“Magisterium” is a Latin word that designates, for Catholics, the church’s teaching authority, vested principally in its bishops. Grammatically, the word is a noun in the genitive plural and means, literally, “what belongs to teachers”—teacherly things, that is. In theological usage, the teacherly thing indicated most directly by “magisterium” is authority. Jesus had this, Scripture tells us: it was strikingly and surprisingly evident in his teaching, and he is referred to as “teacher” (magister) in Latin versions of Scripture. The church’s bishops, as Jesus’ inheritors in this respect, have it too.
Authority asks for submission, and when it’s recognized, submission ordinarily follows. When the state trooper’s blue lights flash in my rearview mirror, I pull over. That’s because she has authority and I recognize it. If I didn’t, I might ignore the flashing lights. That she does in fact have authority explains why, if I ignore those lights, things won’t go well for me in the short-term future. Authority is real: it belongs to those who have it whether it’s acknowledged or not. But for it to become active, it must be acknowledged, whether willingly (I pull over) or not (I’m forced off the road).
It’s a commonplace that teachers have authority. If you want to learn something from someone and you don’t recognize their authority to teach it to you, you won’t be able to learn it from them. This is most obvious when what you want to learn is technique: ordinarily, the teacher demonstrates the technique (the fingering that makes it possible to play the Goldberg Variations, or the best way to make a villanelle), and then you try it for yourself. If you don’t recognize the teacher’s authority by observing and imitating her demonstration of whatever it is you’re trying to learn, then she won’t be able to teach you. The authority of a teacher is ordinarily limited to its proper sphere. It’s not reasonable to expect your piano teacher to also instruct you in the proper use of a chainsaw, in rather the same way that it’s not reasonable to take the state trooper’s authority to extend to the establishment of foreign policy.
All this applies to the magisterium. It has its proper sphere, which is, roughly speaking, what belongs to Catholic faith and morals, with extensions into the governance of Catholic life by law. Its authority does not extend to instruction in the arts, or to empirically observable fact, or to mathematical truths. Generally, it also does not extend to questions of historical fact, or to politics, or to literature. If it does have anything to say about such questions, it’s because answers to them are understood to have an effect upon Catholic faith and morals. And mostly they don’t.
As with other kinds of authority, magisterial authority is effective only when it’s freely recognized, or when teachers can force recognition on those who’d rather not give it. Since most non-Catholics don’t recognize magisterial authority at all, and since the church’s teachers, unlike state troopers, have few means at their disposal to make them do so, magisterial authority is, by and large, effective only for Catholics. And it’s not always effective even for them, because sometimes they refuse to recognize it, and the bishops either can’t or don’t do what would be necessary to make them.
So here’s the picture, drastically simplified but accurate as far as it goes: the church’s bishops have authority to teach Catholics about what we Catholics should believe and how we should act. And that authority binds: we are to assent to, and act upon, these teachings. Because of the magisterium we can say, as the centurion said to Jesus, that we know what authority is and that we live our lives responsively to it. That is good knowledge to have, for all human life is lived, more or less, under authority, and it’s among the privileges of Catholic life for that condition to be explicit and theorized.
But living a life under authority in this way comes with interesting difficulties, and with the help of Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), a peculiarly sharp thinker on this as on most other topics, I want to consider one of them. Suppose you’re a Catholic and that you take yourself to be bound by magisterial teaching: you’re aware of it and you take it seriously; you don’t shrug off difficulties in this sphere by replacing what the bishops teach with what seems good to you. Suppose, next, that a magisterial teaching is promulgated on a sharply delineated topic about which you take yourself to know a good deal. Suppose, further, that what the magisterium has to say about this topic is, so far as you can see, simply wrong. And suppose, lastly, that the situation of the church in your time and place makes silence on the matter seem to you either imprudent or improper. What do you do? Pascal was faced with just such a situation.
Today Pascal is mostly known for the Pensées, the title given in 1670 to the first publication of a collection of literary fragments left in disarray at his early death. These contain the outlines of an apologetic in favor of Catholic Christianity, a subtle and interesting understanding of the human condition with observations on death, boredom, amusement, the meaning of social and political life, and much more. The Pensées were widely read in the seventeenth century, as they have been ever since. Pascal also wrote a considerable quantity of polemical theology, mostly against the Jesuits, some of it published under a pseudonym during his lifetime. But during his life he was mostly known as a mathematician and scientist. He made contributions to the development of calculus, designed and built the first working calculating machine, planned the first mass-transit system in Paris, performed experiments that showed the possibility that a vacuum can exist—and much more. And since he died at thirty-nine, he managed to fit all this into a short career.
Pascal lived at perhaps the last moment in European history when it was halfway reasonable to think yourself capable of having significant expertise in every department of human knowledge. He doesn’t rival his younger contemporary Leibniz (1646–1716) in the range of his knowledge—who could?—but he makes Descartes (1596–1650), whom he met, and Spinoza (1632–1677) look positively provincial in their interests. But many people have great intellectual capacities. That alone wouldn’t make him memorable. Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704) was more of a polymath than Pascal, and vastly more learned. But Pascal could write with lucidity and force, and Bossuet, like most intellectuals, could not. Pascal, therefore, was read much more widely during his life, and has been ever since. The ability to write well, with lucidity, concision, wit, and force, is at least as important in intellectual life as the capacity to think, and since there is no profundity of thought that requires obscurity in writing, it’s surprising how many thinkers with important things to say haven’t been able to find clear language with which to say them. Pascal isn’t among them: his writings were and still are a stimulating pleasure to read.
Pascal considered himself a faithful Catholic, and this was central to his self-conception. Were he to have lost or abandoned his faith, he would have lost something as close to himself as his ability to write French or think mathematically. And so, when he found himself at odds with the magisterium, he took it seriously; and because he was the kind of man who wrote about whatever he took to be important, he wrote about this situation. In fact, he wrote a lot about it, over a period of more than ten years, which means that we have a good deal of material from his hand on which to draw.
Pascal’s understanding of theological topics such as God, grace, church, and the nature of the Christian life were deeply influenced by the published work of Cornelius Jansen (1585–1638), a Dutch theologian and bishop. Jansenism, named for Jansen, was a Catholic reform movement of Augustinian inspiration. It was eventually judged heretical in significant part, and it disturbed French Catholicism, and eventually European Catholicism, for a century and a half after Jansen’s death. During Pascal’s life, the movement was institutionally centered on the convents of Port-Royal in Paris, and Pascal was among its principal apologists. Jansenism survives now largely as a label for a set of heresies about grace and predestination, and for a harshly rigorist understanding of the disciplines of the Christian life. That is regrettable, for some of the most knowledgeable and skilled theologians of the seventeenth century were, or later came to be called, Jansenists, and there’s more to be said in favor of their work, and of the tendency within Christianity that it represents, than such a dismissive summary permits.
Augustinus (1640), Jansen’s principal work, is a large study of Augustine, with a particular focus on Augustine’s understanding of grace as set out in his late anti-Pelagian works. The Augustinus was a foundational text for Pascal and the Port-Royalists. They took Jansen’s work to be correct as a reading of Augustine, and orthodox with respect to the doctrines of grace and human agency. They also took it to be an essential corrective to other, largely Jesuit tendencies within Catholicism that, as they believed, over-accommodated Christianity to the pagan mores of seventeenth-century France, and gave too much independence to human agency. In May 1653, Pope Innocent X issued a bull condemning five propositions on grace and attributing them to Jansen’s Augustinus. Innocent described these propositions as rash, false, impious, blasphemous, scandalous, and concluded that they were, collectively, heretical. The Port-Royalists, including Pascal, responded with a flood of polemical writing.
Innocent’s bull, Cum occasione, makes two claims. First, that a certain understanding of the workings of grace is heretical; and second, that precisely such an understanding is endorsed by a particular book—namely, the Augustinus. Pascal acknowledged at once the right of the magisterium to rule on questions about grace, and accepted that the five condemned propositions do enshrine an unorthodox and unacceptable understanding of grace. But he also insisted he had never held such an understanding of grace, and neither, so far as he could tell, had any of the so-called Jansenists, particularly not Cornelius Jansen, whether in the Augustinus or anywhere else.
Pascal’s response calls into question the right—and perhaps also the capacity—of the bishops to rule on matters of fact that can be settled by ordinary empirical investigation. Matters of that sort, Pascal argued, should be investigated by those best equipped to do so, and with the methods best adapted to the task. And the question of whether the Augustinus really did endorse, defend, or explicitly mention any or all of the condemned propositions is exactly a matter of that sort. It’s a question of fact. If you want to know what’s in the Augustinus, there’s just one appropriate method: it’s to study the book. If it includes the five propositions in question, then the references can be given, the quotations supplied, and anyone who wishes can confirm for themselves the facts of the matter. Pascal notes that no one—not Innocent, not the consultors in Rome who advised him, not those among the French theologians and bishops who had it in for Pascal and his friends—had been able to show where the condemned propositions are to be found in the Augustinus. And that, Pascal writes, is because they aren’t there. No matter what Cum occasione says, the Augustinus does not endorse or even contain any of the condemned propositions, much less all of them.
And Pascal tightened the screw. Matters of fact such as the one at issue don’t and can’t require the assent of faith. He writes, in the Provincial Letters, that “when the church condemns texts, she supposes them to contain an error that she condemns; and then it’s a matter of faith that the error has been condemned; but it isn’t a matter of faith that the texts in fact contain the error that the church supposes to be there.” In other words, whatever the pope or the bishops might say about matters of fact, positions on such matters cannot require the assent of faith. They’re simply not that kind of thing. No one’s orthodoxy or salvation depends on whether so-and-so wrote such-and-such in a particular book. People can disagree about what Jansen wrote, or about the best way to interpret it; but the magisterium has no special expertise in such matters.
In pursuing this argument, Pascal applied tools he’d developed in earlier controversies. (He was, from beginning to end, a controversialist: a man for whom the intellectual life was essentially an agonistic matter.) One such controversy had been about whether nature abhors a vacuum. Most of Pascal’s contemporaries thought that it did, and that therefore a vacuum could never be established or observed. Pascal devised experiments that showed, decisively, that a vacuum can indeed be established and observed; and he was scathing about those (again, mostly Jesuits) who thought the question about vacuums could be resolved by appealing to what Aristotle and his interpreters had written. Pascal considered that method inappropriate to the question, which was one of physics, not Aristotelian exegesis. Those who thought that the results of Pascal’s experiments must be wrong because of what the Aristotelian tradition said were ridiculous fools, and Pascal did not hesitate to ridicule them. So also here: the question about what’s in the Augustinus is one that can be investigated by ordinary means (read the book, provide the references), and those who think it can be answered by appeal to what the bishops say misunderstand both the nature of the question and the scope of magisterial authority.
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.
Pascal’s case shows with unusual clarity what it is to hold together two judgments that might at first seem incompatible, and what it’s like to act consistently with such a balancing act. The first judgment is: I’m convinced that p is the case. The second is: I see that the magisterium teaches not-p, and I acknowledge its authority to do so. Acknowledging that an authority teaches not-p doesn’t require you to abandon your assent to p (Pascal never abandons his view that none of the five propositions is found in the Augustinus). What it does require is submission (the signature) to the authority of the teacher who teaches not-p. Not to acknowledge that authority would be, in the Catholic case, to separate yourself from the form of life in part constituted by such an acknowledgment; it would be to look the state trooper in the eye as she asks you to roll down your window and say, “I don’t recognize your authority to direct my action; I’ve nothing to say to you.” You may do that. But doing it comes with a price: it’s the price of removing yourself from the form of life in which state troopers have authority to enforce local laws. That, mutatis mutandis, wasn’t a price Pascal was prepared to pay in the Jansen case, and I’m with him on that. Within the Catholic form of life, the magisterium does in fact have authority to do what it did in that case.
But acknowledgment and submission don’t require pretense. If it seems to you that such-and-such is the case (that the five propositions aren’t in the Augustinus), then clarity of thought and strength of conscience not only don’t require you to pretend otherwise, but require the opposite: when occasion demands, you must say that what seems to you to be the case does in fact so seem, and when relevant you must give your reasons for this judgment. Theologians call this expressing a doubt: I see that the magisterium teaches p, but, so far as I can tell, not-p is the case, and here’s why. We’ve seen Pascal doing this, con brio. The modifier “so far as I can tell” is important. You might be wrong (that’s always true), and seeing that the magisterium seems to be teaching that you are should place your sense of your own rightness under pressure. Pressure of that kind is usually a good thing for the intellectual life: it clarifies conviction by accentuating difference.
The pressure of authority had at least one very clear effect on Pascal’s thought: it led him to suggest that when the magisterium says that so-and-so’s teaching of such-and-such is heretical, the right response is not to try to disaggregate the teaching (separating the so-and-so from the such-and-such), but rather to treat it as a complex whole. That’s what Pascal did in his last surviving letter about the formulary. The nature of that complex whole then requires further clarification. Maybe the best way to describe it is heresies-about-grace-insofar-as-they-are-endorsed-by-Jansen; or maybe it’s whatever-Jansen-wrote-that-supports-this-heresy, or grace-heresies-best-labeled-“Jansen’s”—and there are more possibilities. Once disaggregation is rejected new possibilities for thought open up, both for the speculative theologian (Pascal) and for the teaching church. One such new possibility appeared, as we’ve seen, in Alexander’s Ad sanctam: he develops what Innocent had written in Cum occasione by mentioning the sense in which Jansen intended the five propositions. This, as I’ve noted, postulates an extra-textual something, and moves everyone’s thought away from the textual particulars of the Augustinus and toward something else—a trajectory of thought, an implied grammar, or some such. This magisterial move wouldn’t have occurred without Pascal’s polemics; and those, in turn, wouldn’t have occurred without magisterial pressure. The benefit is mutual, and is the result of the magisterium doing what it should and of a theologian doing what he should.
The other question that Pascal’s case raises and illuminates for us is about the place matters of fact have in magisterial teaching. Suppose we understand a matter of fact to be one capable, in principle, of exhaustive investigation by observation. One example: the presence of a sequence of words in a particular book—affirmed, as we’ve seen, variously, by Innocent X and Alexander VII in the case of Jansen’s Augustinus. Another example: the involvement of a Roman official named Pontius Pilate in the trial, condemnation, and execution of Jesus of Nazareth—affirmed scripturally and credally (“suffered under Pontius Pilate”).
Pascal came to see that his attempt to maintain an impermeable distinction between matters of this sort and matters of faith and morals couldn’t be sustained. But the attempt is helpful to us in two ways. First, it shows that when the magisterium instructs about matters of fact, as it often does, it doesn’t do so with any concern for those matters considered in themselves. Pontius Pilate is interesting to the church only because he was involved with Jesus; had he not been, the church would have had nothing to say about him. It follows from this that it’s a misconstrual of the church’s teaching about Pilate to treat it like an encyclopedia entry, from which data about Pilate can be extracted and considered independently from the story about Jesus. This is compatible with the thought that some things said about Pilate are incompatible with the church’s teaching. That would be true, for example, of the statement “Pontius Pilate was actually in Rome when Jesus was tried.” If you’re a faithful Catholic and you find yourself believing that statement (perhaps you’re a historian and you’ve come to think that this is what the evidence shows), then you’ll find yourself in a position similar to the one just discussed: believing something incompatible with what the church teaches, while also affirming the church’s authority to teach what it teaches.
But there is an interesting, if subtle, difference. Pascal’s insistence on an impermeable distinction between matters of fact and matters of doctrine, and what I take to be his later abandonment of that hard distinction, shows that the tension between the church’s teaching about Pilate and the historian’s findings isn’t best understood as a direct contradiction. It’s not as it would be 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’s a direct contradiction. But in the Pilate case, the church teaches about Pilate only in his relation to the figure of Jesus: Pilate has no significance for the church outside that relation. His name serves as synecdoche for something like “empire-as-related-to-Jesus.” The point of the church’s teaching about him isn’t to make an entry into a chronicle of events, but to locate Jesus in time and place, and to show something about the significance of his trial and death. Those purposes can be served in other ways, and, so far as I can see, nothing much hinges upon whether the name of the Roman official who condemned Jesus was Pontius Pilate. That much remains of Pascal’s insistence that no one’s salvation rests upon a matter of fact.
And that is the final gift that the Pascal case gives. It provides Catholics who want to think about matters of fact spoken to in one way or another by the magisterium with a fundamental guiding question: What is the significance for the life of the church of the magisterium’s teaching about this matter of fact? There will always be some such significance if, as I’ve suggested, the church never teaches about matters of fact simply as such. Whenever we find ourselves in disagreement with the magisterium about a matter of fact, we should begin by trying to understand what that significance is.
If you want to think as a Catholic about the Lord God, about the human person, or about the good society, you’ll find the magisterium there as a companion and a blessing, albeit one that sometimes comes with painful difficulties. Pascal’s case, on my reading of it, shows how that blessing may be welcomed and the difficulties embraced, to the benefit of all concerned. If you never find yourself in a situation like that of Pascal—seeing that the magisterium teaches one thing while, as far as you can tell, the opposite is true—that is likely an indication that you’re not thinking hard enough, and therefore not doing the job the church needs you to do as a thinker. If, when you do find yourself in Pascal’s situation, you pretend to yourself and the world that you don’t take to be true what you do take to be true, you’re also failing, this time by treating the magisterium as if it were Big Brother and concealing the truth out of fear. Your task as a Catholic thinker is always to do the best you can at what you’re thinking about; to be as clear as you can about the conclusions to which your thinking leads you; to delineate, as clearly as possible, what differences you have with the magisterium’s teaching; and, at the same time, to acknowledge the magisterium’s authority, recognizing that you are more likely to be wrong than the church is. All that together makes a delightfully difficult task. Neither the delight nor the difficulty should be forgotten or covered over. Together, they’re the Catholic thing.