True and False Enlightenment: German Scholars and the Discourse of Catholicism in the Nineteenth Century

By Schaefer, Richard | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2011 | Go to article overview
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True and False Enlightenment: German Scholars and the Discourse of Catholicism in the Nineteenth Century


Schaefer, Richard, The Catholic Historical Review


This article reinterprets Catholic hostility toward the Enlightenment in the nineteenth century. Reading the efforts of German-Catholic scholars to distinguish "true" from "false" Enlightenment, it argues that this differentiation was part of a broader discourse of Catholicism through which Catholics sought to engage the modern world. More than merely an instance of co-opting a hegemonic terminology, laying claim to "true" Enlightenment helped scholars in three distinct ways: It legitimized their own scholarly praxis, served as a way of managing anxiety over Catholic involvement in the Enlightenment, and provided a framework for pinpointing Catholicism's cultural uniqueness. By reassessing Catholic hostility to one major tenet of modernity in this way, the article steps outside the "master narrative of secularization" and joins a growing tendency to approach religion from a postsecular perspective.

Keywords: German Catholics; Catholic scholars; Catholic revival; Enlightenment; postsecular

In the nineteenth century, Catholics insisted that a causal relationship existed between Enlightenment ideas and revolution, and penned a steady stream of attacks warning of the ill effects of Enlightenment thinking on morality and social order. In the wake of the French revolution, with its unprecedented wave of anticlericalism and large-scale expropriations of church property, nothing seemed more certain than the fact that Catholicism was the necessary antidote to "egoism" and the poison of "ideas." Not surprisingly, such attacks often took a populist form. Thus, in his Phrases and Clichés (1862), the Prussian lawyer and politician August Reichensperger summarized Enlightenment as "the dissolution of all concepts pertaining to duty, right, and religion-the clarity of nothingness (see also, the word 'progress')." Progress, in the same source, is defined as "the monopoly of Liberalism which signifies trampling on the rights of one's non-liberal minded neighbor."1 In the extremely popular ABCs for Big People, Alban Stolz took a similarly dim view of Enlightenment, defining it as "believing as little as possible" and adding: "Whoever almost never goes to Church is . . . enlightened; whoever does not believe in Christ anymore, but sees him only as a clever man is very enlightened; and whoever asserts that death is the end of everything is entirely enlightened."2 To cite another example, Hermann Rolfus and Adolph Pfìster, in their Real-Encyclopedia of Rearing and Teaching Based on Catholic Principles, called Enlightenment "the kind of bait that is thrown to those incapable of judgment in order to draw them in to the net of skepticism and indifference."3

But concern over the corrosive effects of Enlightenment was not confined to popular polemic. It found its counterpart in scholarly writing as well. Like the more popular attacks against Enlightenment, scholarly criticism stressed its ill effects on morality and society. But in their diagnosis of the problem, scholars were less apt to dwell on the alleged immorality of Enlightenment thinkers than to point to inconsistencies in the underlying principles of Enlightenment philosophy Thus, Friedrich Hartnagel, described Enlightenment in the massive Church-Lexicon as a "condition of mind" consisting of two aspects. Formally, it was "opposed to ignorance, unawareness, and thoughtlessness of any kind." Materially, it

consist [ed] in the true and correct ordering of perception and cognition, in short, grasping objects by the mind in their entirety and nature with exact consistency, distinctiveness and clarity according to the laws of thought, so that thinking and knowing something harmonize and are the true reflection of objects.4

True Enlightenment thus meant "being free of false cognition, confusion and error"; false Enlightenment consisted in focusing solely on the operation of the "subjective mind." Similarly, in his contribution to the General Church-Lexicon,.

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