Forerunners of the French Revolution. Part 2b

The Jansenists

Against the great spiritual revival which took place in France during the seventeenth century (1650-1700), there ran a strong current of laxity. This tendency to looseness in religion and morals was strengthened : (i) by the bad example of the French court and (ii) by the fact that many confessors, striving to make the sacrament of penance easy for repentant sinners, had begun to stretch the bounds of tolerance further than the mind of the Church would warrant. How was this laxity to be corrected? The leaders of the Protestant revolt had tried to put an end to abuses in the Church by establishing a new Church. they had only succeeded in adding to the prevalent disorder. A group now rose up in France, however, who proposed to reform the Church in France from within, urging a return, as they said, to the strict discipline of early Christianity. They stressed the rigour of Gods justice, spoke little of His mercy, urged great severity in the sacrament of penance, and laid down such conditions for the worthy reception of Holy Communion as to make the Blessed Sacrament for most of the faithful almost unapproachable. The would-be rerormers soon fell into heresy regarding free will (which they denied) and divine grace. This heresy is known as Jansenism from the fact that its followers based their doctrine upon a treatise on St. augustine written by Jansenius, Bishop of Ypres (1585-1638), and published after his death in 1640. Although Jansenius died in the Church, his work was condemned by Pope Urban VIII in 1642 and by Pope Innocent X in 1653.

Jansenism found its greatest stronghold at Port Royal (near Paris) where a group of highly-gifted laymen (known as Solitaires) and nuns built up on their heretical doctrines a gloomy but very influential system of education. From Port Royal Jansenism soon spread over France, deceiving the noblest minds by its seemingly high spiritual appeal. Behind that appeal, however, lurked the demon of pride, rebellion and deceit: repeated condemnations from the Holy See were met by the Jansensits with subtle attempts to justify their position and evade the stigma of heresy. The final condemnation, which left no room for escape, cam in the Bull Unigenitus, published by Pope Clement XI in 1713. Gradually, after this date, Jansenism began to decline. Foremost among those who had fought it were the Society of Jesus, St. vincent de Paul, Cardinal Berulle and the great preacher Bossuet, while its influence- even on Catholic writers- was gradually softened by the teaching of St. Alphonsus Liguori and the later theologians.

For over a century, however, Jansenism continued to scourge the Church in France and elsewhere by its effects. It had defied the divine authority of the Holy See, encouraged free thinking, and prepared the way for the reign of unbelief. It had frightened the faithful from their greatest spiritual support, the Sacrament of Love, depopulated the Communion-rails, and raised a kind of barrier between souls and their Divine Saviour. It needed the personal revelations of the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque to break down that barrier, which was cleared for ever from Catholic life by the Decrees on Holy Communion issued by Pope Pius X in 1905 and 1910.

Jansenism: Details

The heresy of Jansenism grew by four distinct phases:

(i)The Grace Controversy, Baius.- The Protestant Revolt, and in particular Calvinism, had occasioned widespread discussion among Catholic theologians of the many different problems involved in the question of Divine Grace and free will. The Dominican school following St. Thomas Aquinas interpretation of St. Augustine and St. Paul, stressed the part played by Divine Grace; the Franciscan school (whose tradition was carried forward by the Society of Jesus) stressed the role of free will. In the course of these discussions certain writings of Michael Baius, a professor of Louvain, were condemned by the Holy See in 1560. Baius happily retracted his errors; but the grace controversy went on, the two most notable figures being the Jesuit theologian Molina and the Dominican Bannez. For over nine years (1598-1607) a special Papal Commission (set up by Pope Clement VIII and closed by Pope Paul V) considered the conflicting views of the two schools. No judgment, however, was given, the two schools being simply forbidden to treat each other as heretics. The long discussion, though it had served to clarify to some extent the theological issues involved, was on the whole unfortunate: it absorbed much energy which might have been more profitably given to other things, and caused disunion in the Catholic camp at a time when unity was vitally necessary. (ii) Jansenius (d. 1638). In 1640 appeared Jansenius Augustinus, a work claiming to set forth and develop the teaching of St. Augustine especially regarding divine Grace. In 1642 the work was condemned by Pope Urban VIII as being tainted with Baianism: it was neverheless defended by the Solitaires of Port Royal-Antoine Arnauld, his sister angelique, Pascal, Nicole and St. Cyran (i.e. Jean de Verger de Hauranne, Abbe of St. Cyran).

The next condemnation came in 1653 in a Bull of Pope Innocent X (Cum Occasione) which censured five propositions from Jansenius Augustinus. The Jansenists replied by raising the question now known as the Dogmatic Fact: they agreed that the Holy See had the right to pronounce infallibly on the truth or falsehood of doctrine, but held that the Church might err on the historical fact whether the book of Jansenius contained the condemned propositions in the heretical sense attributed to them. Regarding this point, they contended, it would be sufficient for the faithful to receive the judgment of the Holy See with respectful silence, without submitting their interior judgment. The contention was answered by PopeAlexander VII (1656) in the Bull Ad Sacram which explained that the bull of Pope Innocent X had condemned the propositions in the natural sense of the author. The censure was renewed. A storm of opposition to the papal pronouncement, led by four French Bishops, was met by a still more vigorous condemnation (Apostolici Regiminis, 1664) which requested all ecclesiastics and religious to sign a formulary against Jansenism. Some, including the four French bishops, still held out, diplomatic difficulties between France and the Holy See adding to the disaffection. Peace, however, was temporarily restored by Pope Clement IX (The Clementine Peace) in 1667.

The Case of Conscience.- While the Pope had been deceived into believing they had made their submission, the Jansenists, on the contrary, still held obstinately to their contention regarding the Dogmatic Fact and the respectful silence. Following a discussion on the matter at the Sorbonne in 1701 (known as the Case of Conscience) they were therefore once again censured by Pope Clement XI in 1705 (Vineam Domini) but still held out. In 1709 (by which year St. Cyran, the Arnaulds and Nicole were all dead) the abbey of Port Royal was dissolved, and the nuns dispersed. In 1710, by order of King Louis XIV, the convent was razed to the ground. Quesnel (d. 1719).- Meanwhile Quesnel, a theologian of the Oratory of Cardinal Berulle, had published a work on Sacred Scripture tainted with Jansenism. Quesnel refused to sign the Profession of Faith of 1664 and had taken Arnaulds place as eader of the Jansenist movement. In 1713 his work was condemned in 101 propositions by Pope Clement XI (Unigenitus). This was virtually the death blow to the heresy which gradually lost hold on the French Clergy (excepting the Appellants who made a futile attempt from the Pope to a General Council). born in austere scholarship, the heresy died in fanaticism and superstition. Jansenist miracles were claimed at the tomb of the deacon Francis of Paris (d. 1727) in the cemetery of St. Medard, which became a place of pilgrimage for the sects last followers. Here tey affected extravagant ecstasies and revolting convulsions (whence their later name Convulsionaries) until the cemetery was closed by Louis XV in 1732.

The Jansenists survive as a rapidly diminishing schismatic sect in Holland: they are known as oud-Roomsch or Old Roman Catholics and numbered less than 8,000 at the end of the last [19th] century.

Note 1.- Our Divine Lords Answer to Jansenism: Devotion to the Sacred Heart.- Just as when the newly-born Church lay helpless under the yoke of the Caesars there appeared in the heavens a cross which heralded peace at last with victory, so towards the end of the seventeenth century Jesus vouchsafed a sign that He was with His Church in the struggle against Jansenism and that His Church should conquer.

Towards the year 1650 a French priest, St. John Eudes, began to propagate devotion to the Sacred Heart in France. At first the devotion was linked with devotions to the Holy Heart of Mary. Gradually, however, it began to take its own special form, and in 1670 the Feast of the Sacred Heart was celebrated for the firs ttime in the Grand Seminary of Rennes. From here it gradually spread into other dioceses of France with the approbation of the local bishops. Gods principal instrument, however, in the establishment of Devotion to the Sacred Heart was a humble sisterof the Visitation convent at Paray-le-Monial, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. in a series of apparitions to this saintly nun, Our Divine Lord made known to her the wonders of the love of His Sacred Heart, His desire that special honour should be paid to it, and the form that the devotion should take-frequent Communion, the reception of Holy Communion on the First Friday of the month, the Holy Hour. in the great apparition (probably 16th June, 1675, during the octave of Corpus Christi) Our Lord made known the spirit He desired to see in the devotion- a spirit of expiation and reparation for the forgetfulness and ingratitude of those who ignore or spurn His love.

Through St. Margaret Marys spiritual director, Blessed Claude de la Colombiere, S.J., the desires of Our Lord were made known to men and almost at once, in spite of the attacks of the Jansenists, Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus began its progress through the Catholic world. One of the first places where it was preached, it is interesting to note, was at the court of St. James, London, where Father de la Colombiere spent some time as chaplain to Mary of Modena, Duchess of York. Pope Benedict XIV attached indulgences to the Devotion, and in 1765 Pope Clement XIII permitted the celebration of the Feast of the Sacred Heart in Poland. In response to numerous appeals to the Holy See for the same privilege, Pope Pius IX in 1856 extended the Feast to the Universal Church. The whole world was, finally, consecrated to the Sacred Heart by Pope Leo XIII in 1899 (11th June).

Devotion to the Sacred Heart was no new thing in the history of the Church. It was, however, revealed to St. Gertrude by St. John that the fuller and clearer revelation of the riches of that Most Sacred Heart in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. ii. 3), would be reserved to the days when the charity of men should begin to grow cold. And so it happened.

Thus the timely revelation of Devotion to the Sacred Heart at the critical moment when heresy, under the cloak of righteousness, sought to steal the love of Jesus out of the hearts of men, gives a beautiful insight into the life of the Church. Our Lord advanced in wisdom and age and grace with God and men (Luke ii. 52) by manifesting outwardly in a gradual way the perfection which was in Him from the beginning. So too the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, held the divine message in its completeness from the beginning; only gradually, however, as age succeeds age, does she manifest her glories, according to the particular needs of the time and the breating od the Holy Spirit. The revelations of the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary came just at the time when the Church needed them most urgently.

Note 2.- Quietism.- A second heresy of this time, a form of reaction against Jansenism, less widespread in its influence but resembling the greater heresy in the way it deceived great minds, was Quietism. This error would have perfection to consist in a state of passive response or quiet on the part of the soul under the action of divine grace. External observances and good works, confession even, and the spirit of healthy fear in the face of temptation, were discouraged. Quietism, however, never became a great heresy and happily soon died out. The three foremost leaders in the Quietist heresy were Molinos (1627-1696), a Spanish priest who was condemned by Pope Innocent XI in 1687, retracted and died repentant; Madame Guyon (1648-1717), and Fenelon, Archbishop of Cambrai and, with the exception of Bossuet, the most brilliant Churchman in France. When his works Maxims of the Saints on the Interior Life was condemned by Pope Innocent XII (1699), Fenelon made a complete and edifying submission.

Note 3. The Dogmatic Fact.- The most important dogmatic consequence of the struggle with Jansenism was to clear up the principle that the churchs supreme teaching authority applies not only to questions of law (whether or not a given doctrine is heretical) but also to questions of fact (whether or not a given doctrine is to be found in an authors words taken in their obvious sense). The tradition of the Church had always presupposed this power, but Popes Alexander VII and Clement XI left no room for doubt in the matter. Of what avail would the Churchs infallibility be if she were liable to error in interpreting the natural sense of books and propositions submitted to her and so of mistaking truth for error, error for truth?

An Outline History of the Catholic Church by Rev. Reginald F. Walker CSSP.

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