The Neglect of Catholic Theology From Westphalia (1648) to the Bastille (1789)

by Shaun Blanchard

In this article I will first attempt to offer an explanation for why the period between the Peace of Westphalia of 1648[i] and the storming of the Bastille in 1789[ii] (although I will focus more narrowly on the eighteenth century) is relatively neglected as a source for Catholic theology.

Secondly, I want to briefly sketch three of the most prominent movements or tendencies in Catholic theology in this period. The first group is the Jansenists, a notoriously slippery designation for a fascinating and eclectic group of rigorist Augustinians who have some obvious affinities with the Reformed Protestant tradition. Secondly are the traditionalist and pro-papal zelanti, bitter enemies of the Jansenists. Finally, we can identify an often-overlooked “Third Party”, who were essentially moderates that stood (theologically and ideologically) between the Jansenists and the zelanti.[iii]

In future posts I will explore why the debates and issues these three groups of Catholics cared about are so critical to Catholic theology and history – and, as is less often recognized, to dialogue with Protestants as well. In this introductory piece, space is going to constrain me to very basic outlines of very complicated ideas and movements. I ask the readers’ forgiveness for any generalizations that seem hurried or overly broad.

A Dead Period for Catholic Theology?

Eighteenth-century Catholicism has suffered a certain amount of neglect by theologians. It is stereotyped as a period of stagnation within the Church, characterized by repression of theological and philosophical creativity, and ceaselessly bitter and convoluted disputes about grace, predestination, and free will. With noble exception, a perusal of the post-Reformation sources that inspired the work of the great twentieth-century Catholic theologians (at least as one can glean from their footnotes) will tend to confirm this low regard for eighteenth century Catholicism. While the sixteenth-century yields the wisdom of Erasmus, Thomas More, Gasparo Contarini, Teresa of Ávila, and Charles Borromeo, and the seventeenth was adorned with such brilliant lights as Blaise Pascal, Cardinal Bérulle, Bishop Bossuet, Francois Fenelon, and Cardinal Bellarmine (although he is often cited only – and unfairly – to rebut his “juridicism”) the eighteenth is barely touched upon (I assume the importance of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries goes without saying).

Consider, as one example, the seminal work True and False Reform in the Church (1950, expanded and revised in 1968) by the massively erudite Dominican theologian, Yves Congar. This signpost for twentieth-century ressourcement contains only two mentions of eighteenth-century theologians – especially striking for a work so infused with historical learning.[iv] Occasionally one finds a positive mention of Benedict XIV (r. 1740-58) or (less often) of the historical contributions of Ludovico Muratori (1672-1750) or (less often still) of the contributions in pastoral and moral theology by Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787; although not a figure much in vogue after the post-Vatican II shift away from manuals of moral theology). But other than these (usually brief) evocations, the eighteenth century yields a list of irrelevant, boring, or pernicious “isms”: Febronianism, Josephinism, Jansenism, Richerism, and “Pistoianism” – the errors of Bishop Scipione d’Ricci and the Synod of Pistoia (1786) – not to mention the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) and the calamitous French Revolution. Overall, the eighteenth century is seen as an age of political, philosophical, and theological creativity and exploration by Protestants and Enlightenment thinkers, but not Catholics.

On one hand, this is understandable. The eighteenth-century did witness seismic changes in politics, culture, science, and philosophy in Europe that are perhaps more obvious, at first glance, in the great Protestant nations (Holland, England, Scotland, Prussia) and amongst the anti-clerical and sometimes explicitly anti-Catholic French philosophes. And it is also true that the Catholic Church was sometimes bogged down in internecine and highly technical theological debate. Reform attempts, generally, were too often sluggish or abortive, and sometimes conducted by self-serving monarchs and statesmen with ulterior motives.

But historians, especially in the last fifty years, have begun to retrieve the vitality, creativity, and theological merit of eighteenth-century Catholic thought. Often, this has taken the form of recognizing a Catholic Enlightenment (or Enlightenments) that complicates, or even overturns, the conventional picture of the achievements of Enlightenment thinkers as necessarily, or even often, anti-clerical or anti-Christian.[v] This identification of a “Catholic Enlightenment” allows contemporary historians and theologians to interpret much theological, philosophical, and scientific creativity in the eighteenth-century not as something which necessarily clashed with faith and religion but as something born out of it. When the “Enlightenment” (whatever that precisely was) is seen as the victory of irreligion and the subjection of faith to mere sentiment – and many nineteenth- and twentieth-century Catholics and “freethinkers” were in complete agreement that it was – then the only stance that is accepted as genuinely Catholic is one of rejection and entrenchment: that is, anti-Enlightenment Catholicism becomes the only “real” Catholicism. Any Catholic who was sympathetic to Enlightenment thought or was creative and original is de facto seen as idiosyncratic or heterodox. Such an assumption has obvious methodological consequences.

Another fruitful approach for retrieving eighteenth-century Catholicism – one that is not mutually exclusive with an acknowledgement of the Catholic Enlightenment – is to follow the work of the great French historian Emile Appolis in the identification of a “Third Party” located between Jansenists and zelanti. This center party was not organized in any formal way, but rather is a way of speaking of a “very diverse” group of Catholic prelates and theologians who, “beyond national borders, were intimately united by common aspirations as well as common aversions [répulsions], by a very clear set of intellectual attitudes and sentiments” (Appolis, vii). This statement could apply to many so-called Jansenists and to the zelanti as well.  I’ll now hastily sketch the aspirations, tendencies, and aversions of these three groups – with the hope of expansion of them in future articles.

The Jansenists: Rigorous Children of St. Augustine

Jansenists take their name from the Dutch theologian Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), long-time Louvain theologian and author of the massive tome Augustinus (published posthumously in 1640). Inheriting a form of rigorous Augustinianism from his Louvain forebear Michael de Bay (Baius) (d. 1589), Jansen was a ferocious enemy of Pelagianism, the heresy that asserted that fallen humans can freely choose to follow God apart from special grace, and also taught a strict predestinarian soteriology. Jansen’s theology captivated a fervent minority throughout the Catholic world and especially in France – a nation that produced most of the recognizable Jansenist names: the Abbé Saint-Cyran, Antoine Arnauld and his sister Jacqueline Arnauld (Abbess of the famous Jansenist convent of Port Royal), Pasquier Quesnel, Pierre Nicole, and, most famous of all, the genius Blaise Pascal.

At their best, the Jansenists displayed a zealous love for the gratuity of God’s grace, a genuine humility in the face of sin, and a desire to teach evangelical doctrine to all through the scriptures and the liturgy. At their worst they could be highly dogmatic, vicious in controversy, bitterly sectarian, and excessive in moral rigor.  And, of course, it is debatable (and was fiercely debated) whether they are true disciples of St. Augustine or exaggerated and misapplied his theology. In my next post I’ll explain how Jansenism evolved from concerns over grace and rigorist morality to an umbrella term encompassing everything from enemies of Jesuits to those who emphasized vernacular bible-reading to those of parliamentarian and anti-papal tendencies.

The Zelanti: Zealots for Pope and Tradition

Ardent enemies of the Jansenists were the zelanti. This term is often encountered in accounts of papal elections, in which a party called “zelanti” faces off against a more, moderate, liberal or “accommodationist” faction. This isn’t entirely unhelpful in considered the wider eighteenth-century group we can call zelanti. One uniting factor was clearly ultramontanism, that is, looking “over” (literally “beyond”, ultra) the the Alps to Rome. As well as looking to the Pope rather than sovereign, the Church council, or the local bishop for ecclesiastical authority, the zelanti tended to jealously guard traditional Catholic devotions and disciplines. Some were moral rigorists and some quite accommodating, but they tended to defend devotions (for example, to Mary, the saints, or the Sacred Heart of Jesus) that Jansenists found excessive or superstitious. They were not always suspicious of vernacular bible reading and liturgical reform, but many of them were, including some influential Cardinals. The Jesuit Order tended to side with the zelanti whether out of genuine affinity or out of a desire to protect themselves from Jansenist enemies. Thomists and other scholastics tended to be zelanti – whether of a moderate bent or more extreme, although many Dominican Thomists were more interested in dialogue with Jansenists (or so-called Jansenists) than some Jesuits were.

At their best, the zelanti were passionate Catholics, in touch with the devotional lives and traditions of the Catholic people, and brave defenders of their Church and their pope against all attack. At their worst they were intransigent, deaf to calls for reform (even orthodox ones), superstitious, and incredulous.

“Between Jansenists and the zelanti”: The Third Party

Often misunderstood as pseudo-, philo-, or crypto-Jansenists (or so zelanti slandered them), the “Third Party” was a loosely affiliated group of like-minded Catholics who were deeply influenced by St. Augustine, and tried to approach contemporary Catholic problems by retrieving scripture and Church Fathers. They were often suspicious of scholasticism and the excesses of the zelanti, but also of the sectarian mindset of the Jansenists and their readiness to break with the decisions of the papacy. Many of the Third Party, in fact, were moderate ultramontanists, even though they were capable of criticizing the papacy. Pope Benedict XIV (r. 1740-58) and Ludovico Muratori (1672-1750) are two excellent ambassadors of the Third Party.

Here are six basic tendencies they shared:

  1. A Christ-centered devotional life
  2. An openness to liturgical reform
  3. Historical curiosity and scholarship
  4. An ability (and willingness) to distinguish dogma from discipline
  5. Openness to the Enlightenment while remaining dogmatic Christians
  6. Proto-Ecumenical attitudes to Protestants, irenicism within the Church

At their worst, though, they could be highly intellectual and out of touch. Rather than risk division and conflict, they often tended to wait patiently, for better or worse.

I hope these brief sketches have helped to elucidate the diversity of eighteenth-century Catholicism, and pointed towards some of the fruitful avenues that contemporary theologians, historians, and ecumenists can pursue.


[i] The peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War (1618-48) that devastated central Europe. One important principle for the peace was the famous principle of cuius regio, eius religio (“whose region, their religion”) – that is, the ruler of a territory determined the religion of the subjects. While there were situations of de facto Protestant and Catholic coexistence, in many situations, if the subjects didn’t like the religion of their temporal lord, they were welcome (or forced) to leave. But the “religious” nature of these wars should not be exaggerated, as many recent commentators have pointed out. After all, the preeminent Catholic nation of Europe, France, entered the lists on the side of the Protestants and against the Catholic Emperor. That fact alone should be us pause when we speak of “Wars of Religion.”

[ii] The storming of the Bastille was a fateful spark igniting the French Revolution, and all its explosive cultural, political, and religious consequences.

[iii] Central to the study of the Third Party is the work of Emile Appolis, who coined the term: Le Tiers Parti Catholique au XXVIIIe; Entre Jansénistes et Zelanti (Paris: A et J Picard, 1960).

[iv] Yves Congar, True and False Reform (trans. by Paul Philibert, Liturgical Press [1950], 1968). Congar heavily draws from sixteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth-century theologians, and has some substantial discussions of seventeenth-century theology. References to the eighteenth-century theologians, however, are sparse indeed: at page 157 Congar positively mentions Benedict XIV. On p. 294 he contrasts true ressourcement with the textual archaeology of the Jansenizing Synod of Pistoia of 1786 (a common criticism, made by Pius XII in Mediator Dei of 1948).

[v] Central to this endeavor is the work of Bernard Plongeron, Ulrich Lehner, Jeffrey Burson, Michael Printy, and many others.

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