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The term Catholic Enlightenment refers to a heterogeneous phenomenon in Ancien Régime Europe and Latin America. It stands for the Church policy pursued by a Catholic enlightened monarch and/or his ministers as well as for a "reform movement" (which was a watchword for the adoption of Protestant assertions and principles of Enlightenment philosophers) within the Roman Catholic clergy to find answers to the ever-growing secularism of that period.
In contrast to the zeitgeist of rationalism, which in its pure form rejects revelation as contrary to reason, Catholic Enlightenment is characterised by the attempt of "reform-oriented" parts of the church to counter the onrush of mainstream Enlightenment. They endeavoured to reconcile what they saw as conflicting concepts of reason, which is seen as the sole source of truth by rationalists, and revelation as a disclosure of information by divine agency. It is by definition beyond the ordinary course of a rationalist conception of nature and was ipso facto a prime target for "enlightened" intellectuals and statesmen. In doing so, they challenged the very foundations of Christianity, and that consequently culminated in the complete suppression of Catholicism in favour of a Cult of Reason during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution.
The secular Enlightenment was, however, by no means atheistic, but it declaimed certain tenets crucial to the Catholic Church as merely historic and man-made and therefore fictitious. Many of the most influential philosophers of that time, like the Encyclopédistes, Voltaire or Reimarus, were secularists or promoted a deist view: In a nutshell, they proclaimed that nature was the only revelation God has ever made and thus the preoccupation with any other alleged revelation was superfluous. Additionally the Bible (and the Old Testament in particular) was considered contradictory in itself to pure reason and to the perfection of God. Others, like Lessing, agreed with respect to biblicism and revelation, but he was more lenient toward "emotional (i.e. unenlightened) Christs" who were in need of the gospels to do good. Still, he detested what he perceived as ecclesiastical obscurantism and intolerance: He postulated a "Christianity of Reason" without the Tradition and dogmata of the Church, which he rejected. For Lessing it was all about the Education of Humankind and this very attitude was actually a stereotype of the "enlightened" elite: They saw themselves as guardians of reason and lowered Christ to principally a useful educator of virtue who was - in their opinion - just to be "freed" from what they saw as a fake and superstitious church-masquerade of the so-called "Dark Ages".
While basically under the same rationalistic pressure, the Protestant churches of Northern Europe could react a bit more flexibly to the rational challenge of the Enlightenment, because they already had suppressed the Church, monasticism, and the veneration of the Saints. Protestant thinkers joined forces with the "enlightened" critics of their Catholic rival and in that way Protestantism could evade harsh criticism of their own doctrine of sola scriptura to a certain degree.
The self-conception of Roman Catholicism on the other hand was (and is) not only the opposite of the Protestants' dry plainness and austerity, but also of their deliberate provinciality of independent national churches. The Catholic Church is supranational and was, especially since the Counter-Reformation, flamboyant and splendidly baroque in appearance. With respect to its colourful feasts, processions and iconodule venereration it was in charge of everything extraordinary in community life. But this kind of devoutness was in the eyes of its critics rather anxious for effect and created some collective identity through a joint experience, which made a Catholic a Catholic, but it wasn't so much aimed at the inner persuasion of the faithful based on reason and natural "virtue", which the proponents of the Enlightenment, but not the Church, saw as the only two means of personal formation. Instead, so thought the so-called "enlightened" men, it was an utterly visual world, and that was in the conceptual and iconophobic context of philosophy an illusionary world.
Furthermore, the opponents of the Church claimed that the abbeys started to look like pompous baroque castles which were anything but humble. The clergy, they said, was enormous and the hierarchy Byzantine and incomprehensible with almost all senior jobs being reserved for the aristocracy as secundogeniture Combined with its supranational nature, all of these things made the Church extremely inflexible, because with any unnecessary Protestant change, which the Church dismissed as absurd to even desire, the prominence of the Church was at risk of being supplanted by the ambitions of statesmen and the liberal intelligentsia.
But for most so-called "enlightened" thinkers, the point at issue was the freedom of thought: In spite of all perceived progress they had made in science and in the arts, they complained that theology was still in the very centre of academic life, with the Jesuits controlling the universities almost everywhere. In the eyes of their critics - and much to the chagrin of "enlightened" monarchs who competed with their Protestant peers for prestige - the Jesuits failed to embrace modernity the way Protestant universities and academies did.
Apart from ignoring the problem, there were two possible ways to confront the criticism: To fight it off in order to protect the Church's traditional position and role or to act as if the Church was in need of reform and disengange it from what the "enlightened" critics saw as outdated ballast, either to appease the critics or out of real persuasion.
The group of apologists abode by Rome, because any reformatory change of the status quo would have weakened the Papacy and its natural primacy consequentially, not to mention that it would have opposed the Catholic Faith. The ultramontane camp was spearheaded by the Society of Jesus which first came into being as the Catholic fortress against the Reformation and rose to the occasion impressively. Since that time the Jesuits played key roles in the administrative machinery of State, university, and Church in every Catholic nation and they were often most influential confessors at court. They were answerable to the Pope only and had a reputation of being elitist, unscrupulous, and obesessed with power. They were clouded in secrecy and thus people were fascinated with their alleged intrigues to defend the Papacy. Given the crucial influence of the Society of Jesus and their obstructionism against any kind of reform, be it modest or radical, they attracted most of the critics' attention: It was necessary to break their firm resistance to change Catholicism if the motives of the Church's enemies were to avail in any way.
The camp that desired to secularise and Protestantise the Church's position, on the other hand, had no visual spearhead and was very heterogeneous, and they found themselves in the company of Protestant and "enlightened" critics in their effort to overcome the Jesuits, and in doing so they all can be described as anti-Jesuits. So it's not wrong to state that the alleged antagonism between Enlightenment and Catholicism was in fact overshadowed by a severe conflict about the Jesuit influence. Those who took part in the suppression of the Jesuits included:
- The Portuguese prime minister Marquês de Pombal suppressed the Jesuits as early as 1759 in Portugal and its colonial empire. He broke off the diplomatic relations with the Papacy until 1770 and reorganized the educational system and modernised the teachings by spending more tax money: He added faculties of natural science to the University of Coimbra, introduced general vocational education and increased the number of teachers. To rival the Jesuits' alleged obscurantism the Order of the Oratorians presented themselves markedly progressive with a huge modern library and a prominent experimental laboratory to entertain and impress the nobility.
- The Austrian chancellor Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz and Kaiser Joseph II claimed that a sovereign state's authority also covers ecclesiastical affairs. With their reforms, generally referred to as Josephinism, the borders of the dioceses were adjusted to the Archduchy of Austria, the Jesuits's influence was reduced and a Patent of Tolerance of 1781 allowed some freedom of worship.
- The French prime minister Étienne François, duc de Choiseul allowed the Encyclopédie to be published and was on good terms with the philosophes. With the backing of the royal maîtresse Madame de Pompadour, who was denied absolution by the Jesuits for being an adulteress, Choiseul was a declared opponent of the Society of Jesus and the obsolete baroque Catholicism he thought they represented.
- As prime minister in the kingdom of Naples Bernardo Tanucci successfully reduced the ecclesiastical influence and played a crucial role in the suppression of the Jesuits in all Bourbon states (France, Spain, Parma and all their colonies) in 1767.
- Kenneth Maxwell. Pombal - Paradox of the Enlightenment. Cambridge, 1995.
- Richard van Dülmen. Religion und Gesellschaft. Frankfurt, 1989.
- Samuel J. Miller. Portugal and Rome - An Aspect of the Catholic Enlightenment. Rome, 1978.
- Ernst Cassirer. Philosophy of the Enlightenment. 1932.
- Ulrich L. Lehner and Michael Printy (eds.), "Brill's Companion to the Catholic Enlightenment in Europe. Leiden and Boston, 2010.
- Ulrich L. Lehner, 'What is Catholic Enlightenment?' in: History Compass 8 (2010): 166–178.
- Ulrich L. Lehner, Enlightened Monks. The German Benedictines 1740-1803 Oxford, 2011.