Plus C’est Pareil, Plus Ça Change: The Influence of Cartesianism on the Internal Catholic Eucharistic Debate
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Ultimately, this study will reveal a connection between Descartes and the Catholic Church that is largely ignored in scholarship both of the history of the Roman Church and Descartes himself. Descartes’ impact on the internal Catholic Eucharistic debate was inestimable, yet Descartes’ name rarely receives even a mere mention in books about Catholic theology or the Reformation. As has been explained, prior to the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, the Church was able to attach its most hallowed sacrament to the natural philosophy of Aristotle and, in doing so, remain completely mainstream. Aristotle was the accepted voice regarding natural philosophy at the time and, prior to the Reformation, the Church faced no powerful, organized dissenting Christian groups. The Scientific Revolution and the Reformation, however, changed the context entirely and put the Church on the defensive, creating an environment out of which it would have been possible for the Church to consider real change both in theology and in the natural philosophy used to explain the theology. Such a “change,” however, would have actually kept the Church in the mainstream of Western European society. That is, as natural philosophy progressed, a “change” in the Church’s understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of the sacrament would actually have meant a keeping with the past—the concurrence of the Church with the conventional natural philosophy of the time. The Church’s decision, then, to reject Cartesianism and, instead, remain steadfast in its ancient employment of Aristotelianism, while it ostensibly demonstrated a lack of change, was a critical moment in the history of the Catholic Church. The Church’s resolution to continue to rely on ancient natural philosophy took the sacrament of the Eucharist out of the mainstream and, instead, made it archaic, mysterious, and essentially inexplicable in terms of natural philosophy. The fact that the Church could no longer explain one of its most elemental beliefs using mainstream science alienated the Church from the erudite members of European society and contributed to the isolation that characterized the Church during the Enlightenment.
DescriptionHonors thesis, History Department
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Rights for Collection: Undergraduate Honors Theses and Student papers