The Intellectual Origins of Popular Catholicism: Catholic Moral Theology in the Age of Enlightenment

By Printy, Michael | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2005 | Go to article overview

The Intellectual Origins of Popular Catholicism: Catholic Moral Theology in the Age of Enlightenment


Printy, Michael, The Catholic Historical Review


I. Introduction: Catholic Enlightenment and Popular Catholicism

One of the greatest paradoxes of modern Catholic history is that a seemingly moribund Old Regime Church gave way to a broad-based popular Catholic revival in the nineteenth century. How can this reinvigoration be accounted for? Miracles, of course, are always a possibility, but historians are required to look for more prosaic explanations. The Catholic revival has received a fair share of scholarly attention. As a multi-faceted phenomenon, scholars have focused on questions ranging from diocesan organization and clerical training, to in-depth studies on religious experience of the common people. For all this interest in nineteenth-century Catholicism at the local and popular level, however, it remains to be explained how the Old Regime Church could accommodate its traditional distrust-when not outright repression-of popular religious practices, enabling popular Catholicism in fact to become one of the key aspects of the Church's political and social power. For all the emphasis on nineteenth-century developments, then, it remains to be shown how Roman Catholicism in the eighteenth century underwent a fundamental revision in its approach to popular religion. While it is certain that social, economic, and institutional factors had an important role in the shaping of popular Catholicism, can it also be said that there were intellectual roots as well?

The remainder of this article addresses this question by describing the intellectual context of the eighteenth-century revolution in Catholic moral theology that enabled the institutional Church to align itself with the practices of popular Catholicism. This essay also hopes to demonstrate that the intellectual components of popular Catholicism must be understood on their own terms, and not merely reduced to social or political factors. I propose to demonstrate that the new moral system outlined below overcame certain intellectual barriers that would otherwise have stood in the way of the Church's enthusiastic embrace of popular religious practices and attitudes.1 The central question of this essay, therefore, is how the aristocratic-minded Church of the Counter-Reformation adapted to the social transformations of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to become, in the words of Louis Châtellier, "the religion of the poor."2 Rather than seeing this new identity as a late reaction to the changes of the revolutionary era, I will suggest how its roots extend back into the early eighteenth century, specifically to disputes over laxism, probabilism, and rigorism.

Social historians like Châtellier have shown how, around the eighteenth century, missionaries in Europe shifted their efforts away from trying to force peasants to completely abandon their so-called superstitious beliefs. Instead, the missionaries embraced what they now accepted as genuine piety, and sought instead only to strengthen the connections between popular piety and the institutional Catholic Church. In my view, this shift in pastoral practice should be seen in concert with the revolution in moral theology that-while not abandoning the concept of original sin-downplayed the strongly negative Augustinian condemnation of human nature and embraced a generally more optimistic view of human moral capability. The figure of the Neapolitan moral theologian and founder of the popular Redemptorist Congregation Alphonsus Maria di Liguori (1696-1787) stands at the center of this transformation. Liguori not only authored one of the most widely circulated tracts on the Marian devotion-the queen of superstition to Enlightenment Christians and rational skeptics alike-the Glories of Mary. He also succeeded in elaborating a system of moral theology which postulated that in cases of doubt about the existence of a moral law, human "liberty" was anterior to the law.3 More clearly than others, Liguori overcame the negative Augustinian view of human nature that had led Jansenists to follow their rigorist tendencies in moral theology. …

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