The Catholic Enlightenment

The Catholic Enlightenment

The Forgotten History of A Global Movement

Book - 2016
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"Whoever needs an act of faith to elucidate an event that can be explained by reason is a fool, and unworthy of reasonable thought." This line, spoken by the notorious 18th-century libertine Giacomo Casanova, illustrates a deeply entrenched perception of religion, as prevalent today as it was hundreds of years ago. It is the sentiment behind the narrative that Catholic beliefs were incompatible with the Enlightenment ideals. Catholics, many claim, are superstitious and traditional, opposed to democracy and gender equality, and hostile to science. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that Casanova himself was a Catholic. In The Catholic Enlightenment, Ulrich L. Lehner points to such figures as representatives of a long-overlooked thread of a reform-minded Catholicism, which engaged Enlightenment ideals with as much fervor and intellectual gravity as anyone. Their story opens new pathways for understanding how faith and modernity can interact in our own time. Lehner begins two hundred years before the Enlightenment, when the Protestant Reformation destroyed the hegemony Catholicism had enjoyed for centuries. During this time the Catholic Church instituted several reforms, such as better education for pastors, more liberal ideas about the roles of women, and an emphasis on human freedom as a critical feature of theology. These actions formed the foundation of the Enlightenment's belief in individual freedom. While giants like Spinoza, Locke, and Voltaire became some of the most influential voices of the time, Catholic Enlighteners were right alongside them. They denounced fanaticism, superstition, and prejudice as irreconcilable with the Enlightenment agenda. In 1789, the French Revolution dealt a devastating blow to their cause, disillusioning many Catholics against the idea of modernization. Popes accumulated ever more power and the Catholic Enlightenment was snuffed out. It was not until the Second Vatican Council in 1962 that questions of Catholicism's compatibility with modernity would be broached again. Ulrich L. Lehner tells, for the first time, the forgotten story of these reform-minded Catholics. As Pope Francis pushes the boundaries of Catholicism even further, and Catholics once again grapple with these questions, this book will prove to be required reading"--Fly leaf of book jacket.
Published: New York, NY :, Oxford University Press,, [2016]
ISBN: 9780190232917
Branch Call Number: 282.0903 LEH
Characteristics: 257 pages ;,25 cm


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Nov 12, 2016

"Ecrasez l'infame," Voltaire famously declared, over and over again, "Crush the infamy!" - "the infamy" being the Catholic Church. In the decades following his death, Voltaire's "enlightened" admirers attempted to do just that, to wash away the Church with the blood of hundreds of thousands of her faithful. These facts have dominated the understanding of the relationship between Church and Enlightenment ever since, "enlighteners" denouncing the Church as the chief enemy of human progress, traditional Catholics seeing in the Enlightenment little but persecution and genocide. It is Lehner's argument that it need not be so, and was not always so. In The Catholic Enlightenment he attempts to trace an "enlightened" movement within the Catholic Church itself which emerged organically out of the Tridentine reform.

For the most part, Lehner attempts to weave a distinctly Catholic Enlightenment out of two separate threads - the continuators of the Tridentine reforms, whose goals sometimes harmonized with and sometimes opposed those of the Enlightenment, and the "enlighteners" who sought to make the Church conform to the world and their "enlightened" ideas. Unfortunately, these threads clash - while the former were invariably orthodox, the latter often spiraled into heresy and schism. Then, too, Lehner's claims to objectivity are undermined by his consistent use of morally loaded terms such as "progress" and "reform" - even excusing the inevitable "Enlightenment" and its offspring "enlightened" and "enlighteners". This works in both directions - it is difficult to describe St Alphonsus Ligouri as an Enlightenment figure, as Lehner does, unless "enlightened" is being used as a bare synonym for "good". Finally, Lehner sometimes stretches too far to align Enlightenment figures with twentieth century concerns - he uses the beggar saint Benedict Labre to illustrate differences between the enlightened and Catholic attitudes towards poverty, but then attempts to connect this to a "preferential option for the poor" which resembles the former more than the latter.

There is a great deal of excellent detail in The Catholic Enlightenment, with its retrieval of the work of a host of neglected intellectuals. Lehner's stated goal, demonstrating that Catholicism and Enlightenment should not be imagined as entirely irreconcilable, is laudable. His attempted demonstration, however, is fundamentally misguided, absurdly suggesting that the quisling French state church was somehow superior to the "dark age" Church of Vianney and Therese, Newman and Chesterton, Seton and Brownson, Damien and Lwanga, Bosco and Leo XIII. He seems not to have grasped the difference between engagement and surrender.


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