Just as the Reformation swung to Calvinist extremes that eventually were disconnected from the relatively moderate and sensible protest of an Augustinian friar, the Catholic revival experienced in the 17th century a similar swing that also found fertile ground in the Low Countries, Jansenism. This theological movement, condemned as heresy early on, lived on among the French and Irish clergy as an underground Catholic Puritanism influential in the teaching of morals well into the 20th century.
The school of thought traces its origins to Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), Bishop of Ypres, known also as Cornelius Jansenius. However, the originator never intended to start a school of thought, much less a theological movement, especially not against papal censure.
Jansen was a poor rural Catholic boy born in Acquoy, Holland (today Gelderland, Netherlands), whose defining intellectual experience was studying at the University of Leuven in 1602-04. At that time the university was embroiled in a fierce academic conflict between Jesuits and their scholastic party and the followers of Michael Baius, who pitted against Aquinas and his contemporaries the ancient father St. Augustine of Hippo.
Cornelius became strongly attached to the party that became known as “Augustinian” (they did not belong to any of the Augustinian orders). At that time he developed a close and long-lasting friendship with fellow student Jean Duvergier, later abbot at Saint-Cyran-en-Brenne (today Saint-Michel-en-Brenne). In his lifetime, Jansen wrote a number of small works, including a tirade against the Spanish influence in the Low Countries, which accounts for his continuing celebrity in that part of the world, and was an otherwise unexceptional cleric who was eventually ordained bishop.
Significantly, however, he penned a voluminous work in Latin, Augustinus seu doctrina Sancti Augustini de humanae naturae sanitate, aegritudine, medicina adversus Pelagianos et Massilianses (The doctrine of St. Augustine on human natural health, trials and medicine against the Pelagians and Massilians), better known by the short title Augustinus. Jansen commended the volume to his chaplain asking that it be published as faithfully as possible, specifying that “If, however, the Holy See wishes any change, I am an obedient son, and I submit to that Church in which I have lived to my dying hour. This is my last wish.”
The massive, largely opaque and highly specialized theological work on Augustine’s view of the heresy of Pelagianism, and related ideas about original sin and divine grace, was published in 1640. It also covered an offshoot of that heresy, Semipelagianism, and denounced an unnamed “modern tendency” that scholars have identified as Molinism. Before going into the controversy of Jansenism, let’s first clarify these terms.
Pelagianism was the teaching of Pelagius (354-440?), an Irish or Scottish monk, who taught that the human will, as created by God, could guide people to a sinless life. This teaching came to be understood, whether Pelagius actually intended it or not, as meaning that people can effectively earn their own salvation. The doctrine was much debated by several synods and eventually condemned in the fifth century by two popes.
Semipelagianism (also known as Massilianism, a reference to the Latin name for Marseilles) was an attempt by monks in the vicinity of Marseilles around 428 to find a compromise with the teachings of Pelagius, whom even Augustine called “a saintly man.” Semipelagians make a distinction between the beginning of faith and its growth. They argue that the choice to adopt faith is an act of human free will, with divine grace intervening in response, but development in faith is the work of God. This teaching was condemned as heresy at the local Council of Orange in 529, a position maintained ever since.
Complicating the palette of ideas in Jansen’s work, however, between 1590 and 1600 the term “semipelagianism” was applied to the teachings of Jesuit Luis de Molina (1535-1600) concerning the doctrine of grace. Molina was a staunch Renaissance defender of human liberty in his attempt to reconcile some of Augustine’s ideas with free will, appealing to God’s foreknowledge of how human beings will use it. A controversy raged in Rome around these ideas until 1611, when Paul V simply prohibited all further discussion of the question. In this way, Molinism was subsumed into the Jansenist controversy, to which we now return.
Augustinus was widely read in theological circles in France and the Low Countries, then throughout Europe, igniting a controversy that also became political. Jansen’s university friend Duvergier publicly preached Jansenism before the book was even printed, and it spawned enormously heated debate among Catholics.
Debated was whether only divine grace could tip a person toward perfect contrition (sorrow for sins for love of God alone) and salvation or if grace could make up for imperfect contrition (sorrow for fear of punishment). It was an issue related to the sacrament today known as Reconciliation (Penance or Confession) and all penitence involving remorse, which the Council of Trent had not addressed.
In May 1638, Duvergier was imprisoned by order of the gray eminence behind the throne of France, Cardinal Richelieu, and was not released until after Richelieu’s death in 1642.
Jansen’s mainly Jesuit opponents condemned his teachings for alleged similarities to Calvinism. Blaise Pascal attempted to mediate, arguing that both were partially right: Molinists were correct about the state of humanity before the Fall, while Calvinists were right about the state of humanity after the Fall.
In 1642, the Holy Office of the Inquisition condemned Augustinus and forbade its reading; Pope Urban VIII followed up with a papal bull titled In eminenti, which also condemned it. What led to Jansenism being declared a heresy is the assertion that God’s role in the infusion of grace cannot be resisted and does not require human assent. The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “God’s free initiative demands man’s free response,” meaning that people may assent to or refuse God’s grace.
Jansenism went underground and resurfaced in myriad ways. The apostolic constitution Unigenitus Dei Filius by Pope Clement XI in 1713 officially ended tolerance for Jansenist doctrine, but it kept resurfacing among overly pious groups. Some odd spiritual practices included the Jansenist idea that Holy Communion should be received very infrequently because it required much more than being free from mortal, or very grave, sin. This idea was condemned by Pope Pius X in the early 20th century; the pope endorsed frequent communion so long as the communicant was free of mortal sin.