Compendium of Church History - Notre Dame

Eighteenth Century
The Century of Free Thought

The self-styled philosophers of the eighteenth century were the next enemies the Church had to encounter. Their system was the natural and logical outcome of the religious upheaval of the sixteenth century. Man had cast off his allegiance to lawful authority, denied the right of the Church to be his guide, and set up his own private judgment as a beacon-light, and as a result he became a prey to the demon of free thought.

Free thought had its origin in Protestant England, and was fostered by the writings of English sceptics who rejected the Bible, revelation, and Christianity and asserted the sufficiency of natural religion.

These men were first called Deists or Rationalists. John Locke became the forerunner of materialism, and the substitution of Deism, Pantheism, and Atheism for Christianity went by the name of "Philosophy." About the middle of the eighteenth century a reaction set in against this scepticism, and most of the English free-thinkers retired into the secrecy of Freemasonry.

Freemasonry had its first lodge, 1717, in London, whence it spread to every state of Europe, to North America, and to East India. In no country did the new philosophy have a more destructive influence than in France, under the leadership of the Encyclopedists to whom belong D'Alembert, Diderot, and Voltaire. Diderot had the supervision of an encyclopedia, a dictionary ostensibly devoted to the sciences, but in reality a blasphemous work. Voltaire for half a century did not cease to attack the Catholic Church. Rousseau was the author of a work called Social Contract, aimed at all government and the rights of private ownership. As head of the Socialists he denied all authority to religion and state.

Suppression of the Society of Jesus.
The great obstacle to the growth of Philosophism was the zeal of the Society of Jesus. These religious therefore became the target for the enemies of the Church, who knew no rest until the ruin of their powerful foe was accomplished.

The conspiracy of the ministers Pombal of Portugal, Aranda of Spain, Tannucci of Naples, supported by Voltaire and the Jansenists in France, brought pressure to bear on the Holy See. The Sovereign Pontiff had to choose between two evils: the suppression of the Society of Jesus or the desertion of the Church by the Catholic rulers of Europe.

Clement XIV chose the former alternative, and reluctantly signed the brief for the suppression in 1773, protesting that he did so only for the sake of peace in the Church. The Jesuits obeyed, and had it not been for the protection of the Protestant King, Frederick of Prussia, and the schismatic Empress, Catherine of Russia, they would have ceased. to exist as an Order. These two sovereigns obtained from the Pope permission for the Jesuits to continue in their dominions as if the suppression had not taken place.

The Emperor Joseph II, of Austria, infected by the prevailing Philosophism of the eighteenth century, directed his energy against religion. He oppressed the Church in some of her most sacred rites from 178o to 1790. He closed monasteries, forbade pilgrimages and processions, and restricted the ceremonies even at Mass. To subject the Church to the state, he assumed the direction of seminaries.

This system of injudicious meddling fell to the ground in 1799. Josephinism in Austria holds much the same place in Church history as Gallicanism in France, though with less far-reaching consequences.

The French Revolution

In 1789 a fearful storm burst over the Church of France. The causes of this outburst lay deeply buried under the ruins of the Faith, wrought among the Teutonic races during the sixteenth century.

The secret societies, and chief among them Free-masonry, with its handmaid Philosophism combined with infidel literature, had gained ground with alarming rapidity. The so-called Reformation disintegrated the foundations of society so carefully laid in the Ages of Faith.

The property of the Church was confiscated, convents and monasteries were closed, and the National Assembly formed a civil constitution for the clergy which bound them by oath either to commit perjury or to forsake their flocks. Priests who refused to take this oath were sent into exile or put to death. The greater part of the clergy stood firm, preferring to lose all and to suffer all rather than to betray the Faith. After the execution of Louis XVI, in January, 1793, all religious worship was forbidden; the churches were demolished; relics, sacred vessels, and the Holy Mysteries were trampled under foot; and to crown all, an infamous woman, decked as the goddess of reason, was placed on the very altar of Notre Dame.

All this upheaval was in the name of liberty, but the Revolution failed to obtain its end. When Pope Pius VI died a prisoner at Valence, the prospects of the Church seemed hopeless.

The Religious Orders of the Eighteenth Century

The Redemptorists were founded by St. Alphonsus Ligouri in 1732, to serve as "missionaries for the poorest and most neglected sheep "of Christ's flock.

The Ladies of the Sacred Heart were founded by Blessed Sophie Barat, to provide for the education of girls of the upper classes.

The Sisters of Notre Dame were founded by Blessed Julie Billiart, to instruct the children of the poor.