The French Revolution ushered in the implementation of a new political philosophy, liberalism, that had been developing for several centuries, particularly during the Enlightenment. The Gospel and the Catholic Church were out as the foundation of the social order; reason, sealed off from Revelation and classical realism, was in. Churches and organised religion would be treated as private associations. Government would purportedly maximize and safeguard the individual’s freedom of conscience and choice. In short, liberalism and Catholicism stood in opposition and were on a collision course. On the one hand, liberal governments and movements in Europe and Latin America set about dismantling the remnants of Christendom, not only removing the Church’s privileges but often suppressing its legitimate freedoms and institutions as well. On the other hand, Catholic political thinkers disagreed about how the Church should respond to these radical social transformations, while the Popes tended to favour monarchies over republics. Studying the nineteenth-century conflict between Catholicism and liberalism is important for understanding the historical background of modern Catholic social teaching and some ongoing debates. In this interview, Dr. Darrick Taylor discusses his pick of the five best books on this area of Church history.
Darrick Taylor teaches Humanities at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida. He earned his PhD in British History from the University of Kansas. He also produces a podcast, Controversies in Church History, which dives into important and sensitive issues in the history of the Catholic Church.
Five Books for Catholics may receive a commission from qualifyng purchases made using the affliate links to the books listed in this post.
What would you add to the preceding introductory synopsis of the nineteenth-century conflict between Church and liberalism. Another thing to note is the industrial revolution. That really alters the social order. It was what emancipates the middle classes. Liberalism, especially in continental Europe, was the revolutionary creed of the middle classes. It was the class that would overthrow the dominance of the Church in education and political life, as it threw off monarchy and aristocracy in politics.
A second thing about liberalism in the nineteenth century is that there is a difference between anglophone, Lockean liberalism, and continental liberalism. I say that because I am an American. If you grow up in America, you are likely to have a more irenic view of liberalism. In Europe, it was much more aggressive and hostile to the Church. It was hostile to the Church in the Anglophone world as well, but it was an existential threat for the Church in nineteenth-century Europe. Most Catholics do not know about that.
"Liberalism, especially in continental Europe, was the revolutionary creed of the middle classes. It was the class that would overthrow the dominance of the Church in education and political life, as it threw off monarchy and aristocracy in politics."
There are many definitions of liberalism. Some focus on the original impetus for the development of liberalism; others on its underlying ontology; still others on the political or economic institutions it advocates. What definition do you employ and why? Is this the Church’s working definition of liberalism? At this point, my definition is probably closer to that of Marx, even though I am not a materialist. I see real liberalism as a revolutionary ideology. I studied a lot of Locke when I was in graduate school, but I do not see him as a full-blown liberal. Individualism is the big part of liberalism for a lot of people in the anglophone world, but to me liberalism is the ideology of this ascendant middle-class that desires to transform society according to its own self-interests. The Church tends to see liberalism as a movement that wants to emancipate society from any supernatural or perceived supernatural authority. That is its definition. There is no one definition of it, even among scholars of the Church. Liberalism is so varied, particularly when it comes to the question, “What is liberalism for?” That is where things break down. There are several liberalisms. The main thing that they want is emancipation from the Church's authority, from any supernatural authority. That is the best definition of it, I think.
The Church lent more support the Christian Democratic movement following World War II. Some also took the fall of the Eastern bloc in Europe in 1989 as a confirmation of the superiority of liberal democracies and of their compatibility with Catholicism. Over the last decade, a growing number of Catholic scholars have challenged this view and defended alternative readings of the Church’s social teaching. Are the current debates in Catholic political thought a repeat or continuation of nineteenth-century disputations? They are definitely related. Some of these arguments go back to the 1830s and the Abbé de Lamennais. He is the most important figure within the Church’s internal debate on what it should do. He was the first to advocate that the Church needed to give up its privileges and its attempt to monopolise education and the like, to go along with a separation of Church and state, so that it can influence the society; to get on board with democracy. That is what ‘Catholic liberalism’—I believe he coined the phrase—meant in the nineteenth century. It was a Catholic version of liberalism. There is definitely a continuity between it and contemporary debates. Obviously, there are also differences. There has been the Cold War or the ascendancy of the United States. But this is a longstanding debate. It has been going on for a while. It would help people a lot to know its background.
What level of coercion, if any, is licit in modern society? If the Catholic Church holds the true faith and the true religion, does that give it any rights over society? That is the debate and it has never been cleared up.
Regarding the interpretation of Vatican II, Pope Benedict XVI distinguished between a hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture and, on the other hand, a hermeneutics of renewal in the continuity of the Church. That is not always easy. To some, the continuity between Vatican II and the social magisterium of the nineteenth-century popes (Mirari vos, Quanta cura, the Syllabus, Immortale Dei) is not so apparent. This is too vast and complex a question to broach satisfactorily here. Nevertheless, do you have some general thoughts on the matter? That is a difficult question. The most apparent discrepancy with the nineteenth-century papal magisterium arises with Dignitatis Humanae. I am not a theologian and I do not know how you reconcile the two. They look for all the world as if they do conflict. There is both continuity and an apparent break. That is the problem. But there is continuity in that the Church’s is concerned about how to influence society. But how do you do that. Again, I go back to Lamennais. Early on, he was one of the great ultra-Montanists. He wanted society to submit to the Pope. He just thought that if you promoted this through non-coercive means alone, then it would happen almost automatically. In a weird way, this is the same debate that is going on now. What level of coercion, if any, is licit in modern society? If the Catholic Church holds the true faith and the true religion, does that give it any rights over society? That is the debate and it has never been cleared up. That is my take. I did an episode on Dignitatis humanae on my podcast. I think you can reconcile it with the Church’s previous teaching. However, the Church needs to do a lot of work to make that clear for people. It is not at all clear if you look at the documents.
The first book on your list is volume eight of The History of the Church that was edited by Hubert Jedin, author the definitive history of the Council of Trent. This volume—written by Roger Aubert, Johannes Beckmann, Patrick J. Corish, and Rudolf Lill—is entitled The Church in the Age of Liberalism. It focuses on the period between 1830 and 1870. Is this crucial period of the nineteenth-century Church’s engagement with liberalism? What makes this study a good overview of the period and the issue? This series is magnificent and gives a great overview. Though long, it is very detailed, comprehensive, and a reference book in some ways. The one thing that it does not cover that well is Latin America.
This volume is called The Church and the Age of Liberalism because that is when liberalism becomes full-blown and dominant on the European stage. In the 1830s Lamennais makes his bid to convince the popes, such as Gregory XVI, to embrace religious liberty and similar prinicples (Mirari vos is a condemnation of that idea). The period ends with the First Vatican Council.
Two things put an end to Lamennais’s attempt. One is the Vatican Council. It reasserts the Church's authority in strong ways. Second, the issue becomes moot because liberal governments triumph. The Risorgimento gobbles up the papal states. The anti-clerical Third Republic comes to power in France in the 1870s. These events blunt the thrust of Catholic liberalism and establish the dominance of the modern state.
I cannot recommend this book enough. It is great on the background of both the cultural, intellectual ideas and the social movements. It talks about the revival of Catholicism in France, Germany, and elsewhere, in the mid-nineteenth century. It still is the best overview of that period.
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