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Cornelius Otto Jansen, also known as Jansenius 


Principal Errors

Denied the necessity of free will in receiving and utilizing grace; claimed that grace is so efficacious that the will need not assent to it and in fact cannot reject it; concluded that this grace was intended only for a predestined elect; that God actively bestows grace on some while actively withholding it from others. The heresy also led to a disregard of the authority of the pope. 


In the wake of the Reformation, theologians turned much of their attention to the issue of grace and to reconciling the efficacy of grace with man’s free will. One tradition, the Augustinian, saw the divine role in providing grace as primary and the human capacity to receive and act on grace as real but weak, owing to original sin. The newly-formed Society of Jesus put forth a more optimistic view. Summed up in the writings of Luis de Molina, this view ascribed a greater role to man’s free will. 

In the universities, where the Augustinian tradition was firmly rooted, there arose a movement against the new Jesuit ideas. Cornelius Otto Jansen, better known by the Latinized “Jansenius,” rose to become the spearhead of the conflict. A professor at Louvain University in Belgium, Jansenius became convinced of the Augustinian position in 1619 and eight years later set out to produce a great work presenting the complete thought of Augustine on grace. He was appointed bishop of Ypres in 1636 and completed his work, Augustinus, shortly before his death in 1638. What we know of Jansen shows him to have been a thoroughly orthodox Catholic. Ironically, it is quite possible he would have recoiled at the heresy which was to be his namesake. 

His multi-volume work covered the heresies of the Pelagians and semi-Pelagians, as understood by Augustine, and tried to connect Pelagianism, which overestimated man’s role in his own salvation and was clearly heresy, with the teachings of Molina and the Jesuits. Though condemned by the Holy Office in 1641, a year after its publication, and again in Urban VIII’s 1643 bull In Eminenti, and dismissed by many as nothing but a rehashing of the errors of the reformers, Jansenius’s ideas as expressed in Augustinus gained a small but loyal following of Jansenists, who became known for the extreme moral rigorism which is today commonly connected with the name. 

The Heresy 

Jansenism is more remarkable for the numerous political controversies and power struggles surrounding it than for its heretical content. The heresy can can be summed up as a denial of man’s participation, via the exercise of his free will, in his salvation and the inevitable consequences which follow from this. Jansenists hold that concupiscence (the tendency toward sin) always defeats the will in a fallen state. In those to whom God gives his grace, the will is equally powerless against this grace. The soul without grace will always be defeated by sin (and thus be damned), while the soul with grace will always be overwhelmed by it (and thus be saved). 

While it is possible to hold this much and stay within the realm of orthodoxy, Jansenists further insisted, contrary to orthodox Thomistic understanding, that God actively destines some to receive grace and actively destines others to be without it. One conclusion is that God will damn those who sin, even though they were never given grace to resist sin. Conversely, those who receive grace cannot resist it and cannot avoid the workings of grace (sanctification)–a Fundamentalist would say they are “eternally secure.” Thus men are left “out of the loop” of their salvation, locked into a destiny which they cannot alter. 

The Controversy 

The conflict over Jansenism, primarily between Jansenists and the Jesuits, eventually drew the highest temporal and spiritual powers in Catholic Europe into the fray. When Jansenism was defeated, it was to be a victory not only for an orthodox doctrine of grace, but also for the entire structure of authority in the Church. 

Precipitating the battle was the presentation in 1649 of five propositions, implicitly attributed to Jansen, for examination by the theology faculty at the Sorbonne. These propositions, which were to become the focal point of the ensuing struggle, are: 

1. Some of God’s commandments are impossible for just men who wish and strive to obey them, considering the powers they possess; the grace by which these precepts may become possible is also wanting. 

2. In the state of fallen nature, no one ever resists interior grace. 

3. To merit or demerit, in the state of fallen nature, we must be free from all external constraint, but not from internal necessity. 

4. The Semi-Pelagians admitted the necessity of interior prevenient grace for all acts, even for the beginning of faith, but they fell into heresy in holding that grace is such that man may either follow or resist it. 

5. To say that Christ died for all men is Semi-Pelagianism. 

It is at this point that the issue takes on a number of levels. The French Cardinal Jules Mazarin, successor to Richelieu, wished to continue his predecessor’s hostility to Jansenism, fearing that group’s opposition to monarchical absolutism. After the theology faculty failed to reach a conclusive decision, the issue was deferred to Rome, where Innocent X appointed a committee to examine the propositions. 

Mazarin wrote a letter against Jansen in the name of the young Louis XIV and rallied the support of the majority of the French bishops. Finally, in 1653, the five propositions were condemned by the bull Cum Occasione.

This condemnation, far from ending the controversy, only embittered and deepened the resolve of the Jansenists. Antoine Arnaud, their unofficial leader, tried to defend Jansen this way: If the propositions were indeed heretical (and he would agree that they were), then they did not come from Augustinus, since Jansen’s thought was nothing but a summary of Augustine’s. He made a distinction between what he called droit (the heretical elements in the propositions) and fait (the source of those propositions being Augustinus), admitting to the droit but not the fait and hoping that by this distinction Jansen’s name would be exonerated. 

This attempt was partly successful. Owing much to the rhetorical skills of a sympathetic Blaise Pascal, the Jansenists, by a series of tracts and pamphlets known as the Provinciales, were able to gain some support, at the same time beginning an attack on the Jesuits. This attack, later renewed by the secular clergy and the state, helped lead to the suppression of the order a century later. The storm calmed for several years, until Louis XIV, who like Mazarin was worried about a perceived Jansenist threat to royal power, whipped it up again. In 1661 the king imposed an oath on all religious, condemning the five propositions and affirming they came from Jansen, thereby destroying the fragile droit/fait distinction. Some nuns who refused to sign the formulary were imprisoned and kept from the sacraments. The Jansenists turned to publishing letters and pamphlets in their defense, gaining sympathizers among the episcopate as well as the laity. 

Clement IX became pope in 1667 and brought a kind of peace by freeing the nuns and allowing the Jansenists to engage in other work, leaving alone the question of grace. Several important works came from the Jansenists during this period, including Pascal’s famous Pensees

Ironically, it was Jansenist support of Pope Innocent XI in a squabble with Louis XIV that brought on a renewed persecution. Arnaud was banished to Belgium, and the Jansenist center moved to the Low Countries, where the torch was carried on b y Pasquier Quesnel, an Oratorian priest who organized the Jansenists into a unified party. His Nouveau Testament avec des reflexions moralesbecame a kind of summary of Jansenist teaching. Again conflict arose among the Jansenists, Rome, and Louis XIV, leading to Clement XI’s bull Unigenitus Dei Filius, which in 1713 condemned 101 propositions from Quesnel’s work. 

Here we see perhaps the more dangerous consequence of Jansenism. The bull had a hard time finding acceptance, with the Jansenists, their sympathizers, and some bishops refusing to accept the Pope’s authority on the matter. This attitude was part of the heresy of Gallicanism, which held that ecumenical councils and the local church have greater authority than the pope. It was a crucial time for the Holy See. Had the Jansenists prevailed, it might have meant the ruin of the Church in France and perhaps in all of Europe.

The Conclusion 

Closely-contested and sometimes violent, the fight turned against the Jansenists. Diocese by diocese Unigenitus was accepted, aided by a royal declaration in 1730 making it state law and punishing those who did not follow it. Though the struggle continued, charismatic Jansenist leaders were aging and dying and not being replaced. Jansenism, save for some small secret groups, was eradicated in France by the mid-1700s and died in Italy half a century later. Although a Jansenist sect continues in Holland to this day, it bears little resemblance to the heretical movement which nearly swept away all of Christendom 300 years ago. 

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