“We are victims of our century,” wrote one of the Carmelites of Compiègne before going to the guillotine in 1794, “and we must sacrifice ourselves that it be reconciled to God.” Attacks on Catholic churches, anti-Christian elites, and suffocating political correctness—the eighteenth century witnessed cultural conflict every bit as intense as our own today. Yet Christians managed to thrive back then by sophisticated open-mindedness in engaging their contemporary world and wisdom in retreating from it when necessary.
The Enlightenment trumpeted the merits of science, practical improvements, and polite interaction in the burgeoning public sphere of coffeehouses and cheap print media in the 1700s. This age witnessed the formation of modernity. Ever since the nineteenth century, many have thought about the Enlightenment and Christianity in terms of conflict and the triumph of the secular. Thus, many Christians have looked more to the medieval period, the Age of Reformations, or the era of Pope John Paul II for inspiration, forgetting the eighteenth century completely.
Not any longer. Ever since about the year 2000, historians have filled in this gap through new research. They have uncovered a forgotten great age of Christian history in the 1700s. Mainstream scholars such as Ulrich Lehner, Jeffrey Burson, and Christopher M. S. Johns are calling it the “Catholic Enlightenment.” This was when Christians had faith in an “Age of Reason.”