I have had occasion in previous postings to make comparisons between Jansenism and a certain kind of conservative Anglicanism. The comparison is very imperfect, and this time, I am writing without pointing any fingers whatsoever at anyone. This article is intended to be of historical interest in support of my previous article on the Counter Reformation, and a key to discovering some trace-tendencies in contemporary Catholicism.

In a nutshell, Jansenism was a religious and political movement, which developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, mainly in France. It was a reaction against certain developments in the Catholic Church, Jesuit-inspired theology in particular and against Royal absolutism, of Lous XIV and Louis XV in particular.

This tendency within Catholicism was named after the Bishop of Ypres Cornelius Jansen, author of its founding text Augustinus, published in 1640. To begin with, Jansenism was a theological reflection centred on the problem of divine grace. It later became a political force, manifesting itself in different ways, touching moral theology, the relationship between faith and Christian life, the role of the clergy in society and various political issues.

Jansenism began by being a defence of Augustinian theology in the debates provoked by the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent. Fighting against Roman authority gave Jansenism a Gallican tendency (note, the two issues are to be distinguished). As Jansenism developed in the eighteenth century, we find lay movements surprisingly similar to Montanism in the early Church or the Charismatic / Pentecostalist movement we sometimes come across in our own times. There were the Convulsionaries of Saint Médard in particular. It became influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and there was an increasing collusion with the types of thought that would eventually develop in to Liberalism. Then in the nineteenth century, Jansenism became a force for Tradition against modernisation.

The main characteristic of Jansenism was a stringent and strict Christian life. It was essentially a traditionalist movement, stemming from French Ancien Régime society. Jansenism was more “liquid” than traditionalist Catholicism in our own time.

Some of Jansenism’s theological and spiritual roots are to be found in Calvin and Puritanism in general. The essential issue is the relationship between divine grace and human freedom in the process of salvation. The Jansenists found the precedent of St Augustine against the Pelagians a great inspiration for their polemics against the Jesuits. Pelagius supported the idea according to which man had the strength to want good and practice virtue, a position that would relativise the role of grace. St Augustine maintained that God alone chose to whom he would grant grace. Man’s freedom is destroyed and made perverse by Original Sin. By an act of God’s sovereign will, God acts on man by efficiacious grace, but human freedom is not destroyed.

Medieval theology was dominated by Augustinian thought, and little place was left to human freedom. St Thomas Aquinas worked hard to conciliate grace and human freedom. Man cooperates in the work of his salvation, which is the work of God. Luther and especially Calvin worked in the same direction, annihilating any idea of human freedom, and going much further than St Augustine would have remotely imagined. It is from this exaggeration of some streams of medieval theology that the famous solas would orginate (Bible alone, faith alone, etc.). The Reformers emphasised predestination. Man is saved by grace, but man cannot resist this grace that God freely chooses to confer, and the divine will is above all things. To combat the Reformers, the Council of Trent (6th Session, 1547) emphasised human freedom and left its relationship with grace open.

The Jesuit theologians reacted strongly, fearful that excessive Augustinianism would weaken the role of the Church in the salvation of Christians. Under Renaissance and humanist influence, they sought to convey a more optimistic vision of man, and based their work of St Thomas Aquinas. This is how this Dominican theologian was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1567.

Theological conflicts grew from about that year. Baïus was condemned by St Pius V for denying the reality of free will. The work of the Jesuit Molina was a response to Baïus and claimed the existence of “sufficient” grace, which brings man the means of salvation, but requires a free act from the subject. In the seventeenth century, the controversy finds its centre in Louvain, Flanders (what is now Belgium). The Bishop of Ypres, Cornelius Jansen, also known as Jansenius, was a student and then a professor at Louvain. He began writing his magnum opusAugustinus in 1628, and it was left unfinished when he died in 1638. For Jansen, since Original Sin, man’s will without divine help is capable only of evil. Only efficacious grace can enable man to prefer the things of heaven to the things of this world. This grace is irresistible and is not granted to all. Parallel with Calvin’s theory of predestination, most people are born to be damned, and God does not will their salvation.

It was Jean Duvergier de Hauranne, Abbot of Saint-Cyran (called Saint-Cyran) who brought Augustinus to France in the early seventeenth century. France had been torn apart by the wars of religion, and the Jesuits were banned from France from 1595 to 1603, and Counter-Reformation ideas thus had no way of competing against exaggerated Augustinianism.

The Ecole Française of spirituality was, from the beginning, heavily Augustinian. It was mostly initiated by Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle, close to the ideas of Saint-Cyran. The dominant theme is the adoration of Christ the Saviour, bringing souls to a state of humility before God. There would seem to be nothing wrong with that! Saint-Cyran emphasised the need for a true interior conversion, without which the reception of Penance and the Eucharist would be both pointless and sacrilegious. Perhaps this Jansenism seems just the ticket! But let’s look at it completely!

Saint-Cyran’s spirituality is strongly monastic, and calls the elect to the contemplative and monastic life. From this came the relations between Saint-Cyran and the Arnauld family in Paris. He became spiritual director of the Abbey of Port Royal, a Cistercian nunnery to the south of Paris. The rule of Port Royal was strict, as would be expected. Saint-Cyran got into deep trouble for criticising the foreign policy of Cardinal de Richelieu, and was thrown into the Bastille in 1638.

Augustinus was printed in France in 1641 and reprinted in 1643. The Oratorians and Dominicans welcomed it. The Jesuits, predictably, opposed it. In 1640, the Jesuits condemned the renewal spirituality of Saint-Cyran that discouraged frequent Communion, on pretext of returning to the primitive Church. Like the Tridentine apologists and theologians, the Jesuits resumed Jansenist ideas into five propositions, but which were not formally attributed to Jansenius. These propositions were condemned by Innocent X in 1653 by the bull Cum occasione. The first four are declared heretical, and the fifth false.

Then came the fierce polemics between the Jesuits and the Molinists. The Molinists represented the “semi-pelagian” Jesuit position. Henri Arnauld, Bishop of Angers, a Jansenist, entered the fray in 1649. Arnauld attempted to defend the condemned propositions, claiming that they had been misunderstood. Arnauld finished up by being condemned, and he retired to Port Royal. He and the theologian Pierre Nicole were joined by the great French author Blaise Pascal, who wrote the famous Provincial Letters.

Pascal fought hard to support the Jansenists throughout the 1650’s. He based his arguments on Saint Thomas Aquinas. That enabled his book to be published with being condemned as heretical. He set out to demonstrate that the Jesuits had misrepresented Jansenism, and only the caricature was truly heretical. In the Provinciales, Pascal defended Augustinianism and Port Royal. The Provinciales ended up on the Index.

Jansenism also has its political dimension, but I will not go into that here. Those who are interested will find material on the Internet or in libraries.

From 1661 came the first aggressive gesture from King Louis XIV against Port Royal. This monastery was ordered to dismiss it novices and lay people the nuns cared for. The nuns were deprived of the Sacraments in 1664. The King had to seek ways to keep his Kingdom peaceful. A short-lived agreement was made between the Jansenists and Pope Clement IX, which lasted only until 1679.

During that time, the Jansenists were careful what they said, and distinguished themselves by the quality of their scholarly work. Louis-Isaac Lemaistre de Sacy published a beautiful translation into French of the New Testament. He finished his translation of the Vulgate in 1695, and is a monument of French literature.

The old quarrels resumed in 1679 on the death of the Duchess of Longueville. Louis XIV resumed the old oppression of the Jansenists. He obtained a final condemnation of Pasquier Quesnel’s Réflexions morales by Clement XI in 1708 against the Jansenists. Finally, Clement XI published the well-known bull Unigenitus Dei Filius in 1713.

The Jansenists continued writing against Unigenitus, especially between 1713 and 1731. It was in the 1720’s that the Prince Regent became more muscular. In 1730, Unigenitus became a law of the State, and the Jansenists found themselves persecuted.

The Convulsionaries of Saint Médard are an interesting chapter in the history of Jansenism. They were the equivalent of the Charismatics of our own times, and parallels are to be found between the Convulsionaries and Holy Trinity, Brompton – an evangelical Anglican parish located just behind the London Oratory in South Kensington. Ronald Knox described the Convulsionaries at length in his book, Enthusiasm.

The Jansenists of the mid eighteenth century were apocalyptic in their vision and pessimism. They were, as John XXIII said more than two hundred years later, prophets of doom. There is a remarkable collusion between the Jansenists and the more extreme Catholic traditionalists of the 1970’s and 1980’s. The second half of the eighteenth century was marked by the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1764 who had tried to reconcile the Jansenists and the Royal power.

Jansenism had its effect in the French Revolution. Many Jansenist priests went along with the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. They saw an opportunity to resist the power of Rome and the Pope. When the Concordat of 1801 was signed between Napoleon Bonaparte and Pius VII, the last Jansenists went along with the national Church. Only the Convulsionary groups kept a radical position. The collaboration of Jansenists with the Revolution earned them the opposition of the Ultramontanists of the nineteenth century. In particular, they were accused of being Protestants and Freemasons.

Some of the Jansenists fled to Holland, firstly to Amsterdam and increasingly to Utrecht. The history of the Episcopal Church of the Old Roman Clergy is well known, and is today the headquarters of the Old Catholic Church, Union of Utrecht. Their official break with Rome took place in 1724 with the illegal consecration of a schismatic Archbishop of Utrecht by Bishop Dominique Varlet, coadjutor Bishop of the diocese in partibus of Babylon.

Jansenism had its influence in Italy, manifested notably by the pseudo Synod of Pistoia. This assembly in 1786 promoted the doctrinal ideas of the Jansenists. Scipione di Ricci, Bishop of Pistoia and Prato was heavily influenced by Jansenism. Among the ideas of the Jansenists was a radical programme of liturgical reform based of the idea of restoring the liturgy to the “pristine” norms of a golden age of the primitive Church. The positions of that synod were condemned by Rome in the Bull Auctorem fidei of 1794. Many of the modern reforms in the Catholic Church were to some extent influenced by historical Jansenism, rather than Protestantism which is usually blamed by traditionalists.

Jansenism persisted into the nineteenth century with the partisans of Gallicanism. The theological quarrel about the role of the Pope came to an end with the definition of Papal infallibility at Vatican II in 1870. By that time, few were still interested in the endless quibblings about grace, nature and freedom.

However, there remained a strongly austere spirit in France, Ireland and many other countries. One colourful figure in nineteenth century France was a convinced Jansenist priest by the name of Guettée, who converted to Orthodoxy in 1861 and took the name Vladimir.

Jansenism has come to be associated with moral rigorism and an austere spirit. Some have blamed the leftovers of Jansenism for an unhealthy spirituality and sexual repression that might cause some priests to “flip” and commit acts of paedophilia. I have read that idea applied to the Irish Church. Such an idea is debatable and probably wrong. I have definitely seen Jansenist characteristics in some of the Catholic traditionalists of the Society of Saint Pius X or adhering to sedevacantist ideas.

There are some precious resources on a website, the link of which I hesitate to give here. I therefore give only the links to the subject matter discussed here. I will not give the link to the home page, because it contains seriously anti-Semitic material. I will not endorse such evil and illegal ideology and I whole-heartedly oppose anti-Semitism and all forms of racism. I advise not consulting the rest of that site.

I intend shortly to write an article on Gallicanism.

Author: Fr. Anthony Chadwick

Father Anthony Chadwick was born in the north of England into an Anglican family. He was educated in one of the Church of England’s most well-known schools, St. Peter’s in York, at which he was nurtured in the Anglican musical tradition. After several years studying and working in London he studied theology at university level in Switzerland, Italy and France. Still living in France, he has been a priest of the Traditional Anglican Communion (under Archbishop Hepworth) since 2005. Fr. Chadwick is charged with chaplaincy work among dispersed Anglicans in the north of France, is married and lives in Normandy. His interests outside the Church and directly religious matters include classical music, DIY and sailing. As a non-stipendiary priest, he earns his living as a technical translator.

4 thoughts on “Jansenism”

  1. A lot of what regard as ‘Jansenism’ were simply Puritan-derived Victorian values – which were obviously not uniquely Catholic nor uniquely Irish (and neither of the two in origin).

    “Jansenism”. The Oxford Companion to Irish History. 2007.

    “Jansenism was viewed with great suspicion by Rome, and 17th‐century Irish synods toed the Roman line. Indeed, while its moral rigorism made it attractive to elements of the Counter‐Reformation church, Jansenism’s theological and political radicalism alienated both local hierarchies and Catholic monarchs. This was especially the case in France and most Irish clerical students there associated with milieux hostile to the movement. Indeed their anti‐Jansenist opinions were singled out for criticism by the pro‐Jansenist journal Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, Irish clerics, in general, being more attracted to Jesuit‐style humanism. The success of the anti‐Jansenist bull Unigenitus (1713) marginalized the movement but it survived as a popular millenarian‐cum‐miracle cult. Neither as a theology nor as a political attitude did Jansenism recommend itself to the Irish Catholic community, either at home or abroad. The frequent claim that Irish Catholicism was Jansenist‐influenced springs from the tendency to confuse Jansenism with mere moral rigorism.”

    Dr Thomas O’Connor. Ph.D.
    Senior Lecturer – Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth faculty

    author of:

    _Irish Jansenists 1600-1670: politics and religion in Flanders, France, Ireland and Rome (Dublin, 2008)
    _Strangers to Citizens: the Irish in Europe 1600-1800 (Dublin, 2008)
    _An Irish Jansenist in seventeenth-century France: John Callaghan 1605-54 (Dublin, 2005)
    _An Irish Theologian in Enlightenment Europe: Luke Joseph Hooke 1714-96 (Dublin, 1995)

    Healy, John. Maynooth College : its centenary history (1895). Dublin : Browne & Nolan, 1895.

    “During the eighteenth century many of the most eminent Churchmen in France were, to some extent, tinctured with these Jansenistic views, even when repudiating the Jansenistic errors regarding the operation of grace and free will. But although so many of our Irish ecclesiastics were educated in France during the eighteenth century, none of those who came to Ireland ever showed the slightest trace of this Jansenistic influence, either in their writings or their sermons. Nor has any respectable authority asserted, so far as we know, that the French Professors of Maynooth were in any way tinged with the spirit of Jansenism.”

    Most Rev. John Healy, D.D., LL.D., M.R.I.A

  2. I take it that no one paid attention to St. John Cassian. If they did, perhaps there wouldn't have been so much misunderstandings. Still, was St. John Cassian still seen as a sort of semi-Pellagian at this time?

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