When a Pope Writes and the Church Rebels

A papal document seems to change Church teaching, dividing the Catholic world. Much of the controversy depends upon divergent disciplines around the reception of Holy Communion and different ideas of sin and grace. What seemed pious and holy yesterday is now condemned as heresy. Much confusion ensues. When asked to clarify what he means, the pope refuses. Resistant bishops are threatened and punished. Invoking the Tradition of the Church, four bishops mount an ecclesiastical challenge of the document, with others soon joining. They become popular heroes, especially after their leader is publicly humiliated and demoted by Church authorities. Their partisans think of themselves as a remnant of the faithful, holding carefully to the Truth of Christ in a time of general darkness. They find their own positions foreshadowed in prophecy. They blame the Jesuits and the hierarchy for this period of widespread apostasy and confusion. They claim to discover the Jesuits teaching idolatry and compromising with paganism in their missionary efforts. They circulate their ideas through samizdat, popular polemics, and oppositional journalism. They become increasingly skeptical of papal power.

Is this the Church of today, under Pope Francis? No, it is the Church of the early 18th century, in the tumultuous years after the papal bull Unigenitus. This landmark document of 1713 wrought a major trauma in the life of the Church when it first emerged. Unigenitus, like the wider Jansenist crisis to which it contributed, is mostly forgotten among the faithful today. After all, no one—“conservative” or “liberal,” “traditional,” or “in the spirit of Vatican II”—advances real Jansenism, as Shaun Blanchard has recently argued convincingly. But the manifest parallels between the ecclesiastical controversies of yesterday and today give Jansenism an added pertinence. We would do well to reconsider their position, perhaps to illuminate our own. But to do that, we first have to strip the Jansenists of the reputation that their enemies carved out for them. What follows will thus be a tentative step in demythologizing the Jansenists.

Crypto-Calvinists and Convulsionnaires

The fact that Jansenism is such a dirty word among Catholics is due to a tradition of historiography written by ultramontanes and 19th century Jesuits. Some trace of this oppositional characterization can be found in that reliable organ of ultramontane opinion, the Catholic Encyclopedia, where, in an article from 1910, Jansenists appear as:

The fanatical preachers of a discouraging rigorism, which they adorned with the names of virtue and austerity, and, under pretext of combating abuses, openly antagonized the incontestable characteristics of Catholicism especially its unity of government, the traditional continuity of its customs, and the legitimate part which heart and feeling play in its worship. With all their skillful extenuations they bore the mark of the levelling, innovating, and arid spirit of Calvinism. These were the fins Jansénistes. They formed thenceforth the bulk of the sect, or rather in them the sect properly so called was summed up.

Yet the ultramontanes missed several key truths about the Jansenists.

The most egregious falsehood defines the Jansenist as “a Calvinist saying the Mass.” In fact, the very phrase “Jansenist” was a Jesuit coinage meant to compare the Bishop of Ypres with the Reformer of Geneva. Historians have long seen through this canard, yet the idea persists in many Catholic circles. To identify Jansenism as crypto-Calvinism is to reduce both to mere theological systems; this is the unfortunate legacy of how the papacy dealt with the Jansenists, by initially condemning five predestinarian propositions allegedly derived from Jansen’s Augustinus. Yet Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, two of the leading Jansenist writers of the 17th century, devoted thousands of pages to refuting Calvinism on such matters as justification, ecclesiology, morals, baptism, and transubstantiation. The fact that these texts have been neglected by theologians and historians is one symptom of the ultramontane damnatio memoriae. But there is a more basic flaw with defining Jansenism by the five propositions. Religions are not propositional constructs. They have an embodied, ritual element, with certain definite senses of time, space, and matter. Keeping in mind this broader view, we can rediscover the essentially Catholic nature of the Jansenists.

Relics loom large in Jansenist culture, as do miraculous cures granted through those relics. In 1656, Marguerite Périer, niece and biographer of Blaise Pascal and nun at Port-Royal de Paris, was cured of an eye ailment after contact with a reliquary containing a piece of the Crown of Thorns. A painted ex voto commemorating the miracle has survived. Philippe de Champaigne painted a similar ex voto in 1662 when his own daughter at Port-Royal, Sister Catherine de Saint Suzanne, was healed of a longstanding, paralyzing sickness. These incidents were interpreted as signs of divine favor by Jansenists suffering from institutional persecution from authorities in both Church and state.

The Jansenist reliance on miraculous cures became even more pronounced after the papal bull Unigenitus in 1713. Several tombs belonging to appellants, those who appealed the Bull to a general council, witnessed miraculous cures. Yet the most famous example of Jansenist miracles were the frenzied cures of the convulsionnaires, a phenomenon that began in 1727. In that year, the Deacon François de Pâris died in the Parisian parish of Saint-Médard. Known for his asceticism and his staunch adherence to Jansenist principles, the Deacon’s tomb soon became a pilgrimage site complete with ostensibly miraculous cures. As Angela Haas has noted, “there were hundreds of people from all walks of life who testified to these supernatural events.” Only a year after the Deacon’s death, Cardinal Noailles investigated five of the miracles and consequently beatified François de Pâris. Yet this ecclesiastical approval would prove to be short-lived. Noailles was succeeded as Archbishop of Paris by a more ultramontane figure, Charles-Gaspard-Guillaume de Vintimille de Luc. Vintimille argued that the cures could not possibly be miracles, as God would not work through Jansenist bones. To quote John McManners, “Evidence was irrelevant: dead or alive, an appellant cannot work miracles.” The Archbishop hired doctors to dispute the reports of miracles, and Jesuits gladly aided in debunking the convulsionnaires’ experiences.

Attempting to ascertain the validity of these miracles today is probably a futile exercise. What they tell us, however, is that the Jansenists adhered to a manifestly sacramental worldview. Their understanding of matter (specifically the human body) as a vehicle of healing grace is no more Calvinist than the blessed Ignatius-water used by Jesuit missionaries. Yet the longstanding, polemically-motivated view of these popular Jansenists as heretical “enthusiasts” has obscured their Catholicity.

Martyrs, Exiles, and Pilgrims

Ultramontane narratives of proud heretics obstinately refusing to obey their superiors are crassly simplistic. They also erase the fact that the Jansenists acutely felt their own exclusion on both the individual and collective levels. The crisis of conscience that gripped the nuns of Port-Royal, especially Jacqueline Pascal, would characterize much of the later Jansenist cause as well. Their writings on the conscience’s obedience to authorities and to the Truth are pertinent even today. Yet most of the harshest divisions that sparked these meditations died down from 1669, albeit never truly disappearing, during a more than 30 year period known as the “Peace of Clement IX.” Two events towards the end of Louis XIV’s reign definitively disrupted that peace. The first was the dispersal of Port-Royal’s remaining nuns in 1709 and the monastery’s subsequent destruction by royal agents in 1711. The nuns, the male “solitaires” who once lived on their grounds, and their various domestics all became popular “martyrs of truth and Christian sincerity” in the eyes of Jansenist sympathizers.[1] Necrologies were even published to that effect.  

What really ruptured the peace, though, was the papal bull Unigenitus (1713). Targeting Pasquier Quesnel’s popular devotional work, Moral Reflections on the New Testament, Clement XI anathematized in globo 101 propositions the book allegedly contained. Shaun Blanchard has illustrated why the Bull caused such a huge backlash of anger and confusion. Many of the propositions seemed not only pious, but straightforwardly true. Unigenitus sent shockwaves through the Church, and those tremors were felt nowhere more acutely than in France. Four bishops issued a formal appeal of the Bull to a General Council. Others joined them, including the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris. For his part, Clement XI refused to clarify the heretical sense of the 101 propositions in Unigenitus. Instead, he moved in tandem with the French crown to isolate and punish the dissidents.[2] One of the leading “appellant” bishops, the octogenarian Jean Soanen of Senez, was summoned to a local synod where ultramontane bishops deprived him of his see and sentenced him to a life of penance at the Abbey of Chaise-Dieu—an event the Jansenists attributed to malign Jesuit influence.

These attitudes were not confined to the episcopate. Unigenitus inflamed popular sympathy for the Jansenist cause. The Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, a Jansenist weekly, circulated in samizdat. It traded in fierce anti-Jesuit, anti-papal, and (increasingly) anti-regal diatribes and told lurid stories of oppressed Jansenists. It also incorporated figurism, a Jansenist exegesis of Biblical prophecy and ecclesiastical history. Under the figurist lens, scriptural references to a “faithful remnant” of the “True Israel” in “exile” became predictions of Jansenists afflicted by powerful apostates hell-bent on suppressing the Truth.[3] Unigenitus became “the abomination of desolation in the holy place” mentioned in the Book of Daniel—rhetoric which has resurfaced recently in the Catholic blogosphere.

Another popular response to the condemnation of Jansenism was the publication in 1767 of a pilgrimage manual centered on Port-Royal-des-Champs. Written by the Abbé Jean-Antoine Gazaignes and with a title-page bearing the publication site of “Au Désert,” the manual contains a full office (including Matins readings) for commemoration of “the Holy Relics” of Port-Royal. Space is as important as actual relics in this case, for Gazaignes considers the ruins of the abbey to be a channel and stage of grace. The collect reads:

O God who, in the last days, hast changed the solitude of Port-Royal into a garden of delights, and hast made shine there the sun of Thy Truth, to grow there the flowers of all the virtues, there to produce fruits of the most perfect love, and to render it a gate of salvation to all manner of penitents; grant unto us by the intercession of the servants whom Thou hast chosen during the days of the wrath and fury of the wicked, a truly penitent heart; a heart penetrated by pain, bathed with tears, a heart illumined by Thy divine lights, all burning with Thy love, and capable of producing fruits worthy of being gathered into Thine eternal granaries. By Our Lord Jesus Christ. (translation is my own)

This liturgy speaks to a double transformation. It envisions God transforming the suffering of Port-Royal, and thus of the later Jansenists who produced and read the book, from a lonely “desert” into a garden, and from exile into pilgrimage.

Much has been made of later Jansenists and their opposition to various devotions. For instance, Ulrich Lehner has demonstrated that Jansenists used both Tridentine and Enlightened discourses to attack what they saw as excessive and unreasonable elements of Baroque piety.[4] Lehner writes that “purging the church from Baroque forms of piety” was one of the key priorities of “Jansenist theology in the 1770’s and 1780’s.”[5] Shaun Blanchard’s forthcoming book on the Synod of Pistoia (1786) builds on this scholarship to show yet another arena of Jansenist reformism in devotional matters.

Nevertheless, we should be hesitant about insisting too heavily on Jansenist anti-devotionalism. Their piety did not look like that of their enemies, the Jesuits—visionary, imaginative, optimistic, emotive, and centered symbolically on the Sacred Heart. But that does not mean that the Jansenists were bereft of spirituality. Gazaignes’s manual captures the hallmark of Jansenist devotion: liturgical prayer.

We can see this, for instance, in a much earlier Jansenist setting: Jacqueline Pascal’s curriculum for the convent school at Port-Royal. John Conley SJ writes,

The structure of the school day is strictly monastic. In the course of a single day, the pupils recite the following hours of the monastic office: Prime (dawn), Terce (early morning), Sext (noon), Vespers (early evening), Compline (early night). In addition, they attend Mass daily and have times reserved for personal meditation, a daily examination of conscience, and numerous devotional prayers in Latin and French. Following monastic practice, meals are taken in silence as the pupils listen to biblical, patristic, and hagiographical texts recited aloud at table. Adhering to the monastic practice of the “grand silence,” the pupils abstain from speaking from the end of prayers concluding evening recreation until the first class, which begins at 8:00 A.M. A monastic emphasis also flavors the curriculum at Port-Royal . . . The texts employed in classroom instruction and refectory public reading reinforce the monastic cast of the education. The works of the desert fathers, Saint Jerome, Saint Jean Climacus, and Saint Teresa of Avila are recommended by Soeur Jacqueline.

Each student was to be given a bilingual Psalter as their main prayer book. This use of the Psalms stands at the heart of the school’s religious and moral pedagogy. The Port-Royal school attempted to foster a monastic spirit in its pupils, regardless of whether they would later enter religion. It thus represents a key example of normative devotional ideals within the Jansenist context. We can therefore say that, besides the relics and pilgrimages that (at least rhetorically) marked Jansenist devotional practice, we can locate the core of Jansenist piety in the monastic tradition. This, too, sets the movement apart from the Calvinists. Yet the Catholicity of the Jansenists emerges most clearly in their attitudes towards Tradition and the Sacraments.

Sancta Sanctis

There are other myths that cloud our view of Port-Royal and its partisans. Although it behooved ultramontane historians to describe Jansenism as an innovation, the Jansenists themselves understood their position as a defense of Tradition. The Abbé Saint-Cyran was a close collaborator with Jansen and the spiritual father of Port-Royal. When he died in 1643, his friends chose as his epitaph the words Non erit tibi Deus recens, Non erit tibi veritas recens; there shall be no new God for you, there shall be no new truth for you. These phrases sum up the early Jansenist attitude towards Tradition. This distrust of theological and spiritual innovation formed the core of Jansenist opposition to the Sacred Heart devotion, though its polemical use by their enemies, the Jesuits, did nothing to improve the devotion’s repute in their eyes.[6] And it was to Tradition that the Jansenists appealed in their disputes on grace and penance. Late Jansenist authors attacked Unigenitus as contrary to the words of the Fathers, but the traditionalist tendency of the Jansenist movement has much earlier roots.

When Antoine Arnauld took up his pen to decry frequent communion, he did so firm in the belief that he was defending the authority of the Church Fathers, theological antiquity, and the Tradition of the Church. Nor did the Jansenists only appeal to the primitive church. They often relied upon the arguments of the fathers of Trent, especially St. Charles Borromeo, to make their points for them.[7] In one notable painting, later Jansenists even depicted François de Pâris as St. Charles. Arnauld dedicates twelve chapters of  De la fréquente communion (1643) to the moral theology of St. Charles, in addition to fourteen on the Council of Trent, twenty-nine on the Church Fathers, and one on the sacramental discipline of the Eastern Churches. This wide-ranging reliance on Tradition is nowhere clearer than in his second book on frequent communion, The Tradition of the Church on the Subject of Penitence and Communion (1644).

The Jansenist position on communion, as sketched by Arnauld, can be neatly summarized. The sacrament of confession was necessary as preparation for communion. If a confessor deemed that true contrition was lacking, he could withhold absolution so that his penitent might do proper penance first. However, as so few souls have the grace of true repentance, widespread and frequent communion will inevitably entail sacrilege. It was this sin that Jansenists like Arnauld strove to curtail. The title pages of later editions of Arnauld’s De la fréquente communion (1643) sometimes bore the words “Sancta Sanctis,” or “the holy things for the holy,” taken from the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Though largely forgotten in the centuries since, perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was, along with the Divine Office, the central devotion at the Jansenist Abbey of Port-Royal.[8] Philippe de Champaigne’s The Last Supper adorned the high altar at Port-Royal des Champs, reflecting the nuns’ Eucharistic sensibilities; while the prominent figure of Judas in the painting calls to mind the specter of unworthy communions. If the Jansenists advocated restricting access to the Blessed Sacrament, they did so to guard against such sacrilege. Jansenist moral sacramentology thus depended upon a profound respect for the sanctity of the Eucharist.

Similarly, it was because the Jansenists took penance seriously that they developed such animosity to the Jesuits. The Jesuits of the 17th century were committed to a moral theory of attrition, which held that confessions based only on the fear of hell or the desire of heaven were nevertheless sufficient for absolution.[9] This proposition, though uncontroversial today, was encumbered with a wide range of casuistic justifications that effectively let penitents continue sinning. It was this kind of thinking that Pascal so ably satires in his Lettres Provinciales (1657).

On the other hand, the Jansenists were hardly alone in this antipathy. Secular clergy regularly sparred with the Jesuits, especially in missionary dioceses. Their position was largely congruent with that of the Thomists (especially the Dominicans) who had earlier sparred with the Jesuit Luis de Molina over predestination and grace. Because the Jesuits had taken up Molinism as their preferred theology of justification, Jansenists often referred to their opponents as “Molinists” well into 18th century. By singling out the Jansenists for their anti-Jesuit sympathies, Catholics have too often cast them as the cartoon villains in a grand narrative of triumphalist, Jesuit-led ultramontanism.


Ulrich Lehner has written that “Taking Jansenist thinking . . . seriously helps not only to enrich the scope of historical anthropology and intellectual history, but also to identify its contributions to modernity, allowing us to understand ourselves better.”[10] This essay has attempted to offer, if not a defense of Jansenism, at least a qualified revision of prevailing Catholic opinions about the Jansenists themselves. The French Jansenists in particular were not the unsacramental, anti-devotional quasi-Calvinists of ultramontane stereotypes. They were instead Augustinians whose devotions, though more monastic than Jesuit, were nevertheless Catholic to the bone—men and women for whom Tradition was paramount and the Eucharist sacrosanct. They were, in short, not so different from us. 

And their position can help us consider the condition of the Church today. The questions that their history raises about authority, conscience, and what to do when it seems that the institutional Church has slipped into heresy have an enduring relevance today. And what would Antoine Arnauld make of a recent survey that shows that only 28% of American Catholics know and believe that bread and wine are transubstantiated at the Mass? Perhaps frequent communion has in fact fostered an attitude of sacramental entitlement, regardless of preparation or fundamental belief. Perhaps, on this subject, the Jansenists were right after all? But to even approach the question, we need to refamiliarize ourselves with the Jansenists.  

[1] Pasquier Quesnel, quoted in Catherine Maire, “Port-Royal: The Jansenist Schism,” in Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, Vol. I, Ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman, Trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 314.

[2] Jacques M. Gres-Geyer, “The Unigenitus of Clement XI: A Fresh Look at the Issues,” Theological Studies 49, no. 2 (Jun 1, 1988): 261-75.

[3] Catherine Maire, “Port-Royal: The Jansenist Schism” 316-17, 326, 328-29, 332.

[4] Ulrich Lehner, The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement (New York: OUP, 2016), 16-17, 37, 125, 154-57, 211.

[5] Ibid., 211.

[6] “Istruzione pastorale di Monsignor Vescovo di Pistoia e Prato sulla nuova devozione al Cuor di Gesù” (3 June 1781) in Atti Appendices §32, 92–95.

[7] Thomas Palmer, Jansenism and England: Moral Rigorism Across the Confessions (OUP, 2018) 8-50.

[8] John J. Conley SJ, Adoration and Annihilation: The Convent Philosophy of Port-Royal (Notre Dame: UNDP, 2009), 7, 37.

[9] Conley, Adoration, 7.

[10] Lehner, Catholic Enlightenment, 175-76.

Featured Image: Portrait Pope Clemens XI, 18th century; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Richard Yoder

Richard T. Yoder is pursuing a Ph.D. in History at Penn State University, where he studies French Catholicism in the long eighteenth century.

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