"Enlightenment Saints in the Age of Reason"

Ulrich Lehner

Marquette University

Propelled by advances in the mathematical and practical sciences in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Enlightenment reshaped the contours and content of Western thought in ways that still define the modern era. This "Age of Reason" also yielded immense social upheaval that included anti-clerical and anti-religious thought and violence, especially by political actors intent on consolidating the powers of their states. Yet as Marquette University Professor Ulrich Lehner argued during his snow-filled (!) visit March 5-6, the Enlightenment was a time of intense religious zeal and fervor, and an era in which the reforms of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) finally were implemented. The Church, moreover, was aided and enriched by the saints of this era, who emerged to challenge not only the agendas of the most secular Enlighteners, but also the prevailing theological establishment through their insistence on the universal call to holiness and the need for reform of moral theology and pastoral care.
   If one looks at the lives of the canonized saints of the eighteenth-century, one cannot immediately detect any meaningful engagement with the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, they embody religious views that observers today would easily describe as "modern." Their common characteristic was their excellence in what the Catholic Church calls heroic virtues. In the realm of saintliness, especially so with theology expressions after the Council of Trent, it is the lived virtues that qualify one as a saint and not miracles or supernatural marginalia such as bilocation or levitation. Lived virtues made the saints role models for the Catholic Church's reform plan to disseminate the core idea that God calls everyone to a state of holiness. This universal call to holiness did not discriminate according to social status, wealth, gender or race. The lives of these "modern" saints, therefore, contrasted sharply with the lives of many Enlightenment philosophes, who did often not excel in the virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and courage. Especially in regards to the latter, the saints stand out as remarkable examples of virtuous and holy persons. As the powers of the state increased and claimed, typically with force, more and more rights over those whose ultimate faith was elsewhere, the Church in the eighteenth century commended saints such as the martyred St. John Nepomuk (1345-1393) and the Venerable Fr. Andreas Faulhaber (1713-1757) as role models of courageous resistance. The contributions of the saints to eighteenth-century intellectual life also are vastly under appreciated, even by historians and theologians. The challenge the visions of Sr. Ana Maria Lindmayr (1657-1726) and St. Crescentia Höss (1682-1744) posed to the theological establishment of their time are known only to a handful of specialists. With their brave reminder that Catholicism had marginalized the Holy Spirit they anticipated the twenty-first century and the Church's renewed awareness and thinking about the content of its Pentecostal foundations.  Another similarly overlooked contribution the saints made is their practical anthropology. Both St. Alphonsus of Liguori (1696-1787) and St. Benedict Joseph Labre (1748-1783) put the human person at the center of their concern and called for gentleness and care for the most abandoned and all too easily forgotten. In a time in which secular Enlighteners argued for rigorist punishments for beggars, for the necessity and justice of workhouses and "natural" slavery, and for seemingly boundless rights of the state, the Catholic Church commended their approach to elevate the poor and abandoned above all others--a stance that remains a central concern and commitment of the Church today.  All this testifies to the fact that the lives of Catholic eighteenth century saints deserve an adequate place in the cultural history of the century and they should also be taken seriously as challengers of their contemporaneous societies. Last but not least, the intellectual history of modern Catholicism is a caricature without the contributions of the saints of the eighteenth-century. Their sober historical rediscovery, without romanticizing them, is necessary to gain a more complete picture of the struggles of Catholic life with the Enlightenment world and modernity as a whole. 
For more, check out our video of Prof. Lehner's public lecture.
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