“Third Party” Catholic Reformers of the Eighteenth-Century: Between Jansenists and the Zelanti

by Shaun Blanchard

This article seeks to introduce an often-overlooked group of Catholic reformers of the eighteenth-century. Traditionally mistaken for quasi-Jansenists of some kind, the “Third Party” was a loosely affiliated network of like-minded, moderate Catholics who strove for the reform of the Church, sought peace and toleration during intra-Catholic theological wars, and displayed an openness to dialogue with Protestantism and Enlightenment thought. They were marked by a humanistic spirit and retained the Augustinian tradition after the condemnations of Jansenism, while also accepting those condemnations. While their existence and influence can be felt from the closing decades of the seventeenth century all the way to the middle of the nineteenth century, they reached a high water mark in the middle of the eighteenth century, in the papacy of Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58), the “enlightened pope.” After explaining their ideological location “between Jansenists and the Zelanti,”[1] I will highlight three important elements of the “Third Party” reformist program. While a post of this length cannot explore any Third Party theologians in depth, in future articles I will consider the contributions of two figures who encapsulated the spirit of the Third Party par excellence: the massively erudite parish priest and historian Ludovico Muratori (1672-1750) and his close friend Prospero Lambertini (1675-1758), the Archbishop of Bologna who became Benedict XIV.

Between Jansenism and the Zelanti

Emile Appolis coined the phrase “Third Party” (tiers parti) in his landmark study, Le Tiers Parti Catholique au XXVIIIe; Entre Jansénistes et Zelanti, published in 1960. The great French historian sought to classify a group of loosely-affiliated eighteenth-century Catholic thinkers (usually clerics) that did not belong in the pro-papal, pro-Jesuit traditionalist zelanti camp, but were not truly Jansenistic either – although the latter is a designation, as I have explained in a previous article, that had (and has) a frustratingly elastic meaning. Appolis undertook his study because he felt descriptions of figures like the committed Augustinian bishop Jean-Georges de Souillac (1685-1750) as a “crypto-Jansenist” were inexact.[2] Other eminent historians of the period (Jemolo, Dammig) spoke of these more moderate figures as “philo-Jansenists” or “pre-Jansenists.”[3] While many historians and theologians studied the substantial numbers of eighteenth-century Catholics who neither supported nor persecuted Jansenists, sought doctrinal peace within the Church, had a reforming and proto-ecumenical spirit,[4] distinguished between doctrine and discipline, and displayed an openness to historical inquiry and Enlightenment thought, it was Appolis that gave the “Third Party” systematic treatment.

While all Third Party theologians were indebted, usually to a great extent, to the theological thought and historical scholarship of seventeenth-century France, they also tended to share a high regard for St. Augustine, whose true doctrine they believed (against Jansenists of the more recalcitrant stripe) had not been condemned during the doctrinal struggles surrounding Innocent X’s Cum occasione (1653) and Clement XI’s Unigenitus (1713).[5] They adhered to these documents but interpreted them in as irenic as sense as possible. This reveals an important feature of Third Party thought, because in spite of some triumphalistic and erroneous Jesuit and zelanti claims, Third Party Catholics always resisted the notion that the papacy had enshrined Molinism as official doctrine.[6] For Third Party Catholics, “the opinions of the schools” (Thomism, Augustinianism, Molinism, etc.) should be permissible theological opinions insofar as they do not contradict scripture or tradition (the Ecumenical Councils and the Church Fathers being preeminent) but should not be used to bully or excommunicate rivals from different schools. This position makes an important distinction between revealed truth and theological explication of that truth. Disputed theological opinions that are not revealed by God should not be taught as definitive doctrine. There was an explicit ecumenical thrust here, as well as a desire to keep the peace within a Catholic Church torn apart by controversies over grace (Jansenism and Molinism) and over ecclesiology (Gallicanism/conciliarism and ultramontanism). That being said, there was a recognizable Augustinian strain amongst the Third Party, and this network became one way to remain attached to Augustine while not being a Jansenist.[7]

While Third Party figures were diversely formed by their local cultures, nations, and educations, the loose movement spanned the entire Roman Catholic world of the eighteenth century, and they shared clear concerns. I will explore three below, which revolve around central theological issues of Christian doctrine and practice: 1) Christocentrism, 2) promotion of Bible reading, and 3) devotional and liturgical reform. Undergirding these three theological tendencies was a burgeoning historical consciousness rooted in the French school, a desire to return to the sources of scripture and tradition (sometimes this took the form of a denigration of scholasticism), an ability and desire to distinguish between dogma and discipline, irenicism within the Church, and (proto)ecumenical attitudes towards Protestants. These traits overlap substantially with what has been called “Catholic Enlightenment” thought. While the Third Party is not the same thing (according to Appolis’ definition) as the Catholic Enlighteners, there is strong overlap, and certain figures clearly belong in both camps. I will explore the Catholic Enlightenment in a future post.

Italy occupies a prominent place in the history of the Third Party. I have already mentioned the Italians Muratori and Lambertini (Benedict XIV), who are central Third Party figures. Other prominent Italians include Giovanni Lami, who edited the Nouvelle Letterarie, which under Benedict XIV was the organ of Third Party thought par excellence. The career of Cardinal Enrico Noris (1631-1704), a strict Augustinian, illustrates well the Third Party desire to retain a strong reading of Augustine in spite of repeated charges of Jansenism. Benedict XIV, in fact, had to strongly rebuke the Spanish Inquisition for attempting to ban Noris’ work posthumously. In 1749 he suspended their decrees censuring Noris and even called one of the Inquisitors “Nero”![8]

In France, the aforementioned Souillac deserves a prominent place, as does the fascinating François de Fitz-James (1709-65), Bishop of Soissons and son of Jacques Fitz-James. Jacques Fitz-James was the Duke of Berwick and a bastard of the amorous James II Stuart (hence Fitz-James, son of James), the Catholic King of England ousted in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. Bishop Fitz-James was a diligent and irenic reformer, and, fascinatingly, an advocate of religious toleration, a radical position which has seen him incorrectly categorized as a Jansenist. The Third Party was indebted to a number of French theologians and historians, including Claude Fleury (1640-1723), the great Benedictine Jean Mabillon (1632-1707), the Bollandists, and the Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704), bishop of Meaux, mellifluous court preacher to Louis XIV, and stalwart champion of the “Gallican Liberties.”

Spain saw Third Party influence most clearly through a unique genius, the enlightened monk Benito Jerónimo Feijóo (1676-1764). The Third Party survived into the nineteenth century in Spain in small circles, like those surrounding two bishops, Félix Amat (1750-1824) and his nephew Félix Torres Amat (1772-1849). Despite opposition from the Inquisition and accusations of Jansenism, Torres Amat translated the entire Bible into Spanish.

I’ve provided just a sample from some major Catholic nations, but there were also important Third Party thinkers in German-speaking lands and English-speaking lands, and from Portugal to Hungary. The papacy of Benedict XIV (1740-58) is called the apogee of the network by Appolis, while 1758 to the end of the century sees the “bursting” (l’éclatement) of the Third Party. Due to changing political and theological circumstances, Third Party figures tended to defect “left” into Jansenism or “right” into zelanti traditionalism – a fascinating story, but one that would take us too far afield.

Three Theological and Pastoral Themes of “Third Party” Reform

  1. Christocentrism

A fundamental theological and pastoral aim of the Third Party was to preach and teach the absolute centrality of Jesus Christ in the Catholic faith. Muratori’s The Regulated Devotion of Christians (Della regolata devozione dei cristiani, 1747)[9] is perhaps the clearest manifesto produced by a Third Party thinker in this regard. Ulrich Lehner summarizes Muratori’s Christocentric theological focus, one deeply influenced by his pastoral experience and commitments as a parish priest amongst the poor in Modena:

That so many of his countrymen were ignorant about the true content of their faith, could not see the joy of being Catholic and develop a personal relationship with Jesus as their friend in prayer, troubled him deeply. What made him angry, however, was when these people wasted their time with superstitious diversions instead of fulfilling the essential duties of a Christian life. Yet, he also realized how hard it was to battle such ignorance, especially if it was buttressed by intransigent clergymen.[10]

While not all Third Party figures burned with the pastoral zeal of Muratori, they shared a desire to communicate the essentials of the faith to the laity: the centrality of Christ and the necessity of friendship with him, and the Trinitarian orientation of all worship. While they did not desire to suppress Marian devotion, feast days, or the belief in saintly intercession, they did wish to properly contextualize these devotions and ensure they never eclipsed the Christic center or became an end in themselves.

  1. Bible Reading

Closely tied to this, of course, was Bible reading. Unfortunately (and contra some well-meaning modern Catholic apologists) the Late Medieval status quo in some nations and the defensiveness of anti-Protestant polemics were still very much alive in some quarters of the Catholic Church, and consequently many Catholics were suspicious of vernacular scripture reading. Vernacular translations were fiercely debated at the Council of Trent (1545-63) and a post-Tridentine status quo emerged: vernacular translations (from St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate) were authorized, or not, by the local bishop. This situation more or less endured until, in 1757, Benedict XIV universally authorized vernacular translations of scripture. As we have seen, Benedict XIV was an exemplary Third Party Catholic, and was deeply influenced by his friend Muratori. Muratori (d. 1750) sadly did not live to see this pronouncement, one that would’ve warmed his heart.

Third Party Catholics stopped short of some of the more polemical formulations of the Jansenists. Pasquier Quesnel famous argued, in a proposition condemned in Unigenitus of 1713 (the hugely divisive anti-Jansenist Bull of Clement XI) that “to forbid Christians to read Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels, is to forbid the use of light to the sons of light, and to cause them to suffer a kind of excommunication.”[11] While not using this charged language, Muratori expressed deep frustration at what he perceived to be a widespread lack of Catholic understanding of and engagement with scripture.

Regarding lay Catholic Bible reading, the early-modern picture is more complicated and varied than Catholic or Protestant apologists often present. While vernacular Bibles were by no means universally in use, they were common in many regions. Some of these regions might have surprised contemporary Protestants, who saw them as heartlands of Catholic traditionalism. For example, Pope Pius VI (the same pope who condemned the Jansenistic Synod of Pistoia of 1786, which sought to impose Bible reading as a duty for all laity) wrote a warm commendatory letter to Archbishop Martini of Florence for his translation of the scriptures into Italian in 1778. “You believe the Christian people are much to be encouraged to read the Bible. It is an excellent opinion. The Holy Scriptures are like springs of water that bring life to the soul, and their use ought to drive away errors widespread in this corrupt age, and show the way of truth and righteousness.” This letter of 17 March 1778 is often printed in Italian Bibles.[12] While Pius VI (r. 1775-99) was solidly ultramontane, he was no fanatic, and this episode shows the ability of Third Party reformers to interact fruitfully with the more moderate Catholics who may have personally been closer to the Jansenist or zelanti parties. Such irenicism was the explicit goal of Third Party figures.

  1. Interest in Liturgical and Devotional Reform

Spurred on by their Christocentric and biblical theology, their historical studies and appreciation of church history, and not without a touch of Enlightenment-era disdain for “superstition” and desire for “rational” and comprehensible forms of worship, Third Party Catholics sought to reform liturgical and devotional life. A favorite verse for reformers was of this kind of Romans 12:1, which contains the phrase the Vulgates renders rationabile obsequium (“reasonable worship,” often translated “spiritual worship” in English translations).

Exemplary Third Party bishops like Souillac stressed tried-and-true methods of reform like Lenten preaching missions, pastoral visits, and education to curb local superstitions. Some bishops ran up against considerable difficulties in these latter efforts, as one hapless prelate discovered when he was threatened with stoning for preaching that some traditionally venerated rocks were not in fact the same stones used to kill St. Stephen. Perhaps the good bishop should have added the word “probably.”

Third Party reformers ran up against issues ranging from seeking to eliminate remnants of magical thinking to trying to regulate devotion to Mary and the saints. These issues could be liturgical, like attempts to get the clergy to focus on the necessity of preparing to receive Christ during Advent sermons rather than give speculative homilies about Mary. Other anxieties of Third Party reformers surrounded sacramental and devotional theology, ranging from the weird – assigning two penitential prayers in confession for the two eyes of Mary – to the theologically dangerous – claiming that Mary’s body was also present with Jesus’ in the Eucharist.[13]

Liturgically, the Third Party was rarely radical but in general stressed the role of the laity, the Christo- and theocentric nature of corporate worship, and the centrality of Mass in the devotional life of the believer. Some were advocates for the introduction of the vernacular into parts of the Mass, or for the loud and clear pronunciation of prayers of the Mass. All supported printing aids for lay people to follow worship more closely. They tended to frown upon Baroque excess in worship (trumpets, public flagellation, excessive showmanship in the pulpit, etc.).

In my next post, on the reforming thought of Ludovico Muratori, I will devote more attention to these important themes of Third Party thought, especially Christocentrism and the reform of the liturgy.


[1] Central to the study of the Third Party is the work of Emile Appolis, who coined the term. See Le Tiers Parti Catholique au XXVIIIe; Entre Jansénistes et Zelanti (Paris: A et J Picard, 1960). Others scholars have followed Appolis’ lead in identifying these reformers as “Third Party,” including Joseph Chinnici in The English Catholic Enlightenment: John Lingard and the Cisalpine Movement, 1750-1850 (Shepherdstown, WV: Patmos Press, 1980).

[2] Appolis, vi.

[3] Ibid, vii. Students of the period and those interested in the Third Party, Jansenism, and the zelanti would benefit by consulting A.C. Jemolo, Il giansenismo in Italia prima della rivoluzione (Bari: Laterza, 1928); Enrico Dammig, Il movimento giansenista a Roma nella seconda metà del secolo XVIII (Vatican City: 1945).

[4] Depending on one’s definition of ecumenism, an argument that can be made that some eighteenth-century Catholics (and Protestants) were in fact ecumenical in the proper sense. In my view the exchanges of the English Cisalpines with some Anglicans at least came close (ca. 1780-1830) – but there surely was no large group of such Catholics in the eighteenth-century, even the irenic Third Party.

[5] These papal bulls respectively condemned the book Augustinus by Jansen himself and the work Réflexions morales sur le Nouveau Testament by Pasquier Quesnel, one of the central figures of the second generation (or phase) of Jansenism. This latter condemnation coincided with Louis XIV’s destruction of the Jansenist center at Port Royal near Paris, and led to a series of crises in the French Church (and in the consciences of many, stuck between obeying the pope and subscribing to “the bull” and repudiating, they believed, the true faith of the Church).

[6] See Appolis for this discussion, 53-56, 293-94. The Spanish Jesuit Luis de Molina (1535-1600), reacting to the strong predestinarianism rising within the Church (centered around Baius at Louvain) and amongst the Reformers (Calvin and Luther), sought to preserve the mystery of free will in salvation by positing “middle knowledge,” which teaches that God predestines based on the foreknowledge of whether humans will accept or reject salvific grace – although Molina always insisted acceptance of the gift of salvation was by grace, distinguishing his theory from Pelagianism. His opponents, predictably, accused him of semi-Pelagianism. There is an interesting new book on Molina by the Protestant scholar Kirk McGregor: Luis de Molina: The Life and Writings of the Founder of Middle Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015).

[7] Appolis, 93.

[8] Appolis, 299-300.

[9] This work was translated into English with the rather dynamic title The Science of Rational Devotion (Dublin: James Bryne, 1789) by the Irish Augustinian Alexander Kenny. It is easily accessible online in many languages and is a fantastic theological and devotional work, as well as a programmatic text for eighteenth-century Catholic reform.

[10] Ulrich Lehner, The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 130.

[11] I cite above Unigenitus 85. The standard source for Catholic doctrinal documents is in the Denzinger doctrinal handbook. A quick way to access many of these texts is at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Clem11/c11unige.htm.

[12] See Owen Chadwick, The Popes and European Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), 75-78 for a discussion of early modern Catholic vernacular Bible reading. Here quoted: 77. Chadwick’s work is a monument of erudition and, due to its pleasant style and cleverness, serves well both as a reference work and as an engaging introduction into the study of eighteenth-century Catholicism.

[13] Appolis, 330, 338.

Leave a Reply