An interview of Michela Beatrice Ferri with Jeffrey D. Burson and Ulrich L. Lehner, Editors of Enlightenment and Catholicism in Europe. A Transnational History (Notre Dame Press, 2014). 

In recent years, historians have rediscovered the religious dimensions of the Enlightenment. This volume offers a thorough reappraisal of the so-called “Catholic Enlightenment” as a transnational Enlightenment movement. This Catholic Enlightenment was at once ultramontane and conciliarist, sometimes moderate but often surprisingly radical, with participants active throughout Europe in universities, seminaries, salons, and the periodical press.

In Enlightenment and Catholicism in Europe: A Transnational History, the contributors, primarily European scholars, provide intellectual biographies of twenty Catholic Enlightenment figures across eighteenth-century Europe, many of them little known in English-language scholarship on the Enlightenment and pre-revolutionary eras. These figures represent not only familiar French intellectuals of the Catholic Enlightenment but also Iberian, Italian, English, Polish, and German thinkers. The essays focus on the intellectual and cultural factors influencing the lives and works of their subjects, revealing the often global networks of intellectual sociability and reading that united them both to the Catholic Enlightenment and to eighteenth-century policies and projects. The volume, whose purpose is to advance the understanding of a transnational “Catholic Enlightenment,” will be a reliable reference for historians, theologians, and scholars working in religious studies.

Contributors: Carolina Armenteros, Jeffrey D. Burson, Caroline Chopelin-Blanc, Gabriel Glickman, Mark Goldie, Niccolò Guasti, Ulrich L. Lehner, Jerzy Lukowski, Anna Lysiak-Latkowska, Massimo Mazzotti, Thomas O’Connor, Ritchie Robertson, Mario Rosa, Francisco Sánchez-Blanco, Andrea J. Smidt, Dries Vanysacker, Paola Vismara, Thomas Wallnig, Jonathan A. Wright.

Professor Burson, might you explain what are the origins of this book?

Burson: Ulrich Lehner and I became acquainted some years ago through our colleague, Dale Van Kley, who has written extensively on French Jansenists, Gallicans, and the Enlightenment, and the origins of the French Revolution. As I recall, Dale put me in touch with Ulrich who was then working on a companion to the Catholic Enlightenment which was to revive serious academic work on the Catholic Enlightenment in light of much recent work among German, Italian, French, British, and American scholars on the important connections between the Enlightenment and developments within the Catholic Church. At the time, I was completing my book on The Rise and Fall of Theological Enlightenment (Notre Dame, 2010) which dealt with innovations in Jesuit theology, their relationship to the Enlightenment, and how such developments influenced philosophes and Sorbonne theologians. Ulrich Lehner was working on his work on German Benedictines, entitled, Enlightened Monks (Oxford, 2011). We soon discovered that there was a wealth of still insufficiently studied interacrtions between the Enlightenment and various servants of the Catholic Church, whether Jesuit, Benedictine, or others. Ulrich and I therefore embarked on this volume in roughly 2009 or 2010, and the result is Enlightenment and Catholicism in Europe: A Transnational History (Notre Dame, 2014).

The volume considers Enlightenment and Catholicism in Europe, and analyzes their relation, in a transnational history from a historiographical point of view. What were the main features of this relation?

Burson: Ulrich Lehner and I spoke extensively about this topic, and he agreed that I should write the introduction. The task was no small feat since the concept of the Catholic Enlightenment is, itself, controversial in some quarters, and it contours are defined differently even by scholars who work on it. There are also scholars, including me to an extent, who believe that there is sufficient diversity among German vs. French writers, Jansenists versus Jesuits or Benedictines, and so forth, that it is hard to speak of a unitary Catholic Enlightenment. There are also important socio-political contingencies that define the development of the various developments of the Enlightenment Catholicism through time. It was therefore important for us to define Enlightenment Catholicism with attention to this evident diversity and the diachronic process of “theological enlightenment” of which it is a part (at least in my judgment). Moreover, it was also important that our volume should be a work of history, and thus, we did our best to eschew any evident teleology about Enlightenment modernity, or about Catholic Enlightenment in its relationship to twentieth-century Catholic developments. Accordingly, one of the strengths of the volume is the way in which we attempted, first, to historicize the various ways in which Catholic Enlightenment has been studied, and second, to chart a clear hystory while casting a very broad conceptual net. The need for breadth and diversity over excessively hypostatic categories is why we ultimately opted for the term “Enlightenment Catholicism” in lieu of the phrase “Catholic Enlightenment” which implies a greater sense of idelogical coherence than all scholars are willing to concede.

What was the role of Catholicism in the France of the “Siècle des Lumières” and how did Catholicism meet Enlightenment right in the Place in which Enlightenment was born?

Burson: I think it’s a common misconception that the Enlightenment began in France or in any one single country. The Enlightenment has multiple origins – everything from Civic Humanism, the French controversy over the Ancients and Moderns, the scientific revolution and its popularization, the globalization of European horizons thanks to Jesuit missionary-scholars, the British Seventeenth-Century Crisis, the medical revolution of the late seventeenth-century, and the commercial and cosmpolitan diaspora communities of Dutch publicists and writers. These are just some of the origins of Enlightenment. However, I think it’s fair to say that France took some distinctive turns during the eighteenth-century that made the development of Enlightenment Catholicism in France – indeed the French Enlightenment itself – somewhat distinctive. In eighteenth-century France, many Jansenists who favored a more staunchly Augustinian theology, a conciliarist or state-based style of Church government, and a morally rigorist devotional style, found themselves opposed by the royal government over the crown’s support of the Papal Bull Unigenitus. This created a situation in which one might say that the monarchy’s natural allies – over monarchy’s support for a “Gallican” Church with minimal juridical interference from the papacy – were persecuted by that monarchy itself, which, instead, supported the Bull (and thereby problematized Gallicanism) and many aspects of a more Jesuit-dominated regime. This, in fairness, is an interpretation that owes far more to the work of Dale Van Kley than to myself or to Ulrich Lehner (who is a specialist in the German Catholic Enlightenment originally). My research, however, posits that this Jansenist-Jesuit – or more appropriately Pro-Bull vs. Pro-Gallican dynamic – ultimately challenged the efficacy and coherence of the French Catholic Enlightenment, and stimulated a relatively more anti-clerical style of Enlightenment in France. Nevertheless, the process is complex, and it isn’t ultimately until the French Revolution that Catholicism is more thoroughly associated with the Counter-Enlightenment or Counter-Revolution.

Papacy, Catholic Theology and the Ecumenism: why can we refer to a “Catholic Enlightenment”? Who were the most prominent authors in this field?

Burson: Beda Mayer is one of the most important among the ecumenical theologians. In fact, ecumenism was of vital interest to many Central European Catholics because of the frequent interactions with people of other confessions – Lutherans, Calvinists, and Jews. The coexistence of Protestants and Catholics within the Holy Roman Empire after 1555 was a fact of life.

A question for professor Jonathan Wright: Enlightenment crossed its path with Jesuit Science, and the author that represents this meeting is Ruggero Boscovich. How Jesuit Science can survive in an Enlightenment context?

Wright: Jesuit science did not just survive an Enlightenment context: in many ways it thrived. It is true, certainly, that some self-styled syndics of Enlightenment (or one idiosyncratic variant thereof) portrayed the Society of Jesus as hopelessly obscurantist and a force against scientific advance. This was, however, a very partial view. It is fair to say that, at an institutional level – curricula and so forth – the Jesuit order did not always embrace novel theorising or the emergence of new disciplines. In some lofty Jesuit circles, for example, there was a significant attempt to cling to an Aristotelian paradigm. At the individual level, however – and Boscovich, who ventured down so many different avenues of enquiry, is a good example – great strides were taken. This is hardly surprising since, from its inception, the Society made an outstanding contribution to science. There was always a duty to reconcile tradition and innovation but we should not view this challenge through a decidedly modernist prism in which faith and science were pitted against one another: for most early-moderns they were part of the same intellectual and spiritual continuum. This was certainly true, for example, of Newton who, in terms of world-view and fundamental objectives, had rather more in common with a Jesuit like Boscovich than the more radical denizens of eighteenth-century Parisian salons.

Can we refer to a “Catholic Enlightenment” also for what concerns the Protestant States?

Wright: While the cosmopolitan networks of writers and the transnational (indeed, global) nature of the eighteenth-century republic of letters make it very difficult to completely disentangle any single enlightenment, I do think that there are different variants of “Protestant Enlightenment” among French Huguenots, German Pietists, and British Radical Dissenters. Some important scholars who have studied these movements are Hugh Trevor-Roper, J.G.A. Pocock, Roy Porter, James Van Horn Melton, and Michael Printy. A large literature in French and English exists on the Huguenots and the Enlightenment. These Enlightenment trends among Protestant authors are sometimes similar to, and in dialog with Enlightenment Catholicism, but they are not identical. Interconfessional dialog, toleration, education reform, engagement with Newton or Locke, the challenge of more radical interpretations of the Enlightnement (Spinoza for example), and the new science are common concerns among Catholic and Protestant writers. But naturally, debates over the history of the papacy, the nature of papal power versus the power of national clergy, and debates over frequent confession, or Catholic moral theology after Trent would obviously be unique to Catholics. I think it’s vital also to remember that there is an important Jewish Enlightenment that has received a great deal of attention by scholars like David Sorkin and Shmuel Feiner in recent years, not to mention a small but growing number of historians of the Balkans and the Russian Empire who see far more Enlightenment among Orthdox thinkers as well.


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