On Thursday April 15, 2010 Fr. John Conley, S.J. presented a lecture at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore (one of 28 Jesuit institutions of higher learning in the USA) on the seventeenth century heresy of Jansenism in France: "Authority and Freedom: Learning from the Jansenists”. (The lecture’s presenter introduced Fr. Conley as a “specialist in feminist philosophy”.) More accurately, the talk emphasized a particular aspect of the Jansenist reaction to ecclesial attempts to eradicate the controversy.
Fr. Conley graciously provided a helpful abstract:
During the Jansenist controversy, the philosophers Antoine Arnauld and Blaise Pascal developed droit/fiat distinction to circumscribe ecclesial authority. The distinction claimed that the church could bind the conscience of its members on matters of droit (issues of faith and morals) but not on matters of fait (issues of fact). Using this distinction, Jansenists assented to the magisterium’s judgment that certain theories of grace were heretical but dissented from its judgment that Jansenius had actually defended such theories.
The droit/fiat distinction not only represents an effort of the Catholic philosophical tradition to articulate the relationship between authority and freedom in early modernity; it parallels and illumines certain contemporary Catholic dualisms on the relationship between ecclesiastical authority and personal conscience.
My Thursday visit to the Loyola University Maryland campus in Baltimore City was my first. It had a positive experience. The small and traditional campus was beautiful in springtime. I was very much edified that the Jesuit Catholic University had a crucifix on the classroom wall and that the presenter and another priest in the lecture audience wore clericals clearly identifying the university’s mission and personal consecrations to God and to the Church, respectively.
Such dualisms appeal to the difference between doctrine and discipline, moral principles and prudential application, and infallible and noninfallible teaching. This baroque creation of the Catholic tradition provides and account of freedom in an ecclesial context that can instruct contemporary Catholic philosophers in our efforts to clarify the nature and limits of church authority.
Through Fr. Conley’s lecture, I gained a bit of fluency in the controversy and heresy of Jansenism. Here we go with a general outline…
The controversy and heresy of Jansenism occurred after the publication of Bishop Cornelius Jansen’s (1585-1638) work Augustinus (1640). This was a time in France when the ideas of John Calvin(1509-1564) on grace and freedom, contrary to Catholic teaching, began to take hold in parts of France. (This was a time in which King Louis XIV (1643-1715) exiled the Archbishop of Paris, tried to suppress the Jesuits and persecuted Protestants.) Pope Urban VII in 1641 condemned the polemical work on prudential grounds in an attempt to quell the violent controversies on grace and freedom.
To protect the faithful from unsound teaching, both Popes Innocent X and Alexander VII condemned 5 propositions on the nature of grace and freedom attributed to Jansen’s Augustinus as heretical. The five propositions condemned in 1653 are:
Some of God’s commandments are impossible to just men who wish and strive (to keep them) considering the powers they actually have, the grace by which these precepts may become possible is also wanting;
In the state of fallen nature no one ever resists interior grace;
To merit, or demerit, in the state of fallen nature we must be free from all external constraint, but not from interior necessity,
The Semipelagians admitted the necessity of interior preventing grace for all acts, even for the beginning o faith; but they fell into heresy in pretending that this grace is such that man may either follow or resist it;
In 1664, Pope Alexander VII, required ecclesiastics and men and women religious to subscribe to the following formula:
To say that Christ died or shed His blood for all men, is Semipelagianism.
Many clergy, men and women religious could indeed in conscience and obedience subscribe to the condemnation of the five heretical propositions as contrary to the Catholic faith on different aspects of the nature of freedom and grace but many could not affirm that these five errors were held by Jansen or were to be found in his work or in his work as he intended. Many could not accept that Jansen actually accepted these heresies which closely aligned with the polemics of John Calvin. Others simply could not assent to “that something is in a book that they have never seen” — a quite reasonable objection indeed!
I, (Name), submitting to the Apostolic constitutions of the sovereign pontiffs, Innocent X and Alexander VII, published 31 May, 1653 and 16 October, 1656, sincerely repudiate the five propositions extracted from the book of Jansenius entitled 'Augustinus', and I condemn them upon oath in the very sense expressed by that author, as the Apostolic See has condemned them by the two above mentioned Constitutions (Enchiridion, 1099).
Many believed that the Church erred in judging “textual fact” by including “in the very sense expressed by that author”. Some Jansenists began to distinguish between law (droit — matters of faith and morals) and fact (fait — empirical fact) in order to assent to the formula.
That’s the broad outline of Fr. Conley’s lecture.
I’m sure many would see in such an incident in ecclesial history precedent that the Church was wrong and would try to cite it as a model in challenging “church authority” or "appeasing erroneous conscience" today especially in matters of morals and discipline. In my estimation, the “formula incident” confirms the Catholic Church's pastoral care and safeguarding of truth in seventeenth century France …but with the wrong means.
(I can quickly think of one among many “wrong means” incidents in history …that of President Lincoln rescinding the order of one of his generals who, during the US Civil War, issued a proclamation freeing some slaves which he had not the authority to do. President Lincoln demonstrated that the wrong means could not be used toward a good and noble end.)
Photo: Stained glass windows. Sainte Chapelle in the courtyard of the Royal Palace. Paris. France.