Jansenism: The 17th Century Heresy That Divided the Church

During a time of Jesuit supremacy in Catholicism, a movement of theologians challenged prevailing doctrine. Harkening back to the Church Fathers, Jansenism was deemed heretical.

Mar 20, 2024By Greg Pasciuto, BA History
what was jansenism saint augustine
Portrait of Cornelius Jansen, by Evêque d’Ypres, 1585-1638, Source: Wikimedia Commons; with Illustration of the controversy over the apostolic constitution Unigenitus, Source: Open Edition Journals


Amid the chaotic fallout of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church was feeling challenged on all sides. By the mid-seventeenth century, one religious order, known as the Society of Jesus (aka the Jesuits), exerted outsized influence on the continent. The Church sought to push back against Protestantism in a multitude of ways, including through art.


Yet it also witnessed challenges to doctrine from within. One theological movement posed a particular threat in the eyes of the Church: Jansenism. Cornelius Jansen had argued for predestination — the idea that God selected certain people for salvation before they were even born. The Jesuits vigorously opposed the Jansenists, whose members included some of the most famous thinkers in Europe.


Jansen and Du Vergier: The Origins of Jansenism

Portrait of Jean du Vergier de Hauranne, by Philippe de Champaigne, 17th century, Source: hyperleap.com


Jansenism is a Catholic movement that emphasized a return to a purer form of Christian theology. Among other teachings, it strengthened the doctrine of original sin and placed greater importance on predestination in salvation.


If we had to trace Jansenism back to a specific figure, Cornelius Jansen would be a good starting point. Jansen was born in 1585, during a time when his native Netherlands was under Spanish control. He started his studies at the University of Leuven in 1602; this marked his introduction to the debate raging between the Jesuits and rival preachers. Crucially, Jansen would also strike up a friendship with a French peer, Jean du Vergier de Hauranne. The two young men would go on to become leading religious scholars. Jansen served as bishop of the city of Ypres, while Du Vergier became the abbot of Saint-Cyran in France. They kept in contact with each other until Jansen’s death in 1638.


Saint Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne, 1640s, Source: Fineartamerica.com

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At the core of Jansen’s theological beliefs lay the teachings of Saint Augustine of Hippo. This North African Church Father, who lived 1,200 years before Jansen and Du Vergier, was one of early Christianity’s most productive authors. His surviving works include City of God and On Christian Doctrine, which outlined his thoughts on core Christian teachings and how to defend them against opponents.


In particular, Augustine opposed a movement known today as Pelagianism, which contradicted Christian orthodoxy. This movement insisted that the original sin of Adam and Eve did not actually taint every human being from birth. In his later life, Augustine endeavored to oppose Pelagianism and other unorthodox Christian beliefs on all fronts.


Saint Augustine’s theology was so important to Jansen that the Church Father gave his name to the title of Jansen’s most well-known work, Augustinus. Published in 1640 — two years after Jansen’s death — the multi-volume book would catch the attention of Rome. Successive Popes would brand Jansen and his writings as heretical, igniting a century-long controversy.


Publication of Augustinus and the Pope’s Response

Portrait of Pope Innocent X, by Diego Velázquez, c. 1650, Source: Arthive.com


Between 1640 and 1653, Augustinus took Catholic Europe by storm. Popes were quick to condemn Jansen’s teachings, and it wasn’t long before a fully-fledged theological battle was born. The term “Jansenism” was created by Jesuit leaders during this time as a slur intended to discredit their enemies. As the most powerful religious order in Western Europe at the time, the Jesuits sought to maintain their influence.


The Jansenist-Jesuit conflict would frustrate Rome to no end. In 1653, Pope Innocent X would issue a papal bull, titled Cum Occasione, outlining and officially condemning Augustinus and its author. The bull claimed five specific statements in the book were doctrinal errors that amounted to heresy.


Among them, Jansen had argued in favor of a radical form of predestination — the idea that God selected certain people for salvation before they were even born. Additionally, Cum Occasione alleged that Jansen had written that no person could hope to consistently follow all of God’s commandments due to humanity’s sinful nature.


Antoine Arnauld, by Pierre Drevet, 17th century, Source: the British Museum


Yet were any of these doctrinal errors directly stated within Augustinus? Some Jansenist theologians argued that they were not. Antoine Arnauld, a major Jansenist thinker based in Paris, stated this when interrogated, although he added that the propositions did constitute heresy if they were real.


Unfortunately for Arnauld, the Church hierarchy did not believe him, and his university in Paris forced him out and into exile in 1655. In October 1656, Pope Alexander VII reaffirmed his predecessor’s stance on Jansen’s writings in a new papal bull, Ad sanctam beati Petri sedem. By this point, the papacy and the Jesuits had commenced a total assault on Jansenism.


Notable Jansenist Thinkers and Strongholds

Mère Angélique Arnauld by Philippe de Champaigne, 17th century, Source: Useum.org


Although Jansenism spread quickly across Western Europe, it found its largest base of support in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. One of the most well-known centers of Jansenist thought was Port-Royal-des-Champs, a Cistercian abbey located just outside Paris. The abbey was managed by Jacqueline-Marie-Angélique Arnauld, the sister of Antoine Arnauld. Antoine Arnauld’s work Moral Theology of the Jesuits would prove to be one of the most influential works of early Jansenism, meriting a rebuttal from the Jesuit side.


The famous mathematician Blaise Pascal was another major proponent of Jansenism during the seventeenth century. Beyond his scientific pursuits, Pascal was also an accomplished writer who held strong religious convictions in his later life. Starting in 1656, he authored a collection of letters known today as the Lettres Provinciales — documents written under a pseudonym criticizing Jesuit rhetorical methods.


Behind an often thinly veiled disguise, Pascal made use of humor and vicious polemical attacks on the Jesuits. An angry King Louis XIV banned Pascal’s work in 1660 and called for its destruction. However, it seems the Lettres Provinciales continued to maintain a reader base underground.


The Formulary Controversy and Unigenitus

King Louis XIV, by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701, Source: Sotheby’s


After the promulgation of Cum occasione, the Church’s struggle with Jansenism would only intensify. Pope Alexander VII continued the papacy’s campaign to stamp out what he regarded as a new heresy. To follow up Ad sanctam, he declared in 1665 that French priests had to submit to a formulary affirming their condemnation of Jansenist teachings. This policy was spearheaded once again by King Louis XIV, who had just started ruling France on his own four years earlier. The King could not stand priests who challenged his authority or his precious ties to Rome.


Some priests did agree to the Pope’s formulary, but many others refused. For the next fifty years, the so-called formulary controversy would lead to the publication of polemics by both the Jansenists and the Jesuits. For Louis XIV and the Pope, the final straw would be the priest Pasquier Quesnel’s book Moral Reflections on the New Testament. Royal and Jesuit patience had worn thin.


Illustration of the controversy over the apostolic constitution Unigenitus, Source: OpenEdition Journals


The controversy reached a head between 1709 and 1713. Louis XIV ordered the destruction of Port-Royal-des-Champs and forced the nuns out. In September 1713, under pressure from Louis, Pope Clement XI would issue the most important papal bull of the controversy: the Unigenitus. This apostolic constitution fully condemned not only the older teachings of Cornelius Jansen but also Quesnel’s book in 101 provisions. While the Catholic Church would no longer tolerate Jansenism, the movement still would not die. Unigenitus would ultimately divide the French church for decades to follow.


Was Jansenism Calvinism in Disguise?

Plan of Port-Royal-des-Champs, based on engraving by Louise-Magdeleine Horthemels, c. 1710s, Source: my-art-prints.co.uk


One common accusation lobbed at Jansenist sympathizers was that they were actually Reformed Protestants in disguise. In the post-Reformation era, being equated with Jean Calvin was equivalent to the worst form of heresy. Yet no evidence indicates that followers of Jansen’s teachings had Calvinist sympathies.


Jansenists did share several doctrinal similarities with Calvinism, such as their emphasis on the nature of divine grace and predestination. However, they approached these important theological doctrines from a completely different origin point. Jansenists were not interested at all in breaking with the Catholic Church. Instead, they sought to reform it from within by bringing its teachings more in line with their interpretation of Saint Augustine’s writings.


Any similarities Jansenist beliefs shared with Calvinism were simply the result of textual interpretation. Jesuit-aligned clerics merely used accusations of Calvinist sympathies to delegitimize their theological opponents.


Jansenism in the Eighteenth Century and Beyond

Pages from La Vérité des Miracles Opérés à l’Intercession de M. de Pâris et Autres Appelants, by Louis Basile Carre de Montgeron, 18th century, Source: the University of Notre Dame


In spite of the efforts of Louis XIV and the Pope, Jansenism did not disappear after the autumn of 1713. In fact, the opposite happened. Among lower-ranking priests, Jansenist theology retained a widespread following during the eighteenth century. Jansenists were overjoyed when fearful European kings started to suppress the Jesuits. In France, they took an active role in the crackdowns, which culminated in the Society of Jesus’ dissolution in 1764.


Yet French society would change dramatically at the turn of the nineteenth century. During the French Revolution, many churches were closed or even vandalized. This persecution did not last for very long, but the new French state did seek to exert complete authority over the Catholic Church. As the nineteenth century went on and the Church’s direction changed, organized Jansenism faded away.


Although the Jansenist movement disappeared, many of its ideas would find a new life in Church teaching after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). During this monumental event in church history, the Church made the use of vernacular languages official and strengthened the role of the laity. The Jesuits may have outlasted their rivals, but in a sense, the Jansenists got the last laugh.

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By Greg PasciutoBA HistoryGreg is a Stonehill College graduate and aspiring writer and editor from Boston, MA. When he isn’t working his full-time job, you might find him reading, completing creative word searches, or just looking to learn new skills for life. His historical interests are particularly centered on the history of religion and the interactions of different cultural groups. Not limited to a single geographic region, Greg enjoys uncovering the stories of cultures all around.