Monday, October 20, 2014

Pascal and the Casuistry of Jesuits

Francisco Suarez was a 17th century Jesuit who is remembered chiefly for his "casuistry," or tackling moral problems on in a case-by-case basis. As a practical matter, this led to moral laxity, although Suarez himself led an upright life. Indeed, it was said he "purchased Heaven dearly for himself, but gave it away cheaply to others."

The Bear wagers you know Pascal.
Blaise Pascal wrote against the casuistry of Jesuits in his Lettres Provinciales, particularly letter VI, from which the Bear shall quote below. There was hardly any sin which Jesuits might not excuse. Today, the word "casuistry" is only used in a negative connotation, as avoiding guilt through clever argumentation. The reality, though, has never been more alive.

Instead we use terms like "pastoral approach," or "mercy," or "gradualism."

Pascal turned the writings of the Jesuit casuists against them wittily, although in an admittedly polemical fashion. Here is how they introduce a new doctrine into the Church without doing anything officially, as explained by a Jesuit character:
Pay attention now, while I explain our method, and you will observe the progress of a new opinion, from its birth to its maturity. First, the grave doctor who invented it exhibits it to the world, casting it abroad like seed, that it may take root. In this state it is very feeble; it requires time gradually to ripen. This accounts for Diana, who has introduced a great many of these opinions, saying: ‘I advance this opinion; but as it is new, I give it time to come to maturity — relinquo tempori maturandum.’ Thus in a few years it becomes insensibly consolidated; and, after a considerable time, it is sanctioned by the tacit approbation of the Church, according to the grand maxim of Father Bauny, ‘that if an opinion has been advanced by some casuist, and has not been impugned by the Church, it is a sign that she approves of it.’ 
Sound familiar? Recall that Pascal was writing in the 17th century! And what was the goal of the Jesuit casuists? Pascal places into the mouth of his Jesuit character a little speech that rings shockingly true today.
Men have arrived at such a pitch of corruption nowadays that, unable to make them come to us, we must e’en go to them, otherwise they would cast us off altogether; and, what is worse, they would become perfect castaways. It is to retain such characters as these that our casuists have taken under consideration the vices to which people of various conditions are most addicted, with the view of laying down maxims which, while they cannot be said to violate the truth, are so gentle that he must be a very impracticable subject indeed who is not pleased with them. The grand project of our Society, for the good of religion, is never to repulse any one, let him be what he may, and so avoid driving people to despair.
When Pascal tries to interpose the laws of the Church as an objection, his imaginary Jesuit interlocutor is unruffled.
“True,” he replied; “but this shows you do not know another capital maxim of our fathers, ‘that the laws of the Church lose their authority when they have gone into desuetude — cum jam desuetudine abierunt — as Filiutius says. We know the present exigencies of the Church much better than the ancients could do.
Even homosexuality was excused. When Pope Pius V's legislation against homosexual acts among clergy was brought up (without mentioning the sin itself) Pascal was invited to examine the Jesuits' written response. He writes: "I did so that very night; but it is so shockingly bad that I dare not transcribe it."

The Bear has written before of the importance of the concept of "desuetude." Notice how former dogmas are merely silently abandoned when they become inconvenient?

The historical memory is an important thing. As Jeremiah 13:23 reminds us, the leopard does not change its spots.

The Church is merciful to the repentant. How much more merciful could she be than to forgive every sin, no matter how horrible, to those who confess them sincerely?

But we are worse off with our present-day casuists than was the Church in Pascal's day. Today sinners don't want forgiveness. They feel entitled to denial of the sin and themselves to be granted vindication and acceptance. The casuists of our day seem more than happy to comply.

Even Francisco Suarez would probably be scratching his head at that.


  1. Very interesting. Thanks.

    I remember the Holy Father condemned casuistry in a homily in February of this year, but as so often happens I couldn't make head nor tail of the way he used the word:

    Pope Francis then pointed to “the signs” by which we can recognize “a person who knows what we are to believe but who does not have faith”.... A first sign is “casuistry”, and he recalled all those who approached Jesus to present him with cases such as: is it lawful to to pay taxes to Caesar?” Or the case in which “a woman was widowed, poor thing, who according to the law had to marry the seven brothers of her husband in order to have a a child”. This “is casuistry,” the Pope said. And “casuistry is precisely the place to which all those people go who believe they have faith” but only have a knowledge of its content. Thus, “when we find a Christian” who only asks “if it is licit to do this and if the Church could do that,” it either means “that they do not have faith, or that it is too weak”.

    OK, I can see how that might be casuistry.

    The second sign is ideology. We cannot be “Christians who think of the faith as a system of ideas, as an ideology,” Pope Francis said. It is a risk that “also existed in Jesus' time” and was set forth by by the gnostics. “The Apostle James says that ideologues of the faith are the Antichrist”. Thus, the Pope explained, “those who fall into casuistry or ideology are Christians who know doctrine but who lack faith. Like the demons, with the difference that the demons tremble, whereas these do not: they live in peace”.

    And I confess that I can see the glimmering of a point here, but there's such a jumble of ideas that it's hard to figure out. I'm not comfortable with "system of ideas" = "ideology". I'm lost as to how we go from there to the Gnostics. And then we're back to veiled assaults on orthodox Catholics again, who are somehow ideological casuists who "live in peace".

    Finally, this:

    Then there was the Samaritan who “beforehand did not believe anything”or whose belief was misguided, but who came to believe “once she encountered Jesus”: that is, prior to encountering Jesus she had a “casuistic way of thinking”, she wondered if she had to worship God “on this mountain or that”. But after having “spoken with the Lord, she felt something” in her heart and in haste “went away to say: I found a man who told me all that I ever did!”. She had faith “because he encountered Jesus Christ and not abstract truths”.

    I don't know how it makes sense to label the woman's beliefs as casuistic rather than simply "incorrect" or "incomplete". Like some other biblical exegesis in his homilies, this interpretation seems highly ... idiosyncratic.

    I feel like I'm dumping on the Holy Father a lot these days, but I remember being genuinely perplexed when I first read the reports that homily back in February, and when I read your article above, or reminded me. And I'm still not too sure how to square the two with each other.

    Jesuits, eh?

  2. "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - - that's all."

    Good comments, Murray.

    Pope Francis is a very unclear communicator whenever he departs from his simple three-point homilies, and sometimes even then. But he always pits his foes the traditionalist, legalistic, Pharisaical unmerciful Catholics against loving, Spirit-filled, Jesus-like Christians (you know, like Pope Francis).

    Casuistry has come to mean just what Pascal was pointing out: looking at the particular facts of individual cases to mitigate the full punishment of the law. Within its proper limits, it has its uses. God knows that my confessor sometimes takes circumstances into account to lighten the guilt and select the appropriate medicine. It is part of being a good pastor. It's when you want to make it a rule that things get messy. It is perhaps a fine point to try to distinguish, but is clearer when we all read the Relatio! As the article points out, our casuists of today not only want to mitigate the gravity of sins, they want to get rid of some sins entirely and say "Bravo!" to the sinners!

    The Jesuits Pascal was lampooning were misusing it, just as we see the Franciscan party misusing it, and for the same reasons. Perhaps there really is nothing more nefarious than an unwisely misplaced codified mercy

    I suppose an encounter with Christ such as the Woman at the Well had would make worrying about which mountain was holy irrelevant -- at least for the moment. In any case, that is "casuistry" only in a loose sense, and certainly not as it is ordinarily understood.

    While we should all strive to have a relationship with Christ, however, few of us are going to have such a dramatic, personal confrontation with the Divine. Mystics are thin on the ground. The Church encourages us to encounter Christ in the sacraments, Scripture and fan the flame of love through devotions. Does Pope Francis dismiss all of this as "rosary counting?"

    One of the things that bothers me about Pope Francis is that sometimes he sounds more Protestant than Catholic!

    Pope Francis always wants to talk about "surprises," and "journeys," and "the Spirit." It is tricky to argue against because there is a place for all of them, but the reality of the Catholic faith is that the Church has wisely channeled most religious experience into time-honored sacraments and devotions. It was the Protestants who scrapped that for their "surprises," and "personal relationship with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ," and "Pentecostalism." It is hard to say if Pope Francis really prefers a Protestant piety, or if it is just a convenient foil to use against traditionalists.

    But leave it to a Jesuit to accuse traditionalists of both unbending legalism and casuistry!

  3. It is necessary to note that Pascal was involved with the heretical Jansenists who were bitterly opposed to the Jesuits. Therefore Pascal's criticisms of the Jesuits of the era must be reviewed carefully and with skepticism.

    1. Yes, it is a polemic. But since this is exactly what we have seen in the Church during the current age, it deserves consideration as at least a highlight of that.

  4. How do you know this is not highly unfair to the Jesuits and Suarez?

    I mean, you would hardly call Bergoglio a Jesuit, so you can't be getting it from him!


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