Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Jansenism (part 3)

Jansenists and Jesuits dispute as an angel carrying the bull Unigenitus flies overhead
 Finally, we come to the conclusion of this tangled and twisted heresy, this odd school of thought which began on the theoretical level with speculations about grace and will and ended in very practical denials of the Roman pontiff's ability to evaluate and pass judgment on the teachings of theologians - in effect, a denial of the teaching power of the Church.

Last time, we saw how the compromise offered to the Jansenists by Clement IX was ruptured in 1705 with the renewal of the controversy, the fierce persecution of the Jansenists of Port-Royal by an aging (and increasingly pious) Louis XIV and the publication of the bull Vineam Domini Saboath, which stated that "respectful silence" in the face of the Church's teaching was no sufficient if that silence entailed an internal dissent.

The final phase of the Jansenist controversy erupted over the bull Unigenitus. Back in 1671, an author named Quesnel had published a book entitled The Morality of the Gospel, which was basically a commentary on the four Gospels. This book was followed by the French New Testament in 1693, which was heavily footnoted by Quesnel. Upon inspection by ecclesiastical authorities, it became apparent that both The Morality of the Gospel and Quesnel's New Testament footnotes were ridden with Jansenist propositions. The pope condemned the writings in a brief of 1708, but the brief proved very unacceptable to the French church because it also condemned what were known as "Gallican liberties," alleged rights and prerogatives exercised by the French church uniquely, giving it a special degree of independence.

The popes had fought the alleged Gallican liberties, but again not wanting to face off against Jansenism and the French clergy at the same time, Pope Clement XI, at the behest of Louis XIV, drafted a bull that would condemn Jansenism without reference to any of the Gallican liberties. The result was the bull Unigenitus of 1713.

Unigenitus was the Humanae Vitae of its day, a hard-hitting encyclical that condemned the popularized errors of the Jansenists and left them no wriggle room. The bull condemned 101 errors found in Quesnel's works; some of the most important condemnations were of the following propositions:
  • Grace works with omnipotence and is irresistible
    Without grace man can only commit sin 
  • Christ died for the elect only (Calvinism) 
  • Every love that is not supernatural is evil
  • Without supernatural love there can be no hope in God, no obedience to His law, no good work, no prayer, no merit, no religion
  • The prayer of the sinner and his other good acts performed out of fear of punishment are only new sins
  • The Church comprises only the just and the elect
  • The reading of the Bible is binding on all
  • Sacramental absolution should be postponed till after satisfaction (here they resemble Donatists)
  • The chief pastors can exercise the Church's power of excommunication only with the consent, at least presumed, of the whole body of the Church (this was a hallmark of Gallicanism)
  • Unjust excommunication does not exclude the excommunicated from union with the Church
From these condemned propositions, we can see that the Jansenists were an odd combination of Catholic Puritan-Calvinists and rigorists in the spirit of the Donatists and the Montanists.

The bull was accepted in France, but an important ecclesiastic, Cardinal Noailles, Archbishop of Paris, tried to prevent its universal and unqualified acceptance by the French clergy. Noailles was an opponent of the Jesuits, a sympathizer with the Jansenists (though he condemned them publicly), and a friend to both Fenelon and the influential Lutheran Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Noailles was to be summoned to Rome by Clemen XI to answer for his disobedience, but many in the French clergy protested vehemently that the removal of the Cardinal to Rome for judgment would be a violation of their Gallican liberties. Louis XIV begged Clement to allow a national French council to pass judgment on the Cardinal. 

Instead, Clement drafted two briefs, one very severe, and one more paternal in tone, and delivered them to Louis XIV, asking him to present to Noailles whichever one seemed best depending on the Cardinal's disposition towards the Holy See. Louis vacillated, however, and neither of the briefs had been delivered at the time of his death on September 1, 1715. The new regent, Philippe II, Duc de Orleans, opposed the bull Unigenitus, not because he was a Jansenist, but because he saw it as an erosion of the liberties of the Gallican church. He refused to censure Cardinal Noailles and convinced the Sorbonne to revoke their support of the bull. The Universities of Nantes and Reims now also rejected the Bull. In consequence Clement XI withdrew from the Sorbonne all the papal privileges which it possessed and attempted to deprive it of the power of conferring academic degrees. The Jansenist controversy was morphing into a dispute about the rights of the French church.

As Clement XI worked tirelessly for the submission of Noailles and the unconditional acceptance of the bull, four more bishops joined Noailles in his protest; in 1717, they appealed the judgment of Pope Clement XI to a future ecumenical Council and a future pope, taking the name "appelants" and trotting out the Conciliarist decrees of Constance and Basel in support of their position. This right of appeal to a future Council was one of the main points of the Gallicanists - that the pope was not the final arbiter in any dispute, as one could licitly deny the pope obedience if there was good reason to believe that his disciplines would be overturned by a future council (the same argument used today by proponents of contraception and women's ordination within the Church; "this is going to change one day, so it's alright to dissent right now").

Ten more bishops joined the resistance over the summer of 1717, and more than 2,000 priests, especially from the vicinity around Paris. The church in France seemed to be in general revolt.

Clement fought back. In March, 1718, he condemned the appeal of the bishops as heretical. That summer he issued a bull (Pastoralis Officii) excommunicating anyone that refused to accept the bull Unigenitus without reservation. The enforcement of this bull was very strict; interdict was even used in some places, and there are stories of loyal bishops commanding that no person in his diocese could receive baptism or last rites unless they swore an unqualified oath of submission to Unigenitus.

In the end, the Vatican made use of one of its most potent weapons: time. Resistance to the bull gradually wore down. As Noailles got older, and as the rest of the French clergy began to submit rather than face excommunication, he pledged a vague submission to Unigenitus in 1720. In 1728, on his deathbed, he made a sincere and unqualified submission. By this time Unigenitus was accepted universally throughout France and Jansenism seems to have died out, at least in France.

To things to note here: first, we must point out the role of the Jesuits in the Jansenist controversy. Throughout these years, the Jesuits were consistently opposed to the heretics at every turn, constantly frustrating their attempts to overturn papal authority and overthrowing their sophistic arguments. This earned the Jesuits the unceasing ire of the upper class Parisian intelligentsia who tended to support the Jansenists. In the following generation, the philosophes, many of whom were sympathetic to the Janesenists of who themselves had drank from the waters of Port-Royal, attacked the Jesuits with unrestrained hatred. The Jesuits were of course suppressed in France in 1764. Thus, we can see the Jansenist controversy as the backdrop to the later attacks against the Jesuits.

Second, some have said that the prolonged Jansenist controversy, with its convoluted arguments against legitimate authority, its demands of appeal to future popes and councils, and its insistence on the unique rights of the Gallican church independent of the universal Church, inculcated in the French a spirit of resistance to authority that festered and blew up during the Revolution. I think this is at least remotely plausible - a spirit of resistance to authority, once unleashed, is very seldom restrained. I don't think there is a direct link, however.

Thanks for your patience in journeying with me through this mess of distinction, counter-distinctions and ever morphing lines of argumentation. 

Read part 1 in this series here.
Read part 2 in this series here.


Ben G said...


What is the meaning of these condemned propositions from Unigentius:
6. The difference between the Judaic dispensation and the Christian is this, that in the former God demanded flight from sin and a fulfillment of the Law by the sinner, leaving him in his own weakness; but in the latter, God gives the sinner what He commands, by purifying him with His grace.
7. What advantage was there for a man in the old covenant, in which God left him to his own weakness, by imposing on him His law? But what happiness is it not to be admitted to a convenant in which God gives us what He asks of us?

Those sound perfectly orthodox to me. Could you please clear this up?

Anonymous said...

"Tthe Church comprises only the just and the elect"

A spelling error? On MY unamsanctamcatholicam?

Marco da Vinha said...

Did Jansenism ever influence "Irish" Catholicism? I hear that get thrown about much, but have never read anything the backs those claims up.

Boniface said...


Good questions. Proposition 6 says that in the Old Covenenant, man had to flee from sin, whereas in the New, God "gives Him what He commands." According to the Jansenists, there could be no real "flight from sin" or "struggle with sin" in the orthodox sense, because God's grace was irresistible. The struggles of the righteous would be only illusory since they could not resist the interior movement of grace. The term is errant if understood in this sort of Queitist sense, which is the sense in which the Jansenists took it, I believe.

Proposition 7: I'm not so sure there, but again, there is no mention to spiritual development or growth - the world is divided into the elect and the reprobate and there is no possible movement from one to the other. I'm still not sure here, though.

Mark - I have never heard that. Some say St John Vianney was influenced by Jansenism as well, though that is highly unlikely. Vianney was a simple, unlearned man who barely could read when he went to seminary - not the sort of mind to be lured in or influenced by the amazing subtleties and intricacies of Jansenism.

Convenor said...

Boniface, it would be interesting to pursue the question of the influence of Port Royal upon the Revolution, even if only that it created an atmosphere of dissent. Perhaps the move from Luteranism to Rationalism is a similar trail. The liturgical trail from Jansenism to Josephism to Modernism would be equally interesting.

Good point about the Curé of Ars - rigorism such as was common in Ireland and France is not Jansenism.

Ben G said...


"Certainly this suffices to show superabundantly by how many roads Modernism leads to the annihilation of all religion. The first step in this direction was taken by Protestantism; the second is made by Modernism; the next will plunge headlong into atheism" (St. Pius X).

Guillaume said...

Thanks for your fine work on this blog. I am finishing a book on the philosophy of the Pascal family. I know how difficult it is to summarize these convoluted controversies but you've done a remarkably clear and accurate job.

Joann said...

In the beginning paragraph:
To things to note here: first, we must point out the role of the Jesuits in the Jansenist controversy. Throughout these years, the Jesuits were consistently opposed to the heretics at every turn, constantly frustrating their attempts to overturn papal authority and overthrowing their sophistic arguments. This earned the Jesuits the

Note: To things, should be two things.

Of course I was a teacher. I am not using a red pen or a cranky voice. Just letting you know about a common but simple error hat can easily be corrected.