August 31, 2009

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The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Quote of the Day: Nadler on Arnauld on the Church's Authoritativeness

I have recently been involved in an interesting discussion on the authority/authoritativeness of the Church over at Called to Communion. In light of this, I thought I would post a selection I came across today on the position of Antoine Arnauld, the French Jansenist theologian and Cartesian philosopher, on this question:

Like all Jansenists, [Arnauld] was accused of Calvinism and political subversion. In 1656 he was excluded from the faculty of the Sorbonne for his refusal to submit to the Church on the issue of five propositions condemned as heretical in the encyclical Cum occasione (1653), and which the Pope (Innocent X) said were to be found in Jansenius. Arnauld granted that the Pope had the right to decide the former matter of faith (question de droit) but reserved for the individual himself judgment on the latter question de fait. Though the five propositions may be heretical (and it was for the Pope to decide this for all), he insisted that whether or not the propositions were to be found in Jansenius's work was a factual question which ought not to be decided by papal fiat but by means of empirical investigation (Steven M. Nadler, Arnauld and the Cartesian Philosophy of Ideas, p. 17).

Interestingly, it seems that there was a change of mind in circles of power and Arnauld and other Jansenists were eventually (after a period of persecution) permitted to remain in communion with the Roman Catholic Church without renouncing their views. Nevertheless, Arnauld is not exactly a representative of orthodox Roman Catholicism.

The Jansenists were Augustinians who favored what might be characterized as a hybrid Catholic-Protestant position. In particular, they were frequently accused of holding a Calvinist soteriology, and this was the principal charge which led to their suppression in France. (They insisted that they were just being faithful to Augustine.)

What's interesting here is the sort of hybrid position Arnauld (according to Nadler) espouses with respect to Church authoritativeness (I like to distinguish between authority and authoritativeness). There are three distinct questions here regarding the Church's authoritativeness: its scope, its degree, and how it is exercised. Arnauld, it seems, takes more or less the standard Roman Catholic position on the last two questions (claiming that the Church is absolutely authoritative and that authoritative proclamations can be made through the Pope), but on the first one he takes a view that might more commonly be associated with Protestantism: the Church is only authoritative on 'matters of faith.' Arnauld's contrast between 'faith' and 'fact' is rather troubling. (I wonder if there is a language-barrier issue here. French speakers?) However, his general idea seems to be that the scope of the Church's authority is limited to matters known by divine revelation, and does not extend to matters which are to be learned by empirical investigation. This idea will be appealing to many Protestants, myself included.

Posted by Kenny at August 31, 2009 5:15 PM
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The distinction between 'fact' and 'faith' wasn't a general distinction, but very specifically focused on the five propositions, and is adapted from a distinction in law. The Jansenists argued that while the Pope was right to condemn the five propositions as he interpreted them, these five propositions under that interpretation were not found in Jansenius, nor were part of Jansenist doctrine, because when the Jansenists said them they meant something else. Thus they borrowed a distinction from law: the Pope was supremely authoritative as to the 'law' of the case (i.e., the faith) but not as to the facts of the case, where he could be misled or manipulated.

Posted by: Brandon at September 1, 2009 5:55 AM

Brandon - Thanks. So this is similar to the distinction we still have in US law between 'matters of fact,' which typically have to be decided by a jury, and 'matters of law' which are decided by a judge?

There are, of course, fideist overtones in Jansenism in general, and this infects Arnauld's take on Descartes on the Eucharist: he thinks that we shouldn't bother anyone just because their philosophy doesn't seem to be consistent with revealed truth, as long as they recognize revelation as supreme within its jurisdiction. Kind of a predecessor of the 'non-overlapping magisteria' view, it would seem. What troubles me is whether Arnauld thinks there is a realm reason ought to stay out of.

Posted by: Kenny at September 1, 2009 8:13 AM

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