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Sophists And Sophistries

( Originally Published 1870 )


SO the evolution is completed ; and the consequence, as one might think, would be the absence, among those who had accepted and hailed it, of any trace of that protest which, as we have shown, had always existed hitherto.

On the contrary, the protest still asserts itself.

It asserts itself, first, in the very efforts made in our own day to show that the Roman yoke is not a yoke, and that Catholicism in obeying remains free. The heavier the yoke became, the more people have been found to maintain this strange proposition.

These efforts were neither made at Rome nor approved there ; and if the Papacy has not openly condemned, it has not hesitated to throw in their way everything calculated to embarrass and entangle them. The Encyclical of 1832, the Encyclical of 1864, and in the interval that crowd of encyclicals, of briefs, of allocutions, epitomized in the Syllabus--all these are terrible rebuffs.

But men have persisted. All the quibbles of the old Gallicans, of the old Jansenists, buried by M. De Maistre, have been revived under different forms. The Church, by the mouth of the Pope, has declared that she is not, and has no desire to be, what men have solemnly declared that she is. In books, in newspapers, from the pulpit, they have used in speaking of her, or have made her use, all the forms of modern liberalism. Abandoning all hope of altering her, they have adopted the expedient of supposing that she is altered, or, better still, of supposing that she has no need to change in order to satisfy all liberal aspirations.

We have here, therefore, the protest yet again, the abiding protest against what she really is, against what she declares that she wishes to be. Often, no doubt, those who held this language have done but too much to entitle us to see in it a stratagem, and a lie ; but others have been sincere, and believing what they so much desired, putting out of sight what they lamented, have constructed for themselves a Church which has, alas, but one defect that of not existing. Is it not renouncing Catholicism to paint it in such colours ?

But if the latter have all our interest, how bold is the assurance of the former ! Assurance in their ideas, assurance in their facts, assurance as regards the present, assurance as regards the past ! In order to represent a Church that declares herself to be unchangeable, as respecting the rights of conscience, it was necessary to show that she had respected them in the past. Historians have been found to undertake this impossible task ; and all that Catholic authors of other ages, whether speaking in praise or blame, had without any exception related, has been denied. But why speak of ages past ? Today, side by side with the most unblushing denials, you may read avowals diametrically contrary, and often equally unblushing. In the same newspaper that is expressing indignation that any one should think of attributing any severity to the Church, —yesterday, perhaps, you have seen, or tomorrow you may see, an impudent apology for the worst cruelties laid to her charge. Two authors equally dear to Rome, equally sure of not being disavowed, will maintain the two contrary positions ; and all the facts quoted by the one as necessary and legitimate, will be denied by the other with horror. Two authors ! What are we saying ? The same man will be quite ready to say yes and no. Read the Protestantism compared with Catholicism of Balmes. A Spaniard, he will speak of the Inquisition as one of the glories of Spain ; then a few pages further on will say : ` According to the teaching of our faith, every man is sacred in the eyes of his fellows. . . . The holy Founder of our faith threatens eternal punishment, not only to whoever kills a man, but — O admirable utterance !—to whoever dares to offend him by a single word. . . Our heart burns when we hear the religion of Jesus Christ reproached with a tendency to oppression.' And, in his eyes, the religion of Jesus Christ is the same Catholicism which he congratulates on having shown itself inexorable towards its enemies. The apology is detestable ; but it is less so, perhaps, than the denial, for it is at least frank and open.


In our day, then, men have been found to deny the cruelties of the Inquisition : they have almost denied the Inquisition itself ; for it was a virtual denial to represent it as established by princes for political, and not ecclesiastical purposes. Starting from this point, they have seriously maintained that cruel jest, that the inquisitors never condemned to death, or to any corporal pains, but only handed over the culprit to the secular arm. The extermination of the Albigenses, a matter of policy; Saint Bartholomew, a matter of policy; and what is more, a very insignificant affair, about which a great deal too much fuss has been made, ` a few hundred scoundrels killed a propos,' as said M. de Balzac. The Albigenses, we were mistaken in thinking, with all the world, that a Pope had preached a crusade against them. Saint Bartholomew, again we were mistaken, as it appears, in thinking, with all the world, that Pius v. had advised and prepared the massacre in letters that still exist. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, solicited, approved, hymned, almost deified by the French bishops, with Bossuet at their head, again a mere matter of policy, and nothing more. If occasionally these writers condescend to any argument, it will be to maintain that the Protestants have done much worse ; and then the smoke from the stake at which Servetus was burnt is blown into your eyes, to hide the flames of the hundred thousand fires that Rome kindled in the same century. After the great facts have been denied, the lesser are denied also ; after the facts that belong to periods more or less remote, the recent facts are denied again. Yes, what we have seen with our own eyes in Italy, in Spain, up to the time of the fall of the Catholic princes, what the clergy demanded, and the Pope encouraged and blessed, all this we are told to consider as the work of the princes only, the responsibility resting on policy alone. And thus these bold soldiers of the Papacy go lying, even through the history of yesterday.

Unfortunately, between them and men of greater respectability the distance is sometimes painfully small.

Take the Abbé Frayssinous, in his Religion Avenged of the Reproach of Fanaticism.' He asks to be referred to ` a creed, a decree, an institute emanating from the Church universal, which commands, or sanctions that zeal full of violence' with which it has been thought that the Church was chargeable. Thus Popes and bishops may have been unanimous for centuries in ordering or demanding that whoever left the pale of Catholic unity should be crushed ; Popes and bishops may have made superhuman efforts to establish the Inquisition in countries that would have none of it, in France, for instance ; and because the Inquisition, because persecutions in general have not regularly emanated from what M. Frayssinous calls the Church universal, because there has not been a formal vote in council of Pope and bishops together, therefore neither the Inquisition, nor anything like it, is the work of the Church, the work of the Popes ; and our accusations have not the shadow of a foundation.

Take M. Ozanam in his Christian Civilisation. ' St. Martin,' he says, ' protested against the execution of the heretic Priscillian and his disciples. Their error was to be condemned ; but when, by the decree of the tribunal of Maximus, the guilty suffered capital punishment, the Church heard with horror of an innovation so contrary to the mildness of her doctrines; and St. Martin refused to communicate with those who had placed her dogmas under the protection of executioners.' The conclusion is, that this innovation has never been admitted by the Church, and that the Church has never placed her dogmas under the protection of executioners. It was the executioners who, against her will, undertook the defence of dogma.

Take Lamennais, in the Essay, ` The Church is supremely intolerant of error ; but against persons she only pronounces spiritual penalties.'

Take Lacordaire, in his paper on the Preaching Brothers (the Dominicans). The Inquisition is called ` a flexible tribunal, which never delivered over to the secular arm more than the infinitesimal minority of the accused, and saved thousands of men, who without its intervention would have perished under the ordinary tribunals.'

Read Father Ventura in one of his lectures : ` It is only Catholic teaching that has been disseminated by the power of the word. The Church did not subdue the nations by fear ; it only drew them to itself by love.'

Take the Abbé Coeur, in his Spirit of Christianity : ' The Church has never appealed to force in order to change men's hearts. Nothing can be more contrary to her spirit ; nothing more contrary to her habits at all times.'

Take M. Nicolas, in his chapter on the Church. Entirely disengaged,' says he, ' from the vicissitudes of circumstance, and the interests of time and place, the Church recognises but one kingdom, and that is not of this world. She does not strike ; she preaches. In the warfare she is waging, no blood is shed but her own, no weapon used but speech and example.' You thousands of martyrs who had gone down to the grave under the impression that you were her victims, be undeceived : she preaches, she does not strike. Rivers of blood, scaffolds, massacres, disappear from her history ; you never existed anywhere save in our imaginations, and if any blood was shed, it was her own. Have we not again M. de Falloux, who gives us, in his Pius V, the true history of the pretended massacre of Vassya simple engagement, according to him, between the people of the Duke of Guise and the advanced guard of the Prince of Condé? As to you kings, whom she used to make her ministers, and whom the last Encyclical invites to return to the same position ; countries in which everything was under her feet ; provinces of Italy, that the Popes had successively joined by force or fraud to the pontifical dominions you hear : in her eyes there is but one kingdom, which is not of this world ; and she despises and rejects, and has ever despised and rejected, all that belongs to this world, or is calculated to enlist force in the service of truth.


Let us go no further. We might fill twenty pages with these painful quotations, and that, we repeat, without descending to that inferior class of Catholic literature which is quite shameless. But with men such as those we have mentioned, the very excess of error is a comfort to us. Their heart protests, even at the expense of a falsehood, against the past of their Church, against what their Church would be again, if the wishes of her chief were realized.

But there are many other points on which history has been made to retract what she had long since declared, even by the mouth of Catholics.

Everything objectionable has been denied. But mere denial is not enough ; the Church would still seem to be vindicating herself, and she must not even seem to need vindication.

You charged her, for instance, with having, from the opening of the modern era, done all in her power to keep the human intellect under her yoke. M. De Falloux will tell you that it is she, on the contrary, ' who has bestowed free speech on the modern world.' Where ? When ? You would never guess. The author speaks in this connection of the Council of Trent, in which the discussions were, according to him, entirely free ; and, behold! the modern world is endowed with ` freedom of speech!' Do not tell him that in that Council, on the contrary, all the bishops who possessed any independence of character complained that a thousand difficulties were placed in their way ; do not tell him that bishops, moreover, necessarily represented very imperfectly what may be called freedom, considering how they were bound by previous decisions, by their oath to the Pope, by the necessity of being united against the Reformation ; do not tell him that at the very moment when the Church was de-liberating at Trent, she was continuing, wherever her sway extended, to repress, by fire and dungeon, all freedom of speech, and even of thought. Do not tell him, finally, that the very end and object of the Council of Trent was, by giving a definite form to Catholic doctrine, to put an end to all discussion, and to all subsequent freedom. No. The phrase is ready found : 'The Church has bestowed freedom of speech on the modern world.'

If the Church did it, evidently thé adversaries of the Church cannot have done it ; and so we pass to a whole series of statements respecting the adversaries of the Church, who alone are guilty of everything that has been laid to her charge.

Lamennais will tell you (Essay, chap. i.), ` notwithstanding a little partial confusion, and a few deviations, Europe was advancing towards that perfection to which Christianity calls nations like individuals, when the Reformation came suddenly to arrest her progress.' It was a lie, therefore, all that we had read respecting the grave disorders, the serious troubles, the universal decadence over which those who possessed any piety were lamenting at the beginning of the sixteenth century ; it was a lie, too, all that was said on this subject by the Pope's legates at the opening of the Council of Trent.

Balmes will tell you, that it was not only the tide of religious progress, but that of modern civilisation, which was rolling in under the impulsion of the Church, at the beginning of the sixteenth century. ' The greatness, the splendour, that have since supervened,' not only 'are in no wise due to the Reformation, but have come in its despite.' It was a lie, therefore, all that we were told, all that so many Catholic writers confessed with sorrow, respecting the temporal ' greatness and splendour' of the Protestant nations. It is in Rome, in the Papal States, in Spain, and in Mexico, that all the fruits of modern civilisation, being sheltered from the parching winds of the sixteenth century, have come to their full maturity and ripeness. You had thought that the Protestant nations, England in chief, might at least lay claim to one of these fruits, the abolition of slavery. It was a mistake ! The same author will tell you that the abolition of slavery is exclusively due to Catholicism ; Protestantism had no part in it.'

M. Nicolas will tell you, that it was not the Protestants who, in the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, fought for religious freedom. The Reformation was the oppression of men's consciences. But ' the Catholic populations did not everywhere suffer the yoke of intolerance to be laid upon them ; and the resistance which they made, the struggle which they maintained to keep the liberty of their faith, was the cause of the wars of religion, notably of the celebrated Thirty Years' War in Germany, which was the war of liberty of conscience against the spoliation of all property and of all rights.' I was going to repeat, 'It is a lie then;' but the instance selected renders all remark unnecessary. Gustavus Adolphus, transformed into the champion of intolerance, is the masterpiece of this new style of writing history. Of course we need not say that neither M. Nicolas, nor Balmes, nor Lamennais, nor any author of this school, nor any of the bishops who dilate on the same theme in their pastoral letters, will abstain from representing the Reformation as especially dangerous on account of the spirit of independence which it fosters, and the freedom, without limit or restraint, which it gives to the human mind. Thereafter, having depicted Protestantism as essentially restless and enterprising, they will hark back again, and tell us, like M. De Falloux, for instance, that it is now ` reduced to the stationary condition to which it thought for an instant that it had condemned the Church.'


The same contradiction exists between the points of view which are selected, according to the requirements of the moment, from which to judge the political results of the great movement in the sixteenth century.

As long as Catholicism could openly avow its sympathies with absolutism, the great crime of the Reformation was its having inspired the people with sentiments incompatible with that polity, which alone was good, alone in accordance with the will of God. This is the idea which Bossuet unfolds with so much eloquence in the funeral oration for the Queen of England ; this is the idea which all the French clergy dilated on at that time to the detriment of the Protestants, and there is every reason to believe that to it may, in a great measure, be attributed the cruel resolutions of the king. The same accusation was repeated under Louis xv. as often as the government inclined to a more lenient policy. The same reproach was repeated under Louis XVI., to the very eve of the Revolution, when the clergy besought the king not to extend the rights of citizenship to the Protestants. Only, as there was then no longer any question of absolute monarchy, the Protestants were now represented, less as being rebellious subjects, than dangerous citizens always, however, for the same reason, the spirit of independence fostered by their creed. Under the Empire, as there could be no question of independence on the part of any one, the accusation slumbered. Under the Restoration it reappeared, as in the most palmy days of the monarchy, and became one of the favourite themes of those numerous missionaries who went about France, fanning the flames of monarchical and Catholic zeal.

Already, however, the other current had begun to make its influence felt the current, we will not say of liberal tendencies, but of liberal formulas ; and as Catholicism must always enjoy the monopoly of what for the time it considers to be good, Protestantism and despotism became insensibly synonymous. Lamennais, in the same page in which he represents the Reformation as having arrested all progress, represents it also as ` leading inevitably to political servitude.' Elsewhere (see Essay, chap. x.) he praises the old regime as being liberal, and that thanks to Catholicism. 'There existed a nation governed by an ancient race of kings, according to the most perfect of constitutions, and according to laws which, with far more reason than those of Rome, might have seemed to have come down from heaven, so wise were they, so pure, beneficent, and favourable to humanity.' This is the same position which, during these later years, has been frequently maintained by Catholic authors and newspapers. The greater the number of oppressive and barbarous laws pointed out in old France by writers of real weight and authority laws which the popular spirit softened, but which the throne and the altar upheld the more will old France be described as a paradise, and her kings, the eldest sons of the Church, as the benefactors of mankind. M. De Maistre will extend this eulogium to all Catholic sovereigns, without exception to all, of course, who flourished in the days of yore, when divine right gave them absolute power over their people. This indeed is exactly the point with regard to which he praises them. They might have been tyrants ; they were the fathers of their people. What ! all ?—All. M. De Maistre never recognises exceptions or degrees. ` It was a magnificent spectacle,' says he in his Evenings,' ` to see all the sovereigns of Europe never demanding from their people, even in times of greatest peril, all that it was possible to obtain from them. They used mankind gently.' They might, moreover, have used mankind much less gently without violating freedom ; for, said Lamennais in 1823, ` with the doctrine of divine right man remains free, because in reality he is only obeying God.' Thus it is my own fault if' I do not feel myself free under the harshest of monarchs, if so be that he is a Catholic. I have only to persuade myself that he rules by divine right, and, therefore, that I am only obeying God.

M. Donoso Cortes repeats the same thing in his Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism.' The doctrine of the divine right, says he, is a Catholic doctrine, and consequently cannot but be advantageous to man, and favourable to liberty. ` The Catholic God, Creator and Preserver of all things, governs men by His vicars (the kings). . . . The idea of authority is of Catholic origin. The ancient rulers of nations built their sovereignty on human foundations ; they governed for their own benefit, and by force. The Catholic rulers, forgetting themselves, were only the ministers of God and the servants of the poor.' The poor had never suspected it ; many Catholic writers had not suspected it either, until the day when it became the fashion to praise that age_ of gold, in order to contrast it with the iron age inaugurated three centuries ago. The golden age, however, may return, according to this author, whenever kings and peoples seek it where alone it can be found, that is to say, in the bosom of Catholic authority-. ` Two things,' says he, ` are utterly impossible in a truly Catholic society : despotisms and revolutions.' A. Spanish author holding such language is certainly gifted with the most admirable coolness and intrepidity.

Another Spaniard, Balmes, who stands equally high in the opinion of the new Catholic school, will tell you the exact moment when this golden age began.

All that is necessary, according to him, is to find the best definition of civil and political law. In the words of kings? No ; and he takes care to quote only those kings who speak of their own will as of a supreme law. In the words of philosophers ? No ; and he quotes passages from Rousseau, attributing to the multitude more power than all those kings ever claimed. Then we come to St. Thomas : ` The law is a regulation dictated by reason, having for its object the common good, and promulgated by him who has the care of the community.' This is wise unquestionably, so wise that no one ever maintained the contrary. The most absolute sovereign means to be actuated by reason, and to rule for the common good ; and inasmuch as he is the sovereign, of course he 'has the care of the community.' Never mind. According to Balmes, this is the starting-point of modern liberty. From the thirteenth century, says he, 'the law was understood in the sense of St. Thomas and of all the Catholic schools, and tyranny was banished from Europe.' Therefore all that history reveals in the way of tyranny and oppression in the succeeding centuries, is an illusion. So much the worse for those who thought they were fighting and dying for religious or political freedom, if they did not perceive that St. Thomas had long banished tyranny from the region of possibilities.

These instances might be multiplied. We believe that no school at any period has so boldly applied sophistry to history. By similar processes you might disprove the most clearly established truths of science ; the sun might be made to turn, and the earth replaced motionless at the centre of the universe. And, indeed, in the latter case you might at least argue from appearances, while in these struggles against common sense and history, appearances as well as facts are set at naught. If sincerity in all this be possible, and we freely admit that it may, it is evidently only possible in persons who unite, unfortunately for them-selves, certain intellectual and moral characteristics that are the sad results of education and habit, and, in short, of Catholicism thus moulding the minds of those who devote themselves to its defence.

How, then, has Catholicism acted on the minds of its defenders ? How were fashioned in them, and specially in the clergy, that logical faculty which is no longer logical, that reason which finds pleasure in striving against reason, and setting evidence at naught ?

The necessities of the present time explain many things, as we have seen. The man who feels that he is being carried away cannot be scrupulous as to the means of saving himself.

But the primary cause lies deeper ; it springs from the position held by the Church towards the Bible and towards history. It is in that false position, under the influence of a tension which never slackens, that the intellectual and moral education of the soldiers of the Papacy is carried on.

The position is false, first, as regards the Holy Scriptures.

Here is a government that is scarcely in one single particular in harmony with, either the letter, or the spirit of its fundamental charter, which it can neither repeal nor change ; here is a teaching body that teaches on a whole host of questions either something more, or something less, or. something other than the book of which it is compelled to affirm the divine origin. Hence that government is under the necessity of declaring itself founded, founded altogether, on a charter which it has infringed in almost every respect ; hence that teaching body is under the necessity of declaring itself to be completely in harmony with a book which it contradicts habitually ; and hence, consequently, whoever has to defend either that government, or those teachers, stands in a strange, untenable position, which yet he must maintain under penalty of complete surrender. The position of ancient paganism was very bad, no doubt, but it was not so false : you might object that its dogmas rested on nothing, but you could not show that they contradicted a book which it recognised as the source of religious truth. The study of the Bible in the Catholic seminaries is the study of the means of eluding the Bible, of the processes by which one passage 'nay be made to appear to mean this, and another not to mean that, by which such a one that says much may be forced to say little, and such another that says little, to say much. The same arts, the same processes, have to be employed in the study of the Fathers. As the Church proclaims them infallible interpreters of Holy Scripture, it is absolutely necessary that they should, one and all, have said what the Church says. The same arts are necessary even in the interpretation of her liturgies, of the canon of the mass, for instance, which, being more ancient than transubstantiation, never mentions it, and only refers to it if you are determined to discover the reference. With the methods of ordinary logic, of a healthy and straight-forward system of dialectics, you would rapidly find your way out of this labyrinth, but rapidly also out of the Church. Another system of dialectics has, there-fore, been framed ; it is that which the Pope (Syllabus, Art. 13) forbids us to consider as out of date. He is right ; that system alone can uphold what it alone could rear ; it alone can fashion minds that do not feel a repugnance in using it. It is like a system of gymnastics having for its object, not to give the body more suppleness and strength in its natural motions, but to teach it other motions, a different suppleness, another kind of strength. Such is the education which Catholicism bestows on its own in all that relates to the interpretation of the Scriptures ; and, as we have just seen, it could give them no other without arming them against itself.

The position is false, as I remarked, with regard to history ; and on this point I might repeat, almost word for word, what I have just said.

Here is a government which has changed toto calo in the course of centuries, and which yet must represent itself as having been always the same ; here is a teaching body that teaches, on a whole host of questions, either something more, or something less, or something different than in times past, and which must yet, under pain of annihilation, deny all change. What, then, can the study of history in the eyes of that government be, but the study of the means of eluding history ? Must not facts be taught to speak or to be silent, to say much or to say little, as shall be most convenient ? The strange dialectics that have already been used to get rid of the Scriptures, or to make them mean anything, are brought to bear again. You will learn the art of invalidating the clearest negative or affirmative testimony by means of an obscure tradition, of maintaining, for instance, that St. Peter was bishop at Rome, notwithstanding the silence of St. Luke in the Acts, and St. Paul and St. Peter in their epistles. You will be taught to attach to facts and words in the history of the first ages of the Church a meaning which they did not acquire till long afterwards. Thus, for instance, the first bishops of Rome become Popes, and their most ordinary letters, briefs and bulls ; and St. Paul going to Jerusalem to see Peter, to visit Peter, is made to point out the way to all who go to Rome to throw themselves at the feet of the Pope. You will be taught to transform the subsequent ages in the same spirit, and to attribute to men, and things, and ideas to all, in fact, the desired character and hues. You will be taught, in a word, to see everywhere in history what Rome wishes should be seen, and to see nowhere what she wishes should not be seen. She does not fear darkness, for it is there that what suits her can best find a place ; but she knows what dangers the light has in store for her, and she takes care that, before you go into it, you should well have prepared your eyes by long exercise to open or shut of themselves, according to the nature of the facts presented. Such is the education given by the Church to her scholars as regards the study and the use of history; and when we say that she gives it to them, we do not, we repeat, speak only of what she does in her schools, but of what her position itself enjoins upon her sons, and upon whoever wishes to defend her.

And how, finally, can we avoid indicating, however painful the subject may be, the evident influence which casuistry exercises ?

Casuistry, taken as a whole, is the end justifying the means; casuistry, in its details, is the art of passing insensibly from the true to the false, and of finding everywhere some shelter, effectual or otherwise, from the darts of one's own conscience.

One day I was present at a lecture given at the Sorbonne in Paris. The professor, who is now an archbishop, was speaking of the sixteenth century ; he was giving utterance to the most detestable calumnies respecting the Reformers.

I called upon him, and I found a man who openly applied to history the Probabilism of the Jesuits. He confessed that he did not believe several of the things he had said ; but, he added, as they had been asserted by grave writers, they had become probable (in the Latin sense of the word probabilis, provable), and he had a right to say them.

This was at the Sorbonne, in full sunlight ! Imagine the kind of instruction given in the seminaries.

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