Enlightened Monks: The German Benedictines 1740–1803
by Ulrich L. Lehner
Oxford 356 pages, $99
As a professor of the religious history of modernity at Marquette University, Ulrich Lehner has focused his recent scholarship on the Catholic responses to the European Enlightenment. In Enlightened Monks: The German Benedictines 1740–1803, he details the numerous challenges faced by German Benedictinism during a half-century when many of its best and brightest monks, after renouncing classical elements of their monastic tradition, pursued programs of religious social and intellectual reform inspired by Enlightenment philosophy and science. Enlightened Monks, he writes, “analyzes the multifaceted reform attempts of these monastic proponents of a religious Enlightenment, whom I call ‘enlightened’ monks, which covered not only new forms of community life and new communication structures, but also a strong belief in individual freedom, tolerance, human rights, non-violence, and the conviction that the church, especially in monastic life, had to modernize and adapt to society.”
Academics will appreciate its meticulously documented research, as well as the wealth of German scholarship Lehner makes available to his English readers.
Notwithstanding these strengths, the book struggles to achieve a balanced analysis of the parallel social and intellectual histories it narrates. Lehner’s enthusiastic presentation of the social reforms embraced by German monasteries contrasts considerably with his often uncritical treatment of the disruptions Enlightenment views visited upon the monks’ intellectual and religious culture.
For example, while he credits Enlightenment social theory for the reform of the monastic prison system, he fails to indict Enlightenment philosophy for the numerous defections of enlightened monks both from their vows and from the Catholic faith. In contrast to his enthusiastic treatment of the modernization of the monastic cloister, he recounts all too coolly tale after sad tale of monastic infidelity and apostasy.
Lehner generally approves of the Enlightenment’s influence on modern German monasticism. He relates how two enlightened monks arrived in Paris in the summer of 1789, were panicked by the violent frenzy of the revolutionary crowds filling the streets, and beat a fast retreat from the Place de la Bastille all the way back to their monastery in Salzburg. Immediately upon returning they shaved their heads and reassumed the monastic habit. Their story is telling. Confronted with enlightened revolution, these two monastic reformers developed new respect for old-fashioned, unenlightened disciplines.
—Fr. Aquinas Guilbeau, O.P., writes from the
University of Fribourg in Switzerland.
Newman and His Contemporaries
by Edward Short
T & T Clark 544 pages, $32.95
“A man’s life is in his letters,” John Henry Newman once wrote to his sister Jemima. In his biography, Edward Short mines Newman’s marvelous letters (available from Oxford University Press in thirty-three superbly edited and annotated volumes) to “show that what animated his life was not only love of God but love of neighbor.”
Newman’s circle of friends was wide indeed: it included his clerical collaborators in the Oxford Movement; prominent political and literary figures such as Prime Minister William Gladstone, W. M. Thackeray, and Spectator editor R. H. Hutton; assorted Americans, including Orestes Brownson and James Cardinal Gibbons; and several remarkable women, among them Mrs. Wooten, his close collaborator as matron of the Birmingham Oratory School, and Lady Lothian, the eminent philanthropist.
Many of his correspondents did not share Newman’s Catholic faith; it was his person that attracted them: his intelligence, integrity, and sympathy, which enabled Newman to explain and defend his faith without resorting to conventional arguments. As the skeptical critic Matthew Arnold wrote to him in 1871, “Nothing can ever do away with the effect you have produced upon me, for it consists in a general disposition of mind rather than a particular set of ideas.”
This book is the best study of Newman since Ian Ker’s magisterial biography, and it complements the latter work by showing Newman through the eyes of his contemporaries. Short’s heavy volume may seem forbidding to non-specialist readers, but his style is informal, fluid, and free of pedantry. The text is full of engaging anecdotes and witty commentary. We are introduced to a panorama of life among an educated class of English-speaking people for whom religion was a matter of passionate concern. Best of all, this book introduces us to a type of holiness that manifests itself uniquely in the form of friendship.
—Carleton P. Jones, O.P., is pastor of the University Church of
SS. Philip and James in Baltimore, Maryland.
A More Perfect Heaven:
How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos
by Dava Sobel
Walker and Co., 273 pages, $25.00
Even to us who have had the sun’s centrality in the now-aptly-named solar system drummed into our heads from an early age, heliocentrism is hardly all that obvious. So it must have taken an immensely daring leap of the imagination to abandon the geocentrism presupposed by the Bible and explicitly advocated by Aristotle and Ptolemy.
A More Perfect Heaven, Dava Sobel’s sympathetic account of the life of Copernicus—heliocentrism’s first hero since the ancient astronomer Aristarchus—seeks to show just how this Polish cleric slowly came to his heliocentrism, but it has to be said the author doesn’t really live up to the promise of her subtitle.
Part of the problem is due to the limitation of her sources: While there is a plethora of documents dealing with Copernicus’ role as a church administrator (as a cathedral canon in Varmia, Poland), little has survived of his astronomical thinking outside of his epochal On the Revolutions of Celestial Orbs, published in Germany just before his death in 1543. Thus, in the first part Sobel must content herself with a wearisome account of ecclesiastical politics in late medieval Poland, with the last part (much the best part of the book) devoted to an account of the influence of Copernicus on later astronomy.
The core of the book, however, is truly odd: a playlet about the two-year encounter between Copernicus and Georg Rheticus, a young Lutheran mathematician from Luther’s own University of Wittenberg. Everyone recognizes the latter’s essential role as the midwife of Revolutions, but next to nothing is known of how the two worked together. Sobel fills this gap with a dramatization that is long on melodrama, even sensationalism, and short on astronomy. Based on unconfirmed rumors of Rheticus’ homosexuality and Copernicus’ concubinage, the playlet contains enough banging on and slamming of doors to merit being called a mini Feydeau farce.
The author, though, does mention one telling historical detail: “In the summer of 1533, the distinguished linguist and diplomat Johann Albrecht Widmanstetter, then secretary to Pope Clement VII, delivered a lecture on Copernicus’ astronomy in the Vatican gardens. Widmanstetter went on, after Clement’s death the following year, to serve Nicholas Schönberg, the Cardinal of Capua, and to awaken in him a profound desire to see Copernicus’ book published.” Quite a missed opportunity, that—as, unfortunately, is Sobel’s book.
—Edward T. Oakes, S. J.
University of St. Mary of the Lake/ Mundelein Seminary