Right before Christmas I saw all the articles being shared on social media discussing Pope Francis’s comments about rigorism and Port-Royal. Given that it was right before Christmas, I avoided looking at anything at that point, but now that I’ve had some time, I feel like it would be irresponsible to not say anything, given that Pope Francis used “my” nun, Mother Angélique, as his example of rigorism.

Pope Francis’s Christmas speech begins by discussing gratitude and conversion, the latter in the context of allusions to the idea of doctrinal development. For example, he says that Vatican II sparked a conversion “to understand the Gospel more fully and to make it relevant, living and effective in our time” (3). However, he warns that with conversion, evil must change its tactics. He warns in this case that we must remain with our trust in God, not in ourselves—the latter of which is Pelagianism (4). He recommends a daily examination of conscience, remaining vigilant, because “the evil that we acknowledge and try to uproot from our lives does indeed leave us but we would be naïve to think that it will long be gone. In short order, it comes back under a new guise. Before, it appeared rough and violent, now it shows up as elegant and refined” (4). As an example of this, he mentions Port-Royal. Pope Francis said:

In the seventeenth century, for example, there was the well-known case of the nuns of Port-Royal. One of their abbesses, Mère Angélique, had begun well; she had “charismatically” reformed herself and her monastery, even banishing parents from the cloister. She was a very gifted woman, born to govern, but then she became the soul of the Jansenist resistance, intransigent and unbending even in the face of ecclesiastical authority. Of her and her nuns, it was said that they were “pure as angels and proud as demons”. They had cast out the demon, but he had returned seven times stronger, and under the guise of austerity and rigour he had introduced rigidity and the presumption that they were better than others. The demon, once cast out, always returns; albeit under another guise, but he does return. Let us be attentive! (4)

He continues after this passage to discuss Jesus’ parables that warn against the righteous—the scribes and the Pharisees—before ending with a discussion of peace, kindliness, mercy, and forgiveness.

Now, although the Christmas speech was more than just this warning against rigorism, it seemed like many of the articles reporting on it focused on that aspect of the speech. For example, The Inquirer’s discussion of it opened by saying that “Pope Francis warned Vatican bureaucrats on Thursday to beware the devil that lurks among them, saying it is an ‘elegant demon’ that works in people who have a rigid, holier-than-thou way of living the Catholic faith.” Given the discussion of Vatican II as I noted above, this article has interpreted this in part as an attack on “arch-conservatives and traditionalists.” The Tablet also emphasizes the critique in this same anti-traditionalist context, adding as explanation that the Jansenist movement, “through its repeated emphasis on sin, was characterised by a harsh moral rigourism.”

Now, I’ve previously written about issues related to the use of Jansenism in the modern era. Jansenism is notoriously difficult to define, even looking at its roots in its beginning in the seventeenth century. What is interesting to me about Pope Francis’s comment, however, is less the accusation of Jansenism—and the implied continuation of the Jesuit-Jansenist conflict—than the portrayal of Mother Angélique. That quote above is basically a collection of the negative portrayals of the Port-Royal nuns throughout the controversy and it seems that this is the portrayal of the nuns that has come down to us through history. For example, Colleen Carroll Campbell in her work of spirituality aimed at combatting perfectionism through the examples of the saints uses Angélique as the antithesis to her other examples. About Angélique, she writes, “Love of God came easy to Angélique. Love of neighbor, not so much. An inspiring but inflexible leader, Angélique harshly judged anyone she saw breaking the rules or scandalizing the faithful. She longed to do great things for God and didn’t suffer fools or lukewarm souls slowing her down” (Colleen Carroll Campbell, The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s (Howard Books (Simon & Schuster), 2019), 64).

The thing is, much of the history that we have of the Port-Royal nuns, especially in English, has been fairly one-sided—it has only been more recently (and I’m using “recently” in my Xennial mindset to mean much more than just the last few years) that we have scholars focusing on the writings of the nuns themselves. This is an example of the type of hole that feminist historical theology needs to fill. We need scholars who are attentive to the writings of women throughout the history of Christianity, so that women can be fully thought of as part of the Christian tradition (see my multiple “No Church Mothers” critiques for examples of this issue).

This past November at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, I presented a paper on the text known as the Mémoires d’Utrecht—a collection of writings by the nuns at Port-Royal that was collected by Angélique de Saint-Jean Arnauld d’Andilly to record the history of the convent, possibly promote Mother Angélique’s cause for canonization, and respond to the persecution experienced by the nuns. What is interesting about this, is that I addressed in that paper the contrast between the way the nuns portrayed themselves and the negative portrayal of the nuns that has come down to us through history. I am not going to reiterate my whole argument here, but based on my analysis of the structure of the collection and the writings of the nuns, I argued the following:

Thus, what the Mémoires d’Utrecht show is how the nuns’ writings were shaped in response to the persecution they suffered. The collection itself provides a defense of Mother Angélique and her reform of the convent. This appears first in the collection itself—the texts included in this collection appear to have been curated specifically for Angélique’s cause for canonization. Whether the nuns ever intended to pursue this, Angélique de Saint-Jean’s selection and organization of these texts aimed to demonstrate Mother Angélique’s holiness. This aim appears even more clear when you examine the accounts of the nuns themselves. As I showed in the example of the account of Sister Garnier, she aimed in her stories of Mother Angélique’s reform to portray Angélique’s discretion, charity, and care for each individual nun. This deliberate portrayal of Angélique’s kindness and compassion is also part of the rhetoric of the nuns in response to their persecution, during which the Archbishop of Paris identified them as being—in contrast—“as pure as angels and as proud as devils.” Unfortunately, that this collection was only published in the following century may have limited its effectiveness.

“A Feminine Rhetoric of Persecution: The Strategic Historiography of the Nuns of Port-Royal,” American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, 19 November 2022

The key point here is found in my final sentence: few of the writings by the Port-Royal nuns themselves were published in the thick of the Jansenist controversy in the seventeenth century. Thus, their contribution to so-called Jansenism had been ignored; instead they were portrayed as prideful, ignorant, and blind followers of their confessors. However, unlike in the seventeenth century, today we do have access to the writings of the nuns. Ultimately, we need to stop using the Port-Royal nuns as mere Jansenist foils. We need to delve into their writings and see not just how they are portrayed by others, but how they portrayed themselves. The nuns’ writings are very sophisticated in their employment of theological concepts, rhetorical structures, and genres, but because nobody reads them, there is this tendency to portray them using the way they were portrayed in the controversy.

This is ultimately an issue of feminist historical theology. There needs to be more of an effort to recover and theologically the voices of women throughout the history of Christianity. This is important because “the organization of societies worldwide is still far from reflecting clearly that women possess the same dignity and identical rights as men. We say one thing with words, but our decisions and reality tell another story” (Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, 23). Perhaps if we examine again the way women contributed to the Church throughout history, we could revise our understanding not only of the way women were in the past, but also what women can contribute today.

2 thoughts

  1. I find myself interested in a lot of the issues you raise here, including the quest for perfectionism and how that relates to one’s faith, and the idea that female theologians’ voices need to be sought out and amplified. This latter touches on not just theology, but many, many fields. For instance, Kara Cooney’s book, “When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt,” deals with a similar theme. None of these queens left behind their personal writings, and some (think Cleopatra) we tend to see only through the lens of those who vilified her (the Romans, in her case). Cooney does a good job of searching for the stories of these women, telling their stories from their perspective as opposed to someone else’s. We need more of this, in as many fields as we can.

    I realize that the reference to perfectionism was pretty much an aside, but coincidentally it relates to a post I’m thinking of making on my own blog about my past and current relationship to Catholicism. Basically, as a young adult, I thought that to follow the Church’s path, I had to give it “all or nothing,” thinking that anything less than “all” wouldn’t be doing it justice. I came to the realization that I couldn’t give it “all,” so that left “nothing” (although in reality, it wasn’t really nothing, more of a dwindling until finally I was an atheist without realizing it).

    Anyway, I hope I haven’t strayed too far off-topic. Thanks for this post.

    1. You’re definitely right about the connections to other fields. Given that I draw on methods established by feminist historians, women’s history is definitely one of those. But I have friends in Classics who are dealing with similar issues and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear similar questions raised in relation to literature and philosophy, for example, though I’m less familiar with those scholarly conversations.

      In relation to the perfectionism question, sometimes I wonder if that is one of the things that interested me about studying Jansenism in the beginning: the question of what/how much we should be doing. But, to be honest, I haven’t fully reflected on what drew me to Jansenism as Jansenism, though I can trace my initial interest in it all to studying Pascal’s Pensees while I was studying abroad as an undergraduate. Maybe I should do some reflecting on this and make a more autobiographical post in the future…

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