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Pascal and the Jesuits

It seems to me (I’m hardly alone) that many clerical leaders (priests and bishops) are relatively “soft” on matters related to sexual sin – fornication, unmarried cohabitation, abortion, and homosexuality. It’s not that they approve of these things; they just don’t go out of their way to condemn them.

If someone were challenged to write in defense of this clerical “softness,” I think the argument would go like this.

At least since the time of Emperor Constantine, the Church has realized that there are three main classes of Christians.

Class 1: an elite minority of “real” Christians: those who are deadly serious about their religion; who believe all the official doctrines; who try hard (though never quite succeeding) to obey all the commandments all the time; who spend much of their time and energy at Mass and in prayer.

Class 2: those who are “ordinary” Christians, the great majority of all Christians. They honestly believe in their religion, but they are decidedly lukewarm. When it comes to doctrine, their willingness to recite the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed doesn’t imply that they agree with all the articles. And it certainly doesn’t even imply that they understand all the articles; they don’t, and they are not troubled by their lack of understanding.

As for the rules of Christian morality, not only do they habitually violate many of them, except for the really big ones – e.g., murder and adultery – they barely notice them. They usually say prayers, especially in moments of trouble; and they attend Mass on a fairly regular basis. They are for the most part “decent” people, and hope to go to Heaven someday.

Class 3: this is made up of ne’er-do-wells who habitually and conspicuously fall below the level of ordinary decency. They are robbers, gangsters, prostitutes, drunks, drug addicts, wife-beaters, etc. They rarely attend church. And except when they’re standing before a judge waiting for him to pronounce sentence, they rarely pray. Apart from the existence of God (who, they hope, will someday rescue them from their sea of troubles), the dogmas of the religion mean little to them. And occasionally, in their moments of despair, they doubt even God’s existence. But they never sever their formal connection with the Church.

Members of this third class aren’t a threat to the Church. They are even, in a perverse way, allies. For one thing, they verify by their horrid examples what the Church teaches about sin, that it will have bad consequences, both spiritual and temporal. For another, they provide opportunities for Class 1 Catholics to show compassion to the “least of these,” easing their pain, showing them the right path. Further, they occasionally supply edifying examples of late-in-life conversions to righteousness.

But Class 2 Catholics are always a potential threat to the Church. For if the Church were to insist that all Catholics must be of the Class 1 type, that all must strive for sainthood on a daily and even hourly basis, most Class 2 (“ordinary” or “decent”) Catholics would bid farewell. “I see this is not a religion for me,” they would say. “It demands too much. It is unrealistic. It is fanatical. Au revoir.”

Duel After the Masquerade by Jean-Léon Gérôme, c. 1857 [Walters Art Museum, Baltimore]

And so, to make sure these folks, the great majority of Catholics, don’t leave the Church, thereby not only damaging the religion but endangering their own salvation, the Church loosens the reins on these people. If they don’t believe everything the Church believes, oh well, let’s not make a fuss about it. And if they have incorrigible habits of sin, well, let’s not make them feel uncomfortable by publicly condemning the sins they’re prone to; and let’s tell them that God is forgiving and tolerant; and let’s remind them that all sins can be instantaneously wiped away in the confessional or on a good deathbed. Above all, let’s tell them that, practically speaking, the goal of this life (except for a rare few) is not Heaven but Purgatory; in other words, you don’t have to get an A-plus in sanctity, a C-minus will do just fine.

In his Provincial Letters [1], Blaise Pascal (a Class 1 Catholic if ever there was one) finds fault with the Jesuits of his day for bending Catholicism so that it will accommodate the un-Christian code of honor that was then typical of upper-class gentlemen. In one of the more hilarious letters, Pascal tells of a Jesuit casuist (some things never change) who figured out a way for a gentleman to participate in a duel while not, technically speaking, violating the Catholic rule that dueling is a mortal sin.

So can it be argued that the “softness” with regard to sex-related sins that we find today among many bishops and priests is just one more example of what has been an all-too-human Catholic practice since at least the fourth century, the practice of – not exactly consenting to – but tolerating the many imperfections of Class 2 Catholics?

No, I don’t think so. When the Jesuits tolerated, say, the morality of 17th century French gentlemen – a morality that included dueling and “gallantry” (as upper-class adultery was euphemistically called) – they were not tolerating a non- or anti-Catholic religion. They were tolerating – however much we may laugh about it – an un-Catholic code of manners and morals, quite a different thing.

But when today’s Jesuits (and other Catholic clerics) are “soft” on sex-related sins, including homosexuality, they are doing much more than making a calculated accommodation to an un-Christian code of manners. They are tolerating a sexual ethic that is part and parcel of an increasingly militant anti-Catholic religion.

What religion is that? Secular humanism, a comprehensive worldview that is tantamount to a (God-less) religion. Dueling in 17th century upper-class Paris was bad, but it was not an affirmation of an anti-Catholic religion. By contrast, abortion and homosexuality in 21st century America truly are affirmations of a growing and decidedly anti-Catholic quasi-religion.

Catholic leaders from the pope on down need to wake up to the nature of that new mortal threat.

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.