The Provincial Letters
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Religious controversies are like family feuds: they have tremendous importance for the families in which they occur, sometimes even leading to rupture; but for persons not in the family, they seem either silly, senseless or, at best, unfortunate. Family counsellors are paid to listen to descriptions of such feuds with a clinical ear, and to offer their advice for appeasement, reconciliation or, sometimes, separation. Friends drawn into family feuds are implicitly expected to take sides; but once they do so, they will invariably be wounded by the other side - and usually also by the side they took, at some later date. Prudence dictates impartiality. Religious controversies are more elaborate, and the language used to describe them is highly charged emotionally: they are called heresies, schisms, and reformations, and those engaged in such fights are called heresiarchs, schismatics, and reformers. There are counter-reformations, movements within movements; there are orders, and reform movements within orders, or the movement to abolish all orders. Splinter groups, excommunications, interdictions, anathemas - Christianity has been plagued with such things since its inception, with Donatism, Pelagianism, monothelitism, and Arianism, to name but a few. In family feuds, if blood is spilt, it remains in the family; in religious fights, violence can spread between families, cantons, cities, even nations. Lucretius remarked on the potency of religion in persuading to evil deeds: 'T antum religio potuit suadere malorum.'l Again, unlike family feuds, there is no impartial counsellor who can be paid for his advice. To have a religion is by definiton 'to be tied' - 'ligare' - to a particular tradition; to appeal to someone outside of that tradition to settle a dispute is in effect to give up one's religion. Appeal to civil
force is a way of eliminating one's opponents, but not of convincing them. When St Augustine appealed to the Roman governor of North Africa to help him squelch the Donatists, Augustine got his way and the dreaded Donatists - people who believed that a priest's personal sins invalidate his ministry - were clubbed, robbed, and chased out of the province. Coming closer to Pascal's own period to appreciate the violence of religious disagreements, we need only remember the night of 24 August 1572, St Bartholomew's Eve, when the bells of the church of Saint-Germain-I'Auxerrois began tolling and, a gigantic massacre of Protestants began in the streets of Paris: the Massacre of St Bartholomew.