What is Jansenism?

What is Jansenism? One cannot discuss the history of the Catholic Church in France without mentioning this heresy, which rent the French church from 1652 almost until the Revolution. The interesting thing about Jansenism is that it is so little understood, even by educated Catholics. We all know of the epic battles of St. Athanasius against Arius, and in doing so comprehend what the heresy of Arianism was, exactly. Likewise, most of us are acquainted with the beliefs and oddities associated with the Cathar-Albigensian movement in medieval France, simply by virtue of their strangeness, if nothing else. But how many of us are really well versed in the complexities of the Jansenist controversy? Who was Cornelius Jansen? On what point of dissent did the Jansenists take their stand, and why did the Holy See go to such extreme lengths to crush this obscure heresy?

The problem with Jansenism is that it was concerned with one of the most complex areas of Catholic theology – that of the interaction between free will and grace. To an uneducated layman like myself, this branch of theology seems incredibly complicated and I think it wises (for myself at least) to maintain an attitude of humility when dealing with these mysteries, lest I forget myself and try to arrogantly understand the deep things of God. I do not think I am mistaken in saying many Catholics feel the same way about these questions of free will and grace; content with a few definitive truths to serve as guide posts along the road, we leave the more intense exploration of these realms to greater intellects than ourselves.

The Jansenist controversy can be divided roughly into two phases – first, the controversy surrounding the work Augustinus published by Cornelius Jansen; second, the controversy aroused by the publication of the bull Unigenitus, which put the nail in the coffin on Jansenism. In this post, we will look at the origins of Jansenism and the book Augustinus.

But before we even proceed to this, I think we ought to remind ourselves of the two extremes that we are in danger of falling into regarding free will and grace – one is that of Pelagianism in assigning too great a role to free will and debasing God’s grace; the other, of course, is that of Calvinism, in which free will is negated and the operation of grace inflated to the point that we arrive at total (or double) predestination. These extremes are the Scylla and Charybdis of the theology of grace; a truly Catholic approach to this problem must sail skillfully between these two dangers, turning neither to the left nor to the right.

Perhaps it would be best to remind ourselves of what the Catholic position on this issue is, so that standing in the light, we can better evaluate the defects in the Jansenist system. This is no easy task, but I think the orthodox teaching on grace can be summed up in five points:

1)      The grace merited by Christ is necessary for us for all actions of piety and the exercise of every virtue and should be asked of from God.

2)     With the help of grace, all the commandments of God are possible to obey, such that a chaste and holy Christian life without mortal sin is possible. Also, without this grace, we cannot do anything that is truly good, nor even persevere in good except by grace.

3)      Grace prevents and aids our wills in such a way that we owe our salvation to God’s grace; if we do fall, it should be imputed to ourselves.


4)      Grace strengthens and supplements our freedom, but in no way destroys it.


5)      While maintaining the existence and freedom of the will, we should nevertheless remain in a posture of humility, remembering that our will is aided by grace in ways we don’t understand.


Beyond these five points, I think the Catholic layman ought not to probe too much – let us be humble and content to admit our ignorance on some of the more intricate questions here. I believe I have presented the Catholic teaching here accurately, but I confess my ignorance on this branch of theology and welcome any correction on this point.

In the years leading up to the Jansenist controversy, the views of Catholic theologians had been divided between the schools of Michael Baius, who tended to favor grace excessively, and those of the Spanish Jesuit Molinos, who opposed Baius fervently and tended to favor free will. The disputes between these two parties led to Paul VI summoning a congregation of cardinals in 1607 (The Congregation de Auxiliis) in which it was decreed that the two schools were free to maintain their own opinions, so long as both sides adhered to the teachings already established by the Church and to refrain from censuring and attacking each other. Beyond this, much of the matter of the dispute was left open.

Thus, there was already a ripe tradition of debate on this issue by the time we get to Cornelius Jansen, bishop of Ypres in Belgium. Jansen favored Baius in the dispute and, to lend support to these opinions, wrote a treatise on the issue of grace entitled Augustinus, which purported to be a compendium of the teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo on the subject. Augustinus was a truly massive work. According to Jansen, he had worked on it for twenty years and had reread everything written by St. Augustine thirty times (how many of us will even read all of Augustine’s writings one time?); Jansen fell ill and died as the work was being completed, however. It was submitted with unqualified humility to Pope Urban VIII by two of Jansen’s followers in 1640.

It only took the Holy See one year to condemn several propositions found in the work. Pope Urban VIII declared that the work Augustinus contained many scandalous and heretical propositions already condemned by his predecessors (especially Paul V, St. Pius V and Gregory XIII). These condemnations were published in a bull dated March, 1640. Despite this, there was some discussion in France and Belgium on the matter, with debates continuing, though none of them arousing much attention from the papacy and with a spirit of obedience as the followers of Jansen attempted to reformulate his works in a more orthodox manner. In 1649 the theological faculty of the Sorbonne extracted and condemned five propositions from the Augustinus. It is important for what happened next to understand that the condemned propositions were not found explicitly in the work; they were rather summaries of ideas that were in the work – an attempt to get to the heart of what Augustinus was really teaching. The condemned propositions touched on very intricate matters of grace and free will. The following teachings were condemned:


1)      That some of the commandments of God are impossible to just men, even when they strive to fulfill them, because the grace to fulfill them is not given.


2)      In fallen man, nobody can ever resist an interior grace.


3)      To merit or demerit in our current, fallen state, it is not necessary for us to have a freedom defined as freedom from necessity; mere freedom from constraint is sufficient.


4)      Human nature has the power to resist or obey God’s law without any interior or preventing grace.


5)      Jesus Christ did not die or shed His blood for all men, but only for the elect.

It should be noticed, especially in the second and final points, that Jansenism held some things in common with Calvinism. This is not surprising, since Calvinism and Catholicism had coexisted side by side in an uneasy truce since the Edict of Nantes (1598). It is not unreasonable to suppose some Calvinist influence in those French supporters of Jansen who helped to develop his system.

Pope Innocent X condemned these five propositions in 1653 after they were submitted to the Holy See by an assembly of eighty-five French bishops. The bull condemning them was widely accepted throughout France and Flanders. However, this of course did not put a halt to the Jansenist heresy, but rather gave rise to its next manifestation – the debate between matter of right and matter of fact. 

Recall that the five condemned propositions were not extracted from the Augustinus verbatim; rather, they were summaries of the theological system put forth in the work, based on the opinions of learned theologians and bishops who had scrutinized it. Thus, when the bull condemning the five propositions was issued, the Jansenists made the argument that, while the pope was certainly right to condemn the five propositions, this did not imply a condemnation of Augustinus itself, since the pope could not prove that those five propositions were actually found in the book. Thus, the five propositions were justly condemned, but the bull did not state, and hence did not require the faithful to believe, that the condemned propositions were actually contained in the Augustinus in the form in which they were condemned. The condemnation of heretical principles was called the matter of right, but the question of whether or not these principles actually appeared in the Augustinus was called the matter of fact.

This objection was received with irritation by the pope, the French bishops and Louis XIV. A French synod convened under Cardinal Mazarin examined the propositions and declared that they were in fact contained in the Augustinus in the meaning assigned to them by the Holy See. The pope ratified their conclusion and issued a bull in 1654 stating that the doctrines of Jansen were condemned “as contained in his book, entitled Augustinus.” Nevertheless, the Jansenists still persisted in asserting that the condemned propositions were not found in the work, leading the new pope, Alexander VII, to publish another, more explicit decree in October, 1657, which said “the five propositions had been extracted from the work of Jansenius, and condemned in the sense, in which the doctor had explained them.”

This bull was published throughout the realm at the request of the French bishops. To give weight to this, King Louis XIV also issued an edict ordering all clergy and teachers of children to sign the formula without any distinction, explanation or restriction. Still, the Jansenists objected that edicts promulgated by the French clergy and king could not bind the whole nation. This point was countered by the most general and solemn condemnation of Jansenism yet, issued on February 15, 1665 and ratified by the French parliament. Louis XIV appended a formula to this to be sworn to by all clergy, which read:

I, the undersigned, submit myself to the apostolic constitution of the sovereign pontiff, Innocent X, of the 31st of May1653, and to that of Alexander VII, his successor, of the 16th of October 1656; and I reject and condemn, sincerely, the five propositions, extracted from the book of Cornelius Jansenius, entitled Augustinus, in the proper sense of the author, as the Apostolic See condemned them, by the same constitutions. I thus swear it. So help me God and the holy Gospels.”

Every objection was now removed to those who asserted that the condemned propositions were not found in the Augustinus. The Jansenists were determined not to submit, however, and proceeded to take the argument to another level, challenging the authority of the pope directly and ability of the Church to extract and condemn propositions. The argument ran as thus:

It was now established that the five propositions were found in Augustinus. However, it was asserted that the Magisterium could only rule definitively on the content of divine revelation. However, the content of a particular book, the existence of a proposition in a book, or the interpretation of the content of any book, could in no way be said to be a revealed fact. Therefore, the Church lacked authority to infallibly judge the content of any book. Based on this, the Jansenists maintained that the proper response to the papal condemnations of the propositions was a “respectful silence.” In other words, the faithful were free to dissent from these judgments so long as their dissent was respectful, silent and did not attack the authority of the pope.

This was actually a pretty clever argument – the pope’s job is to interpret and preserve divine revelation, and since a book by a theologian is not divine revelation, the pope possesses only a human prudence in judging such works and theological censures, such as those surrounding the Augustinus, could be at best only the judgments of the pope as a private theologian, but not as the infallible Universal Pastor.

Rather than try to answer this, I will let a much more eloquent speaker, Bishop Bossuet, speak. Bossuet was vehemently opposed to the Jansenists and irritated by the perpetual attempts of the Jansenists to dodge ecclesiastical censure, gave a very reasoned response which I think best represents the thinking of the Church on this matter:

The Church, having received so many explicit commands to reprehend, to censure, to note heretical persons, is frequently obliged to take cognizance of certain facts, and to judge them definitively. Thus, when a particular bishop, or a particular doctor, is accused of having taught verbally, or in writing, a suspected doctrine, it belongs to the office of the Church to decide, not only whether the doctrine be in itself good or bad, but whether it be true that such and such a person has taught it, or that it is contained in such and such a book. After pronouncing on the doctrine, it is her office to judge definitively on the fact; and to condemn publicly the bishop, the doctor, or the book, as teaching a bad doctrine: it is equally her office to designate the doctrine.

This is a constant truth: every person must see, that, to take this authority from the Church, is to expose her, naked and disarmed, to false teachers, and to render useless the repeated commands, and the repeated warnings which have been given to her to guard herself against them by every precaution. In effect, all the world knows that the Church has never failed to observe this command when occasion required. She has made her children see, of what importance to her, such judgments are, by two remarkable circumstances; the first, that, after she has passed sentence on innovators, she has often inserted their names in her solemn profession of faith; and, secondly, even after persons have condemned the error noted by the Church, she has denied them her communion, if they refused to subscribe to the condemnation of the persons whose errors were condemned” (Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Letter to the Nuns of Port-Royal).

If the excuses of the Jansenists were clever, the response of Bossuet was ingenious. The argument is two-fold: in the first place, since the separation of truth from error is essential to the mission of the Church, as St. Paul warns Timothy, “Guard that which was entrusted to you,” (1 Tim. 6:20) the power to rightly, accurately and authoritatively discern truth from error in the writings of theologians can be said to be inferred in the Lord’s command to the Apostles “Teach them to observe all the things I  have taught you” and His promise that “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.” This could also be inferred in His words to Peter, “Feed my sheep,” since to feed the sheep the food of truth, the Church must be able to discern truth from error; and this not only in the abstract, but in the concrete, as it appears in the books of theologians.

The second argument is even more ingenious, for here Bishop Bossuet appeals to the liturgy of the Church, thus connecting the very practical issue of the teachings of individual theologians with the timeless liturgy of the Church, which is ever the Rule and Preserver of the Faith. Since the founders of heresy had been named in liturgical formularies and oaths (“I reject the heresy of Arius”, for example), it is evident that, in this example, Arius must actually teach the heresy attributed to him. Furthermore, the practice of removing these persons from communion indicates that these individuals must actually be guilty of teaching the things they are accused of – otherwise, the Church’s censure of excommunication for heretics makes no sense and has no teeth.

Next we will see how the controversy escalated, the lull brought about by the peace of Pope Clement IX restored peace to the French church, and then how it all blew open again with the bull Unigenitus. Click here for the next article in this series on Jansenism.