The Catholic French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is best remembered for the quote that summarizes Enlightenment thinking: “Cogito, ergo sum.” (“I think, therefore I am.”) In fairness the fifth B.C. philosopher Protagoras came close to Descartes with his “Man is the measure of all things.” But Descartes make his significant philosophical claim precisely at the time when mankind indeed was making gigantic strides in every field of endeavor.
To give a flavor to the difference between the worlds of thought before and after Descartes and the Enlightenment, consider Galileo, who lived at roughly the same time. Galileo did not invent the telescope; the Dutch designed the first models shortly after 1600; Galileo purchased the process and spent some time marketing the instrument to military interests for reconnoitering enemy fleets. But no one, to our knowledge, dared to use the telescope to its most obvious advantage, as new eyes to the universe of space, before Galileo. He broke a taboo, that turning a telescope to the skies was a violation of God’s privacy, so to speak. He also broke a tenet of the Catholic faith when he discovered that the earth was not the center of the universe, and his writings ran him afoul of the Inquisition.
Descartes in his day had similar difficulties. (For those who enjoy historical satire, I heartily recommend Descartes’ Bones, which I reviewed on January 24, 2009.) But the door was now open for thinkers in all disciplines to proceed without the shackles, if you will, of revealed Christian doctrine. For Isaac Newton, for example, it was the natural laws of gravity, not God’s guiding hand, which made apples fall from trees. This newfound confidence in man’s powers affected even political philosophy: the founding documents of the United States are Enlightenment products, as John Locke’s thinking on the rights of man became the quest of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Around 1800 the methodology of the Enlightenment was turned to the study of theology. This is particularly true in the study of Scripture and Worship. Historians, archaeologists, linguists, and others discovered errors in the translation of the Bible in current use, such as the Latin Vulgate edition of St. Jerome. The authorship of the Pentateuch by Moses was found to highly dubious. Historians uncovered early sacramental practices at odds with those in current day usage (the detailed catechumenate comes to mind.)
Perhaps the aspect of the Enlightenment most troublesome to popes was the concept of “freedom of conscience,” a political problem in that the Church was not ready to accept a “secular world” standing free of Christendom. Pius IX in 1864 issued his famous Syllabus of Errors, condemning a good number of post-Enlightenment developments, though his successor, Leo XIII, is remembered for embracing such modern concepts as the rights of workers to organize.
Vatican II demonstrated sympathies with aspects of Enlightenment thought. This is understandable, in that John XXIII recognized how the crises of the twentieth century, particularly nuclear holocaust, required global solutions formed by those of good will around the world.
When we look at the division of liberals and conservatives in contemporary Catholicism, a good portion of the problem can be traced to the heritage of the Enlightenment. If I may engage in caricature for a moment, conservatives distrust liberals because they believe liberals have sold out to the trends of the post-Enlightened world. Liberals believe that conservatives damage the Church by a blind adherence to an aging Church model inadequate to address the problems of contemporary society. In truth, I believe most Catholics are more sophisticated and probably carry elements of both conservative and liberal concerns (some more hesitant to admit this than others, perhaps.)
Since this divide runs through our culture as well, in its “red state/blue state polarity,” I don’t expect radical change of this alignment in my lifetime. I remember the late CBS news analyst/philosopher Eric Severeid observing during the wild days of the 1960’s, “If you are not a liberal in your 20’s, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative in your 50’s, you have no brains.”
A critical function of catechetics is conveying what is immutable or unchanging in the apostolic tradition, while bringing students to an imaginative skillfulness in addressing the Gospel to the times in which they live, a mission that calls for taking chances. In the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 17: 22-34), Paul visited pagan shrines, and finding an altar “to a God Unknown” he preached to the Athenians that the unknown god was the God of the Hebrews and the Christians. I have sometimes wondered how this daring ploy by Paul sat with his fellow Christians. Or, more to our point, what Paul would have thought of the Enlightenment.