The Provincial Letters, by Blaise Pascal

Letter VI

Paris, April 10, 1656


I mentioned, at the close of my last letter, that my good friend, the Jesuit, had promised to show me how the casuists reconcile the contrarieties between their opinions and the decisions of the popes, the councils, and the Scripture. This promise he fulfilled at our last interview, of which I shall now give you an account.

“One of the methods,” resumed the monk, “in which we reconcile these apparent contradictions, is by the interpretation of some phrase. Thus, Pope Gregory XIV decided that assassins are not worthy to enjoy the benefit of sanctuary in churches and ought to be dragged out of them; and yet our four-and-twenty elders affirm that ‘the penalty of this bull is not incurred by all those that kill in treachery.’ This may appear to you a contradiction; but we get over this by interpreting the word assassin as follows: ‘Are assassins unworthy of sanctuary in churches? Yes, by the bull of Gregory XIV they are. But by the word assassins we understand those that have received money to murder one; and, accordingly, such as kill without taking any reward for the deed, but merely to oblige their friends, do not come under the category of assassins.’”

“Take another instance: It is said in the Gospel, ‘Give alms of your superfluity.’ Several casuists, however, have contrived to discharge the wealthiest from the obligation of alms-giving. This may appear another paradox, but the matter is easily put to rights by giving such an interpretation to the word superfluity that it will seldom or never happen that any one is troubled with such an article. This feat has been accomplished by the learned Vasquez, in his Treatise on Alms, c. 4: ‘What men of the world lay up to improve their circumstances, or those of their relatives, cannot be termed superfluity, and accordingly, such a thing as superfluity is seldom to be found among men of the world, not even excepting kings.’ Diana, too, who generally founds on our fathers, having quoted these words of Vasquez, justly concludes, ‘that as to the question whether the rich are bound to give alms of their superfluity, even though the affirmative were true, it will seldom or never happen to be obligatory in practice.’”

“I see very well how that follows from the doctrine of Vasquez,” said I. “But how would you answer this objection, that, in working out one’s salvation, it would be as safe, according to Vasquez, to give no alms, provided one can muster as much ambition as to have no superfluity; as it is safe, according to the Gospel, to have no ambition at all, in order to have some superfluity for the purpose of alms-giving?”

“Why,” returned he, “the answer would be that both of these ways are safe according to the Gospel; the one according to the Gospel in its more literal and obvious sense, and the other according to the same Gospel as interpreted by Vasquez. There you see the utility of interpretations. When the terms are so clear, however,” he continued, “as not to admit of an interpretation, we have recourse to the observation of favourable circumstances. A single example will illustrate this. The popes have denounced excommunication on monks who lay aside their canonicals; our casuists, notwithstanding, put it as a question, ‘On what occasions may a monk lay aside his religious habits without incurring excommunication?’ They mention a number of cases in which they may, and among others the following: ‘If he has laid it aside for an infamous purpose, such as to pick pockets or to go incognito into haunts of profligacy, meaning shortly after to resume it.’ It is evident the bulls have no reference to cases of that description.”

I could hardly believe that and begged the father to show me the passage in the original. He did so, and under the chapter headed “Practice according to the School of the Society of Jesus”— Praxis ex Societatis Jesu Schola — I read these very words: Si habitum dimittat ut furetur occulte, vel fornicetur. He showed me the same thing in Diana, in these terms: Ut eat incognitus ad lupanar. “And why, father,” I asked, “are they discharged from excommunication on such occasions?”

“Don’t you understand it?” he replied. “Only think what a scandal it would be, were a monk surprised in such a predicament with his canonicals on! And have you never heard,” he continued, “how they answer the first bull contra sollicitantes and how our four-and-twenty, in another chapter of the Practice according to the School of our Society, explain the bull of Pius V contra clericos, &c.?”

“I know nothing about all that,” said I.

“Then it is a sign you have not read much of Escobar,” returned the monk.

“I got him only yesterday, father, said I; “and I had no small difficulty, too, in procuring a copy. I don’t know how it is, but everybody of late has been in search of him.”

“The passage to which I referred,” returned the monk, “may be found in treatise I, example 8, no. 102. Consult it at your leisure when you go home.”

I did so that very night; but it is so shockingly bad that I dare not transcribe it.

The good father then went on to say: “You now understand what use we make of favourable circumstances. Sometimes, however, obstinate cases will occur, which will not admit of this mode of adjustment; so much so, indeed, that you would almost suppose they involved flat contradictions. For example, three popes have decided that monks who are bound by a particular vow to a Lenten life cannot be absolved from it even though they should become bishops. And yet Diana avers that notwithstanding this decision they are absolved.

“And how does he reconcile that?” said I.

“By the most subtle of all the modern methods, and by the nicest possible application of probability,” replied the monk. “You may recollect you were told the other day that the affirmative and negative of most opinions have each, according to our doctors, some probability enough, at least, to be followed with a safe conscience. Not that the pro and con are both true in the same sense — that is impossible — but only they are both probable and, therefore, safe, as a matter of course. On this principle our worthy friend Diana remarks: ‘To the decision of these three popes, which is contrary to my opinion, I answer that they spoke in this way by adhering to the affirmative side — which, in fact, even in my judgement, is probable; but it does not follow from this that the negative may not have its probability too.’ And in the same treatise, speaking of another subject on which he again differs from a pope, he says: ‘The pope, I grant, has said it as the head of the Church; but his decision does not extend beyond the sphere of the probability of his own opinion.’ Now you perceive this is not doing any harm to the opinions of the popes; such a thing would never be tolerated at Rome, where Diana is in high repute. For he does not say that what the popes have decided is not probable; but leaving their opinion within the sphere of probability, he merely says that the contrary is also probable.”

“That is very respectful,” said I.

“Yes,” added the monk, “and rather more ingenious than the reply made by Father Bauny, when his books were censured at Rome; for, when pushed very hard on this point by M. Hallier, he made bold to write: ‘What has the censure of Rome to do with that of France?’ You now see how, either by the interpretation of terms, by the observation of favourable circumstances, or by the aid of the double probability of pro and con, we always contrive to reconcile those seeming contradictions which occasioned you so much surprise, without ever touching on the decisions of Scripture, councils, or popes.”

“Reverend father,” said I, “how happy the world is in having such men as you for its masters! And what blessings are these probabilities! I never knew the reason why you took such pains to establish that a single doctor, if a grave one, might render an opinion probable, and that the contrary might be so too, and that one may choose any side one pleases, even though he does not believe it to be the right side, and all with such a safe conscience, that the confessor who should refuse him absolution on the faith of the casuists would be in a state of damnation. But I see now that a single casuist may make new rules of morality at his discretion and dispose, according to his fancy, of everything pertaining to the regulation of manners.”

“What you have now said,” rejoined the father, “would require to be modified a little. 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.’ And, in fact, on this principle he authenticates one of his own principles in his sixth treatise, p. 312.”

“Indeed, father! “ cried I, “why, on this principle the Church would approve of all the abuses which she tolerates, and all the errors in all the books which she does not censure!”

“Dispute the point with Father Bauny,” he replied. “I am merely quoting his words, and you begin to quarrel with me. There is no disputing with facts, sir. Well, as I was saying, when time has thus matured an opinion, it thenceforth becomes completely probable and safe. Hence the learned Caramuel, in dedicating his Fundamental Theology to Diana, declares that this great Diana has rendered many opinions probable which were not so before — quae antea non erant, and that, therefore, in following them, persons do not sin now, though they would have sinned formerly — jam non peccant, licet ante peccaverint.”

“Truly, father,” I observed, “it must be worth one’s while living in the neighbourhood of your doctors. Why, of two individuals who do the same actions, he that knows nothing about their doctrine sins, while he that knows it does no sin. It seems, then, that their doctrine possesses at once an edifying and a justifying virtue! The law of God, according to St. Paul, made transgressors; but this law of yours makes nearly all of us innocent. I beseech you, my dear sir, let me know all about it. I will not leave you till you have told me all the maxims which your casuists have established.”

“Alas!” the monk exclaimed, “our main object, no doubt, should have been to establish no other maxims than those of the Gospel in all their strictness: and it is easy to see, from the Rules for the regulation of our manners, that, if we tolerate some degree of relaxation in others, it is rather out of complaisance than through design. The truth is, sir, we are forced to it. 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.

“They have got maxims, therefore, for all sorts of persons; for beneficiaries, for priests, for monks; for gentlemen, for servants; for rich men, for commercial men; for people in embarrassed or indigent circumstances; for devout women, and women that are not devout; for married people, and irregular people. In short, nothing has escaped their foresight.”

“In other words,” said I, “they have got maxims for the clergy, the nobility, and the commons. Well, I am quite impatient to hear them.”

“Let us commence,” resumed the father, ‘with the beneficiaries. You are aware of the traffic with benefices that is now carried on, and that, were the matter referred to St. Thomas and the ancients who had written on it, there might chance to be some simoniacs in the Church. This rendered it highly necessary for our fathers to exercise their prudence in finding out a palliative. With what success they have done so will appear from the following words of Valencia, who is one of Escobar’s ‘four living creatures.’ At the end of a long discourse, in which he suggests various expedients, he propounds the following at page 2039, vol. iii, which, to my mind, is the best: ‘If a person gives a temporal in exchange for a spiritual good’— that is, if he gives money for a benefice —‘and gives the money as the price of the benefice, it is manifest simony. But if he gives it merely as the motive which inclines the will of the patron to confer on him the living, it is not simony, even though the person who confers it considers and expects the money as the principal object.’ Tanner, who is also a member of our Society, affirms the same thing, vol. iii, p.1519, although he ‘grants that St. Thomas is opposed to it; for he expressly teaches that it is always simony to give a spiritual for a temporal good, if the temporal is the end in view.’ By this means we prevent an immense number of simoniacal transactions; for who would be so desperately wicked as to refuse, when giving money for a benefice, to take the simple precaution of so directing his intentions as to give it as a motive to induce the beneficiary to part with it, instead of giving it as the price of the benefice? No man, surely, can be so far left to himself as that would come to.”

“I agree with you there,” I replied; “all men, I should think, have sufficient grace to make a bargain of that sort.”

“There can be no doubt of it,” returned the monk. “Such, then, is the way in which we soften matters in regard to the beneficiaries. And now for the priests — we have maxims pretty favourable to them also. Take the following, for example, from our four-and-twenty elders: “Can a priest, who has received money to say a mass, take an additional sum upon the same mass? Yes, says Filiutius, he may, by applying that part of the sacrifice which belongs to himself as a priest to the person who paid him last; provided he does not take a sum equivalent to a whole mass, but only a part, such as the third of a mass.’”

“Surely, father,” said I, “this must be one of those cases in which the pro and the con have both their share of probability. What you have now stated cannot fail, of course, to be probable, having the authority of such men as Filiutius and Escobar; and yet, leaving that within the sphere of probability, it strikes me that the contrary opinion might be made out to be probable too, and might be supported by such reasons as the following: That, while the Church allows priests who are in poor circumstances to take money for their masses, seeing it is but right that those who serve at the altar should live by the altar, she never intended that they should barter the sacrifice for money, and, still less, that they should deprive themselves of those benefits which they ought themselves, in the first place, to draw from it; to which I might add that, according to St. Paul, the priests are to offer sacrifice first for themselves and then for the people; and that, accordingly, while permitted to participate with others in the benefit of the sacrifice, they are not at liberty to forego their share by transferring it to another for a third of a mass, or, in other words, for the matter of fourpence or fivepence. Verily, father, little as I pretend to be a grave man, I might contrive to make this opinion probable.”

“It would cost you no great pains to do that, replied the monk; “it is visibly probable already. The difficulty lies in discovering probability in the converse of opinions manifestly good; and this is a feat which none but great men can achieve. Father Bauny shines in this department. It is really delightful to see that learned casuist examining with characteristic ingenuity and subtlety the negative and affirmative of the same question, and proving both of them to be right! Thus in the matter of priests, he says in one place: ‘No law can be made to oblige the curates to say mass every day; for such a law would unquestionably (haud dubie) expose them to the danger of saying it sometimes in mortal sin.’ And yet, in another part of the same treatise, he says, ‘that priests who have received money for saying mass every day ought to say it every day, and that they cannot excuse themselves on the ground that they are not always in a fit state for the service; because it is in their power at all times to do penance, and if they neglect this they have themselves to blame for it and not the person who made them say mass.’ And to relieve their minds from all scruples on the subject, he thus resolves the question: ‘May a priest say mass on the same day in which he has committed a mortal sin of the worst kind, in the way of confessing himself beforehand?’ Villalobos says no, because of his impurity; but Sancius says: ‘He may without any sin; and I hold his opinion to be safe, and one which may be followed in practice — et tuta et sequenda in praxi.’”

“Follow this opinion in practice!” cried I. “Will any priest who has fallen into such irregularities have the assurance on the same day to approach the altar, on the mere word of Father Bauny? Is he not bound to submit to the ancient laws of the Church, which debarred from the sacrifice forever, or at least for a long time, priests who had committed sins of that description — instead of following the modern opinions of casuists, who would admit him to it on the very day that witnessed his fall?”

“You have a very short memory, returned the monk. “Did I not inform you a little ago that, according to our fathers Cellot and Reginald, ‘in matters of morality we are to follow, not the ancient fathers, but the modern casuists?’”

“I remember it perfectly,” said I; “but we have something more here: we have the laws of the Church.”

“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. Were we to be so strict in excluding priests from the altar, you can understand there would not be such a great number of masses. Now a multitude of masses brings such a revenue of glory to God and of good to souls that I may venture to say, with Father Cellot, that there would not be too many priests, ‘though not only all men and women, were that possible, but even inanimate bodies, and even brute beasts — bruta animalia — were transformed into priests to celebrate mass.’”

I was so astounded at the extravagance of this imagination that I could not utter a word and allowed him to go on with his discourse. “Enough, however, about priests; I am afraid of getting tedious: let us come to the monks. The grand difficulty with them is the obedience they owe to their superiors; now observe the palliative which our fathers apply in this case. Castro Palao of our Society has said: ‘Beyond all dispute, a monk who has a probable opinion of his own, is not bound to obey his superior, though the opinion of the latter is the more probable. For the monk is at liberty to adopt the opinion which is more agreeable to himself — quae sibi gratior fuerit — as Sanchez says. And though the order of his superior be just, that does not oblige you to obey him, for it is not just at all points or in every respect — non undequaque juste praecepit — but only probably so; and, consequently, you are only probably bound to obey him, and probably not bound — probabiliter obligatus, et probabiliter deobligatus.’”

“Certainly, father,” said I, “it is impossible too highly to estimate this precious fruit of the double probability.”

“It is of great use indeed,” he replied; “but we must be brief. Let me only give you the following specimen of our famous Molina in favour of monks who are expelled from their convents for irregularities. Escobar quotes him thus: ‘Molina asserts that a monk expelled from his monastery is not obliged to reform in order to get back again, and that he is no longer bound by his vow of obedience.’”

“Well, father,” cried I, “this is all very comfortable for the clergy. Your casuists, I perceive, have been very indulgent to them, and no wonder — they were legislating, so to speak, for themselves. I am afraid people of other conditions are not so liberally treated. Every one for himself in this world.”

“There you do us wrong,” returned the monk; “they could not have been kinder to themselves than we have been to them. We treat all, from the highest to the lowest, with an even-handed charity, sir. And to prove this, you tempt me to tell you our maxims for servants. In reference to this class, we have taken into consideration the difficulty they must experience, when they are men of conscience, in serving profligate masters. For, if they refuse to perform all the errands in which they are employed, they lose their places; and if they yield obedience, they have their scruples. To relieve them from these, our four-and-twenty fathers have specified the services which they may render with a safe conscience; such as ‘carrying letters and presents, opening doors and windows, helping their master to reach the window, holding the ladder which he is mounting. All this,’ say they, ‘is allowable and indifferent; it is true that, as to holding the ladder, they must be threatened, more than usually, with being punished for refusing; for it is doing an injury to the master of a house to enter it by the window.’ You perceive the judiciousness of that observation, of course?”

“I expected nothing less,” said I, “from a book edited by four-and-twenty Jesuits.”

“But,” added the monk, “Father Bauny has gone beyond this; he has taught valets how to perform these sorts of offices for their masters quite innocently, by making them direct their intention, not to the sins to which they are accessary, but to the gain which is to accrue from them. In his Summary of Sins, p.710, first edition, he thus states the matter: ‘Let confessors observe,’ says he, ‘that they cannot absolve valets who perform base errands, if they consent to the sins of their masters; but the reverse holds true, if they have done the thing merely from a regard to their temporal emolument.’ And that, I should conceive, is no difficult matter to do; for why should they insist on consenting to sins of which they taste nothing but the trouble? The same Father Bauny has established a prime maxim in favour of those who are not content with their wages: ‘May servants who are dissatisfied with their wages use means to raise them by laying their hands on as much of the property of their masters as they may consider necessary to make the said wages equivalent to their trouble? They may, in certain circumstances; as when they are so poor that, in looking for a situation, they have been obliged to accept the offer made to them, and when other servants of the same class are gaining more than they, elsewhere.’”

“Ha, father!” cried I, “that is John d’Alba’s passage, I declare.”

“What John d’Alba?” inquired the father: “what do you mean?”

“Strange, father!” returned I: “do you not remember what happened in this city in the year 1647? Where in the world were you living at that time?”

“I was teaching cases of conscience in one of our colleges far from Paris,” he replied.

“I see you don’t know the story, father: I must tell it to you. I heard it related the other day by a man of honour, whom I met in company. He told us that this John d’Alba, who was in the service of your fathers in the College of Clermont, in the Rue St. Jacques, being dissatisfied with his wages, had purloined something to make himself amends; and that your fathers, on discovering the theft, had thrown him into prison on the charge of larceny. The case was reported to the court, if I recollect right, on the 16th of April, 1647; for he was very minute in his statements, and indeed they would hardly have been credible otherwise. The poor fellow, on being questioned, confessed to having taken some pewter plates, but maintained that for all that he had not stolen them; pleading in his defence this very doctrine of Father Bauny, which he produced before the judges, along with a pamphlet by one of your fathers, under whom he had studied cases of conscience, and who had taught him the same thing. Whereupon M. de Montrouge, one of the most respected members of the court, said, in giving his opinion, ‘that he did not see how, on the ground of the writings of these fathers — writings containing a doctrine so illegal, pernicious, and contrary to all laws, natural, divine, and human, and calculated to ruin all families, and sanction all sorts of household robbery — they could discharge the accused. But his opinion was that this too faithful disciple should be whipped before the college gate, by the hand of the common hangman; and that, at the same time, this functionary should burn the writings of these fathers which treated of larceny, with certification that they were prohibited from teaching such doctrine in future, upon pain of death.’

“The result of this judgement, which was heartily approved of, was waited for with much curiosity, when some incident occurred which made them delay procedure. But in the meantime the prisoner disappeared, nobody knew how, and nothing more was heard about the affair; so that John d’Alba got off, pewter plates and all. Such was the account he gave us, to which he added, that the judgement of M. de Montrouge was entered on the records of the court, where any one may consult it. We were highly amused at the story.”

“What are you trifling about now?” cried the monk. “What does all that signify? I was explaining the maxims of our casuists, and was just going to speak of those relating to gentlemen, when you interrupt me with impertinent stories.”

“It was only something put in by the way, father,” I observed; “and besides, I was anxious to apprise you of an important circumstance, which I find you have overlooked in establishing your doctrine of probability.”

“Ay, indeed!” exclaimed the monk, “what defect can this be that has escaped the notice of so many ingenious men?”

“You have certainly,” continued I, “contrived to place your disciples in perfect safety so far as God and the conscience are concerned; for they are quite safe in that quarter, according to you, by following in the wake of a grave doctor. You have also secured them on the part of the confessors, by obliging priests, on the pain of mortal sin, to absolve all who follow a probable opinion. But you have neglected to secure them on the part of the judges; so that, in following your probabilities, they are in danger of coming into contact with the whip and the gallows. This is a sad oversight.”

“You are right,” said the monk; “I am glad you mentioned it. But the reason is we have no such power over magistrates as over the confessors, who are obliged to refer to us in cases of conscience, in which we are the sovereign judges.”

“So I understand,” returned I; “but if, on the one hand, you are the judges of the confessors, are you not, on the other hand, the confessors of the judges? Your power is very extensive. Oblige them, on pain of being debarred from the sacraments, to acquit all criminals who act on a probable opinion; otherwise it may happen, to the great contempt and scandal of probability, that those whom you render innocent in theory may be whipped or hanged in practice. Without something of this kind, how can you expect to get disciples?”

“The matter deserves consideration,” said he; “it will never do to neglect it. I shall suggest it to our father Provincial. You might, however, have reserved this advice to some other time, without interrupting the account I was about to give you of the maxims which we have established in favour of gentlemen; and I shall not give you any more information, except on condition that you do not tell me any more stories.”

This is all you shall have from me at present; for it would require more than the limits of one letter to acquaint you with all that I learned in a single conversation. Meanwhile I am, &c.

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:10