This is a reposting of an article I wrote quite a long time ago on the Anglo-Catholic. I have little sympathy with any kind of puritanism or “ultra-serious” religion, but I really do understand this  reaction from Counter-Reformation theology and spirituality.


jansen JansenismI 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.

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15 Responses to Jansenism

  1. ed pacht says:

    I’ve long thought that the root cause of the dispute between Janseists and Jesuits, like that in Protestantism between Calvinists and Arminians is a tendency to polarization. Heresy may be defined as the overemphasis of a truth to the point where it conflicts with other truths, stemming from the ‘need’ of the fallen human mind to fit infinite truth into finite logic. It doesn’t work. Scripture is quite clear about the reality of predestination, and also quite clear bout the free will of man. The Grace of God and the responsibility of man are both strongly taught in Scripture. We are saved by grace without the law, but faith without works is dead, and judgment, as described by Our Lord in Matthew 25 is according to works. How does one reconcile these seemingly opposite teachings? There’s the problem. The human mind simply cannot do that. It is hubris to insist that it can. Both are true. Neither is false. It is where they intersect that one finds God. I think this is a profound insight of classic Anglicanism, what we call the via media, generally applicable across the range of theology, and I think it to be a grievous error to teach either side of this as if the other position were false. This applies also to such questions as whether God is one or three, whether Jesus is God or man, whether the Sacrament is bread or Body, and so on through many issues. All explanations I’ve encountered for any of those seem very lame and quite controvertable, but yet both sides of each equation must be accepted. Many of the divisions of Christians stem from just such polarization.

  2. Fr. A., Interesting article, indeed the history of Jansenism has always too been a great interest of mine. But I suppose more from both the theological standpoint of the efficaciousness of grace and the doctrine of God, and my own experience therein, and too my love for Blaise Pascal. I have lived long enough to know that none of us approaches anything without our own experience and somewhat bias. I have had my share too of long study theologically on these profound issues, and so I have come to my convictions, which are certainly Augustinian – somewhat Reformational and Reformed – but certainly not really Puritan or classic Calvinist. Though I am a great admirer of what I see as the more real Calvin. Which I am certain myself taught a very high predestination and Augustinian doctrine of grace, but did teach a general Atonement, in the sense again of the efficacy of its power. We all certainly cannot escape the great mystery here! Btw, the profound life and mystical theology of Pascal is well worth the study, I have many classic and older works on and about Pascal, I have the profound works of that great Frenchman Emile Cailliet on Pascal, who later became an American. My favorite is perhaps: ‘Pascal Genius in the Light of Scripture’, by Cailliet. But indeed The Provincial Letters, and of course The Pensees are a must read by Pascal.

    Yes, I am a “theolog”, but do also love history, and even the historical method to some degree. I will not pick into your article here, there are several places that I would disagree, historically and theologically, but in general your piece is good. Would that the Church spent time again in and over the great historical and theological matters! Thanks again. 🙂

  3. shane says:

    Father, you might be interested in a post I wrote on the myth of Irish Jansenism: http://lxoa.wordpress.com/2011/05/22/jansenism-and-irish-catholicism

    • Trying to oversimplify, Jansenism seems to have been an appeal to the ancient Church and the Fathers in reaction to the excesses of the Counter-Reformation and excuses made for sin in the systems of moral casuistry in vogue in those days. As in all reactions, it went to other extremes. I don’t see much Jansenism in what we Brits generally tend to understand as Irish Catholicism, but rather a kind of dualistic rejection of anything nice in life, including the liturgy! 😉

      • Fr. A., As you also “oversimplify” that great piece of history! 😉 As I mentioned to Shane, from 1590 to 1630, you have that great creation of an Irish reformed church in Ireland, with the Archbishop James Ussher, and the Irish Articles 1615, etc. So for many of us Jansenism, with the likes of the great Blaise Pascal…’We see things not only from different sides but with different eyes.’ (Pascal, Pensee 124) Theology for those of us that see and sense God’s grand purpose and providence in Grace & Glory, see a Risen, Glorified Christ! 🙂

      • Of course, I am limited on a blog, and I haven’t the time for extended studies. But the Lettres Provinciales of Pascal are a true literary and spiritual masterpiece. I concede that in Jansenism more is left to God and less to man. Pascal emphasises the underlying dishonesty and hypocrisy in Jesuit systems of moral theology of his time.

      • Indeed every Christian pastor-theolog, etc. should read Pascal’s; Provincial Letters! And this is a huge concession theologically to my mind, i.e. the great difference between Jansenism (per se), and the Jesuit’s. Look even today where the main of the Jesuit theology stands, certainly not in the position of God’s grace & glory, first place! I wonder how many know Von Balthasar, left the Jesuits, when he was younger? YES, I am critical of the history of the Jesuits! Though they have had a few modern greats for sure…Von. B., De Lubac. And Joe Fitzmyer is a good theologian certainly! (And my point is that Christian theology and salvation does not stand in human causality, first, but in a God-given synergy, which in fact somehow God Himself oversees, this is of course Augustine and Augustinianism!) 🙂 The list of many Roman Catholic theolog’s is long here!

  4. ed pacht says:

    As far as I can determine, what Rome condemned as “Jansenism” bears no more than a superficial resemblance to what was taught by Jansen or Pascal, but represented rather a very biased caricature of a school of thought quite in accord with historic teaching. The legalism and the fear of beauty that I’ve seen in old-line Irish Roman Catholicism would, in my opinion, not have found favor at Port Royal, and were, indeed, tolerated and even endorsed by the machinery of the RCC.

    • Indeed, I hardly imagine Chapentier’s Vespers or other wonderful pieces being sung at St Begorrah’s near Paddy O’Leary’s Farm in County Kerry. Trimmin’s of the Rosary more likely. That being said, I loved my trip to Ireland nearly 30 years ago, and was especially moved by Glendalough – one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. And I have lived in Switzerland!

      What is tragic in Ireland is that only the buildings and a few books remain of the old Celtic tradition and the real Saint Patrick.

  5. shane says:

    I suspect the alleged philistinism of the Irish Church was not so much due to an ideological aversion of beauty but more to do with basic poverty. Ireland didn’t nearly recover from the Great Famine (in which millions died and emigrated) for many decades. Indeed it’s not that long ago since Ireland was a third world country.

  6. shane says:

    Father I have compiled some scrapbooks on the 20th century liturgical movement in Ireland. Would you like me to email you them as an attachment?

  7. Btw, here is a nice link on Jansensim, 1911 Brittannica. (I have the real book set myself, bought it in London years back).


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