Papal Bull Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Clement XI issued the papal bull Unigenitus, condemning French Jansenist teachings. The bull met stiff opposition among the French clergy, which seriously undermined papal authority.

Summary of Event

Two phenomena dominated French religious life in the early eighteenth century: Gallicanism and Jansenism. Jansenism By the tenets of the first, the leaders of the Catholic Church in France retained an independence of direction from Rome that, when exercised fully, presented a challenge to papal authority and leadership of the universal Church. Jansenism, a rather strict sect of Catholicism that was heavily influenced by Calvinistic Calvinism views of election and grace, had bedeviled orthodox Catholic authorities in Rome and France throughout the reign of Louis XIV. [kw]Papal Bull Unigenitus (Sept. 8, 1713) [kw]Unigenitus, Papal Bull (Sept. 8, 1713) [kw]Bull Unigenitus, Papal (Sept. 8, 1713) Unigenitus (Clement XI) Papal bulls [g]Italy;Sept. 8, 1713: Papal Bull Unigenitus[0420] [g]France;Sept. 8, 1713: Papal Bull Unigenitus[0420] [c]Religion and theology;Sept. 8, 1713: Papal Bull Unigenitus[0420] Clement XI Louis XIV Quesnel, Pasquier Noailles, Louis-Antoine de Orléans, duc d’

The French cleric and theologian Pasquier Quesnel became head of the Catholic seminary in Paris in 1662 but left the post after a work of his was condemned in 1676 by the Roman Inquisition for Gallicanism. Roman Inquisition Increasingly sympathetic to Jansenism, Quesnel published an abridged and annotated version of the New Testament in French in 1671, an enlarged and more blatantly Jansenistic edition in 1678, and a yet fuller edition in 1693-1694, known by the short title Réflexions morales Réflexions morales (Quesnal) (moral reflections). Though bishop Vialart of Châlons and his successor, Louis-Antoine de Noailles, had supported the project, many French bishops condemned it in the early 1700’s. On July 13, 1708, Pope Clement XI formally condemned the work at the request of the French in a brief entitled Universi Dominici gregis. As much as most French authorities decried Jansenism, however, the pope’s threat of punishment by the Roman Inquisition rankled their Gallican sensibilities, and the document was ineffectual.

The Jansenists’ activities quickened over the ensuing months, and in 1710 Louis felt compelled to close their center at Port Royal. Louis forbade the printing of Réflexions morales on November 11, 1711, and once again called upon Pope Clement to issue a formal statement condemning the book. Louis insisted, however, that he and his Council preview any such document in the light of Gallican liberties. Even though this stipulation potentially undermined papal credibility even further, Clement agreed and established (February, 1712) a congregation of two cardinals, two inquisitors, and nine theologians to review the work for specific theological errors. This panel listed 101 propositions that they considered to be contrary to Church teaching, and this list went to a commission of cardinals for further review.

The contested propositions were listed in three groups: Propositions 1-43 were statements regarding grace and election; those numbered 44-71 dealt with faith, hope, and charity; and finally, numbers 72-101 were matters of Church structure and authority. These last included Quesnel’s teachings that only the elect constitute the true Church and that any excommunication must be supported by the entire Church. In his bull, Clement introduced the list of condemned articles with an exhortation against the fostering of “ruinous sects” and followed the catalog with a list of terms describing the Church’s view of the propositions, which included false, heretical, seditious, rash, and blasphemous. The bull was entitled Unigenitus Dei filii (generally known simply as Unigenitus) and was signed by Clement on September 8, 1713.

Louis XIV received his advance copy of the bull at Fontainebleau on September 24, accepted it, and called for the French Assembly of Bishops to meet to accept it on October 16. Noailles, who was now archbishop of Paris and a cardinal, chaired the proceedings, which deliberated hotly and finally accepted the bull on January 22, 1714, by a vote of forty to nine. The Parlement of Paris registered it on February 15, and the Sorbonne did likewise on March 5. Nonetheless, Noailles, the eight dissenters, and seven other bishops—a group known later as the Appellants—openly opposed the promulgation of the bull in their dioceses, and in late February they published a widely circulated pastoral letter detailing their position.

The Appellants declared that the bull was “obscure” in its language, and they called for special declarations of clarification by the pope. Both the condemnation and the Appellants’ support spurred the Jansenists in France to launch an impressive campaign against the bull. Negotiations between the king and the pope were carried out in 1715 by the Marquis de Gournay and Cardinal Fabroni, respectively. Clement could take away Noailles’s status as cardinal, but he lacked the power to strip him of his French bishopic. Noailles was thus essentially protected from papal judgment by the Gallican liberties.

From the royal side, the situation was equally tricky, as it was unclear whether Louis could directly punish a bishop. Clement wrote two letters to Noailles, one threatening, the other conciliatory. He left it to Louis to decide which letter to deliver; Louis considered neither effective. For his part, Louis suggested a general council of the Church to clarify the matter, but Clement considered such a council to represent a danger to his own authority. Clearly, for some Church leaders, the pope’s own declaration on a matter of faith and church order remained a matter for debate, not an infallible statement of truth. Louis died on September 1, without having arranged for a national council.

Louis XIV was succeeded by Louis XV, who was too young to yet assume the full duties of the monarchy. The regent for the young king was Philippe II, duc d’Orléans, who had no interest in religious matters. Jansenists were thus given free rein, and Noailles himself was appointed to head the Council of Conscience, which consisted largely of Jansenists and oversaw the realm’s religious affairs. In 1716, emboldened faculty members at the Sorbonne moved successfully to retract the university’s recognition of Unigenitus, as did the theology faculties at Caen, Nantes, and Rheims. Increasingly, cathedral canons and other clergy declared their opposition to the bull and their support for Quesnel; Jansenist tracts against Unigenitus proliferated.

Perhaps 3 percent of the French clergy, or three thousand priests, were actively opposed to the bull. Orléans feared the potential effects upon national unity and peace of the religious schism that was developing. On June 27, 1716, Clement held a consistory with thirty-eight cardinals and announced that Noailles had to accept the bull or forfeit his cardinal’s status within fifty days: The Appellants had to submit to Rome’s authority. Orléans blocked delivery of the letter, and the ultimatum expired without effect.

The Assembly of Bishops continued into 1717, finally adopting a list of twenty-six propositions they agreed had been improperly condemned in the bull. Subsequently, a few Appellant bishops and theology faculty wrote to the pope, demanding a general Church council, while Clement and many cardinals wrote to Noailles, begging submission to the bull. The bishops’ plea was declared heretical and schismatic by the Inquisition and pope on March 8, 1718, and Clement decided to issue a bull, Pastoralis officii, Pastoralis officii (Clement XI) excommunicating all who refused to accept Unigenitus. Noailles responded in a half-hearted if technically obedient manner in March and instructed his diocese to accept the bull in a pastoral letter of November, 1718. Other Appellants continued their opposition, especially after Clement’s death in 1721, but Noailles publicly and unconditionally submitted on October 11, 1728, seven months before his own death.


Opposition to Unigenitus was founded both in theology and in concerns about religious legal jurisdiction. Gallicanism, itself protected quite openly by French rulers, demanded the minimum interference in the French Church, even by the supreme pontiff. On the other hand, the pope’s authority—which, like the king’s, was divinely instituted—was to be absolute in matters of faith and morals, even if popes had bargained away other powers, such as the right to choose French bishops. The issue of Jansenism, which included huge areas of theological ambiguity, pitted these two principles against each other. Catholic monarchs throughout Europe watched as the pope’s will was effectively thwarted, but by Church leaders not the secular monarch.

The Quesnel affair ended with a whimper rather than a bang, but Jansenism as a force in France was far from spent in 1728. As late as October 16, 1756, Pope Benedict XIV Benedict XIV had to issue the bull Ex omnibus, which reaffirmed Unigenitus but allowed excommunication only against publicly notorious Jansenists. In the end, the failure of Unigenitus and the firestorm it ignited were signals of a truly eroded papal position, even within the Church itself.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Denzinger, Heinrich J. D. The Sources of Catholic Dogma. St. Louis, Mo.: Herder, 1957. Contains translations of the 101 condemned propositions, which are the heart of the bull. These are also available at
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doyle, William. Jansenism: Catholic Resistance to Authority from the Reformation to the French Revolution. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Discusses Unigenitus and its controversies from a position favorable to Jansenism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McManners, John. Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France: The Religion of the People and the Politics of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Places the bull in the context of the religious policies of Louis XIV and discusses reactions to during the early reign of Louis XV.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pastor, Ludwig. History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages. Vol. 33. Translated by Ernest Graff. St. Louis, Mo.: Herder, 1923-1969. Supplies a full discussion of the bull and its impact, within the biography of Clement XI. Balanced treatment, but clearly written from the papal point of view.

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