the suicidal skepticism of counter-reformation Catholicism

From a comment at What’s Wrong with the World, I was led to this fascinating study of 16th and 17th-century French counter-reformation polemics.  This was when Catholics first embraced skepticism of the ability of human reason to interpret texts as a defense against Protestantism, with predictable long-term effects for the faith itself.

A sample follows.  Famous figures like Montaigne, Descartes, and Richard Simon appear in a rather new light.  The arguments of the Catholic skeptics and the objections to them will be familiar to those who follow today’s religious polemics on the internet, at this site and elsewhere.

The dominant and dominating group of French Catholic theologians appear to have been intimately connected with the Montaigne tradition, so that the period of the French Counter-Reformation encompasses such a potpourri of figures as Montaigne’s adopted son, the arch skeptic, Father Charron, the Cardinal du Perron who was instrumental in the conversion of Henri IV, the heroic St. Francois de Sales, and his Pyrrhonian secretary, Bishop Jean-Pierre Camus, and Gentian Hervet, the translator of Sextus Empiricus as well as secretary of the Cardinal of Lorraine; also the great Jesuit disputants, Fathers Gontery and Veron, and Montaigne’s adopted daughter, Mile, de Gournay, and lastly his latter day followers-friends and protegees of Cardinals Ridielieu and Mazarin-like La Mothe Le Vayer and Gabriel Naude. As we shall see, the group of skeptics and Catholic leaders had an entente cordiale both of theory and of Counter-Reformation, though probably not of belief.

In France in the mid-sixteenth century, Calvinism grew very rapidly. In a few short years the country was embroiled in a civil war, both militarily and intellectually. The success of the Calvinists on the latter front required drastic measures to prevent the capture of the citadels of French thought by the reformers. Two remarkable events took place in the 1560’s to secure the Catholic intellectual position. One was the publication in Latin of the writings of the Greek skeptic, Sextus Empiricus, and the other the installation in Paris of one of the greatest Jesuit controversialists, Juan Maldonat. As a result of these events “a new machine of war” was fashioned to destroy Calvinism on the intellectual battlefield.

Every text, Veron claimed, gets its meaning in terms of some interpretation made of the symbols, and then by inferring a meaning from the text. The text doesn’t come with a built-in interpretation. It does not contain statements about how various collections of letters are to be read, and what they mean. Any such decision is drawing a consequence not contained in Scripture itself. This involves both abandoning the non-Scriptural claim of the Protestants, that Scripture alone is the rule of faith, as well as presenting a basis for interpretation that is not subject to error. Inner persuasion as the standard for interpretation has all the difficulties mentioned previously in connection with it as a standard of canonicity. It is unverifiable, may be illusory, variable, etc. If the Protestants next retreat to the position that their interpretation consists solely of drawing the obvious logical inferences from what Scripture states, those with the “machine of war” are ready to devastate this new line of defense. First, this is not a Scriptural claim, since Scripture doesn’t present any rules of inference. Secondly, due to the fallibility of mankind, one can always be mistaken as to whether one has drawn the proper inferences. If it is always possible that one has erred, one will always be in doubt if one has found the true faith, unless there is an infallible judge of our judgments.

But the “new machine of war” appears to possess a peculiar recoil mechanism which has the strange effect of engulfing the target and the gunner in a common catastrophe, as the reformers pointed out. If Veron’s arguments were accepted, no written work at all could be accurately fathomed and comprehended. The denial that man, aided by his natural faculties of reason and the senses, is the judge of what something said would have devastating consequences, as the Calvinists Dailli, La Placette, and Boull ier, the Anglican Glanvill, the non-Conformist Ferguson, and the philosopher Leibniz pointed out. Not only would the reformer be left at sea in determining what his faith was, but so would everyone else. The Catholic who appealed to the church fathers would be beset with the same difficulties that Veron had raised. How do you know which books are those of the church fathers, how do you know what they say? The appeal to papal authority would be met with another application of Veron’s argument. How does one tell who is the pope, what he has said, whether one has understood it correctly? If the believer is possessed of fallible faculties, and cannot trust them in reading Scripture, can he trust them any better in locating the pope, in hearing him, in interpreting him?

The attempt to end the alliance by claiming that the skeptics were secret atheists, whose aim was to destroy all religion, met with little success in the early part of the seventeenth century. The beleaguered Calvinists who sounded warnings about the consequences of using Fran£ois Veron’s machine of war were also ignored. The aggressive, premature anti-skeptics, like Garasse and Descartes, found themselves denounced and persecuted by the most orthodox leaders of the society, while the “Christian skeptics” were thriving as the favorites of Louis XIV and were dominating the intellectual scene. Garasse was condemned by the Sorbonne and silenced by the Jesuit order. Descartes, offering a positive theory to demonstrate the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, to replace the skepticism and fideism them current, found himself attacked by a leading Jesuit, Father Bourdin, and assailed by the Jesuit order until they achieved the condemnation of his works late in the century. Among the leaders in the struggle against Cartesianism were Father Gabriel Daniel, a Jesuit who preferred the skepticism of Gassendi to the dogmatic metaphysics of Descartes, and Pierre-Daniel Huet, the Bishop of Avrandies, and La Mothe Le Vayer’s successor as the teadier of the Dauphin, who advocated a complete Christian Pyrrhonism in preference to what he considered the heretical dogmatism of Descartes, heretical for trying to provide a rational basis for religion.

The alliance died late in the seventeenth century, with the skeptics now classed as enemies of the church rather than friends. It is hard to date its termination, and the about-face in evaluation of the merits and aims of the Christian skeptics. But the fate of Father Richard Simon’s Histoire critique du Vieux Testament of 1678, the crowning achievement of the “new machine of war,” is probably indicative of what was happening. This scholarly work purported to demolish the Calvinist appeal to Scripture by showing that (a) no original manuscript of the Bible exists, and (b) nobody knows the original meaning of ancient Hebrew. Therefore Father Simon claimed no one could safely base one’s faith on Scripture.

The destructive potentialities of Simon’s work were immediately realized, the implications that it had for any and all historical documents, be they scriptural, apostolic, papal, or anything else. The work, dedicated to Louis XIV, was suppressed before publication. (A copy of this edition survives in the library of the last important leader of the alliance, the last direct-line disciple of Montaigne, Bishop Pierre Daniel Huet.)

The alliance lasted approximately from the end of the Council of Trent until the period of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, until France was again “toute Catholique.” But France “toute Catholique” was on the verge of showing one of the effects of a century of skeptical basis for its faith, in the Enlightenment, in the application of the tradition to Christianity itself by Voltaire, Diderot, and others.

8 Responses

  1. At this point seeing your post titles and reading your blog often feels like reading an anti-Catholic author.

  2. Well if its not true that scripture relys on interpretation to be understood, then what is the correct way to understand it?
    Obviously the Protestant interpretation is wrong. And it would seem that it’s due to thier own failures of interpretation.

    If the statement “scripture requires interpretation to be understood” is an error, then whats the correct explanation for Protestants being wrong?

  3. Excellent to see you picking up on this point. The 2016 blogpost you point to cites a stand-alone article by Popkin but the relevant chapter of his “History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Pascal” might be a better introduction to the topic.

  4. theplantationsite:

    The error is to say that private interpretation is impossible. It is self-defeating because it would mean that it is impossible to make sense of any interpretation provided by the Church.

    That being said, it would be fine to acknowledge that scripture is ambiguous or silent on certain questions and posit tradition as an independent source of information or simply admit that we don’t know the truth of the matter. General exegetic skepticism, though, can be turned against anything.

  5. Shouldn’t the title be “the suicidal skepticism of counter-reformation Catholicism “IN FRANCE”?

    The quoted body of the text seems to concern that realm and her ambit of influence, precisely, rather than the Counter-Reformation generally. Apart from that, France stands out as a country where the royal authority shied away from a plenary endorsement of conciliar decrees, something of peculiar importance for that kingdom.

    Speculating a bit, I think that this apologetic strategy seems to be fitting against Calvinists with their views concerning total depravity (something we Catholics anathematise) as a sort of a retorsion.
    I wonder if the original study has a discussion of this.

  6. The suicidal scepticism of Throne and Altar?

  7. Besides Catholics, Protestants introduced the inner inspiration as a criteria to judge Scripture. This produced today’s relativism, which is only another kind of skepticism.

  8. […] revolution. One interesting thing I learned in my book was that the resurgence of skepticism, which we have seen being the Catholic apologetic weapon of choice in counter-reformation France, also seems to have had its origins in these same worries about the danger to belief in personal […]

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