The Rise and Fall of Theological Enlightenment: Jean-Martin de Prades and Ideological Polarization in Eighteenth- Century France.
Jeffrey D. Burson offers a major work of detailed and creative scholarship on Catholic theology in mid-eighteenth-century Paris. Burson, who identifies himself as a "very moderate American Protestant" and who is a professor of history at Macon State College, has done massive research in primary source material and relevant modern historical studies. (The book has 104 pages of clear, precise references to his sources.) He shows that for some decades in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, there was much intelligent writing by Catholics that legitimately can be called "enlightened," and that a combination of factors mainly centered at the Sorbonne in the middle years of the eighteenth century led to the regrettable parting of the ways between them and the anti-religious Radical Enlightenment. He focuses on the role in this of the censure in 1752 of a young theologian named Jean-Martin de Prades, who was trying show the compatibility of Catholicism and new ideas called enlightened. Burson has not only carefully studied the actual writings of leading Catholic authors, including Jesuits like Claude Buffier and Rene-Joseph Tournemine, but he also offers a wealth of information with insightful comment on the curricula and degrees of the University of Paris and the seminaries, social demographics of the students and faculty, and the friendly daily socializing with admirers of Diderot and Voltaire. He shows that there was much more intellectual activity, including study of science, than is recognized by historical writers since then and up to the present.
But some conflicts had serious repercussions on this scene, most notably involving the Jansenists, who cherished ongoing anger about the condemnation of many Jansenist doctrines in the bull Unigenitus of Pope Clement XI in 1713, and the expulsion of Jansenists from the Sorbonne in 1729 by the cardinal of Paris. Their attacks on Jesuits and other churchmen escalated continuously from then on. (Burson seems to assume that the reader is already familiar with the main, rather rigorist, views of Jansenism.) He writes that what could be called the Catholic Theological Enlightenment was "tom asunder" in this conflict, and one victim of this was Jean-Martin de Prades.
Prades, born in 1724 of a distinguished family in the diocese of Montauban, was a seminary student in Paris from age seventeen, and from an early date he resolved to write a serious major defense of the Catholic faith. Burson offers the most careful study of Prades's writings to date. He shows in detail how Prades undertook to show the compatibility of (Catholic) Christianity with modern historical and scientific findings, affirmed that Christ established an ongoing church ministry to preserve the faith through time, and that the Roman Church fulfilled that mission. But when he was ready to defend his thesis in 1751, the Sorbonne was torn by serious factionalism, which is also recounted in great and vivid detail by Burson. In January 1752 a majority of the faculty voted to censure Prades. Then in view of continuing conflict that seemed to threaten public order, the Parlement of Paris issued an arrest warrant for Prades, who fled to Brussels and Amsterdam. With the help of Voltaire he went to Prussia where Frederick the Great gave him a good position at court. But then during the Seven Years' War he suspected him, wrongly, of aiding the enemy and had him imprisoned for six years. On being released, Prades spent the remaining years of his life in obscurity at a parish in Prussia until he died in 1782. Though the Sorbonne, at the behest of Pope Benedict XIV, officially reinstated Prades in October 1754, the arrest warrant of the Parlement remained in effect and he was never able to return to France.
Burson offers quite intelligent and insightful comment on all of this controversy, noting that the efforts of the Sorbonne and the French Church to defend the faith had the opposite effect on many thinking people of the time. Failing to grasp the merits of Theological Enlightenment, and indulging in too much factional controversy, they made the increasingly anti-church Radical Enlightenment look more attractive. Several minor errors of fact may be noted. Pierre de Tencin was not a Jesuit cardinal (369n79) and Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier (302, 304) was never a Jesuit. He says that the Edict of Nantes was "against the Huguenots" (107), while it was actually a decree of toleration. But this book is a major work of solid scholarship and a most interesting contribution to understanding a complex era of religious history.
Richard F. Costigan
St. Louis University
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|Author:||Costigan, Richard F.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2011|
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