Sunday, September 14, 2014

Michael Sean Winters on Jansenism

How to annoy a Jansenist. 1 Have lots of processions.
The days roll by, and Michael Sean Winters doesn't get round to correct the spelling of 'Damien Thompson' in his post about Jansenists and Jesuits. By the time you read this, it may have happened, but it is taking a mighty long time, even after Damian himself pointed out the error in the comments box.

Winters' substantive point has a similar level of accuracy. He thinks that the key to Pope Francis' critique of 'moralism', 'legalism', 'ideology' and so on is a rejection of Jansenism. (For my own interpretation, see here.)

Thompson fails to see that the Holy Father, above all, is engaged in an old struggle for the Society of Jesus: He is confronting the Jansenists of our day, the very same conservative Catholics in the English-speaking world whom Thompson thinks have the fire of the Gospel in their bellies. It is not the Gospel, but a hyper-moralistic concern against spiritual contagion that animates the conservatives Thompson champions. And, quite clearly, this is not what animates Pope Francis.

Has Winters even looked up Jansenism in a reference book? He doesn't appear to have a clue about it. They were not 'conservative Catholics': they were crypto-Calvinist heretics.

Leaving the matter at the level of the cartoon history of the Church, the Jansenists were an 18th century group of Catholics, eventually condemned by the Pope, and who eventually formed a schismatic Church in the Netherlands, characterised by a kind of crypto-Calvinism. This manifested itself in the rejection of free will and the notion of cooperation with grace, on which subject they quickly became locked in a ferocious pamphlet war with the Jesuits. The Jansenists included some brilliant polemicists, notably recruiting Blaise Pascal to their cause. The notion of unscrupulous Jesuits working out how to avoid the moral law owes more to these guys than to English or German Protestant polemicists of the 16th and 17th century.

2. Honour a saint (like St Winefride) whose legend is bound up in folklore.
The attack on Jesuit 'laxism', which fitted in so well with earlier critiques of Catholic laxity by Protestants, was only part of their schtick, however. Their biggest effect on the Church has been their attack on popular devotions and the liturgical tradition. In this they were taken up by Enlightenment rulers in various places, notably the Habsburg Grand Duke of Tuscany who called the (false) Synod of Pistoia. This called for a radically simplified liturgy, said aloud, in the vernacular. Other Jansenists wanted to increase the amount of dialogue in the liturgy, getting the people to respond 'Amen' at the end of each prayer of the Canon. Another bugbear were liturgical texts not deemed sufficiently 'scriptural'. Again, they didn't want to see candles or a crucifix on the Altar between services, and just bring them with them as they processed in. Is this beginning to sound familiar?

In the earlier years, they allied with Gallicans who rejected the authority of the Pope. Later, they joined up with the 'Old Catholics' who rejected the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility, gave Episcopal Orders to Anglicans, and are the root of all the loopy 'liberal Catholic churches' you can find on the internet.

3. Or even better, one whose cult, like St Philomena's, is founded on the supernatural.
If we are looking for the present-day successors of the Jansenists, one can't avoid the fact that a number of the mid 20th century liturgical reformers quite explicitly took inspiration from the Jansenists. As far as the liturgy goes, the common thread is unmistakable: a Protestant distrust of medieval developments, non-scriptural devotions and the like, justified in terms of a Enlightenment attack on 'obscurantism'.

There is also a contrast, of course: the original Jansenists preached a very strict morality, in particular keeping people away from the Blessed Sacrament for long periods on the grounds that they needed a more profound 'conversion'. In this respect the Jansenistic impulse has developed in the same way as mainstream Protestantism: having been super strict, now they'll accept anything. The real, continuing Jansenists in Holland have spent recent decades have splits over issues like the ordination of women and openly gay clergy.

Michael Sean Winters has American neo-conservatives in his sights, and while I've plenty of criticisms to make of them, they are not the same criticisms as the ones which should be made of Jansenists. Let's make this really clear.

1. Papal authority: Neo-conservatives have an exaggerated view of it; the Jansenists made the opposite mistake, minimising Papal authority.

2. The effects of sin and grace: Jansenists had an exaggerated (Calvinistic) view of it; Neo-cons, if anything, give insufficient emphasis on the effects of sin and grace.

3. Liturgical participation: the Jansenist view of vocal participation and instant comprehensibility is directly opposed by those neo-cons who have embraced the Reform of the Reform.

Winters just sees some people in the 18th century who claimed to take morality seriously, and he thinks their name applies to anyone who opposes destructive research on human embryos, not just in theory but in practice. That is ridiculous. You could make a very long list of heresies which adopted moral rigorism as a way to impress people with their holiness; they don't necessarily have anything else in common.

4. Celebrate an other-worldly liturgy, using Latin and silence.
For the Jesuits of the 18th century were not really lax. They rejected the simple-minded imperatives of the Jansenists, and developed casuistry, the study of difficult cases. Pope Francis has used 'casuistry' in a pejorative sense, which, if we are in the business of leaping to facile conclusions, would put him on the Jansenists' side of the conflict. But the point of casuistry in the 18th century, and in its proper sense since then, was not to evade the law, but to determine what the law really said.

(Pope Francis' uses of the term 'casuistry' to indicate rigorism, instead of the moral laxism criticised by the Jansenists, just goes to show how useless technical terms become once they are adopted as terms of abuse.)

Jansenism disappeared as a real force in the Church along with the rest of 'Enlightenment Catholicism', Josephism, Febronianism, and the like, with the end of the Napoleonic wars. Thus began the great Catholic revival, particularly in France, which created the institutions and developed the devotions which formed the backdrop to the Second Vatican Council. Rationalism continued to wait in the wings, however, for opportunities to assert itself again. Many Jansenist dreams were fulfilled after the Council. In other cases, the debate had moved on. In some respects the cult of Reason has given way to the cult of the Emotions.

Now things have moved on again. The conservative and traditionalist revival which so alarms Michael Sean Winters is evidence of the perennial appeal of the teaching of the Church. Just when you think you've locked all that medieval nonsense up in a box, out it pops to inspire a new generation.

5. Encourage frequent reception of Holy Communion.
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  1. Yes, 'Jansenist' has, like 'fascist', become a general disapprobative term. The only thing which surprises me in Winters' article is the absence of 'Pharisee' or 'Pharisaical'.

  2. The irony is that Jansenism has become resurgent in the Church, but amongst charismatics, not traditionalists (except in the Ireland and the U.S. where it never went away, but that's another story). In most cases it's influence is on attitudes towards religion and formal worship, but it finds its purest expression in a certain group that will remain nameless, but which causes a great deal of disruption to parish life wherever it is found.

  3. I think you mean the Habsburg Grand Duke of Tuscany who called the Synod of Pistoia...

  4. "Yes, 'Jansenist' has, like 'fascist', become a general disapprobative term."


    One finds a similar criticism made of the old Irish Church, both in Ireland and in America, despite any lack of tangible connection with Jansenist schools or groups in France; what the critics of these Irish clerics really have in mind is mere moral rigorism (which was, indeed, in some cases excessive).

  5. When i was a Charismatic Catholic I read Blaise Pascal's writings. Some of his insights sparkled. An amazing saint.