Loose thoughts on Jansenism etc.

29 02 2020

I hate writing about books I haven’t read yet, but an interview with Shaun Blanchard, author of The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II: Jansenism and Catholic Reform, has given me some food for thought. I haven’t studied Jansenism in depth for years. It’s one of those subjects I have written about in the past which I would like to return to, but unfortunately I simply don’t have the time. If I could reach back into memory and summarize why Jansenism has fascinated me, the reason is that I find Jansenism as  tragic on all sides of the debate. In many ways, Jansenism itself, as ambiguous as it is historically, represents for me the heroic tragic. It sought to bring back and re-embody what it saw as ideals from the Primitive Church in a decadent present. Class and the hypocrisy of the ancien regime in France also played an underappreciated role in the appeal of Jansenism as far as I can tell. People today associate permissiveness with freedom and the fight against oppression, but the reality is that a libertine and “merciful” approach to pastoral issues usually results in forgiveness of the haves and the continued suffering of the have-nots. It is for this reason that I associate a lot of anti-Jansenist sentiment with the foolish tragic: people who think that everything is mostly fine but seem to complain at every turn about the current state of things. Their criticism of Jansenism is often based on ignoring the issues that this movement sought to address. Read the rest of this entry »

The hollow victory over Jansenism- part IV

13 08 2009


Some notes on historical theology


This is of course a lot to digest and understand. From the metaphysical to the liturgical, the theological and the sociological aspects, Jansenism is a hard nut to crack. From a few reflections on grace in St. Augustine, it inflamed the national sentiment of the Gallican Church, spread into other countries, and threatened to change the very fabric of Catholicism on the European continent. While it reflected in many ways the tendencies of early modern thought, its defeat, I have argued, facilitated the growth of the “secularized” and “politicized” Catholicism that exists today, especially in the developed world. Most of the positive content of the Jansenist message (the fewness of the elect, the need for penance before absolution, the tendency of the Church to degenerate from its pristine origins) is as foreign to modern Catholicism as the doctrine of the transmigration of souls or millenarianism. But the methods of the Jansenists are alive and well, being used to carry out a program that is the mirror opposite of what they advocated.
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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”.
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The hollow victory over Jansenism – part II

6 08 2009


Some notes on historical theology

Realized Eschatology

In Monday’s post, we spoke of the ways in which the rise of Jansenism represented the signs of the times in which we now live. In its approach to metaphysics and liturgy, Jansenism was ahead of its time, and triumphed in the sense that the same principals of a dead cosmos and unenchanted praxis are dominant in contemporary Catholic thought and culture. But Jansenism did lose, and lose badly. What the rest of the Catholic world saw as beneficial in Jansenist thought was plundered and usurped into the Catholic mainstream, while that which was inimical to the ethos of emergent politicized Catholicism was chucked by the wayside like so much dross. No two ideas were considered more dangerous for the emergent Catholic authorities than Jansenist eschatology and belief in the significance of the miraculous. While these two tendencies continue to exist in pockets at the periphery of the Catholic world, they are deemed to be ideas that most “thinking Catholics” would find either “Protestant” or “superstitious”.
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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.
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Jansenism as Whipping Boy

28 05 2009


Via Fr. Chadwick’s page, I found an essay by another cleric stating that the recent child abuse scandal in the Irish church is due to the lack of a vibrant and colorful liturgy and the prevalence of Jansenism amongst the clergy. While I have indeed myself had recourse to this argument when approaching other questions, I think this priest’s use of such an accusation is unfounded. There is no reason to believe that theology had anything to do with it. If anything, what was really at fault was fundamentalist ultramontanism that is a general outgrowth of realized eschatology; not so much a theological principle, but a religious ethos. In the midst of an increasingly persecuted Church, the hierarchy was seen as being able to do no wrong. Needless to say, the institutional Church in many places took that principle and ran with it, often over the backs of the innocent.

First, however, I would like to address the idea of attacking of Jansenism as an all-powerful bête noire. Jansenists are now portrayed as moral monsters responsible for everything from taking Holy Communion away from children to ingrown toenails. While Jansenists were indeed extreme in their ideas and practices, their being painted as the ultimate villains is the result of history being written by the victors, and it was a hollow victory at that. From infrequent Communion we have gone to Holy Communion as a social right of the members of the People of God. From the strictness of the Port Royal nuns we now have an overly relaxed regime where ascetical minimalism is the name of the game. From the victory of “God’s mercy” in the disputes with the Jansenists, we have now a secular Europe and an often liberal, fuzzy deity who few take seriously, and so on. The only place where some of the Jansenists’ ideas flourished were in the realm of liturgy; some of the aspects of what is known as the Novus Ordo Missae were first proposed by the Jansenists, and condemned by the Church after the Jansenist Council of Pistoia.

Indeed, with the final defeat of the Jansenists and in the aftermath of the French Revolution came the idea that the institutional Church was a heroic, suffering institution that needed to be followed in even the most insignificant things. (This perception is alive and well in the Catholic blogosphere.) Catholics ceased to be mere believers and had to become militants. This was no doubt a product of the fiercely anticlerical regimes in the 19th century, but the other side of the coin is that many saw in these struggles that “the Church could do no wrong”, especially in the face of a hostile state. No state was more hostile than the British one in occupied Ireland. It is no wonder that in the aftermath of independence, the Church could get away with anything short of murder. In many ways, it was Jansenism, in all its misguidedness, that was the last flicker of a “loyal opposition” in Catholicism that could call the institution out on its own imperfections.

In the post cited above, there is a a romanticism unbecoming of any sort of serious discussion. It is quite pollyanish to think that such horrible stories of abuse were due to the hostile weather of the northern climes, or that it could have been prevented if people danced more or enjoyed themselves. I come from an ecclesial culture that is the polar opposite of Irish Catholicism: vibrant, emotional, colorful, and loud, and I can tell you that such horrible things still occured in this ecclesial context as well. The only difference is that in Mexico, the government disliked the Church to the point of persecution, so the Church obviously didn’t have the power to exploit people to the point of slavery and child rape. Where the Catholic sun shines, people just don’t get warmth, they can also get burnt.

(I should comment that Jansenist liturgies may have been somewhat sparse, but they were far from lacking in beauty. I once heard a recording of Jansenist chant that was quite beautiful.)

And if anything, such revelations probably prove the Jansenists to be the more correct party rather than the ones at fault. Homo homini lupus. Such horrible things are due to man’s penchant to sin, and such sin leads to selfishness and cruelty. The other side of the rhetoric against “Calvinist gloom” is that we have forgotten our own miserable state in our march of modernity. At the end of the day, I don’t defend the Jansenists, but in their defeat, we may have lost more than we gained.