Thursday, 3 June 2010

More on rigorism, Jansenism and Archbishop Coleridge: A reply from Jack Waterford

Mr Jack Waterford of the Canberra Times has asked for a right of reply in relation to my earlier post on his Canberra Times article on Archbishop Coleridge's Pastoral Letter on the abuse crisis, and I am happy to oblige.

I'd normally publish this as a comment on the original post itself, but given its authorship, length and potential interest, not least for the useful exposition of Jansenism (or pseudo-Jansenism), I've given it a separate post. 

Mr Waterford's response

"I shall bear with all of the fortitude I can muster your general disapproval of everything I have written about the Coleridge apologia, but may I be heard on my criticism of the word rigorism. It is true that Jansenists have been called rigorists, but I do not think that this word is very useful, because, as you note yourself, rigorism is a slippery word that it can mean any number of things. People slip readily from one meaning to another without informing others they have changed buses.

In moral theology, for example, it stands in some contradiction to probabilism. There is a sense in which Jansenist reasoning about the consequences of original sin may be called rigorist, but the error of approach is by no means confined to Jansenist theories, nor do the (as yet uncounted) heresies inside Jansenism depend on the reasoning of the rigorist.

There’s a related quasi-theological or philosophical sense in which rigorism is used more loosely to suggest a belief that in any doubtful matter, the stricter or more literal approach is to be followed. It is then contrasted not with probabilism, but with laxity, thought of as something such as giving oneself the benefit of every doubt. The problem with importing such labels into general discussion is that both words are loaded and, in casuistry, can imply quite false conclusions, particularly when any middle ground is omitted. Thus, for example, some will think, from the words alone, that laxism implies the path of least resistance, with rigorism being the difficult but proper course of action.

In more vernacular English, something or someone rigorist can be thought of as strict, stern, unbending, tight and perhaps unbreakable. This might seem somewhat appropriate, in relation to the notion of Jansenism being Calvinism in Catholic clothes. But it runs a serious risk of confusion in isolating the real problem. There are any number of people given to a certain puritanism of behaviour and judgment whose problem, whatever it is, is neither Calvinist nor Jansenist. Likewise, there are many people much given religiously to joylessness, lovelessness and self-mortification who have no instinct for predestination or the notion that we are nearly all damned. Mere strictness is not the problem. The Irish Catholic Church will never be confused for the Church of the Quivering Brethren.

These are all reasons why I think that rigorism or rigorist are not useful words in discussion of Jansenism.

Actually I think that Coleridge made a useful contribution to public understanding with his statement that at the core of the heresies of Jansenism is denial of the Incarnation. Generally, critics of Jansenism find themselves, like the Jansenists, rather more focused on the Fall and what it means for our fate, than on hope and redemption. The Coleridge approach is better.

But it’s also particularly useful in the Irish context because it also brings into the argument carnality, which is also at the heart of the vernacular understanding of where the errors of Jansenism lie. In that sense, the heresy is not merely one about the Fall, or predestination, but yet another Manichean or dualist one, in which the body – flesh and blood and its appetites are dirty, disgusting, sinful, unworthy and, in every spiritual sense, unimportant. Perhaps we have to eat, or drink, or shit, or fuck in order to live, but even then any are intrinsically unworthy or at best only morally neutral. They are to be engaged in as little as possible and with no obvious pleasure in the doing, preferably with regular fasting, abstinence and chastity so as to help restrain the appetites. Sensual indulgence of any sort is inherently sinful; self denial, even self mortification good.

This outlook on life produces, in its train, repression and shame, and sharpens that apparent lovelessness and lack of real humanity seen to come from many men and women who have their lives to God. It has been a great tragedy.

Whether these ideas are inherent to the formal Jansenist heresies is moot, but that they seemed to be a part of the package that Irish seminarians acquired in France during the Irish Dark Age seems clear. Certainly (whether it came with, through or separately from Jansenism) when informed critics speak of the problems of Jansenism in the Irish church (and, as a result in Australia and the US) it is on the dualism, rather than the Calvinism, that they are particularly focused. And many of us get annoyed when our betters, in the course of reproving us, seem to ignore (or define away) this part of the problem. In many cases, particularly in the Irish, Australian and American church it is because these dualist attitudes persist, because they are not recognised as heresies (or thought of only as heresies if one “goes too far down that path’’) and because there is no body of men more infused with them than those who have made some sort of speciality of the bloodless formation of the minds of others.

Look on ye works!"

Jack Waterford

A comment on the reply!

Disapproval of Mr Waterford's piece?: By way of context, Mr Waterford was, I think, reading too much into my post when he sees general disapproval of his take on the subject.  I was attempting to draw out the sub-text rather than expressing an opinion one way or another.  In fact I thought he scored a few palpable hits which I thought my readers would find entertaining (regardless of whether they agreed or not).  I think we are all watching with interest the positioning of potential candidates, and attempts to stymie those candidacies, by those within and without, in relation to the (still rumoured) soon to be vacant See of Sydney. 

My natural gag reflex to the fact that Mr Brian Coyne and his merry band over at Catholica liked the Letter aside, it is true that I was pleased to see any member of the Australian hierarchy actually speak out in a positive way on the subject.  It is long overdue.  But I have my own criticisms of the Letter, as I've made clear here and here.  As I said over at Sentire Cum Ecclesia:

"...The Archbishop has made a good attempt at addressing the PR problem... But the problem is that this is more than just a PR problem, and the trying to run the implicit argument that they couldn’t have been expected to do any better than they did in the circumstances will, in my view, ultimately be counter-productive.

And frankly I have a problem with the notion that it is somehow understandable that the bishops didn’t really understand how serious a sin this was, didn’t understand the duty to protect their flocks from predators, and didn’t even have a real grasp on the ‘power and subtlety of evil’!

These things are core business for the Church, and if, as the AB acknowledges, they failed in them, that calls for a very wide ranging set of responses indeed, along the lines of the measures set out in the Irish Pastoral letter by the Pope and more.

I also find it disappointing that at this point in time it is still seen as essentially an individual problem that can largely be fixed by the bishops listening more closely to the victims and being a bit more sensitive to the issue (that is an oversimplification I know, but certainly a key message of the letter).

Yet sin always has a communal dimension, and sins aired as publicly as this, administrative failures aired as publicly as this, cry out for greater accountability to us all. There have been quite a few calls for this by prominent Australian catholics, so hard to see why the AB didn’t take this into account.

The letter is essentially a plea for understanding and acceptance of what has already been done, not a commitment to action, and that’s why I’m unhappy with it."

Rigorism: My one clearly negative comment on Mr Waterford's article related to his critique of the use of the term rigorism.  My point was just that the Archbishop was using the term 'rigorism' in a way well accepted within the Church (you can find an example from Archbishop Chaput here), as one would expect from a professional theologian (which Mr Waterford, though clearly well read on the subject, is not).  

The comment by an earlier poster about whether we are or aren't talking about Jansenism in the Irish context makes it clear that there is perhaps no perfect term to capture the problem.  But I haven't heard any disagreement as to the actual nature of the problem. 

In fact I think we are in heated agreement on this point.

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