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King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

King Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein the Younger, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The Fragmentation of the Western Church

When Antonio Escobar y Mendoza (1589 – July 4, 1669) published his Summula (1627),  the handbook of casuistry, the Roman Church had been severely fragmented.  Escobar y Mendoza and Francisco Suárez (5 January 1548 – 25 September 1617), Jesuits, were therefore addressing an alarmed and vulnerable Western Church, a Church ready to use remedies it may not have otherwise contemplated.  Casuistry all but took sinfulness out of sin.  Consequently, it was attacked by Blaise Pascal, in his Lettres provinciales  (1658-1659), and ridiculed by Molière (Tartuffe) and La Fontaine.  But it allowed the king to sin.

Let us assess the damage

To the above, we could add the Edict of Nantes, promulgated in 1598, by Henri IV who was both king of France and king of Navarre.  The Edict of Nantes offered protection to the formerly persecuted Huguenots, which seemed the correct remedy, but Huguenots were not loyal to the Roman Church and were therefore a potential obstacle to absolutism in the eyes of cardinal-duc de Richelieu.

Richelieu may have been right when he suggested to Louis XIII that the Huguenots’ right to have “places fortes” (fortified communities), such as La Rochelle, could imperil absolutism, i.e. one king, one language, one religion.  These “places fortes” could be turned into genuine fortified places.  (See Siege of La Rochelle, Wikipedia.)  However, did he have to let twenty-two thousand Huguenots starve to death?

Casuistry: origins

Casuistry, a recipe for ethical laissez-faire, does not find its origins in seventeenth-century Spain, or Escobar y Mendoza, Francisco Suárez and other casuists. In dates back to ancient Rome and ancient Greece.

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael (6 or 28 March 1483 – 6 April 1520). Aristotle gestures to the earth,representing his belief in knowledge through empirical observation and experience, while holding a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics in his hand, whilst Plato gestures to the heavens, representing his belief in The Form.

For example, casuistry has roots in ancient Rome and, especially, ancient Greece, and the Renaissance had given greater access to the knowledge of ancient Rome and Greece.  In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (384 BCE – 322 BCE)[i] proposes an examination of certain actions, not all, before judgment is passed with respect to their moral acceptability.

Casuistry and Jurisprudence

I should mention that casuistry has often been defined as jurisprudence applied to morality.  For instance, the Ten Commandments do not permit the killing of a human being, but during a war that restriction is lifted.  It is also lifted in the case of self-defence.  As well, many countries have retained what other countries look upon as profoundly unethical: the death-penalty.  This would suggest that the sinfulness of an action depends to a smaller or larger extent on circumstances and location.  Jurisprudence is the study of cases (casuistry).

In other words, moral relativism is not new.


However, with casuistry, a sin could be rendered innocent using “methods” that manipulated reality, which Blaise Pascal could not accept, nor Molière, nor La Fontaine.

Casuistry: a general definition

There were great advantages to casuistry in that allowed the “grands” among the faithful to sin without sinning, which constitutes an unacceptable form of moral relativism and, by and large, benefits only the “grands” or the rich and powerful.  Casuistry proposed “methods” that could be used to make a wrong a right.  The most important of these “methods” or doctrines were:

  1. la direction d’intention, or the end [l’intention] justifies the means (Machiavellian);
  2. mental restriction (saying part of the truth out loud, but saying the rest silently, within oneself);
  3. the doctrine des équivoques: using ambiguous or equivocal terms, to transform a message;
  4. probability (one theologian who said “no” could be overruled by a theologian who said “yes” as both were theologians.

I am leaving out: easy devotion (la dévotion aisée), and dispensation from loving God (la dispense d’aimer Dieu) and there may be other “methods” or doctrines, but for a detailed account of the methods put forth by casuistry, one needs to read Escobar y Mendoza, Francisco Suárez and other proponents of casuistique, a task best performed by theologians.

Among the four “methods” or doctrines I have listed, the most disputed was the fourth: probability, which pitted one authority against another.

Henry VIII & Henri IV

The Church of England separated from the Roman Church because Henry VIII (28 June 1491 – 28 January 1547) was not allowed to divorce Catherine of Aragon and having separated from the Roman Church, Henry VIII went on to have wives decapitated.

But let us look a the life of Henri IV of France who was a good king, but a womanizer who did not honour his promise to marry Catherine Henriette de Balzac d’Entragues, should Gabrielle d’Estrées (1573 – 10 April 1599), his official mistress, pass away.  Henri IV probably expected Gabrielle d’Estrées to live a long time, but she died of eclampsia on 10 April 1599, at the age of 26.  A few months later, Henri married Marie de’ Medici, not Catherine Henriette de Balzac d’Entragues, whom he had promised to marry.

Moreover, where was the Church, when Henri IV, a Protestant married Marguerite de Valois (14 May 1553 – 27 March 1615), a Catholic who did not want to marry him?  Henri IV, king of Navarre, stood outside Notre-Dame de Paris while his wedding took place.

Henri IV abjured Protestantism on 25 July 1593, following the advice of his mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées, a Catholic, but he did so unconvincingly: “Paris vaut bien une messe.” (Paris [the crown] is well worth a mass.)  He converted five years after his becoming king of France.  I surmise he had to convert in order to be crowned, which meant he was seeking power.

Finally, in 1599, ten years after he became king of France (1589), Henri had his marriage to Marguerite de Valois annulled on the grounds that she could not bear him children, which may not have constituted valid grounds for an annulment had Henri IV not needed heirs and had he not been a “grand.”  He had also had Gabrielle d’Estrées’ marriage annulled.  So what happened to Henry VIII?  Why was his marriage not annulled?

Henri IV, king of France and king of Navarre, was no choir boy.  He loved women.  But he may well have been the best king France ever had.


In other words, what we see here is adultery which, according to the Ten Commandments, is a sin.  Unlike Henry VIII, Henri IV did not break with the Roman Church to marry another woman.  Nor did he have wives decapitated.  But he had an insatiable sexual appetite which he obviously felt free to indulge perhaps given his “divine rights of kings,” a notion he and Henry VIII had probably never heard of.

Moreover, it was not uncommon for monarchs whose marriages were arranged to keep an official mistress. Henri II of France, Marguerite de Valois’ father, was married to Catherine de’ Medici, but he had a mistress, the powerful Diane de Poitiers.

Opposition to Casuistry

In his Lettres provinciales (1656-1657), Blaise Pascal[ii] (19 June 1623 – 19 August 1662), using a pseudonym, Louis de Montalte, condemned casuistry.  Molière mocked it in Tartuffe (1664, 1666, 1669) a play he often revised to please “le parti des dévots” and escape the death penalty.  As well, La Fontaine, bequeathed a long list of poems where the “grands” do with impunity what is not allowed of the “petits.”


In other words, the rapid breakdown of the Roman Church justified robust recourses, but did it justify taking sinfulness out of sin in aristocratic rather than plebeian circles.  There can no doubt that circumstances play a role in determining whether some actions are ethically permissible.  But can taking all sinfulness out of sinful actions be acceptable?

Pascal was not heard in his lifetime, but in 1679, “Pope Innocent XI publicly condemned sixty-five of the more radical propositions (stricti mentalis), taken chiefly from the writings of Escobar, Suárez (Catholic Encyclopedia) and other casuists as propositiones laxorum moralistarum and forbade anyone to teach them under penalty of excommunication.”[iii]

Ironically, if indeed casuistry was used to prevent further fragmentation of the Western Church, it was also an indictment of the Church, which can lead one to think that Pope Innocent XI perhaps saved the Western Church.


[i] Aristotle.” Wikipedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristotle>

[ii] “Blaise Pascal.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 04 Mar. 2012.<http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/445406/Blaise-Pascal>.

[iii] Casuistry.” Wikipedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casuistry>

Thomas Weelkes (baptised 25 October 1576 – 30 November 1623)

Give Ear Oh Lord

© Micheline Walker
5 March 2012
Gabrielle d’Estrées
(Please click on the image to enlarge it.)