Some New Books on The Renaissance, Conscience, Certainty, and Marriage

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

Roeck, Bernd. Der Morgen Der Welt Geschichte der Renaissance (München: C. H. Beck, 2017)

The Zurich historian Bernd Roeck has produced a massive tome (over 1.200 pages text). It aims to give some answers to the question why the West has produced the “revolutions” that led to Modernity and not other cultures. After all, it is amazing that the most arrogant of cultures has produced also the most self-critical of all (as Diderot said, p. 1173). The Renaissance plays for Roeck the decisive role in this story: Roeck believes that the culture of discourse embedded in Western culture is the key to understanding these revolutions but does not dismiss other factors responsible, such as geographical, political and economic factors. Europe does not emerge as a region that was better suited to bring forth technological and scientific progress but rather as one where the potencies for such progress merged and brought forth “action” (20).  The seven columns of modernity are for him (1) the geographical characteristics of Europe, which allow for easy trade and communication, (2) the political and cultural diversity of Europe already in the Middle Ages, (3) wide spread horizontal structures of power (cities, gilds, etc.), (4) the taming of religion, and (5) the critical exchange with antique and Arabic philosophy. Only (6) is the media revolution of the printing press (widely forbidden in Asian and Islamic culture), and (7) the possibility of long intervals in which structures could develop.

At the core of his argument is the conviction that great cultures have never autochthon roots: “They come into existence through exchange and fruitful controversy.” (44) The chapters unfold a breathtaking tour de force of cultures, disciplines and continents: comparisons with China, India and Africa allow the reader to see commonalities and understand differences better (e.g. the lack of Chinese dialectics as a foundation for scientific progress, p. 1125). Europe begins to “fly,” as he says, when medieval thinkers commence in delightful speculations about innovation (199): Phoenix (as the symbol of innovation and rebirth) is from then onwards no longer a migrant bird but a constant of European civilization. Or, to use another recurrent image frequently used by Roeck: Prometheus “remained chained to Caucasia” (1119).

Breathtaking is not only the amount of information the author gives us—at times it is overpowering even the most interested reader, but also the diverse roads of thought we are led to appreciate: history of science and scientific speculation, philosophy, economic theory, political history, and theology. Where I found this work least convincing was in the area of philosophy and theology: the judgments were too swift and all too generalizing. Often this led to misinformation or mistakes, e.g. on p. 846: The Council of Trent did not declare as dogma that “Mary had (sic!) conceived immaculately.” [This is actually a double mistake: The dogma of the Immaculate conception is from 1854 but it is not about the conception of Jesus!) Likewise, the assertion that none of the heroes of the scientific revolution were “ardent Christians” (1159) is anachronistic: what measure is used here? That of Gottfried Arnold, Luther, Alphonsus of Liguori or a 21th c. historian? Most rejected the label “zealous” (as would I) but most self-identified as Christian; and did most of them not see their scientific endeavors as encounter with the divine? There seems to be an unacknowledged teleology at play here that equates modernity with the abolition of religion (I thought immediately of Jonathan Israel’s trilogy on the Enlightenment here).

The value of this extremely well written, entertaining and erudite book lies in bringing to light the importance of free exchange of ideas and discourse as pillars of progress, and the fact that the Renaissance plaid a pivotal in this narrative.


Reinhardt, Nicole, Voices of Conscience: Royal Confessors and Political Counsel in Seventeenth-Century Spain and France (Oxford: OUP, 2016).

Nicole Reinhardt’s reconstructs how a royal conscience was formed and influenced. She starts with the startling observation that royal conscience was in the 17th century not at all a realm of privacy but of politico-theological counseling. “Clearly, there was an implication that ‘politics’ were part oof the confession, but the ruler’s duality was conceived in universally human terms without distinguishing between man and office.” (13) The confessor was part of a bigger counseling culture, which was infused with moral theology, in particular probabilism. Therefore, a recovery of early modern probabilist theology can and will help us understand better political history. Jesuit confessors could not only cure sovereigns from invincible ignorance and thus move them to make informed decisions, but also allowed them to be free in their decision making: as long as an opinion was probable (reasonable) one could follow it. Thus, probabilism was “potentially congenial to reason of state” (82)

By uncovering the institutional framework for counseling, Reinhardt shows that in France a single institution was responsible for the king’s advice, while in Spain a polysynodal system existed (26): “Counsel of conscience was a recognized and recognizable part of the culture of political counseling in Spain, where it played a significant role up to the middle of the seventeenth century. In France, however, it was not a practice, but a high-sounding label of an institution, which did not engage the moral evaluation of politics at all.” (35) The sophisticated Spanish system tried to determine what belonged to the “reason of state” and what not; counselors could therefore have the role of prophets (45).

Only under the pressure of Jansenism royal conscience shifted increasingly toward an interiorization of morality and a political utilitarianism (361). Moreover, in the age of “absolutism” ( a term whom Reinhardt discusses critically) external counsel was no longer an absolute necessity. This made of course kings more “human” but also legitimized more “pervasive criticism” (371) of royal sins.

This important work broadens our understanding of political and religious history and is another puzzle piece to the recovery of probabilism’s influence in the seventeenth century.


Tutino, Stefania, Uncertainty in Post-Reformation Catholicism. A History of Probabilism (Oxford: OUP, 2017).

For centuries probabilism was considered a moral system of decadence and identified with laxism: After all, it allowed the moral agent to follow a probable opinion regardless of whether the opposite opinion was more probable. Likewise, casuistry has been branded an “ethics of decadence,” in which control freak theologians tried to offer solutions to an infinite body of ‘cases.’ (153) Not only Jansenist polemics are responsible for this mischaracterization but also the lack of historical knowledge among ethicists who are very quick to judge a body of literature they only know by passing and too easily see it as a mere tool for social disciplining.

Stefania Tutino shows that probabilism, beginning within the Dominican order and soon becoming the official (yet, not exclusive!) philosophical tool of the Society of Jesus, deserves a rehabilitation. In fact, by relying on a detailed study of archival and printed sources she reconstructs that probabilism was a way to answer problems arising from the increasingly complex modern world of uncertainty:

“Probabilist theologians realized that the system on which theology rested was cracking under the pressure brought about by complex interactions … Thus, they sought to rethink the foundations of moral theology, so that it could absorb and indeed thrive on the pressure: the doctrine of probabilism represented the epistemological, theological, cultural, and moral result of their efforts to understand and manage uncertainty.” (25)

This not only liberated the mind from unnecessary scruples, but also clearly defined what areas of action were indeed “uncertain” and which were not. Suarez excluded from probabilism matters of fact and matters of grave consequence, in which we always have to follow the more certain opinion. Leonard Lessius SJ applied his probabilism to the problem of usury with the consequence that modern interest taking became acceptable (118). Probabilism soon became now also an epistemological tool.

In her chapter on “Mature Probabilism” (148–188) Tutino introduces the reader to the works of Diana and Caramuel. Especially the latter has undeservedly not received much attention by moral theologians outside of Spain: He saw in probability a tool to face fundamental uncertainty. Yet, he was misunderstood by his opponents who saw in the bishop the “prince of laxists”: For Caramuel “probability occupies a fundamentally different epistemological space from certainty.” While a true proposition always “implies the falsity of its alternative,” a probable proposition “allows and indeed requires the probability of its alternative. Whereas truth is binary, probability might come in several degrees” (177–178).

In a number of case studies, Tutino sheds light on how probabilism worked in practice, e.g. in the Chinese rites controversy (295–313), in the conflict of what should happen to the goods of converted Jews (which were acquired by means of usury, 313–325) and —perhaps most importantly—in the question of when human life begins (326–350). However, for the latter she leaves out that it was scientific progress (discovery of the ovum, etc.) that led Pius IX. to abandon the theory of successive animation.[1]

Tutino’s newest book is an eminent contribution to intellectual history, and a necessary antidote to the caricatures of probabilism floating around in handbooks of ethics and theology. This is an exciting reading adventure into a world where uncertainty was not feared but dealt with creatively. Perhaps our control obsessed world can learn something from it!


Reynolds, Phillip L. How Marriage Became One of the Sacraments (Cambridge University Press, 2016)

Brugger, E. Christian, The Indissolubility of Marriage & The Council of Trent (CUA Press, 2017)

Marriage is of fundamental importance for the Christian life, yet it may surprise some, especially Catholics, that it was not always considered a sacrament. Philip Reynolds unravels for the reader the complicated history of how matrimony became a sacrament or better how a consensus about its sacramental character became the majority and ultimately the magisterial opinion. His 1000-page tome is no easy read, but should be a reference work in theology libraries, because it enables students and faculty to quickly find out about patristic or medieval discussions, an exhaustive overview of secondary sources and problems of interpretation. From Augustine to the Council of Trent one will find extremely well informed chapters about scholastic sexual ethics, discourses on the nature of marital consent, indissolubility and of course clandestine marriage.

However, I thought Reynold’s discussion of indissolubility in the Council of Trent, missed its intrinsic elusiveness. Therefore I was happy to stumble upon Christian Brugger’s breathtaking analysis of Trent. It is not a historical study but of crucial importance for the discussion of divorce and remarriage in Catholicism.

Brugger shows convincingly that Cardinal Kasper’s idea of institutionalizing  “oikonomia”, that is the permission of remarriage after divorce in the Orthodox churches, on a flawed interpretation of the Council of Trent put forward by Piet Fransen SJ for the first time in 1947. Fransen was widely acknowledged as the theologian who had given the authoritative interpretation  of the question. Yet, Brugger demonstrates that his main thesis, namely that the Council did not dogmatically and expressly define indissolubility of marriage, rests on three false claims: (1) Namely, that the consensus position of the Council Fathers that adultery did not constitute a reason for divorce only pertained to “intrinsic indissolubility.” (2) That the consensus position was primarily directed against the Protestant Reformers, and (3) that it was “certain” that not all Fathers believed indissolubility was a truth of revelation (74). Brugger’s conviction is based on solid textual analysis and considering the context of the debates Fransen overlooked. It is a theological detective story!

“The image on Fransen’s tapestry is woven out of the narrow thread of opinions set forward by three dissenting bishops …Not only does it not represent the opinions of the ‘vast majority’  of the Council Fathers [as Fransen claims, U.L.], but the Council itself at the end of the Bologna sessions can be said to be firmly and almost unanimously committed to the contrary of each of the three propositions” (75).

The biggest problem with Brugger’s claim is of course that practically everybody seems to have misinterpreted the Tridentine formulation, which does not condemn the Greek practice. Even the papal commission of 1978 did not see the subtlety and “elusive genius” of Trent. If one suddenly claims to have insight everybody else lacked, one has to have extraordinary evidence, which I think he indeed presents: “The Council’s threefold strategy should now be plain. It simultaneously intended: (1) to secure a clear condemnation against Luther’s denial of ecclesiastical authority over the marriages of Christians; (2) to define the truth of the absolute indissolubility of consummated and sacramental marriages; and (3) to cause as little disruption as possible to the fragile relations between Greek and Latin Christians living in Venetian territories.” Brugger’s  book should be widely read and discussed; especially graduate students can learn from its clearly formulated arguments and its textual analysis; this is how historical theology should be done. Whether one agrees with the conclusions he presents or not—this is clearly one of the most important books on the history of Catholic theology of 2017.

[1] Cf. Frank Sobiech, Ethos, Bioethics, and Sexual Ethics in Work and Reception of the Anatomist Niels Stensen (1638-1686): Circulation of Love. Zurich: Springer, 2016.



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