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Age of Rationalism (1648-1789)

"ENLIGHTENMENT" WAS A TERM which became current for a new philosophy of life that followed the Protestant Reformation. Its norm was Naturalism and its method Rationalism, as opposed to supernatural revelation and the authority of Holy Scripture. "The Rationalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is a reaction against Luther's doctrine of the irreformable corruption of human nature. With an unbounded confidence in man's capacity to think, will, and act in virtue of his own inner power, Rationalism rejected the doctrines of Revelation and Grace" (Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 224). "The enlightenment is the logical outcome of philosophical as well as Protestant religious individualism and the absence of tradition. It has three roots: 1) Protestantism, or more specifically the disruption caused by Protestantism; 2) Humanism; 3) the autonomous development of individualistic philosophy, built upon mathematic-scientific discoveries" (Lortz, History of Church, 444). Here the term may be used to describe the gradual transition from the chiefly theological preoccupations of the age of Religious Revolt and the Religious Wars that followed (1517-1648), to the philosophic and rationalist fixation of the period of the "Old Regime" down to the French Revolution.

On the Continent of Europe, the Thirty Years War (1618-48) left Germany ruined and much of Europe exhausted. That conflict, despite its numerous political ramifications, had supposedly been a war for religious supremacy. Yet in this respect it had decided nothing, for the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 basically upheld the fairly equal division into Catholic and Protestant states that had been made at the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. At the same time Westphalia recognized similar divisions in Switzerland and the Netherlands: modern Belgium and Holland. Many persons were now prone to draw the conclusion that religion was not worth fighting for. If penal laws remained in most countries, they were henceforth less often enforced.


An ideal of toleration developed simply because one side could not destroy the other, and co-existence became imperative. Now of course the idea of tolerance has good features in suggesting both Christian charity and encouraging free acceptance of truly spiritual religious convictions. On the other hand, it suggested to some indifferentists that truth and error were identical; it could lead to a pluralism of fantastic cults and anarchic personal opinions. Especially it was now suggested that any revealed word of God was hopelessly in dispute, so that the most that men could aspire to was agreement on broad rational basis that there is a God and a "golden rule." As Alexander Pope put it in his Essay on Man: "Whether with Reason or with Instinct blest, know all enjoy that power which suits them best; to bliss alike by that direction tend, and find the means proportioned to their end. Say, where full Instinct is the unerring guide, what pope or council can they need beside? . . . God and Nature linked the general frame and bade self-love and social be the same . . . For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight, his can't be wrong whose life is in the right. In faith and hope the world will disagree, but all mankind's concern is charity."

Pope was an Englishman who had witnessed the Civil War, Commonwealth, and Restoration (1642-60) produce in Britain much the same effects as the Thirty Years War had brought about on the Continent. Toleration became politically expedient for several strong Protestant denominations in England, if not yet for the small Catholic minority. Meanwhile, in English America a practical solution was slowly worked out of "separation of Church and State," which would become the working basis of an American Republic, though it was not to be popular in Europe for some years to come.

Absolutism was the reason why the American principles were not yet welcome in Europe. For during these centuries most European states aped the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV (1643-1715), who is said to have boasted: "I am the State." An admirer declared that in France there ought to be "one king, one law, one faith." If Louis XIV treated Protestants as second-class citizens, his favor to Catholics was almost as oppressive. Louis' doctrine of regalism-borrowed by other supposedly "Catholic" monarchs-defied the pope to the edge of excommunication: refusing to allow papal representatives, letters, decrees enter France without his own royal permission, and appropriating papal prerogatives and properties with impunity. Nationalistic prelates were encouraged to disregard the pope as well, and international religious superiors were denied communication with their subjects. In fact, the Jesuits were eventually suppressed for a time because of a conspiracy of these so-called Catholic monarchs. Donations and legacies to religious houses were prevented or restricted or appropriated; Church properties were confiscated on a variety of pretexts. Pressure was brought to bear on the theological faculty of the Sorbonne at Paris to approve of the royal wishes regarding doctrine and discipline.

The monarchs of Spain and Portugal did much the same in the Iberian peninsula and in the East and West Indies in virtue of a "royal patronage" whereby they practically appointed bishops and collected church revenues. The Josephinism of Austria and Febronianism of Germany were similar theories, at least in aim. Privately the popes might have sympathized with the free-thinking Tom Paine during the American Revolution when he spoke of these absolute monarchs as "crowned ruffians." Certainly it was a welcome surprise to the Holy See to hear in 1789 that the new American federal government was not interested in interfering with papal selection of a bishop for the new see of Baltimore.

Catholic theologians, indeed, did not let all this go without protest. In 1537 Pope Paul III had forbidden the enslavement of the American Indians, and the popes consistently condemned the slave trade from Africa. But they were largely disregarded. The Spanish theologians, Vittoria and Suarez, denounced many features of their country's colonialism-not that this was all bad or inhuman. St. Robert Bellarmine debated the medieval Scholastic doctrine of government responsible to the people with James Stuart, pedantic King of England and Scotland, who defended royal absolutism. Pope Innocent XI under extreme provocation did dare excommunicate King Louis XIV of France in 1687, and obliged him at least to make a few concessions and acknowledge the principle of ecclesiastical independence. Theologians were working out sound principles of conscience and under papal guidance steered a moderate middle way between Jansenist rigorism that never allowed liberty any probability over against law, and a Laxism which would destroy all order by making anyone's opinion or even whim the norm of law.

Against Rationalism many ardent Christians reacted with a more earnest attitude toward religion: there were the Catholic missionaries, Sts. Paul of the Cross, Leonard of Port Maurice, and Alfonso di Liguori; the Protestant preacher to the poor, John Wesley, founder of Methodism, and Quaker efforts to abolish slavery, to mention but a few. St. John de LaSalle founded the Christian Brothers to promote education, and they had many imitators. And in the midst of these fashionably cold and conceited reasoners lived St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a Visitandine nun, who was instructed from heaven to propagate an old Christian devotion under a new garb and title: a love of gratitude and loyal service to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Courtesy of Catholic Information Network (CIN)



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved