środa, 7 grudnia 2011

Christian Europe and Enlightened Europe

(Enlightenment, Christian values and EU)

Piotr Napierała, "Christian Europe and Enlightened Europe" [w:] EU Enlargement - Chance for all, Collegium Europaeum Gnesnense Foundation, Gniezno 2005. ISBN 83-922470-6-X

In his speech Archbishop Henryk Muszyński presented the problem of the contribution of Christian values and the Catholic Church to the present shape of European culture. Recently this question has been widely discussed in the context of the future European constitution including its well known preamble and the mention of the cultural foundations of Europe. In these discussions, we could once more observe a tendency to oppose the “enlightened” outlook and philosophy to Christian values and the doctrine of the Catholic Church.
Historians also have a tendency to divide the past of Europe into two eras, both in philosophical and purely chronological terms. This kind of treatment of the European past raises many interesting questions
These include the following. Is this division really justified? Is today’s Europe no longer Christian? Do we think of Christian Europe as a Europe in which the clergy plays a leading role in preserving and creating culture, or as a Europe, whose inhabitants observe Christian values? What makes the Enlightenment different from other crises of faith and religion? Are the enlightened of the 18th century “responsible” for dismantling the rule of the Church and religion in the lives of Europeans? Were both the degradation of the Church and the development of Enlightenment philosophy merely concurrent processes , because human nature couldn’t bear any ideological emptiness?
I do not aspire to provide complete answers to these questions. My intention is to present some opinions, remarks and doubts on the subject. I’d like to highlight two issues, which are often thought to be inherent in this problem: the necessity of personal choice between “this” and “that” world in thinking and acting and the (over)growth of secular authority and power in the historical period under discussion (mainly the time of the classical Enlightenment, c. 1680-1800).
While discussing the influence of the Church as an institution on politics and people’s lives I will concentrate mainly on the Roman Catholic Church because of its engagement in the politics of the 17th and 18th centuries and in today’s ecumenical movement, and because my essay refers to the Archbishop’s speech.

A crisis of faith and religiousness inevitably implicate a want to enjoy the worldly life, to create a paradise on earth and the desire to gain fame (as in the Renaissance period). Many such crises occurred in the past. The Enlightenment (around the 18th century) is often considered as the moment of the greatest breakthrough in the evolution of human thought. We must not forget however, that this period was far more literary (Chaunu 1971) (demographic boom, more schools, more people allowed to take part in discussions) than any previous one, therefore it might seem more radical. This impression is even greater if we contrast this era with the following Baroque era. The men of the Enlightenment were very much of “this” world - pragmatic, skeptical, more liberal than conservative and they taught us to question all ideologies in the name of “freedom” (of thoughts and of individual will). It was very hard for those liberal intellectuals to accept others’ hereditary privileges and properties. Such an attitude had already occurred e.g. in Renaissance but its reflections in written sources seem marginal. Historians often stress that people during the Renaissance period in spite of all developments tried to be believers but the same can be said of people in the 18th century (e.g. concepts of Descartes were used both to confirm and to question the official doctrine of the Church, but thanks to Descartes’ and Spinoza’s philosophies their outlook was more mathematical). According to Newton’s mechanistic model they deprived God of direct and constant influence on man’s fate although He was for them the highest judge rather than the caring Father.
In politics their want was to simplify the structure of society and base societal hierarchies on personal merits of individuals who would play leading roles. Each centralized secular power would gladly accept such a plan because it is obvious that a simplified society is easier to govern. The main difference between the age of Enlightenment and former periods in which people preferred to think in worldly categories is that the secular state triumphed over the decentralization and anarchy typical of the 17th century (a more stable political system is usually more tolerant towards new ideas). Two main concepts of the state - absolute monarchy and “representative democracy”, which were to be propagated in the end of the 18th century were “enlightened” an based on the same foundations (e.g. social contract in Hobbes’s or Rousseau’s interpretations). To those more inclined towards the second option, criticizing the Church served sometimes as an indirect form of attacking absolute monarchs, because the Church was regarded as a warrant of their reign.
For those, who decided to become adherents of absolute or constitutional monarchy, the power of the Church was an example of disobedience towards the secular state. This attitude to the Church, however, dates back much further than the Enligtenment. The greatest opponent of the Church in the 18th century was Marquis de Pombal (a Portuguese “prime minister” in 1750-1777), who definitely was not a man of the Enlightenment but of an old type of absolutism (Saraiva 1978). Here it is worth highlighting, that at the end of that age almost none of monarchs defended the caste spirit and no monarch defended it deliberately. (The centralized state seems always to simplify hierarchies). Obscurant reactions surfaced only with the bloody events of the French revolution, which started because Louis XVI and his government were too inconsequent to use the new ideas of “les philosophes” to the king’s favor. Eventually people changed the system without his help. The general lack of support from the king certainly caused radicalization of new ideas, but the French case is atypical (a more representative example for this period was the case of Austria and the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, who was himself in the vanguard of reforms). Perhaps here we can observe a typical of historians tendency (Davies 1996) to focus their interest on the most powerful country of a period ( as was France in the 18th century). The Church (as a great land holder) became first of all a victim of the ruler’s greed. Opinions of the enlightened had less importance than it is believed. However the energy which characterized the reformers’ attempt to create a paradise on earth was decidedly a sign of a crisis of faith. In protestant countries, similar processes were less traumatic because of the 16th century reformation which decentralized the Church there and made it dependent on secular authority. This provides another proof that dividing European history and tradition into two opposing parts (Christian and “enlightened) is Catholicism-centered , therefore not as universal as it might seem to be.
From the above considerations it also follows that it is sometimes impossible to separate problems like the crisis of faith and the downfall of the power of the Church. The dispute between the pope and the emperors of the Hohenstauf dynasty over “Dominium Mundi” (XII-XIII C.) can be yet regarded as a confirmation of the Church’s influence, but the dispute between French king Phillip the Fair and the papacy in the 14th century was one of the clearest symptoms of this downfall. The questioning of the leading cultural role and the crisis inside the Church which advanced in the 18th century can be observed at the dusk of missionary undertakings.
Historians often declare that in course of the 18th century the Church in Rome lost its political and cultural position. Using the word “eventually” they commit one of the sins that result from a deterministic approach, according to which history “aims to reach present conditions”. The decline of the Church’s influence in that era is doubtless but comparing the conditions in the age of Enlightenment to those of today is anachronistic. The weakness of the papacy is especially notable in making concessions in favor of secular states (concordats of Popes Clemens XII and Benedict XIV with Spain in 1753, Poland in1737, Portugal in1740, Neaples-Sicilly in1741 and Milan in1757.). In 1773 Clemens XIV had to accept the dissolution of the Jesuit Order (whose members used to swear obedience to the pope only and were forced to emigrate from Portugal in 1759 and later from other Catholic countries. It is worth noting that not only secular authorities insisted on the dissolution but also other orders envious of Jesuits’ efficiency (Roztworowski 1977) especially in the field of education. “Les philosophes” also were Jesuits’ rivals (as was anyone, who wanted to educate others) but the Jesuits were eliminated in the interest of the prestige of secular authorities and not in the interest of enlightened men. The politics of the 18th century (Catholic) states towards the Church and papacy had very little in common with the Enlightenment. The tendency of turning clergymen into state officials surfaced when the first empires (the Spain of Catholic Kings, the France of Francois I) were built in Europe. Before then the political fragmentation of feudal Europe allowed the pope to judge princely disputes. Because of the superiority of defensive over offensive tactics, in that era almost every medieval land had a similar strength and importance (Krasuski 1998).
In his speech Archbishop Muszyński used the term “post-Christian Europe”. Using it indicates that whether we respect Christian values of not, we cannot deny the great merits of Christianity in creating European culture. I don’t intend to judge whether today’s Europe is Christian or not (as I am not competent enough) but I would like to say that probably none of our contemporary ideas and philosophies would be developed without a (post)Christian basis; e.g. our historical treatment of all problems we face (the philosophy of history) originates directly in the Bible, which contrary to other sacred scripts (e.g. the Koran) is written in the form of a historical tale. In this widest sense, it is hard to imagine a Europe without Christianity. Even though Descartes and Spinoza proposed a rational, more universal, materialized and mathematized outlook, but it had to coexist with philosophies originating from the Bible-.
Today, because of Renaissance and Enlightenment traditions, we have far less respect for a dogmatic treatment of religion but Christian values are still the basis of almost every ethical system. David Hume, who like de Bergerac (a century before him) used to openly declare (Baszkiewicz 1995), that every religion was invented in the same way as every philosophy, never renounced Christian values but adopted them to construct a pragmatic ethical philosophy whose task was to improve people’s communication on Earth . Here we touch on an interesting problem, namely whether Europe can be called Christian any longer. Dogmatism in religious education (and ideological control of a centralized Church) is over (e.g. from the cultural point of view, the nations that experienced the protestant reform (in the 16th century) became more Christian than before thanks to the liberty of treating religious problems, e.g. In Hume’s age (and his writings) we can also observe a great religious renewal due to the activities of the Methodists.

Every age and era must, as it seems, decide between “that” (eternal) and “this” (worldly) life. According to Ortega y Gasset, Europe is always in some sense worldly and and prefers “this” world, especially when compared say to the Hindu tradition. Still we surely can divide Europe’s past into two types of periods. In the times when people preferred the first alternative they use to treat the worldly life with distinct melancholy (Huizinga 1961), which can be observed in 16th century scripts (in spite of the spirit of Renaissance with its desire of fame gained in “this” world).
Contrasting Enlightenment ideas with those of the Christian Church (which indicate a concentration on eternal life) seems to be an extreme simplification because the Enlightenment is neither a synonym of anti-clericalism nor of rejection of Christian values. In the age of Enlightenment, people declared themselves more decidedly on the side of “this” world’s affairs but that would not have been possible without the growth of the secular state power with its bureaucracy and great armies, which were more and more national (rather than provincial) and patriotic. From that time on, the Church was often treated as an addition to patriotism and national identification and it was expected of it to support state ideology and education. The Enlightenment provided only systems of education, which are used today. Perhaps recently, we have become even more “enlightened” (in the 18th century manner) along with today’s cosmopolitism and internationalism.


Baszkiewicz J. (1995). Historia Francji (History of France). Wrocław :Ossolineum..
Chaunu P. (1971). La Civilisation de l;Europe des Lumières.Paris :B.Arthaud.
Davies N. (1996). Europe a History.Oxford.
Huizinga J.(1961). Jesień Średniowiecza, Warsaw 1961. PWN.(original title: Herfsttij der Middeleewen -.1919.Leyden ).
Krasuski J. (1998). Historia Niemiec (History of Germany).Wrocław:Ossolineum.
Roztworowski E. (1977). Historia powszechna-wiek XVIII (Universal history of XVIII century).
Saraiva J.H. (2000). Krótka Historia Portugalii. Kraków.Universitas. (original title : Historia concisa de Portugal 1978).

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