Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg reviews a new book at the Library of Law and Liberty that demolishes the canard that religious figure were “somehow opposed holus bolus to Enlightenment ideas is one that has been steadily discredited over the last 50 years.” In his review of The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement by by Ulrich L. Lehner, Gregg points out that the new book shows how “the Enlightenment argument for freedom was embraced by many Catholic Enlighteners.”
One of Lehner’s central themes is that the roots of Catholic Enlightenment thought are to be found in that most reforming of Church councils: the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Trent’s impact in terms of clarifying church dogmas and doctrines, curbing laxity among the clergy, implementing an extensive seminary and university reform program, and propelling the rise of dynamic religious orders (to name just a few changes) is hard to underestimate. Trent facilitated the development of a thoroughly orthodox, intellectually rigorous, and disciplined clergy; a renewed emphasis upon addressing social and economic problems; a repudiation of superstitious customs; and, perhaps most significantly, an emphasis that lay people were also called to holiness. This idea pervades, for instance, Saint Francis de Sales’ immensely influential Introduction to the Devout Life (1609).
Trent was therefore about improvement. And comprehensive efforts to better the human condition was a central leitmotif of the various Enlightenments and one to which, Lehner shows, many Catholics were naturally well-disposed. In some areas, such as enhancing women’s legal status and education, it turns out that Catholic reformers were well ahead of their Protestant and more secular-minded counterparts. (more…)