Rethinking the Enlightenment: Faith in the Age of Reason
By Joseph T. Stuart.
Sophia Institute Press, 2020.
Paperback, 400 pages, $19.95.

Reviewed by Christian Browne.

The question of how, and whether, to reconcile the Catholic Church with the modern world has been the principal issue in the life of the Church for more than three centuries. The last great effort to answer the question came in the form of the Second Vatican Council. Whatever achievements the Council made towards the great project of integrating the ancient Roman Church with the Modern Age were undermined, and often destroyed entirely, by its infamous “implementation,” leaving the coveted marriage of Christianity and Modernity, in the words of Pindar, the “dream of a shadow.”

The calamities and confusion that followed the Council have left many in the Church searching for a new way forward. Wisely, these new reformers look to the lessons of the past, and not just to the lessons that flow from the events of the mid-twentieth century. There is a growing awareness that, to understand properly the sources for the thinking that brought us to Vatican II and its aftermath, we must examine a broad scope of history that includes a detailed examination of the Enlightenment Era of the eighteenth century.   

Joseph Stuart’s book Rethinking the Enlightenment: Faith in the Age of Reason makes a valuable contribution to the important work of understanding the complex era that erected the scientific and political foundations of the modern world. Stuart is an associate professor of history and fellow in Catholic Studies at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His work is not a polemic—it is not (as one might expect) a Catholic’s attack on the “so-called” Enlightenment that blames the Age of Reason for all modern errors. 

His approach is, instead, “fair and balanced,” exploring in readable fashion the nuances of actual history. Under this approach, while he does not laud what he calls the “Conflictual Enlightenment”—the thinkers and movements that were stridently opposed to Christianity—he does show how the rise of anti-Catholic hostility was, in some respects, a reaction to the mistakes and excesses of the Church of the late seventeenth century, particularly in France. 

Here Stuart touches upon an important topic that deserves more attention. The French Church in the early decades of the seventeenth century produced an enormous spiritual flowering that affected every part of French society. St. Vincent de Paul, Armand Jean le Bouthillier de Rancé (founder of the Trappists), Pascal and his friends, the early (largely misunderstood) adherents of Jansenism, were products of the remarkably vibrant Catholic spirituality of the seventeenth century. But, as Stuart discusses, toward the end of the century, under the excesses of Louis XIV’s interminable reign, the Church began to ossify as an organ of the Crown. It began to engage in political-ideological misadventures at the service of Louis’ absolutist obsessions, culminating with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 that inaugurated a new era of aggressive persecution of the Huguenots. 

Throughout the work, Stuart uses the stories of little-known figures to paint a real-life history, as opposed to merely relying upon broad descriptions and quotations from sources. To illustrate the concrete effects of the religious intolerance that Louis instigated, Stuart recounts the tragic persecution of the Calas family, a Protestant family from Toulouse. In sensational fashion, the family’s father was convicted of murdering his own son because, it was alleged, he wished to prevent the son from converting to Catholicism. The religious prejudice and unthinking zealotry that characterized this affair caused a tremendous reaction in the Enlightened movement. Voltaire made it his mission to vindicate the wrongly-convicted father, an effort at which he ultimately succeeded. 

Stuart’s work reminds us that the greatest enemy of the Faith is its abuse by those who profess it. He demonstrates the complexity of real-life history and one of its most important functions—to teach us to acknowledge errors and learn from them. 

Stuart does a service in his chapters on the overlooked papacy of Benedict XIV. Reigning from 1740 to 1758, Benedict was an intellectual who embraced the advance of science and the use of reason as companion to the Faith. In Benedict and his papacy, Stuart explores the achievements of the “Catholic Enlightenment,” the movement in the middle of the eighteenth century that, in its best iteration, was not ideological or revolutionary, but reform-minded. Here again Stuart shows history-in-action by recounting the remarkable life of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, the prodigy of a prominent Milanese family who personifies the integration of Catholicism—and true Christian piety—with the Enlightened Age. A mathematical genius who proved that women were capable of the highest intellectual achievements, Agnesi was also a devout believer who lived a simple life, gave away her wealth, and devoted herself to the care of the sick poor at the hospital of Milan. Her text on mathematics made her famous in Europe. Benedict offered her a lectureship at the University of Bologna, where he had enabled several other women to obtain degrees and to teach.

While Stuart admires the flourishing of the Catholic Enlightenment, he concedes that it was both short-lived and liable to corruption. He illustrates the corrosive effect of an over-enthusiastic embrace of rationalism and worldly pursuits in his discussion on the controversies that beset the Benedictine Order towards the end of the eighteenth century. The secularization of parts of that Order at the hands of monks who allowed the “spirit of the age” to devour the traditional modes of religious life presages the mistakes and manias that ruined a great many religious orders after Vatican II. 

Overall, however, the decline of the Catholic Enlightenment after the death of Benedict XIV deserves more attention than Stuart is able to provide in this book. In similar fashion to the present-day Progressive movement, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, the ideological and anti-Christian strain within the Enlightenment rapidly gained strength and infected the elites running the Catholic states of Europe. This tendency to radicalization led to the gradual suppression of the Jesuits across Europe, an action taken at the insistence of the Catholic powers, and, of course, it culminated in the disaster of the French Revolution. There are many lessons in the decline of the Catholic Enlightenment in the last decades of the eighteenth century that warrant further exploration. 

Finally, Stuart looks at religion in the Age of Reason outside the Catholic Church. He spends a significant portion of the book examining England at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and offers a fascinating account of the life of the Wesley family, particularly the admirable spiritual work of John Wesley. This remarkable family, founders of Methodism, promoted Christian piety, culture, and learning to the poor and lower classes across England. Their work in renewing the Christian spirit among people with little education who had drifted away from formal religion and into a brutal work-a-day industrialized world offers a lesson on the power of the Christian message when conveyed from the depths of the faith. The Wesleys’ copious contributions extend to the composition of the best-known hymns in the English language (e.g., “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”), hymns that are used today in the best of Catholic worship. Their hymns are included in the popular Saint Edmund Campion Missal & Hymnal, a hymnal for the Traditional Latin Mass. My own Traditional Latin Mass congregation regularly sings out Wesley hymns at the processional and recessional of the Sunday High Mass. 

The fault line of Modernity lies between reform and revolution. Stuart’s book shows that the Enlightenment Age brought genuine progress and reform in science, medicine and political thinking that created tremendous benefits for mankind. And it also shows the undeniable fact that an admirable zeal for reform, directed against the eradication of a true problem or actual injustice, tends to devolve into a radicalism that can ravage the very foundations of a society—including the society that is the Church. 

The elusive formula for balance—reform where necessary, but not revolution—perhaps consists in the admixture of the progressive genius of the Enlightenment with the stable anchor of Tradition. Joseph Stuart’s work is an informative, readable, and interesting contribution to the search through the past for the key to the future. 

Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004. He is the author of The Pearl of Great Price: Pius VI & the Sack of Rome.

Support the University Bookman

The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated