 1740s.
Such reforming notions are most often considered the exclusive property of the secular Enlightenment. But Lehner shows how the Catholic Enlightenment has been a real feature of actual Catholic tradition for centuries.
How then did people come to think of Catholic tradition as backwards thinking combined with superstitious pageantry, inherently opposed to anything modern? Lehner traces it to the fact that the secular Enlightenment made a murderous assault on the Church during the French Revolution.
“Tradition,” as an oppositional idea, arose as an understandable reaction to the extreme assault on the Church by the secular Enlightenment’s political revolution. Sadly, in this historical climate, the Catholic Enlightenment became the Catholic baby thrown out along with the secular Enlightenment bathwater.
Consequently, it became common to see Catholic Enlighteners denounced as heretical and un-Catholic by those Catholics who retreated into an intellectual ghetto after the French Revolution. Yet the Catholic Enlightenment was a centuries-old part of the tradition long before the recent reactionary turn.
Lehner describes how the effort to shut out modernity became a common Catholic mindset, especially in the years from 1850 to 1950. Again, the historical context makes this reaction understandable, but nevertheless it unjustly eclipses the vital Catholic impulse for salutary reform.
According to Lehner, this reform-minded Catholicism is strongly expressed in the Council of Trent, which made a vigorous response to the challenges presented by the Protestant Reformation.
He notes how, to counter certain negative views of human nature in Protestant theology, Trent affirmed human freedom in a positive way. Trent was marked by the Catholic Enlightenment and offered a “more optimistic view of the human person,” writes Lehner.
As just one example, Lehner describes how Trent created controversy by its teaching that no one could tell a Catholic whom to marry. This affirmation, that a Catholic is free to marry whomever he or she chooses, angered many as the sort of “enlightened” idea that “tradition” must oppose. And yet the Church affirmed it at Trent, despite the anger from those who thought that it “undermined the rights of the French kings,” writes Lehner.
The Enlightenment is thus a diverse historical reality. It began when the Greek and Latin classics were newly mined for intellectual inspiration in the Renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries.
Yet our notion of the Enlightenment as irrevocably “secular” stems mostly from the impact of Spinoza on the Enlightenment in the 17th century. Spinozism’s affirmation of the material world as the only reality, and its way of reading the Bible as a book like any other book, is the real source of the tendency to conceive of Enlightenment as a necessarily secular enterprise.
But this radically secular form of the Enlightenment was not the only option available at the time. There were in fact more moderate versions of enlightened ideas offered by Catholic Enlighteners that were not inherently secular and anti-clerical.
These “moderate counterparts” to the radical secularists were also supporters of modern science and of ideas like “equality, freedom, democracy, cultural diversity, and tolerance,” writes Lehner.
He concludes that the radical secular forms of the Enlightenment cannot lay claim to being the only source of these modern values, even if historians have tended to forget about the Catholic Enlighteners.
But as Lehner demonstrates, Catholic tradition is in fact something much greater than the narrow ideas people usually have about it.
Dr. C.S. Morrissey is a Fellow of the Adler-Aquinas Institute and part of its Metropolitan Philosophy Roundtable at The King’s College in Manhattan dedicated to “Educating Present and Future Leaders to Promote Global Peace.”