Excerpts from Letter VI (declassified August 19, 1662)

"One of the methods," resumed the monk, "in which we reconcile these apparent contradictions, is by the interpretation of some phrase or other. Thus, Pope Gregory XIV. decided that assassins are not worthy to enjoy the benefit of sanctuary in churches, and ought to be dragged out of them; and yet our four-and-twenty elders affirm that 'The penalty of this bull is not incurred by all those that kill in treachery.' This may appear to you a contradiction; but we get over this by interpreting the word assassin as follows: 'Are assassins unworthy of sanctuary in churches? Yes, by the bull of Gregory XIV. they are. But by the word assassins we understand those that have received money to murder one; and accordingly, such as kill without taking any reward for the deed, but merely to oblige their friends, do not come under tho category of assassins.

"I see very well how that follows from the doctrine of Vasquez," said I. "But how would you answer this objection, that, in working out one's salvation, it would be as safe, according to Vasquez, to give no alms, provided one can muster as much ambition as to have no superfluity; as it is safe, according to the Gospel, to have no ambition at all, in order to have some superfluity for the purpose of alms-giving?"

"Why" returned he, "the answer would be, that both of these ways are safe, according to the Gospel; the one according to the Gospel in its more literal and obvious sense, and the other according to the same Gospel as interpreted by Vasquez. There you see the utility of interpretations. When the terms are so clear, however," he continued, " as not to admit of an interpretation, we have recourse to the observation of favourable circumstances. A single example will illustrate this: The popes have denounced excommunication on monks who lay aside their canonicals; our casuists, notwithstanding, put it as a question, 'On what occasions may a monk lay aside his religious habit without incurring excommunication?' They mention a number of cases in which they may, and among others the following: 'If he has laid it aside for an infamous purpose, such as to pick pockets or to go incognito into haunts of profligacy, meaning shortly after to resume it.' It is evident the bulls have no reference to cases of that description."

"And how does he reconcile that?" said I.

"By the most subtle of all the modern methods, and by the nicest possible application of probabilism," replied the monk. "You may recollect you were told the other day, that the affirmative and negative of most opinions have each, according to our doctors, some probability—enough, at least, to be followed with a safe conscience. Not that the pro and con are both true in the same sense—that is impossible—but only they are both probable, and therefore safe, as a matter of course. On this principle our worthy friend Diana remarks: 'To the decision of these three popes, which is contrary to my opinion, I answer, that they spoke in this way by adhering to the affirmative side—which, in fact, even in my judgment, is probable; but it does not follow from this that the negative may not have its probability too.' And in the same treatise, speaking of another subject on which he again differs from a pope, he says: 'The pope, I grant, has said it as the head of the Church; but his decision does not extend beyond the sphere of the probability of his own opinion.' Now, you perceive that this is not doing any harm to the opinions of the popes; such a thing would never be tolerated at Rome, where Diana is in high repute. For he does not say that what the popes have decided is not probable; but leaving their opinion within the sphere of probability, he merely says that the contrary is also probable."

"That is very respectful," said I.

"The difficulty lies in discovering probability in the converse of opinions manifestly good; this is an achievement which none but great men can attempt. Father Bauny excels in this department. It is really delightful to see that learned casuist examining, with characteristic ingenuity and subtilty, the negative and affirmative of the same question, and proving both of them to be right! Thus in the matter of priests, he says in one place: 'No law can be made to oblige the curates to say mass every day; for such a law would unquestionably expose them to the danger of saying it sometimes in mortal sin.' And yet in another part of the same treatise, he says, 'that priests who have received money for saying mass every day ought to say it every day, and that they cannot excuse themselves on the ground that they are not always in a fit state for the service; because it is in their power at all times to do penance, and if they neglect this they have themselves to blame for it, and not the person who makes them say mass.' And to relieve their minds from all scruples on the subject, he thus resolves the question: 'May a priest say mass on the same day in which he has committed a mortal sin of the worst kind, in the way of confessing himself beforehand?' Villabolos says he may not, because of his impurity; but Sancius says he may, without any sin; and I hold his opinion to be safe, and one which may be followed in practice."

"True," he replied; " but this shows you do not know another capital maxim of our fathers, 'that the laws of the Church lose their authority when they have gone into desuetude'... We know the present exigencies of the Church much better than the ancients could do. Were we to be so strict in excluding priests from the altar, you can understand there would not be such a great number of masses. Now, a multitude of masses brings such a revenue of glory to God and of good to souls, that I may venture to say, with Father Cellot, that there would not be too many priests, 'though not only all men and women, were that possible, but even inanimate bodies, and even brute beasts—bruta animalia—were transformed into priests to celebrate mass.'"

--Blaise Pascal, Provencial Letter #6. April 10, 1656.

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