In 1656, after complicated backroom maneuverings in France and at Rome, Alexander VII promulgated the bull Ad sanctam, which responded directly to Pascal’s argument. Pope Alexander wrote that the five propositions of Cum occasione were drawn from the Augustinus, and are condemned “in sensu ab eodem Cornelio Iansenio intento”: in just the same sense as that intended by Jansen. This raised the temperature. Alexander didn’t back off from what Innocent had written, but rather intensified it in two ways. Now the five propositions were not merely said to have been taught or endorsed by Jansen in the Augustinus, but to have been excerpted from that book; and the sense in which they were condemned was said to be exactly the sense intended by Jansen. That second claim introduced a new problem: it was no longer just a question of what was written in the book, which is a matter of public record, but also of what the person who wrote it meant by it, which isn’t.
Pascal did not retreat. In 1657, partly in response to Ad sanctam, he restated a clear distinction between two ways of coming to assent to some claim. One is by reason, which means deploying for oneself whatever means of investigation are best suited to the claim in question. The other is by relying on authority, which means faith or trust in those best equipped to rule on the topic. Pascal subdivided this second way, faith, into two kinds. First, there’s divine faith, which means faith in what God has entrusted to the church, available to Catholics in Scripture and tradition. Here tradition means “what’s proposed to us by the church, with the assistance of the Spirit.” The church, Pascal writes, is infallible on those matters. And then there’s human faith, which means faith in authoritative people, those best equipped to teach us truths about particular matters (historical, empirical, and so on). And then Pascal writes this:
Everything that has to do with a particular point of fact can only be assented to by human faith. That’s because it’s quite clear that such matters can’t be founded upon Scripture or tradition, which are the two channels through which God’s revelation, on which divine faith is founded, comes to us. And that’s why the church can be in error on questions of fact, as all Catholics recognize.
To command those who are entirely persuaded of the truth of some point of fact to change their opinion in deference to papal authority would be to require that they abuse their reason against the order of God himself, who has given us reason to discriminate true from false so that we can prefer what we take to be true to what we take to be false.
This makes the tension very clear. In spite of what Alexander’s bull says, Pascal continued to deny that particular matters of fact can be resolved by magisterial authority, and he did that because of an epistemology—an understanding of what knowledge is and how it’s arrived at—that places conclusions about such matters beyond the scope of magisterial teaching. So if you should find yourself in the position, as Pascal did, of having what you take to be clear, even decisive evidence in favor of some conclusion about a question of fact, you shouldn’t abandon that conclusion because a pope or some bishops say the opposite.
It’s worth pausing here to note that Pascal is correct about the question of fact at issue. None of the five propositions condemned by Innocent and Alexander is to be found verbatim in the Augustinus, and if Alexander said otherwise, then he was wrong. Thanks to Google Books, you can test this at home. The 1640 Louvain edition of the Augustinus—1,463 pages of turgidly serious Latin on double-columned badly-photographed pages—can be downloaded gratis. You can read it all with the text of the condemned propositions at hand, and if you do, you’ll find that none of them has been excerpted from the book—not, at least, if “excerpted” means “taken verbatim.” And if you consult the latest edition of Denzinger’s Compendium (2012), you’ll find that its notes to the relevant sections of Innocent’s Cum occasione claim that the first of the condemned propositions is found “literally” in the Augustinus, at 3.III.13. But it isn’t—or not if “literally” means “verbatim.”
Of course, to say that the condemned propositions aren’t found verbatim in the Augustinus is perfectly compatible with saying that the condemned propositions are an adequate summary of the positions defended in that text. I’ll make no claim about that one way or the other. Here I focus on the matter only to provide a clear instance of Pascal’s strong claim, quoted above: that it’s possible for the magisterium to err on matters of fact, and that if we think we have decisive evidence that this has happened, we’d be abusing our faculties—and, I’d add, our consciences—were we to pretend otherwise.
But that isn’t the end of the story. Following Alexander’s bull—and after much back-and-forth among the French bishops, the Roman consultors, and various political factions, to which Pascal contributed with the vigor you might expect—the French vicars general demanded that priests, religious, and teachers of theology sign a formulary of submission to the bulls of 1653 and 1656, in wording designed to make it impossible to maintain a distinction between the condemned propositions and Jansen’s teaching of them. This was in October 1661, just nine months before Pascal’s death. Pascal’s last surviving written contribution to the debate, composed during the last months of 1661, speaks to a situation in which, as he sees it, the Port-Royalists have only three choices: sign the formulary without reservation, which would mean agreeing that the propositions are heretical and that Jansen taught them; refuse to sign; or sign with the reservation that the signature has to do only with matters that concern the faith—i.e., not with the question of what Jansen did or didn’t write or intend or teach, but only with questions of substance about the workings of grace.
Pascal explicitly rejects the third option. By now, he writes, “it’s a point of doctrine and of faith to say that the five propositions are heretical in the sense given them by Jansen.” To sign the formulary, then, is to submit to the denial of the-five-propositions-in-the-sense-given-them-by-Jansen. That complex object can no longer be disaggregated into its components (the five propositions on the one hand; Jansen’s teaching on the other). Attempts to do so have been ruled out by Ad sanctam and the formulary. If one signed the formulary, one’s signature meant submission to all of it; anything else would be bad faith. It would be “abominable before God and despicable before men.” But it’s not clear from this last surviving writing on the matter which of the other two possibilities—signing without reservation or not signing—Pascal endorsed. He died the following August.
At first blush it might seem clear which option Pascal must have favored. If, as he’d been consistent in arguing for the preceding six years, the magisterium’s authority doesn’t extend to matters of fact, and yet explicit submission to a teaching on just such a matter was now being required of French Catholics, shouldn’t he have refused to sign? Wouldn’t signing have been acknowledgement of a kind of authority the bishops don’t in fact have? Perhaps. But it seems to me that there’s something else Pascal might have done—and some evidence to suggest that it’s what he did.
The evidence: First, it’s clear that by late 1661 Pascal was at odds with other Port-Royalists on the question of the signature. The disagreements circled around whether the fact/doctrine distinction could be maintained, whether it was proper to sign with reservations, and whether it was proper to sign at all. That there were such disagreements shows at least that Pascal’s final position wasn’t identical with any of those held by other prominent Jansenists in 1661 and 1662, and since those positions were, essentially, sign with reservation or don’t sign, it’s at least possible that Pascal advocated signing without reservation. Second, there’s some (disputed) evidence in support of the view that Pascal died in full communion with the church, having confessed, received the last rites, and, during the last few days of his life, fully acknowledged to his confessor the right of the church to require his assent to the claims of the formulary. That’s the sworn testimony given after Pascal’s death by the priest who attended him in his last days. This testimony was accepted by the bishop of Paris, who’d commissioned an investigation into Pascal’s death in response to a request that his remains be disinterred from their burial place because he was a heretic who’d died separated from the Church. And third, there’s evidence (again, not probative) that close to the time of his death Pascal asked Jean Domat, to whom his papers were consigned, to destroy his writings on the signature if the religious of Port-Royal found themselves under persecution, but to preserve and publish them if they’d submitted. That report makes more sense if Pascal finally advocated signing without reservation.
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