Rethinking the Enlightenment

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“We are victims of our century,” wrote one of the Carmelites of Compiègne before going to the guillotine in 1794, “and we must sacrifice ourselves that it be reconciled to God.” Attacks on Catholic churches, anti-Christian elites, and suffocating political correctness—the eighteenth century witnessed cultural conflict every bit as intense as our own today. Yet Christians managed to thrive back then by sophisticated open-mindedness in engaging their contemporary world and wisdom in retreating from it when necessary.

The Enlightenment trumpeted the merits of science, practical improvements, and polite interaction in the burgeoning public sphere of coffeehouses and cheap print media in the 1700s. This age witnessed the formation of modernity. Ever since the nineteenth century, many have thought about the Enlightenment and Christianity in terms of conflict and the triumph of the secular. Thus, many Christians have looked more to the medieval period, the Age of Reformations, or the era of Pope John Paul II for inspiration, forgetting the eighteenth century completely.

Not any longer. Ever since about the year 2000, historians have filled in this gap through new research. They have uncovered a forgotten great age of Christian history in the 1700s. Mainstream scholars such as Ulrich Lehner, Jeffrey Burson, and Christopher M. S. Johns are calling it the “Catholic Enlightenment.” This was when Christians had faith in an “Age of Reason.”

The Catholic Enlightenment was a religious movement with cultural goals resembling the New Evangelization today. The Catholic Enlightenment aimed to influence the world at a deeper level than surface conflicts. It was a sophisticated strategy of cultural engagement resulting in the Vatican Museums in Rome, more rationalized procedures in assessing miracles for canonization cases, and the Academy of Sciences in Bologna under papal sponsorship. The Catholic Enlightenment emerged out of three major influences: the theologically grounded spirit of liberty and human dignity defended by the Council of Trent (1545–1563), the achievements of Christian humanism in the Renaissance, and the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s.

Thus, the “Enlightenment Pope” (Benedict XIV, who reigned 1740–1758), for example, the author of Rational Devotion (Ludovico Muratori), and the first female mathematician to publish a text in her field (Maria Agnesi) accepted certain Enlightenment assumptions about knowledge and human nature in their work—even as dedicated Catholics. Catholic Enlighteners such as these promoted social charity over mysticism, critical thought over blind obedience, rational devotion over emotional exuberance, local church governance over papal centralization, the modern Newton over the ancient Aristotle in physical science, and freedom of scholarship over suppression of new ideas.

Smart women of the Catholic Enlightenment, such as mathematician Maria Agnesi (1718–1799), physicist Laura Bassi (1711–1778), and anatomist Ann Morandi (1714–1774), occupied the first prominent positions ever afforded women in institutions of higher learning. And their careers were advacnced by the pope, Benedict XIV. When Agnesi was only nine years old, she stood before an audience of family and Milanese elites to give an oration (in Latin) on the importance of female education. She prayed daily to the Virgin Mary in Greek and mastered several other languages even as she lectured on science and philosophy before international audiences. Agnesi believed the study of mathematics purified the Christian soul and she worked to spread knowledge as any good Enlightener did. She also devoted much of her life to caring for sick and outcast women on the streets of Milan.

The Catholic Enlightenment generally adopted a temperate attitude toward change. It did not promote an ideology of political revolution. It did not look for cultural conflict. Rather, the Catholic Enlightenment’s major characteristics included compromise, conciliation, and moderation.

Engaging the Enlightenment created challenges—especially for “enlightened” Benedictine monks who conducted science experiments or taught at Catholic universities. Through the porous walls of their monasteries, new views and practices sprang up among them connected to time, space, living and traveling outside the monastery, monastic obedience, and sociability. These developments stretched the very meaning of being a monk and raised troubling questions about Christian identity in the Age of Reason.

That was why, besides engagement, Christians practiced another strategy for interacting with the Enlightenment: they ignored it, minded their own business, and stayed home. They strove to build up Christian culture from within. In other words, they retreated within their house to “work from home,” so to speak. This was not a military maneuver backing out of a tough spot, but a spiritual movement inward to nurture the household of faith. From this vantage point, Enlightenment culture and Christian culture ran parallel with each other—not colliding as in conflict or overlapping as in engagement but developing in tandem.

In pursuit of this retreat strategy, Christians practiced householding or “household management.” Responsibility for provisioning and protection was shared in practice by spouses even if the male householder was the head. He accepted the responsibility of patrolling the boundaries, so to speak. “Shutting in” was a universally recognized nightly ritual of securing weak points such as doors and windows against intruders by internal bolt, padlock, or iron bar. The woman of the house, however, often held the keys, and thus, in practice, it was she who gave admittance—or not—to outside influences. The integrity of the perimeter, historian Amanda Vickery writes, was central to legal, customary, and spiritual understandings of home in the eighteenth century. This model was carried across to America.

Thus, when “America’s spiritual founding father” George Whitefield spoke in the colonies about the great duty of family religion in 1738, people listened to him by the tens of thousands. He told them that leaders of families ought to look upon themselves as obliged to act in three biblical capacities—as a “prophet, to instruct; as a priest, to pray for and with; as a king, to govern, direct, and provide for” the household. To be restored to holiness by the Holy Spirit, Whitefield said, heads of families need to pay attention to the “spiritual economy at home.”

In a metaphorical sense, then, householding in the eighteenth century involved retreating inside to focus on nurturing life. It demonstrated physical and spiritual vigilance about the windows and doors of homes, religious societies, and churches opening to the outside world. More broadly, householding secured the boundaries of Christian culture from negative effects of compromise or false engagement.

Christians interacted with the Enlightenment through conflict, engagement, and retreat. Whether in the past or the present, each of these strategies possesses different emphases, strengths, and weaknesses. When different parts of the Kingdom of God pursue all of them, however, a tough, intellectually sophisticated, and evangelically oriented Christianity can emerge—as it did in the Age of the Enlightenment.


Rethinking the Enlightenment by
Joseph T. Stuart is available now
from Sophia Institute Press.




[Image: The Festival of the Supreme Being, by Pierre-Antoine Demachy]

Joseph T. Stuart


Joseph T. Stuart is Associate Professor of History and Fellow in Catholic Studies at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. He is the author, most recently, of Rethinking the Enlightenment (Sophia Institute Press, 2020).

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