Most people would think that the idea of a Catholic Enlightenment was a contradiction in terms. Was not the Enlightenment essentially anti-religious and specifically anti-Catholic? Did not the Catholic Church prove itself to be the bitterest enemy and strongest opponent of Enlightenment ideas and values in politics, philosophy and culture, culminating in denunciations of all that the Enlightenment stood for in documents like the “Syllabus of Errors” (1864)?
Viewing one historical period through the lens of another, however, inevitably distorts and misrepresents, and viewing the Catholic Church of the 18th century through the lens of 19th-century ultramontanism and the war between science and religion leads to false assumptions like the ones above. The Catholic Church of the 18th century was as much embedded in its culture as the church is in any age, and that culture certainly reflected a growing respect for the power of reason, especially in the sciences. Most Catholic intellectuals shared in that respect, to one degree or another, and the spectrum of Enlightenment thinking or sensibility extended, yes, from radical atheists to believing, practicing and devout Catholics. How could it be otherwise? In the 18th century, the church still controlled, in one way or another, most of the educational institutions in Catholic countries, many of the organs of scholarly communication, and Catholic priests, mostly from the orders (and especially from the Jesuits) were among the leading scholars, teachers and scientists of the day. Catholic intellectuals were as much immersed in the debates and discussions that we think of as the Enlightenment “project,” if you will, as Protestants, deists and newly secularized Jews like Baruch Spinoza. Of course, Catholic enlighteners believed in the ultimate compatibility of faith and reason, which not all other Enlightenment figures did, but they were no less believers in reason for thinking this.
Ulrich Lehner’s excellent book unpacks the notion of the Catholic Enlightenment, and provides us, as he says in the subtitle, with a “forgotten history.” He does this in a series of essays on various aspects of Catholic involvement in Enlightenment themes and causes. There are fascinating chapters on Catholic women and the Enlightenment, slavery in Catholic countries, “Devils, Demons and the Divine in the Catholic Enlightenment” on the demise in the belief in witchcraft and diabolical possession in Catholic culture.
Lehner does not restrict himself to Europe: there is a chapter on “Catholic Enlightenment in the Americas, China and India.” In all these areas and others, like a growing Catholic acceptance of religious toleration, Lehner reveals common cause and compatibility between Catholic enlighteners and Enlightenment figures of different and no religious commitment. More than that, in some areas, like defending the rights of women (for example, not be be forced into marriages against their wills), or in humane treatment of slaves (this based in part on the willingness of Catholic priests to receive slaves into the church) or in the defense of indigenous peoples (cf. the Jesuit reductions), Catholics were ahead of “mainstream” Enlightenment figures who were often influenced by their ties with enlightened despots or the colonialist aggrandizing agendas of absolutist states.
Part of the agenda of Catholic enlighteners had to do with church reform, and here Lehner points out an important continuity between the agendas of reform Catholicism going back to the Council of Trent and that of the Catholic enlighteners. Catholic enlighteners continued to look for reform in areas of priestly formation, catechesis, worship and popular devotions, in eliminating superstition and purifying both conduct and spirituality. In this, they often made common cause with reform Catholic monarchs, like the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II, often over the objections of the papacy, to correct abuses in dioceses and religious houses, sometimes suppressing them with no reference to the pope. This they were able to do in a much more decentralized and local church, where the authority of the pope was circumscribed by longstanding concessions given to monarchs and reinforced by ecclesiologies like Gallicanism and Febronianism which maintained the essential autonomy of national churches. These customs and theories saw the pope as little more than a figurehead and symbol, without jurisdictional power in the church, and certainly most Enlightenment Catholics would have agreed that such a decentralized church, with local control, tending even toward the election of bishops, was more in keeping with enlightened ways of doing things.
What happened to this enlightened church and these Enlightenment Catholics that their history is now forgotten? In a word, the French Revolution and the reaction that followed it. With the promulgation of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790 the French Church split, between backers of the Civil Constitution, which severed all ties with Rome and set up the independent Constitutional Church, and those who would not take the oath to the new church. In the former group were most of the Enlightenment Catholics. The latter group effectively went underground and were persecuted by the Revolution, many losing their lives in the September (1792) Massacres or on the guillotine. As the Revolution entered its most radical phase, abolished Christianity and set up the cult of the Supreme Being, even many of the Constitutional clergy lost their lives in the Terror. It was one of the most traumatic moments in the church’s history.
Lehner notes the great irony that it was Napoleon, of all people, who put the final nail in the coffin of enlightened Catholicism, and ushered in the era of the ultramontane church. Realizing that de-Christianization had been a failure, and that most French people retained a loyalty to the Catholic Church, he invited the pope, Pius VII, to remove all of the bishops, both of the ancien regime and of the Constitutional Church, and to reestablish the French Church by papal fiat. This act vindicated the long held claims of the papacy to universal and immediate jurisdiction in the church, claims which the papacy had never before been in a position to exercise. Napoleon and the pope had a subsequent falling out, and Napoleon imprisoned him. But with the defeat of the Empire and the Restoration, the pope emerged with even greater prestige. In the reaction that followed the Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, enlightenment Catholics were vilified as fellow travelers and collaborators with the Revolution, and most of their ideas consigned to oblivion. With the triumph of ultramontanism in the church, it took a century and a half for the ideas of enlightenment Catholicism to get a hearing in the church again at the time of Vatican II, but by then, most people did not realize where these ideas had come from!