Letters | Responses to Pascal & the Magisterium


Paul J. Griffiths’s “Under Pressure” (May) reintroduced me to a controversy that has long engaged my thinking. The struggle between Blaise Pascal’s brilliant mind and his adherence to papal edicts has some resonance today. But I fear Griffiths’s characterization of the pressure that “the magisterium” should place on the “thinking Catholic” belies some advances that have been made concerning matters of fact and questions of purported faithful adherence.

Griffiths poses the question of authority in the Church in terms of a unitary magisterium (my term) that collapses the teaching of “bishops” with papal decrees. Those supposedly doctrinal decrees occurred in a political context in which the actions of Popes Innocent X and Alexander VII were notoriously influenced by the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu, and then the young Louis XIV. Catholic thinkers interested in reform were backed into a corner by aristocratic politicians as much as by any papal authority (the state and Church being sickly intertwined until the French Revolution).

Defining the task of a “Catholic thinker” (a theologian perhaps?) as “recognizing that you are more likely to be wrong than the Church is” begs several questions that some reflection on important advances in ecclesiology might cast light on. Cardinal Newman’s more expansive notion of the teaching office of the Church gave priority to the schola theologorum as an essential component of articulating what comprises the faith of the whole Church. Subsequently, theologians (many of them French) contributed valuable insights from the deeper theological tradition that ended up—despite their persecution by Roman magisterialists—making the teaching Church “think harder.”

Much of the results of this thinking then led to Vatican II’s doctrinal and moral teachings, which stood earlier statements of the so-called ordinary magisterium on their head. They did so because of  theologians who thought harder about issues of fact: that humans have rights of conscience, that Judaism perdures as a genuine faith, that the Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in even non-theistic faiths. All of these developments occurred because theologians thought harder about the inadequacies of what popes (and bishops) had long held and proclaimed. This makes Griffiths’s description of “the Catholic thing” not wrong, but just too one-sided.    

Paul E. Dinter
Ossining, N.Y.



I found the article on Pascal to be an interesting and thoughtful exposition of a complicated situation. Yet nowhere did the author acknowledge that the whole dispute between Pascal and the Roman authorities was playing out against the background of the ongoing activities of the Inquisition in France. The chance of imprisonment and of being denied a Christian burial would have been a real component in Pascal’s decision-making. For us, holding a divergent opinion in public simply means the possibility of being trolled on Facebook; for the French philosopher it could have meant being consigned to eternal damnation.

Michael Marchal
Cincinnati, Ohio 



Paul Griffiths provides an interesting survey of the ins and outs of magisterial teaching for Pascal and in a way for us, too. The heart of the matter is captured in his statement that you would be in trouble “if you find the Church teaching It’s not possible for women to be ordained to the priesthood while you find yourself believing that it is possible.” That is what I and many Catholics find the Church now teaches. We also believe that the teaching is neither infallible nor irreformable. Teachings of the magisterium have indeed developed and even changed over history and will continue to change. The list is long. One might start by surveying the very admirable changes in Church’s teachings about the study and meanings of sacred Scripture. And there is “no salvation outside the Church,” which is still on the books, but does not mean what it seems to say.

Leo Gafney
Lakeville, Conn. 



Paul Griffiths’s piece on Pascal and the magisterium is a maddening blend of luscious prose, fine historical narrative, and ultimately flawed theology. If I correctly understand his point—brought home in his brilliant final paragraph—I am to consistently apply my God-given ability to reason out whether something is true or false, and diligently pursue that which is true. Fine. But if the Church disagrees with me because it invented evidence that simply doesn’t exist (Jansen’s “errant” texts, in this case), I am to fold my tent, concede my point, and abandon what I know to be completely, obviously, and patently true. Merciful heavens! I now better understand Martin Luther, and the millions of contemporary Catholics who possess at best only a nodding respect for Church authority. Please tell me I’m wrong, and that the truth still does “set us free.”

Pete Taft
Hopewell, N.J.



I’m grateful for these thoughtful responses to my Pascal essay. A few words to each are all I can offer by way of thanks.

To Paul Dinter: I don’t think that he and I have any serious disagreements. He nuances the picture I gave of how magisterial authority works, but not, so far as I can see, in such a way as to call into question anything I wrote about the essential structure of the relation between magisterial authority and the thoughts and writings of those subject to it. Of course he is right that theologians have much to contribute to the Church’s task of improving its understanding of the revelation it’s been entrusted with; I wrote as much in my essay. Perhaps unlike Dinter, however, I’d rather be subject to the authority of bishops than theologians. Theologians (including myself) are, in my experience of them, altogether more dogmatic and less responsive to reason than bishops, perhaps because their careers depend on their capacity to communicate confidence in their own rightness. That makes for a problematic magisterium.

To Michael Marchal: Yes, quite right. The results of contradicting the magisterium in seventeenth-century France were rather more bracing than they are for us now, and it’s good to remember it. I must confess, though, to thinking, with Pascal, that there remains something important at stake in disagreeing with the magisterium, even though the results of doing so are less likely now than then to lead to imprisonment and other such unpleasantness.

To Leo Gafney: Well, yes, the Church’s teachings have developed over time, as they should. I rather think, however, that Gafney is overly confident in his own capacity to distinguish what’s good from what’s not in those teachings (note his use of “admirable”). I prefer a more modest position, being aware, as I am, of my own passions, limitations, and fallibilities. The most I can do when something the Church teaches seems mistaken to me is offer—humbly, but with as much clarity as I can muster—a doubt, under the rubric, as I wrote, of confidence that the teaching Church is more likely to be right than I am. I wonder whether Gafney shares that conviction?

To Pete Taft: Yes, the truth still does set us free, and that truth is Jesus Christ. But I think Taft has misread me. I didn’t advocate tent-folding. I advocated, with Pascal’s example before me, clarity about the nature and extent of my disagreements with papal teaching when they occur, coupled with refusal to pretend to take as true something I don’t take as true and with a relaxed (difficult, that) sense, explicit when necessary, that I’m very often wrong and that the teaching Church is less often so. This, really, is the nub of the matter: Can we hold together a sense that we have good reasons for thinking p true, even decisively good reasons, with an acknowledgment that an authority we hold dear teaches clearly that p is false? I think I can. Does Taft?

Published in the July / August 2020 issue: 
Also by this author
The Human Dimension

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