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Definition: Jansenism from The Macquarie Dictionary

a doctrinal system which maintained the radical corruption of human nature and the inability of the will to do good, and that Christ died for the predestined and not for all people.

Etymology: from Cornelis Jansen, 1585--1638, Dutch Roman Catholic theologian

Summary Article: Jansenism
from Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology

Named after Cornelius Jansen (1585–1638), bishop of Ypres and author of the posthumously published Augustinus (1640), Jansenism refers to a movement within Catholic theology that was influential in France and the Low Countries from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century. Especially in its early period, the Jansenist spirituality practised by the nuns of the convent of Port-Royal-des-Champs and their sympathizers (including B. Pascal) took the form of a moral and sacramental rigorism that included wariness of frequent participation in the Eucharist. In this as well as in their teaching on grace and sin, Jansenists stood in stark and deliberate opposition to the theology and practice of the Jesuits, who coined the epithet ‘Jansenist’ as a derogatory term for their opponents.

As the title of Jansen’s treatise suggests, Jansenists advocated a strongly Augustinian interpretation of Christian doctrine. Jansen’s views had been formed in opposition to the Catholic theological position known as Molinism, according to which the choices of free creatures, though infallibly known by God, are nevertheless independent of God’s will (see Middle Knowledge). Jansenists regarded this attempt to defend human free will against the threat of divine determinism as an attack on the sovereignty of God’s grace that amounted to semi-Pelagianism. At the same time, the Jansenist emphasis on the degree to which original sin vitiated human freedom, their corresponding stress on the sufficiency of grace, and their teaching on predestination were viewed by opponents as indistinguishable from the tenets of Reformed theology as defined at the Synod of Dort.

Though Augustinus was condemned by the papacy as early as 1642 for violating a moratorium on publication of works on grace, the controversy came to a head in 1653, when Pope Innocent X (r. 1644–55) issued the bull Cum occasione, which condemned five propositions associated with Jansen’s book, including irresistible grace, limited atonement, and the claim that even the just are unable to obey God’s commands by their own efforts. The Jansenist theologian A. Arnauld (1612–94) responded by accepting the pope’s condemnation of the five propositions, but denying that they were to be found in Augustinus. He went on to argue more generally that, while the magisterium had the power to decide matters of doctrine (e.g., whether the five propositions were orthodox), it had no authority to pronounce on matters of fact (e.g., whether those propositions were in Augustinus).

Though Arnauld’s distinction between doctrine (droit) and fact (fait) was rejected both by the University of Paris and by Pope Alexander VII (r. 1655–67), his decision to defend himself by reference to questions of ecclesiology (rather than by explicitly opposing papal teaching on sin and grace) set the tone for much later Jansenist apologetics. Further papal condemnations of Jansenist positions over the following decades were associated with increased attention among Jansenists to the specifically ecclesiological implications of their theology of grace, leading eventually to the conclusion that the integrity of the Church was a function of its devotional and sacramental practice rather than of doctrinal unanimity as defined by the magisterium.

See also Appellancy.

  • Abercrombie, N., The Origins of Jansenism (Oxford University Press, 1936).
  • Delumeau, J., ‘Jansenism’ in Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire: A New View of the Counter-Reformation (Westminster Press, 1977 [1971]), 99-128.
  • Ian A. McFarland
    © Cambridge University Press 2011

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