The history of Jansenism Part IV

The Jansenist split and the Enlightenment

Unigenitus Dei Filius is said to have marked the official end of toleration of Jansenism in the Church in France, though quasi-Jansenists would occasionally stir in the following decades. Jansenism persisted in France for many years but split “into antagonistic factions” in the late 1720s. By the mid-18th century, Jansenism proper had ceased to be a viable current within Catholicism.

However, certain ideas tinged with Jansenism remained influential much longer; in particular, the Jansenist idea that Holy Communion should be received very infrequently, and that reception required a lot more than freedom from mortal sin, remained influential until finally “condemned”/rejected by Pope Saint Pius X, who endorsed frequent communion, as long as the communicant was free of mortal sin, in the early 20th century.

Jansenists who accepted Unigenitus managed to stay within the Church. Certain Jansenists continued to mainly be rigorists and Augustinians. Additionally. the propositions in Unigenitus had only moderately attacked the Church hierarchy.

Other Jansenists embraced further rigorism and sectarianism. However, although certain Jansenists stayed loyal to the pope and others became sectarian, a large mainstream section in the middle embraced anti-Papism and eventually the Enlightenment. The attacks on Unigenitus, the alliance with the Gallicans and the fact that Jansenists had more and more embraced full blown conciliarism results in more moderate and civil Jansenism becoming a haven for anti-ultra-montanism which was made even worse by the increasingly personal feud with the Jesuits as well as Jansenist opposition to the monarchy which became more and more intense. Jansenists in France sometimes attracted moderate rationalists and also continued as moderate opponents of papal supremacy in Spain and Austria-Hungary. In the Netherlands they contributed to the Old Catholic schism, but that was a tiny minority.

The king and parlement had worked with the pope in enforcing orthodoxy earlier in the seventeenth century, as was described here, but the issue over Gallicanism led to Louis XIV trying assert both Gallican liberties and uniformity in the French church at the same time, where moderate papal interference was accepted but the king was meant to rule the Church to an extent, while the parlements came to more and more reject the monarchic version of Gallicanism and to resent the alliance between the pope and monarch, which while strained, was still relatively strong, (especially after Louis XIV withdrew the declaration of the clergy). Parlement based and anti-monarchical Gallicanism as well as more aristocratic and intellectual Jansenism came to more and move overlap. The Jansenist parlements did oppose the spread of Voltaire’s ideas and other forms of leftism. They were no proto-Deists. Eventually a degree of opposition to the authority of bishops even in favour of local priests crept in as well along with Rationalist influences.

Jansenists continued to publish anti-Jesuit propaganda through their magazine Nouvelles ecclésiastiques and played a valuable role in plotting and promoting the expulsion of the Jesuits from France in the 1760s.

During the second half of the eighteenth century the influence of Jansenism was prolonged by taking on various forms and extending to countries other than France and the low countries.

In France the Parlements continued to pronounce judgments, to inflict fines and confiscations, to suppress episcopal ordinances, and even to address remonstrances to the king in defence of the pretended right of the appellants to absolution and the reception of the last sacraments. In 1756 they rejected a very moderate decree of Benedict XIV regulating the matter. They opposed royal declaration confirming the Roman decision, and it required great pressure from monarchy to compel them to register it. The sectaries seemed by degrees to detach themselves from the primitive heresy, but they retained unabated the spirit of insubordination and schism, the spirit of opposition to Rome, and above all a mortal hatred of the Jesuits. They had vowed the ruin of that order, which they always found blocking their way, and in order to attain their end they successively induced Catholic princes and ministers in Portugal, France, Spain, Naples, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies the Duchy of Parma, and elsewhere to join hands with the worst leaders of impiety and philosophism. The same tendency was displayed in the work of Febronius, condemned (1764) by Clement XIII; and, instilled into Joseph II by his councillor Godefried van Swieten, a disciple of the revolted church of Utrecht, it became the principle of the innovations and ecclesiastical upheavals decreed by the sacristan-emperor. Jansenists influenced Empress Maria Theresa as well however, who mostly opposed Febronianism and like Louis XIV tried to achieve a balance with Rome.

Certain Jansenists also strongly condemned the devotion to the sacred heart along with Enlightenment partisans and others.

Liturgical reform

When it came to the issue of vernacular liturgy instead of the pure Latin mass, both the protestants and the Gallicans used it in their liturgy in the seventeenth century in France. As Joseph Andreas Jungmann said when writing of the Liturgical Movement, breviaries and missals in French appeared as early as 1680, before being suppressed. Even the Jesuits sought indults from Rome for the use of the vernacular in mission lands, notably for China and Quebec. However, these missionaries would likely have been content with their Latin liturgical books had there been no need to address the non-European mentality of the new converts. This was not the extreme Catholic reform envisioned by the Jansenists which Weaver has called their “lex docendi, lex orandi”. The whole of their reform program was to seek its expression liturgically.

An American scholar, F. Ellen Weaver, has analysed the relevant documents, especially the ceremonial books and ritual books with their own notes, which pertain to this Jansenist interest in the reform of the liturgy. Nearly all the themes familiar in our own day after Sacrosanctum concilium were pursued by the Jansenist reformers–introduction of the vernacular, a greater role for the laity in worship, active participation by all, recovery of the notion of the eucharistic meal and the community, communion under both kinds, emphasis on biblical and also patristic formation, clearer preaching and teaching, less cluttered calendars and fewer devotions which might distract from the centrality of the Eucharist. Even the “kiss of peace” was practiced at Port-Royal, and a sort of offertory procession was found there and elsewhere among Jansenist liturgical reformers.

Ironically the Jansenists were falsely accused of laxity by the Jesuits. In the middle of the eighteenth century the Jansenists were even accused by the Jesuit polemicist, Henri Michel Sauvage, of having women priests.  While there is as of yet no real evidence for his charge, it does illustrate how their enemies perceived them as a people whose liturgical reputation was suspect. Sauvage may have been exaggerating, but even this shows the form of the conceivable.

Some Jansenist bishops wished to abolish priestly celibacy although they did not actually do so and were therefore not guilty of schism. Two of the more famous in Italy were Giovanni Andrea Serrao of Potenza, during the period of the French occupation, and Giuseppi Capecelatro, archbishop of Taranto early in the restoration era. There is no reason to believe however, that they acted upon this opinion, any more than bishops today who hold the same view.[1]

Another ex cathedra condemnation

This Enlightenment Jansenism ended up reaching its climax when together with elements of Gallicanism, Febronianism, Rationalism and Enlightenment Catholicism, it was promoted in Tuscany under the future emperor, Leopold II, brother of Joseph II, (who ironically as reverted many of his brother`s more radical reforms out of pragmatism), during the Synod of Pistoia under Scipione de’ Ricci (1741–1810), the bishop of Pistoia.[2]

In spite of the hostile attitude of the great majority of the bishops, Bishop de Ricci issued on July 31, 1786 a summons to a diocesan synod, which was solemnly opened on the September 18. In convoking the synod, he invoked the authority of Pius VI who had previously recommended a synod as the normal means of diocesan reform. It was attended by 233 beneficed secular and 13 regular priests, and decided with practical unanimity on a series of decrees which, had it been possible to carry them into effect, would have involved a drastic alteration of the Tuscan church on the lines advocated by Febronius.[2]

The synod promoted some typical rigorist, apocalyptic and predestination Jansenist teachings including that unbaptised infants suffered fire, (a traditional Augustinian teaching that popes had affirmed was a permissible orthodox stance many times, but they went further claiming that the Thomistic teachings of Limbo was a revival of Pelagian heresy). It also promoted liturgical puritanism, a strong degree of governmental interference, and the authority of local bishops.

The first decree (Decretum de fide et ecclesia) declared that the Roman Catholic Church has no right to introduce new dogmas, but only to preserve in its original purity the faith once delivered by Christ to His apostles, and is infallible only so far as it conforms to Holy Scripture and true tradition; the Church, moreover is a purely spiritual body and has no authority in things secular. Other decrees denounced the abuse of indulgences, of festivals of saints, and of processions and suggested reforms; others again enjoined the closing of shops on Sunday during divine service, the issue of service-books with parallel translations in the vernacular, a vernacularization of the Roman Rite and recommended the abolition of all monastic orders except that of St. Benedict, the rules of which were to be brought into harmony with modern ideas; nuns were to be forbidden to take the vows before the age of 40. The last decree proposed the convocation of a national council. Its claims and teachings incorporated many demands made by the Jansenist clergy previously, though the synod cannot be said to have been Jansenist in essence.

These decrees were issued together with a pastoral letter of Bishop de’ Ricci, and were strongly approved by the grand-duke, at whose instance a national synod of the Tuscan bishops met at Florence on April 23, 1787. The temper of this assembly was, however, wholly different. The bishops refused to allow a voice to any not of their own order, and in the end the decrees of Pistoia were supported by a minority of only three.

According to John Bertram Peterson, de’ Ricci’s zeal bordered on recklessness. He condemned devotion to the Sacred Heart, discouraged the use of relics and images, improvised liturgy, and founded a Jansenistic press. These moves however foundered, faced with eventual opposition from Pope Pius VI. Ricci had to leave Tuscany in 1790, as opposition grew, and resigned his see in 1791.

Pius VI commissioned four bishops, assisted by theologians of the secular clergy, to examine the Pistorian enactments, and deputed a congregation of cardinals and bishops to pass judgment on them. They condemned the synod and stigmatized eighty-five of its propositions as erroneous and dangerous. Pope Pius VI condemned the synod in 1794 in the papal bull Auctorem fidei, which like Cum Occasione is regarded as ex cathedra by many theologians and as with Cum Occasione this seems somewhat debatable.

After the publication of the Bull, Scipione de’ Ricci submitted. In 1805, he took occasion of the presence of Pius VII in Florence, on his way to Rome from his exile in France, to ask in person for pardon amid reconciliation.

This mainstream anti-papal Gallicanist-linked Jansenism was mostly crushed alongside normal Gallicanism during the French Revolution, when all the bishops and nobles who ended up eventually rejecting the insanity saw the need of obeying the pope.

The failure of the synod of Pistoia together with the French Revolution largely sunk anti-Jesuit sentiment, Enlightenment Catholicism and so on.

However, it survived in a few exceptional people; the constitutional Bishop Grégoire, and in some religious congregations, as the Sisters of St. Martha, who did not return in a body to Catholic truth and unity until 1847. But its spirit lived on, especially in the rigorism which for a long time dominated the practice of the administration of the sacraments and the teaching of moral theology. In a great number of French seminaries, Bailly’s “Théologie”, which was impregnated with this rigorism, remained the standard textbook until Rome in 1852 put it on the Index “donec corrigatur”. Among those who even before that had worked fanatically against it, mainly by offering in opposition the doctrines of St. Alphonsus, two names spring to mind: Gousset, whose “Théologie morale” (1844) had been preceded by his “Justification de la théologie morale du bienheureux Alphonse-Marie Liguori” (2nd ed., 1832); Jean-Pierre Berman, professor at the seminary of Nancy for twenty-five years (1828-1853), and author of a “Theologia moralis ex S. Ligorio” (7 vols., 1855).

Mainstream Jansenism as such largely died out… with the possible exception off the previously mentioned so called “Old catholic church… (which is a story for another time)… and the Convulsionnaires of Saint Medard…. Which is… more fascinating than almost any sect ever…


  2. One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Pistoia, Synod of”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 21 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 653–654.

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