The hollow victory over Jansenism – part III

10 08 2009


Some notes on historical theology

Epistemological pessimism and the menace of the miraculous

In the last two posts on this subject, I have addressed the Jansenists’ losses and victories in the metaphysical, liturgical, and theological realms. In this post, I will explain how the suppression of the miraculous tendencies of late Jansenism served as a watershed moment of the Church in Western world. Plainly situated in the Enlightenment and before the traumatic events of 1789 that opened the secular, revolutionary epoch, the suppression of the miraculous manifestations sealed the modern Church’s attitudes regarding the relationship between the miraculous and authority. Afterwards, being Catholic would be increasingly defined as the political relationship of the citoyen to the Peuple de Dieu. In these latter times, however, the menace of the miraculous is making a comeback, set in some places to overthrow dogma and tradition in the name of an amorphous “religion of the Spirit” sweeping many parts of the “developing world”.

Since most people have only heard of Jansenism through the caricatures of its opponents, a very brief survey of the background of late Jansenism is in order. In 1713, the papal constitution, Unigenitus, was published condemning many positions of the Jansenists. The whole episode could be considered a power play by the Pope to get a tighter grip over the Gallican Church (indeed, many of the propositions condemned in this bull were found in Augustine and Scripture itself), and what arose out of this condemnation was a movement of Appellants who appealed to a future council to settle this theological dispute once and for all. Those who accepted the Bull, however, gradually got the upper hand, and such dissenters were increasingly considered outcasts in more and more ecclesial circles.

One such outcast was a young cleric named François de Paris, who was noted for his piety and zeal for the Jansenist cause. He refused ordination to the priesthood since he would not accept the Papal bull, and went to live as a deacon amongst Paris’ poorest of the poor. He worked with his hands and gave many of the fruits of his labor to those in need. Even in life, he was a man of great renown in the city. But in death, he would become a phenomenon that would shake the foundations of religion in Enlightenment Europe.

The convulsionaries of St. Médard now serve as a curious footnote in the history of early modern times, but that footnote had its origins in the death of this humble deacon. For upon his death in 1727, the young cleric became a “folk saint” amongst the crowds of poor in urban Paris. The typical miracles began to be worked common to the tales of Catholic hagiography: miraculous, instant cures being the most significant. But such displays of the miraculous were far from all that occured in this religious phenomenon. The fame of the Jansenist miracles came about due to the nature of how they emerged: through convulsions, spasms, and acts of superhuman strength. As Ronald Knox put it in the unsympathetic account in his book, Enthusiasm, after the faithful would come in contact with the tomb of the Jansenist deacon:

You saw in the cemetery, ‘men falling like epileptics, others swallowing pebbles, glass, and even live coals, women walking feet in air…You heard nothing but groaning, singing, shrieking, whistling, declaiming, prophesying, caterwauling’…On the tomb itself you saw the Abbe Becheraud, hopping incessantly on one leg, and proclaiming his other leg, which was 14 inches shorter, was growing…every three months…A Jansenist pamphlet…seems to suggest at first that all was done in a dumb show…The author of the same pamphlet declares that he has heard more than a hundred times a convulsionary talking in an unknown language, and understanding any language that was spoken to her…


Such actions in the contemporary Catholic consciousness would be more appropriate in a Haitian hougan’s possession ceremony than on consecrated ground. The ironic part is that the Jansenist movement itself started out with a very pronounced mistrust of the miraculous, but quickly evolved to take the opposite position. Many Jansenists saw the convulsionaries as icons of the Church in its agony, and those who convulsed were the image of the Church trying to bring itself out of the mire with pain and toil. Though some might interpret the entire event as mass hysteria, even such Enlightenment arch-skeptics as Hume and Diderot attested to the extraordinary events in a Paris cemetery. As Diderot himself wrote:

We have of these pretended miracles a vast collection, which may brave the most determined incredulity. Its author, Carre de Montgeron, is a magistrate, a man of gravity, who up to that time had been a professed materialist,–on insufficient grounds, it is true, but yet a man who certainly had no expectation of making his fortune by becoming a Jansenist. An eye-witness of the facts be relates, and of which he had an opportunity of judging dispassionately and disinterestedly, his testimony is indorsed by that of a thousand others. All relate what they have seen; and their depositions have every possible mark of authenticity; the originals being recorded and preserved in the public archives.

Even opponents of the Jansenists had to attest to the astounding feats that ordinary people were doing at the tomb of the “heretical” cleric:

Young girls, bareheaded, dashed their heads against a wall or against a marble slab” they caused their limbs to be drawn by strong men, even to the extent of dislocation; they caused blows to be given them that would kill the most robust, and in such numbers that one is terrified. I know one person who counted four thousand at a single sitting; they were given sometimes with the palm of the hand, sometimes with the fist; sometimes on the back, sometimes on the stomach. Occasionally, heavy cudgels or clubs were employed instead…. Some convulsionists ran pins into their heads, without suffering any pain; others would have thrown themselves from the windows, had they not been prevented. Others, again, carried their zeal so far as to cause themselves to be hanged up by a hook.

Many clerics were sympathetic if a bit disturbed by these phenomena, but as you may already suspect, it was the “voice of reason” that won the day. After a great many disputes about it, and with concern that permitting such spectacles would weaken the body politic, the King shuttered St. Médard cemetery. Rationalists quipped that both altar and Crown had to set God aside and tell Him that miracles were no longer permitted at that place, as some satiristic graffiti in front of its gates articulated best:

De par le roi défense à Dieu
De faire miracle en ce lieu.

For the defenders of Unigentus, it was not hard to come up with reasons why the so-called Jansenist miracles were unacceptable. In spite of the miraculous healings and because of the almost Dionysian inverted revelery of devotees, they would uphold the old principle of St. Augustine himself when it came to supernatural events that happen in opposition to Church authority: Praeter unitatem, et qui facit miracula nihil est. This then would perhaps be an open and shut case if the political and ideological stakes were not so high. But something more was at work here, a development of this traditional principle in the context of philosophical modernity. As Ephraim Radner explains in his already cited book, Spirit and Nature:

Indeed, miracles can “confirm” nothing, because their occurence does not inherently manifest their end: miracles may happen, as God desires, in order to punish, confuse, and blind as readily as they may be worked as testimony on behalf of some contiguous cause. Languet adopts a form of historical dispensationalism in order to skirt the obvious scriptural objection to such a thesis on the basis of Jesus’ own “confirming” miracles: while helpful in this role at the inception of the Gospel’s preaching, miracles are no longer “needed” for such a function once both doctrine and the Church are established. The power of discernment, in times of contest, now resides with the Church’s magisterium, infallible in its judgments as rendered by bishops “united to the Pope”. On this score, Appellancy has long been pronounced in error, and any miracle associated with it, however genuine, cannot be interpreted as a divine mark of vindication for its cause. Indeed, in light of its heretical location, Lafosse’s healing must be seen as somehow marking the wrath of God by spreading a “seductive” veil upon the minds of those given over to unrighteouness. (My emphasis)

In the minds of those who opposed the convulsionaries, the true sacrosanct miracle that had to be protected was the being and integrity of the institutional Church. Even though their attitudes towards the actual miracles themselves were often ambivalent, they would have to live with the cosmological non sequitur in order to assert that any miracle, no matter how seemingly innocuous, if it occured outside the control of the official Church, was harmful to the Faith at best, and satanic at worst. Thus, in the mind of the common Catholic, the Counter-Reformation was completed in the locking of the gates of a wayward cleric’s tomb; the only valid reading of any event is what the pastors of the Church say is permissible. As Radner summarizes:

The disappearance, here, of pneumatic claims beneath the weight of canonical prejudices of doctrine signaled the final interpretation of both sanctity and the miracle into fully institutional terms. The pneumatic shape of the Church’s life stood untouched and apart from the vicissitudes of her contextual disputes, with the result that it was divorced, not from historical existence as such, but from a history that could be seen as fully imbued with a positive divine significance.

In other words, when it comes to anything, the average layman should believe nothing of what he sees, and even less of what he hears. The only locus of divine power resides in the official halls of power of the institutional Church that could tell even the Holy Ghost where He can and cannot go. I need say little about how this would feed into the atmosphere of universal Cartesian doubt, as well as the Hobbesian ideologies of the absolute power of the State.

All of this would be old-hat if we were not living in a Church where similar phenomena seem to be peaking over the ecclesial horizon. As I have often repeated on this website, the Christianity emerging in the Third World has few of the concerns and hang-ups that formed the militant ideologies of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. As one Catholic bishop in Africa stated in an interview to the London Times two years ago now:

The danger facing the Catholic Church in Africa is that we just feed people with a few notions. Who is God? What is the Trinity? What is a sacrament? These definitions can be learnt by heart and just repeated to anybody who asks questions.

“At the last meeting I attended of the Council for Christian Unity we discussed the threat of Pentecostals in Latin America. I said that we need to celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit more: prophecy, healing, intercessionary prayer and all of that. This is one of the things the Pentecostals do.”

Indeed, even the Protestants in the developed world have a lust for the miraculous, as videos like this one amply demonstrate. In the context of universal doubt, many people are looking to the miraculous to pull them out of uncertainty. But in the Catholic Church itself, can it be asked if such phenomena, often linked with the charismatic movement, threaten the doctrinal, devotional, and institutional integrity of Catholicism? Will the Church no longer be successful in quelling the “surges of the Spirit”, and will the Faith evolve along the lines of a chaotic, ecumenical free-for-all complete with healings, exorcisms, and other fruits of a “new Pentecost”? Again, while the Jansenists used their belief in miracles to advocate a return to the praxis of the Patristic Church, modern-day Catholic miracle seekers look to them to create a new heaven and new earth beyond the “old dogmas”, complete with rock soundtrack and the laying on of hands. What emerges is the absolute victory of internal, charismatic sentiment over external tradition, which indeed best charactarized the ethos of the reign of the last Pontiff.

(to be continued)



6 responses

20 08 2020
White Chocolate

Well no. “Charismatic” Christianity is just based on emotions. Only Catholic beliefs are logically consistent

24 12 2015
The Pagans Sought the Desire of all Nations; Reflections on the Magi | Deus Ex Machina

[…] on how the Roman Catholics responded to the “heretical” Jansenist miracles, see here.) In so asserting theological truth claims, one stakes one’s claim upon the shape, direction, […]

18 10 2015
The Spiritual as a Substitue for the Supernatural; On the Vulgar Tangibility of the Supernatural | Deus Ex Machina

[…] then miracles has constantly menaced both political and, ironically, religious authorities. From the Jansenists to Medjugorje to the Pentecostals today, the supernatural in contrast to the spiritual poses a […]

11 08 2009
Agostino Taumaturgo

Although I think Death is onto something, I found something else in this article, too. What I especially like, Arturo, is that you’re givng the subject a very “big picture” treatment, and in this installment the one thing that jumps out at me is that the roots of modern-day Neo-“Conservatism” trace farther back than most people like to consider. Many consider this phenomenon a result of the crisis Vatican II, or at most in a misreading of Vatican I (I myself call it an unexpected fruit of the Devotional Revolution), while your article has hints that it can actually be traced to the locking of Deacon Francois’ tomb and the “official” Church’s attitude towards miracles in the aftermath.

Still going strong, and I’m looking forward to the next installment!

10 08 2009
Death Bredon

Just to put my last comment in perspective, as if anyone would care, I have only personally witnessed a couple of miracles (of which I was aware) in my life time. And despite having a college and skepticism-inducing profession degree (law) from the completely secular portions of our education system, I am nevertheless quite certain a witnessed the miracles. In fact, my initial response to both was bemusement, and I still harbor a “go figure” attitude towards them to this day.

Oh yes, “St. Muerta” was not involvement in either miracle! 😉

10 08 2009
Death Bredon

It’s quite humorous to me to observe how uncomfortable so many First-World Christians are with the entire concept of the supernatural, especially when you consider that their entire religion is purportedly based on faith or trust in future supernatural events! [“I believe . . . he shall come again in glory; “I believe . . . in the resurrection of the dead.] Perhaps, we are just in an era with a lot of “Thomas Christians!”

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