A Faithful Pope of the Enlightenment

In the early 1950s, children watched a puppet show Kukla, Fran, and Ollie broadcast from Chicago all the way to the Eastern seaboard through the innovative marvel of television. It was more of a children’s show for adults, for how else could the sophisticated puns make sense, or what child could understand how Ollie the Dragon confused “The Mikado” with “Madame Butterfly?” Beulah the Witch was a puppet of a mien too ridiculous to frighten any but the most neurasthenic child. One day she threw down her broomstick and declared that she had decided to abandon witchcraft for the wonderful world of empiricism.

A psychologist, Steven Pinker, author of a new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress seems bemusingly ignorant of how the case of religion as a benevolent partner of empirical science has been addressed eloquently and convincingly over the past several generations. His notion of reason and science is that it is the other side of the coin of religion and faith, not symbiotic but hostile, with physics unmasking the pretensions of metaphysics. This flies in the face of the fact that most of the nurturers of new knowledge in the eighteenth century were devout religionists. Has he ever heard of Bacon and Newton and Locke, Montesquieu, Adams, and Tocqueville? And does that caricature of the “Enlightenment” consider that autonomous human reason became the engine of a Reign of Terror and its sequels in the gulags, eugenics, and cultural revolutions of the twentieth century?

If priests in the so-called Age of Enlightenment were sorcerers like Beulah the Witch before she came to her senses, there is the contradictory figure of Pope Benedict XIV who threw down no broom but raised a crozier in the name of the Divine Logos who “came to testify about the Light” (John 1:9). This Prospero Lorenzo Lambertini (1675 – 1758) was born in Bologna, where his tutors set him on a course that would shape him as one of the greatest scholars in the history of the papacy. The Benedictine pioneer in paleontology and archeology, Bernard de Montaucon, master of Greek and Hebrew, said of the eident prodigy: “Young as he is, he has two societies: one for science and the other for society.” Montfaucon was not a social butterfly, but he quickly summed up Lambertini’s elegant admixture of scholar and saloniste, for whom there was no tension between the library and the drawing room, and whose amiability made him like one of the Chestertonian angels able to fly because they take themselves lightly.

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As Bishop of Ancona, the clergy were devoted to him, and when he was transferred to his native Bologna, his cheerfulness was a tonic for the ills of discontent among some of the priests. It was said that none left his presence sad or angry, and even the less studious among them felt honored by the time he spent reforming the seminary curriculum, with more emphasis on Sacred Scripture and Patrology.

In August of 1740, Lambertini was one of fifty-four cardinals who had struggled and intrigued for six months to elect a pope. The days were baking hot and, though news travelled slowly, that year saw Frederick II assume power in Prussia, the song “Rule Britannia” was first sung at Cliveden, Adam Smith began studies in Oxford, George Whitfield brought Methodism to the colony of Georgia, and the University of Pennsylvania was founded, shortly after the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. Finally Lambertini rose and said in weary jest: “If you wish to elect a saint, choose Gotti; a statesman Aldobrandini; an honest man, elect me.” The joke turned on him and the 247th pope was astonished and somewhat befuddled, but not shy about accepting.

Some thought he conceded too much to foreign interests, but it was never at the expense of the Church’s legitimate rights in promotion of the Gospel. It became difficult for the most virulent foes of the papacy to resist the charm his humor and brilliance, and the local Romans enjoyed passing along his jokes and bons mots. When informed of a rumor that the Anti-Christ had been born into the world and was three years old, he replied: “In that case, I shall let my successor handle the problem.” Complex matters of revenues required reform of banking systems and regulation of usurious corruption. Daunting was the corruption in the Papal States, especially since the coffers had been exhausted by his predecessors, Benedict XIII and Clement XII. Lambertini restructured the administration of his territories, promoted agricultural reforms, and frequently walked among the poorest people in the most dangerous neighborhoods. With commonsense, he was lenient in implementing censures of the neuralgic clients of Jansenism. While monies were raised to fight Muslim pirates off Tripoli, the pope had a graceful correspondence with the “Good Turk.” Not hasty in lifting social and financial restrictions against Jews, he at least enjoined the Polish bishops to resist anti-Semitic pogroms, and declared that the ‘blood libel” against Jews was a lie.

The encyclicals of Lambertini are models of precise thought and clearly identified purpose, reflecting his Thomistic formation. The bull Magnae nobis admirationis set the standard for canonical treatment of marriages between Catholics and Protestants, and his laws for canonization lasted right into the twentieth century. Because of their gravity, he was careful that canonizations not be rushed, but “If anyone dared to assert that the Pontiff had erred in this or that canonization, we shall say that he is, if not a heretic, at least temerarious, a giver of scandal to the whole Church, an insulter of the saints, a favourer of those heretics who deny the Church’s authority in canonizing saints, savouring of heresy by giving unbelievers an occasion to mock the faithful, the assertor of an erroneous opinion and liable to very grave penalties.” He instinctively would have been cautious about canonizing popes in rapid succession “subito” lest the practice become like the “apotheosis” of Roman emperors, which was a hint of decay in the Imperial dynasties. That flexibility of the pantheon had made sober Roman citizens cynical, like Vespasian himself: Vae, puto deus fio! (“Woe is me, I think I am becoming a god!”)

Anyone who imagines that the liturgical books were sealed for all ages by Pope St. Pius V like a fly in amber should note that a cataract of changes followed Trent, inciting the liturgical conservatism of Benedict XIV to sulphurous contempt. It was in fact the only one of his many attentions that beclouded his sunny nature. He opposed the Kalendarium changes, multiple collects, and the number of new Breviary offices with the rank of “Duplex.” The only addition he permitted during all of his eighteen years as pope was to bestow the title of Doctor on Leo the Great. There was a plan to simplify the Breviary, to make it more practical for parochial use, but the resulting four volume study was so vast, that the task was abandoned, save for a reform of the Roman Martyrology. The Stations of the Cross that the pope erected in the Colosseum stood until they were destroyed by the Italian government in 1870.

An encyclical of 1749, Annus Qui Hunc, gave guidelines to sacred music, denouncing the profane music that had crept into churches, ordered an end to informality and undignified celebrations, and even corrected neglect of proper clerical dress. Much of what exists today in the structures of the Melchites and Maronites are the fruit of Lambertini. Humility did not tax his love for the beauty of the Mass, whose ceremonials he embellished, knowing the evangelical power of splendor, while prudence mastered the art of pomp without pomposity. He saw the dangers of false humility in advertising austerity, just as he had little use for the kind of uninformed aestheticism that caricatures aesthetics.

The enlightened pope was a feminist in a solid sense, encouraging women in science and mathematics, beginning at the university in his native Bologna even before becoming pope. He enrolled the female pioneer in Newtonian physics and electricity, Laura Bassi, in his group of twenty-five leading intellectuals, his “Benedettini,” charged with promoting theoretical physics and other sciences. And as a proper liturgist as well as feminist, he abhorred any ideological manipulation of the liturgy as deeply as he resented the politicization of physical science. In so many words, he understood the “theology of the body” before that awkward term was invented and appropriated by half-educated lecturers on the subject.

Consequently, Benedict opposed attempts to invert the anthropology of the sacred rites. He decreed in the encyclical Allatae sunt of July 26, 1755: “Pope Gelasius in his ninth letter (chap. 26) to the bishops of Lucania condemned the evil practice which had been introduced of women serving the priest at the celebration of Mass. Since this abuse had spread to the Greeks, Innocent IV strictly forbade it in his letter to the bishop of Tusculum: ‘Women should not dare to serve at the altar; they should be altogether refused this ministry.’ We too have forbidden this practice in the same words in Our oft-repeated constitution Etsi Pastoralis, sect. 6, no. 2, 1.”

Lambertini has as great a claim as any pontiff for having founded the Vatican museums, as well as establishing four academies for the study of antiquities, canon law, and liturgy, plus augmenting the Vatican library with, among other works, the Ottoboninian treasury of 3,300 volumes. By one measure, he was a micro-manager, but an edifying one, examining candidates in the Roman College for the chairs of mathematics and chemistry that he endowed, while he also supervised the publication of the works of Galileo. In matters academic and spiritual, he cast a suspicious eye on the Jesuits, and entrusted a reform of the Society in 1758 to Cardinal Saldanya, but that ceased with his death. He never admitted a Jesuit to the College of Cardinals.

Rationalists and skeptics widely respected his knowledge of the world uncontaminated by an inferior worldliness, fascinated by the right way he told them that they were wrong. He suffered fools gladly without making them feel foolish. Of a balanced temper, he had no capacity for sarcasm or insult, and cajoled rather than humiliated. When the French ambassador Choiseul presumed to instruct him on the appointment of bishops, he took the surprised man by the arm and placed him on the papal chair: Fa el Papa (“You be the Pope”). Even the intimidating Empress Maria Theresa, was bedazzled by the elegance of the pope’s mind and manners, and King George II permitted the free publication of his letters in England. Hard as it is to believe, Voltaire fell under his spell and composed a distich in his honor:

Lambertinius hic est, Romae decus, et pater orbis
Qui mundum scriptis docuit, virtutibus ornat.

And lest anyone think that this tribute to “Lambertini the father of the world and adornment of Rome. Who teaches that world by his writings and honours it by his virtues” was just a calculating flatterer, the same Voltaire dedicated to him his play “Mahomet” in 1741: “To the head of the true religion a writing against the founder of all that is false and barbaric.” Lord Chesterfield, whose antennae were attuned to subtleties, suggested that Voltaire was being ironic here. Howbeit, Voltaire had nothing bad to say about the pope, but what he did say about the false Prophet was acidic enough for Muslims to protest in the street in Ain, France when the play was revived in 2005. Horace Walpole, an inspirer of the Gothic Revival that stood as a rebuke to the Enlightenment, was compelled by this congenial child of “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9):

Beloved By Papists
Esteemed By Protestants
A Priest Without Insolence or Interestedness
A Prince Without Favourites
A Pope Without Nepotism
An Author Without Vanity
In Short A Man,
Whom Neither Wit Nor Power Could Spoil

The Son Of A Favourite Minister
But One Who Never Courted A Prince,
Nor Worshipped A Churchman,
Offers In A Free Protestant Country
This Deserved Incense
To The Best Of Roman Pontiffs

A cordial evening with the three most brilliant successors of Saint Peter, might include the polymath Sylvester II, this Benedict XIV (matched for wit perhaps only by Leo XIII), and the second Benedict after him. Exactly one hundred years before Lambertini died, a beleaguered cavalier, Sir Thomas Browne, published “Hydriotaphia,” a study of ancient funerary urns in Norfolk, England. Its dedication to “The Ancient of Days, the Antiquaries truest object, unto whom the eldest parcels are young, and Earth itself an infant,” could have been written by the pope who was bright enough to know how little he knew, and was grateful for knowing it.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a portrait of Pope Benedict XIV painted by Pierre Subleyras. 


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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