"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan
The following are Ephraim Radner’s observations on the Roman Catholic reaction to the “heretical” Jansenist miracles. In this particular passage he begins with a discussion of the Roman Bishop, Languet, and his criticism of the Jansenist use of the miraculous healing of a lay women Madam Lafosse during a Jansenist procession. Ironically that miracle itself has been confirmed as authentic by a Roman Catholic cardinal but was now being used by the Jansenist as a vindication of their cause. We also have to keep in mind the Enlightenment controversy raging in the background about whether miracles authenticate a religious claim or do religious claims authenticate a miracle, leading to a circularity of argument. Some terminology: the word “Appellant” refers to the Jansenists for they were “appealing” against the pope’s censure of their position.
In view of Cardinal de Noailles’s official acceptance of Lafosse’s miraculous healing, Languet tack lay not in questioning the divine origin of the event itself, but in casting doubt upon the evident purpose of the prodigy. God’s performance of miracles, according to Languet, is in accordance to hidden ends that defy the easy linkage of confirming miracle and its immediate circumstance. Indeed, miracles can “confirm” nothing, because their occurence does not inherently manifest their end: miracles may happen, as God desires, in order to punish, confuse, and blind as readily as they may be worked as testimony on behalf of some contiguous cause. Languet adopts a form of historical dispensationalism in order to skirt the obvious scriptural objection to such a thesis on the basis of Jesus’ own “confirming” miracles: while helpful in this role at the inception of the Gospel’s preaching, miracles are no longer “needed” for such a function once both doctrine and the Church are established. The power of discernment, in times of contest, now resides with the Church’s magisterium, infallible in its judgments as rendered by bishops “united to the Pope”. On this score, Appellancy has long been pronounced in error, and any miracle associated with it, however genuine, cannot be interpreted as a divine mark of vindication for its cause. Indeed, in light of its heretical location, Lafosse’s healing must be seen as somehow marking the wrath of God by spreading a “seductive” veil upon the minds of those given over to the way of righteousness. As with the Eastern Church’s response to Messalianism centuries before, Languet here insisted that experience itself cannot be clear; in a thoroughly Western fashion, however, he asserted that only the voice of the official Church can direct one’s feet through the obscurity of the times.
It was precisely this epistemological wedge placed between experience and authority in religious matters that reflects what had already become, through the seventeenth century, a major “sceptical” feature in religious apologetic, working side by side and frequently in a complementary way with what we more normally associate with the “positivistic” elements of the Enlightenment. Languet’s argument, while it was hardly designed to question the capacity of the Church’s human servants to investigate and pronounce upon the phenomena of the miraculous, nonetheless tended to consign them to the heap of general experience whose intrinsic opacity as religiously significant left only the Church’s authority intact as its exegete. And while also considering divine control over events as a given, his logic moved to make inert even this assumption apart from ecclesial pronouncements.
It is pertinent to note, then, that the direction of the anti-miracle attack followed by Languet and others usually drifted away from this initial argument based on the inscrutability of God’s earthly purpose even thought genuine supernatural interventions, to an outright rejection of the “divinity” of the miracles altogether. As the prodigies associated with other Appellant saints and relics multiplied, culminating at Saint-Médard, but without ever meeting official acceptance as in the case of Mdm. Lafosse, there was no longer any need to work with the assumption of their divine origin. The argument from the Church’s authority remained decisive, as before, but now the miracles were simply attributed to other, none-divine sources: human imposture, natural causes, and increasingly, the Devil himself. Languet later, in the wake of the convulsions, produced a large work in this vein, as did many others. On the one hand, Languet and his circle defended the Church’s refusal – on the part of the Diocese of Paris and of Rome – to investigate the miracles of François de Pâris, on the blunt basis that Appellants, as officially condemned, hold to nothing legitimate for which to be vindicated. On the other hand, they explained the seeming supernatural elements of the “miracles” in terms of forces – natural or evil – attention to which could only end up corrupting the observer. The simple syllogistic train of reasoning, requiring no attention or inquiry into claims for sanctity or miracle, went something like this: Appellants refuse to subscribe to official papal teaching; therefore they are out of communion with the Church; those out of communion with the Church cannot be saints; François de Pâris was an Appellant, and therefore he was not a saint. Any phenomena associated with him, then, have no relevance to the Church’s life, and can at best derive from religiously nefarious sources. Archbishop Vintimille, Noailles’s successor, repeatedly refused to initiate inquiries into the Saint-Médard miracles, despite official requests on the part of priests and others in the diocese that he do so; likewise the Roman Inquisition, in an action upheld by the later Pope Benedict XIV, condemned de Pâris cult, declared his miracles false, and forbade the printing of books dealing with him and his associated healings, without ever taking up an investigation. In both cases, the mere fact that Appellancy and its condemned doctrine were implicated justified their rejection out of hand. The disappearance, here, of pneumatic claims beneath the weight of canonical prejudices of doctrine signalled the final reinterpretation of both sanctity and miracle into fully institutional terms. The pneumatic shape of the Church’s life stood untouched and part from the vicissitudes of her contextual disputes, with the result that it was divorced, not from historical existence as such, but from a history that could be seen as fully imbued with a positive divine significance.
Languet’s rendering of miraculous phenomena as ambiguous, then led to a de-divinizing of historical phenomena in general. In the course of the attack on Saint-Médard, in fact, it led to their outright demonization. Jean-Baptiste-Noel Lerouge, syndic of the Sorbonne from 1739, conveniently lays out in summary form many of the arguments of Languet and later La Taste as they had developed, in a volume of 1737… to the whole of “sensible history”, judging all phenomena suspiciously, he thereby drains the world of any comprehensible divine presence, in favour of the Church’s detached magisterial determinations. Lerouge’s strategy is to fasten on the figurist eshcatology of the Endtimes’ disputes, and make an observation, logical in itself, that all phenomenal vindications of a givine religious position in such days will be uselessly ambiguous, nay, even seductively so. For is it not prophesied that the Antichrist himself will perform miracles at that time?
–Spirit and Nature: The Saint-Médard Miracles in 18th Century Jansenism