Saint Cicero & the Jesuits, Part II

Yesterday, I began an examination of the book Saint Cicero and the Jesuits: The Influence of the Liberal Arts on the Adoption of Moral Probabilism by Robert Aleksander Maryks. Today, I will conclude this examination.

It would be difficult to overstate the prominence that the writings of Cicero achieved in Jesuit education in the late sixteenth century. At the Society’s first school at Messina, Cicero was prominent in the teaching of both the class in rhetoric and the class in the humanities. Livy, Quintilian, Suetonius and other ancients were present, but Cicero was taught across the spectrum of classes and almost always given pride of place. His catalogue of civic values became the Jesuits’ catalogue of civic virtues. And, Cicero was not merely taught, he was present as an object for imitation. Diego de Ledesma, in his De Ratione et Ordine Studiorum Colegii Romani, stated that “whatever is dictated by the teacher ought to be directed as much as possible to the imitation of Cicero. Cicero is quoted 33 times in the Ratio studiorum. Given the emphasis on the classics in Jesuit education, by the time a student completed his studies at a Jesuit school, Maryks estimates he would have spent 6,750 hours with classical authors.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, the assembling of authorities and arguments to convince oneself or another. Maryks point to a key text about the arguments or testimonies that Cicero collected, about the need to discriminate in using such arguments,

for decisive proof do not always or in all cases come from the same sources. The prudent man will use discretion, then, and he will not only discover what to say but will weigh it. There is nothing more fertile than minds, particularly those which have been cultivated by training. But as fruitful and fertile fields bring forth not only useful crops but also weeds most harmful to these crops, so now and then frivolous or irrelevant, or useless arguments rise from these topics….We must bear in mind that material is sought from these topics for convincing audience and for arousing their emotions.

Maryks cites Prentice Meador Jr. for the observation that “the clue to understand Cicero is his concern with living the good life, the root of which is the question: ‘are men always able to act on the basis of complete knowledge and truth or should they sometimes act on the basis of probability and expediency?’” This introduction of probability is, according to Meador, “one of the greatest watersheds of classical thought.” It is the Ciceronian idea about the epistemological importance of probability that allows the “marriage between rhetoric and casuistry” that would characterize the approach of those Jesuits who embraced probabilism.

Probabilism, although first articulated by a Salamancan Dominican, Bartolome de Medina in 1577, combined with the Jesuit belief that consolation is the object of all ministry to create the art of casuistry, the idea that the confessor should not “exasperate the yoke of Christ” as one Jesuit put it, by insisting that only the strictest of arguments and opinions be considered necessary for absolution, but instead should look for ways to relieve a person’s conscience, console them, bring them the experience of God’s mercy. Some Jesuits resisted probabilism, thinking it opened the door to moral laxism, and sought a middle way, that a penitent could follow a theological opinion that was not entirely in line with a strict interpretation of the law, but that the penitent could only follow the most likely such opinion and certainly not the least likely.

Maryks’ theory is certainly well argued and demonstrated – in fine Ciceronian style. But, I wonder, also, if there is not a dog that did not bark quality to the transformation in Jesuit moral theology in this last half of the sixteenth century. In addition to opening schools and, therefore, encountering the classics in a way they had not previously, the Jesuits continued their emphasis on the importance of frequent sacramental confession. Could it not be that this – hearing confessions day in and day out, through two, then three, then a fourth generation, in an age when people took sin, judgment, heaven and hell quite seriously – that convinced the leaders of the Society that a less strict application of moral theology in the confessional was to be preferred, that the salvation of souls could be better achieved by leading with mercy rather than judgment?

“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” This question stalks Maryks’ treatment of the seventeenth century struggle between the Jansenists and Probabilists. He puts the question several times in the text. The Jansenists were certainly not wrong to look to the Scriptures and the Church Fathers for authoritative opinions. But, the Probabilists were not wrong, either, in their insistence that the opinions of modern theologians shed light on the pastoral praxis of the Church. Again, the corollaries with the recent synod are obvious: It falls to the Church today to integrate the teachings of the ages with the lived circumstances and changing cultures of our own time. Otherwise, the Church becomes a museum piece, and the only task of the Christian pastor is to dust it off now and then. It is lifeless.  

Maryks takes up Pascal’s “Provincial Letters,” as fine a defense of Jansenism as was ever penned. But, he shows its limits too. Pascal and other Jansenists failed to admit that even the most ardent Probabilist insisted that the Christian achieve moral, or practical, certainty in making their decisions. They differed when it came to the issue of speculative, or theoretical, certainty. Pascal saw Probabilism as a “total subversion of the law of God,” which “threatened to the whole system of morals.” He charged that the Jesuits were “ruining Christian morality by separating it from the love of God.” Moral certainty, grounded exclusively in a strict reading of the Scriptures and the Church Fathers, was the only path to salvation for Pascal and the Jansenists. Although he does not use the word, Pascal’s worry was that the Jesuit approach invited the idea of cheap grace.

The Jansenists were not wrong to oppose the idea that grace is cheap. It was dearly won. But, they were wrong to conclude than grace was not also superabundant and necessarily confined to the elect. Here, they earned their designation as crypto-Calvinists. Yes, God’s grace is always prior, but human freedom is not so overwhelmingly flawed by reason of the Fall that we humans are incapable of cooperating with God’s grace, of recognizing it in unlikely places, and of becoming instruments of its movements. Similarly, the problem with moral certainty is not that it is preferable to moral dubiousness. The problem with moral certainty is that it can become an idol which, if it does not develop and advance with human knowledge and culture, loses its power to persuade, faith and reason become disjoined and separated, and instead of a vital, engaged faith, one ends up, through fits and starts, with the equally bleak choices of religious fundamentalism or religious indifference.

The fight with the Jansenists was not only a contest about moral laxity versus moral stridency. The core issue was human freedom. This dynamic is not central to the analysis, but it shines through nonetheless. I note this because we RCs in the early twenty-first century too easily accept the caricature of confession as an attempt to hobble the human spirit with guilt. In fact, one of the central debates in the Reformation was about the significance of human freedom and it was the Catholic Church that defended that proposition, with its necessary corollary that sometimes we humans choose badly and need to go to confession, while the Calvinists and their Catholic cousins the Jansenists tended to deny the significance of human freedom. Yes, contemporaneous developments in society, especially the rise of markets and the exile of dogamatic considerations from the public square, led to some unfortunate understandings of human sinfulness, that created the reality that fed the caricature of confession as an accounting exercise yielding a burden of guilt. The question today is how to maintain that respect for freedom and integrate it with a more profound sense of human sinfulness. The issue of God’s grace remains paramount.

Which brings us back to Pope Francis. He, too, is clearly worried that the Church has become a self-referential teacher of morality, cold to the harsh realities in which people live their lives, more concerned with our own purity and self-satisfaction than with the Gospel mandate to preach the Gospel in word and deed. It is Pope Francis’ deeds, his mastery of gesture, that awakens in the hearts and minds, even of unbelievers, the reality of God’s grace. Pascal and the Jansenists were quite wrong to believe that ministry focused on consolation caused any separation of morality from the love of God. They may have thought that their hostility to humanism was born out of their devotion to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but that has never been the Catholic way. Where we find goodness, we thank God for it. Where we find evil, we proclaim God’s mercy. Where we encounter moral confusion, we seek both consolation and clarity, not the one or the other. God’s grace, for the Catholic, is freely offered and dearly bought – it is also everywhere.  

As I was taking up this fascinating book, I had an email exchange with a wonderful priest and fine theologian. We were discussing Pope Francis’ call for a Church that accompanies the people of God, as opposed to an aloof Church that hectors them. My friend said, in effect, yes, we accompany them, we walk with them, but we know where we are headed. In some basic sense, this is true: We confess that “all was created in him and all was created for him.” But, it is more important, if our evangelization is not only to be effective but if it is to be effective because it is modeled on the example of the Master, to know where we have come from than to know, with surety, where we are going. We can share our experience of God one with an another and accompany each other along the road. But, the road has many twists and turns. It has detours and byways. We know, only in the vaguest sense, where the Lord is leading us and how. Yes, we are walking to Him at all times. His grace is prior and predominant as the Jansenists made it out to be. But, as the casuists insisted, our path is a path of human frailty, begging for mercy and, in the event, guided not just by Athens or Jerusalem, but by the God of the living who is still living and active within His Church. This, if anything, seems to be why people are attracted to Pope Francis: They seem him as someone who is not only near to God but is active in the Lord. And, in light of this book, we discern an old Jesuit, preaching the God of all consolation to a world that is desperately in need of God’s mercy and, for his efforts, he is opposed by the Jansenists of our day who prefer God to be bottled up and drunk only by the elect.




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