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Catholic Reform: The Council of Trent and the Catholic Enlightenment

Oct 12 2017 4:30pm
Swift Hall, Common Room
1025 E 58th St,
Chicago, IL 60637
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Ulrich L. Lehner

Marquette University

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Free and open to the public.

Cosponsored by the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.

About Ulrich Lehner's recent book The Catholic Enlightenment:

"Whoever needs an act of faith to elucidate an event that can be explained by reason is a fool, and unworthy of reasonable thought." This line, spoken by the notorious 18th-century libertine Giacomo Casanova, illustrates a deeply entrenched perception of religion, as prevalent today as it was hundreds of years ago. It is the sentiment behind the narrative that Catholic beliefs were incompatible with the Enlightenment ideals. Catholics, many claim, are superstitious and traditional, opposed to democracy and gender equality, and hostile to science. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that Casanova himself was a Catholic. In The Catholic Enlightenment, Ulrich L. Lehner points to such figures as representatives of a long-overlooked thread of a reform-minded Catholicism, which engaged Enlightenment ideals with as much fervor and intellectual gravity as anyone. Their story opens new pathways for understanding how faith and modernity can interact in our own time.

Lehner begins two hundred years before the Enlightenment, when the Protestant Reformation destroyed the hegemony Catholicism had enjoyed for centuries. During this time the Catholic Church instituted several reforms, such as better education for pastors, more liberal ideas about the roles of women, and an emphasis on human freedom as a critical feature of theology. These actions formed the foundation of the Enlightenment's belief in individual freedom. While giants like Spinoza, Locke, and Voltaire became some of the most influential voices of the time, Catholic Enlighteners were right alongside them. They denounced fanaticism, superstition, and prejudice as irreconcilable with the Enlightenment agenda.

In 1789, the French Revolution dealt a devastating blow to their cause, disillusioning many Catholics against the idea of modernization. Popes accumulated ever more power and the Catholic Enlightenment was snuffed out. It was not until the Second Vatican Council in 1962 that questions of Catholicism's compatibility with modernity would be broached again.


Ulrich L. Lehner is professor of Theology at Marquette University. He is an internationally recognized expert in the study of religious history and historical theology from the late 15th to the early 20th century, especially the so-called Catholic Reformation/Catholic Reform. The main organizer of the Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theology, 1600-1800, the first trans-confessional handbook of this crucial phase of Christian theology, he is also the sole editor of eight books and is working on three book projects relating to the history of Catholic women in the Age of Enlightenment, asceticism and moral formation, and Catholicism and Nazi-ideology.