Spread of Jansenism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Spurred by rigorous Catholic Reformation piety and set against the contemporary religious leniency and relativism of the Jesuits, the Jansenists, who were adherents of Augustinian theology and Saint-Cyran’s demanding piety, gained many followers in France. Despite intense official opposition, Jansenism grew and prospered.

Summary of Event

The Catholic Reformation of the mid-sixteenth century spawned two religious movements that had a major impact on French religious life in the seventeenth century: the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) and an intensification of personal spirituality. The broader Reform movements also had given new life to Saint Augustine, the fourth-fifth century theologian and doctor of the Church. Catholicism;France [kw]Spread of Jansenism (1638-1669) [kw]Jansenism, Spread of (1638-1669) Religion and theology;1638-1669: Spread of Jansenism[1290] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1638-1669: Spread of Jansenism[1290] France;1638-1669: Spread of Jansenism[1290] Jansenism

Saint Augustine had championed religious predestination against contemporary Pelagians, who had emphasized a person’s own role in salvation, while downplaying that of God’s grace. Augustine’s doctrine of predestination—that God has decided each person’s ultimate fate, and one can do nothing about it—had traditionally been set aside by the Catholic church but was resurrected by Martin Luther and John Calvin and was at the heart of French Huguenot (Protestant) theology.

The founder of Jansenism, Cornelius Otto Jansen.

(Library of Congress)

The Council of Trent, and consequently, the Jesuits, stressed the role of human free will in salvation and rejected Protestant predestination. Many Catholics, including clergy and theologians, championed Augustine’s ideas, however, and argued against the Church’s newly clarified position and its Jesuit defenders. Among them was Antoine Arnauld Arnauld, Antoine , an attorney who had a hand in the French parlements’ expulsion of the Jesuits in the 1590’. However, the Jesuits’ power was strong and growing stronger, as they gained influential positions as confessors and advisers of Europe’s Catholic courts. At a university like that of Louvain in the Spanish Netherlands, the theology faculty and students tended to split into pro- and anti-Jesuit factions.

Cornelius Otto Jansen, Jansen, Cornelius Otto who studied theology at Louvain, came to reject Jesuit scholasticism and was determined to present the “real” Augustine to the world. As a faculty member at Louvain and later bishop of Ypres, he spent his last seventeen years writing Augustinus Augustinus (Jansen) , an immense and powerful study of the Church fathers’ doctrines of grace and predestination as Jansen understood them. Published posthumously at Louvain in 1640 and Paris in 1641, the work was quickly condemned as heretical by Church authorities and Jesuit theologians. Nonetheless, it represented the beliefs of a considerable faction among French Catholics, including the pastor of Saint-Cyran, Jean Duvergier de Hauranne Duvergier de Hauranne, Jean .

The Jesuit-trained, Basque/French Duvergier had been a colleague of Jansen at the Sorbonne, and the two studied Augustine together for nearly five years at Duvergier’s family home near Bayonne. Adopting the title Saint-Cyran, the charismatic and sophisticated Duvergier joined the religious and political life of Paris, flirting with the fringes of a circle of Catholic reformers that included Vincent de Paul Paul, Vincent de and Francis de Sales Sales, Francis de . Eventually, he became the spiritual adviser to a number of influential men and women as well as to the female convent of Port Royal Port Royal (convent) near Paris, a Cistercian monastery and later the center of the short-lived Institute of the Holy Sacrament (1633-1638). Monasticism, France

In 1621, he had been introduced to the convent’s abbess, Mother Angélique Arnauld, Arnauld, Angélique by her brother, both members of the large and influential Arnauld family. Mother Angélique had joined the convent as a child and became abbess as a flighty teenager, but she converted to reform in 1608. Under the direction of Saint-Cyran she adopted an even stricter “Augustinian” moral and liturgical rigor that clearly and purposefully ran counter to the relative laxity of the secular and even monastic society at large. The convent was soon filled to bursting, and laypersons who wanted to live the same sort of life gathered on convent property outside Paris, living like hermits. The ascetic life of Port Royal was becoming quite popular.

In 1638, the year of Jansen’s death, the institute was dissolved and Saint-Cyran was arrested on May 14 by order of Cardinal de Richelieu, Richelieu, Cardinal de;Jansenism a onetime friend. With the “martyrdom” of Saint-Cyran, the direction of the movement, which centered on Port Royal and Saint-Cyran’s version of Augustinianism, fell to the brothers Antoine Arnauld the younger, a theology student at the Sorbonne, and Robert Arnauld d’Andilly Arnauld d’Andilly, Robert , a courtier and staunch devotee. Shortly after Richelieu’s death in November, 1642, the authorities released Saint-Cyran, who would die within the year. Persecution, religious;Jansenists in France

Jansen’s Augustinus would soon draw both enthusiastic support and withering criticism from individuals such as Richelieu. Authorities quickly linked the controversial work to the “Augustinian” movement of Saint-Cyran, and the official Church had clergy preach against both in the Advent series of sermons of 1642 and the Lenten series in 1643. Ironically, this served to generate great interest in both book and movement, which together constituted “Jansenism,” a term of opprobrium coined by Jesuit opponents. Antoine Arnauld finished his doctorate in theology at the Sorbonne and then became Jansenism’s champion.

The papal response to Jansen’s book took the form of the bull In eminenti, which was released in June, 1643, and published in Paris in December, thanks to pro-Jansenists in the parlement of Paris. Pope Urban VIII pointed out in the bull the errors in Jansen’s work that his predecessors had condemned in previous papal statements. Jansenist leaders were dismayed but not surprised. Though Jansenists continued to consider themselves Catholics, they blamed Jesuit influence for the pope’s misguided stance.

In 1644, Arnauld published De la frequente communion De la frequente communion (Arnauld) (on frequent Communion), in which he argued from Church tradition that taking Communion often led to contempt for the sacrament. This had an immediate impact in Parisian churches, as Jansenism took hold. Sixteen French bishops approved of Arnauld’s work, and one even joined Port Royal. When these and other bishops met at Cardinal Jules Mazarin’s Mazarin, Jules insistence, the group narrowly approved De la frequente communion, but the cardinal attacked the decision and directed Arnauld to Rome to defend his work. At this point, the parlement and University of Paris joined to protest any appeal to the foreign power of the Papacy in a matter concerning the French church. For more than a century the French government and clergy had insisted on its so-called Gallican liberties, the right to handle its own internal religious affairs. Arnauld remained in France, and the movement—by this time recognized as a sect—continued to prosper.

In 1651 and 1652, Pope Innocent X Innocent X received requests from the Spanish and French courts to have five specific propositions derived from the Augustinus condemned as heretical. Innocent condemned the following in his bull Cum occasione (May 31, 1653):

Even the just lack the grace to obey all of God’s commandments.

Fallen humanity cannot resist interior grace.

Freedom from constraint, not freedom from necessity, are necessities.

Prevenient grace can be neither resisted nor obeyed.

Christ did not die to save all people.

Anti-Jansenist forces moved against Port Royal and had Arnauld fired from the Sorbonne. Jansenists fought back by refusing to recognize the condemnation, and, in 1656, the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal Pascal, Blaise became an active controversialist, defending Jansenism and attacking the Jesuits in a series of anonymous letters now known as Lettres provinciales (1656-1657; The Provincial Letters Provincial Letters, The (Pascal) , 1657). Official pressure, including new condemnations by Pope Alexander VII, continued until four recalcitrant bishops finally bowed to the softer touch of pro-French pope Clement IX in mid-1667. On October 8, 1668, Clement’s Peace of the Church was declared in Paris, and on October 23, King Louis XIV Louis XIV;Jansenism and forbade any further public discussion of the controversy. Port Royal and the Jansenists were left in peace.


For nearly two centuries Jansenism entrenched itself in French social, religious, and even political life, making extrication by Church and political authorities more difficult with each passing generation. Unlike Protestant reformers, Jansenist leaders remained firmly attached to Roman Catholic tradition and the Church’s hierarchy, while insisting upon adherence to strict interpretations of Saint Augustine and other theological heavyweights. In doing so, they challenged from the inside the tradition and the teaching power of the Church, which they saw as having been corrupted by modern movements.

Since members of the movement could be neither convinced nor coerced during their first thirty years, the relaxation of official pressure in 1668 ensured that new disciples would continue to appear. More and more bishops and lower clergy adopted Jansenism, and its tenets influenced alike the laity in the pew as well as the confessional. Yet, neither pope nor king could long endure the practically schismatic nature of Jansenism, and its successes would generate several official condemnations in the eighteenth century. Even so, French Jansenists championed the French church’s Gallican liberties against internationalist interference by Jesuits and the Papacy. Perhaps the Jansenists’ greatest triumph was aiding the destruction of the Jesuit order itself in the 1770’.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Delumeau, Jean. Catholicism Between Luther and Voltaire: A New View of the Counter-Reformation. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977. A translation of a French work from 1971 that explores Jansenism as an outgrowth of the Catholic Reformation.
  • 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, 1999. A brief, balanced view of Jansenism, including a discussion of Jansen’s Augustinus and how the book’s publication deepened the feud between French Jesuits and more-established Catholic orders. Include a broad biography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kolakowski, Leszek. “God Owes Us Nothing”: A Brief Remark on Pascal’s Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. A well-written theological discussion of the heart of Jansenist thought.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lubac, Henri de. Augustinianism and Modern Theology. Translated by Lancelot Sheppard. New York: Crossroad, 2000. Discusses Jansen’s principal work, Augustinus, and his role in creating Jansenism. Originally published in 1969, this reprint includes a new introduction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pascal, Blaise. Selected “Pensees” and Provincial Letters/Pensees et Provinciales choisies: A Dual-Language Book. Edited and translated by Stanley Applebaum. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2004. Selected translations of Jansenist Blaise Pascal’s famous letters in defense of his friends and his religion. Includes selected translations from Pascal’s classic work Pensées (1670).
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Angélique Arnauld; François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon; Innocent XI; Cornelius Otto Jansen; Jan Komensk ; Duchesse de Longueville; Louis XIV; Jules Mazarin; Blaise Pascal; Jean Racine; Cardinal de Richelieu; Urban VIII; Saint Vincent de Paul. Jansenism

Categories: History