In my last column, I looked at the history of Hollywood film censorship as a specific example of a Catholic effort to engage the modern world. This month I will take a step back from the specifics of modernity to look at the Catholic encounter with the intellectual foundations of modernity in general, the movement we call the Enlightenment.
As a guide to this reflection, I will consider the arguments presented in Joseph T. Stuart’s recent Sophia Institute Press book Rethinking the Enlightenment: Faith in the Age of Reason (2020). In an age of increasing polarization within the Church, Stuart’s book is timely in its call for greater nuance in our approach to the relation between Catholic intellectual traditions and those of the Enlightenment. Stuart clearly wishes to offer a corrective to “conservative” Catholics often too quick to dismiss modernity and “liberal” Catholics often too quick to embrace it.
Modernity has many distinct and at times conflicting strands; Catholics must separate the wheat from the chaff. Stuart’s effort at discernment should inspire renewed respect for the Catholic intellectual achievements of the eighteenth century, but his Americanist pieties often obscure the continuity of principles across the range of the great political revolutions of the Enlightenment era.
For Catholics interested in the history of the Church, the Age of Enlightenment can often appear as a black hole separating the end of the Reformation and the onset of the French Revolution. Nineteenth-century historians told the story of this era with barely a mention of the Church as anything other than a source of reaction and obscurantism; their successors in the decidedly anti-historical “Great Books” movement invented a canon that included no serious Catholic thinker from this era.
Stuart wisely makes no effort to invent an alternative canon of “great” Catholic books: instead, he presents several compelling portraits of Catholic intellectuals who “engaged the Enlightenment.”
First among these is Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799). The eldest of twenty-one children, Maria was born in Milan, the daughter of Pietro Agnesi, a wealthy textile trader with aristocratic ambitions. Though never attaining a hereditary title, Pietro surrounded himself and his family with all the aristocratic trappings that money could buy. Aside from the usual display of conspicuous consumption, eighteenth century aristocrats also competed with each other in patronizing the literary and scientific cultural activities associated with the Enlightenment. Chief among these activities was the salon, an informal gathering where people assembled to discuss the new ideas of the day; often hosted by self-educated aristocratic women, these salons challenged convention simply by their social composition, which allowed for an unprecedented freedom of interaction across lines of class and gender. Pietro wished his eldest daughter to shine in this world. To that end, he gave her the best education that money could buy.
Far from merely jumping on the bandwagon of the latest fashionable trends, the Agnesi family’s participation in Enlightenment culture reflected the influence of older traditions of Catholic renewal, from late-Renaissance humanism to Tridentine reform. Milan was, after all, the city of St. Charles Borromeo; the great Counter Reformation saint established a commitment to education that remained strong in Milan well into the eighteenth century. These traditions also bequeathed a commitment to lay spirituality, which the Agnesi family nourished through their long association with the Theatines, an order cofounded by St. Gaetano Tiene (1480-1547). In making his case for a “Catholic Enlightenment,” Stuart rightly stresses the continuity with these earlier traditions.
Still, the phenomenon of a female mathematical prodigy could perhaps only have occurred in the Enlightenment’s climate of unprecedented intellectual openness. Geometry and arithmetic had of course been two of the liberal arts that comprised the medieval quadrivium, yet the new mathematics of the Scientific Revolution so often presented itself as a rival to the authority of the Church, most notoriously in the case of Galileo. Maria Agnesi embraced the new math of the new science, seeing in it a certainty of truth attainable by the human mind itself, without recourse to faith. She became the first woman to publish a book of mathematics under her own name: Analytical Institutions (1748), in which she offered an explanation of differential and integral calculus accessible to the general reader. In her person and her thinking, Maria transgressed many of the norms of the conventional Catholic society of her day even as she never set herself against the authority of the Church.
Stuart goes a bit too far in ascribing to Agnesi a “Catholic feminism.” She did not argue for the political equality of women, but rather demonstrated the possibility of intellectual excellence in women, much like women religious had demonstrated women’s spiritual excellence. In this, she also affirmed the traditional superiority of the spiritual to the intellectual, exercising what Stuart calls a “metaphysical modesty” that understood the proper place of mathematics in the hierarchy of goods. Maria maintained a vibrant and rich spiritual life alongside her intellectual pursuits, devoting herself to private prayer and public service through local confraternities, especially the Congregation of the Schools of Christian Doctrine.
With its relative distance from theological controversies, mathematics might seem to be a “safe” pursuit for Enlightenment Catholics. The real challenge of the Enlightenment lay not in any particular truths, but in its uncompromising commitment to the discernment of any and all truth through the process of free and open inquiry. Despite its limitations and contradictions, this Enlightenment ideal seemed to open up a much broader field for questioning than that allowed by traditional scholastic disputation and many churchmen understood it as a weapon to undermine the authority of the Church.
At least one significant churchman, Prospero Lambertini (1675-1758), Pope Benedict XIV (r. 1740-1758), thought that Church could incorporate some of the new spirit of free inquiry without compromising any essential dogmas. Like Maria Agnesi, he frequented the salons of his day, those of his native Bologna; his commitment to open inquiry extended to the world of the coffeehouse, a kind of lower-class, everyman’s version of the salon open to an even greater range of views. When elected pope, he even had a coffeehouse, the Caffeaus, built in the garden of the Quirinale Palace in Rome. There he received visitors, discussed the news of the day and drank coffee, all in a spirit of conviviality and good humor.
Like Agnesi, Pope Benedict found science to be the most fruitful area for Catholic engagement with new thought. As archbishop of Bologna, he sponsored public dissections—a practice dating back to the Middle Ages, but one that was becoming an increasingly sophisticated, technical activity with rise of the modern science of anatomy. He was also one of many Enlightenment churchman who called for a more scientific approach to the study of miracles, a case for reform put forward in his work, On the Beatification and Canonization of Saints (1734-1738). As pope, he spoke out against censorship and helped to revise the Index of Prohibited Books to allow for more open discussion. Like a later Pope Benedict, he believed that clerical pastoralism, charity and beauty—not the dogmatic assertion of truth—were the keys to communicating the Gospel to an unbelieving world.
Stuart offers many more inspiring examples of what he calls Catholic “Enlighteners.” He draws on the best of recent scholarship that has done much to revise the standard story of the warfare of science and religion, at least with respect to the Church’s attitude toward science. On this topic, his book certainly lives up to its titular purpose of “rethinking” the Enlightenment.
Sadly, when his narrative turns to politics, he provides comparatively little by way of “rethinking.” The first third of the book, which examines “Conflict and the Conflictual Enlightenment,” ultimately tells a very familiar tale of two revolutions: the “good” American Revolution and the “bad” French Revolution. True, Stuart offers some surprising twists, such as a curious and strained effort to rehabilitate Voltaire as something other than a rabid anti-cleric. Still, Rousseau predictably appears as the root of all the evil that would bear fruit in the Reign of Terror and the Anglo-American political tradition stands as a model of right reason, moderation, and respect for tradition.
In the popular journalism that accompanied the recent celebration of Independence Day, Catholic commentators across the political spectrum have reaffirmed this story, baptizing the Founding and the American tradition of religious liberty. It is this particular Catholic embrace of the Enlightenment that needs the most serious rethinking.
First, some basic historical facts. With respect to the Catholic Church, there is nothing moderate about the Anglo-American political tradition. The perpetrators of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 drove James II from the throne of England because they could not tolerate a Catholic king; if they did not march Carmelites off to the scaffold, it is only because Henry VIII had abolished the religious orders a century and a half earlier. During that century and a half, English Protestants fought endless, genocidal wars in Ireland to impose Protestantism on a Catholic people.
The Founding Fathers, heirs to the tradition of 1688, may compare favorably with their French counterparts only because the two political contexts were incomparable: the Founders neither overthrew an established Church nor abolished the landed aristocracy because the United States at its founding had neither. The appropriate point of comparison would be how the Founders dealt with those unwilling to accept their revolution: Loyalists who refused to submit lost their land and/or fled the country; Native Americans on the frontier endured a Reign of Terror that lasted for the next hundred years.
The point here is not simply to bash America, but to try to develop a proper Catholic way of understanding that particular manifestation of the Enlightenment that we call the American political tradition. We must first of all acknowledge the truth that the Constitution is godless: that is, it simply does not mention God and clearly asserts that the political order is created by the will of the people. Whatever religious or philosophical assumptions one might wish to read into the words of the document, they are simply background with no binding legal force. The Constitution is a largely procedural document laying out the mechanics of governance. These mechanics proved remarkably flexible and adaptable: by the end of the nineteenth century, the Constitution continued to be the law of the land in a country whose social, political, economic and cultural life would have been unrecognizable to the Founding generation. So much for Burkean tradition.
So what is a Catholic way of looking at this?
First, we need to reject nostalgia. There never was a “Christian” America as people talk about it today. Protestant Christianity was far from a source of stability; in its most dynamic form, evangelical revivalism, it undermined the authority of traditional churches and promoted a destabilizing religious individualism. Catholics who resisted such individualism within their Church were accused of being un-American and subject to a century and a half of anti-Catholic venom not so different from that of Reformation England. True, disestablishment and religious liberty spared American Catholics the oppression witnessed in other modern political regimes, but the cultural pressures to conform to America in all things except doctrine (and sometimes including doctrine) have been great: opinion polls indicate that on nearly every significant issue facing the country today, Catholics do not stand apart from their fellow Americans in any clear way.
When the Church comes under attack, Church leaders inevitably invoke the principle of religious freedom, a principle individual Catholics have obviously internalized all too well. It would be nice to think that Catholics could use the principle of religious freedom to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now that would be really “Rethinking the Enlightenment.”
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