The hollow victory over Jansenism – part I

3 08 2009


Some notes on historical theology


As I have said before, “Jansenist” seems to be the only four letter word left in the realm of Catholic scholarship. It can be found on the tongues of both liberals and traditionalists, it has become a catch-all epithet to insult all that is wrong and legalistic about old fashioned religion. Those few who get accused of being Jansenists have to expend a lot of time and energy trying to prove how they do indeed believe in the mercy of God, the universality of the Church, and a religion that is “loving” and not “constricting”. Oftentimes, I have observed that when people have such visceral reactions to certain things, it is because they fear that they may have something fairly unpopular yet very relevant to say. The fear is not one of observing a monster long ago slain, but of looking in a distorted carnival mirror. It is what we could have become but did not, and the dire consequences of having won a battle wrongly against a misunderstood foe.

I can’t really promise that one day I will write a proper article on this topic, with the citations and format that this subject deserves. I will, however, jot down some notes to give the reader at least a glimpse at what I am getting at. What I will argue is that in many ways, Jansenism both lost and won its battle with the rest of the Catholic Church. In terms of cosmological outlook and liturgical praxis, Jansenism’s ideological tendencies won the day and shape how we view the world, though with very different results. In terms of eschatology and the manifestation of the miraculous, Jansenism has been consigned to the dustbin of history to our detriment. We now have an overly politicized, overly “modernistic” religion where the past has nothing that the present could not more clearly teach us. What is true overall is that Jansenism was both a modern and an ancient movement riddled with contradictions. Like other Catholic schools, it tried to address the concerns and anxieties of a nascent modernity, both defending the past and moving the Church into the present. While in some things it fell into the same traps as modern Catholicism, in others it preserved another vision of which now we can only catch fleeting glimpses.


In terms of the cosmological tendencies at work when Jansenism arose in sixteenth century Europe, I have already written that early movement emerged in a climate of rationalism and doubt:

[Blaise] Pascal seemed to have his feet in two realms at once: on the one hand, he was trying to defend the “ancient Church” from Jesuit modernism; on the other, he was very much a child of the post-Cartesian age. Pascal’s philosophical point of view was post-metaphysical, i.e. he did not buy into the proofs of the divine order from creation that can be found in Aquinas or even Descartes. Pascal’s universe was a gloomy one, where the birds and the leaves no longer sang the praises of God; where nature was no longer God’s temple, but something to be dissected and analyzed. His famous Pensees were in this sense an attempt to do apologetics in this climate of a dead and meaningless universe. It was an apologetics of fear and despair.

Indeed, Pascal’s famous thoughts were perhaps some of the first good examples of “existentialist theologizing”. Theology has to begin “from the self”, but not the self as the ancients understood it. The self in this case is the homo desertus that I have spoken of earlier. In the ancient world, man was conceived as being the microcosm within the macrocosm, he was thought of in terms of his connectedness to the universe, and not apart from it. Modern man, on the other hand, is abandoned in the universe with only his faith. In Jansenism, this could flow harmoniously from the doctrine of the complete depravity of man and cosmos; it was also at the heart of their rejection of scholastic theology and Jesuit casuistics. Such ideas have triumphed in contemporary Catholic thinking as well, from the neo-conservative Catholic personalism to the more off-the-wall theories of the liberal modernists. The person is conceived of completely in terms of political and legal relationships, in terms of rights and privileges within the context of modern representative democracy. The idea of the human body as “sacred” is thus a legal category in our day and age; before it meant that the human person was the locus of power in itself, that the soul is the very substance that moves the spheres in the heavens and binds all things. In this sense, Jansenism’s ideas won the day, perhaps only because in this respect, they posted quite faithfully the “signs of the times”.


This type of thinking probably contributed at least indirectly to the little known triumph of Jansenist liturgical ideas first codified in the Synod of Pistoia. Dr. Gregory Hull wrote a fascinating essay on these devotional parallels in an essay called The Proto-history of Roman Liturgical Reform. As he points out:

What shape, exactly, did the Jansenist liturgical reform take? Inspired as it was by rationalism, the prevailing tendency of the age, this movement subjected the traditional liturgical texts to the most relentless criticism. As the work of revision progressed, no element thought to be post-Patristic was suffered to survive, so that propers, prayers and hymns composed in the Middle Ages were all replaced by texts from the Bible, especially those thought to favour Jansenist interpretations of dogma. While not giving formal adherence to the Lutheran doctrine of the priesthood of all baptized believers, the reformers tended to reduce the role of the ordained priest to that of president of the Christian assembly. Consequently they attacked private masses at which members of the laity were not present, discouraged votive Masses and anniversary requiems, and took a subjectivist view of the Real Presence in contending that one did not truly receive Christ in Holy Communion administered outside Mass. Attacking the extra-eucharistic cult of the Blessed Sacrament, Joseph II saw fit to ban the use of the monstrance and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament; while in Tuscany Grand Duke Leopold forbade the laity to hear Mass in monastic churches so as to stress the essentially communitarian nature of the Eucharist.

In France this new approach to the Mass as a communal sacrifice of the Christian people was further emphasized by such reforms as placing a white cloth, cross and lights on the altar only when Mass was to be celebrated. Sanctuaries were not to be encumbered with vases of flowers. Each church was to have only one altar; side-altars were demolished. Instead of reciting the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei by himself in a low voice while the choir sang, the priest now sang along with the people. The role of the people in the offering was highlighted by the revival of such supposedly meaningful acts as the obsolescent offertory procession and the placing on the altar of seasonal fruits and vegetables for blessing at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, as in the early Roman rite. Instead of the traditional ‘veiling’ of the mystery and the deliberate cultivation of a numinous atmosphere, the new rites were to be distinguished by a clarity and openness which required the abolition of all silent prayers: the Canon was now to be recited aloud, the congregation responding with an Amen to each of is prayers. Laymen were allowed to read the epistle in the vernacular in some places; in one Jansenist parish a woman read the gospel of the day in French before Vespers.

As the reader well knows, I no longer concern myself with such liturgical questions, but I cite these things only to point out the emergence of what Pope Pius XII called “archeologism” in Catholic liturgy and piety. As in the modern church, the Jansenists sought to carry out these “reforms” in order to return to the pristine church of their beloved St. Augustine. This was behind the advocacy of infrequent communion, for example; the early Church had strict disciplines of penance that included abstinence from the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar which the Jansenists sought to re-implement. The only difference between the Jansenists and modern day scholars is that the former took the praxis (or at least what they understood of the praxis) of the early Church seriously, while the latter only use parts of the discipline of the early Church to demolish contemporary practices that they do not like

Thus, while the Jansenists used the rigors of past as a battering ram against the decadence of the present, their modern day successors use their distorted scholarship of the past to uphold the most banal prejudices of liberal society. Holy Communion passes to being a communal rite the effects of which work ex opere operato, holiness is determined by the average mean of virtue of the “People of God”, religion is dissected to remove the “essential” from the “accidental”, and so forth. Both are projects of dramatic change, using the same principles, with similar if inverted results. The Jansenists wanted to preserve the sanctity of the supernatural, while moderns (liberal, conservative, or traditionalist), knowingly or unknowingly, demolished it.

Of this relationship between the past and the present Church, the ancient and the modern, we shall speak of in the next post, for it is perhaps the battle in which Jansenism was most gravely defeated.

(to be continued…)



6 responses

14 10 2011

Greetings sir,

I enjoyed this articles and it’s installments, and I must tell you that at least in this particular Catholic’s soul, I am an unabashed ‘Jansenist’. We are not all gone, almost, but not completely.

9 12 2009

Hi there,

I am doing some research for a television show and we want to find the source of the drawing of Blaise Pascal that is on your blog. Do you know the source of the picture? I would be very grateful if you had any information on it at all.

All best,


6 08 2009

Ahh, the Synod of Pistoia…

6 08 2009

Good piece. Anyone who has read about the Jansenist crisis realizes that things were not that clear cut. On one side you have the error Jansenism, but on the other you have the error of Casuistry. It seems as though a lot of those who are uneducated about this crisis believe that the Casuists won out, but that would be incorrect since the Church condemned them several times as well. Theology in later 17th and early-mid 18th Century seems to have been in complete turmoil perhaps due to the rise of the “enlightenment.”

5 08 2009
Agostino Taumaturgo

Fascinating. If there’s anything I’d never considered in my (admittedly limited) study of Jansenism, it’s that the Jansenists strove to preserve the sanctity of the supernatural; it feels like a missing piece of the puzzle.

Excellent as always. I can’t wait for the next installment!

4 08 2009
Death Bredon

All we are saying is give Predestination to Perdition a chance!

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