The term "Catholic (pre-)Enlightenment" has frequently been used in 20th-century intellectual history to describe reform-oriented currents in 18th-century Catholic Europe. It is usually connected with the implication that an "Enlightenment" already existing elsewhere was adopted and adapted in the Catholic regions; for Austria, the three traditional narratives concern the transfer of "Reform Catholic" ideas from Italy (Muratori), of "Jansenism" from France and the Netherlands (Emperor Francis Stephen and his circle), and of "Enlightened" ideas from France and northern Germany. The devaluation or even the complete disappearance of the receiving intellectual culture is usually part of these narratives.
For the final third of the 18th century, and primarily for the sphere of political ideas, the work of Harm Klueting and others has recently succeeded in establishing a satisfactory terminological clarity. Much reflection is still needed, however, concerning the history of the term "Catholic Enlightenment" itself and its relationship to the much more heterogeneous situation prior to ca. 1770. Catchwords such as "Jansenism", "Reform Catholicism", "natural philosophy", "Enlightenment" or "positive theology" will have to be interrogated as to their semantic, social-pragmatic and medial-functional content before meaningful statements about the intellectual developments at the threshold of the "Enlightenment" are possible.
The START project incorporates the phrase "Monastic Enlightenment" in its title because the period covered by the Pez correspondence (1709–1762) saw a profound epistemological shift in the conceptions of learning and science spread through European societies. A central premise of our work is that this shift will be mirrored in the letters of the brothers Pez, offering the opportunity to follow a development of European scope within a manageable body of source material. Both the research objectives of the brothers Pez and their social and institutional framework, the "Benedictine Republic of Letters", in the course of the century turned from established paradigms into anachronistic ideals.
Both terms need to be approached on multiple levels of meaning. The "Benedictine Republic of Letters" is a topical construct always open to the question of what its relation is to the secular post-Humanist concept of "res publica litteraria"; "Monastic Enlightenment" is to be contextualised with metaphors of light which show quite different meanings and usages in Latin than in the vernacular languages. In both contexts these metaphors denote processes of the attainment of knowledge; but while the Latin usage of "illuminatio" explicitly references religious knowledge, the same image in the vernacular languages is used in connection with rational and secular learning. This discrepancy is to be kept in mind all the more carefully because "Enlightenment" was not, in fact, a category in use in the self-perception of learned monks.