Ulrich L. LEHNER, The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. pp. 263. $31.95 hb. ISBN 978-0190232917. Reviewed by Jeffrey MORROW, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ 07079


The “Enlightenment” conjures up images of philosophical skeptics like Spinoza and Voltaire. Typically we think of the Enlightenment in terms of religious skepticism, and particularly the regions of France and Germany. Recent studies, however, have taught us that the Enlightenment was anything but monolithic. In fact, we might speak of “enlightenments” rather than an “Enlightenment.” Ulrich Lehner has proven himself to be one of the foremost historians of Enlightenment intellectual history, with his nearly twenty authored and edited books, nearly forty articles, book chapters, and more than sixty entries in reference works and book reviews, that pertain directly to the enlightenment. More important than the sheer quantity of his work, however, is the unassailable quality of his cutting edge scholarship. With his publication of The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement, Lehner has done the world of scholarship a tremendous service. He has demonstrated how the wide diversity of the Enlightenment as a broad eighteenth century phenomenon, can be found within the Catholic Enlightenment itself. If study of the so-called “Religious Enlightenment” has been dwarfed by the enormous amount of research into more radical forms of the Enlightenment, this has been the case even more with studies concerning the Catholic Enlightenment.

Lehner’s important contribution shows how broad and diverse the Catholic Enlightenment was. It included priests and religious, as well as the laity. It included intellectuals who supported state measures to suppress religious orders, as well as intellectuals within monastic communities striving for sanctity and reform of the Church. It included eighteenth century Catholic apologists, as well as papal critics. Moreover, Lehner underscores just how global was this phenomenon, which reached virtually every corner of the world where the Catholic Church could be found. Despite their incredible diversity, Catholic enlighteners were generally united behind certain shared goals. They hoped to use the best of newly developed theories and findings in philosophy and science, as well as to work for the aggiornamento of the Catholic Church. In some instances, they used the methods of more radical Enlightenment skeptics. Other times, they proposed counter methods to refute such skeptics.

His first chapter, “Catholic Enlighteners around the Globe,” should perhaps have been entitled, “Catholic Enlighteners around Europe,” since it shows the breadth of Catholic enlightenment in Europe, mainly France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Italy. His second chapter, “The Catholic Learning Curve,” focuses on the various notions of toleration within the Catholic Enlightenment. Chapter three, “Feminism, Freedom, Faith,” discusses important Catholic women and the Enlightenment, a topic to which Lehner has recently devoted an entire edited volume. The title of the first chapter fits better the topic of the fourth chapter, “Catholic Enlightenment in the Americas, China, and India.” Chapter five, “Devils, Demons, and the Divine in the Catholic Enlightenment,” shows the diversity of views within the Catholic Enlightenment on these matters, as well as their shared critique of superstition. Lehner’s sixth chapter, “Saints and Sinners,” fills in a missing lacuna in historical scholarship, showing the importance of saints within the intellectual life of the eighteenth century. Finally, his seventh chapter, “Slaves, Servants, and Savages,” underscores some of the “progressive” mindset, even among popes, within the Catholic Enlightenment, correcting many historical misunderstandings.

My one criticism is minor and quite specific to my own area of work, namely the history of modern biblical criticism, which plays an important role in the history Lehner tells. Lehner paints the seventeenth century French Oratorian Catholic exegete Fr. Richard Simon as a little more distinct from Spinoza and similar to Dei Verbum than I think is accurate. Lehner writes that he “devised a new understanding of the inspiration of Scripture in order to defend the faith against Spinoza” (31), and, earlier, “Even today conservative Catholics label him [Simon] a ‘heretic’ or ‘Spinozist,’ usually because they fail to read his writings and instead rely on the judgment of Simon’s conservative critics” (30). A careful reading of Simon’s 1678 Histoire critique du Vieux Testament, however, reveals his method to be very close to that which Spinoza articulated in his own 1670 Tractatus theologico-politicus’s seventh chapter, despite Simon’s explicit attempt to challenge Spinoza. It is not only Simon’s contemporary more conservative critics who noticed this, but this has been the work of more careful studies (e.g., Mirri, Richard Simon e il metodo storico-critico di B. Spinoza [1972]; and Auvray, “Richard Simon et Spinoza,” in Religion, érudition et critique à la fin du XVIIe siècle et au début du XVIIIe, ed. de Gaiffier et al. [1968]). Moreover, that Simon’s “views on inspiration were eventually adopted (without credit) by the Second Vatican Council” (31) is far from clear. Lehner here is relying upon the fine work of Marius Reiser, but here I think they are mistaken. Of the many contributions to the sixth volume (2010) of Letter & Spirit would indicate, I single out only the reprint there of Augustin Cardinal Bea’s “Vatican II and the Truth of Sacred Scripture” (377-382). Bea’s views on Dei Verbum no. 11’s interpretation as contrasted with Simon’s views on the related topic (inspiration) are significant, I think, because he served as the president of the mixed commission responsible for the final form of Dei Verbum. These minor quibbles should not distract from Lehner’s exceptional work in The Catholic Enlightenment. In fact, I think his volume represents one of the most significant works on this time period, and the most significant on the Catholic dimensions of eighteenth century intellectual thought.

Another important contribution Lehner’s study makes is to show how so many “of the most cherished values of modernity can be traced to the pre-Enlightenment Catholic Reform that began in the sixteenth century” (3). For some of my own work, dealing with the history of the Roman Catholic Modernist Crisis at the dawn of the twentieth century, Lehner’s volume has taught me much about some of the intellectual roots of this conflict, of which I had previously been unaware. Lehner’s stunning prose and his ability to narrate such broad intellectual history in a captivating manner make this book a true pleasure to read.