Some New Books on Early Modern Theology and Church History

Reviewed by Ulrich L. Lehner
Professor of Religious History and Historical Theology
Marquette University

O’Connor, Michael. Cajetan’s Biblical Commentaries: Motive and Method (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017). St. Andrews Studies in Reformation History. 302 pp.

Recent years have seen a surge of interest in the works of Thomas de Vio, called Cajetan (1469–1534), but mostly in his works on the analogy of being or his controversies with Martin Luther. Here, however, Michael O’Connor recovers Cajetan as biblical commentator and exegete. he shows that, for the Dominican, Holy Scripture and its study was at the center of any meaningful reform of his order and the church as a whole (34), and how Cajetan emulated the work of Erasmus (37; 50; 247). Most fascinating is how his biblical commentaries, which dissatisfied Catholics and Protestants alike (111), fit into his overall agenda of reform and should not be separated from his systematic theology and philosophy. While he went beyond Aquinas in his humanistic Thomism, he went beyond standard interpretation of Scripture in his biblical Humanism: He affirmed the priesthood of all the baptized, albeit in a metaphorical sense (108), challenged the standard interpretation of adultery and divorce (212), in his early years even rejected that John 6: 53-54 was about the Eucharist (113), and showed remarkable awareness of the historical influences on the transmission of Holy Scripture (131). Cajetan was such a radical critic and interpreter of the Bible, insisting on its literal meaning and rejecting allegorical interpretation, that his fellow Dominican Ambrosius Catharinus confessed: “Reading him, is nauseating.” This is a most welcome contribution to rediscover the forgotten world of Catholic Biblical and (Thomistic) humanism.


Giorgio Caravala, Beyond the Inquisition. Ambrogio Catarino Politi and the Origins or the Counter-Reformation. Translated by Don Weinstein (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).

It is fitting that in the same year Giorgio Caravale’s biography of Cajetan’s great opponent, Amrogogio Catarino Politi (I still prefer the latinized form, Ambrosius Catharinus, 1484–1553) appeared in English translation. Politi was like Cajetan a complex character: First a lawyer and quite worldly, he underwent a conversion experience by reading Savonarola and became a somewhat radical follower of his in the Dominican order, at least initially. As a young friar, however, he also began battling the Reformation and made a name for himself as controversialist. Like Cajetan, however, he faced immense opposition in the order for his theological ideas, in particular his endorsement of the Immaculate Conception (23-31). After this first battle he attacked the most famous Dominican of the time, Cajetan, for his exegesis. These are perhaps the best-known parts of his life. Less known is his profound commitment to humanistic studies and learning and his influence on the debate on predetermination and justification in Catholic circles.

Politi was not a strictly observant Thomist, but rather, like Cajetan, a flexible interpreter. In his De praescientia ac providentia he rebuffs strict Calvinism and instead demonstrates the “immense grace and mercy of God to all men” (58). He only talked of predestination to eternal life, but preferred the term prescience when talking about the fate of the damned (meaning their foreseen merits or demerits). He wrote:

“Predestination, which imposes a definitive ordering of salvation, implies a necessary cause of a necessary effect. But prescience implies no cause; in fact, it is not that someone is saved because it is foreknown that he is saved, as if the predestined is saved because it is predestined. On the contrary, in foreknowledge it is in fact already known that one is saved because in the eyes of God, who locates all time in eternity, he is already saved” (59).

The idea that God only predestined a few to eternal life (Mary, Saints) was highly controversial and vehemently rejected by Bartolomeo Spina, a self-avowed orthodox Thomist (7ff). In On Perfect Justification (developed for the 1541 Regensburg Religionsgespräch) he also proposed to talk of one justification in Christ, which occurred in two stages, one in faith and one in charity; Cardinal Contarini seems to have accepted this theory wholeheartedly. This theory would become important at the Council of Trent (146-150). Over all, Politi did not believe in watertight definitions, but rather in giving theology some wiggle room to test out the waters, and to reflect deeper. He saw this especially in the Council’s debate over the certitude of grace, in which he clashed with Domingo de Soto (who smeared him as a heretic).

Politi’s emerges from Caravale’s book as an open-minded theologian, well aware of the shortcomings of philosophical reflection and his scholastic masters, and willing to base Catholic theology on a more biblical and patristic footing. Even Paolo Sarpi, the bitter historian of Trent, could not help but admire him for that: “He said it was better to follow the Fathers than the Scholastics, who contradict each other, and he said that one should walk with Scripture as foundation, from which true theology comes, not walk with the wit of philosophy” (148).


Eamon Duffy: Reformation Divided. Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England (London et al.: Bloomsbury, 2017).

Eamon Duffy’s impeccable work is too well known to need a further introduction. He has like no other historian reshaped our understanding of the English Reformation and Counter-Reformation. This volume collects a number of his best articles on the topic. If one had to sum up the whole volume with a thesis it would be something like Master Yoda’s advise “You must unlearn what you have learned.” Duffy demonstrates where Reformation research has gone in the wrong directions. Two areas where he sees the need for such a readjustment should suffice here, namely the figures of Thomas More (1478–1535) and Reginald Pole (1500–1558).

Duffy comes to the defense of More, who has been charged with “moral, mental, and literary” failure (78). Morally, because he persecuted the Reformers, mentally because he was branded to suffer from a morbid sexuality (29), literarily because his writings were of low quality. Instead, Duffy shows not only the questionable prejudices behind ascribing sexual morbidity because of More’s defense of chastity and celibacy (45), but also that he tried to really dialogue with Protestants (51) although he perceived in the Reformers a danger to the traditional Christian life. Last but not least, Duffy demonstrates that the little read anti-Protestant writings of More have a remarkable coherence and literary quality, and espouse an ingenious argument: The touchstone for assessing the Christianity of the Reformers is the common life of the Church, the living tradition. Thus, he does not have recourse to “unwritten” traditions as a “source,” but rather anticipates a dynamic understanding of tradition, which only becomes a Catholic commonplace in the 19th century (58).

Reginald Pole’s rehabilitation is similarly fascinating to read. Duffy re-establishes him as a man seriously invested in church reform and spiritual leadership. He shows with sober arguments that the often cited letter to Carranza does not demonstrate Pole’s “lukewarmness” but rather the opposite! I could not help but remember a saying of Latinist Reginald Foster that every Latin sentence contains its little mystery—one that obviously had been overlooked for decades, and misinterpreted because historians quoted each other’s footnotes instead of immersing themselves in the original text. Reading the letter in the correct translation shows that Pole was equally interested in preaching reform and re-establishing discipline in the Marian church (104ff). A remarkable policy of church reform comes thus to light, which makes clear that the Cardinal was certainly not an idealist or zealot, but a realist and dedicated reformer (108).

Apart from these studies, the reader will be enlightened about Gregory Martin, the translator of the Douay-Rheims Bible (169ff), John Lingard and his view of the Reformation, but also the rich English culture of Counter-Reformation devotional literature, which “felt no need for a hermeneutic of rupture in understanding its own medieval and early Tudor past” (223).


Alphonsus of Liguori, Theologia Moralis: Moral Theology. Vol. 1, Books I-III on Conscience, Law, Sin and Virtue. Translated by Ryan Grant (Mediatrix Press, 2017).

For the last ten years I have lamented to my students about the lack of translations of the 18th c. theoolgian St. Alphonsus of Liguori (1696–1787). Apart from his spiritual writings, his main work, the Theologia Moralis, which was until the 20th century the most important source for Catholic moralists, remained untranslated. Liguori, originally like Politi a trained lawyer and founder of the Redemptorist Order, had begun his moral theology by commenting on a popular textbook by Jesuit Hermann Busenbaum in 1748. By 1763 his comments were so numerous that he published them as his own Theologia Moralis, which was over the next decades continuously reworked, emended and amended. I would have never thought I would see somebody single-handedly translating this multivolume work—but the first step has been made. Ryan Grant presents us here vol. 1 of the Moral Theology.

The translation of this complicated text is very well done, flows well, and shows what a lucid thinker Alphonsus was. However, if one expects spiritual edification from this book, one will be disappointed. This is a highly technical work—the pinnacle of casuistry, so to say. The core is certainly the outline of Liguori’s own system of equi-probabilism (63–160), that a doubtful law does not oblige. He explains his attempt to find a via media between rigorism and laxist probabilism  as such:

“I have been induced by it to repeat here this principle so many times that a doubtful law does not oblige. Hence I remain persuaded that it is unlawful to bind consciences to follow the safer when there are equally probable opinions since it brings the danger of falling into a great many formal faults. Besides, I have in our time, the reclamation of a gentler opinion so bitterly opposed, that I have diligently recalled this point to a balance of scales, reading and re-reading all the modern authors I have at hand, who fought for the rigid opinion. … Nevertheless, until it is otherwise for me, than I perceive it at the present, I will not be persuaded, I say that without grave remorse of conscience I could not bind others to follow the safer way when there are equally probable opinions, unless the Church were to declare the opposite.” (141)

Alphonsus emerges from his text as a theologian of gentleness, but also as one who condemns excessive indulgence. Neither, “immoderate mildness” nor “immoderate rigor” (158) help souls to Heaven, but a middle way, he insists. Finally, readers who do not have the time to work through the Latin volumes of Liguori’s writings can consult a reliable translation; the publisher promises the other volumes in short time, and should also be applauded for the great effort to make this series also aesthetically pleasing: typesetting, layout and paper are superb—a rarity in today’s publishing market.


Anne Ashley Davenport, Suspicious Moderate. The Life and Writings of Francis a Sancta Clara, 1598–1680 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).

This fascinating study traces the life and accomplishments of an English Franciscan, Francis Davenport. After the gunpowder plot in 1605 an oath of loyalty to the king was required, which stated among other things that one rejects the pope’s power to depose kings as “heretical.” This brought Catholics, who otherwise wanted to be loyal to their ruler, in a  predicament, a crisis of conscience. While some argued, one could in good faith take the oath and remain Catholic, Cardinal Bellarmine and Robert Parson opposed it vehemently (18–19). How then should Catholics be treated by the government? Should a quiet conformity be accepted but open recusancy be persecuted? The young Davenport, educated at Douay, and a staunch Scotist for whom “speculative diversity” was the hallmark of true Catholic theology, tried to answer these and other pressing questions.

In a  remarkable treatise on grace he demonstrated that Catholics and Anglicans shared more than what they separated. With it he tried to attract especially Arminians to re-enter the Catholic fold, (129) who were shocked or dismayed by Puritan Calvinism. The “latitude of opinions” included for Francis the compatibility with almost all Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Confession. Of particular interest is of course how he approached the question of Anglican orders. Based on the method of Scotistic “probabilism” he argues that the Anglican holy orders are not demonstrably invalid since it is not positively improbable that Anglican priests have received the power to consecrate bread and wine (161). Therefore, he sees a great chance to overcome the schism and reach again full reunion with Rome by means of an all-Anglican (Puritans excluded) synod (171). James I supported Francis, which is also the reason why the book, which infuriated the Jesuits but also a number of Anglican clergyman, was not forbidden (186). In an apologetic letter Francis a St. Clara explains his method as one allowing a more flexible interpretation of texts (molliores et probabiliores sensus; 187)—just what Ludovico Muratori did a hundred years later in Italy. Thus, for Davenport many theological differences were mere battles about words and interpretations, which could be solved by probabilism. Then, theologians would become “sons of peace” and be no longer “fiery fanatics” (190). It should not surprise us then, that Archbishop Laud had close relations with St. Clara. The Systema Fidei, however is the Franciscan’s magnus opus; it deals mainly with ecclesiology. He demonstrates here the limits of infallibility and rejects excessive papal claims, but also reminds theologians of human fallibility. Moreover, he develops a theory of degrees of adherence (309ff), where he lays out that the Church can only ask to embrace as doctrine what is de fide, but never of a mere probable opinion. Thus, he again showed the diversity of opinions that can be hold in Catholicism and the liberty in its ranks, trying to make Rome more attractive for Anglicans.

More could be said about the Franciscan and the plots he was involved in to bring the Anglican Church back to Rome, some of which read like spy stories, or his defense of the office of bishops (214–246), which he wrote on request of the English king; his clear sighted assessment that accommodation could not be a way forward in reunion talks because it sacrifices truth (rather, he said, one should find a way of reconciliation—an idea revived in the 18th c. by Le Courayer; 450) is remarkable; in the end, however, it becomes clear that St. Clara was first and foremost a theologian of dialogue. He approached his theological opponents with respect and intellectual honesty, and not only tried to convince his Protestant brethren that Catholics are not devil worshippers, but also worked hard to convince Catholics of the intrinsic dignity and value of Anglican theology and spirituality. As a proponent of moderation he was a beacon of light in an otherwise heavily polemic century:

“Santa Clara’s axiom of moderation furnished the basis for a capacious, inclusive Catholicism harboring a wide diversity of vocations and spiritual perspectives. Motivated by a desire to empower Catholic conscience against blind obedience, it favored a reasoned faith, but without turning reason dogmatically into a new idol.” (504)

Most fascinating is perhaps that St. Clara remained relatively unknown until Joseph Berington, England’s champion of Catholic Enlightenment (Cisalpine Club), revived interest in him. This shows that one can indeed trace a line of influence of moderate Tridentine theology to the Catholic Enlightenment, and that England had its own Muratori, Francis a St. Clara Davenport.

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