Michael O'Neill Printy. Enlightenment and the Creation of German Catholicism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. viii + 246 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-47839-7.
Reviewed by H.C. Erik Midelfort (Department of History, University of Virginia)
Published on H-German (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Reform Catholics in the Late Holy Roman Empire
Michael O'Neill Printy's book is both informative and frustrating. He has valuably affirmed the importance of Catholic thinkers and Catholic politics in the Holy Roman Empire of the eighteenth century; more narrowly he has discerned and described a movement among Catholic canon lawyers, historians, journalists, and churchmen to assert the autonomy of the German church, a semi-independence from Rome that echoed and envied the longstanding Gallican settlement of the French church. In doing so, these German Catholic thinkers revisited the fifteenth-century conciliarists and tried to show that the German church had realized at least in principle what the other national churches, especially the French and the Spanish, achieved in fact. These Catholic intellectuals were also united in their opposition to the Society of Jesus and to the ex-Jesuits who, after 1773, continued to insist upon an ultramontane and floridly pious religiosity. Recognizing the new importance of the absolute state, these writers also perceived the need for rethinking the relations of church and society as well as between church and state. Printy asserts, moreover, that this sort of Reform Catholic thought sprang from bourgeois origins that betrayed little sympathy for the world of noble prelates or peasant "baroque" religious practice. In making these important points, Printy tries to demonstrate the existence of an "Enlightenment Catholicism" that laid the foundations for various efforts in the nineteenth century to establish a German national church, a Catholic institution that would compete effectively with Protestantism for the loyalties of increasingly fervent German nationalists. In all of these ways, this book makes a worthy contribution to a topic that has been far too often neglected, especially in English-language treatments of eighteenth-century German history.
Unfortunately, the book also abounds in hesitant, ungrammatical, clotted sentences, overstatements, misspellings, irrelevancies, and unclear assertions that undermine the confidence of the reader. Sometimes crucial information is hidden in a note. The first half of the book deals with efforts, largely by canon lawyers and Catholic historians, to establish the "liberty of the German church." One finds here the best extended description available in English of Febronianism (the doctrines of Nikolaus von Hontheim, suffragan bishop of Trier), that failed effort to claim jurisdictional independence from Rome for the German bishops. But were these efforts "enlightened" in any meaningful sense? If so, what sense is that? Nowhere in these pages do we read of the possible connection between these canonists and any broader movement toward "Enlightenment." Perhaps they deployed a new historical method? Perhaps they trusted new arguments from reason over the arguments from tradition? Are we to conclude that thinkers who relied on natural law were therefore enlightened? We are not told.
In the second half of the book, Printy turns to the efforts of Reform Catholics to establish a new, less florid, more educated piety, a reformed priesthood, and a specifically German Catholicism that would respond effectively to the temper of the times. But here again, Printy too often asserts what he does not prove. His effort to show that these reformers were searching for a "bourgeois" Catholicism never quite shows us what was specifically middle-class about this attempt. Indeed, many of the most prominent of these thinkers and journalists were Benedictine or Augustinian monks, whose antipathy to the Jesuits was understandable but whose connections to the "universal class" of urban, academic, or courtly professionals were less visible. In general, I am afraid, Printy's efforts to describe the religious sociology of German Catholicism (noble-worldly, bourgeois-universal, and peasant-superstitious) seem amateur and ill-digested.
One of Printy's main aims is to provide an "intellectual history" of Reform Catholicism, but he often gives the reader little information about his various protagonists and little sense of their lives, careers, alliances, and motivations. Their journalistic utterances and historical claims seem to emerge from a social and professional vacuum. Another of Printy's goals is to offer "the first full account of the German Catholic Enlightenment" (p. 3), but the result falls well short of that. How can this be a "full account" if it does not do justice to the Bavarian Academy of Sciences (founded in 1759 and one of the beacons of scholarly Catholic Enlightenment)? Indeed, if this were the "first full account," it would be amazing if it could have been contained within a volume ten times the size of this one. Printy has simplified his daunting self-imposed task by looking mainly at the national question, but this focus comes at the expense of a discussion of the many issues within Catholic dogma and practice that exercised self-proclaimedly "enlightened" Catholic commentators. The reader will miss discussions of witchcraft, demonic possession, Jansenism, toleration, along with sociopolitical issues such as serfdom, suicide, infanticide, the legal and social position of the Jews, education, the emerging public sphere, freedom of discussion, women and women's place in society and the church, and finally the French Revolution--all issues that were vexing enlightened critics all over the empire. He does provide some welcome attention to the question of whether monasticism should play a continuing role in the German church, but this seems to be important to Printy mainly because the territories (mainly Bavaria and Austria) were threatening to close down the monasteries within their borders and by the end of the century had largely succeeded in doing so. Too often, Printy assumes that the reader already knows the basic outlines of this and other stories and that what is needed is a revisionist perspective without the details. A fresh attitude is thus offered, but often without adequate information or context to make the new view compelling.
Most of these difficulties stem, it seems, from a failure to discuss what the actual center of the book is and what connection the vexed relations between church and state might have had to the Enlightenment, either in its broader European form or the more narrowly focused German Catholic variant. Specialists in Catholicism, the Enlightenment, and sectarianism in central Europe can benefit from reading this text. Cambridge University Press, however, should be embarrassed to have published a book with such obvious deficits in copyediting.
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H.C. Erik Midelfort. Review of Printy, Michael O'Neill, Enlightenment and the Creation of German Catholicism.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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