The history of Jansenism – Part I

Jansenism forms a very important chapter in Catholic history, since it was very prominent in France in the 2 centuries leading up to the French Revolution. It was involved in various conflicts and heresies within the Church such as Gallicanism, Rationalism and Liberalism, being sometimes opposed to these evils and sometimes working with them.

Since Jansenists generally tended to be at the losing end of political and theological struggles, especially those with the Jesuits, an extremely negative portrayal has prevailed within Catholic historiography. Jansenists are generally viewed as pseudo-Calvinists, irrational enemies of the Jesuits, Gallicanists, extremists and prideful. While none of these negative characterisations are completely unfounded, they tell only half of the full story.

Jansenism as a movement was actually very diverse, went through multiple phases and split into various groups. During the various religious upheavals in France different groups of Jansenists ended up on opposing sides. Moderate versions of Jansenism are in fact not even heretical under Catholic teachings. Additionally, some of the criticisms of the Jansenists towards the Jesuits were in fact entirely legitimate.

Jansenism was also different from Calvinism is many ways and only indirectly influenced by it as we will get into.

  1. Prelude: The Council of Trent, Calvinism and Michael Baius

In part Jansenism was a part of reaction against the Molinism of the Jesuits and even the Thomism of the scholastics. Many Catholics desired to return to what they thought were the true teachings of Saint Augustine. A desire that had some similarities to Luther and Calvin but which was much more sincere (as the reformers sometimes admitted to rejecting key parts of his teachings). It was basically a way of refuting Calvin and Luther by reasserting the true Catholic teachings of Saint Augustine, the doctor of grace.

Michael Baius was a prominent leading figure amongst the fringe Augustinians in the Catholic Church. The champions of the anti-scholastic reaction fought under the banner of Augustine of Hippo though paradoxically undermined Augustine’s doctrine of grace; as a result, Baius’ heterodox-Augustinian predilections brought him into conflict with Rome on questions of grace, free-will and the like. In various respects, Baius was rightly seen as Pelagian. In 1567 Pope Pius V condemned seventy-nine propositions from his writings in the papal bull Ex omnibus afflictionibus. To this Baius submitted; though certain indiscreet utterances on the part of himself and his supporters led to a renewal of the condemnation in 1579 by Pope Gregory XIII. Baius, however, was allowed to retain his professorship, and even became chancellor of Leuven in 1575.

2. The beginning: Cornelius Jansen, Jean du Vergier de Hauranne and Martin de Barcos

While Jansenism derived its name from Cornelius his close friend Jean du Vergier de Hauranne was essential to the beginning of the movement. Additionally, its ideas would further develop over time and receive crucial contributions from other thinkers like Antoine Arnauld and eventually Blaise Pascal (who joined a couple if years after Jansen-s death). None of the 3 primary founding figures, (Jansen, Vergier, Arnauld) were Gallicanists, Calvinists or Secularists. The first prominent Jansenists to be openly defiant off what he considered to be wrong decisions by the pope was the famous Blaise Pascal, (who to this day is admired by many Catholics who generally prefer to ignore that he was one of the most radical of all the Jansenists). Jansen was close to ultramontanism, Arnauld took a more moderate stance on papal authority (as will be explained in more detail later) while accepting definitive doctrinal teachings in matters of faith and Pascal was the most openly critical of papal teachings he viewed as incorrect and did not believe in papal infallibility.

Arnauld was the de facto leader of the Jansenist movement from the start and for several decades this his death, which is why it’s almost funny that’s it is remembered as Jansenism.

What brought these various figures together was a rejection of the Jesuits and perceived moral laxity, along with strong ascetism and a certain form of traditionalism and Augustinianism.

Cornelius Jansen

Cornelius was born of humble Catholic parentage at Acquoy then in the province of Holland, now in Gelderland, the Netherlands. In 1602 he entered the University of Leuven, then in the throes of an ideological conflict between the Jesuit — or scholastic — party and the followers of Michael Baius, who swore by St. Augustine. Jansen ended by attaching himself strongly to the latter “Augustinian” party, and presently made a momentous friendship with a like-minded fellow-student, Jean du Vergier de Hauranne, afterwards Abbé de Saint-Cyran.

After taking his degree he went to Paris, partly to improve his health by a change of scene, partly to study Greek. Eventually he joined Du Vergier at his country home near Bayonne, and spent some years teaching at the bishop’s college. All his spare time was spent in studying the early Fathers with Du Vergier, and laying plans for a reform of the Church.

In 1616 he returned to Leuven, to take charge of the college of St Pulcheria, a hostel for Dutch students of theology. Pupils found him a somewhat choleric and exacting master and a great recluse from academic society. However, he took an active part in the university’s resistance to the Jesuits, for they had established a theological school of their own in Leuven, which was proving itself a formidable rival to the official university faculty of divinity. In the hope of suppressing their encroachments, Jansen was sent twice to Madrid, in 1624 and 1626; the second time he narrowly escaped the Inquisition. He warmly supported the Catholic missionary archbishop (apostolic vicar) of the Catholic Holland Mission in the Dutch Republic, Philippus Rovenius, in his contests with the Jesuits, who were trying to evangelize that country without regard to the archbishop’s wishes. He also crossed more than once the Dutch Calvinist–Presbyterian champion, Gisbertus Voetius, still remembered for his attacks on René Descartes.

Antipathy to the Jesuits brought Jansen no nearer to Protestantism; on the contrary, he yearned to beat them with their own weapons, chiefly by showing them that Roman Catholics could interpret the Bible in just as mystical and pietistic a manner. This became the great object of his lectures, when he was appointed regius professor of scriptural interpretation at Leuven in 1630. Still more was it the object of his Augustinus, a bulky treatise on the theology of St. Augustine, barely finished at the time of his death. Its preparation was his chief occupation since his return to Leuven. He had introduced in this treaty a long development favourable to contrition (IIIrd part, De gratia Christi salvatoris, book V, chap.XXI–XXV). In its appendix, titled Erroris Massiliensium, et opinionis quorumdam recentiorum parallelon et statera, he harshly condemned the Jesuits, in particular Luis de Molina, Gabriel Vasquez and Leonardus Lessius.

But Jansen, as he said, did not mean to be a school-pedant all his life; and there were moments when he entertained political ambitions. He looked forward to a time when Flanders would throw off the Spanish yoke and become an independent Catholic republic, possibly even Flemish-ruled, according to the model of the Protestant United Provinces. These ideas became known to his Spanish rulers, and to assuage them he wrote a philippic called the Mars gallicus (1635), a violent attack on French ambitions generally, and on Cardinal Richelieu’s indifference to international Catholic interests in particular. The Mars gallicus did little to help Jansen’s rather persecuted theological friends in France, but it reversed Madrid’s wrath with Jansen; in 1636 he was appointed bishop of Ypres (Ieper) in West Flanders by the Pope and the Spanish Court. Within two years he was however cut down by a sudden illness; the Augustinus, the book of his life, was published posthumously in 1640.

The book and Jansenist theology in general would rely more on Michael Baius for their interpretation of Augustine than on Calvinism. The main problem with Baius was that he did not strictly follow the Thomistic distinction between nature and supernature. He denied that Adam in the state of innocence had gifts of grace that he lost in the fall. As such the fall had to more radically and fully effect man`s nature. According to Joseph Sollier, in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Baius’ concept of the primitive state of man was Pelagian; his presentation of the downfall was Calvinist; and his theory of redemption was more than Lutheran and close to Socinian. He died, still holding his two offices, in 1589. His writings are described by Adolf Harnack as a curious mixture of Catholic orthodoxy and unconscious tendencies to Protestantism

Later, in the “Augustinus” itself (IV, xxv-xxvii), it is seen that he scarcely disguises the close connection of several of his assertions with certain propositions of Baius, though he ascribes the condemnation of the latter to the contingent circumstances of time and place, and he believes them tenable in their obvious and natural sense.

Jansen also insisted on justification by faith, although he did not contest the necessity of revering saints, of confession, and of frequent Communion. Jansen’s opponents condemned his teachings for their alleged similarities to Calvinism (though, unlike Calvinism, Jansen rejected the doctrine of assurance and taught that even the justified could lose their salvation). Blaise Pascal’s Écrits sur la grâce (French), would later on attempt to conciliate the contradictory positions of Molinists and Calvinists by stating that both were partially right: Molinists, who claimed God’s choice concerning a person’s sin and salvation was a posteriori and contingent, while Calvinists claimed that it was a priori and necessary. Pascal himself claimed that Molinists were correct concerning the state of humanity before the Fall, while Calvinists were correct regarding the state of humanity after the Fall.

Augustinus was widely read in theological circles in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands in 1640, and a new edition quickly appeared in Paris under the approbation of ten professors at the College of Sorbonne (the theological college of the University of Paris).

Jansen, at the time of his promotion to the doctorate in 1619, had defended the infallibility of the pope in a most categorical thesis, conceived as follows: “The Roman Pontiff is the supreme judge of all religious controversies, when he defines a thing and imposes it on the whole Church, under penalty of anathema, his decision is just, true, and infallible.”

Jean du Vergier

De Vergier was an equally fascinating figure. Born in the city of Bayonne to a noble family, Vergier studied theology at the Catholic University of Leuven. Either there or, more likely in 1604 in Paris, he formed a friendship with Cornelius Jansen and, as the wealthier of the two, became Jansen’s patron for a number of years, getting Jansen a job as a tutor in 1606. Two years later, he obtained for Jansen a position teaching at the episcopal (or “bishop’s”) college back in Bayonne. The duo spent 1611–1614 there, in seclusion in a house belonging to the family, where they studied the Church Fathers together, with a special focus on the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo, until Jansen left Bayonne in 1614 to return to the Dutch Republic.

In 1617 Vergier left Bayonne at the invitation of Henri-Louis Chasteigner de La Roche-Posay, the Bishop of Poitiers, where he soon became a leading figure of the diocese. In 1620 he became the commendatory abbot of the Abbey of Saint-Cyran and was thus generally known as the Abbé de Saint-Cyran for the rest of his life. During that same year, he made the acquaintance of the mystic, Charles de Condren, and through him Pierre de Bérulle, founder of the French Oratory. He also became friends with Robert Arnauld d’Andilly, through whom he became connected with the Arnauld family.

Even before the publication of Augustinus, Duvergier publicly preached Jansenism. Vergier kept on corresponding with Jansen, urging him to prepare his book Augustinus, the source of the Jansenist teachings. He also became spiritual director and confessor of the nuns of the abbey of Port-Royal des Champs, in whose history the Arnauld family played significant roles. Under his leadership from 1633 to 1636 the abbey became a center of Jansenism.

Jansen emphasized a particular reading of Augustine’s idea of efficacious grace which stressed that only a certain portion of humanity were predestined to be saved. Jansen insisted that the love of God was fundamental, and that only perfect contrition, (sorrow for sin out of a perfect love for God), and not imperfect contrition (or attrition), (sorrow for sin out of fear off God and punishment) could save a person (and that, in turn, only an efficacious grace could tip that person toward God and such a contrition). This debate on the respective roles of contrition and attrition, which had not been settled by the Council of Trent (1545–1563), was one of the motives of the imprisonment in May 1638 of Duvergier, the first leader of Port-Royal, by order of Cardinal Richelieu. Duvergier was not released until after Richelieu’s death in 1642, and he died shortly thereafter, in 1643. (The holy office would actually leave this debate unsettled and never condemn the strict Jansenist position).

Martin de Barcos

Duvergier’s nephew Martin de Barcos studied under Jansen and defended his uncle and preached a strict view on predestination.

Barcos had been born at Bayonne, a nephew of Jean du Vergier de Hauranne, the commendatory abbot of the Abbey of Saint-Cyran in the Duchy of Berry, who sent him to Belgium to be taught by Cornelius Jansen. When he returned to France he served for a time as tutor to a son of Robert Arnauld d’Andilly and later, in 1644, succeeded his uncle as the owner of the abbey. He did much to improve the abbey; new buildings were erected, and the library much enhanced.

Unlike many commendatory abbots of his day, however, who scarcely ever saw the monasteries over which they held authority, Barcos became an active member of the abbey, became a priest in 1647, and gave himself up to the rigid asceticism preached by his sect. He died there.

Barcos’ own treatises, some bear on authority in the Church and some on the then-much mooted questions of grace and predestination. To the first class belong (1) De l’autorité de saint Pierre et de saint Paul (1645), (2) Grandeur de l’Église de Rome qui repose sur l’autorité de saint Pierre et de saint Paul (1645). (3) Éclaircissements sur quelques objections que l’on a formées contre la grandeur de l’Église de Rome (1646). These three books were written in support of an assertion contained in the book On Frequent Communion, namely: “St. Peter and St. Paul are the two heads of the Roman Church and the two are one”. This theory of dual church authority, implying an equality of the two apostles, would end up being condemned as heretical by Pope Innocent X, in a 1647 Holy Office decree, which condemned this proposition, found in Jansenist Martin de Barcos’s preface to Antoine Arnauld’s 1644 De la fréquente communion It was worded as that that Peter the Apostle and Paul the Apostle “are two supreme pastors and governors of the Church who constitute a single head” and they “are two princes of the Church who amount to one”, and condemned when the proposition is interpreted “to imply a complete equality between” Peter and Paul “without the subordination and subjection” of Paul to Peter in “power and governance”. (Denzinger, Enchiridion, 965) While incorrect the position was not meant as an attack the primacy of the Roman church or the pope.

Barcos collaborated with his uncle in the Petrus Aurelius and later with Arnauld in the book on Frequent Communion.

Altman Beten

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