In 1640, a theological treatise entitled Augustinus was published posthumously. Its subtitle was St. Augustine’s Teaching against the Pelagians and the Massalians on The Health, Sickness, and Medicine of Human Nature. Its author was Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), who had been a professor at the University of Leuven and Bishop of Ypres, Flanders. In it, Jansen opposed certain Jesuit theologians, such as Luis de Molina, for their conception of grace and divine predestination. He defended instead what he took to be St. Augustine’s doctrine on these matters. Before long, proponents of this school of Augustinianism were branded Jansenists by their opponents. Moreover, very soon they were widespread in France, thanks largely to one of Jansen’s like-minded friends from his student days, Jean du Vergier de Hauranne (1581-1643), better known as the Abbé de Saint-Cyran. Saint-Cyran exerted this influence as a spiritual director and confessor of the Abbey of Port-Royal des Champs and through his association with the Arnauld family. Among the most influential figures associated with Port-Royal and the Jansenist movement were the Arnauld siblings (Marie-Angélique, Agnès, and Antoine) and Blaise Pascal. The movement was opposed vehemently by Jesuits, French monarchs, and was even censured by various popes. Many historians believe that, though long gone, the Jansenist controversy influenced the development of modernity and the Church decisively. 

In this interview, Dr. Shaun Blanchard will discuss the Jansenist controversy, its impact, and some of the best books on the subject.

Shaun Blanchard is Lecturer in Theology on the Fremantle campus of the University of Notre Dame Australia. He writes on a variety of topics in early modern and modern Catholicism, publishing in outlets like Commonweal, America, Church Life Journal, and The Tablet. He is the author of The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II: Jansensism and the Struggle for Catholic Reform (OUP: 2020) and, with Ulrich Lehner, co-edited The Catholic Enlightenment: A Global Anthology (CUA: 2021). With Stephen Bullivant, he co-wrote Vatican II: A Very Short Introduction (OUP: 2023) and with Richard T. Yoder, he has co-edited Jansenism: An International Anthology (CUA Press, forthcoming 2024).

  1. The Provincial Letters
    by Blaise Pascal
  2. Adoration and Annihilation: The Convent Philosophy of Port-Royal
    by John J. Conley S.J.
  3. The Wanton Jesuit and the Wayward Saint: A Tale of Sex, Religion, and Politics in Eighteenth-Century France
    by Mita Choudhurye
  4. The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791
    by Dale K. Van Kley
  5. Jansenism: An International Anthology
    by Shaun Blanchard and Richard T. Yoder
Five Books for Catholics may receive a commission from qualifyng purchases made using the affliate links in this post.

You opened a 2018 article in Church Life Journal by mentioning how, “Every now and then a friend or colleague asks me some variant of the question: ’So, what was Jansenism?’ ” What’s your answer to that question?
At the time, I was struggling to answer that question and so I wrote a short online essay about it. Now, I would say that Jansenism was an extreme Augustinian reform movement that arose primarily in France. It was a movement that changed, developed, and was exported to various places. However, the French scholar, Simon Icard, says that there are two fundamental lines of continuity: the rigorous predestinarian, Augustinian view of divine grace and an apocalyptic view of history, a specific form of apocalypticism. Icard has convinced me of this with his wonderful new book L'Apocalypse janséniste: Port-Royal et la défense de la vérité. Its continuity lies in its extreme form of Augustinianism and an apocalyptic interpretation of Church history. However, as I explained in my article, Jansenism is very diverse and the term has been used as a symbolic shorthand for all kinds of tendencies, ideals, and problems.

"Jansenism developed into a holistic critique and even an attack on one of the predominant forms of Catholicism:  the ultramontane model of the Jesuits. In France, this turned into a tug-of-war between competing groups and interests."

What were the central Jansenist theses on grace, divine predestination, Christian moral life, and the hierarchical structure of the Church?
A great way to understand Jansenism is to go back to the period prior to the nuns of Port-Royal and even Jansen himself.

A series of disputes arose within the Catholic Church during the sixteenth century. Besides Luther and Calvin, there was the Jesuit Luis de Molina and his theory of middle knowledge.

Molina was trying to hold together this old philosophical and pastoral problem of God's absolute power. Clearly, there are passages in Scripture about predestination. Christians also believe that God has given humans free will, desires that all be saved, and that humans stand with life and death before them. How do we reconcile these two beliefs, within the bosom of the Church, notwithstanding all the debates with Protestant reformers? There was the Dominican position, which stressed God’s action moving humans to repentance and good works (they called it “physical premotion”), and the Jesuits’s possibly more positive view of the human will, which came to be called Molinism. All of this came to a head in the De auxiliis controversy. This controversy lasted long and ultimately was inconclusive. The papacy was trying to hold together unity in difference. There really are different ways of resolving this conundrum.

Cornelius Jansen was a Dutch Scripture scholar and a professor at the University of Louvain. Eventually, he was made a bishop. He believed that the way to solve this problem was to go back to what he took to be the pure teaching of St. Augustine, the one who interpreted Scripture correctly.

The Catholic University of America Press has published a translation, prepared by my friend and colleague Guido Stucco, of part of Jansen's massive three-volume work on the matter.

Jansen argued that the Dominicans were not heretical but that we should jettison all their confusing mediaeval scholastic terminology and return to Augustine. However, he made very strong accusations against the Jesuits. Essentially, he believed that they were semi-Pelagians. Without being as bad as Pelagius, they had revived a caffeine-free, diet version of Pelagianism that was wreaking great theological and pastoral damage. Jansens’s successors, such as Arnauld and Pascal, connected this to a critique of Jesuit moral theology and practice in the confessional.

This was a wholesale attack on the Jesuits. Linked with the Jesuits was their support of the papacy or what we would now call ultramontanism. In fact, it was around this time that the term, ultramontanism, began to be used. Consequently, the Jansenists eventually became strongly aligned with anti-ultramontanism, though they were not anti-papal as such. Rather, they believed that papal authority had gotten out of control and had to be reined back in.

One of the Jansenists that I discuss in my first book, which was on the Synod of Pistoia, said that the successor Peter had exchanged the keys of the Kingdom – of a Fisherman – for the tiara of an emperor.

Hence, Jansenism developed into a holistic critique and even an attack on one of the predominant forms of Catholicism:  the ultramontane model of the Jesuits. In France, this turned into a tug-of-war between competing groups and interests.

Were the Jansenists guilty, as was commonly alleged, of crypto-Calvinism?
That is a great question. Certainly, crypto-Calvinism was a very common allegation. Each side had conspiracy theories about the other. The anti-Jansenist conspiracy theory was that they were really deists who were trying to destroy the Church from within by injecting it with Calvinist pessimism and thereby distancing people from the sacraments. Then there were anti-Jesuit conspiracy theories.

The initial accusation was that the Jansenists were crypto-Calvinists. This was a serious accusation in France in the wake of the wars of religion which, though not motivated solely by religion, did involve a hostility between Calvinists and Catholics.

If one sees their Augustinian theses as Calvinistic, then the Jansenists were Calvinists. However, Jansen did not get his ideas from Calvinists as such. The accusation falls apart when you look at the holistic perspective of the Jansenists, which includes standard accepted Catholic views on the sacraments and many other things.

If we take the 1640 publication of Jansen's Augustinus as the year of Jansenism’s birth, is it possible to date its death?
Yes. Another great question. Personally, I would argue that, as a movement that has vital force within the Church, it is dead by the 1820s or 1830s. The last real offensive and push for Jansenist reform was in the 1790s. The most important of the Italian leaders, Pietro Tamburini and Scipione de’ Ricci died in 1810 and 1827 respectively. Henri Gregoire, one of the constitutional bishops, that is, one of the bishops who supported certain stages of the French Revolution, died in 1831. After that, nobody holding significant offices in either the Church or the State promoted Jansenism. There were isolated, individuals who thought Jansenism was good or right. However, the movement died around 1830. The election of Pope Gregory XVI in 1831 opened the age of Ultramontanism. The Jansenists movement, therefore, lasted for around two hundred years.

You have argued that the accusations of Jansenism that are sometimes bandied around today constitute a misuse of the term. Jansenism no longer exists. What do people mean today when they call someone a Jansenist?
Yes, it is a very common accusation. One reason I became interested in this whole era and these conflicts was that, as a graduate student and recent Catholic convert, I would hear this term. It was so surprising. I did not know what it meant.

Once I was acting as a campus minister in Wisconsin and a young man came up to me. He had just been to confession and was worried because the priest had told him that he was being too much of a Jansenist. He did not know what that meant. I told him, “Do not worry. He means that you need to take it easy on yourself. Maybe you are judging yourself a bit too strictly.” The young man was obviously very scrupulous and so he was relieved.

My point in bringing up this somewhat silly story, although maybe not an uncommon sort of story, is that there is a pastoral use of the term. The pastoral use of the term is somewhat akin to the way people in Protestant communities might tell someone not to be a Puritan and have a beer at the church cookout. It can be harmless to use ‘Jansenist’ in this way.

My problem is with those who use ‘Jansenist’ as a slogan or accusation to shut down a debate. Without wanting to wade into controversial territory, take the debate over Amoris laetitiae. This is a debate over serious issues and there are good people who disagree about the conditions for the reception of communion by couples who have divorced and remarried. In the article you mentioned, I was arguing that we should not call our opponents Jansenists but take what they are saying seriously. There are important issues over which people of goodwill disagree. We should argue the issues, not just smear each other. Some do not like Cardinal Burke. Fine, but they should not call him a Jansenist. Some do not like Cardinal Kasper and were calling him a Jansenist because he allegedly supposed that divine grace would not actually help people obey the commandments. Calling someone a Jansenist can be a lazy smear.

"We can understand certain important psychological, theological, and ecclesial dynamics by looking at the Jansenist controversy and studying it closely."

If Jansenism is long dead and gone, why do we still need to take Jansenism into consideration?
Yes, it might seem to be a bit contradictory to claim that it is so important but has been dead for almost two hundred years.

We can understand certain important psychological, theological, and ecclesial dynamics by looking at the Jansenist controversy and studying it closely. I shall mention just one of the many examples that I could give.

Right now, there is quite a charged debate in the English-speaking world about papal authority; about the role of bishops, bishops’ conferences, and the laity; about synodality; about the reception of disciplinary and doctrinal decrees. Like any other group of humans, we sometimes feel that we are experiencing something unprecedented. Americans, for example, love to say that such and such a thing is unprecedented in the history of the Presidency. Usually, it is not.

The same might be going on in the Church. The Jansenist conflict can illuminate how Catholics have dealt with these same debates in healthy or unhealthy ways, a productive or unproductive manner. That is why I go back to it when I teach.

Last semester, for example, I taught a class on the liturgy and the Eucharist for seminarians and theology majors. I went back to some of the eighteenth-century debates and pastoral problems, and looked at how those tensions were resolved. Whatever is going now on has happened before. In this regard, the Jansenist movement can help us understand ourselves better, why we are where we are, and maybe how we can avoid repeating some of the same mistakes.

Three popes issued documents condemning Jansenism. There was Innocent X’s bull Cum occasione (1653), Alexander VII’s bull Ad sanctam beati Petri sedem (1656) and the apostolic constitution Regiminis Apostolici (1665), which contained a Formula of Submission for the Jansenists, and Clement XI’s bull Unigenitus (1713). Could you briefly explain the motive, teaching, reception, and impact of these papal documents?
The first one is the easiest to explain. Cum occasione is Innocent X’s condemnation of Jansenism.

At the time, doctrinal censure would begin in a university faculty or with the local bishop, and, eventually, make its way to Rome. The theology faculty at the Sorbonne, Paris, had extracted nine propositions from Jansen's Augustinus. A Roman committee narrowed it down to five propositions. Pope Innocent signed off on it and promulgated it.

So, it was a condemnation of five propositions that, allegedly, were to be found in Jansen's book. Four were condemned as heretical; one as erroneous and proximate to heresy. However, it did not clearly state that Jansen was a heretic or that his Augustinus was heretical because these propositions were definitely in it.

Regiminis Apostolici gave rise to the Formulary Crisis. The Jansenists responded by accepting the right of the pope to condemn error but disputed that these propositions were in fact in the book. This annoyed Louis XIV. Sick of the Jansenists and their distinctions, he asked Rome for a clearer condemnation. Innocent X’s successor, Alexander VII, came up with a formulary that the Jansenists had to sign and acknowledge that the condemned propositions were in fact in the book and had been condemned in the way that the author intended them. The formula thereby aimed to close off the loopholes, because the Jansenists danced around the condemnation by claiming that the book and its propositions had an orthodox interpretation. Now they would have to view the book as heretical or at least doctrinally problematic.

A couple of years later, there was a tacit peace: the Peace of the Church. Essentially, the next Pope permitted the distinction between fact and right: that the pope has the right to condemn error but was not making a judgement about Jansen or his intent. That peace broke down in the late 1600s for a variety of reasons. There were personal rivalries. Fénelon, for example, was deeply anti-Jansenist. There were theological arguments between the doctors at the Sorbonne. The whole controversy flared back up and the standard-bearer of the second generation of Jansenists was Pasquier Quesnel, a former Oratorian and the author of a very influential biblical commentary, Moral Reflections on the New Testament.

Now really sick of Jansenism, Louis XIV destroyed its centre, the Convent of Port-Royal. The exiled nuns were separated and forced to transfer into different religious houses around France. Louis XIV then solicited from Rome a definitive condemnation of Jansenism. The committee in Rome did not want to make the same mistakes as Cum occasione, so they extracted verbatim 101 statements from Quesnel’s commentary. Clement XI condemned the propositions but once again there was some ambiguity. He did not distinguish which of these were heretical, which ones were erroneous, and which were offensive to pious ears. All were condemned indistinctly at the end. There was a global condemnation of them all which listed all of the possible censures but did not specify to which propositions each one applied. For decades afterward, theologians wrote dissertations on the bull and argued about which censure each of the propositions fell under.

Although Unigenitus aimed to be more exact than the initial condemnations, it still generated a huge amount of theological controversy. In France, it also generated much political controversy because it was seen as a struggle between the absolutist monarchy—which, ironically for Gallican France, was linked with the papacy—and the authority of the local clergy and the parliaments. Unigenitus became a lightning rod of division, even for people who had no interest in debating divine grace, free will, and similar matters.

"This is a very sad episode in Church history. There were very good people on each side of this dispute."

Were the Jansenists treated fairly?
It is safe to say that they were treated unfairly. Nevertheless, they brought a lot of their problems on themselves. In this sense, it was the reverse of the adage from Alice in Wonderland that “everybody has won and all must have prizes.” Rather, it was a case of “A pox on everybody's house.”

This is a very sad episode in Church history. There were very good people on each side of this dispute, but because of some sinful personalities, personal rivalries, and powerful competing systems (the French monarchy and the papacy), it turned into a regrettable episode.

As a twenty-first-century Catholic, the Jansenist view of divine grace is quite foreign to me. It is also quite bleak if we hope for the salvation of all. It endorses the old and horrifying notion of the massa damnata: the idea that the great majority of human beings will be damned. Nevertheless, those of Jansen’s opponents who emphasised free will did not necessarily believe that the majority of people would avoid damnation. Hence, these debates about grace and penance can seem foreign to us. We have certainly and, in my view, fortunately, moved away, as a Church, from many of the Jansenist ideas. Nevertheless, the Jansenists also upheld some beautiful aspects of the Catholic faith, such as the importance of reading Scripture, the liturgy, the right of lay people to speak their minds, the dignity of the office of local bishop. Jansenism was a mixed bag.  The way their condemnation was handled was a catastrophe. Like the First World War, holistically it is hard to say who was right and who was wrong.

Were the Jansenists and Jesuits archenemies?
They certainly were. Like the Jansenists, the Jesuits held certain ideals from which we have moved away but they also preserved some beautiful aspects of the Christian faith as well.  There were remarkable people on each side of this sad, fiery, and divisive conflict, whether it be courageous Jesuit missionaries or the amazing nuns of Port-Royal.

Theological disputes and political motivations were often intertwined in the opposition to Jansenism. What were the political motives for opposition to Jansenism?
Jansenism becomes a movement during a time of civil instability in France. During a period of civil war, the Jansenists are seen to side with the nobility against the king in some cases, and in some cases they did. Through the Arnauld family, the Jansenists always had a connection with the parliaments, which were a soft check on royal power. Theoretically, Louis XIV emerged from these civil wars an absolutist king. As with the papacy, there were always practical, pragmatic checks on his power. Louis XIV decided that the Jansenists were infected with a kind of subversiveness or disobedience. They wanted to debate his ideas or decrees rather than obey him. The king tied his authority to the papacy. He wanted his authority and throne to be clearly aligned with the papal altar. This was ironic, given the conflict between Gallicanism and Ultramontanism. The Jansenists were in opposition to this. The Pope was not on their side, in theory at least, because he had condemned Jansen's book. The king was not on their side because he saw them, like the Protestants and other political enemies, as one of the many factors that was destabilising France. Moreover, he treated all his enemies in the same way.

Jansenist ideas and texts were exported around the Catholic world. As a result, there were Jansenist sympathisers from Mexico to Lebanon. In Latin America, they argued for republicanism against the Spanish or Portuguese crown. Enlightened absolutists, such as Joseph II of Austria, were often philo-Jansenists. These iterations of Jansenism’s influence were political, but religious ideals (especially ecclesiological ideals) were always present as well. However, it originated within a particular situation in France.


The first recommended book is Pascal’s The Provincial Letters. This series of eighteen fictitious letters was published between 1656 and 1657. In them, M. Louis de Montalte informs his friend in the provinces of the theological disputes raging in Paris. The first four letters deal with grace. The rest are an attack on the casuistry of certain Jesuit moral theologians. Pascal used the Summula casuum conscientiae of Antonio Escobar SJ as his sourcebook of the casuists’s opinions and Antoine Arnauld’s Théologie morale des Jesuites to critique them. Why does this book top your list?
Well, reading The Provincial Letters is an exciting and enjoyable way to enter into the conflict. Why did this conflict matter to so many people? There would have been so many people walking around in Paris who had no interest in the De auxiliis controversy. They did not know anything about Thomist views of physical premotion or the Molinist doctrine of middle knowledge. However, The Provincial Letters brought a very scholastic theological debate into the mainstream culture.

This post is for paying subscribers only

Sign up now and upgrade your account to read the post and get access to the full library of posts for paying subscribers only.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in