Schilling, Heinz: Confessional Europe

It has long been recognized that confessional antagonisms played a role in European power relations during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and even the eighteenth century. (56) No systematic study, however, has ever been made of the connections between confessionalization and the rise of an international system of sovereign states in Europe, despite the obvious coincidence of the two processes around 1600. The first tentative researches have produced the hypothesis ” that the confessional forces worked in modernizing fashion in the formation of the modern type of international system, just as they did in the inner articulation of the early modern state. Further, that in this process the mutuality of religious-ecclesiastical and political forces played an important role.”(57) Something very similar may be said about confessionalization and the European overseas expansion, a question which is ripe for review. In any structural-functional analysis of Christianity’s role in the social changes unleashed by the discoveries and conquests, special attention should be given to the unleashing of a new phase of “christianizing,” “civilizing,” and “modernizing” activity. It is simply incorrect to allege that the transfer of the confessional paradigm into the history of the European expansion represents a lapse into an obsolete eurocentric historiography of developmentalism. Indeed, the use of quotation marks with “civilizing” and “modernizing” signifies the violent and destructive effects of the intrusion of European processes, including confessionalized evangelization, into alien social and cultural systems. How destructive, we can conceive only in the late twentieth century, when the dominance of the European perspective, along with the confessional phase of European history, has come to an end. (58)

Social Formation

Confessionalization helped to reshape society at its very roots, for its spiritual and moral ethos exercised an enduring power on the public and private lives of all social strata, the elites and the burghers more than the rural folk. Its effects combined with those of the state to produce a relatively unified society of subjects (Untertanengesellschaft) and inculcated modern, disciplined, and “civilized” (in Norbert Elias’ sense) forms of behavior, thought, and mentality. Confessionalization also promoted unification by neutralizing or weakening the intermediate powers of the clergy, the nobles, and the cities. At least down to the later seventeenth century, the new clergy -such as the Jesuits- gained a considerable independence and freedom of action from this alliance with the state, though later on, when the state lost interest, it abolished clerical independence in favor of the unrestricted domination of the state, what is sometimes called “confessional absolutism.” this happened in France under Louis XIV by the latest, and in Austria a bit later. The subjection of the clergy and the estates sometimes occurred under the banner of a pronounced anticonfenssionalism, as in Prussia, where state-managed toleration was an important tool of absolutist politics and social policy.

The term “social discipline” as label for the early modern shaping of human behavior and thinking was introduced by Gerhard Oestreich to designate the incorporation of individuals and social groups into a homogeneous association of subjects, plus the stripping away of regional and particular interests in favor of a “common good” defined by the state. By a long process, begun in the later Middle Ages, the prince and his officials came to define the meaning of “the common good.” (59) At its peak in the late sixteenth century, confessionalization decisively accelerated this process, for it possessed special importance for all questions of legitimacy. The early modern state’s marked deficiency of legitimacy made the sixteenth and seventeenth-century churches indispensable agents for obligating individuals and social groups to the new system of moral, political, and legal norms. The good Christian was taught to live with the family and neighbors in fraternal peace and to exercise seriously, knowledgeably, and conscientiously the “office” God conferred on him or her in domestic and public affairs. This meant educating and supervising children and servants and fulfilling conscientiously one’s calling as civil servant, artisan, entrepreneur, or merchant. Through sermons and pastoral care, house visitations and religious societies -such as the Catholic confraternities and congregations- the confessional churches helped to routinize obedience and good behavior toward the master and mistress of the house, toward the lesser and middling magistrates and officials, and toward the ruler himself.

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