Recollections of My Youth/The St. Sulpice Seminary/Part II

The St. Sulpice Seminary/Part IIEdit

St. Sulpice, in short, when I went through it forty years ago, provided, despite its shortcomings, a fairly high education. My ardour for study had plenty to feed upon. Two unknown worlds unfolded themselves before me: theology, the rational exposition of the Christian dogma, and the Bible, supposed to be the depository and the source of this dogma. I plunged deeply into work. I was even more solitary than at Issy, for I did not know a soul in Paris. For two years I never went into any street except the Rue de Vaugirard, through which once a week we walked to Issy. I very rarely indulged in any conversation. The professors were always very kind to me. My gentle disposition and studious habits, my silence and modesty, gained me their favour, and I believe that several of them remarked to one another, as M. Carbon had to me, "He will make an excellent colleague for us."

Upon the 29th of March, 1844, I wrote to one of my friends in Brittany, who was then at the St. Brieuc seminary:

"I very much like being here. The tone of the place is excellent, being equally free from rusticity, coarse egotism and affectation. There is little intimacy or geniality, but the conversation is dignified and elevated, with scarcely a trace of commonplace or gossip. It would be idle to look for anything like cordiality between the directors and the students, for this is a plant which grows only in Brittany. But the directors have a certain fund of tolerance and kindness in their composition which harmonises very well with the moral condition of the young men upon their joining the seminary. Their control is exercised almost imperceptibly, for the seminary seems to conduct itself, instead of being conducted by them. The regulations, the usages, and the spirit of the place are the sole agents; the directors are mere passive overseers. St. Sulpice is a machine which has been well constructed for the last two hundred years: it goes of itself, and all that the driver has to do is to watch the movements, and from time to time to screw up a nut and oil the joints. It is not like Saint-Nicholas, for instance, where the machine was never allowed to go by itself. The driver was always tinkering at it, running first to the right and then to the left, peering in here and altering a wheel there, not knowing or remembering that the best mounted machine is the one which requires the least attention from the man who sets it in motion. The great advantage which I enjoy here is the remarkable facility afforded me for work which has become a prime necessity to me, and which, considering my internal condition, is also a duty. The lectures on morals are excellent, but I cannot say as much of those on dogma, as the professor is a novice. This, coupled with the great importance of the Traites de la Religion et de l'Eglise, especially in my case, would be a very serious drawback, but for my having found substitutes for him among the other professors." As a matter of fact, I had a special liking for the ecclesiastical sciences. A text once implanted in my memory was never forgotten; my head was in the state of a Sic et Non of Abelard. Theology is like a Gothic cathedral, having in common with its grandeur its vast empty spaces and its lack of solidity. Neither to the Fathers of the Church nor to the Christian writers during the first half of the Middle Ages did it occur to draw up a systematic exposition of the Christian dogmas which would dispense with reading the Bible all through. The Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, a summary of the earlier scholasticism, is like a vast bookcase with compartments, which, if Catholicism is to endure, will be of service to all time, the decisions of councils and of Popes in the future having, so to speak, their place marked out for them beforehand. There can be no question of progress in such an order of exposition. In the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent settled a number of points which had hitherto been the subject of controversy; but each of these anathemas had already its place allotted to it in the wide purview of St. Thomas, Melchior Canus, and Suares remodelled the Summa without adding anything essential to it. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Sorbonne composed for use in the schools handy treatises which are for the most part revised and reduced copies of the Summa. At each page one can detect the same texts cut out and separated from the comments which explain them; the same syllogisms, triumphant, but devoid of any solid foundation; the same defects of historical criticism, arising from the confusion of dates and places.

Theology may be divided into dogmatics and ethics. Dogmatic theology, in addition to the Prolegomena comprising the discussions relating to the sources of divine authority, is divided into fifteen treatises upon all the dogmas of Christianity. At the basis is the treatise De la vraie Religion, which seeks to demonstrate the supernatural character of the Christian religion, that is to say of Revealed Writ and of the Church. Then all the dogmas are proved by Holy Writ, by the Councils, by the Fathers, and by the theologians. It cannot be denied that there is a very frank rationalism at the root of all this. If scholasticism is the descendant in the first generation of St. Thomas Aquinas, it is descended in the second from Abelard. In such a system reason holds the first place, reason proves the revelation, the divinity of Scripture and the authority of the Church. This done, the door is open to every kind of deduction. The only instance in which St. Sulpice has been moved to anger since the extinction of Jansenism was when M. de Lamennais declared that the starting-point should be faith, and not reason. And what is to be the test in the last resort of the claims of faith if not reason!

Moral theology consists of a dozen treatises comprising the whole body of philosophical ethics and of law, completed by the revelation and decisions of the Church. All this forms a sort of encyclopaedia very closely connected. It is an edifice, the stones of which are attached to one another by iron clamps, but the base is extremely weak. This base is the treatise De la vraie Religion, which treatise does not hold together. For not only does it fail to show that the Christian religion is more especially divine and revealed than the others, but it does not even prove that in the field of reality which comes within the reach of our observation there has occurred a single supernatural fact or miracle. M. Littre's inexorable phrase, "Despite all the researches which have been made, no miracle has ever taken place where it could be observed and put upon record" is a stumbling-block which cannot be moved out of the path. It is impossible to prove that a miracle occurred in the past, and we shall doubtless have a long time to wait before one takes place under such conditions as could alone give a right-minded person the assurance that he was not mistaken.

Admitting the fundamental thesis of the treatise De la vraie Religion, the field of argument is narrowed, but the argument is a long way from being at an end. The question has to be discussed with the Protestants and dissenters, who, while admitting the revealed texts to be true, decline to see in them the dogmas which the Catholic Church has in the course of time taken upon herself. The controversy here branches off into endless points, and the advocates of Catholicism are continually being worsted. The Catholic Church has taken upon herself to prove that her dogmas have always existed just as she teaches them, that Jesus instituted confession, extreme unction and marriage, and that he taught what was afterwards decided upon by the Nicene and Trent Councils. Nothing can be more erroneous. The Christian dogma has been formed, like everything else, slowly and piecemeal, by a sort of inward vegetation. Theology, by asserting the contrary, raises up a mass of objections, and places itself in the predicament of having to reject all criticism. I would advise any one who wishes to realise this to read in a theological work the treatise on Sacraments, and he will see by what a series of unsupported suppositions, worthy of the Apocrypha, of Marie d'Agreda or Catherine Emmerich, the conclusion is reached that all the sacraments were established by Jesus Christ during his life. The discussion as to the matter and form of the sacraments is open to the same objections. The obstinacy with which matter and form are detected everywhere dates from the introduction of the Aristotelian tenets into theology in the thirteenth century. Those who rejected this retrospective application of the philosophy of Aristotle to the liturgical creations of Jesus incurred ecclesiastical censure.

The intention of the "about to be" in history as in nature became henceforth the essence of my philosophy. My doubts did not arise from one train of reasoning but from ten thousand. Orthodoxy has an answer to everything and will never avow itself worsted. No doubt, it is admitted in criticism itself that a subtle answer may, in certain cases, be a valid one. The real truth does not always look like the truth. One subtle answer may be true, or even at a stretch, two. But for three to be true is more difficult, and as to four bearing examination that is almost impossible. But if a thesis can only be upheld by admitting that ten, a hundred, or even a thousand subtle answers are true at one and the same time, a clear proof is afforded that this thesis is false. The calculation of probabilities applied to all these shortcomings of detail is overwhelming in its effect upon unprejudiced minds, and Descartes had taught me that the prime condition for discovering the truth is to be free from all prejudice.