While the Jesuits were being suppressed… Part 1: Jansenism

April 5, 2016                                                                                                                                                The Memorial of Saint Vincent Ferrer “Angel of the Apocalypse”

All through the long death agony of the Society of Jesus, during the late middle part of the 18th century, there were other currents of troubled water flowing through the Catholic world. Two of them, Voltairianism and Jansensim, contributed directly though in different ways to the disasters that have afflicted the Church and the world since 1789.  In this post I will try to describe Jansensim which has been almost forgotten in our day but is crucial to understand if one wishes to get a stronger handle on the disasters of the late 18th century.

The ideas that gave birth to the Jansenist movement arose from the writings of a Dutch theologian, at the end of his life Bishop of Ypres, named Cornelius Jansen that were published after his death in 1638.  I do not wish to get too involved in the complicated theology that gave birth to this movement but it consisted mainly of an exaggerated view of the depravity of fallen man that originated with Jansenius’ seeming misinterpretation of the views of Saint Augustine on the subject.  These views would lead among some of its adherents to almost Calvinistic views of predestination and the nature of the elect.

Five specific Jansenistic propositions were condemned by Pope Innocent X in the Bull Cum Occasione on May 31, 1653.  So the subscribers to these propositions were left with a choice: either submit to the authority of the Holy See, or leave the Church as Calvin himself had done a century before.  But instead they pioneered a third option.  Over the next century, between the publishing of Cum Occasione and the era of of which we have been writing the Jansenists for the most part attempted to remain in the fold of Rome on the superficial sense always issuing craftily worded acceptances of the papal condemnation whilst still retaining their errors in their hearts.  They would say things like  “We accept the Holy Father’s condemnation of such and such a proposition,” and then would launch into a craftily worded argument of how the sense in which the the Pope had condemned said proposition was not actually the sense in which it had originally been proposed.  That was all for public consumption.  They wished only to appear to be loyal to the Holy Father so as to further the effectiveness of their goal of encouraging disobedience to Papal authority.  This is the sense in which Jansenism was truly revolutionary.  Its doctrines were mainly recycled poppycock from heresies that had died out more than a millennium before, but it was this tactic of retaining a just thin enough veil of public orthodoxy to remain within the fold of Church institutions while all the time seeking to degrade those institutions from within that was truly earth shattering.

The second feature of Jansenism’s public face that aided and abetted the crisis of the 18th century was the fact that its Calvinistic views of predestination led to an excessive moral rigorism.  Keep in mind that an 18th century Catholic priest who was a member of the Jansenist sect was viewed by his parishioners as speaking with the authority of Rome as long as he could express his opinions subtly enough to keep from drifting into open heresy.  When a person hears a priest preach an excessive moral rigorism that lacks any emphasis on the grace and Divine Mercy which keep us going through our exile in this world toward the goal of life eternal, despite our many falls, chiefly through the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist then he begins to lose his fervor.  He begins to think that it is not possible to live a good life and that God is an angry Judge rather than a merciful Savior, and that he just doesn’t have a chance.  And then he starts to feel distant from God and distrust toward his Church.  And he begins to be pulled by a stronger temptation to pleasure seeking since “if I am incapable of Heaven and destined for Hell anyways then I might as well get what I can get while I can get it.”  And all this makes a person, or a group of people, or a city, or a nation easy prey for the likes of Voltaire and Rousseau.

Moral rigorism aside the fire of its original doctrines had largely subsided by the middle of the 18th century and its principal animating feature at that time was hatred for legitimate Church authority, especially for Pontifical authority emanating from the Church of Rome.  That, plus its secretive and crafty method of maintaining a public facade of orthodoxy whilst in its heart remaining firmly heretical made it a ready made instrument at the birth of the Revolutionary Age to attack the Church from the inside.  It is also useful to note that there was within the Jansenist movement an abiding hatred for the Society of Jesus.  The Jesuits had been in the forefront of attacking the five condemned propositions in the middle of the seventeenth centuries and in the decades that followed they were always the most effective in detecting the subtle craft and piercing the mask of orthodoxy that the Jansenists liked to employ.   And as such by the middle part of the 18th century the Jansenists were ready, despite their public moral rigorism, to concoct a strange alliance with the Voltarian types were seeking to annihilate the Society of Jesus and therefore to degrade the prestige of the Pope.

Jansenism as an ideology began to fade during the French Revolution.  Their were Jansenist prelates and clergy who felt the time was right to make their hostility to Rome public during the 1790s.  They allied themselves to the Revolutionary government and became ‘constitutional’ bishops and priests.  But the movement’s ideological principles were largely abandoned by the time of Napoleon, and the last officially Jansenist convents came back into communion with Rome during the middle part of the 19th century.

But certain other of its aspects have lingered.  The excessive public moral rigorism would infect individual members and whole communities of generations of clergy, partly out of reaction to the massive public immorality of the late 18th and the 19th and 20th centuries; in fact it survived to a time within living memory, before the rug was pulled out from under it by the disastrous sexual revolution of the 1960s that this insane rigorism probably did a lot to lay the ground work for.

The tactic of appearing in public to remain faithful to the Catholic Church while launching a murderous assault against her from the inside that the Jansenists pioneered would seem to have been used with great gusto by the conspiracy to destroy the teaching of Jesus Christ.  This was the prime means of infiltrating the highly destructive heresy of Modernism, condemned by Pope Saint Pius X in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, into the clergy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and that cancer has remained with us until this very moment.

Then there is the destructive hatred of pontifical authority by members of the so called ‘right’ in the Church that has resurfaced in our own day.  I use that term advisedly since there was really no such thing as a political ‘right’ or ‘left’ during much of the life of Jansenism.  What I mean are the movements who appear to be so traditional and rock solidly founded in essential Catholic teaching but then destroy all of that and enter into a de facto alliance with those who one would think would be their most implacable adversaries by a seemingly inexorable devotion to practicing disobedience to the Roman Pontiff.  One thinks in this regard of the schismatic priests of the Society of Saint Pius X or any of its numerous spin offs including the myriad sedevacantist groups that one encounters on the internet.

This then is a rough sketch of the legacy of Jansenism.  In the next post we will do an examination of Voltaire and his minions.

Please go to Confession and pray three Hail Marys in honor of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.


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