Spe Salvi 19: Immanuel Kant, Christianity, and the French Revolution

Continuing our discussion with Pope Benedict XVI in Spe Salvi on The transformation of Christian faith-hope in the modern age. We’re getting deep into philosophy with him, but stay with us–it’s only the French Revolution and a leading German philosopher of the Enlightenment.

19. We must look briefly at the two essential stages in the political realization of this hope, because they are of great importance for the development of Christian hope, for a proper understanding of it and of the reasons for its persistence. First there is the French Revolution—an attempt to establish the rule of reason and freedom as a political reality. To begin with, the Europe of the Enlightenment looked on with fascination at these events, but then, as they developed, had cause to reflect anew on reason and freedom.

What a difference a year or two makes:

A good illustration of these two phases in the reception of events in France is found in two essays by Immanuel Kant in which he reflects on what had taken place. In 1792 he wroteDer Sieg des guten Prinzips über das böse und die Gründung eines Reiches Gottes auf Erden (“The Victory of the Good over the Evil Principle and the Founding of a Kingdom of God on Earth”). In this text he says the following: “The gradual transition of ecclesiastical faith to the exclusive sovereignty of pure religious faith is the coming of the Kingdom of God” [In Werke IV, ed. W. Weischedel (1956), p.777. The essay on “The Victory of the Good over the Evil Principle” constitutes the third chapter of the text Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft (“Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone”), which Kant published in 1793]. He also tells us that revolutions can accelerate this transition from ecclesiastical faith to rational faith. The “Kingdom of God” proclaimed by Jesus receives a new definition here and takes on a new mode of presence; a new “imminent expectation”, so to speak, comes into existence: the “Kingdom of God” arrives where “ecclesiastical faith” is vanquished and superseded by “religious faith”, that is to say, by simple rational faith.

Again, I think if 18th century Europeans were disappointed in “ecclesiastical faith,” it might have been the disconnect of most bishops and hierarchy from the ordinary lives of common folk. Is it a matter of reason that Jesus and Christianity would identify with the needy?

In 1794, in the text Das Ende aller Dinge (“The End of All Things”) a changed image appears. Now Kant considers the possibility that as well as the natural end of all things there may be another that is unnatural, a perverse end. He writes in this connection: “If Christianity should one day cease to be worthy of love … then the prevailing mode in human thought would be rejection and opposition to it; and the Antichrist … would begin his—albeit short—regime (presumably based on fear and self-interest); but then, because Christianity, though destined to be the world religion, would not in fact be favored by destiny to become so, then, in a moral respect, this could lead to the (perverted) end of all things” [I. Kant, Das Ende aller Dinge, in Werke VI, ed. W. Weischedel (1964), p.190].

This document is Copyright © 2007 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana. You can find the full document online here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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1 Response to Spe Salvi 19: Immanuel Kant, Christianity, and the French Revolution

  1. Liam says:

    The funny thing is that, by the mid-18th century (especially the pontificate of Benedict XIV), the papacy itself, with regard to states other than the Papal States, was well on its way to its modern character. By the time of the papacies of Pius VI and Pius VII, we have the first modern victim-popes, imprisoned by Napoleon in turn, and we have the detaching of the nomination of bishops from states (first in the new USA, where George Washington declined the papal invitation to do so; eventually a new model is established with the establishment of the Kingdom of Belgians, a Catholic state with a Protestant king who was not going to seek secular control over the Catholic church).

    The puzzle pieces of the future were already there.

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