Understanding Francis: Saint Cicero and the Jesuits

by Michael Sean Winters

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Pope Francis’ frequent references to the history of the Church to explain current challenges, such as when he refers to neo-Pelagians, are a key to the Holy Father’s worldview. If he looks to history to discern the situation of the Church today, perhaps we should look to that same history to better understand his own thinking. And, as I have noted before, one frame for interpreting this first Jesuit pope is to see him as battling the Jansenists of our time as previous Jesuits did in the late sixteenth century.

The fight between the Jesuits and the Jansenists had many aspects to it, but the most basic source of conflict was this: The Jansenists accused the Jesuits of moral laxism and the Jesuits considered the Jansenists to be descendents of the Pharisees. Saint Cicero and the Jesuits: The Influence of the Liberal Arts on the Adoption of Moral Probabilism, by Robert Aleksander Maryks, looks at the development of probabilism and casuistry within the Jesuit tradition, its critics both within the Society and without, and concludes by sketching the birth of Jansenist resistance. Reading of these long ago protagonists, it is easy to forget you are not reading an account of the recent Synod on the Family.  

Maryks begins by examining the early Jesuit ministries and notes that “the preeminent Jesuit ministry was administering sacramental confession.” The Jesuits advocated frequent reception of the Eucharist and, consequently, frequent recourse to the confessional. There, Jesuit confessors were advised to bring consolation to the penitent, a disposition of which Ignatius of Loyola’s companion, Jerome Nadal, said:

These words – “especially spiritual consolation” – refer to all the primary ministries of the Society. They at the same time mean that we are not to be content in those ministries only with what is necessary for salvation but pursue beyond it the perfection and consolation of our neighbor.  For spiritual consolation is the best index of a person’s spiritual progress.

Another early Jesuit, Pierre Favre, wrote in his Memoriale:

With great devotion and new depth of feeling, I also hoped and begged for this, that it finally be given to me to be  the servant and minister of Christ the consoler, the minister of Christ the helper, the minister of Christ the redeemer, the minister of Christ the healer, the liberator, the enricher, the stengthener. Thus it would happen that even I might be able through him to help many – to console, liberate, and give them courage; to bring to them light not only for their spirit, but also (if one may presume in the Lord) for their bodies, and bring as well other helps to the soul and body of each and every one of my neighbors whomsoever.

One sees in these words a foretaste of Pope Francis, yes? The emphasis on real people, with bodies and well as souls, put me in mind of the word search a friend conducted on Evangelii Gaudium: Every time the Holy Father used the word “sacred” it always was in the context of a person, of being in the world, never in the sense of a spiritual withdrawal from the world.

A third early Jesuit, Juan de Polanco, not only defended the Jesuit advocacy of frequent confession and communion, he said those who resisted the Jesuits’ efforts were diabolical. He wrote:

Among their [Jesuits’] achievements [at Valencia] was fostering frequent confession and Communion. The devil resented these developments and led some people to have doubts [about them]. Thus it happened that one preacher recommended their frequent use, and other attacked it. As a result, a mighty archbishop became aware of this, he called together nearly all the theologians of the city during the Lent of this year, in order to settle this question after he had heard their opinions…..[After hearing from the theologians] He praised the frequent use of Communion and granted general permission to everybody to communicate every Sunday. If some wanted to communicate daily, they should not do so without consulting him; taking into account their desires, he was not going to deny permission when it contributed to the glory of God and their own advantage.

Again, this sixteenth century text resonates with the same themes that undergird most of the discussions about the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics – and others – to the Eucharistic table. Current praxis, then as now, must serve the glory of God and bring spiritual advantage to the faithful.

Yet, while this first generation of Jesuits advocated frequent confession, and urged confessors to bring consolation to the penitents, the manuals for guiding Jesuit confessors remained firmly wedded to the medieval tradition known as Tutiorism. Tutiorism held that when in doubt, a Christian should follow the law even if this means going against their conscience, for safety’s sake, lest their eternal soul be put at risk. Maryks writes about the first Jesuit manual for confessors, called the Directory:

The Directory’s tutioristic way of approaching the doubtful conscience was characteristic of the major medieval theologians of the thirteenth century such as Alexander of Hales (d. 1425), Bonaventure (1221-74), Albert the Great, and Aquinas. According to them, before making a moral choice, the penitents are obliged to make their conscience clear of any speculative uncertainty in choosing among contrasting yet morally approvable opinions. As Albert the Great put it, the rule should be that doubts are resolved by choosing the safer (tutior) part. Thomas agreed by saying, “When there are two opinions on a fact and somebody chooses the less safe opinion – it is a sin.”

So, the tutiorists insisted not only on moral certainty, but on speculative certainty. One’s own certainty had to be measured against the certainty of the law and, when in doubt, penitents were urged to stick with the law. The Society, which was willing to adopt many new ideas and approaches to ministry – not living in choir, to cite an obvious and significant difference – adopted this deeply conservative approach to the sacrament of confession: The first Jesuits may have wanted people to go to confession often, but once there, they could expect to be challenged by their confessor in the most traditional ways.

A few generations hence, however, many Jesuit confessors, and the authors of manuals for confessors, had rejected the stringencies of tutiorism and embraced probabilism, the idea that if one has a speculative certainty about a given choice, one can choose the less probable opinion in good conscience, provided the penitent had moral certainty in making that choice. This risked material sin, even if not moral sin, and in a rigorous age, such distinctions mattered. It should be noted, too, that not all Jesuits adopted probabilism. Some preferred a middle path, subsequently named probabiliorism, which did not insist on both moral and speculative certainty like the tutiorists, but insisted that among competing opinions, the safer option must be chosen.

Maryks believes that the impulse behind the birth of probabilism came from the change in Jesuit ministries in the first few generations of the Society’s existence, specifically its involvement in education. As the Jesuits began teaching students, they became more deeply immersed in the Italian Humanistic renaissance and, in turn, the classics. And, among the classics, none was more central to Jesuit education than Cicero.

Tomorrow: Cicero, probabilism, and the fight with the Jansenists.




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