Every now and then a friend or colleague asks me some variant of the question: “So, what was Jansenism?” Lately, I have been intrigued by the number of theologically-informed friends who ask me about Jansenism. This is normally the result of having seen “Jansenist” or “neo-Jansenist” used as a contemporary insult. They have either read this in an article, or, increasingly often, on a Reddit thread, or in some other dark corner of Catholic social media.
I have struggled to formulate a one-minute elevator version of an answer to the question “What is Jansenism?” One reason for the struggle is awareness that many people, sometimes even professional theologians, still have tremendous misconceptions about Jansenism, shaped by centuries of polemic. Here are some of the most common: Jansenism infected the Irish Church, and then the American in turn; Jansenists hated the Sacred Heart devotion because it taught the love of Jesus; Jansenists were “Catholic Calvinists” who believed in a “heresy” (!) called “predestination;” Jansenism was rampant on the eve of Vatican II and manifested itself in a morbid preoccupation with Hell, sexual purity, moral rigor, and clerical authority; and so on.
Another reason I struggle to answer their simple question is that I am skeptical that a good, brief response is even possible. The question “What is Jansenism?” helped spark an avalanche of polemical books and pamphlets in early modernity. So, when the question is raised I quickly become more interested in learning where the person asking heard the term and what the context was.
As annoying and inaccurate as contemporary accusations of Jansenism are, it is fascinating to see who evokes Jansenism in the present day and why. What follows will show some of the reasons that Catholics who call their ecclesial opponents “Jansenists” or “neo-Jansenists” should stop doing so, because there are no modern Jansenists (with the possible exception of that one guy with a Jansenist YouTube channel).
Contra some widely read contemporary polemicists, neither Cardinal Burke, nor Cardinal Kasper, nor their respective fandoms are Jansenists or neo-Jansenists. Nevertheless, while the term Jansenist is a tired old Catholic slur, long overdue for retirement, the historic Jansenist crisis can still teach us a tremendous amount about reform, dissent, and ecclesial politics in the Catholic tradition. These lessons redound to the present, and I explore some of them in my forthcoming book on the Jansenist forerunners of Vatican II.
The term “Jansenist” was coined by the enemies of a group of Augustinian Catholics in France and the Low Countries in the 1640’s. These deeply Augustinian Catholics—perhaps they should be called “extreme-” or “hyper-Augustinians”—were attached to the theology of the Louvain professor and bishop of Ypres, Cornelius Jansen (1585–1638). This theology was presented in his posthumously published Augustinus (1640). This massive three-volume tome, an attack on Pelagianism, and an interpretation of St. Augustine’s theology of grace, was also a clear assault on the “Molinism” popularized by Jesuits. Molinists argued that God predestined for salvation those whose faith and good works were foreknown by him. Otherwise, Molinists argued, predestination was simply determinism and God was arbitrary.
The Augustinians who came to be known as Jansenists thought that this new system was basically semi-Pelagian. It made humans the authors of their own salvation and sacrificed the total gratuity of grace. Predestination, Jansenists argued, could not be due to foreseen faith or good works. In this crucial point, at least, they were in agreement with the classic Thomist position. Even Catholics are often surprised to hear this, especially since there is widespread misunderstanding regarding Catholic teaching on predestination. I have even heard professional Catholic theologians refer to predestination as a “heresy.” That would be news to Augustine, Aquinas, and the Trent Council Fathers (not to mention St. Paul).
The epicenter of Jansenism was the convent of Port-Royal des Champs (outside Paris), a formally lax establishment, which had been overhauled by the formidable abbess Angélique Arnauld (1591–1661). Mére Angélique was serious about reform, because she had imbibed the rigorist Christocentric renewal currents coming from the circles of Pierre de Bérulle (1575–1629), and two men she knew personally: François de Sales (1567–1622) and the Abbé Saint-Cyran (1581–1643). The latter, a very close friend of Jansen, eventually became the spiritual godfather of the nuns of Port-Royal.
It was the convergence of these two powerful personalities, Saint-Cyran and Angélique Arnauld, which generated a “Jansenist” movement discernible from other groups of devout rigorists and Augustinians. Three of the most important converts to the early Jansenist cause were the scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623–62), the tragedian Jean Racine (1639–99), and Antoine Arnauld (1612–94), a brilliant theologian and Mére Angélique’s little brother.
Closely connected with the Jansenist desire to defend the “truth” about grace and predestination in the face of Jesuit “novelty” was their concern for protecting the Eucharist from profanation. It was this debate that gained a great deal of popular attention and thrust Pascal into the spotlight. The pastoral (or lax) opinion championed by many Jesuits was that attrition was sufficient for absolution in the confessional—that is, one needed only to seek forgiveness because one feared divine wrath.
The rigorist position, which Jansenists argued was the practice of the Early Church and sufficiently clear in patristic sources, was that only contrition—that is, love of God and sorrow for having offended him—sufficed for absolution. This debate sparked Pascal’s famous Provincial Letters, which ridiculed the lengths to which Jesuitical “casuistry” would go to lessen the weight of sin or excuse it entirely. Pascal’s brilliantly entertaining satirical letters might have been unfair to the many good and devoted Jesuit pastors, but they certainly described some real problems in French society.
Nevertheless, it was the debate over abstract doctrines concerning divine grace that stirred St. Peter’s keys—although papal intervention came at the request of the Sorbonne and the French crown. In the bull Cum occasione (1653), Pope Innocent X censured five propositions allegedly taken from Jansen’s Augustinus, condemning four of them as heretical. These five propositions, then, are the doctrinal substance of a heresy called “Jansenism,” right? Well, not really.
The problem here is that, under the leadership of Antoine Arnauld, virtually all “Jansenists” submitted to Cum occasione, accepting that the pope did indeed have the right (droit) to condemn false doctrine. Many argued, however, that the propositions were not in fact (fait) in Jansen’s book, or that both a heretical (Calvinist) and an orthodox (Augustinian) understanding of the propositions was possible. This, of course, greatly annoyed Rome and the Jansenist’s many opponents in the French church and government.
The next pope, Alexander VII, condemned Arnauld’s distinction between droit and fait in the bull Ad sanctam (1656). In effect, Rome was declaring that the pope’s doctrinal teaching authority (many would say his infallibility) extended to matters of “fact”—whether a book had certain ideas in it, and even what “sense” a deceased author had intended! Pope Alexander VII then published a “Formulary” of submission to Ad sanctam, to be signed by any ecclesiastic seeking a benefice (salaried church office) in France.
The twists and turns of this complex story (equal parts fascinating and tedious) cannot be recounted in full here. For readers of French, there is more ink spilled on Jansenism than could be read in a lifetime. For non-specialists, however, there are a number of good overviews in English. Suffice it to say that Jansenism survived these swings of Peter’s keys, and even enjoyed a period of relative peace when the distinction between droit and fait was tacitly tolerated: the so-called “Clementine Peace.”
However, the extremists in both camps could not resist resuming open hostilities and the first decade of the 18th century saw a spike in polemics. This gave King Louis XIV an excuse to act decisively. The divine-right monarch had never liked Jansenists. They stank of a stubborn individualism, a spirit of inquiry, and a questioning of his absolutism. It was especially irksome that a group of women (the indomitable nuns of Port-Royal) continued to defy not only successive archbishops in Paris and popes in Rome, but even the Sun King in Versailles.
Louis XIV had had enough of this, and he finally demolished Port-Royal (literally) in 1711, and scattered the surviving sisters into different houses. However one judges their beliefs, the nuns of Port-Royal are undoubtedly among the most remarkable women in the history of the Church. They may have been, to quote Archbishop de Péréfixe (1606–71), who was infuriated by their unwillingness to submit to him, “as pure as angels, but as proud as devils.” Nevertheless, the women of Port-Royal were exemplars of female Catholic bravery and scholarship; these learned and devout women tenaciously asserted their right to read scripture and the Church Fathers and participate in theological debates.
Sensing final victory, King Louis XIV petitioned the pope to definitively crush the Jansenist movement. Clement XI delivered, in the form of the infamous bull Unigenitus (1713), which condemned 101 propositions taken word-for-word from a popular commentary on the New Testament by a former Oratorian named Pasquier Quesnel (1634–1719), who was then living in exile in Utrecht.
Whatever one thinks of the theology of Unigenitus, it cannot be denied that the bull, rather than extinguishing the flame of controversy, poured kerosene all over it. The resulting bonfire caused decades of internecine strife in the French Church, strife which the French eventually exported to much of Catholic Europe. While Unigenitus’ condemnations regarding divine grace disturbed many theological Augustinians (“Jansenist” or otherwise), it was the perceived ecclesiological implications of Clement’s bull that really polarized European Catholicism in the 18th century. The promulgation of Unigenitus and its fraught reception was perhaps the most significant ecclesiastical event in the life of the Catholic Church between the Council of Trent (1545–63) and the French Revolution’s Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790).
As Jacques Gres-Gayer has shown, opposition to Unigenitus united Jansenists with many Gallicans. Jansenists picked this Augustinian hill to die on by openly rejecting the pope’s teaching, while sympathetic Gallicans were more concerned with creeping ultramontanism and undue papal interference in local churches. “Instead of resolving in one single stroke a double opposition, one ecclesiological [Gallicanism], the other methodological [Jansenism], Clement by associating them [in Unigenitus] had provoked a ‘crystallization’ that hindered any sensible resolution.”
Unigenitus had, rather clumsily, put its finger on “the major dilemma of post-Tridentine Catholicism, the struggle between two conceptions of Western Catholicism.” Polarization over Unigenitus severely weakened the Catholic Church when it should have been united to deal with the challenges of advanced unbelief, mounting pastoral problems, and, ultimately, revolution. The grave consequences of decades of bickering were most acutely felt, of course, in France.
So, then, do we finally have clarity: is opposing the teaching of Unigenitus what makes one a Jansenist? Again, not necessarily. While all Jansenists took issue with Unigenitus, plenty of other Catholics did too. Others ignored it, comforted by repeated papal assurances that the bull did not condemn Augustinianism. And, further complicating matters, interpreting Unigenitus is more of a mess than Cum occasione. Let me explain.
The pope and his advisors selected 101 propositions from Quesnel’s commentary on the New Testament to condemn. They excerpted them word-for-word in order to forestall the kind of obfuscation that followed the condemnation of Jansen’s book (they wanted to make it impossible to argue that “Quesnel did not really say that”). But specific censures were not attached to each proposition individually, as they were in Cum occasione. Rather, the pope decided to condemn them in globo; that is, as a group. The censures are included all at once at the end of the bull, but not attached to specific propositions. After listing the 101 targeted propositions of Quesnel, Unigenitus concluded they were:
Declared and condemned as false, captious, evil-sounding, offensive to pious ears, scandalous, pernicious, rash, injurious to the Church and her practice, insulting not only to the Church but also the secular powers seditious, impious, blasphemous, suspected of heresy, and smacking of heresy itself, and, besides, favoring heretics and heresies, and also schisms, erroneous, close to heresy, many times condemned, and finally heretical, clearly renewing many heresies respectively and most especially those which are contained in the infamous propositions of Jansen, and indeed accepted in that sense in which these have been condemned.
Which propositions, then, were heretical? Is calling an idea “offensive to pious ears” really a doctrinal judgment? I am sure I am not the only one who can think of many things that are offensive to pious ears but true. Is “rash” not a contingent, disciplinary judgement? Questions of this sort, as one would expect, added to the confusion. For example, the great Dominican scholar Jacques-Hyacinthe Serry (1659–1738), who was not a Jansenist but had a ressourcement perspective, believed a serious injustice had been done to Quesnel, since much of what he wrote could be understood in an orthodox manner. In his view, only one of the 101 propositions deserved blunt and plain condemnation.
The condemnations in Unigenitus reflected the manner in which Jansenism had developed from a movement originally concerned with issues of grace and penance into a wholesale vision for Church reform. In addition to alarming many Gallicans and other conciliarists with its ecclesiological implications, Unigenitus can be plausibly read to have a negative, paternalistic (even sexist) view of lay, vernacular Bible reading and of liturgical participation. It would surprise many Catholics today to learn that the following eight “Jansenist” propositions were condemned by the pope (the parenthetical Bible verses refer to the passages on which Quesnel was commenting when he wrote the following):
- (Unigenitus article 79.) It is useful and necessary at all times, in all places, and for every kind of person, to study and to know the spirit, the piety, and the mysteries of Sacred Scripture [1 Cor. 14:5].
- (80.) The reading of Sacred Scripture is for all [Acts 8:28].
- (81.) The sacred obscurity of the Word of God is no reason for the laity to dispense themselves from reading it [Acts 8:31].
- (82.) The Lord’s Day ought to be sanctified by Christians with readings of pious works and above all of the Holy Scriptures. It is harmful for a Christian to wish to withdraw from this reading [Acts 15:21].
- (83.) It is an illusion to persuade oneself that knowledge of the mysteries of religion should not be communicated to women by the reading of Sacred Scriptures. Not from the simplicity of women, but from the proud knowledge of men has arisen the abuse of the Scriptures and have heresies been born [John 4:26].
- (84.) To snatch away from the hands of Christians the New Testament, or to hold it closed against them by taking away from them the means of understanding it, is to close for them the mouth of Christ [Matt. 5:2].
- (85.) To forbid Christians to read Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels, is to forbid the use of light to the sons of light, and to cause them to suffer a kind of excommunication [Luke 11:33].
- (86.) To snatch from the simple people this consolation of joining their voice to the voice of the whole Church is a custom contrary to the apostolic practice and to the intention of God [1 Cor 14:16].
Such propositions, far from sounding heretical today, read as if they could come from Vatican II’s Dei verbum (which repeats St. Jerome’s thoroughly “Jansenist” claim that “ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ”), or one of the many postconciliar magisterial documents urging the laity to acquaint themselves with scripture through personal reading and study. Examples such as this should make us question using “Jansenist” as a synonym for “heretical.” Such indiscriminate use obscures more than it illuminates.
The use of the term “Jansenist” to muddy the waters and smear an opponent has a long pedigree. Holding a variety of positions in early modernity could (and often did) draw accusations of Jansenism. Many of these positions—ranging from the ecclesiological to the liturgical and devotional—would today be seen as entirely orthodox. For example, it was Jansenists, not their “orthodox” opponents, who prophetically defended the spiritual equality (at least of a kind) of women and their consequent right to read scripture in clever missives such as the pseudonymous Lettre d’un dame de Paris au pape sur la Constitution (Letter of a French woman to the pope on the Constitution [Unigenitus]). Even in the 19th century, when parts of the Catholic world still looked askance at vernacular Bible reading. A thoroughly orthodox bishop, Félix Torres Amat (1772–1849), was accused of Jansenism for translating the entire Bible into Spanish.
So, we ask again, what was Jansenism? If we must answer that question, we can best do so by way of a famous anecdote relayed by Pasquier Quesnel. Quesnel tells us that Cardinal Aguirre (a Benedictine) got in a heated debate with the General of the Jesuits in 1688. Aguirre was irritated that his Jesuit opponent was so freely using the term “Jansenist” as a slur, so the Cardinal sought to distinguish between three types of Jansenists. First, Aguirre said, there were those genuine, full-blown Jansenists who clung to the five condemned propositions from Jansen’s book Augustinus. There were very, very few of these people. Second, there are moral rigorists, and these are many. Third, there are those who oppose the Jesuits, and these are infinite! It is a quip which must have infuriated the Jesuit, but it illustrates the elasticity which the term always had.
My very cursory and selective historical sketch will have to stop there. I have given another brief account here and I also highly recommend this sketch by Elissa Cutter, which cautions against the rampant contemporary misuse of the term. “If it is so difficult to define Jansenism even in its own period,” Cutter asks, “how are we to identify it now?” How indeed. Nevertheless it is a conversation that we must have, because, taking an unhappy cue from early modern ultramontane polemicists, the memory of Jansenism still functions as a bizarrely resilient term of abuse in Catholic discourse.
When Jansenism is evoked today, it is almost always done without concern for the complex history of the movement or its actual theological positions. Gemma Simmonds, in an excellent essay on Jansenism and ressourcement, relates that:
[Jansenism] is generally blamed for all that is considered rigid and obscurantist in Catholicism . . . Like the word “Puritan,” “Jansenist” has become detached from its historical moorings to serve as a catch-all phrase for rigidity, sanctimoniousness, and oppressive religious austerity, used . . . to describe the “foul legend” of a certain type of French or Irish Catholicism, brutally pessimistic in its concentration on sin and allegedly responsible for everything from endemic sexual repression to mental illness.
Modern allegations of “Jansenism” or “neo-Jansenism”—which are increasing, on both sides of the Amoris laetitia debate—are uniformly inaccurate, and rest on a pedigree of myths. Among the most pervasive of these myths is that Irish Catholicism was infected with Jansenism, and then imported into America. Another myth is that all Catholic rigorism and sexual conservatism (even an emphasis on hell) had their roots in “Jansenism,” and that this “Jansenism” was widespread before Vatican II liberated us from the morose legacy of Pascal, Arnauld, and Port-Royal.
Setting the record straight on these matters is important not just because historical accuracy is in itself a good. It is important because if one wants to criticize Cardinal Kasper or Cardinal Burke, they should criticize them for their actual positions rather than through a lazy smear word which muddies the waters of debate. Finally, it is important for Catholics to speak truthfully about history because if we cannot or will not tell the truth about our own past we can never grow up.
 F. Ellen Weaver, The Evolution of the Reform of Port Royal: From the Rule of Cîteaux to Jansenism (Paris: Beauchesne, 1978); Louis Cognet, La Réforme de Port Royal (Paris: Sulliver, 1950).
 Cum occasione is in Denzinger-Hünermann 2001–7.
 See the bull Ad sanctam beati Petri sedem (1656) in Denzinger-Hünermann 2010–12; Regiminis apostolici (1665) in ibid., 2020. In Ad sanctam, Alexander VII decreed that the five propositions were taken from Jansen’s book and condemned “in the sense intended” by the author (in sensu ab eodem Cornelio Iansenio intento).
 Nigel Abercrombie, The Origins of Jansenism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1936); Brian E. Strayer, Suffering Saints: Jansenists and Convulsionnaires in France, 1640–1799 (Portland: Sussex Academic, 2008); William Doyle, Jansenism: Catholic Resistance to Authority from the Reformation to the French Revolution (New York: St. Martin’s, 2000); Leszek Kolawkowski, God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal’s Religion and the Spirit of Jansenism (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995); J. D. Crichton, Saints or Sinners? Jansenism and Jansenisers in Seventeeth Century France (Dublin: Veritas, 1996). In 1996, Crichton estimated that there were over 100,000 published works on Jansenism (278).
 Among many excellent studies see Daniella Kostroun, Feminism, Absolutism, and Jansenism: Louis XIV and the Port-Royal Nuns (Cambridge: CUP, 2011); John J. Conley, SJ, The Other Pascals: The Philosophy of Jacqueline Pascal, Gilberte Pascal Périer, and Marguerite Périer (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame, 2019).
 The new study of Dale Van Kley is one of the best treatments of these dynamics in any language: Reform Catholicism and the International Suppression of the Jesuits in Enlightenment Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).
 Jacques M. Gres-Gayer, “The Unigenitus of Clement XI: A Fresh Look at the Issues,” Theological Studies 49 (1988): 259–82, at 272–73. However, many Gallicans continued to reject both Jansenism and ultramontanism.
 Gres-Gayer, “The Unigenitus of Clement XI,” 282.
 Dale Van Kley, The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560–1791 (New Haven: Yale, 1996).
 Émile Appolis, Le tiers parti catholique au XXVIIIe siècle: Entre jansénistes et zelanti (Paris: Picard, 1960), 103.
 For example, Benedict XVI wrote, in 2010, of those Catholics “deprived” of the word of God through a lack of translations in their vernacular tongues. “During the Synod, it was clear that a number of local Churches still lack a complete translation of the Bible in their own languages. How many people today hunger and thirst for the word of God, yet remain deprived of the ‘widely available access to Sacred Scripture’ [Dei verbum 22] desired by the Second Vatican Council!” See Benedict XVI’s Post-Synodal Exhortation Verbum Domini, §115.
 See W.R. Ward, “Late Jansenism and the Hapsburgs,” in Religion and Politics in Enlightenment Europe, edited by James E. Bradley and Dale van Kley, (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame, 2001), 154–86, at 154.
 See Gemma Simmonds, “Jansenism: An Early Ressourcement Movement,” in Gabriel Flynn and Paul D. Murray, eds., Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology (Oxford: OUP, 2012), 23–36, at 23.