Back before I joined the Women in Theology blog, a theologian-blogger friend asked me if I wanted to write something about modern-day Jansenism in the Catholic Church. I told him that I wasn’t yet comfortable making such claims. Part of my discomfort in this comes from the difficulty in defining Jansenism: if it is so difficult to define Jansenism even in its own period, how are we to identify it now?

However, another friend brought to my attention a recent series of essays and blog posts about modern-day Jansenism, which are filled with just enough inaccuracy about what Jansenism was that I feel my hand is being forced to make some sort of comment in this context. The series was prompted by Damian Thompson’s piece in the Spectator on the goals of Pope Francis, which does not mention Jansenism at all. It was followed by two writings that together debate the existence of Jansenism in the modern Church, the first by Michael Sean Winters in the National Catholic Reporter and the second by Joseph Shaw in the Latin Mass Society Chairman’s Blog.

Winters identifies Jansenism in conservative Catholics in the English-speaking world and argues that the Jansenist-Jesuit debates of old are key to understanding Pope Francis. He argues that this is where Thompson’s analysis fails: in missing the Jansenist-Jesuit connection. Winters writes:

Having identified the pope’s being a Jesuit as a key to understanding the man, Thompson fails to see that the Holy Father, above all, is engaged in an old struggle for the Society of Jesus: He is confronting the Jansenists of our day, the very same conservative Catholics in the English-speaking world whom Thompson thinks have the fire of the Gospel in their bellies. It is not the Gospel, but a hyper-moralistic concern against spiritual contagion that animates the conservatives Thompson champions. And, quite clearly, this is not what animates Pope Francis.

For Winters, Jansenists are defined by a concern for moral purity, a concern that leads to spiritual pride. He provides some examples where he sees such concerns overtaking the Gospel message in the Church today, trying to illustrate a fear of “contagion” where association with a group that might associate with another group that does one thing that goes against Catholic teaching is forbidden.

Shaw responds to Winters by arguing that his association of Jansenists with conservative Catholics is inaccurate. His focus is on the liturgical reforms promoted by later Jansenists, especially in the eighteenth century, which are things that are rejected by liturgically conservative Catholics today, like the use of the vernacular. There is just enough correct information about Jansenism in Shaw’s blog post to make the factual inaccuracies about the history of Jansenism really stand out. I do not fault Shaw for his misunderstanding of Jansenism because it is a movement that is easy to misunderstand; as he himself points out, technical terms become useless “once they are adopted as terms of abuse.” For example, when I worked at a parish in Berkeley, California, I met several elderly parishioners who knew exactly about Jansenists and told me all about the old Irish-Jansenist priests—Jansenism, in this case, had come to stand almost entirely for moral rigorism.1 As Shaw points out, that is not all that Jansenism was.

So what is Jansenism anyway? Jansenism is an allegedly heretical movement that developed in the Catholic Church in seventeenth-century France (not the eighteenth century, as Shaw incorrectly states), mostly around the convent of Port-Royal. The terminus a quo for Jansenism has to be the posthumous publication of the Augustinus by Cornelius Jansen in 1640. The difficulty of using this as a starting point, however, is that the theology and spirituality that are identified as Jansenist began much earlier, with the reform of the convent of Port-Royal by Mère Angélique Arnauld in the early seventeenth century and her association with the Abbot of Saint-Cyran in the mid-1630s. Jansenism lasted at least until the eighteenth century in France and the difficulties in defining Jansenism are due to this long period of existence, during which the movement aligned with other movements in France and changed and adapted to different circumstances and controversies.

There are three main characteristics that scholars have commonly identified with Jansenism over this long period of time: (1) an Augustinian view of grace2; (2) rigorist moral teaching, especially in relation to sacramental practices; and (3) a hatred of the Jesuits. Anything else is a development that happened later, including the liturgical aspects that Shaw emphasizes. Of course, the additional problem is that all three of these characteristics were fairly common in seventeenth-century France (also known by scholars as the siècle de Saint-Augustin).

So what is to be said, if anything, about modern-day Jansenism? Shaw, after discussing in more detail the liturgical reforms and moral views of (eighteenth-century) Jansenists, sums up three points in which he contrasts the views of modern-day neo-conservatives and Jansenists. He writes:

Michael Sean Winters has American neo-conservatives in his sights, and while I’ve plenty of criticisms to make of them, they are not the same criticisms as the ones which should be made of Jansenists. Let’s make this really clear.

1. Papal authority: Neo-conservatives have an exaggerated view of it; the Jansenists made the opposite mistake, minimising Papal authority.

2. The effects of sin and grace: Jansenists had an exaggerated (Calvinistic) view of it; Neo-cons, if anything, give insufficient emphasis on the effects of sin and grace.

3. Liturgical participation: the Jansenist view of vocal participation and instant comprehensibility is directly opposed by those neo-cons who have embraced the Reform of the Reform.

Let’s just break this down point by point.

  1. In terms of papal authority, the Jansenists were remarkably inconsistent on this point. The real issue is the influence of Gallicanism in France, which both influenced the Jansenists and aligned with them to minimize the influence of the papacy in France. Jansenists, however, ultimately would appeal to whoever they could to minimize their own persecution: so they appealed to the papacy to limit the reach of the king and to the king to limit the reach of the papacy. The minimization of papal authority is not necessarily a defining characteristic of Jansenism.
  1. The Jansenist view of grace was based on that of Saint Augustine. It is only Calvinistic in the sense that Calvin’s view of grace was also based on that of Saint Augustine. What is important, however, is that their view of grace influenced their rigorist morality, especially in terms of the sacraments.
  1. The Jansenist views of liturgical participation that Shaw identifies are later developments within the movement and are not characteristic of the movement as a whole, nor are they easily identifiable at the beginning of what we can call Jansenism. The main liturgical issue for the first Jansenists was over making good confessions (with true contrition) and only receiving communion when in a state of grace.

Much of the early Jansenist controversy related to the rigorist moral and sacramental teachings, as exemplified by Antoine Arnauld’s hugely popular De la fréquente communion and the spirituality of the Abbot of Saint-Cyran. Because of this, it is the moral rigorism that became most associated with Jansenism. This is why Winters today uses this moral rigorism and concerns over spiritual purity as a way to identify modern-day Jansenists. Shaw is correct to point out that this is not all that Jansenists were and that there are many heresies throughout the history of the Church that can be associated with moral rigorism. However, his emphasis on the liturgical teachings above everything else makes the same mistake.

So, to get back to my original question, about defining modern-day Jansenism, I strongly suspect that Jansenist tendencies exist in the modern-day Catholic Church, both in terms of moral and sacramental rigorism and their views on grace and salvation. However, any attempt to identify such tendencies is going to have to emphasize certain aspects of Jansenism over others. Once accusations of Jansenism start being thrown around, the term, which never really had a precise definition in the first place, loses all meaning. So, in spite of my suspicions, that is why I am still reluctant to identify any modern-day Jansenists and would warn others against trying to do so.

  1. Google “Jansenism” with “Irish Catholicism” and you will find, for example, writings that blame the moral rigorism of Jansenism for the sexual abuse crisis in Ireland
  2. Shaw calls Jansenists “crypto-Calvinist heretics,” but this is inaccurate. The connection between Jansenism and Calvinism is Saint Augustine and non-Jansenist Catholics of the time also held to this view of grace. 

2 thoughts

  1. Thanks for an interesting post.

    Can you briefly explain the Augustinian view of grace and how that might link with moral rigourism ?

    Thanks & God Bless

    1. Chris — That’s not an easy thing to summarize, but generally the moral rigorism derives from the negative view of human nature. There is, of course, a certain paradox in the whole thing: the idea that we can do nothing apart from God’s grace is combined with a rigorism that seems to imply a certain measure of human effort.

      And apologies for taking so long to reply. I intended to do so right after approving your comment, but put it aside and got absorbed in other things.

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