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The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movementby Ulrich L. Lehner (Oxford University Press, 2016)

The Catholic EnlightenmentThe Catholic Enlightenment is a great book. Indeed, no recent academic work on Catholicism has raised my hopes this high for the current level of scholarship since first having encountered the writings of Christopher Dawson a decade and a half ago. And, while I am no expert (nor do I even know enough to pretend to be) on the history of European Catholicism between the Counter Reformation and the French Revolution, Dr. Lehner’s latest book, The Catholic Enlightenment, not only raises some of the most important questions about the faith and about the West, but it also fills in some critical gaps in our understanding of each.

The sum of Dr. Lehner’s argument is this: contrary to popular and secular mythologies, the Church possessed a number of critical personalities and intellectual leaders who actively engaged the ideas of democracy, individualism, liberalism (properly understood), and what would be called, ultimately, modernity. All of this happened between the Council of Trent and the end of the French Revolution. Surprisingly, at least to me, Catholic scholars and theologians considered, studied, and digested the importance of the thought of John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and even Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Indeed, they not only took the ideas of non-Catholic scholars seriously, they actually attempted to meld secular thought with Catholic theology. Dr. Lehner, much to his credit, never over-makes his case. He recognizes that there were many, many “Enlightenments” during the few centuries leading up to the French Revolution, just as our own John Willson stresses the need to acknowledge many “Foundings” in the American Founding period. Additionally, Dr. Lehner never claims that these Catholic Enlighteners—as he calls them—dominated scholarship or the thinking of the Church as a whole. Rather, he notes, time and time again throughout his book, they attracted attention, bonded with one another, and changed, shaped, and delimited the philosophical and theological discussion within the Church.

It is best to allow Dr. Lehner to explain this himself:

What was on the agenda of Catholic Enlighteners? Their aim was (a) to use the newest achievement of philosophy and science to defend the essential dogmas of Catholic Christianity by explaining them in the new language, and (b) to reconcile Catholicism with modern culture. If anything held these diverse thinkers together, it was their belief that Catholicism had to modernize if it wanted to be a viable intellectual alternative to the persuasive arguments of the anti-clerical Enlighteners. Catholic Enlighteners differed among themselves as to how such a modernization should be brought about, but all agreed that Aristotelian scholasticism could not longer serve as the universal foundation for theology.

From the standpoint of the Catholics Enlighteners, Dr. Lehner argues, Catholics should liberally embrace the latest science and philosophy, debating, dissecting, and incorporating such new notions as long as they support rather than harm the fundamentals of the nature of the Incarnation, the sacraments, and the Trinity. In other words, as in the long tradition of the Church, they hope to baptize what they find rather than exterminate or ignore. As with their secular brethren in the Enlightenment, the Catholic Enlighteners distrusted superstition, enthusiasm, and prejudice, preferring, instead, the employment of Reason as universally understood and manifested. Additionally, they often pushed for continuous reform in the Church, believing the hierarchy should democratize rather than centralize around the papacy. And, not surprisingly, they held the view that Protestants were as Christian as Catholics, just “separated.”

Catholic EnlightenmentThough Dr. Lehner sees his own work as an examination of the entire Catholic world of the centuries between the Counter-Reformation and French Revolution, he gives most of his attention, understandably, to European Catholicism. As such, he examines issues such as divorce and marriage, church-state relations, native relations, slavery, toleration and free speech, education, the role of women, the acceptance of love (over biological assumptions and arranged marriages), magic, witchcraft and vampirism, and saints, martyrdoms, and holiness.

In the middle of the book, Dr. Lehner also explores the role of Catholicism in the European colonies and former colonies. In particular, he gives time and thought to Catholicism in the Americas, India, and China. Interestingly, he argues that John, Charles, and Daniel Carroll had embraced and promoted aspects of the Enlightenment in American Catholicism. This, of course, is a highly contested issue in the history and historiographical traditions of the United States, with traditionalist and well as modernist Catholics seeking to capture the symbolism of the Founding through the Carrolls. My own take is that the three Carrolls were deeply republican and Classical rather than liberal and enlightened, but this is a contentious issue within historiography, and my view is only one of many legitimate arguments.

Dr. Lehner concludes his book with the critical observation that the radicalism of the French Revolution—especially its anti-Catholicism—destroyed any real hope for a continuation of any coherent or cohesive liberalism. Instead, the Church centralized around the papacy, often turning “theology into ideology in order to secure societal influence and to silence dissenters.” Importantly, especially for the nineteenth century, the Church created a bulwark against liberalism, modernity, and individualism, seeing each as fundamentally selfish. Right or wrong—for Dr. Lehner offers no judgment—“Catholicism withdrew into an intellectual ghetto.” Individual Catholics challenged this orthodoxy from time to time, but not until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) did a coherent voice of liberalism emerge from within the Church, returning (but only slightly) to the ideals of the Catholic Enlightenment of the pre-French Revolutionary period.

The Catholic Enlightenment is not only one of the best books I have had the privilege of reading this year, it is certainly one of the best books of history I have ever read. Ulrich Lehner is a top-flight Christian humanist and, from what I know of him, a true Catholic gentleman. Long may he and his scholarship be the model for us all.


Ulrich Lehner

Ulrich Lehner

After reading Dr. Lehner’s book, I had a chance to correspond with him and ask a few questions.

Birzer: First, what prompted you to write this book?

Lehner: I wanted to address the prejudice among historians and academics in general that we Catholics never really wrestled with modernity but only shut our eyes to it. The book is directed against this academic snobbery but also against theologians and Catholics who think that contending with modernity and reform only began with Vatican II—against this particular Catholic amnesia of the time between Trent and Vatican I.

Birzer: Second, what’s the next book?

Lehner: My first follow up comes out in July with Fortress Press: On the Road to Vatican II: German Catholic Enlighteners and Reform of the Church, where I explore in more detail the German scene.

Birzer: Third, and after that?

The next book is an edited collection of essays on Women, Catholicism and Enlightenment—because nobody has paid much attention to the female Enlighteners who were Catholic (out next year with Routledge). Simultaneously, I am writing two monographs, one a systematic study on asceticism and moral formation, and a book on Catholicism during the Nazi time.


In other words, there is a lot more coming soon from Professor Lehner. Amen.

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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4 replies to this post
  1. I just looked up Ulrich Lerner’s book on Amazon. The author bio says he teaches at Marquette University, which was in the news in the last few weeks over a professor being targeted for defending freedom of speech and speaking out against other faculty members targeting a student for expressing traditional Catholic beliefs. Interesting that such rubbish would be coming from faculty at a Catholic university. The incident certainly does not reflect well on Marquette University.

    I certainly hope Ulrich Lerner is not one of the Marquette University faculty coming out against freedom of speech and trying to enforce sanctions against students and staff for holding traditional Catholic beliefs. That would certainly affect my choice on whether to buy his book.

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