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When the eminent historian Peter Gay wrote The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism in the 1960’s, he summed up its view of Christianity this way:

Christianity claimed to bring light, hope, and truth, but its central myth was incredible, its dogma a conflation of rustic superstitions, its sacred book an incoherent collection of primitive tales, its church a cohort of servile fanatics as long as they were out of power and of despotic fanatics once they had seized control.

Regrettably, this is still the way many “enlightened” secularists regard Christian denominations—particularly the Catholic Church—but it is a view itself laced with prejudice and superstition. For it is an undeniable historical fact that the Catholic Church had its own enlightenment, and that many Catholic leaders led the way in human reform and progress.

This is the theme of an outstanding new work by Ulrich Lehner, The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement.

Lehner is by no means the first author to counter the anti-Catholic impulses of Enlightenment history, as he readily acknowledges in his introduction, paying credit to historians like R. R. Palmer and Bernard Plongeron. They and numerous others “worked tirelessly to demonstrate that Catholicism and Enlightenment, faith and reason, progress and religion, were not incompatible.” The result is that fifty years after Gay’s influential work, “there has been a dramatic change in perspective. Today, historians recognize that only a small fraction of Enlighteners were anti-religious; the overwhelming majority of them were interested in finding a balance between faith and reason.”

The “Age of Enlightenment” is often cited as taking place between 1650-1800, but Lehner shows that it began much earlier, and was heavily Christian. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the Catholic Church had fallen into corruption and disarray, but many Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, realized what was happening and sought to reform the Church, albeit in different ways. While the Protestant Reformers left the Catholic Church altogether—or rescued it for Christ, as they would maintain—the Catholics stayed with Rome, but, agreeing in part with Protestants, demanded its purification, resulting in the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

Often described as a harsh reaction to the Protestant Reformation, Trent, though certainly unyielding in teachings deemed essential, was far more expansive and forward-looking than it’s been given credit for.

The Council not only addressed what had to be reformed in the Church, writes Lehner, but “stressed that human freedom is a crucial feature of theology . . . This prepared the ground for ongoing controversies over predestination, but most of all, it became the foundation of the Enlightenment belief in individual freedom and the natural capacities of the human person.”

That is a provocative claim to make, but Lehner backs it up with ample evidence. In seven thematically-oriented chapters, he discusses the Catholic thinkers who led the way in promoting religious freedom and tolerance, defended women, combated superstition, fought slavery, and welcomed advances in Biblical scholarship, science, economics and the arts. Of course, their criticisms and proposals weren’t always welcomed by other Catholics, but their views eventually found favor with the reform-minded Popes, and were integrated into Catholic teaching. Among the book’s heroes are three women, Josefa Amar, Laura Bassi and Maria Agnessi, who overcame considerable obstacles to become influential Catholic scholars; Italian historian Ludovico Muratori, the Austrian theologian Ferdinand Sterzinger, the Jesuit Benedict Stattler and the Hungarian monk Johann Bartholotti. The latter was particularly courageous, for he not only answered opponents of the faith, but rigid and overzealous Catholics who damaged it. Lehner writes:

Bartholotti . . . articulated an insight that one frequently finds among Catholic Enlighteners, namely, the abhorrence of fanaticism as an irrational religious force. Even theologians could be guilty of it, he wrote, especially those who downplayed the importance of reason or who sacrificed the intellectual coherence of the faith by insisting on doctrinally irrelevant marginalia (such as some unbelievable miracle in the life of a saint). Such fanatical theology distorted the faith and rendered it unintelligible . . . What the Catholic Church needed instead, if it desired to remain an intellectually serious alternative to secular world-views, was an open-minded evaluation of modern philosophies, a critical and honest evaluation of its own history and theology, and ultimately a serious updating.

If all this sounds like the prelude to Vatican II, it is intended to be, for one of Lehner’s major findings is that the Tridentine reform, which sparked the Catholic Enlightenment, was not an isolated movement, but one that has continued through Vatican II and up to the present day. Such a view, of course, is anathema to Catholics who lament the latter, in favor of “Catholic Tradition,” but the value of Lehner’s book is that is shows that “Catholic Tradition” is nether what the anti-Catholic Left—or the arch-conservative Right, for that matter—thinks it is.

“Long before there was a Pope Francis,” writes Lehner, “there existed an open-minded Catholicism that was in dialogue with cutting-edge intellectual trends.” And as Lehner makes clear, the leaders of this movement, like all genuine Catholic reformers, weren’t rebels or dissenters, but faithful Catholics, committed to deepening and strengthening orthodoxy.

This makes Lehner’s book especially relevant to current debates over Francis’s papacy, and when and where it’s necessary to draw clear boundaries between Catholicism and the modern world.

One of the reasons Francis is considered a radical innovator, rather than the faithful Catholic he is, is that so many who write about him are unfamiliar with the Catholic Enlightenment, and can’t recognize its expression today in the Pope’s vision of a renewed Church.

Far from promoting “adolescent progressivism”—to use the Pope’s own words for runaway liberalism—Francis is a classic Catholic reformer, whose strong pastoral concerns and humility reflect the most admirable aspects of the Tridentine reform. And it is significant that Francis has praised the Council of Trent, as well as Benedict’s “hermeneutic of reform,” within the context of Catholic continuity, connecting the Catholic past to Vatican II. So Francis has a great deal of authentic Catholic tradition on his side.

If there is one message of Professor Lehner’s important book it is that Catholics, in trying to live a faithful life, should not retreat to some romanticized Catholic past, but should instead take the modern situation of a pluralistic society seriously. We cannot act defensively and turn our backs on everything new or modern, either within or outside the Church, but we also need to practice discernment, and separate what is true, good, and lasting from the insignificant and ephemeral.

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.

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