Schilling, Heinz: Confessional Europe

Fading Away

The end of confessional Europe, properly speaking, came around 1650, nearly 150 years before the French Revolution. It happened both through the internal dissolution of orthodoxy and through the state’s deconfessionalization of politics and society. The inner renewal of the major European churches began already in the first third of the seventeenth century, when the spirit of an ecumenical religiosity of the heart began to resist the reigning dogmatism and to tread new paths -Pietist, Puritan, and Jansenist. (88) Simultaneously, preconfessional and trans-confessional forces, long concealed but not extirpated by the Reformation and confessionalization, emerged into view. Some were secularizing forces, such as the emancipation of the arts and sciences, plus humanist concepts and attitudes that tended to replace revealed religion with philosophy and morality. (89) Some of the forces were themselves deeply religious, notably the sects and the “libertines,” whose spirituality was not, as it is often but falsely alleged, characterized by “secularization or Renaissance enlightenment” but an “innovative synthesis of spiritualism, pietism,… and early Protestant sentiments.” (90) Finally, the ideal of Christian unity, which had been shattered by the failure of interconfessional conversations during the 1560s, reappeared in the form of s new irenicism. (91)

The decisive external forces for deconfessionalization arose from the bitter experience of Europe’s civil and international wars: the French Civil Wars, the English Civil War, and above all the Thirty Years’ War. Gradually, the idea won out among lawyers and politicians, but also in European public opinion that churchmen who thought in terms of a total confrontation of worldviews would, if not politically restrained, plunge the state into external and internal chaos. Practically contemporaneously with confessionalism, therefore, attempts began to hedge it in politically and legally and to chain its dynamism to the interests of state. Within the German Catholic and Protestant lands this happened largely in peaceful ways, since the Peace of Augsburg’s principle of “whose the rule, his the religion” provided the requisite legal means. In France, it fell to royal jurists under the name “politiques” to formulate in the midst of confessional civil war in the 1570s and 1580s, the theory of the absolute primacy of the state over religious factions. Later, under Henry IV they put this theory into practice in the name of a post-confessional Catholicism. In this circle the maxim of the new, post-confessional state was framed, “state and religion have nothing in common,” which swept across Europe during the seventeenth century.(92) In England more than fifty years later, a similar political constellation led to the framing of two strategies. One was that of Thomas Hobbes’ (1588-1679) power state, named “Leviathan,” which demoted religion to a private matter and claimed absolute authority over its public manifestations. This model was realized, however, not in England but, if at all, in some of the continental absolutist states. The other, liberal strategy won out in England with the Glorious Revolution, which left Anglicanism as the established religion but opened the way to religious pluralism in practice. In international relations, the fire storm of the Thirty Years’ War sealed the deconfesionalization of Europe.

From around 1650, when politics and religion began to be uncoupled both in theory and in practice, confessionalism lost its basis, even though confessional forces continued to play a role within and between states. This change opened the way to a major transition. The confessional state of the earlier part of this era, which devoted itself to the victory of true doctrine in Europe and the salvation of its subjects’ souls, gave place to the secular, tolerant administrative state of the later period, which pursued secular raison d’etat externally and the “common good” -the mundane happiness of its subjects- within. This shift changed, too, the position of the confessional churches. The Enlightenment accorded them at most the legal status of associations for the pursuit of the religious and cultic interests of their members. (93) Even where the established church continued to be protected and fostered by the state, it had to surrender confessionalism’s holistic claims and in the long-run to accept being one community of belief among many.

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