Friday, August 28, 2009

Two Great Apologists for the Catholic Faith

Peter A. Kwasniewski

The Meeting of the Countess Matilda and Anselm of Canterbury in
the Presence of Pope Urban II
, by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli

Whoever has followed the speeches and homilies of Pope Benedict even to a limited extent is aware that one of his major themes is the harmony of faith and reason—and not just their harmony, but the dependence of human reason on the creative divine Reason or Logos. For Pope Benedict, it is not merely the case that faith does not contradict reason, as if the two are compatible partners on an equal footing. Human reason is a finite and fallible light that derives from the prior, all-encompassing light of God, who is also the font of life, love, freedom, and wisdom. Therefore men can be truly reasonable and free only when they must submit their intellects and wills to this light and live in its radiance. Without this light, men are doomed to the darkness of self-will, the tempest of irrational urges, and ultimately the madness of nihilism. Put differently, unless we embrace God’s revelation in faith, which purifies and elevates the natural light of our mind, our own reason is fated to be its undoing. By refusing or abandoning faith, we undermine reason at its foundation. Those who labor to sweep clean the rooms of their minds, thinking to find in scientific and technical prowess a kind of secular salvation, end up verifying the somber words of our Lord Jesus Christ when he speaks of the demon who, finding his old house “empty, swept, and garnished,” takes with him “seven other evil spirits more wicked than himself” and enters in to dwell there.1 Is this not what we are seeing all around us as our beloved country plummets with accelerating speed into the folly, nay the insanity, of liberalism unbounded, which refuses allegiance even to reason and to nature in its insatiable quest for self without soul, liberty without loyalty?

To the “enlightened” of recent centuries, the Catholic Church was the great enemy of reason, progress, liberty; wrapped in her dark robes of medieval superstition, she sought to enslave men with her dogmas and decrees, despising the goodness of raw nature. From our vantage in the twenty-first century, when for the first time large numbers of people seem incapable of recognizing, much less assenting to, the ironclad results of a valid syllogism or the normalcy of heterosexual love, it is sweetly ironic that the Catholic Tradition is increasingly the only bastion and defender even of nature’s integrity and of the luminosity of reason properly employed. Even while I recognize that rational argument is a dying art with a steadily diminishing potential audience and that the appeal to reason can never be an exclusive means of approach or the last word because, as Pascal observed, “the heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing,” still, I have often thought that our day and age is exactly the right time for a major revival of intelligent apologetics. And, it seems to me, we need to hit the books and begin studying anew the great theological apologists of our incomparable Tradition, both for the deepening of our own faith and for the missionary work Vatican II rightly called each of us to undertake. The stakes are higher than ever: not faith alone, but reason too is besieged. Christian faith is ridiculed as utterly irrational, when in reality, as the best minds have seen for the past 2,000 years, it is supreme and sovereign Reason — God’s Reason. Our own minds can begin to discern this beautiful reasonableness if only we will make the effort. We owe it to our Lord and to ourselves to prize and nurture the gift of reason as we do the gift of faith, so that we can be sane within and talk sanity to a world hell-bent on going mad.

In this article I would like to introduce (or, for some, re-introduce) two towering figures in the history of Catholic theology and apologetics: Saint Anselm and Blaise Pascal—one medieval, one modern, both committed to explaining and defending the mysteries of our holy religion through a judicious use of the God-given gift of reason, always submitting to the primacy of divine revelation and in this way exemplifying what Saint Paul calls the “obedience of faith.”2 Unlike Saint Augustine or Saint Thomas Aquinas, each of whom wrote so much that the official editions of their works run to dozens and dozens of volumes, Anselm and Pascal wrote relatively little; their major religious writings amount to about one modest volume apiece. Since we moderns, surrounded by the constant distraction of emails, cell phones, Twitter, and who knows what else yet to come, simply do not read as much as our forebears (a tragic decline on which the Antichrist is heavily relying in his endgame strategy), this relative brevity is a mercy and an incentive to buy those single volumes and set about reading them. Even so, their works are tough going at times, and perseverance is called for. Those seven demons mentioned by our Lord would, of course, prefer to see the room of your mind “empty, swept, and garnished” with the latest fads and fictions, but you know better than to yield to their desires. In reading Anselm and Pascal (and, needless to say, Augustine, Aquinas, Leo XIII, Benedict XVI, or any Catholic master worth reading), you will furnish your mind with solid truth that no demons, or their unwitting human captives, can gainsay.

The Father of Scholasticism

The future Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), the 900th anniversary of whose death we are celebrating this very year, was born at Aosta in the Italian Alps. As a young man he traveled from place to place for his education, a life of “wandering scholarship” not uncommon in the Middle Ages. In 1060 Anselm became a Benedictine monk at the Norman monastery of Bec, where he was made prior in 1063 and abbot in 1078. From 1063 to 1093 he led the quiet life of a monk and scholar, writing several treatises destined to have a huge impact on the intellectual life of Europe, among them two works on the existence of God (Monologion and Proslogion), a work on truth (De veritate), and another on free will (De libertate arbitrii). In the main Anselm followed Augustine as his master, but he incorporated much from the logic of Boethius and Aristotle as well as from the theology of his monastic predecessors. In 1093 Anselm was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury, in spite of his repeated protests against entering the active life, and in his new role he fought a long battle against the liberties taken by English kings in appointing Bishops apart from papal authority. Nevertheless, in the midst of the duties and controversies of his episcopacy Anselm managed to complete his treatise on the Incarnation, Cur Deus homo (Why God became man), along with a number of smaller works. He died in 1109 and was canonized in 1494. In 1720 Pope Clement XI declared him a Doctor of the Church.

Saint Anselm of Canterbury

Although much scholarly discussion has centered around the writings of this brilliant theologian, the central characteristic of his life is often forgotten. Anselm was above all a man of intense prayer who placed his entire intellectual life in the hands of God like a child trusting in his father for guidance. He sought rational or logical arguments not because his mind was clouded with doubts but as a way of using his God-given mind to probe the foundations of the faith he already accepted, and to clarify what our language and concepts mean when adapted to mysteries above the domain of natural reason. The contemporary Catholic apologist should therefore learn his first lesson from Anselm’s very life, which wedded prayer and study, words and silence, wisdom and charity.

Anselm’s most important works, the Monologion, the Proslogion, and the Cur Deus homo, each deserves close study. The relevance of the Proslogion’s ontological argument for the existence of God—namely, that all men are capable of forming the concept “that than which no greater can be thought,” to which existence must belong if it is truly that than which no greater can be thought—is rather limited, for three reasons. First, later Western theologians, among them Saint Thomas Aquinas, found the proof defective. Second, a careful reading of the treatise as a whole shows that Anselm is seeking to deepen his grasp of a truth he already accepts in faith, making the argument a meditative response of reason to God’s self-revelation rather than a proof directed towards unbelievers. Finally, most modern people are not patient or schooled enough to follow Anselm’s abstract reasoning or would be tempted to dismiss it as playing with words. Yet the spirit of the treatise has an abiding relevance, and the prayers it contains help the reader to dwell within the luminous truth of God. Anselm’s Monologion, a profound exploration of the divine nature and the mystery of the Trinity, is more immediately useful to an apologist preparing to present or defend the existence of one God in three divine Persons. Anselm’s dialogue on the fittingness of the Incarnation, Cur Deus homo, contributes to an apologetic tradition stretching back to the earliest Fathers of the Church. The infinite holiness of God deserves perfect honor, but man, by sinning against God, has failed to render this honor; therefore God’s majesty is infinitely offended and man is infinitely guilty. If man is to be rescued from his plight, then this perfect honor must be given by him, canceling out his guilt and restoring his friendship with God; but God alone can restore what man has lost, and God alone can forgive the guilt of an infinite offense. Jesus Christ, Word made flesh, true God and true man, undertakes the work of redemption by offering Himself to the Father in an oblation of love on the Cross for the sake of mankind, an oblation fully acceptable to God because it is made by God; man is redeemed by man, the Father’s wrath is appeased and His mercy poured out, and the path to heaven is opened through Christ, the way, the truth, and the life.

Saint Anselm’s generous and positive attitude towards the integration of faith and reason is much needed now, as the encyclical Fides et Ratio repeatedly emphasized, and his humble way of “questioning God” is a model for the Christian thinker seeking to penetrate the mysteries of faith. Consider these words from chapter 2 of Cur Deus homo: “As the right order requires us to believe the deep things of Christian faith before we undertake to discuss them by reason, so to my mind it appears a neglect if, after we are established in the faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe.”

The Grandeur and Misery of Man

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) was unquestionably one of the most eminent modern apologists for the Christian faith. Despite his poor health, Pascal was a prodigy in mathematics and science from his earliest youth. He performed ground-breaking experiments with water and air pressure, invented a calculating machine, and made striking advances in theoretical mathematics, especially probability theory. However, he came to see more and more that burgeoning empirical-mathematical knowledge could not satisfy yearnings for the ultimate meaning of life, nor could its technological counterpart deliver the earthly paradise it promised. Through his keen observations of people and their self-deceiving efforts to escape the unhappiness that lingers beneath the glitter of distracting pleasures, he became acutely aware of man’s radical need for God and the meaninglessness of life without faith. On November 23, 1654, Pascal underwent an intense spiritual experience, during which he wrote down some phrases on a piece of paper he later sewed into his jacket and always wore about with him:
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars. God of Jesus Christ. He can only be found in the ways taught in the Gospel. Joy, joy, joy and tears of joy. This is life eternal, that they might know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ. I have cut myself off from him. I have fled from him, denied him, crucified him. Let me never be cut off from him. He can only be kept by the ways taught in the Gospel.3
After receiving this tremendous grace, he retired into seclusion, placed himself under the direction of spiritual advisors at the Port Royal monastery, and turned his attention to the practice of religion and the composition of apologetic works. The greatest of these is entitled Pensées, a collection of notes for a massive apologetic which Pascal did not live to complete. The notes he preserved, ranging in length from a few words to a few pages, contain some of the most profound insights into the heart of man ever written, and deserve to be read and pondered time and time again. He sketches arguments for the truth of the Christian faith and the divine authority of the Catholic Church from a variety of angles: experience of sin and error in the world, the futility of life without a final purpose, the inability of man to save himself from suffering and death, the incongruity between ideals and facts, proofs of natural reason, the correspondence of Old Testament prophecies to the Messiah who fulfills them, the compelling beauty of Jesus and his Covenant, the miracles performed by Christ and the saints throughout the ages. Warring against the rationalism that was starting to conquer European culture, Pascal emphasizes the primacy of the heart in search for God—that is, the centrality of will, conviction, submission—over cold intellectual arguments. “Reason’s last step is to recognize that there is an infinite number of things which surpass it. It is simply feeble if it does not go as far as realizing that.” “Reason would never submit unless it perceived that there are occasions when it should submit. It is right, therefore, that it should submit when it perceives that it ought to submit.”4

Blaise Pascal by Philippe de Champaigne

No apologist has so powerfully insisted on the truth of original sin and, in the face of it, the need for a Redeemer:
If man had never been corrupted, he would enjoy in his innocent state both truth and happiness with confidence. And if man had never been other than corrupted, he would have no notion of either truth or happiness. But in the wretched state in which we are . . . we have an idea of happiness and we cannot achieve it, we feel an image of truth and we possess only untruth. We are incapable both of total ignorance and certain knowledge, so obvious is it that we were once in a state of perfection from which we have unhappily fallen.5
And again:
Certainly nothing shocks us more deeply than this doctrine [of original sin]. Never­the­less without this most incomprehensible of all mysteries we are incomprehensible to ourselves. Within this gnarled chasm lie the twists and turns of our condition. So, humanity is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is conceivable to humanity.6
“Not only is it through Jesus Christ alone that we know God but it is only through Jesus Christ that we know ourselves. We know life and death only through Jesus Christ. Without Jesus Christ we do not know what our life, nor our death, nor God, nor ourselves really are.”7 In the end, one who wants to be honest with himself must either believe in and submit wholly to God, accepting the Messiah whom the Father sent to redeem mankind, or be an atheist in despair, abandoning the search for truth and happiness, substituting in its place a routine of shallow diversions to mask the emptiness of a life poised for immanent death. “It is good to be weary and tired from the useless search for the true good, in order to stretch ones arms out to the Redeemer.”8

The most famous argument in the Pensées has been called Pascal’s Wager. If God exists and the Christian religion is true, then those who believe gain eternal life and those who do not believe earn eternal damnation. Since eternity is infinitely greater than the meager span of one’s life, one ought to wager on the truth of Christianity and embrace it. If it proves to be true, one gains everlasting life. If it proves to be false, then one has merely lost a short life that one had to lose anyhow. But if the religion is true, and one did not embrace it, one has lost infinitely more—one has lost everything. How could an infinitesimal fraction of time have any value in comparison with even the possibility of an eternity of bliss or woe? Here we see Pascal ingeniously using probability theory against the very agnosticism generated by the modern scientific mentality. This argument, like many others in Pascal, was intended to startle and provoke, so that an inquirer after religious truth would search all the more earnestly; it was not intended to be sufficient by itself or to supplant other classical arguments leading in the same direction.

In the later part of his life, Pascal became heatedly involved in political and ecclesiastical controversies surrounding the theology of Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), Bishop of Ypres, whose interpretation of Saint Augustine’s doctrine of predestination, grace, and free will formed the basis of a heresy, or at least a heretical tendency, subsequently known as Jansenism. Although Pascal fiercely attacked the Jesuits of his time as traitors to Christianity and may have held some questionable theological positions associated with the Port Royal school, by the end of his life he had withdrawn from public controversy to spend his time in prayer, meditation, and works of charity. In the six-month period of his final prolonged sickness, Pascal sold off his carriage, horses, tapestries, furniture, silver, and most of his books, giving the money to the poor. In spite of his own physical sufferings, he earnestly requested those nursing him to go out and find a poor man who might be sheltered under the same roof with him. He died in peace of soul on August 19, 1662, shortly after receiving the last sacraments.

The Editions to Buy

As mentioned above, the major works by Saint Anselm fit snugly in a single volume. Two affordable paperback editions on the market contain almost exactly the same items in different translations: the Thomas Williams edition published by Hackett and the Brian Davies-Gillian Evans edition published by Oxford. While both translations are reliably faithful to the Latin originals and quite readable, on balance my preference goes to the Davies-Evans, for the simple reason that Williams insists on using inclusive language throughout in a way that uglifies the prose and needlessly complicates the theological points Anselm is making. In keeping with centuries of English usage and just plain good sense, Anselm’s famous question Cur Deus homo deserves to be rendered “Why God became man,” not “Why God became a human being.” Is anyone so witless as to think that “man” in this expression means only males of the species? And, more to the point, if anyone does think it, do they not need a lesson in grammar more than a clunky politically-correct translation?

With Pascal, however, the choices for an English Pensées are more numerous, and I can claim no expertise in recommending the best edition. I have always found the Penguin edition by Krailsheimer serviceable; the language is appropriately eloquent for a master controversialist like Pascal, and the content well-organized.9 One could likely find other good translations of this work as well.

A last piece of advice: skip the modern introductions to the volumes and go straight to the author’s own words. Without a doubt some introductions are interesting and helpful, especially for students doing research, but life is short, time is precious, and the wisdom we stand to gain is found in the primary sources, the original writings, of our great Catholic Tradition. Do yourself a favor and make time to read Pascal’s Pensées and, of Anselm’s works, at least Why God Became Man. A noble goal, faith seeking understanding, with two noble guides. May the gracious Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, grant each of us a consoling foretaste of His sovereign Reason as we walk through this vale of tears toward the light of glory.


  1. See Mt 12:43-45. [back]

  2. Rom 1:5, 16:26. [back]

  3. From Pascal’s “Memorial” of the event. [back]

  4. Nos. 220 and 205 in the Penguin edition. [back]

  5. No. 164. [back]

  6. Ibid. [back]

  7. No. 36. [back]

  8. No. 524. [back]

  9. Recall that Pascal’s original text is, in fact, a huge assembly of scattered notes, which gives rise to disputes about how best to arrange and present the material. [back]

[Dr. Peter A. Kwasniewski is Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming. The present article, "Two Great Apologists for the Catholic Faith," was originally published in Latin Mass: A Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Summer 2009), pp. 6-10, and is reprinted here by kind permission of Latin Mass Magazine, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060.]