The great theological revival that began with the Council of Trent, and that made itself felt in the Latin countries, died away gradually, to be followed in the eighteenth century by a period of decline. Scholars like Bellarmine, De Lugo, and Suarez had passed away without leaving anybody behind them worthy to take their places. Except in the field of ecclesiastical history and of historical theology the whole tendency was downwards.
The principal causes that paved the way for this universal decline were the spread of Gallicanism and Jansenism with the consequent waste of energy to which these controversies led, the state of lethargy produced by the enslavement of the Church, the withdrawal of ecclesiastical students, the suppression of the Society of Jesus, and the rejection of the Scholastic system of philosophy in favor of the vagaries of Descartes or of the Leibniz-Wolf school in Germany.
The rise of the Rationalist school in France, threatening as it did the very foundations of Christianity, called for the activity of a new group of apologists, who would do for Christianity in the eighteenth century what had been done for it against the pagan philosophers of old by men like Justin Martyr and Lactantius. Unfortunately, however, though many able works were produced at the time, few if any of them could lay claim to the literary charms or vigor of expression that characterized the works of the enemies of religion. The principal apologists in France at this period were Huet (d. 1721), Sommier (d. 1737), the Oratorian Houteville (d. 1742), Baltius, S.J. (d. 1743), Bullet, professor in the University of Besancon (d. 1775), Bergier, one of the most distinguished of Bullet's pupils (d. 1790), Guenee (d. 1803), the able opponent of Voltaire, and Feller, S.J. (d. 1802), whose Catechisme philosophique and Dictionnaire Historique enjoyed a widespread popularity long after the writer had passed away.
In dogmatic theology the leading representatives of the Thomistic school were without doubt Vincent Louis Gotti (1664-1742) and Charles Rene Billuart (1685-1757). The former of these was born at Bologna, entered the Dominican novitiate at an early age, was the author of several polemical works directed against the Lutherans and Calvinists, and was created cardinal (1728). On account of his ability, prudence, and sanctity of life he exercised a wonderful influence both within and without his order in France, so much so that in the conclave of 1740 his election to the papacy was favored by a large body of his colleagues. Cardinal Gotti's greatest work was his commentary on St. Thomas, entitled Theologia Scholastico-Dogmatica iuxta mentem D. Thomae (1727- 735). Billuart was born at Ardennes in Belgium, and on the completion of his classical studies he became a novice in the Dominican convent at Lille. For the years during which he held several positions in Dominican houses in Belgium his abilities as a writer, professor, and preacher, attracted so much attention that on the petition of Billuart's colleagues at Douay, the general of the order decided to entrust him with the work of preparing an exhaustive and authoritative commentary on the Summa of Saint Thomas. After five years hard work the edition was completed and was published at Liege in nineteen volumes (1746-51) A compendium was issued in 1754.
The best known and ablest exponent of the theological system of Duns Scotus was Claude Frassen (1621-1711). He was born at Peronne, joined the Franciscans, and was sent to Paris, where he taught theology for years. His great work is his Scotus Academicus, a commentary or explanation of the theological system of Duns Scotus. Both on account of its faithful exposition of the views of Scotus and of the excellent method and style in which it is composed this work enjoyed and enjoys a considerable reputation. Of the theologians of the Augustinian school the two best known were Lorenzo Berti (1696- 1766) whose De Theologies Disciplinis (1739-45) led to an imputation of Jansenism, from which the author was cleared by the verdict of Benedict XIV., and Cardinal Norris (1631-1704) for a long time professor of ecclesiastical history at the University of Padua, against whose books, Historia Pelagiana and Vindiciae Augustanae, a prohibition was leveled by the Spanish Inquisition, but reversed on appeal to Benedict XIV.
The endless controversies to which Jansenism gave rise had lowered the reputation of the Sorbonne. The greatest representative of this centre of theological learning at this period was Honore Tournely, the steadfast opponent of Jansenism, whose Praelectiones Theologicae (1738-40) was regarded as one of the most important works of the time. In the defense of the Holy See against the attacks of Febronius the greatest writers were Zaccaria (1714-95) who wrote voluminously on theology, ecclesiastical history and canon law; Alfonso Muzzarelli (1749-1813), the Dominican, Cardinal Orsi (1693-1761), and Cardinal Gerdil (1718-1802), whose election to the papacy on the death of Pius VI. was vetoed by the Emperor. The Theologia Wirceburgenis published by the Jesuits of Wurzburg (1766-71) contained a complete and masterly summary of the entire theological course.
Though Billuart and many of his contemporaries, following in the footsteps of St. Thomas, dealt with both dogmatic and moral theology, the tendency to treat the latter as a distinct department and to give more attention to what may be termed the casuistical side of moral theology became more marked. To a certain extent, at least in manuals intended for the use of the clergy, such a method was rendered necessary by the frequent and more comprehensive character of the confessions. Yet it furnished some apparent justification for the onslaughts of the Jansenists, who thought that they detected in the new method a degradation of theology, a divorce between religion and casuistry, and a return to the unholy hair-splitting of the Pharisees.
Closely allied with the opposition to the new method adopted by the moral theologians was the controversy on Probabilism, that divided the schools during the greater part of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the practical solution of doubtful obligations Probabilism had been applied for centuries, but it was only towards the end of the sixteenth century that the principle was formulated definitely by the Dominican, De Medina. It was accepted immediately by a great body of the Jesuits, as well as by nearly all writers on moral theology. The Jansenists, however, in their eagerness to damage the reputation of their Jesuit opponents charged them with having introduced this novel and lax system of morals with the object of catering for the depraved tastes of their degenerate clients, and this charge when presented in a popular and telling style by their opponents created a distinctly unfavorable impression against the Society. The condemnation of Probabilism by the University of Louvain (1655) and the outcry raised against it by the Rigorist party led most of the religious orders and the secular clergy to abandon the system. Two incidents that took place shortly afterwards helped to strengthen the anti-Probabilist party. One of these was the condemnation by the Holy See of certain very lax principles put forward by some theologians who labeled themselves Probabilists (1679), and the other was the decision given by Innocent XI. in the case of the defense of Probabiliorism written by Thyrsus Gonzalez (1624-1705) afterwards general of the Jesuits. His superiors refused him permission to publish his work, and on appeal to the Pope this prohibition was removed (1680). But though the Pope certainly favored Probabiliorism it is not clear that his decision gave any practical sanction to this opinion. Rigorism was dealt a severe blow by the condemnation issued by Alexander VIII. (1690), and in the end the influence and writings of St. Alphonsus put an end to both extremes.
Amongst the great theologians of the time were the Jesuit Lacroix (1652-1714), Paul Gabriel Antoine, S.J. (1679-1743) professor at the Jesuit College of Pont-a-Mousson, Billuart (1685-1757), Eusebius Amort (1692-1775), and the Salmanticenses, the Jesuit authors of the series on moral theology begun in Salamanca in 1665. But by far the most remarkable writer on moral theology during the eighteenth century was Saint Alphonsus de' Liguori (1697-1787), the founder of the Redemptorists. A saint, a scholar, and a practical missionary, with a long and varied experience in the care of souls, he understood better than most of his contemporaries how to hold the scales fairly between laxity and rigorism. Though his views were attacked severely enough in his own time they found favor with the great body of theologians and the approbation given to them by the Church helped to put an end to the rigorist opinions, that remained even after their Jansenistic origin had been forgotten.
The spread of indifferentist or rationalist theories could not fail to weaken the reverence that had been inculcated by the early Reformers for the Bible as the sole source of God's revelation to men. Acting upon Luther's principle of private judgment others, regardless of their inspiration and infallibility, undertook to subject the Scriptures to the authority of human reason. Faustus Socinus (1539- 1604), one of the founders of the Socinian sect, insisted that everything in the Scriptures that seems opposed to reason could not have come from God and should be eliminated. For some time while religious fervor was at its height both Lutherans and Calvinists held fast by their religious formularies and refused to accept the scriptural views of Socinus. But once dogmatic religion had been assailed by the new philosophico-rationalist school in England, Germany, and France the way was prepared for the acceptance of more liberal views. On the one hand, many of the extreme opponents of Christianity set themselves to point out the errors of the Bible, as a proof that it could not have come from God, while, on the other, many of the Protestant scholars, who still held by a divine Christian revelation, endeavored to eliminate from it the supernatural without rejecting openly the authority of the Scriptures.
It was with this design that Jacob Semler (1725-91) formulated the Accommodation Theory, according to which Christ and His Apostles accommodated their actions and their language to the erroneous notions prevalent among the Jews in their time, and for this reason all that bordered upon the mysterious should be regarded merely as a surrender to contemporary superstition. Another method of arriving at a similar conclusion was adopted by Kant, who maintained that the Bible was written only to inculcate morality and to strengthen man's moral sense, and that all that is recorded in it must be interpreted by reason in the light of the object which its authors had in view.
With such liberal theories about the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures in the air it was almost impossible that the Catholic exegetists could escape the contagion. One of the ablest Catholic writers at the time, the French Oratorian Richard Simon (1638-1712), was accused by his contemporaries of having approached too closely to the rationalist system in his scriptural theories. He was a man well-versed in the Oriental languages and well able to appreciate the literary and historical difficulties that might be urged against the inspiration and inerrancy of the Old Testament. He maintained that the Bible was a literary production, and that, as such it should be interpreted according to the ideas and methods of composition prevalent in the country or at the time in which the various books were written. His views were contained in his Histoire Critique de Vieux Testament (1678) and his Histoire Critique de Texte du Nouveau Testament (1689), both of which, though undoubtedly able works that have considerably influenced scriptural study amongst Catholics since that time, were severely criticized, and were condemned by the Congregation of the Index.
Another French Oratorian of the period, Bernard Lamy (1640-1715), dealt with the introduction to the Scriptures in his two books Apparatus ad Biblia Sacra (1687) and Apparatus Biblicus (1696). As a professor of philosophy Lamy had stirred up already a strong opposition owing to his evident leanings towards Cartesianism, nor was he less unhappy in his scriptural studies. He questioned the historical character of the narrations contained in the books of Tobias and Judith, and contended that notwithstanding the decrees of the Council of Trent less authority should be attributed to the Deutero-Canonical than to the Proto- Canonical books of the Bible.
Amongst the leading scriptural commentators were Le Maistre de Saci (d. 1684), a Jansenist, who published translations of the Old and the New Testament, the latter of which was put upon the Index; Piconio (Henri Bernardine de Picquigny, 1633-1709) a Capuchin whose Triplex Exposito in Sacrosancta D.N. Jesu Christi Evangelia (1726), has not been surpassed till the present day; Louis de Carrieres (1622-1717), whose La Sainte Bible en Francais avec un commentaire litteral founded on De Saci's translation was recognized as one of the simplest and best commentaries on the Scriptures; Charles Francois Houbigant (1686-1783), also an Oratorian, who published an edition of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek text of the Deutero-Canonical books together with a Prolegomena, and Dom Calmet (1672-1757), a Benedictine, who published in twenty-three volumes a commentary on the Old and New Testament accompanied by an introduction to the various books (1707-1716).
In no department of theological science were greater advances made during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than in that of ecclesiastical history and historical theology. This was due largely to the labors and example of the Benedictines of St. Maur. Men like Luc d'Achery (1609-1685), Stephen Baluze (1630-1718), Jean Mabillon (1632-1704), Edmond Martene (1654-1739), Ruinart (1657-1709), Muratori (1672-1750), Bouquet (1685-1754), Jean Hardouin, S.J. (1646-1729), Domenico Mansi (1692-1769), and the Orientalists Joseph Simeon Assemani (1687-1768) and his brother Joseph Aloysius (1710-82) laid the foundations of modern historical research, by their publication of correct editions of the Early and Middle Age writers and of the decrees of the various general, national, and provincial councils, as well as by the example which they set in their own scholarly dissertations of how historical materials should be used. In addition to the publication of collections of original sources, works like the Gallia Christiana, begun in 1715 by the Benedictines of St. Maur and continued by them till the Revolution, Espana Sagrada begun by the Augustinian Enrique Florez in 1747, and the Italia Sacra (1643-1662) of Ferdinand Ughelli contained a veritable mine of information for future historians. Of the historical writers of this period the ablest were Louis Sebastien Le Nain de Tillemont (1637- 1689), the author of the Histoire des Empereurs pendant les six premiers Siecles and Memoires pour servir a l'histoire eccl. des six premiers siecles (1693); Claude Fleury (1640-1725) whose great work, Histoire Ecclesiastique (dealing with the period from the Ascension till the Council of Constance, 1414) is marred only by the Gallican tendencies of its author, and Natalis Alexander (Noel Alexandre, 1639-1724), a French Dominican who published an exceedingly valuable Church History under the title Selecta Historiae Eccl. Capita, etc., but which was condemned by Innocent XI. (1684) on account of the markedly Gallican bias under which it was composed.
Amongst some of the most noted authorities on Canon Law during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were Benedict XIV. (1675-1758) many of whose treatises are regarded as standard works till the present day; Pirhing (1606-1679), a Jesuit, professor at Dillingen and Ingolstadt and well known as a theologian and canonist; Reiffenstuel (1641-1703), a Bavarian Franciscan for some time professor at Freising, the author of several theological works, and unequalled as a Canonist in his own day; Van Espen (1649-1728) professor at Louvain, a strong supporter of Gallicanism and Jansenism, whose great work Jus Canonicum Universum is marred by the pro-Gallican proclivities of its author; Schmalzgrueber (1663-1735), a Bavarian Jesuit, professor of Canon Law at Dillingen and Ingolstadt, who in addition to treatises on such subjects as Trials, Espousals, Matrimony, and the Regular and Secular Clergy, published a work covering the entire Canon Law (Jus Eccl. Universum), and the Italian Lucius Ferraris (d. 1763), whose Prompta Bibliotheca Canonica went through several editions in the author's own lifetime and has been republished more than once since his death (latest edition 1899).
In the department of sacred oratory the palm must undoubtedly be awarded to the French Church. Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627- 1704), in many senses the greatest of the French preachers, was the son of a lawyer at Dijon. Even in his early youth he was remarkable for his mastery of the Bible and classical authors. He studied at the University of Paris, and after remaining two years under the spiritual education of St. Vincent de Paul was ordained a priest in 1662. He returned to Metz, in the cathedral of which he held a canonry, and where his abilities as a preacher and a controversialist soon attracted attention. He was appointed preceptor to the Dauphin of France, an office which he held from 1670 to 1681, when he was consecrated Bishop of Meaux. As bishop he took part in the Assembly of the French Clergy (1681-82) and, though himself not such an extreme defender of Gallicanism as many of his contemporaries, he is credited generally with having been the author of the famous Declaration of the Clergy, known as the Articles of the Gallican Church. At the invitation of Louis XIV. he composed a treatise in defense of these articles, Defensio Declarationis, etc., published after his death (1730). As an orator Bossuet was far ahead of the preachers of his time, and as a writer and controversialist he had few equals. His untiring energy and ability are vouched for by the number of able works that proceeded from his pen. Of these the most instructive and best known are the Discours sur l'histoire Universelle (1681), and the Histoire des Variations des Eglises Protestantes (1688-89). His want of firmness, however, in his relations with the court, leading him as it did to show a sympathy which he could not have felt in his heart towards Gallicanism, his failure to move a finger to stay the ravages of Jansenism, his want of zeal for the spiritual care of his diocese, in marked contrast with the energy which he displayed when seeking to score a personal triumph over Fenelon and other less known adversaries, cannot be forgotten by any one who wishes to arrive at an impartial estimate of Bossuet's character.
Fenelon (1651-1715), the great contemporary and rival of Bossuet, was sent as a youth for his education to the Universities of Cahors and Paris. Later on he returned to the seminary of Saint Sulpice then presided over by M. Tronson the superior of the Sulpicians, to whose wise and prudent counsels the future Archbishop of Cambrai was deeply indebted. After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes he was sent to preach to the Huguenots, upon whom his kindness and humility made a much more lasting impression than the violence resorted to by some of the officials of Louis XIV. Later on he was appointed preceptor to the Duke of Burgundy, grandson of Louis XIV., for whose education he composed the Fables, Telemaque, etc., and on the completion of his work as tutor he was nominated Archbishop of Cambrai (1695). Hardly had he received this honor than he was involved in a controversy on Quietism, which controversy cost him the friendship of Bossuet and the patronage of Louis XIV., by whom he was banished from the French court. But Fenelon found much at Cambrai to console him for what he had lost in Paris. In every sense of the word he proved himself a model bishop, visiting his parishes regularly, preaching in his cathedral and throughout his diocese, and always affable to those who came in contact with him whether they were rich or poor. Unlike Bossuet he never feared to speak out boldly against Jansenism and Gallicanism. As a preacher and a master of French literary style he was inferior to Bossuet, but as a man and as a bishop he was incomparably his superior. In addition to his works on literary and political questions he wrote voluminously on theology, philosophy, and the spiritual life.
The opposition to Scholasticism, that manifested itself in the writings and teaching of so many Humanists, grew more accentuated in the universities, especially after the establishment of ecclesiastical seminaries had led to the withdrawal from the universities of a great body of the clerical students. For centuries philosophy and theology had gone hand in hand, the former supplying the rational basis for the acceptance of revelation, the latter providing the necessary restraint upon the vagaries of human thought. The principal of individual judgment, proclaimed by the early Reformers and received so enthusiastically by their followers, had as its logical consequence an exaggeration of the powers of the human mind at the expense of authority, with the result that scepticism, atheism, and materialism, found favor in learned circles.
In face of such evident proofs of the limitations of the human mind, and with the object of preserving in one way or another the Christian Revelation, a reaction against the supposed infallibility of reason set in both amongst Protestant and Catholic scholars. Catholic philosophers were inclined to distrust reason entirely, and to rely solely on divine authority as a guarantee of truth. In other words they accepted Traditionalism, while Protestants, equally suspicious of reason, proclaimed that in judging the value of revelation the human will and sentiment must be heeded as well as the intellect, that is to say they accepted Sentimentalism.
The attempt to replace Scholasticism by some new philosophic system gave rise to various schools of thought, most of which can be traced back ultimately to Bacon and Descartes, the former a partisan of the inductive, the latter of the deductive method. Rene Descartes (1596-1649) was born at Touraine, and received his early education with the Jesuits. In his desire to see the world for himself he took service as a soldier in the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau, and later on in that of the Elector of Bavaria. He retired from active life to give himself up to the study of mathematics and philosophy. At first he found a quiet retreat in Holland, from which he migrated to Stockholm at the invitation of Queen Christina. Here after a few months' residence he died. Throughout his life Descartes remained a sincere and practical Catholic. Putting aside Revelation, with which he did not profess to deal, Descartes, by an application of his principle of methodic doubt, arrived at the conclusion that the foundation of all certainty lay in the proposition Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I exist). From an examination of his own ideas of a most perfect being he arrived at the conclusion that God exists, and from the existence of a good and wise supreme Being who has given men reason, sense, and perception in order to acquire knowledge, he argued that these faculties cannot lead men into error, and that consequently the veracity of God was the ultimate basis of certitude.
The theories of Descartes were pushed to their logical conclusion by those who succeeded him. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was influenced largely by the false mysticism of the Middle Ages. He distrusted reason and exalted faith, as the only means of answering the difficulties that pure intellectualism could not solve. Arnold Geulincx (1625-1669) at first a Catholic and afterwards a Calvinist, arguing from the antithesis supposed by Descartes to exist between mind and matter, maintained that since matter was inert it could not produce the sensations and volitions which men experienced, and that therefore these must be caused by God. In other words he propounded the theory of Occasionalism. This doctrine of Occasionalism as furnishing an explanation of sensations was extended by Malebranche (1638-1715), a student of the Sorbonne, so as to explain the origin of human ideas. These he maintained could not come from outside, because there can be no contact between mind and matter; they could not come from the mind itself, because creation is an attribute only of the infinite being, and therefore they must come from God. Hence, according to him, it is in God or in the divine essence that we see all things (Ontologism). If all activity and all knowledge come directly from God, it was only natural to conclude, as did Spinoza (1632-77), that there exists only one substance endowed with the two attributes of thought and extension (Monism, Pantheism).
From this brief sketch it will be seen that the rejection of the Scholastic System and the divorce between theology and philosophy led to dogmatic chaos, and ultimately to the rejection of divine revelation. By his attacks on the old proofs given for the existence of God and the motives of credibility, by the emphasis which he placed upon methodic doubt as the only safe way to certainty, and by the suspicions raised by him against the reliability of human reason, Descartes unwittingly paved the way for skepticism and atheism. Though his system was condemned by Rome and forbidden more than once by Louis XIV. it was taken up by the Oratorians and by most of the leading scholars in France.
The spirit of the eighteenth century was distinctly unfavorable to the religious orders. The Rationalists, the Freemasons, and the friends of absolutism joined hands in opposing the foundation of new establishments and in securing the suppression of the houses that had already been founded. In Austria, in Naples, in Spain, and in France a violent campaign was carried on to bring about the dissolution of several of the religious orders and congregations, or at least to so alter their rules and constitutions that they should be cut adrift from Rome and subject to the authority of the secular rulers. During the campaign many houses were suppressed in Austria and in the other territories of the empire, but by far the greatest victory of which its authors could boast was the suppression of the Society of Jesus.
Yet in spite of the enemies of the Church the religious orders held their ground, and apostolic men arose to lay the foundations of new bodies, that were destined to take a glorious part in the religious revival of the nineteenth century. One of the most remarkable of these was St. Alphonsus Maria de' Liguori (1696-1787). He was born near Naples, adopted at first the profession of a lawyer, but he soon forsook the bar to give himself entirely to God, and was ordained a priest in 1726. In 1732 he laid the foundation of a new religious society, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, which was approved by Benedict XIV. in 1749. After having refused various honors he was compelled to accept the Bishopric of St. Agatha (1762) from which he retired in 1775 to devote himself to prayer, and to the composition of those spiritual treatises that have given him such a leading place not merely as a moral theologian but as a master in the ascetic life. In 1744 he issued his Notes on Busenbaum's Moral Theology, which notes formed the basis of his Theologia Moralis published in 1753-55, and which went through nine editions during his own life-time. He was declared Venerable (1796), canonised (1839), and recognized as a Doctor of the Church (1871).
The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (The Redemptorists) was founded by St. Alphonsus at Scala, near Amalfi, in the kingdom of Naples (1732), and was approved in 1749. The aim of its members was to imitate the virtues and example of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, by consecrating themselves especially to preaching the word of God to the poor. The opposition of the Neapolitan prime minister, Tanucci, was a source of great trouble to the holy founder. On the fall of Tanucci St. Alphonsus thought that a favorable opportunity had come for securing the approval of the government, but he was betrayed by his friends into accepting a modification of the constitution, the Regolamento (1779-80), which led to a separation between the Redemptorist houses in Naples and those situated in the Papal States. The dispute was, however, healed in 1793. The Society spread rapidly in Italy, in Germany, where its interests were safeguarded by Father Hofbauer, and during the nineteenth century houses were established in every country in Europe, in America and in Australia.
The Passionists (The Congregation of Discalced Clerics of the Most Holy Cross and Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ) were founded by St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775). The latter was born at Ovada near Genoa, was ordained by Pope Benedict XIII. (1727) who at the same time gave his approval of the rules drawn up for the new society, founded his first house at Argentaro, and thereby laid the foundation of the Congregation of the Passionists. The new society received the formal sanction and approval of Clement XIV. (1769) and of Pius VI. (1775). Before the death of the founder several houses had been established in Italy, all of which were suppressed during the disturbances that followed in the wake of the French Revolution. The congregation was, however, re-constituted by Pius VII. (1814), and spread rapidly in Europe, in the United States, and in South America. The first house of the Passionists in England was established by the celebrated Father Dominic at Aston Hall in Staffordshire (1842), and the first house in Ireland was opened at Mount Argus in 1856.
Original text by James MacCaffrey, edited and revised by William Mackis - this text © 2005. Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission.