- Enlightenment and Catholicism in Europe: A Transnational History ed. by Jeffrey D. Burson and Ulrich L. Lehner
Many students of church history, especially non-Catholics, assume that the Roman Catholic Church takes little or no account of general social, political, and intellectual developments, even among Catholics. After all, the doctrines of the Church rest on an unchanging Bible and on supposedly infallible pronouncements by church authorities over many centuries. The concept of a “Catholic Enlightenment” or “Enlightened Catholicism” can easily seem an absurdity, especially given the ridicule to which the literal Bible story and the pronouncements of the popes were subjected by leaders of the Enlightenment in Catholic countries such as Voltaire. But “the Catholic Enlightenment” and “Enlightened Catholicism” are now themes widely studied and discussed by Catholics and non-Catholics, reflecting the fact that the Church, while claiming to be “always the same,” has produced numerous critics and innovators whose “Enlightened” views have eventually become orthodox, or at least accepted by church authorities as worthy of consideration. This is a phenomenon perhaps especially difficult for British students to grasp, since their countries were largely cut off from internal Roman Catholic [End Page 823] debates from the time of the Reformation onward, and little of the relevant literature is in English. Furthermore, in the history of the United Kingdom Catholic Irish inflexibility has been much more conspicuous than Continental subtleties. It is scarcely surprising that Ireland hardly figures in this volume.
The volume is introduced by a valuable essay from Jeffrey Burson titled “Catholicism and Enlightenment, Past, Present, and Future,” which gives some account of the history of the concept, together with a short bibliography. But the book’s great contribution is that it supplies English-language accounts of some of the most significant Catholic writings of the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries from many European countries, not only France, Italy, and Germany but also Spain, Austria, Poland, and Scotland. In each case a bibliography is also supplied. No other book conveys so well the pan-European nature of Catholic discussion, or its range and depth. Of course, many of these pieces were originally published in Latin or French, but some appeared first in German, Italian, Spanish, Polish, or Portuguese. Burson has adopted a very wide definition of Catholic Enlightenment, which more or less amounts to “any sign of sympathy with Enlightenment or of dissent from the more reactionary papal pronouncements and policies.” This approach has the great merit of introducing Anglophone readers to many texts from the long eighteenth century that are very little known in Britain and, in some cases, anywhere. The editors deserve congratulation for having ranged so widely and for having insisted on publishing short accounts of works by many authors, so that their variety and geographical range can be appreciated. It is refreshing to find snatches of Johann Pezzl’s Vienna journalism included in a volume otherwise almost entirely the work of serious-minded clergy. A unique note is struck in Mark Goldie’s reprinted essay on Alexander Geddes, an “extremist” (p. 426) who held an extraordinary range of views that he claimed were based on Catholicism, applauding the French Revolution and rejecting the temporal power of the pope.
A collective volume such as this naturally raises many questions. To marshal so many authors from many countries and keep them to the plan of the book has been a major editorial achievement. But the fact that the index has been ruthlessly confined to listing names is unfortunate, making it impossible, for example, to find easily the references in the book to Jansenism and its suppression, and similarly to the Jesuits. No doubt the fate of the Jesuits has been well studied, but their suppression surely deserves some discussion here.
The risks of punishment and even death run by dissident Catholic authors have been decidedly underplayed. It seems strange that Lord Acton and his work are nowhere mentioned. The translations from the books discussed are...