Pope Francis publishes apostolic letter on Blaise Pascal


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

Vatican City, Jun 19, 2023 / 05:45 am (CNA).

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 Latin.

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.

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 November 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.

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.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Catholic News Agency 9055 Articles
Catholic News Agency (www.catholicnewsagency.com)


  1. And then there’s “Pascal’s wager”: “[in] philosophy the argument that it is in one’s rational self-interest to act as if God exists, since the infinite punishments of hell, provided they have a positive probability, however small, outweigh any countervailing advantage.”

    Just wondering–if God exists–whether there are, therefore, also moral absolutes as articulated in our inborn Natural Law, the Catechism, and Veritatis Splendor, and if it is prudent to just roll along remaining silent about such stuff (as in the response to the dubia, and in parts of synodality)?

  2. A well-constructed and concise letter, with pithy quotes throughout, and which at the end correctly warns briefly against the neo-pelagianism of our own time. But, in the middle the letter includes this possibly cryptic editorial comment: “The baneful ideologies from which we continue to suffer in the areas of economics, social life, anthropology and morality, keep their followers imprisoned in a world of illusions, where ideas have replaced reality.”

    So, a respectful question: of this conglomerate parallelism of “areas,” just wondering here which part of “morality” is an illusion like the rest? On this point, while even St. John Paul II’s “Faith and Reason” is favorably cited, it’s an unfortunate oversight that a clarifying footnote is not added, as could be supplied by any or all of his Veritatis Splendor (VS, 1993).

    Is the idea AND reality of innate natural law only a Jansenist and “ecclesial rule and structure?” Or, instead, this: “The Church is no way the author or the arbiter of this [‘moral’] norm” (VS, n. 95)?

  3. I find Pope Francis’ letter unhelpful in so many respects and that it carries forward issues without addressing them or the whole context correctly.

    By the time of Pascal’s sickness Holy See had anathemized Jansenism already; and then once again before Pascal died. But Pascal never renounced Jansenism. A sympathetic parish priest accompanied him on his death-bed and no-one is able to confirm where or how Pascal separated from Jansenism. From what I have read Pascal’s primary intellectual interest was augmentation of rationalism and the arrival of the true man. By which he hoped to spear-head the Jansenist outreach for claiming into the fold, mature intellectuals. Jesus Christ was utilized into this -something similar would be de Chardin’s evolutionary cosmology.

    The renunciation Pascal talks about, in the decade before his death and on his death, would be to invoke once more the Jansenist self-denialism not the ascetical struggle for openness to an inspired love of the Saviour. Horizons without truth.

    The poor got inserted at the end in an after-thought. Trying to make Pascal smell like sheep, now that he is dead, amounts to insensitivity.

    Among other things his Apologie was directed at supplanting Aquinas -rejecting his secular philosophy. According to what I have read, Pascal also crafted this work as in a “perfect composition” reaching a climax. At the same time it is another sort of testamentary to intellectual edification. A demonstration.

    Pascal attacked the Jesuits from the wrong angle. Pelagianism seems to get philosophers into an easy tangle they can’t recognize. And I suspect he over-generalized it -had no real instance. The Jesuits ultimately were suppressed for causes of their own making.

    It is not “apostolic” it was the spirit of the age in mixed quantities. Nor for that matter can you call Pascal to witness to things he never actually did any more than you can make him a litmus test against Jansenism -or intellectualism.

    Besides which, questions arising against his reasoning processes need to be addressed on their own terms.

    What should happen first is a right inquiry about his various forays. It would then be necessary to judge his output on separate scales not merely Jansenism -nor through retrospect only. Not doing this is UNFAIR on everyone.

    Not having done this part, you thereby only complicate the issues with problems of deniability and party spirit. This is reflected in the fact that even though after Pascal’s death Jansenism was condemned a third time, they pursued the Pascal legend without ever resolving the contradictions bourne out in the timeline of his life and his stylized constructions.

      • Pascal’s sickness – 1654
        Pascal’s demise – 1662

        1. In eminenti – 1643
        2. Cum occasione – 1653
        3. Ad sacram – 1656
        4. Vineam domini – 1705
        5. Unigenitus – 1713

    • Elias, you write: “Among other things his Apologie was directed at supplanting Aquinas -rejecting his secular philosophy.” On this point, probably, Pope Francis writes: “In reflecting on Pascal’s Pensées, we constantly encounter, in one way or another, this fundamental principle: “reality is superior to ideas” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 231).

      We might wonder whether this cryptic self-quotation is not only the thesis of the entire Apologie, but also the thesis sentence of the entire pontificate? A polarization between moral precepts (ideas) and concrete cases (reality).

      Like Aquinas, Newman also provides focus on the particular (reality), but this is done NOT to suggest exemptions from the moral law, but rather to clarify precisely how the particular should conform to the stable moral law. A matter of moral “judgment,” not of private “decisions.”

      About which, St. John Paul II had this to say:

      “A separation, or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid and general [!], and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision [!] about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called ‘pastoral’ solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a ‘creative’ hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience [!] is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular [!] negative precept [thou shalt not!]” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 56).

      And, about which, even Pascal still had this to say:

      “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of… We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.” Pascal’s most famous quote and omitted (especially the second half) from the Apologie. A curious omission…that even judgments of the heart cannot contradict reason by deciding exemptions from the moral law.

  4. Searching and finding God in the poor is a special grace. Long live the memory of Blaise Pascal, the truth seeker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.