- Protestantism and Catholicism Compared in Their Effects on the Civilization of Europe by J. Balmes


Nineteenth century politics in Spain revolved around pendular attempts at agreeing on a constitution. The redactions swung between Liberal and Conservative views and these fluctuating constitutions had little effect on social and political life. The conflict between the opposing Carlist absolutists and Liberal parties exploded into a Civil war (1833- 39).
However, the Conservative constitutions remained in force longer than the Liberal ones, for example the 1845 constitution lasted for most of the regime of Isabella II and that of 1876 for most of the Bourbon Restoration.

The 19th. century saw a Catholic Revival in Europe of which Balmes (1810-1848) became a representative in Spain. Chateaubriand had published The Genius of Christianity in 1802, beginning a narrative which recognised the medieval Church as the synthesiser of pagan European culture with Christianity:

“The Christian religion is the most poetic and human, the most favourable to liberty, arts, and letters. The modern world owes it everything.”

This conception of Christian Europe included protest against the all-powerful States which were coming into being. The Church had restrained public authorities by underlining liberty of conscience, peace and the abolishment of slavery. This theme was taken up by the ultramontanist catholics who extolled the role and power of the papacy. 

The Bourbon monarchy in 17th. century Spain had implemented regalistic policies which were aimed at excluding the Catholic Church from all temporal matters. Through his ministers Charles III rejected the ultramontanist arguments that the Church had rights in the secular sphere. The Jesuits formed part of the resistance against the monarchy.

The ultramontanists not only supported the Church's limitations on civil power but refused to recognise the modern liberties, promulgated by the French revolution, as part of the Christian tradition, but denounced their origin in the Reformation. They wanted to rebuild Europe through the establishment of states submissive to the Pope. This idea was included in the Church magisterium in 1850 after the defeat of the insurrection in the Italian Papal States, supported by Napoleonic France.

In his epistemology Balmes divides the truth into three classes. These are the subjective truths, the rational truths and the objective truths. Subjective truth is cartesian; rational truth is aristotelian; objective truth is based on Reid's common sense theory. He asserts that metaphysics should be supported on all three at the same time and he rejects the exclusivity of each.

Balmes was alsi influenced by scholastic thinking. On the principles governing society he claimed:

“Those principles which are not of any one school, which are not new but as old as the world itself, existing from eternity in the paradigm of all perfection, communicated to societies like a breath of life…. Reason, justice, good faith: these are the words that government must write upon its flag.” 

These are Aquinas' principles. He akso follows Aquinas when he underlines that legitimate power must be subject to law and law subject to reason. On constitutional law he advises that:

“... habituating peoples and governments to disrespect laws  establishes habits of purely discretionary rule and forced obedience; this is tantamount to assuring that the country will continuously live in despotism or anarchy.”

Balmes' conception of civil power, its origin, attributes and limits, was also based on 16th. century post-scholastic Salamanca school authors, such as Suárez.

Balmes chose to put forward his arguments following an apologetic model, like the scholastics. His basic premise was that reason could elucidate the meaning of history. He offers a grand view which allows him to relate key historical themes with philosophy, politics and theology, underpinned by the belief that reason can be perfected through faith. 

Despite having no direct experience of Protestantism, in Protestantism and Catholicism Compared in Their Effects on the Civilization of Europe, Balmes concluded that it had had a negative effect on European civilisation and...

"...twisted the course of this European civilization and caused immense harm to modern societies."


Protestantism and Catholicism Compared in Their Effects on the Civilization of Europe (1842-44) was published in 3 volumes.

The summary and text are online at:



Balmes' conception of consciousness was influenced by kantian epistemology. He affirms that it is a subjective experience, a perception of phenomenon, not reality. However, Balmes does not exclude that the certainty perceived is not true. There is no objectivity in consciousness. It is a presence. 

Agreeing with Schelling, Balmes thinks that Art can express pure consciousness but he denies the ability of language to articulate consciousness. He claimd that there is no error in internal awareness, but this comes in its contact with the exterior. 
Balmes, in disagreement with Descartes' animal machine concept, considers that animals have conscience, but it is only through sensation. Humans possess reflex consciousness, the capability to reflect on sensations from direct consciousness. 


The evidence of knowledge, for Balmes, can be divided into two types. Immediate evidence does not need proof since it is a priori knowledge, for example every object is equal to itself. Mediate evidence, however, demands demonstration.

Evidence does not apprehend facts, but their relationships. Similarly to the analysis of Kant, the idea of the predicate is held in the subject. The basis for evidence is reason, accompanied by the senses. For Balmes the analysis of consciousness is better than that of evidence.

Intellectual instinct

The correspondence between the idea and reality is the intellectual instinct, which is not animal but rational. It tells us that what we see exists, or that it has a representation. It relies on common sense, which includes the unconscience and renders facts evident, such as moral and scientific truths.

Balmes claims that Descartes' cogito ergo sum is at risk of reducing knowing to something logical and intellectual. For Balmes consciousness transcends the 'cogito' because it is where the experience resides and acquires meaning.


Balmes adapted a conciliatory actitude to political events. He suggested marriage between Isabella II and her Bourbon cousin Carles, to avoid civil war. More than selective solutions, however, Balmes argued for a constitutional plan which adapted the basic law to social realities. His suggestions found no support and the outbreak of war and constant retouches to the constitution were the outcomes.

The author also offered a pragmatic approach to political events. He rejects return to absolutism and promotes continuity with the past through openness to the realities of the time. He includes Catholicism, the monarchy and Parliament as the essential elements of tradition. He recognised that the old nobility had been replaced by the money and intelligence of the bourgeoisie and advised that this should be reflected in the political process. 

In his constitucional plan Balmes advocates the role of the opposition in controlling the government and preparing freedom and defense against centralism for the Basques, Navarre and Catalonia. However, he rejects the concept of independence and imported models of federalism.

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