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Reclaiming the Enlightenment for the Catholic Church

Fr. Andrew Pinsent

Fr. Andrew Pinsent

Fr. Andrew Pinsent

Diane Montagna - published on 09/08/15

New EWTN series explains how civilization is indebted to "the light of faith"

OXFORD, England — Over September 7-10, EWTN is running a new series, Catholic Enlightenment, presented by Father Andrew Pinsent, Research Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University, and Father Marcus Holden, custodian of the shrine of St Augustine in Ramsgate, England.

Catholic Enlightenment examines how so much of what we value in our civilization comes from the Catholic faith and from Catholic minds. It “tells the story of what the light of faith has done for the world.”

Aleteia spoke with Father Andrew Pinsent about this fascinating new series you won’t want to miss.

Father Pinsent, what inspired the Catholic Enlightenment series?‬‬

The initial inspiration for the series Catholic Enlightenment was a reaction to an injustice. A few years ago, the BBC broadcast a debate worldwide in which over 87% of the audience rejected the notion that the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world. This rejection marks a recent shift in the attitudes of what Auberon Waugh called the “chattering classes,” who largely shape what many societies do, or at least talk about. Among such groups, the Catholic faith today is widely derided, regarded as pernicious, and an obstacle that needs either to wither away or be swept away by those intent on building a “brave new world.” Such prejudices obviously put psychological barriers in the way of the proclamation of the Gospel; they are also paving the way for a more direct persecution of the faith in future. We need, therefore, to tell our story more effectively, both to correct an injustice (since truth is important for its own sake) but also to remove obstacles to the Gospel.

‪How has this situation arisen?‬

At least part of the problem is that many Catholics indulge in something that is difficult to put into words but might be described as the opposite of boasting. Jesus commands us to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16). By contrast, most Catholics neither learn much about history, nor do they proclaim those fruits that have matured in the world in the light of the Gospel. We hide our light, and since we fail to tell our story, others are doing it for us. For example, a few years ago, someone gave me an expensively illustrated history of the “Enlightenment.” I was astonished by the way in which many achievements of civilization were presented as if they appeared more or less out of nothing in the late eighteenth century. The implication was that these achievements were concomitant with a rejection of the Catholic faith and a turn to “reason,” a change that was also rather bizarrely mixed up with a fashion for building monuments to pagan gods. When I saw these brazen misrepresentations, I realized the need to tell the story of “Catholic Enlightenment,” in other words, to tell the story of what the light of faith has done for the world.

‪You refer to the fruits and light of faith. Why do you choose these words?‬

The choice of the word “fruit” touches on a deeper reason for the series Catholic Enlightenment. Rational apologetics, a reasoned defense of the faith, has often focused on natural religious truths that can be justified by philosophy, such as the existence of God, but these methods are inadequate for supernatural truths, such as the Incarnation and Trinity. For example, the philosopher Aristotle knew of the existence of God as living, eternal and perfect, but never dreamt that God would be born in a stable or die on a cross for our salvation. How then can one justify such truths to those without faith, and who do not accept the truth of scripture, tradition, and the magisterium? One answer is to show the roots and fruits of the Catholic faith, rooted of course also in the ancient faith of the Jewish people. In other words, by studying the continuity and unfolding of the faith in history, and its good fruits, one can show that something extraordinarily good, with the coherence of truth, has been implanted in the world, even if the truth itself remains hidden without the eyes of faith. I call this approach “organic apologetics.” This approach is in the spirit of Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council, which states in paragraph 40 that the Church not only communicates divine life to humanity (the salvific purpose that is proper to her), but also casts the reflected light of that life over the entire earth. By the study of history, we can see the evidence for this light very clearly.

Who is the Catholic Enlightment series aimed at? Who should watch?

The series is aimed at any reasonable person who wants to know the truth of things, but it is especially important for parents, clergy, religious, teachers and all those who have a role in educating others. To give an example of those who can benefit, three years ago I gave a presentation to a group of over two hundred heads of Catholic schools about faith and science issues. Many expressed astonishment to learn that it was a Catholic priest, Mgr. Georges Lemaître, who had invented the “Big Bang” theory. They kindly allowed me to do a straw poll, and I discovered that over three-quarters of these heads of schools had never heard of Mgr. Lemaître, a result that illustrates the broader problem we face. Although specialists know that the details of such developments often challenge simplistic myths (see, for example, Helge Kragh, Cosmology and Controversy, Princeton University Press, 1999), even intelligent non-specialists rarely have this knowledge. So the series should be of help to a wide range of people, especially those involved in education.

‪Are there other materials of this kind available?‬

Of course, those of us who have put this series together are not the first to see the connections of Catholicism and civilization. One can consider, for example, Thomas Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, published in 2005, or much of the outstanding series Civilization presented by Lord Kenneth Clark, first aired by the BBC in 1969. The new EWTN series Catholic Enlightenment is a much simpler project, aiming just to communicate some basic facts about our own history. Where the EWTN series does have an advantage, I think, is that it is simple and accessible, being just five episodes of thirty minutes each. The series is also rather wide-ranging, covering: (1) true enlightenment, space, time and exploration; (2) the impact of sacramental life, including on art, architecture, care for the sick and dying, and marriage; (3) the education and dignity of the human person, including universities, schools, philosophy and theology; (4) morality, law and the drama of salvation, including ideas of human good, human action, justice and the defense of civilization; (5) language, literature, music and the ultimate fruits of the faith, namely the saints. So there should be something in the series for everyone.

Obviously the series covers many topics only very briefly, and so additional material has been made available in a booklet called LUMEN: The Catholic Gift to Civilization. Some of the key names, such as Mgr. Georges Lemaître, are also covered in a series of beautiful laminated A2 posters called The Catholic Knowledge Network. Both the LUMEN booklet and poster series are published and available for purchase from the Catholic Truth Society in England. With a basic road map of names and ideas, we then hope that at least some people will then want to do further reading themselves.

What are some of the surprising discoveries people will make from watching Catholic Enlightment?

When putting the material together for the series, the discovery of the richness of cultural influences from Catholic societies and minds surprised me, even though I knew something of what to expect in advance. It is not just the large institutional developments, like universities and legal systems, but also matters that we tend to take for granted, like the promotion of the Latin alphabet, one of the greatest tools of mass literacy ever invented, or the prototypes of the Cyrillic alphabet (credited to the missionaries Sts Cyril and Methodius), or the monastic development of musical notation. By the time we had finished, I began to think of much of the best of Western civilization as a by-product, ultimately, of the Catholic goal of gathering humanity to divine life in heaven. Moreover, I also began to think that if we lose sight of that goal, we shall also lose much of the best of civilization as well.

What was the significance of filming the series at Ramsgate in England?

The series was filmed at the Church of St Augustine in Ramsgate, established as a new shrine in England by Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark in 2012. This church is significant because it is close to the place where St. Augustine of Canterbury landed in 597 on the mission of Pope St Gregory to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Hence this spot marks the beginning of Christianity in the Anglo-Saxon world. The church is also significant in that it was built in the mid-nineteenth century by Augustus Pugin as a centerpiece of his Gothic Revival, a project that also led to the interior design of the Palace of Westminster and its iconic clock tower of “Big Ben.” So St. Augustine’s was an ideal site for a series on “Catholic Enlightenment,” exploring the impact of the faith on civilization.

Diane Montagnais Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.

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