The Roman Catholic Church in the seventeenth & eighteenth centuries

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the many religious disputes that had gripped Europe for much of the sixteenth century came to an end. The outcome was that Protestantism split from Roman Catholicism, meaning that Western Christianity now had two major movements. As a result, one could no longer speak of ‘a history of Christianity’, but only of ‘the history of the individual denominations’. For example, the Roman Catholic Church was under the spell of Jansenism for a large part of the seventeenth century and the eighteenth century was dominated by the Enlightenment.


  • The Roman Catholic Church in the seventeenth century
  • The origins of the Old Catholic Church
  • The Roman Catholic Church in the eighteenth century
  • Lighting
  • The French Revolution


The Roman Catholic Church in the seventeenth century

In the seventeenth century, Jansenism played a major role in both political and religious fields; a movement that was named after the Leuven professor and bishop of Ypres, Cornelius Jansenius (1585-1638), and originated in France. Jansenism was a response to the many developments that took place within the Church and to the absolutism of the monarchs at that time.


The Jansenists were known for their strict and pious lifestyle with an emphasis on God’s retribution. The major point of contention that the Jansenists had with the Roman Catholic Church was over predestination. While the Church preached that doing good deeds influenced the salvation of man’s soul, the Jansenists believed that the fate of one’s soul’s salvation lay solely and especially in the hands of God. The Jansenists had a great aversion to the confessional practices and religious doctrine of the Jesuits and openly questioned the infallibility of the Pope. The center of Jansenism became the Port-Royal des Champs monastery, located in the French municipality of Magny-les-Hameaux, south of Paris.


Jansenism put considerable pressure on the Roman Catholic Church and several popes decided to condemn Jansenism. For example, on May 31, 1653, Pope Innocent Jansenius’ book: ‘Augustinus, sive doctrina sancti Augustini de humanae naturae sanitate, aegri tudine, medicina’, which was published two years after his death, was already banned in 1642 by Pope Urban VIII (1567-1644) and labeled as heretical. In France, the influence of Jansenism went much further because the French Parliament had decided to support the Jansenists in their struggle against King Louis XIV (1638-1715). In 1709, King Louis

The origins of the Old Catholic Church

After the French king destroyed the Jansenist monastery, the main leaders of the movement fled to the Southern Netherlands. Jansenism quickly became popular there and from the Southern Netherlands Jansenism eventually reached the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (also known as the Northern Netherlands). Here, however, Jansenism – indirectly – caused a schism.

The Utrecht Schism

The apostolic vicar of Utrecht, Petrus Codde (1648-1710), appointed in 1688, was accused several times by the Jesuits of having Jansenistic thoughts. Codde was called to account twice by Rome, but the second time his defense was considered insufficient. In 1702, Petrus Codde was suspended by Pope Clement XI (1649-1721) and his final dismissal followed two years later. When Codde died in 1710, Rome decided to appoint Gerhard Potcamp (1641-1705) as Codde’s successor, but this was not accepted by the clergy in Holland (the region to which Utrecht belonged). When the conflict was still not resolved in 1723, part of the Dutch clergy decided to secede from the Roman Catholic Church. They appointed Cornelius Steenoven (1661-1725) as Archbishop of Utrecht and continued under the name Roman Catholic Church of the Old Episcopal Cleresion, simply called the Old Catholic Church. Jansenism would ultimately retain a considerable influence on religious life in the Netherlands and Europe until the nineteenth century.

The Roman Catholic Church in the eighteenth century

The eighteenth century was dominated by the long pontificate (1740 to 1758) of Pope Benedict XIV (1675-1758), born Prospero Lorenzo Lambertini. Pope Benedict XIV not only introduced many reforms and improvements, he was also very important for canon law and science.


In the ecclesiastical field, Pope Benedict For example, he helped modernize agriculture and reduced the tax burden in the Papal (also called Papal) State. During the pontificate of Pope Benedict Benedict _ This attempt at reconciliation resulted in the Pope receiving fierce criticism from his own Curia.


Pope Benedict XIV not only introduced various reforms, he also made several attempts to modernize the Church and the papacy. For example, he was the first pope who decided to use the encyclicals as a form of education and he asked the compilers of the ‘Index librorum prohibitorum’ (list of prohibited books) to proceed with caution. The Church’s struggle against Jansenism was nuanced by Pope Benedict

The person Benedict

Pope Benedict XIV was known as a friendly, tactful and very pious man, who was also very approachable. For example, he regularly walked through Rome to come into contact with the people and hear what was going on among the believers. He was also admired by (both) Catholics and Protestants for the fact that he approved of ‘mixed’ marriages and was also active as a scholar throughout his life. By establishing various academies and chairs during his pontificate, he made an important contribution to science.


In the eighteenth century, a cultural-philosophical and intellectual movement emerged in Europe, which was called the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a reaction to the linear belief in authority that prevailed at that time and initiated a major change in human thinking regarding religion, philosophy, art, science and politics.


The sciences in particular experienced a period of explosive growth during the Enlightenment, in which conducting empirical research displaced the traditional way of acquiring knowledge – through book study. The discovery of gravity by Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) was groundbreaking, which helped explain the rise and fall of the sun and moon. In this way, the natural sciences broke through the age-old rule of theology. Another scientific highlight was the publication of the ‘Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers’ by Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean d’Alembert (1717-1783). Their goal was to gather the knowledge that was spread across the world and pass it on to those who came after them.

Reason drives out God

All the breakthroughs in the field of science made people start to think that all (future) problems could be solved by human reason and God was therefore increasingly banished from the worldly domain. Man began to see himself as the center and benchmark of the universe, which also led to a change in mentality in the political field. The rule of ecclesiastical – and divine – authority slowly began to decline and had to make way for a more democratic society. The followers of the Enlightenment not only ‘fought’ against the abuse of power by the Church and the State, they also fought for the establishment of civil rights. For example, the principle of equality, human and civil rights all found their roots in the period of the Enlightenment, just like ‘free thinking’.

Baruch Spinoza

In the Netherlands, during the Enlightenment, a major role was played by the Amsterdam-born philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). The Sephardic Jew Spinoza was known as a gentle, quiet and modest man, but he opposed the faith from an early age. For example, he questioned the divine origin of the Bible and the Ten Commandments of Moses and rebelled against the idea that the Jewish people were chosen by God and that God was in human form. In 1670, Spinoza’s ‘Tractatus theologico-politicus’ (Theological-Political Treatise) was published (anonymously) and in it he advocated complete freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Spinoza was exiled by the Sephardic Jewish community and his books were banned in Europe for 200 years, because his Biblical criticism was said to encourage atheism.

The French Revolution

The Enlightenment led to an uprising in France called the French Revolution (revolution for short). During the French Revolution, the absolute monarchy – which had held France in its grip for three centuries – gave way to the First French Republic. A change that had major consequences for the Roman Catholic Church.

Beginning of the Revolution

A few weeks after the storming of the Bastille (July 14, 1789), restrictions began to be imposed on the Church. For example, she was deprived of the right to levy taxes and in February 1790 all monastic orders in France were abolished. In July 1790, the ‘Civil Constitution of the Clergy’ (Constitution civile du clergé) was adopted by the National Constituent Assembly, which meant that the priests lost their (special) rights. In September 1792, a massacre was committed among the French clergy (the September Massacres) and shortly afterwards the National Convention legalized divorce and took over the birth, death and marriage registers from the Church.

Reign of terror

The next blow came in May 1793 when the Catholic mass was banned and many statues and crosses were removed from the churches and destroyed. As if the aforementioned measures were not enough, the Gregorian calendar was replaced by the Republican calendar and many Christian holidays and rest days were abolished. The Jesuits were expelled from Western Europe and eventually found refuge and religious freedom in Prussia and Russia and around 30,000 priests and bishops had fled France. Of the many French clergy who remained, thousands were murdered. In 1794 the Reign of Terror (1793-1794) (French: la Terreur) came to an end and in February 1795 the Directoire took control of France. When they decided to allow religious practices again, peace returned among the Christians.

The Fall of the Papal State

In 1798 – a year before the end of the French Revolution – the troops of the French general, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), overthrew the Papal States by capturing the then Pope, Pius VI (1717-1799). . In 1801, Napoleon and Pope Pius VII (1742-1823) signed the Concordat of 1801, which restored not only the Papal States, but also the French dioceses and Catholic worship. The Concordat also stipulated that the French State would henceforth be responsible for the remuneration of the (Catholic) clergy. However, this peace did not last long because in 1808 the Papal State fell again when Rome was incorporated into the First French Empire by Napoleon.

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