The Long History of Catholic Dissent

Contemporary accusations of Jansenism rest on a pedigree of myths and are uniformly inaccurate, as I have argued elsewhere. While partisans in some current ideological debates in the Catholic Church use the term to describe their opponents, there really is no modern Jansenism. Drawing on the fruit of extensive primary-source research, Rick Yoder recently contributed an excellent introduction to the demythologization of the term. Yoder argued, in line with the best contemporary historical scholarship, for the essentially Catholic nature of Jansenism. To use the term, then, as a synonym for “rigorist” or “crypto-Calvinist” obscures more than it illuminates.

As I have demonstrated, the misuse of the term has a very long and hotly polemical history. For some Catholics, I think this misuse is at least partly linked to a triumphalistic antipathy for a caricature of Reformed Protestantism—one that is no longer appropriate in a Church formally committed to ecumenism. Other Catholics are fueled by an irrational antagonism to “pre-Vatican II” Catholicism, also based on an unfair caricature. These Catholics fling the epithet “Jansenist” at practices and ideas they fear will “turn back the clock” on the Council or otherwise prevent their view of progress in the Church.

To point out the baselessness of these modern evocations and to point to the actual complex historical and theological record is not to wish to “rehabilitate” Jansenism (whatever that would actually mean). It should go without saying that there were Jansenist ideas and practices that were wrong, bad, and even disturbing (see, if you can stomach it, a full account of the sadomasochistic activities of certain convulsionnaire groups).[1] But to preface every discussion of Jansenism with a long disclaimer about all its well-known excesses and flaws would be to beat a very dead horse. Catholics in the present day do not need to be reminded of the negatives surrounding Jansenism any more than Catholics a hundred years ago needed to be reminded of the negatives connected to Lutheranism.

All that being said, the history of Jansenism is relevant to our present moment and to our recent past. As I argued, the Jansenist crisis can teach us a tremendous amount about reform, dissent, and ecclesial politics in the Catholic tradition. Familiarity with Jansenism and its friends and foes can help us better understand the agenda and the outcomes of not only the First Vatican Council (1870), but also the of Second (1962–65).[2]

In what follows we will explore parallels between the reception of two divisive papal documents—one from the Jansenist crisis (Unigenitus) and one from recent memory (Humanae Vitae). These parallels can teach us something about the nature of Catholic dissent, papal authority, and particularly the question of infallibility. I will examine the tumultuous reception of both documents and point out parallels along the way. I conclude with six observations about the nature of authority and dissent in the Catholic Church.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing or even implying that those who question or reject Humanae Vitae are today’s Jansenist dissenters or, conversely, that the defenders of the birth control encyclical are modern Jansenists in their rigorous sexual ethics. I insist that there are no modern Jansenists, and using the term as a lazy smear today—or, even worse, as a purportedly valid theological description of one’s opponents—is inaccurate and unhelpful.

The Humanae Vitae Fallout, Unprecedented?

Immediately after the promulgation of a controversial papal teaching document, organized groups of concerned Catholic clergy, theologians, and lay people publicly protested. Their grievances included allegations that the pope had listened to a small circle of advisors rather than the voice of the whole Church, that he read the tradition incorrectly, that he was mute to contemporary cries for reform, and that he did not allow spiritually mature Catholics to exercise their rights of conscience. The above might seem to describe the fallout over Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae in 1968, which reiterated the traditional teaching that artificial birth control was intrinsically sinful. However, this description also fits the tumultuous reception of one of the most controversial papal teaching documents of the last millennium: the anti-Jansenist Bull Unigenitus.[3]

I would guess that most informed Catholics (as well as non-Catholics) would suppose the above description could only match the fraught reception of Humanae Vitae. The organized dissent from the (in-)famous “birth control encyclical” is commonly and incorrectly seen as the first such incident in Catholic history. The fallout over Humanae Vitae, while of course unique in many important ways, can be understood as unprecedented only if our memories do not extend back to the early modern era.

Promulgated in 1713, Pope Clement XI’s Bull Unigenitus condemned 101 propositions taken from a widely circulated and translated commentary on the New Testament by a French Oratorian priest named Pasquier Quesnel (1634–1719), popularly known as the Réflexions morales sur le Nouveau Testament.[4] Many Jansenists and philo-Jansenists simply could not accept Unigenitus. They saw it not only as condemning the doctrine of St. Augustine—whom they believed had correctly interpreted the Bible, particularly on issues of nature, grace, and predestination—but also as blocking the diffusion of scripture in the vernacular and the reform of liturgy and devotions.

Separated by over 250 years, there are of course very significant differences between dissent from Unigenitus and Humanae Vitae. Nevertheless, there are intriguing parallels that are instructive. Both documents caused a crisis in the Church. Both were implemented or enforced in a variety of ways at the national and local levels. Both papal documents engendered spirited debate for decades, and were neuralgic points in the academic and pastoral life of the Church. These parallels also include debates regarding the voice of the laity and particularly women in the Church. Obviously, Humanae Vitae intimately concerned women. The Catholic debate over birth control had been reopened due to the recent invention of the Pill. In the Unigenitus crisis, this discussion was in the context of the debate over female Bible reading and the participation of women in theological controversy. In addition, the legacy of the extraordinary nuns of Port-Royal des Champs (the epicenter of early Jansenism), which had been demolished by Louis XIV in 1711, could not be separated from any discussion of Jansenism.           

Humanae Vitae: A Catholic Revolution?

The well-known story of the intra-Catholic debate over Humanae Vitae and birth control has been exhaustively documented and studied.[5] A special Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birth was established to investigate the question of whether a recent invention, the contraceptive pill, should cause a revision of the traditional Catholic teaching on birth control. A majority of the papal committee believed that the official teaching, and the natural law arguments that undergirded it, should be amended in light of a new situation. The fact that the Commission’s recommendation had been leaked to the press added to a widespread expectation that the official teaching would change. Pope Paul VI, however, sided with the minority report and reaffirmed the traditional teaching in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. Every act of sexual intercourse, Pope Paul VI taught, should be open to procreation. Not only condoms, but the pill inhibited this.

The pope’s decision was, for many, a bombshell. Some Catholics heralded Pope Paul as a courageous guardian of the faith’s timeless truths, or even as a prophetic figure in the face of the Sexual Revolution. But many Catholics, clergy and lay, questioned and rejected the pope’s encyclical. Perhaps the most famous case (at least in the English-speaking world) is that of Fr. Charles Curran, a professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America.[6] Curran’s reaction to Humanae Vitae was swift and bold. The very day the encyclical was released (29 July 1968) he and nine other professors of theology at CUA drafted a six-hundred word “Statement of Dissent.” Until 3:30 that morning, Curran and his colleagues telephoned theologians they believed would be sympathetic to the statement, asking if they would affix their names to the document. Curran worked in tandem with the Washington Post, who wanted instant critical analysis of the encyclical and were happy to publish such a sensational story. 

The American Cardinal James Stafford gave voice to a common perception of these tumultuous events:

The first thing that we have to note about the whole performance is this: so far as I have been able to discern, never in the recorded history of the Church has a solemn proclamation of a Pope been received by any group of Catholic people with so much disrespect and contempt.

I hope my discussion of Unigenitus will show that the widespread adverse reception of Pope Paul’s “birth control encyclical” was not unique in Catholic history. But three further remarks are necessary on Humanae Vitae.

The first is that, despite the condemnation at Vatican I of the conciliarist idea of the formal dependence of papal teaching on some form of episcopal reception (what Gallicans called “the consent of the Church”), the interpretation of Humanae Vitae by various national bishops’ conferences was still of enormous significance. The Canadian bishops’ “Winnipeg Statement” is the clearest example of an episcopal reception that, while respectful, effectively rejected the intrinsic sinfulness of contraception. That statement argued that Catholics could “accept” Humanae Vitae while still using birth control, if their consciences discerned that doing so was the right course for them and their spouse.[7]

A second observation: priests could and did cite official episcopal reception, as well as the writings of many prominent moral theologians, most of whom were not formally disciplined by their bishops or the papacy, as at least valid alternatives to adherence to the pope’s teaching. This had obvious effects on how the issue was treated in catechesis and in the confessional. A common result, sometimes called the “settlement” or “Truce of 1968,” mirrors certain moments of the Jansenist saga. The teaching on birth control was often not rejected or impugned per se, it was simply ignored. A sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy became the status quo in many confessionals and pulpits, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. To borrow the strategic language of Jansenists and their sympathizers, many kept a silence respectueux regarding the papal condemnation of contraception. Mirroring the famous “peace of the Church” or “Clementine peace” in the late 17th century, when a tacit policy begun by Pope Clement IX relaxed enforcement of anti-Jansenist bulls, we could call the status quo in some places after 1968 “the peace of Pope Paul.”

Obviously, the issue of birth control directly concerned the lives of millions of married Catholic lay people. One need not understand or even care about technical disputes over natural law or theological notes to be confronted with at least a private and personal decision regarding this Catholic teaching. In this sense, Humanae Vitae impacted far more people than any anti-Jansenist bull. A small but fervent, and perhaps growing, core of lay people applauded the teaching. But if use of birth control by Catholics in Europe and North America is any indication, the vast majority rejected or at least ignored the pope’s teaching.

Third, the debate over Humanae Vitae was so explosive not only because it concerned such intimate parts of human life—sexuality, family planning, economic and gender concerns—but because infallibility was the issue-under-the-issues.[8] Opponents of the encyclical were correct to point out that Humanae Vitae was not in itself an exercise of the infallible extraordinary magisterium of the pope. That is, Pope Paul’s encyclical clearly did not contain an ex cathedra definition as outlined by Vatican I. However, defenders of the traditional doctrine had always argued that to change the teaching on birth control was impossible since the intrinsic sinfulness of artificial contraception was taught infallibly by the ordinary universal magisterium. That is, that the Church had always unanimously taught that birth control was sinful and thus Pope Paul had no authority to change the teaching. Humanae Vitae, these Catholics argued, while not per se infallible, was a clear papal reaffirmation of truths already taught infallibly by the ordinary magisterium.

In Hans Küng’s famous critique of infallibility he argued that Humanae Vitae had an indirectly positive effect, since it spurred many Catholics to form their consciences independent of papal pronouncements.[9] Indeed, Küng implied, if the final effect of the encyclical was the ruin of the dogma of infallibility, the catastrophe of Humanae Vitae would have been worth it.[10] Küng’s combative rhetoric climaxed in 1979, mere months before John Paul II removed his license to teach Catholic theology:

Is it not the claim to infallibility which makes the Catholic Church . . . lack credibility? Poverty and underdevelopment in the Third World—the population explosion—birth control—the encyclical Humanae Vitae—the infallibility of the traditional church teaching: all this is now so closely connected that those who shout so loudly at the outside world should shout even more loudly inside the Church.[11]

While Küng is a particularly extreme example, the convergence of all of these factors made the reception of Humanae Vitae no less than revolutionary. Mark Massa’s recent book argues that Humanae Vitae caused a Kuhnian paradigm shift in the American Catholic Church. Ignoring and dissenting from the encyclical led directly to questioning “the entire system of natural law theology that had undergirded Catholic thought since the days of Aquinas.”[12]

The Unigenitus Crisis

The uproar caused by Pope Clement XI’s condemnation of Quesnel’s commentary on the New Testament in 1713 at least rivalled the tumultuous aftermath of Humanae Vitae. Quesnel, a French exile in Utrecht, was the central figure in the international Jansenist network, called the “Elisha” of Antoine Arnauld (1612–94), the leader the first generation of these extreme Augustinians. As in the case of Curran’s circle, the opponents of Unigenitus organized dissent very quickly, or at least as quickly as one could without the assistance of the Washington Post. Quesnel, upon receiving a copy of the Bull, poured over it carefully with a handful of close friends. He wept bitterly, prayed for several hours, then began drafting letters to supporters around Europe. An international network of resistance to Unigenitus was formed, which contemporary scholarship has called “the Republic of Grace”—this network had sympathizers from Portugal to Hungary and especially resilient outposts in France, the Low Countries, Italy, and the Habsburg lands.[13]

Four French bishops—called the “Appellants” because they appealed the Bull to an ecumenical council—became symbols of resistance to Unigenitus. After these bishops read their appeal before a meeting of the theology faculty of the Sorbonne on March 5, 1717, they were joined in protest by 97 of the 110 doctors of theology present. By March 9, ten more French bishops and numerous priests had joined in the appeal. Such a move had as its basis the theory of Gallicanism that only the universal Church could teach infallibly. The Catholic faithful had a duty to resist and even correct the pope if he strayed from scripture or the teachings of the Church Fathers.

Many opponents of Unigenitus fused the episcopalism of the Appellant bishops with Richerism, a kind of radicalized Gallicanism linked to the writings of Edmond Richer (1559–1631), a controversial theologian and one-time syndic of the Sorbonne. Quesnel and others picked up Richer’s idea that parish priests, not just bishops, were “judges of the faith.” Perhaps more pertinent to our discussion, this Richerized Jansenism, sometimes inexactly called “ecclesial democracy,” emphasized that clergy had a duty to consult the laity about matters of doctrine. In this, these radicals beat Newman to the punch by over a century. In the decades after Unigenitus, many parish priests and even some lay people “now frequently considered themselves as judges of . . . doctrine.”[14] In total, about 10% of the French clergy appealed the Bull, including three-fourths of Paris’ 450 curés.[15] Persecution and other factors caused numbers to ebb and flow throughout the 18th century, but on the eve of the French Revolution, significant opposition to Unigenitus was present in France, the Netherlands, Austria, and a number of Italian and German-speaking lands.

Just as Humanae Vitae became a symbol of papal authority, and attacking it often meant attacking a certain understanding of primacy and infallibility, so did Unigenitus become a flashpoint for conflict between ultramontanists on one hand and Gallican-conciliarists on the other. In both situations, conflicts that were tense enough in their own right (sexuality, the life of grace, Bible reading) exploded since the “issue-under-the-issues” was the nature and locus of ecclesial authority and its exercise.

Denunciations of Unigenitus were at least as widespread and bitter as they were against Humanae Vitae. They reached far beyond academic and ecclesial corridors and became popularized through propaganda and through movements such as the convulsionnaires, a series of charismatic Jansenist revival movements that veered into increasingly shocking incidents of sado-masochism. Hans Küng’s alarmism over the negative effects of Humanae Vitae on the Church was far surpassed in acrimony by a Jansenist genre of books and pamphlets, influenced by mystical “Figurist” biblical interpretation, which cast the Bull as “the Abomination of Desolation” set up in the holy place. Those who accepted it were “scribes and Pharisees.” Rome had become “Babylon.” Some extremists went so far as to claim Unigenitus had “crucified the truth” and put Jesus Christ himself under anathema.[16]

Unigenitus was the most divisive issue the 18th century Catholic Church faced before the French Revolution, with the possible exception of conflict over the Jesuit Order. The suppression of that Society can be seen, in part, as Jansenist revenge for Unigenitus and the destruction of Port-Royal.[17]

Six Concluding Observations 

Both Unigenitus and Humanae Vitae galvanized, deepened, and in many cases radicalized, dissent from papal authority. There are interesting parallels in the reception of the two documents by bishops, priests, and lay people. Both documents sparked debates regarding women, the rights of the laity, and the interaction between the individual believer’s conscience and the teaching authority of the Church. I have had no time to examine many other interesting parallels, such as the fact that both documents were used as litmus tests for clerical appointments.

I will conclude with six observations; lessons from these conflicts that I think generally hold true regarding dissent in early modern and modern Catholicism.

  1. Popes do not and will not formally abrogate the doctrinal documents of their predecessors.
  2. However, pastoral and disciplinary judgments can be reversed, and elements of past doctrinal teaching can be strategically “forgotten,” or be subjected to such considerable “development” that they are effectively reversed (e.g. Unigenitus 79–86 on scripture reading and liturgy; numerous documents concerning religious liberty and the death penalty).
  3. Appeals to future ecumenical councils against the current pope will continue, despite how much reigning popes and their defenders might want them to cease. Popes have condemned such appeals at least since Pius II’s Bull Execrabilis (1460), yet a theologian as close to the papacy as Cardinal Schönborn recently suggested that only a future ecumenical council could decide the issue of women priests, despite John Paul II’s “definitive” teaching on this matter in Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994).
  4. The proclamation of infallibility in 1870 might have changed the terms of certain Catholic debates, but Vatican I also boxed in the papacy, since the bar to clear for a doctrinal statement to be “infallible” has been brought out into the open and is quite high. Despite frustrated appeals to the ordinary universal magisterium by defenders of a controversial teaching, as long as the teaching in question does not self-evidently meet the criteria of Pastor Aeternus it will be considered unsettled, at least by those most opposed to it. In this very limited sense, there is still a kind of “ecclesial democracy” operative even after Vatican I through appeals to reception, development, conscience, and the sensus fidelium.
  5. Lay people (and parish priests) have no concrete, juridical role in the formulation of doctrine, but the way they receive (or reject) papal and conciliar teaching documents has enormous importance for the future of those documents, their theological interpretation, and their pastoral implementation. We will see to what extent the current “synodal way” amends or amplifies this dynamic.
  6. Those who question or oppose certain papal teachings should avoid “contumacious denial.” This did not work for Unigenitus or for Humanae Vitae. Generally, when faced with stark doctrinal opposition, popes tend to pursue a modus vivendi where their own authority (and their predecessors’) is upheld but a certain level of dissent is tolerated. A lesson of Unigenitus is that the zealots in the French hierarchy only added fuel to the fire when they denied the last rites to suspected Jansenists in the billets de confession controversy in the mid-18th century. The moderate Pope Benedict XIV had to intervene and clarify that the sacraments could only be denied to those whose opposition to papal teaching was “notorious” and “public” (this was seen as a big “win” for Jansenists and their sympathizers). The postconciliar Catholic Church, at least in much of Europe and North America, has generally lived under an unspoken “peace of Pope Paul” that has been pragmatically tolerant of widespread dissent regarding Humanae Vitae. Whether that “peace” will fray irreparably under the pressure of controversies connected with Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia remains to be seen.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is an amended form of an essay delivered at the annual meeting of the American Catholic Historical Association in Chicago in January 2019.

[1] For a good account See: Brian E. Strayer, Suffering Saints: Jansenists and Convulsionnaires in France, 1640–1799 (Portland: Sussex Academic, 2008).

[2] Regarding Vatican I, see my forthcoming article “Settling Old Scores: Pastor Aeternus as the Liquidation of Early Modern Opponents of Papalism,” Newman Studies Journal (Summer 2020).

[3] For the text of Unigenitus, see Denzinger 2400–2502.  

[4] The full name of the work is Le Nouveau Testament en françois avec des réflexions morales sur chaque verset. It was originally published in 1692.

[5] A good starting point is the annotated bibliography compiled by Fr. James Bretzke, SJ.

[6] See excerpts from the memoirs of Cardinal Stafford.

[7] The Canadian Bishops’ Statement on the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of 27 September 1968. See esp.: article 26.

[8] Fr. John O’Malley, SJ, has illuminating discussions of several “issues-under-the-issues” in his survey of Vatican II. See What Happened at Vatican II (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[9] Küng, Infallible? An Inquiry (London: Collins, 1971), 110.

[10] Ibid., 164.

[11] Ibid., 203. While Küng accepts the doctrine of ecclesial indefectibility, in my reading he clearly rejected ecclesial infallibility (papal and conciliar).

[12] Mark Massa, The Structure of Theological Revolutions: How the Fight Over Birth Control Transformed American Catholicism (Oxford: OUP, 2018). The cited passage is from the publisher’s description.

[13] Douglas Palmer, “The Republic of Grace: International Jansenism in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolutions,”

(PhD Diss., Ohio State University, 2004).

[14] Louis Cognet, “Jansenism in Eighteenth-Century France,” 395–405, at 395.

[15] Dale Van Kley, The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560–1791 (New Haven: Yale, 1996), 86.

[16] Abbé Nicolas Gudver’s Jésus-Christ sous l’anathème et l’excommunication (1727), a violently anti-papal polemic, was placed on the Index and publicly burned in 1734.

[17] See the landmark study of Dale Van Kley: Reform Catholicism and the International Suppression of the Jesuits in Enlightenment Europe (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2018).

Featured Image: Sylvain Pedneault, Fire inside an abandoned convent in Massueville, Quebec, 27 October 2006; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0


Shaun Blanchard

Shaun Blanchard is Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Newman Studies. He is the author of The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II: Jansenism and the Struggle for Catholic Reform and co-author of a forthcoming Oxford Very Short Introduction to Vatican II.

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