Europe and the Church from the French Revolution to the Present

A Catholic Studies History Course

“Religion is the key to history.”This insight comes from the noted Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, whose papers are housed in the Department of Special Collections at the University of St. Thomas. Dawson took seriously what many scholars of his day, and ours, were overlooking. Religion was considered by many to be a peripheral concern in the study of history. One looked elsewhere for historical understanding: in economics, for example, or in political power or gender struggles – but certainly not in religion.

Dawson challenged this. While not denying the importance of other factors, he insisted that religion was crucial. Dawson viewed history primarily in terms of the rise and development of cultures, their mutual interaction, their growth and their decay. He maintained that the only way to understand the development of a culture was to grasp its vivifying principle, that which gave it coherence and upon which its material organization was built – namely, its religion.

“In this course, as well as all its courses, the Catholic Studies department provides an enriching study of the Catholic intellectual tradition. To learn about the Church from the bedrock of history – and theology, philosophy, art and literature – all while deepening your faith, is an amazing opportunity.” — Frank Lona, seminarian

In the course, Europe and the Church from the French Revolution to the Present, Catholic Studies history professor Father Michael Keating covers a broad swath of history and a complicated one as well. How can one, in the space of a 14-week semester, possibly grasp the major developments of the last two hundred years, the emergence of the modern world, and the Church’s place in these happenings without getting lost in a welter of detail? According to Father Keating, one way is to teach the history, broadly speaking, in a Dawsonian key.

Father Keating’s class begins with an examination of the place of religion in the life of a culture and, specifically, the place of the Christian faith in the life of Western Europe. This foundation enables students to see the drama of Europe largely as a religious one: a group of peoples heir to an ancient tradition who were molded together by their common Catholic faith, centered in Rome. From there, the course content jumps to the present, looking at the current state of Europe and paying special attention to the thought of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Both pontiffs have written and spoken extensively on Europe’s modern plight and the necessary place of the Christian faith if a renewal of genuine European culture is to take place.

“One can’t study history without studying the history of the Church as well. This course has helped me develop a deeper understanding of my Catholic heritage and personal faith.” — Sarah Erling

Having set the stage, the class then studies the first act in the drama itself: the French Revolution. Students read a sermon given before the French King Louis XIV by the famous Bishop Bossuet on “The Duties of Kings” to gain a sense of the way the French monarchy and Church conceived of themselves before the revolution. Then comes an in-depth look at the revolution itself. What was it, why did it happen, and what were its consequences as seen from a cultural and religious perspective? Students see how the revolutionary movement, and the Enlightenment thought behind it, was a radical break from what had come before; yet, they also note that this thought borrowed much of its ideology from Christianity, transforming it into something very different along the way.

What was the Church to do with this very potent movement, one which was sweeping across Europe, creating new institutions and destroying old ones, often expressing fierce hostility to the Church herself? This is the great question of the 19th century, and Father Keating’s course examines the Church’s various responses. Students study the writings of liberal Catholic thinkers such as Lamennais and Lacordaire, who believed that the principles of the revolution could be sanctioned; of conservative Catholic thinkers such as de Maistre and Veiullot, who believed the movement needed to be wholly opposed; and of the great pontificates of Pius VII, Pius IX and Leo XIII, all of whom played influential roles in articulating and guiding the Church’s way forward. The course also takes note of the Catholic revival that began shortly after the revolution and continued to gain force through the 19th century, highlighting John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement, St. John Bosco and the rise of pilgrimages to Lourdes.

“I have learned just how necessary and crucial it is to approach not only history but current events as well through the very unique and genuine historical perspective of the Church. The bottom line is this: It would be very hard for any serious Catholic student to walk out of these class sessions without a very deep sense of pride, awe and zeal toward our faith and the tradition behind it.” — Dustin Boehm, seminarian 

The drama continued and heightened in the 20th century’s two World Wars and the rise of violent atheistic ideologies that encapsulated much of Europe. Father Keating’s course looks at these developments from a religious perspective and notes the Church’s increasingly embattled stance through the pontificates of Pius XI and Pius XII, paying special attention to the controversy that has raged around the relationship of Pius XII and the German Nazi regime. It then looks at the events surrounding the Second Vatican Council: why the council was called, what it hoped to accomplish, how it has been received. It ends with the pontificate of John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. As Benedict recently wrote: “Unless we embrace our own heritage of the sacred, we will not only deny the identity of Europe, we also will fail to provide a service to others to which they are entitled.”