A new age of Catholic enlightenment?
• Evolution is probably right.
• Atheists aren’t necessarily hell-bound.
• Gays might be people after all.
• Maybe we should focus on helping the needy more, and on doctrinal rigor less.
Recently, the Catholic Church, and in particular the prime-time friendly Pope at its stern, has made something of a habit of issuing alarmingly not-awful statements about the place of Catholicism in the emerging world culture.
While there has been grumbling from the ranks, and especially from the American Catholics who are displeased to see the religious foundation of their daily prejudices eroded by papal decree, the sentiment of a New Catholicism is catching on, getting people excited about popery in a way they haven’t been within living memory. And suddenly, the question on every religious enthusiast’s lips has become:
Is a new Catholic Enlightenment just around the corner?
It is an interesting prospect, but to evaluate it, and what might become of it, requires that we take a look at the original Catholic Enlightenment, that baffling creature that emerged in the mid 18th century, espousing Newton and Pope, broad-based toleration and doctrinal purity, all with equal vigor and sincerity.
Basing their arguments in the language of reason and natural law, they appealed for a fundamental change to how Catholicism approaches the world, and for half a century, they crafted a religious option more politically disengaged, science embracing, doctrine suspicious, and charity oriented, than had existed since the theologically wild 11th century.
To look at how that happened, why it fell apart, and why its current instantiation might well be headed for the same fate, we need to focus in on one of the particular religious Enlightenments of the 18th Century, and for my money the best case scenario is that of the ill-starred but often well-intentioned, hapless but heroic, Habsburgs of Austria.
The 18th was, to put it mildly, Not Their Century. After having spent the 16th century more or less running Europe like their own private zoo, by the 18th century it was all they could do to fight back the armies of the tiny, swamp-and-tobacco-cloud shrouded state of Prussia.
Frederick the Great, in a series of ballsy, bloody, and brilliant military campaigns, had robbed the Habsburgs of their most productive territory, and then fended off the combined efforts of Austria, Russia, and France to regain them. Hampered with a creaking and expensive Catholic machinery, and with military bills threatening to drown the Empire, the Habsburgs had to reform.
And that’s where Catholic Reformer Joseph Eybel came in.
Eybel was part of a new generation of religious thinkers, inspired by Enlightenment ideas of natural law, and of the human-directed purpose of the state and Church.
He argued for a Catholicism that shut down its monasteries, as they consumed huge amounts of wealth without doing people any actual good, that made tolerating Protestants and Jews a central principle in order to create a happier and more productive state, that did away with saints known for miraculous deeds instead of good and useful lives, that removed the Church entirely from decisions that affected the external, daily lives of the people, and that supported scientific investigation and a reason-based, historically sensitive inquiry into canonical law.
It sounds like the program of a raving Voltaire-style deist, and yet it was entirely in concert with the streams of German Reform Catholicism as they were evolving in the Universities of the post-Counter-Reformation era. The ideas were acted upon, partially by Maria Theresa, and then in a full-blown orgy of reform, by Joseph II in the years before the French Revolution.
While the Pope harrumphed, Catholicism as it was practiced took on a shape that had as its guiding notion
If it doesn’t help people, don’t bother with it.
The interminable abstract debates of Scholasticism melted and the monasteries withered as local priests and bishops surrendered political power in order to serve more usefully as spiritual advisors and givers of charity.
If these reformers were doing such great things, then, how did we end up with a modern Catholicism so paranoid of its privilege, and life-denying in its theology, that people go positively ecstatic with optimism whenever Pope Francis says something suggesting basic decency? How did Catholicism lose its best guiding lights?
The French Revolution didn’t help. Those conservative churchmen who had been secretly simmering during Joseph and Eybel’s reforms rose as one upon the excesses of the Terror being made known and groaned in satisfied unison:
You see what comes of Enlightenment and Reform? Thrones totter, blood runs!
Catholic monarchs took note, and especially in Austro-Hungary, the old system was quietly put back in place, the era of reforms defended neither by religious practitioners who were shocked at the extremism of the Jacobins nor by the heirs of the philosophes, for whom Catholic Enlightenment never quite went far enough to get terribly excited about.
And that’s the lesson to take away from this first pervasively applied wave of systemic Catholic decency – that no matter how sweeping the reform seems, no matter how revolutionary the vocabulary employed, fundamentally the Catholic Enlightenment was an intangible shade treading between two far more substantial worlds, never fully tolerated by either, and doomed to dispersion by politico-religious tempests.
The parallels today are crisp. In the midst of an overwhelmingly progressive world culture, a program of reform is undertaken that aims to cede temporal control in order to reclaim a reasonable spiritual oversight, all with the quality of human life and alleviation of suffering as its watchwords.
This program outrages the tradition-soaked faithful, who keep their outrage hidden in the face of suddenly full Churches and generally positive media coverage, while for the leading edge of philosophers, the humanists and freethinkers, it is far too little, far far too late.
In prosperous times, these compromise positions can cohere for some time, too partial to draw much condemnation or praise from the radicals, and too successful to provoke a conservative counterstrike. But that cohesion is of the most chimerical stripe, an accident of stability, ready to go the way of the first Catholic Enlightenment when tested by adverse events.
I do not hope for its failure. When an organization with as many human lives in its clutches as the Catholic Church does anything to make those lives more humane and bearable, it’s for the good of the world generally, even if we might grumble about the half-measurism of it all.
It would have been a great thing had the first Catholic Enlightenment survived the fires of Revolution, creating a 19th century religious culture less anti-intellectual and personally crippling, and thereby a 20th century less tainted by Culture War and philosophical extremism.
But it didn’t survive. It couldn’t have, and it lacked any precedent to set its post-failure course by. Modern Reform Catholicism has that precedent, and if it wants anything of the humanity-centered spirit of its current ethos to continue, it would do well to start planning for the fall now.
• Dale Debakcsy has just published his latest book, The Illustrated Women in Science: Year One.