Ulrich L. Lehner. The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 272 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-023291-7.
Reviewed by Anton Matytsin (Kenyon College)
Published on H-Albion (August, 2016)
Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer Polytechnic)
In this comprehensive concise account, Ulrich L. Lehner, professor of religious history at Marquette University, offers a masterful reinterpretation of the relationship between Roman Catholicism and the Enlightenment. He demonstrates the pervasive influence of what he terms the “Catholic Enlightenment” in the learned discourse; the religious practices; and the social and political reforms in Europe, the Americas, China, and India during the eighteenth century. Continuing the growing trend of revisions to earlier historiography that has tended to present the Enlightenment as a strictly secular and anti-clerical movement, Lehner’s synthetic account forces scholars to rethink the relationship between faith and reason in the eighteenth century. His overview of the Catholic Enlightenment destabilizes established narratives about the secular origins of modernity and complicates the traditional binary oppositions between conservatism and progressivism, modernity and tradition, and the Enlightenment philosophes and the counter-Enlightenment religionnaires.
Peter Gay’s interpretation of the Enlightenment as a deeply irreligious movement led by the French philosophes, who sought to subvert the power of traditional authorities, particularly of the Catholic Church, has proven to be quite durable. However, recent scholarship, including Jonathan Sheehan’s The Enlightenment Bible (2005), David Sorkin’s The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna (2008), Jeffrey D. Burson’s The Rise and Fall of Theological Enlightenment: Jean-Martin de Prades and Ideological Polarization in Eighteenth-Century France (2010), Lehner’s own Enlightened Monks: The German Benedictines, 1740-1803 (2011), and God in the Enlightenment (2016) coedited by William J. Bulman and Robert G. Ingram, has shown that the relationship between the new philosophy and religion in the eighteenth century was far from agonistic. These works have demonstrated that dynamic interactions between faith and reason were central to the intellectual and cultural developments that historians tend to associate with the European Enlightenment. Lehner, who recently coedited Enlightenment and Catholicism in Europe: A Transnational History (2014) with Burson, takes on the challenge of showing that Roman Catholicism—one of the main targets for the philosophes—was not incompatible with the major intellectual trends of the period. Moreover, the author details the ways in which various “Catholic Enlighteners” contributed to “progressive” and “modern” notions that were consistent and compatible with “the values modernity cherishes” (p. 2).
Lehner traces the origins of the Catholic Enlightenment to the Council of Trent and the Catholic Reformation of the sixteenth century, demonstrating how “many progressive reforms within the Catholic Church,” including the prohibition of arranged marriages, the ban of domestic abuse, and attempts to protect indigenous tribes in the Americas, “predate even the Enlightenment” (p. 3). This serves as an important reminder that the Enlightenment had a long and complicated prehistory and that its origins can be found in the religious debates of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations. Lehner thus argues for the existence of a long-standing moderate reformist attitude among thinkers who consistently sought to “reconcile Catholicism with modern culture” while using the latest philosophical and scientific advancements “to defend the essential dogmas of Catholic Christianity” (p. 7). Although Lehner operates within Jonathan Israel’s binary paradigm of the radical and moderate Enlightenment, he challenges the notion that solely radical and anti-religious thinkers championed progressive ideas, such as “equality, freedom, democracy, cultural diversity, and tolerance” (p. 6).
While he describes the Catholic Enlightenment as an eclectic movement, Lehner identifies several features that were common to most of the movement’s representatives. Seeking to appeal to an increasingly literate lay public, reform-minded Catholics attempted to communicate their ideas by using the vernacular and abandoning complex scholastic vocabulary and disputation format. Lehner’s protagonists, much like their secular counterparts, also shared a belief in the perfectibility of individuals and organization, and, as a result, they sought to improve both ecclesiastical and temporal institutions. The Catholic Enlighteners likewise resembled secular thinkers in their opposition, religious enthusiasm, fanaticism, and superstition, and they sought to promote toleration toward other denominations and to foster “‘rational’ obedience” among the faithful. They deployed the arguments of modern science and philosophy, such as Lockean epistemology and Newtonian physics, in order to demonstrate the existence of God and to defend the essential doctrines of Roman Catholicism. According to Lehner, many Catholic reformers tended to oppose the papacy, calling for a revival of regular councils and cooperating with state reformers sometimes in “open opposition to Rome” (p. 10).
The book’s global scope is perhaps its most impressive feature. Building on his scholarship on the Austrian and German Benedictines, Lehner weaves a complex narrative that brings together areas and figures that had been largely overlooked by eighteenth-century scholars. In his discussions of Europe, the author is especially keen on highlighting developments in central and southern Europe. We meet several notable thinkers of the Italian Enlightenment: Ludovico Muratori, a friend of the “Enlightenment Pope” Benedict XIV and a foremost biblical scholar, who deployed the latest methods of textual criticism “to distinguish the immutable and the essential elements of faith from those that were man-made and thus reformable”; the Celestine monk Celestino Galiani, who resorted to Newtonian physics to demonstrate “the existence of a benevolent creator-god”; and his nephew Fernando Galiani, who not only debated the existence of God with Denis Diderot but also penned one of the first treatises in favor of economic liberalism in 1752 (p. 42). Lehner also offers a rich account of the Iberian world, including such figures as Spanish Benedictine monk Benito Feijoo and Josefa Amar, both of whom promoted female education and defended women’s rights, and the Mexican Jesuit Francisco Clavigero, who refuted popular prejudices about indigenous American civilizations and defended the Amerindians against those who considered them subhuman.
The book is structured largely along thematic lines, dealing with religious toleration, women’s rights, the encounters of Catholicism with non-European cultures, the debates about miracles and other supernatural phenomena, the changing conceptions of sainthood, and the enslavement of the indigenous and black populations in the Americas. Lehner ends the story of the Catholic Enlightenment with the French Revolution, during which the increasingly anti-clerical sentiments and the program of de-Christianization placed the Catholic reformers (many of whom, ironically, had initially supported the Revolution) in an impossible situation. Trapped between the conservative papacy and the anti-religious revolutionaries, moderate Catholic Enlighteners had no more space in which to operate.
On several occasions, Lehner contends that the Catholic Enlighteners were actually more progressive or effective than their secular counterparts. For example, Lehner notes that Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, Voltaire, and Christian Wolff had a “much shallower” understanding of China than the Jesuits (p. 118). Similarly, he reminds readers that Voltaire’s well-known campaign for toleration during the Calas affair rode on “a wave Jansenism had created over the past few decades” in their contentious fight with the Jesuits and with the absolutist monarchy. In discussing the debates about slavery, Lehner likewise notes that while Catholic missionaries and priests actively worked to “ease the burden of slaves” or passionately supported abolition, “most Enlighteners were content with a moral disapproval of slavery but passive when it came to actual help” (p. 205). Such comparisons do seem somewhat selective, but they do serve as an important reminder about the need to question the heroic narrative of the secular Enlightenment.
While this book offers a much-needed reinterpretation of the relationship between Catholicism and the Enlightenment and argues for the compatibility between modernity and the Catholic tradition, it advances a problematic conception of the Enlightenment. First, Lehner traces particular values cherished by modern Western society back to the eighteenth century in order to maintain that Roman Catholic reformers “anticipated many crucial ideas of the twentieth century” (p. 13). While the examples he provides support this claim, the arc of the analysis seems overly teleological. If proximity to notions cherished by our contemporaries is the criterion by which we separate the Enlighteners from their opponents then we risk both ignoring the ways in which thinkers of this period understood their own agendas and privileging voices that most echo our own, rather than considering the wide spectrum of eighteenth-century intellectual culture. Such an approach risks substituting one heroic narrative for another.
Second, the author tends to use “Enlightener” and “reformer” in a nearly synonymous fashion, and many of his examples seem to suggest that any Catholic advocate of reform in this period can automatically be assumed to be an Enlightener. This seems to make the Enlightenment an overly broad and amorphous category. Given Lehner’s claim that the Catholic Enlightenment had roots in the sixteenth century, it is not entirely clear how eighteenth-century Catholic reformers are to be distinguished from their predecessors. It might be useful to consider whether many of the Catholic thinkers included in this survey would have described themselves as “Enlighteners” and would have considered themselves as taking part in the broad intellectual and cultural movement that championed reason and questioned tradition, or whether they would have seen themselves in a more restricted role as reformers of Roman Catholicism. An answer to this question would have important implications for how we should think of the Enlightenment.
This book raises important questions about the ways in which historians should think about eighteenth-century learned culture, and it also forces us to consider whether “the Enlightenment” continues to be a useful category of analysis. By shedding crucial light on the important yet largely overlooked contributions of Roman Catholics to this period in European and world history, Lehner complicates our understanding of early modernity. The Catholic Enlightenment is thus both a provocative challenge to established narratives about the Enlightenment and an extremely useful resource for scholars and students of all levels.
. Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, vol. 1, The Rise of Modern Paganism (New York: Alfred E. Knopf, 1966).
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Anton Matytsin. Review of Lehner, Ulrich L., The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement.
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