From the Renaissance to the French Revolution

Rev. James MacCaffrey, S.J., 1914



(b) The Aufklarung Movement in Germany.

In Germany the religious formularies, composed with the object of securing even an appearance of unity or at least of preventing religious chaos, were not powerful enough to resist the anti-Christian Enlightenment that swept over Europe in the eighteenth century. At best these formularies were only the works of men who rejected the authority of the Church, and as works of men they could not be regarded as irreformable. With the progress of knowledge and the development of human society it was thought that they required revision to bring them more into harmony with the results of science and with the necessities of the age. The influence of the writings imported from England and France, backed as it was by the approval and example of Frederick II. of Prussia, could not fail to weaken dogmatic Christianity among the Lutherans of Germany. The philosophic teaching of Leibniz (1646-1710), who was himself a strong upholder of dogmatic Christianity and zealous for a reunion of Christendom, had a great effect on the whole religious thought of Germany during the eighteenth century. In his great work, Theodicee, written against Bayle to prove that there was no conflict between the kingdoms of nature and grace, greater stress was laid upon the natural than on the supernatural elements in Christianity. His disciples, advancing beyond the limits laid down by the master, prepared the way for the rise of theological rationalism.

One of the greatest of the disciples of Leibniz was Christian Wolf (1679-1754), who was not himself an opponent of supernatural religion. The whole trend of his arguments, however, went to show that human reason was the sole judge of the truths of revelation, and that whatever was not in harmony with the verdict of reason must be eliminated. Many of his disciples like Remiarus, Mendelssohn, and Garve developed the principles laid down by Wolf until the very mention of dogma was scouted openly, and Theism itself was put forward as only the most likely among many possible hypotheses. In the revulsion against dogmatic beliefs the party of the Pietists founded by Spener towards the end of the seventeenth century found much support, while the Conscientiarians, who maintained that man’s own conscience was the sole rule of faith, and that so long as man acts in accordance with the dictates of conscience he is leading the life of the just, gained ground rapidly. Some of its principal leaders were Matthew Knutzen and Christian Edlemann who rejected the authority of the Bible. The spread of Rationalism was strengthened very much by the appearance of the Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliothek, founded in 1764 by Nicolai in Berlin, through the agency of which books hostile to Christianity were scattered broadcast amongst a large circle of readers.

These rationalistic principles, when applied to the Bible and the interpretation of the Bible, helped to put an end to the very rigid views regarding the inspiration of the sacred writings entertained by the early Lutherans. Everything that was supernatural or miraculous must be explained away. To do so without denying inspiration the “Accommodation” theory, namely that Christ and His apostles accommodated themselves to the mistaken views of their contemporaries, was formulated by Semler (1725-1791). But more extreme men, as for example, Lessing (1729-1781), who published the Wolfenbuttler Fragments written by Reimarus in which a violent onslaught was made upon the Biblical miracles more especially on the Resurrection of Christ, attacked directly the miracles of Christianity, and wrote strongly in favour of religious indifference.

The rationalistic dogmatism of Wolf when brought face to face with the objections of Hume did not satisfy Immanuel Kant (1720-1804), who in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) denied that it was possible for science or philosophy to reach a knowledge of the substance or essence of things as distinguished from the phenomena, and that consequently the arguments used generally to prove the existence of God were worthless. In his own Critique of Practical Reason (1788), however, he endeavoured to build up what he had pulled down, by showing that the moral law implanted in the heart of every human being necessarily implied the existence of a supreme law-giver. For Kant religion was to be identified with duty and not with dogmatic definitions. Such a line of defence, attempting as it did to remove religion from the arena of intellectual discussion, thereby evading most of the objections put forward by the rationalistic school, was a dangerous one. It led gradually to the rejection of external revelation, and to dogmatic indifference. Such a theory in the hands of Herder and above all of Schleiermacher (1768-1834) meant an end to Christian revelation as generally understood. For Schleiermacher religion was nothing more than the consciousness of dependence upon God. Given this sense of dependence, variations in creeds were of no importance. Between the religion of Luther and the religion of Schleiermacher there was an immense difference, but nevertheless it was Luther who laid down the principles that led to the disintegration of dogmatic Christianity, and in doing what he did Schleiermacher was but proving himself the worthy pupil of such a master.

The unrestrained liberty of thought, claimed by so many Protestant reformers and theologians and ending as it did in the substitution of a natural for a supernatural religion, could not fail to have an influence in Catholic circles. Many Catholic scholars were close students of the philosophical systems of Wolf and Kant in Germany, and of the writings of the Encyclopaedists in France. They were convinced that Scholasticism, however valuable it might have been in the thirteenth century, was antiquated and out of harmony with modern progress, that it should be dropped entirely from the curriculum of studies, and with it should go many of the theological accretions to which it had given rise. Catholicism, it was thought, if it were to hold the field as a world-wide religion, must be remodelled so as to bring it better into line with the conclusions of modern philosophy. Less attention should be paid to dogma and to polemical discussions, and more to the ethical and natural principles contained in the Christian revelation.

The spread of Gallicanism and Febronianism and the adoption of these views by leading rulers and politicians, thereby weakening the authority of the Pope and of the bishops, helped to break down the defences of Catholicity, and to make it more easy to propagate rationalistic views especially amongst those who frequented the universities. As a rule it was only the higher and middle classes that were affected by the Aufklarung. Everywhere throughout Europe, in France, in Spain, in Portugal, in Germany, and in Austria this advanced liberalism made itself felt in the last half of the eighteenth century, particularly after the suppression of the Jesuits had removed the only body capable of resisting it successfully at the time, and had secured for their opponents a much stronger hold in the centres of education.

It was in Germany and Austria that the Aufklarung movement attracted the greatest attention. The Scholastic system of philosophy had been abandoned in favour of the teaching of the Leibniz-Wolf school and of Kant. The entire course of study for ecclesiastical students underwent a complete reorganisation. Scholasticism, casuistry, and controversy were eliminated. Their places were taken by Patrology, Church History, Pastoral Theology, and Biblical Exegesis of the kind then in vogue in Protestant schools.

The plan of studies drawn up by Abbot Rautenstrauch, rector of the University of Vienna (1774), for the theological students of that institution meant nothing less than a complete break with the whole traditional system of clerical education. In itself it had much to recommend it, but the principles that underlay its introduction, and the class of men to whom its administration was entrusted, were enough to render it suspicious. The director of studies in Austria, Baron von Swieten, himself in close contact with the Jansenists and the Encyclopaedists, favoured the introduction of the new plan into all the Austrian universities and colleges, and took good care, besides, that only men of liberal views were appointed to the chairs. In the hands of professors like Jahn and Fischer, Scriptural Exegesis began to partake more and more of the rationalism of the Protestant schools; Church History as expounded by Dannenmayr, Royko, and Gmeiner, became in great part an apology for Gallicanism; the Moral Theology taught by Danzer and Reyberger was modelled largely on a purely rational system of ethics, and the Canon Law current in the higher schools was in complete harmony with the views of Febronius and Joseph II.

The Prince-bishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne spared no pains to propagate these liberal views amongst those who were to be the future priests in their territories. In the University of Mainz Isenbiehl’s views on Scripture brought him into conflict with the Church; Blau, the professor of dogma, denied the infallibility of the Church and of General Councils; while Dorsch, the professor of philosophy, was an ardent disciple of Kant. A similar state of affairs prevailed at the University of Trier, at Bonn which was established for the express purpose of combatting the ultramontanism and conservatism of Cologne, and to a more or less degree at Freiburg, Wurzburg, Ingolstadt, and Munich. By means of the universities and by the publication of various reviews these liberal theories were spread throughout Germany. An attempt was made to reform the discipline and liturgy of the Church so as to bring them into harmony with the new theology. Many advocated the abolition of popular devotions, the substitution of German for the Latin language in the missal and in the ritual, and the abolition of clerical celibacy.

In Bavaria matters reached a crisis when Weishaupt, a professor of canon law in Ingolstadt, founded a secret society known as the Illuminati for the overthrow of the Church and the civil authority, to make way for a universal republic in which the only religion would be the religion of humanity. His speculative views were borrowed largely from the Encyclopaedists, and his plan of organisation from the Freemasons. At first the society was confined to students, but with the accession of the Freiherr von Knigge it was determined to widen the sphere of its operations. Every effort was made to secure recruits. The Freemasons gave it strong support, and Ferdinand of Brunswick became one of its members. It had its statutes, ritual, and decrees. Fortunately the members quarrelled, and were foolish enough to carry their controversies into the public press. In this way the Bavarian government became acquainted with the dangerous character of the sect of the Illuminati, and a determined effort was made to secure its suppression (1784-1785).

Chapter VIII Section (b) Bibliography

See bibliography (viii. a). Tholuck, Abriss einer geschichte der Umwalzung seit 1750 auf dem Gebiete der Theologie in Deutschland, 1839. Staudlin, Geschichte des Rationalismus und Supranaturalismus, 1826. Bruck, Die rationalistischen Bestrebungen im Kath. Deutschland, 1867. Weiner, Geschichte der Kath. Theologie in Deutschland, 1889. Wolfram, Die Illuminantem in Bayern und ihre Verfolgung, 1898-1900.

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