The Crucible of Faith



THE historian, like the journalist, tends to lose the normal background of an age in the dramatic foreground of his picture, for he knows that his readers will relish the exceptional and will wish to personify processes and events. Behind the rulers, ministers, çourtiers, mistresses, and warriors of France were men and women competing for bread and mates, scolding and loving their children, sinning and confessing, playing and quarreling, going wearily to work, stealthily to brothels, humbly to prayer. The quest for eternal salvation occasionally interruped the struggle for daily survival; the dream of heaven grew as the lust for life declined; the cool naves of the churches gave respite from the heat of strife. The marvelous myths were the people’s poetry; the Mass was the consoling drama of their redemption; and though the priest himself might be a covetous worldling, the message he brought lifted up the hearts of the defeated poor. The Church still rivaled the state as a pillar of society and power, for it was through hope that men submitted patiently to labor, law, and war.

The higher Catholic clergy knew their importance in the miracle of order, and shared with the nobility and the King the revenues of the nation and the splendor of the court. Bishops and archbishops associated in polished intimacy with the Condés, the Montpensiers, and the Sévignés; and a thousand abbés, half-ordained, half-married, flirted with women and ideas. By and large, however, the mentality and morals of the Catholic clergy—perhaps under the stimulus of competition from Huguenot ministers—were better than for centuries before. 1

The nunneries were not the “hotbeds of vice” imagined by the mythopoetic frenzy of religious hate. Many were retreats of sincere, sometimes ascetic piety, like the Carmelite convent to which Louise de la Vallière retired. Some others served as havens for genteel young women whose parents could find no husband or dowry for them, or who had committed some offense, or had offended some potentate. In such nunneries the inmates thought it no sin to receive a visitor from the outisde world, to dance with one another, to read secular literature, or to mitigate the tedium of their lives with billiards or cards. It was by reforming such a convent that Jacqueline Arnauld made Port-Royal the most famous nunnery in the history of France.

Of the monastic orders we cannot speak so leniently; many of them had relaxed their rules, and led lives of idleness, formal prayer, and mendicant importunity. Armand Jean de Rancé reformed the Monastery of Notre-Dame de la Trappe in Normandy, and established the austere Trappist order that still silently survives. The Jesuits entered more actively into the life and history of France. At the beginning of the seventeenth century they were under a cloud as defenders of regicide; at the end they were the confessors and guides of the King. They were experts in psychology. When the nun Marguerite Marie Alacoque, inspired by a mystic vision, founded (1675) the society devoted to the public worship of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Jesuits encouraged the movement as an outlet and stimulus for popular piety. At the same time they made religion easier for sinners by recognizing the naturalness of sin, and developing the science of casuistry as a means of mitigating the difficulties of the Ten Commandments and the neuroses of remorse. They were soon in demand as confessors, and gained authority as “directors of conscience,” especially for the women who dominated French society, and who sometimes influenced national policy.

The word “casuistry” did not have in the seventeenth century the derogatory connotation left upon it by Pascal’s Provincial Letters. As a confessor or spiritual director, every priest was expected to know just what was to be considered a mortal sin, or a venial sin, or no sin at all; and he had to be prepared to apply his knowledge, and adjust his judgment, his counsel, and the penance, to the special circumstances of the penitent and the case (casus). The rabbis had developed this art of moral distinctions to great length in the legal portions of the Talmud; modern jurisprudence and psychiatry have followed suit. Long before the establishment of the Society of Jesus, Catholic theologians had drawn up voluminous treatises on casuistry to guide the priest in moral doctrine and confessional practice. In what cases might the letter of the moral law be set aside for its spirit or intent? When might one lie or steal or kill, or reasonably break a promise, or violate an oath, or even deny the faith?

Some casuists demanded strict interpretation of the moral law, and thought that in the long run severity would prove more beneficial than laxity. Other casuists—especially the Jesuits Molina, Escobar, Toledo, and Busenbaum—favored a lenient code. They urged that allowances should be made for human nature, for environmental influences, for ignorance of the law, for extreme hardship of literal compliance, for the semi-insanity of transports of passion, and for any circumstances that hindered the freedom of the will. To facilitate this complaisant morality, the Jesuits developed the doctrine of probabilism—that where any recognized authority on moral theology favored a particular view, the confessor might at his discretion judge in accordance with that view, even though the majority of experts opposed it. (The word probabilis at that time meant approvable, admitting of approbation. 2) Moreover, said some Jesuit casuists, it was sometimes permissible to lie, or to withhold the truth by a “mental reservation”; so a captured Christian, forced to choose between Mohammedanism and death, might without sin pretend to accept Islam. Again, said Escobar, the moral quality of an action lies not in the deed itself, which in itself is amoral, but in the moral intention of the agent; there is no sin unless there is a conscious and voluntary departure from the moral law.

Much Jesuit casuistry was a reasonable and humane adjustment of medievally ascetic rules to a society that had discovered the legitimacy of pleasure. But in France especially, and to a lesser degree in Italy, the Jesuits developed casuistry to such lenience with human frailty that earnest men like Pascal in Paris and Sarpi in Venice, and many Catholic theologians, including several Jesuits, 3 protested against what seemed to them a surrender of Christianity to sin. The Huguenots of France, inheriting the rigorous code of Calvin, were shocked by the Jesuit compromise with the world and the flesh. A powerful movement within Catholicism itself—Jansenism—raised at the convent of Port-Royal the flag of an almost Calvinistic ethic in an anti-Jesuit war that agitated France, and French literature, for a century. That war involved Louis XIV, for his confessors were Jesuits and his practice was not puritan. In 1674 Père La Chaise—“an even-tempered man,” Voltaire described him, “with whom reconciliation was always easy” 4—took charge of the royal conscience. He occupied the post for thirty-two years, forgiving everything and loved by all. “He was so good,” said Louis, “that I sometimes reproached him for it.” 5 But in his quiet and patient way he had great influence over the King, and helped to steer him to monogamy at last, and obedience to the pope.

For Louis was not always a good “papist.” He was pious in his official way, and rarely failed to attend daily Mass. 6 In his memoirs he told his son:

Partly out of gratitude for all the good fortune I had received, and partly to win the affection of my people . . . , I continued the exercises of piety in which my mother had brought me up. . . . And to tell you the truth, my son, we lack not only gratitude and justice, but prudence and good sense, when we fail in veneration of Him of whom we are but the lieutenants. Our submission to Him is the rule and example of that which is due to us. 7

This, however, did not include submission to the papacy. Louis inherited the Gallican tradition—the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges (1438) and the Concordat of Francis I (1516)—which had established the right of French kings to appoint the bishops and abbots of France, to determine their income, and to appoint to all benefices in a diocese between the death of its bishop and the installation of his successor. Louis held that he was the vicar or representative of God in France, that his submission to the pope (as also a divine viceroy) should be limited to matters of faith and morals, and that the French clergy should obey the king in all matters affecting the French state.

A part of the French clergy—the Ultramontanes—repudiated these claims, and upheld the absolute authority of the popes over kings, councils, and episcopal nominations; but the majority—the Gallicans—defended the full independence of the king in temporal affairs, denied the infallibility of the pope except in agreement with an ecumenical council, and saw an advantage to the French clergy in evading the dominance of Rome. The Prince de Condé declared it his opinion that if it pleased the King to go over to Protestantism, the French clergy would be the first to follow him. 8 In 1663 the Sorbonne—the faculty of theology at the University of Paris—issued Six Articles emphatically affirming the Gallican position. The French parlements took the same stand, and supported Louis in claiming the right to determine which papal bulls should be published and accepted in France. In 1678 Pope Innocent XI protested against Gallicanism, and excommunicated the archbishop of Toulouse for deposing an anti-Gallican bishop. The King convoked an assembly of the clergy, nearly all chosen by him. In March, 1682, it reaffirmed the Six Articles of the Sorbonne, and drew up for the assembly the famous Four Articles that almost divorced the French Church from Rome.

1. The pope has jurisdiction in spiritual concerns, and has no authority to depose princes or release their subjects from obedience.

2. Ecumenical councils are above the pope in authority.

3. The traditional liberties of the French Church are inviolable.

4. The pope is infallible only when in accord with the council of bishops.

Innocent declared the decisions of the assembly null and void, and refused canonical institution to all new bishops who approved the articles. Since Louis appointed only such candidates, some thirty-five dioceses were without canonical bishops in 1688. But by that time age and Mme. de Maintenon had mollified the King, and death had taken the resolute pope. In 1693 Louis allowed his nominees to disavow the articles; Pope Innocent XII recognized the royal right over episcopal nominations; and Louis was again Rex Christianissimus, the Most Christian King.

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