Pope Francis publishes apostolic letter on Blaise Pascal

Pope Francis and Blaise Pascal Pope Francis delivers his Angelus address on June 18, 2023/Portrait of Blaise Pascal. | Vatican Media/Public domain

Pope Francis published an apostolic letter on Monday praising the 17th-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal as “a tireless seeker of truth.”

Pascal (1623–1662) was a French scientist who helped to lay the foundation for modern probability theory, invented one of the earliest forms of a calculator, and defined a principle of hydraulics that has since come to be known in physics as “Pascal’s law.” In the later years of his life, the Catholic mathematician, physicist, and philosopher devoted himself to Christian apologetics.

“As a Christian, [Pascal] wishes to speak of Jesus Christ to those who have hastily concluded that there is no solid reason to believe in the truths of Christianity,” Pope Francis wrote.

“For his part, he knows from experience that the content of divine revelation is not only not opposed to the demands of reason, but offers the amazing response that no philosophy could ever attain on its own.”

The pope published the letter on June 19 to mark the 400th anniversary of Pascal’s birth in 1623. Its title, “Sublimitas Et Miseria Hominis,” means “The Grandeur and Misery of Man.”

In the eight-page letter, the pope describes Pascal as a “man of his time” who made a “masterful intellectual defense of the Christian faith.”

“From childhood, Pascal devoted his life to the pursuit of truth. By the use of reason, he sought its traces in the fields of mathematics, geometry, physics, and philosophy, making remarkable discoveries and attaining great fame even at an early age,” Pope Francis said.

“Yet he was not content with those achievements. In a century of great advances in many fields of science, accompanied by a growing spirit of philosophical and religious skepticism, Blaise Pascal proved to be a tireless seeker of truth, a ‘restless’ spirit, open to ever new and greater horizons.”

“Pascal’s brilliant and inquisitive mind never ceased to ponder the question, ancient yet ever new, that wells up in the human heart: ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?’ (Ps 8:5).”

The letter is filled with quotations from Pascal’s “Pensées,” his most well-known work of Christian apologetics published posthumously from his notes and manuscript fragments.

The pope highlights how Pascal never “never grew resigned to the fact that some men and women not only do not know Jesus Christ, but disdain, out of laziness or due to their passions, to take the Gospel seriously.”

Pascal wrote in his Pensées: “‘The immortality of the soul is so important to us, something that touches us so deeply, that we need to have lost all feeling to be unconcerned with knowing what is at stake … And that is why, among those who are not convinced about this, I would distinguish clearly between those who make every effort to investigate it, and those who go about their lives without being concerned about it or thinking of it.’”

Pope Francis also makes mention of Pascal’s involvement in the disputes between the Jesuits and the Jansenists during which Pascal wrote a series of letters that were highly critical of the Jesuits known as “The Provincial Letters.”

The controversy dealt chiefly with the question of God’s grace and the relationship between grace and human nature, specifically our free will.

The Jesuit pope offers a defense of Pascal, first noting that Pascal was “not given to taking sides” but was “charged by the Jansenists to defend them, given his outstanding rhetorical skill.”

He said that Pascal himself acknowledged that “several propositions considered ‘Jansenist’ were indeed contrary to the faith.”

“Even so, some of his own statements, such as those on predestination, drawn from the later theology of Augustine and formulated more severely by Jansen, do not ring true,” Francis said.

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The pope adds that “Pascal, for his part, sincerely believed that he was battling an implicit Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism” in the Jesuit teachings at the time.

“Let us credit Pascal with the candor and sincerity of his intentions,” he said.

Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken of his admiration for the French thinker. In an interview in July 2017, the Jesuit pope said that he believes that Pascal “deserves beatification.”

In 2021, the pope called a small handwritten note that was discovered sewn into Pascal’s coat at the time of his death “one of the most original texts in the history of spirituality.”

The note, known as Pascal’s “Memorial,” comes from a mystical experience on the night of Nov. 23, 1654, which caused the philosopher to weep tears of joy.

Among the words written on the page, Pascal wrote: “Jesus Christ. I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified. Let me never be separated from him. He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel: renunciation, total and sweet.”

Pascal’s experience on that night in 1654 led him to more fervently practice his Catholic faith with asceticism and written apologetics.

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At the time of his “final illness” and death in 1662 at the age of 39, Pascal is reported to have said: “If the physicians tell the truth, and God grants that I recover from this sickness, I am resolved to have no other work or occupation for the rest of my life except to serve the poor.”

Pope Francis highlights how “it is moving to realize that in the last days of his life, so great a genius as Blaise Pascal saw nothing more pressing than the need to devote his energies to works of mercy.”

“May the brilliant work of Blaise Pascal and the example of his life, so profoundly immersed in Jesus Christ, help us to persevere to the end on the path of truth, conversion, and charity,” he said.

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