Author: Steinfels, Peter
Date published: March 1, 2012
A COMPANION TO THE CATHOLIC ENLIGHTENMENT IN EUROPE. Edited by Ulrich L. Lehner and Michael Printy. Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition. Boston: BriU, 2010. Pp. 462. $230.
Until recent decades, most students of Catholic history would have viewed the notion of a Catholic Enlightenment as a contradiction in terms. Was not the Enlightenment defined by the anticlerical if not antireligious views of Voltaire, the Encyclopédie, Rousseau, and Hume?
Historians have increasingly said no. They point first to British and American variants of the Enliglitenment more sympathetic to religion tUan the French and radical versions, and finally to specifically religious forms of the Enlightenment in which committed Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish thinkers applied the reform ideals of the age to their own religious traditions and institutions.
Among this family of Enhghtenments, the Catholic Enlightenment was a movement striving to renew and rearticulate the faith in ways that incorporated new scientific and epistemological theories (Descartes, Locke, Newton, etc.) as well as historical criticism into university and seminary education. This movement saw itself completing the reforms of Trent while tempering Counter-Reformation disputes. It wanted to center religious practice on Scripture and the Eucharist rather than on pUgrimages, processions, venerated images, and devotions to saints, the Blessed Virgin, and the Sacred Heart. Not only would spirituality be purified of accretions and superstition, but parishes, dioceses, and seminaries would be reorganized, and tbe wealth of monasteries and religious orders would be put to better uses.
Pursuing these ends meant confrontation with entrenched forces, especially the papacy and often - although by no means always - the Jesuits. So the Catholic Enlightenment allied itself with reforming bishops, learned critics of papal powers, and secular rulers who asserted episcopal and national prerogatives against Rome and its allies.
There was no shortage of tensions and outright conflicts within the Catholic Enlightenment. It was an elite movement calling for a more egalitarian Church. It reflected, in a nearly schizophrenic manner, both a Jesuit-based humanism optimistic about human nature and progress and a pessimistic Jansenist-based spirituality calling for austerity, interiority, and discipline in opposition to the emotional and external displays of baroque religiosity. This volume shows how these dynamics played themselves out in different national contexts: France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Lithuania, Austria and Habsburg lands, other Catholic territories in the Holy Roman Empire, and even Malta.
This "recovery of a forgotten episode" (166), as one of the volume's editors puts it, is not an introduction but a "companion" - providing accounts, to quote the publisher, "at an advanced level, as well as synthesis of debate and the state of scholarship." Although assuming a good deal of knowledge of 18th-century history, most authors succeed in imposing a coherent structure on their highly detailed accounts. The introductory chapter on "The Many Faces of the Catholic Enlightenment" by L. is an especially helpful overview of the historiographical terrain, and the bibliographical references are excellent throughout. It is too bad that a book carrying such an astronomical price includes neither a subject nor a name index.
Across the national variations, one can extract at least four generalizations of particular relevance to a Catholic theological journal. First, the link between renewed interest in the Cathohc Enlightenment and the Second Vatican Council is inescapable. The councU's liturgical reforms, its emphasis on episcopal collegiality, its return to Scripture and pre-Scholastic sources, and its opening to dialogue with contemporary thought and other reUgious traditions aU echo concerns of the Catholic Enlightenment. Yet any paraUels between current developments and 18th-century foreshadowings must take account of a vast change in the environment.
Second, intimate connections between reUgious and poUtical power were the norm in that 18th-century environment. Church leaders, whether quarrehng factions within the Catholic Enlightenment or traditionalist opponents, naturally turned to government to enforce their views. Monarchs were interested in expropriating church wealth and harnessing church energies to secular purposes.
Third, infighting within the Catholic Enlightenment drastically impeded its engagement with its secular counterpart. Jansenists and Jesuits expended more polemical firepower on each other than on the emerging secular Enlightenment, and in their zeal they did not hesitate to employ institutional sanctions, including the refusal of sacraments for Jansenists and ultimately the suppression of the Jesuits. When these embattled camps did turn their attention to materialist or irreligious adversaries, they typically outbid each other in censorship and condemnations, only radicahzing the secular Enlightenment.
Fourth, the French Revolution sounded the death kneU for the Cathohc Enlightenment. The Revolution's 1790 Civil Constitution of the Clergy pushed the norm of political intervention into ecclesiastical reform over the edge. And elite Catholic reformers proved out of touch with the popular devotional religiosity that would be the soil, after decades of postRevolutionary turmoil, for 19th-century Catholic renewal.
This volume is a highly valuable mapping of a poorly known movement in religious history that should be of major interest to both historians and theologians.
Fordham University, New York PETER STEINFELS