Trent, Vatican II, and Enlightenment

A Review of Ulrich Lehner’s The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement (Oxford, 2016)

by Eric J. Demeuse 

In a recent post for The Regensburg Forum, Trevor Anderson notes that ‘the question of the continuity between the pre-Vatican II (read: Tridentine) and post-Vatican II Church is one worth asking, and if left unanswered can pose a barrier to Catholic-Protestant conversation insofar as the post-Vatican II Catholic Church—with its newfound friendliness, inclusiveness, and don’t-mind-nasty-old-Trent-revisionism—seems like a moving target.’ The difficulty Catholic theologians today face in broaching this question is our near-total ignorance of the period which bridges the historical divide between Trent and Vatican II. Certainly, we’ve all dabbled in the Decrees of Trent—or at least what Denzinger offers—and a page or two of Bellarmine. We know of Newman, Blondel, and some nasty thing called ‘The Modernist Crisis.’ And we’re all children of de Lubac, Danielou, and ressourcement theology in one way or another. But there’s a gaping hole in our theological narrative from Bellarmine (d. 1621) to Newman (b. 1801)–a lacuna which we fill with inherited generalizations devoid of data, if we feel the need to fill it at all.

Ulrich Lehner hopes to change that with two new and much-needed books: The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement (Oxford, 2016) and his forthcoming On the Road to Vatican II: German Catholic Enlightenment and Reform of the Church (Fortress, 2016). In this post, I will review the former work with an eye toward its contribution to Protestant/Catholic relations.

Lehner begins The Catholic Enlightenment stating that ‘The reforms and the style of Pope Francis did not fall from the sky but are deeply rooted in the reform movement that found expression in the Councils of Trent and Vatican II, but also in the Catholic Enlightenment’ (p. 1-2). The ensuing 200 pages chronicle this movement Lehner calls ‘the Catholic Enlightenment,’ a movement, Lehner argues, sprung from Tridentine reforms and paving the way for twentieth century aggiornamento. The author’s research is driven neither by traditionalist nostalgia nor by Catholic triumphalism (his 2013 book Monastic Prisons and Torture Chambers should further free him from such charges). Rather, he successfully ‘undertakes to describe Enlightenment Catholicism with its bright and dark sides, and to leave any judgment about the value of its projects to the reader’ (p. 13).

One bright side is the work of French priest Nicholas Bergier—an interlocutor with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and personal friend of Diderot—who qualified the classic extra Ecclesiam nulla salus by asserting that the grace of God is available to all mankind, even the unbaptized natives of the New World. ‘This was a remarkable step,’ Lehner comments, ‘toward acknowledging the possibility of salvation for those outside the Catholic Church, including adherents of other religions’ (p. 24). Bergier’s aversion to the ‘Augustinian Catholicism’ of his motherland, while likely unpalatable to many Reformed Christians both then and now, nevertheless opened the door for a certain ‘proto-ecumenism’ adopted by other Catholic Enlighteners. For example, American bishop John Carroll (d. 1815) quoted Bergier when he insisted that ‘baptized and practicing Protestants were on the way to salvation because they would embrace the Catholic faith if their ignorance could be lifted. Consequently, “these candid and upright persons, from the disposition of their hearts, are children of the Catholic Church”’ (p. 112).

Lehner notes additional traces of this proto-ecumenism in the designation of Protestants as ‘our dear separated brethren’ by both Italian Bishop Scipione Ricci and Irish priest Alexander Kenny, and further shows the efforts by theologians of the eighteenth century to demonstrate that the progeny of heretics are not guilty of the sin of heresy–a teaching, I would add, also found two centuries earlier in the Jesuit Constitutions of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Both propositions would eventually be codified in Vatican II’s decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, in 1964 (p. 49). 

Lehner’s chapter on tolerance and toleration portrays more the ecumenical situation ‘on the ground,’ as it were. Two examples particularly stand out (a bookful of others can be found in Benjamin Kaplan’s impressive Divided by Faith): the Catholic Emperor Joseph II’s allowance of Protestant churches in Austria, and Bohemian Bishop Leopold Hay’s concession that Lutherans and Reformed Christians can be buried in Catholic cemeteries. Lehner gives many other examples including less celebratory ones, such as the unfortunate treatment of Jews in Rome during the reign of Pope Benedict XIV. He offers a similarly varied assessment of the Catholic Church’s attitude toward slavery. Though the attitude toward slaves by clerics and lay Catholics may have been remarkably charitable compared to Enlightenment philosophes, the use of slaves in the Papal States and by Jesuit missionaries renders the Catholic record rather ‘ambiguous.’

In other places, Lehner persuasively corrects many a misunderstanding about Enlightenment (and modern) Catholicism. The impetus for women to ‘breed like rabbits’ was never a ‘Catholic thing,’ but rather a political move to increase national population (similar to the state insistence on breastfeeding as a nationalistic act—see chapter 3). The Spanish inquisition rarely used instruments of torture. In fact, the accused often ‘preferred to be prosecuted by the Spanish Inquisition rather than by local secular courts, since the Inquisition’s procedural guidelines were stricter and their punishments were milder’ (p. 135). Further, the freedom to marry for love was part and parcel of the Tridentine reform movement, and this freedom suffered in places where those reforms were not implemented (such as France and certain Protestant countries). Debunking myths plays a substantial role in Lehner’s narrative.

Lighter stories also pepper the book, such as an increasing fascination with vampires among the laity and the rise of ‘treasure hunts’ in Early-Modern Europe. In one instance, a Protestant treasure hunter hired a Catholic ‘who had learned to use exorcisms to torture an evil spirit’ (p. 136)—a sign of agreeable relations, I suppose.

Tragedy plays a crucial role as well, and it is in such tragedy that Lehner concludes this tome. The rich interplay between Catholic and Enlightenment thought so integral to the eighteenth century came to a striking halt with the horrors of the French Revolution. Philosophes turned against religious, and sometimes even priest turned against priest. As a result, Catholic authorities grew increasingly suspicious of engagement with the ‘Enlightenment’—the seedbed, as they saw it, of all the bloodshed. Catholic thought, Lehner laments, retreated into a ‘ghetto,’ where it remained until the so-called ‘Modernist Crisis’ and the rise of ressourcement theology in the twentieth century. What happened to ecumenical relations during that reclusion is a story for another book.

On its own, The Catholic Enlightenment proves a substantial contribution to the question of continuity between Trent and Vatican II. While it stands as a challenge to those of us who think the Second Vatican Council an unprecedented breakthrough in Catholic thought, it simultaneously takes nothing away from that council’s achievement. Lehner merely argues that much of what Vatican II officially affirmed has deep roots in the forgotten history of the Catholic Enlightenment—and not only among rogue priests and dissidents (though it can be found there too). Many promising ecumenical advances spawned from the episcopate and were instantiated on official, diocesan levels. The ‘spirit of Trent’ may not be as far from the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ as we’d like to think.  Nevertheless, modern Catholics, in the absence of facts, have relegated this period of post-Tridentine, Enlightenment Catholicism to ‘decadence.’ Catholics are not alone in this: many Orthodox point to the same period in their history as one of pseudomorphosis, to use G. Florovsky’s phrase, and Protestants are only just now beginning to rediscover that rich period of ‘Protestant scholasticism’ which flourished in Early Modernity. This widespread and chronic amnesia must be healed, however, if we moderns are properly to understand ourselves and thereby overcome barriers to Christian unity, and Lehner’s The Catholic Enlightenment proves a much-needed antidote to our ailment.

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