Jansenism: A Rough Sketch of a Complex Phenomenon

by Shaun Blanchard

In different times and places and to different people (people with various polemical purposes!), “Jansenism” has meant various things. Originally the appellation was clear: it meant someone with an attachment to the strict predestinarian theology of Cornelius Jansen, as expounded in his posthumously published book Augustinus (1640). But even aside from issues of grace and predestination, “Jansenism” (rightly or wrongly) came to be used to describe Catholics who maintained various combinations of ideas, tendencies, and aversions.

But let’s start at the beginning, with some historical facts everyone agrees on. Cornelius Jansen (b. 1585 in Holland, d. 1638 in Ypres), made Bishop of Ypres in 1636, was a fervent disciple of St. Augustine. A Catholic priest, he wrote biblical commentaries (apparently quite good ones) and feverishly read the Church Fathers, especially the great Doctor of Grace. After much study, and extensive correspondence with his close French friend Jean du Verger de Hauranne (known to history as the Abbé Saint-Cyran, a Jansenist stalwart), Jansen wrote a massive study of what he saw as the true doctrine of scripture and of St. Augustine on grace, predestination, and salvation, and it was published posthumously as Augustinus (1640).[1] It was a merciless attack on Pelagianism, a rigorist reading of Augustine, and a renewal of controversies that a weary papacy had had enough of. Were not the condemnations of Baius (another Louvain theologian, whose extreme Augustinianism was condemned in 1567 by Pope Pius V) and the sentences of silence imposed during the de Auxiliis controversy enough?

The main historical tale, spanning about 1640 to 1754, is thrilling – the courage and tenacity of Antoine Arnauld and his sister, the Abbess Jacqueline, the searing pen of the brilliant Pascal, the demolition by Louis XIV of the Jansenist epicentre, a Cistercian nunnery called Port-Royal (1713), the alleged ecstatic miracles at the tomb of the Jansenist deacon François de Pâris, the brutality of the billets de confession (which denied the sacrament to some dying Jansenists). But the theological tale can often be one of hair-splitting distinctions and downright obfuscation. This is partly due to the highly speculative nature of much debate over grace and free will, but also due to the relative speed with which the papacy condemned Jansen’s work. While this condemnation (and successive ones) in no way ended the debate, it did establish certain doctrinal boundaries that only the most brave (or defiant) were willing to cross.

In 1653, Pope Innocent X promulgated the Bull Cum occasione, which famously condemned the “five propositions” of Jansen (for those familiar with popular Calvinist soteriological schema: a sort of Jansenist TULIP), which I quote in full:

“1. Some of God’s precepts are impossible to the just, who wish and strive to keep them, according to the present powers which they have; the grace, by which they are made possible, is also wanting.

Declared and condemned as rash, impious, blasphemous, condemned by anathema, and heretical.

  1. In the state of fallen nature one never resists interior grace.

Declared and condemned as heretical.

  1. In order to merit or demerit in the state of fallen nature, freedom from necessity is not required in man, but freedom from external compulsion is sufficient.

Declared and condemned as heretical.

  1. The Semipelagians admitted the necessity of a prevenient interior grace for each act, even for the beginning of faith; and in this they were heretics, because they wished this grace to be such that the human will could either resist or obey.

Declared and condemned as false and heretical.

  1. It is Semipelagian to say that Christ died or shed His blood for all men without exception.

Declared and condemned as false, rash, scandalous, and understood in this sense, that Christ died for the salvation [only] of the predestined, impious, blasphemous, contumelious, dishonoring to divine piety, and heretical.

I will have to end my historical sketch there. The history of Jansenism, of course, does not end in 1653 – in fact, it probably reaches its theological high water mark in 1713 with the enormously divisive condemnation of Pasquier Quesnel’s Réflexions morales sur le nouveau testament in Pope Clement XI’s Bull Unigenitus (a magisterial document of such massive importance that it was often referred to simply as “the Bull”). The strength of Jansenism endures at least to the Synod of Pistoia in Hapsburg-ruled Tuscany (1786) and (perhaps ominously) in the schismatic Constitutional Church of Revolutionary France (1790-1801). I hope in some future posts to examine some of these fascinating instances of the enduring importance of Jansenism in church history.

So much for the core theological issues of grace, predestination, and free will which defined the early phase of Jansenism. But if one is to understand Jansenism in the eighteenth-century (and jostling around with traditionalist zelanti Catholics and the moderate “Third Party”), we must understand it for what it becomes – a constantly shifting umbrella term, often simply a smear for a theological or ideological opponent. In eighteenth-century usage, a Jansenist could just mean someone who held any combination of the following (to be clear: I don’t mean the following tendencies or beliefs actually made someone a Jansenist, just that holding any of the following could cause one to be accused of Jansenism – a label the individual would probably shun after 1653):

  • Dislike and distrust of Jesuits. This took the form of criticisms of Molinism (which sought to reconcile God’s sovereign will and free human cooperation with His will by positing “middle knowledge”). One form of this anti-Jesuit stance centered around “Jansenist” (or “rigorist”) criticisms of so-called Jesuit “laxism” in morals and especially in the confessional. Pascal famously slammed Jesuit moral theology and confessional practice in his brilliant Lettres provinciales (1657), although many Jesuits would have been appalled at the liberties some were taking in the confessional (and Pascal was probably exaggerating or believing exaggerated reports). One way to situate this tendency: not all moral rigorists were Jansenists, but all Jansenists were rigorists (or sympathetic to rigorism).
  • A distaste for extravagant Baroque worship and a desire for a simpler and more biblical liturgy that was easier to follow and understand, especially for the laity.
  • Rigorism in morals, often accompanied by strict views of how one can obtain absolution in the confessional. “Jansenists” of this kind were very rigorous in self-examination before receiving communion, and denounced those who they saw as receiving flippantly or too often (imagine what Antoine Arnauld would think of a modern American parish!).
  • An emphasis on vernacular bible-reading for all, including the laity and women (!). Unfortunately, emphasizing vernacular bible-reading as integral to ones’ spiritual life was still controversial in some Catholic quarters in the eighteenth century. It is entirely untrue, however, that Catholic laity did not read the scriptures until the twentieth century.
  • A desire to curb devotional excesses, often seen as either superstitious, obscuring Christocentrism, or both. This ranged from the mildest critiques of excessive devotions to a more encompassing suspicion of the veneration of Mary and the saints (but almost never a total rejection). The new Jesuit-led Sacred Heart devotion received special ire – Bishop de’Ricci of Pistoia-Prato called it “cardiolatry” (heart-worship). Of course, one motivation in that case, and many others, was hatred of Jesuits.
  • Closely related to the above, there was a suspicion of novelty in religion. This typically was combined with a pining for the (alleged) doctrinal and moral purity of the early Church. Sometimes this pining took extreme forms like “figurism” – initially a mode of typological biblical interpretation, but it eventually gave birth to a sort of apocalyptic, end-times fascination, and a suspicion that Satan was ravaging the Church and the world (such theories and suspicions have always been with us!).
  • An attachment to strongly predestinarian readings of St. Paul and St. Augustine. This caused some Augustinians (those Catholics strongly attached to St. Augustine’s doctrines of grace, not necessarily members of the religious Order of St. Augustine) to be accused of Jansenism, often wrongly.
  • A very negative view of human nature after the Fall – Adam’s sin (though committed freely) plunged humanity into complete darkness: morally and spiritually. Human nature came to positively hunger after evil, and only God’s totally unmerited foreordained grace can cause a human to repent. Grace, then, is completely irresistible.
  • Accordingly, a strong pessimism about the possibility of salvation for unbaptized infants and all non-Christians. Scholastic theories that tried to soften the Augustinian position on unbaptized babies going to hell, like “children’s limbo” (perfect natural happiness but an eternal lack of the Beatific Vision of the Trinity) were scorned as unbiblical fables.
  • Like many Protestants, Jansenists emphasised personal conversion experiences, and after that experience a strong personal revulsion for past sin – although it should be noted that Catholics in general by no means discounted the possibility of such “Damascus Road” experiences – Catholic preaching and piety (and especially the lives of the saints) were full of accounts of such experiences. However, Jansenists clearly emphasized such an experience more centrally. A good comparison might be how a strongly evangelical Protestant church compares with a more traditional and liturgical Presbyterian or Methodist church on the centrality and necessity of strong, personal conversion experiences. On this issue, Jansenists would be closer to the former and other Catholics of the period to the latter.

Pascal, again, exemplified this tendency in the mysterious events of November 23, 1654. He wrote: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars…Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy…’This is life eternal that they might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.’ Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ…May I not fall from him forever…I will not forget your word. Amen.” That fateful date, and the full passage the above selection was taken from, was found written on a scrap of paper and stitched into Pascal’s coat when he died. He carried it with him at all times, close to his heart.

Later in the eighteenth-century, “Jansenism” could even mean the following:

  • Parliamentarian/constitutionalist views of civil government. Many Frenchmen with Jansenist leanings were members of the parlements.
  • Affinity with the conciliar tradition in Church governance which saw the pope as, at least in some circumstances, answerable to a sitting or future ecumenical council.
  • Detest for the Roman Curia (essentially the pope’s cabinet), the allegedly corrupt “court of Rome.”
  • A distrust of the temporal and coercive power of the papacy and the Catholic Church. Sometimes this was also accompanied by a backing of the “enlightened despots” of the eighteenth-century (Joseph II, Peter Leopold, etc.). This could, but certainly did not always, take the form of an abolition of the Inquisition and even early calls for civil religious liberty.
  • Proto-ecumenical attitudes, or at least a desire to present the Catholic faith to Protestants in ways that are more appealing and irenic.

There is an amusing anecdote relayed to us by one of the most prominent (or notorious) Jansenists, Pasquier Quesnel (1634-1719), that illustrates well the chimerical nature of the term Jansenist. He tells us that Cardinal Aguirre (a Benedictine), in a heated discussion with the General of the Jesuits in 1688 sought to distinguish between three types of Jansenists, since his Jesuit opponent was using the term so freely. First, there were those genuine, full-blown Jansenists who clung to the five condemned propositions from Jansen’s book Augustinus (listed above). There were few of these people, Aguirre said. Secondly, there are moral rigorists, and these are many. Thirdly, there are those who oppose the Jesuits, and these are infinite![2] It’s a quip which must have infuriated the Jesuit general, but there’s much truth in it.

In some ways, the term Jansenist functioned the way terms like “fundamentalist”, “hyper-Calvinist”, and “traditionalist” function today. With the exception perhaps of identifying as a “trad” in some Catholic circles, folks often don’t self-identify as these things, except tongue-in-cheek (although I do recall the orthodox Presbyterian pastor Douglas Wilson merrily referring to himself as a “black coffee Calvinist” in a debate once). Rather, these terms are often used to bash opponents and cast them as extremists, often by opponents from within one’s own Christian community.

I hope briefly sketching the convoluted, tragic, and exciting history of Jansenism illustrates one reason why sorting through eighteenth-century Catholicism is rewarding.

[1] The full title was “Cornelii Jansenii, Episcopi Yprensis, Augustinus, seu doctrina S. Augustini de humanae naturae sanitate, aegritudine, medicina, adversus Pelagianos et Massilienses”.

[2] See W.R. Ward, “Late Jansenism and the Hapsburgs,” in Religion and Politics in Enlightenment Europe, edited by James E. Bradley and Dale van Kley, (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 154.


10 thoughts on “Jansenism: A Rough Sketch of a Complex Phenomenon

  1. Thank you for this. Jansenism is a fascinating topic. Leszek Kolakowski’s study of Jansenism and Pascal ‘God Owes Us Nothing’ is a superb read.

    1. Thanks Karl. That was actually the book the inspired me to read more about this movement and this period. It is so well written was also exploring the complexity of the issues.

      1. On the offchance you or any colleagues are interested I’ve started a group on Facebook entitled ‘Jansenism’, designed as a place to gather source material. Only 5 members so far, but I’m told there are at 14 Jansenists in America so I’m confident of numbers soaring:-)

  2. Excellent! I have certainly jokingly been accused of “philo-Jansenism” but I really just try to read them charitably. I did recently speak to a Dutch Jesuit who tells me the Church of Utrecht, while very small, is alive and well.

    1. Very interesting, but he seems somewhat idiosyncratic. His theology of real presence may be what the Church of Utrecht believes today (or something close to it), but I think the 17th and 18th century Jansenists would have a problem with that theology of the Eucharist. My understanding is that they disliked the term transubstantiation as too speculative, medieval, and scholastic, but accepted a change in the elements and the presence of Jesus body, blood, soul, and divinity. They certainly adored Christ in the Host. But perhaps in the 19th and 20th centuries the surviving strands of Jansenism began to modify this view.

      1. As far as I’m aware the gentleman left his Church a few years ago and is now flying solo, so to speak. He did say in another video he knew 14 or 15 others of his persuasion. I asked him in a comment what his current status was, but no reply as yet. His other videos are certainly worth watching. I admire his fearlessness!

  3. Thank you for this article, Shaun. As I’m sure you’re aware, in 1653 or 1654 Jansenists published a tract (called in Latin, Brevissima quinque Popositionum Distinctio, and in French, Distinction Abrégée des Cinq Propositions). As described in The Origins of Jansenism by Nigel Abercrombie: “It is a document written in three columns: under the heading of each of the Propositions in turn, the ‘Augustinian’ doctrine in the subject-matter of the Propositions is stated in the middle column, flanked on the left by a statement of the Lutheran and Calvinist doctrine in the same manner, and on the right by a statement of the Jesuit doctrine.”

    Is there any resource that reproduces or summarizes the content of the three columns?

  4. Thank you both and apologies for my late reply. David Wolf, I was aware of such Jansenist efforts but had never tried to track down the document. This is very interesting and I am glad there is a French version available, which I can read more quickly than the Latin.

    This will greatly aid conversations about what the Jansenists really taught, how they differed (at least in their self-understanding) from Protestants and from other Catholics. What would be really interesting would be to draw clear distinctions between Jansenist self-understanding and “Augustinians” like Berti and de Noailles (Dr. Gaetano has pointed to one clear difference on (ir)resistibility of certain types of grace).

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