Today I have found myself absorbed in reading two new documents from the Vatican. The first is a new Apostolic Letter by Pope Francis about Blaise Pascal, released yesterday on the 400th birthday of the French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher. Entitled “THE GRANDEUR AND MISERY OF MAN“ (a title that Catholic musician Matt Maher said sounds like a subheading to a Dostoyevsky novel), this letter reflects on the impact that this great thinker had on the faith and the world at large.
Many of us are familiar with “Pascal’s wager,” which argues that belief in God is more rational than unbelief, because if you believe in God, the potential gain (eternal life) is infinite and the potential loss (sacrificing earthly pleasures) is finite, whereas unbelievers risk an infinite loss (eternal damnation). But Pascal is also noteworthy for his contributions in several fields: mathematics, physics, religious philosophy, and literature. His work has left a lasting impact.
Vatican News summarized the highlights of the pope’s letter:
A key theme of Pope Francis’ letter is the “brilliant and inquisitive mind” of Pascal. A child prodigy, he made important breakthroughs in mathematics and, at age 19, invented an arithmetic calculator, a forerunner of the modern computer.
The Pope stresses that Pascal used his intellectual gifts to wrestle with “the questions that troubled his age”, inventing, for example, the “five-penny coaches” system, the world’s first public transport network.
The Holy Father goes on to praise Pascal – who, aged 31, underwent a conversion experience he referred to as the “Night of Fire” – for his nuanced understanding of the role of reason in religious belief.
On the one hand, the Pope says, Pascal argued for the “reasonableness of faith in God”; on the other, precisely because of his own intellectual prowess, he also recognised reason’s limits, and stressed the importance of responding with faith to God’s call.
A final theme to emerge from the letter is Pascal’s attention to those less well-off than himself.
The Pope quotes Pascal’s words on his deathbed: “If the physicians tell the truth, and God grants that I recover from this sickness, I am resolved to have no other work or occupation for the rest of my life except to serve the poor.”
“It is moving,” Pope Francis writes, “to realize that in the last days of his life, so great a genius as Blaise Pascal saw nothing more pressing than the need to devote his energies to works of mercy.”
One issue that Francis doesn’t shy away from in the letter is Pascal’s connection to Jansenism, a movement that was influential primarily in France during the 17th and 18th centuries. Jansenism takes it name from the Dutch theologian Cornelius Jansen, whose posthumously published work, Augustinus, gave rise to the movement. Five errors taught by Jansen on matters such as grace, free will, and predestination were condemned by Pope Innocent X in 1653 in the bull Cum occasione, and Pope Francis’s religious order, the Jesuits, were strong theological opponents of the Jansenists — something Francis also writes about in the letter.
About Pascal’s connection to Jansenism, Pope Francis wrote about how Pascal’s sister Jacqueline entered a religious congregation in Port-Royal, that had embraced many of the ideas Jansen promoted in Augustinus appeared in 1640. Pascal made a retreat at the Port-Royal abbey in 1655. Pascal soon found himself caught up in the debate between the Jesuits and the Jansenists. Francis wrote that, “Pascal, while not a member of the congregation of Port-Royal, nor given to taking sides – as he wrote, ‘I am alone…. I am not at all part of Port-Royal’ – was charged by the Jansenists to defend them, given his outstanding rhetorical skill. He did so in 1656 and 1657, publishing a series of eighteen writings known as The Provincial Letters.”
Francis explained that Pascal acknowledged that a number of Jansenist propositions were contrary to the faith, these errors were not present in the text of Augustinus itself, nor were they held with the members of the Port-Royal abbey. Still, Francis did conclude that Pascal’s statements were not entirely free of error:
Even so, some of his own statements, such as those on predestination, drawn from the later theology of Augustine and formulated more severely by Jansen, do not ring true. We should realize, however, that, just as Saint Augustine sought in the fifth century to combat the Pelagians, who claimed that man can, by his own powers and without God’s grace, do good and be saved, so Pascal, for his part, sincerely believed that he was battling an implicit pelagianism or semipelagianism in the teachings of the “Molinist” Jesuits, named after the theologian Luis de Molina, who had died in 1600 but was still quite influential in the middle of the seventeenth century. Let us credit Pascal with the candour and sincerity of his intentions.
Despite Pascal’s intellectual contributions to the Church and his works of charity, these concerns pose a barrier to his veneration as a saint. But Pope Francis nonetheless writes movingly of his final hours:
Gravely ill and at the point of dying, he asked to receive Holy Communion, but that was not immediately possible. So he asked his sister, “since I cannot communicate in the head [Jesus Christ], I would like to communicate in the members”. He “greatly desired to die in the company of the poor”. It was said of Pascal, shortly after he took his last breath on 19 August 1662, that “he died with the simplicity of a child”. After receiving the sacraments, his last words were: “May God never abandon me”.
The Synod’s Working Document
The second, of course, is the Instrumentum Laboris (IL), the working document for the upcoming synodal assembly, which will take place in October in the Vatican. This long-awaited document represents the fruit of the continental stage and the beginning of the “Universal Stage” of the Synod.
Like the other documents produced at the various stages of this process, it will inevitably receive much criticism from the usual sources, but keep in mind what the document is and what it isn’t. Paragraph 10 of the IL states that its purpose is to be “a practical aid for the conduct of the Synodal Assembly in October 2023 and thus for its preparation.” The paragraph also makes clear that the IL
“is not a document of the Church’s Magisterium, nor is it the report of a sociological survey; it does not offer the formulation of operational indications, goals and objectives, nor a full elaboration of a theological vision” (no. 8). This is inevitable given that the IL is part of an unfinished process. Nonetheless, the IL takes a step beyond the DCS, drawing from the insights of the first phase and now the work of the Continental Assemblies, articulating some of the priorities that emerged from listening to the People of God, but avoids presenting them as assertions or stances. Instead, it expresses them as questions addressed to the Synodal Assembly. This body will have the task of discerning the concrete steps which enable the continued growth of a synodal Church, steps that it will then submit to the Holy Father. Only then will that particular dynamic of listening be completed in which “each has something to learn. Faithful people, College of Bishops, Bishop of Rome: one listening to the other; and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17), to know what He ‘is saying to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7)”. In this light, the purpose of the IL is not to be a first draft of the Final Document of the Synodal Assembly, only to be corrected or amended. Rather, it outlines an initial understanding of the synodal dimension of the Church on the basis of which further discernment can be made.
In other words, the IL is not a magisterial text, but is meant to serve as an initial guide and an outline for the upcoming stage of the synodal process. Its primary audience is the participants in the assembly, but it is not intended to serve as a first draft of the synod’s final document (as is sometimes the case with preparatory documents). Where this will go is anybody’s guess. The IL reminds us of Pope Francis’s words, “The protagonist of the Synod is the Holy Spirit” (17). The IL might be followed closely by the members of the assembly, or it might be tossed out on the first day, much like the rejection or substantial revisions of most of the original schemata by the Fathers of Vatican II.
The second half of the IL consists of five “worksheets,” each of which includes questions for reflection and discussion. If you don’t have time to read the entire document straight through, you might skip ahead to the second half and read some of the questions that are proposed. Inevitably, some people are going to skim through to look for the hot-button issues that are mentioned, but that’s not what it’s meant for.
As a sample, I will share the questions on the topic of the matter of Church unity and diversity:
Question for discernment
How can each local Church, the subject of mission in its context, enhance, promote and integrate the exchange of gifts with the other local Churches within the horizon of the one Catholic Church? How can the local Churches be helped to promote the catholicity of the Church in a harmonious relationship between unity and diversity, preserving the specificity of each one?
Suggestions for prayer and preparatory reflection
1) How do we increase awareness that the Church, both one and catholic, is already, and has been from the beginning, the bearer of a rich and multiform diversity
2) By what gestures could all local Churches show hospitality towards each other to benefit from the mutual exchange of ecclesial gifts and manifest ecclesial communion in the areas of liturgy, spirituality, pastoral care and theological reflection? In particular, how can we facilitate an exchange of experiences and visions of synodality between the Eastern Catholic Churches and the Latin Church?
3) How could the Latin Church develop greater openness to the spiritual, theological, and liturgical traditions of the Eastern Catholic Churches?
4) How can the Oriental Catholic Churches in diaspora preserve their identity and be recognised as more than just ethnic communities?
5) Some Churches live in very precarious How can the other Churches take on their suffering and provide for their needs, putting into practice the teachings of the Apostle Paul who asked the communities in Greece to generously support the Church of Jerusalem: “Let your abundance make up for their neediness, so that their abundance may also make up for your neediness, and so that there may be equality” (2 Cor 8:14)? What role can global institutions and those of the Holy See dedicated to the service of charity play in this regard?
6) How can we take into account and value the contributions and experiences of the local Churches in the teaching of the Magisterium and ecclesiastical norms at the universal level?
7) In an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, how to develop the fabric of relations between local Churches of the same region and also of different continents? How can increasing human mobility and thus the presence of migrant communities become an opportunity for building links between Churches and exchanging gifts? How can tensions and misunderstandings that may arise between believers of different cultures and traditions be handled constructively?
8) How can the Church’s global institutions, starting with those reporting to the Holy See and the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, foster the circulation of gifts between the Churches?
9) How can the exchange of experiences and gifts be made active and fruitful not only between the different local Churches, but also between the different vocations, charisms and spiritualities within the People of God, including institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, lay associations and movements, and new communities? How is it possible to ensure the participation of communities of contemplative life in this exchange?
You can read the document and download it in different languages and formats at the Synod website. Stay tuned to Where Peter Is for more information, reflection, and commentary as the Synod assembly approaches.
Image: Adobe Stock. By Bora (Generative AI).