Home / Comment / In brief

Weaponising the Enlightenment

Weaponising the Enlightenment

Nick Spencer reviews ‘The Catholic Enlightenment’ by Ulrich L. Lehner, re–examining an overlooked period of intellectual history. 01/10/2018

Interested by this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Supporter Programme to find out how you can help our work.

One of the casualties of the culture wars – or culture skirmishes as they remain in Britain – is the weaponisation of the word Enlightenment. In truth, it was never a neutral term, any more than “middle ages” was. Enlightenment always implied the ethical and intellectual superiority of today over the darkness and barbarity of yesterday. 

That recognised, the term has, of late, slipped ever further from being the description of a period of intellectual history to the rallying cry for a better tomorrow. What do want? Enlightenment! When do we want it? Now! As Stephen Pinker might chant… 

So it is that a book entitled The Catholic Enlightenment is liable to provoke puzzlement. Isn’t the phrase simply an oxymoron or, which is perhaps worse, a desperate attempt to hitch a tattered theological wagon to the steam engine of secular reason and progress? Ulrich L. Lehner’s book is neither, but rather a recovery of a long–eclipsed, fascinating and important period of intellectual history.

Lehner, Professor of Religious History and Historical Theology at Marquette University in the US, begins where every history of the Enlightenment must, namely in the shadow of Peter Gay and Jonathan Israel. While undoubtedly two of the greatest historians of the period, Gay and Israel understood the movement as fundamentally anti–religious and/ or materialist. Gay’s enlighteners were at least anti–clerical and more usually anti–Christian; Israel’s enlighteners – or rather the real enlighteners as opposed to the ‘moderates’ – were radical followers of Baruch Spinoza. Neither had much space confessional or orthodox enlighteners, even assuming there were any.

This, however, is to pre–define the phenomenon. As Lehner writes, “if only anti–religious thinkers were enlightened, then there could not be a Catholic Enlightenment”. Yet, as he proceeds to show in 250 pages of readable and well–paced prose, there were plenty of Catholic enlighteners. The Catholic Enlightenment is neither oxymoron nor wishful thinking.

Lehner’s geographical and intellectual range is impressive. His story covers North and South America, China and India as well as Europe, and he explores everything from church reform, education and science to political toleration, women’s equality, and the rights of indigenous people.

Catholic enlighteners shared the radicals’ antipathy towards superstition, prejudice and ‘enthusiasm’. They debated civil marriage, divorce and clerical celibacy. They attacked early versions of scientific racism in India and the Spanish colonies. They advocated religious toleration, and even sometimes freedom of conscience. The Polish constitution of 1791 is illustrative: 

“The dominant religion of nation is and shall be the holy Roman Catholic faith… Given, however, that the same holy faith commands is to love our neighbours, therefore we owe peace in faith, and protection of the government to all people, of whatever confession” [65].

The movement (such as it was a movement) is not populated by a handful of stellar names – it boasts no Voltaire–Kant–Hume–Diderot pantheon – but rather a host of minor characters that you will search for in vain in other histories of the Enlightenment. There was the Spanish proto–feminist Josefa Amar; Laura Caterina Bassi, who became the first woman in European history to receive a university professorship, in experimental physics; Maria Gaetana Agnesi, a mathematician and theologian who followed Bassi to a university chair; the Spanish Benedictine monk, Benito Feijoo, who advocated women’s education and vigorously attacked popular Catholic superstitions; the Lisbon–born priest and lawyer Ribeiro Rocha who called for an end to slavery; the Benedictine monk Benedict Werkmeister who criticised the veneration of saints; and many others beside. 

The movement wasn’t simply a heroic effort by lone eccentrics and prophets, however. Lehner points out that it was often Catholic governments that served as the main sponsors of enlightened reforms. In Austria, Empress Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II passed laws to emancipate Protestants. In Portugal, the powerful minister Marquis de Pombal stated in a royal decree that Portugal’s Christian subjects in East Africa and Asia should have the same legal status irrespective of colour, and even made it illegal to call Indians “mestizos, niggers, dogs, bitches” and other derogatory names. This was usually where the impact of the Catholic Enlightenment was most acutely felt, though it was a double–edged sword, heralding a so–called ‘regalism’ in which the church found itself treated like a department of the state. 

Lehner never pretends this is the full or ‘real’ story. Catholic enlighteners faced as much opposition from within the church as without, very often from the top. The Papal States strenuously rejected any movement towards religious toleration, and Pope Pius VI publically condemned one bishop’s pastoral letter advocating toleration in 1787. For good reason, did the Catholic enlighteners criticise the papacy with as much vigour as their radical counterparts. Nevertheless, their ideas did have an impact, in some senses more so than that of their radical counterparts who were usually deemed too dangerous to take seriously. 

Lehner has done a first rate job in resurrecting a long–forgotten and often inspiring tradition – and, crucially, how it ended. In a word: badly. Enlightenment was perceived by authorities across Europe to have led to Revolution in France, Revolution to Terror, Terror to Bonaparte, and Bonaparte to a generation of war. The Church, Papacy, church teaching, religious orders, and charitable organisations suffering at every stage on this chaotic and bloody road. If this was Enlightenment, the reasoning ran, you can keep it. 

The Catholic Enlighteners were guilty by association. The short–term result was thoroughgoing reaction, as those early 19th century Catholics who advocated rights, toleration, biblical criticism, and scientific progress were pushed to, or over, the edges of the Church. The medium–term impact was an institution that fought modernity tooth and nail until well into the twentieth century. And the long–term result one was a confusion and disagreement about the meaning and objectives of Enlightenment that remains with us today.

The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement (2016) by Ulrich L. Lehner is published by Oxford University Press. 

This review was first published by Reading Religion:

Image ‘Piazza Navona, Rome’ by Caspar van Wittel, 1699, available in the public domain from Wikimedia Commons

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently ‘The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable’ (Bloomsbury, 2017), ‘The Evolution of the West’ (SPCK, 2016) and ‘Atheists: The Origin of the Species’ (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Watch, listen to or read more from Nick Spencer

Posted 1 October 2018

Catholicism, History, Reason, Review


See all


See all

In the news

See all


See all

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.