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The natural Catholicism of Michel de Montaigne

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The great French essayist seems to have thought that, as a living man does not have to give reasons for his breathing, he did not need to explain his beliefs.

Catholicism is usually, and for good reasons, associated with a craving for doctrinal unity. We can, however, accept the doctrinal unity of the Catholic Church and still recognize the personality, the individuality, the style of each believer. A close look at its history reveals gradations, nuances, accents among Catholics and, especially, among philosophers who also happen to be Catholics. Although of the same faith, there is a world of difference between the Catholicism of St. Thomas of Aquinas and that of Descartes, at least as their beliefs get represented in their philosophical works. As in art, there seems to be styles – different emphases, “charismas,” let’s say — in the way people approach their faith.

Perhaps one of the most impressive styles of Catholicism is that of Michel de Montaigne. Many think of him as a skeptic, and there are good reason to think of him as such; he always mistrusted the claims of philosophers, theologians and men of science whenever they intended to speak about the extent of our knowledge. Montaigne would constantly stress ignorance and uncertainty as one of the fundamental marks of the human condition. But, beyond his views concerning human knowledge and the extent of our ignorance, he can also be considered a more than devout Catholic.

Like his philosophy, his Catholicism was quite idiosyncratic and peculiar. There is no strand of proselytizing in any of his essays. He always speaks of Catholicism as the only true religion, but never tries to prove this, never gives arguments in favor of this conclusion and never tries to convert a non-believer. In the wars of religion that were taking place in France while he was writing his essays, he always took the side of the King against the Protestants, but at times he does not seem actually convinced of the virtues of his chosen faction.

If we were obliged to define Montaigne’s Catholicism with one word, we would have to use the word “naturalness”: he is the most natural of Catholics, who experienced his Catholicism in the most natural way. He felt it as natural as breathing or moving around. He seems to have thought that as a living man does not have to give reasons for his breathing, he, born in a Catholic country and subject to a Catholic king, did not have to give any reasons for his religious faith and, at any rate, he did not tie his faith to solid “proofs” or  convincing “arguments.” If there are reasons to doubt our capacity for knowledge and our own judgment on most matters, then, Montaigne considered we could not sustain our faith by such a feeble foundation as the reasons our intellect approves.

But this conservative strand that can be spotted throughout Montaigne’s writings should not mislead us. It might be true the place of origin of a person ultimately accounts for his religion, but not for the quality of his faith. Being aware of the mistakes, faults and vices of his fellow countrymen as well as of his fellow Catholics, he left us what can be considered one of the best lines describing the type of religious faith we should all be striving for:

“If we hold upon God by the mediation of a lively faith; if we hold upon God by him, and not by us; if we had a divine basis and foundation, human occasions would not have the power to shake us as they do; our fortress would not surrender to so weak a battery; the love of novelty, the constraint of princes, the success of one party, and the rash and fortuitous change of our opinions, would not have the power to stagger and alter our belief: we should not then leave it to the mercy of every new argument, nor abandon it to all the rhetoric in the world; we should withstand the fury of these waves with an immovable and unyielding constancy: As a great rock repels the rolling tides, That foam and bark about her marble sides, From its strong bulk. If we were but touched with this ray of divinity, it would appear throughout; not only our words, but our works also, would carry its brightness and luster; whatever proceeded from us would be seen illuminated with this noble light … If we had but one single grain of faith, we should remove mountains from their places, saith the sacred Word; our actions, that would then be directed and accompanied by the divinity, would not be merely human, they would have in them something of miraculous.” (The Essays, Book II, Ch. 12: “Apology for Raimond Sebond”)

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