Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Condemnation of Jansenism

by George E. Tiffany


In this article, George E. Tiffany gives us a breakdown of the condemnation of Jansenism. First, he states how Jansenius came about his theories by misinterpreting the writings of St Augustine. Then, he describes the argumentation Pope Innocent X endured while deciding his course of action against the Five Propositions, which were based on Jansenism. Finally, Mr. Tiffany traces the Jansenists attempts to ignore the papal condemnation until the agreement was reached known as the Peace of the Church, in 1668.

Larger Work

Conference Bulletin of the Archdiocese of New York



Publisher & Date

St. Joseph's Seminary, December 1960


At the University Of Louvain the teaching of Michael de Bay, usually called Baius, on grace, free will and predestination, which had previously been condemned by Pope Pius V in 1567, had keen defenders.1 It remained, however, for Cornelius Jansenius, Professor of Scripture at Louvain and subsequently Bishop of Ypres, to develop the doctrines of Baius to such an extent that they became ever connected with his name. Jansenius had contempt for the scholastic theologians and believed that the true doctrine on grace could be found only in the writings of St. Augustine. He claimed that St. Augustine had so perfected the doctrine of grace that nothing could be added to it; that the theologians could only explain St. Augustine's teaching. This is what Jansenius proceeded to do. Consequently, after studying St. Augustine, Jansenius wrote on grace and free will in a book, which he called Augustinus in memory of the Great Doctor whose doctrine he thought he was correctly interpreting.

Jansenius taught, as did Baius, that supernatural grace was part of the very essence of man. Hence, when grace was lost due to original sin, the nature of man was essentially impaired. If man's nature, then, is essentially corrupt, the will is no longer master of its decisions. Its freedom is only freedom from external violence, not freedom from necessity.2 The will is then incapable of doing good and cannot resist the grace of God.3 It must always obey the strongest impression or, what Jansenius calls, the "delectatio victrix". This means that we must act according to that which gives us most pleasure.4 Jansenius took this doctrine from St. Augustine, but the sense of St. Augustine as seen from the context is this: if we put our happiness in virtue or vice, then virtue or vice will be the ruler of our lives. Due to his theory of knowledge by divine illumination, St. Augustine emphasized to a great extent the part of the will in knowledge. Accordingly, illumination and the consequent delectation affected the will in the process of knowledge. Jansenius overemphasized this. He took the words of St. Augustine to mean that the will is hovering between two attractions and that the stronger is always victorious and draws the assent of the will. According to Catholic theology, the primary object toward which the will is attracted is the bonum in genere, it is not attracted necessarily by the better or the stronger good.

According to Jansenius, fallen man cannot help sinning continually. This is because he is deprived of grace.5 He claims that God refuses to give grace to some people among whom are sinners and infidels, and that those to whom God does give grace cannot resist it.6 In other words, Jansenius denies the doctrine of sufficient grace.7 Grace, in the teaching of Jansenius, necessitates the consent of the will. Thus man sins because he lacks grace and consequently his damnation is not due to his own free will but to the predestination of God who refuses to give him the grace sufficient to be saved. A consequence of this teaching is that Christ did not die for all men and does not wish all men to be saved.8 This is a logical conclusion from the teachings of Jansenius for, if Christ did die for all men, he would have merited grace for all. But, if this were true, then all would be saved since grace is irresistible. But, since in our state of corrupt nature, all do not get grace, then Christ could not have died for those who have not received grace.

Jansenius claimed, as did Wyclif, Luther and Calvin before him, that his teaching was that of St. Augustine. It is not too difficult to understand how he could claim this especially before the contrary was pointed out to him. St. Augustine did not have the precision of expression and theological terminology of the scholastic theologians. In order to emphasize his point against the Pelagians, St. Augustine placed great stress on certain points to the exclusion of others. Sometimes his language can be interpreted in a sense other than that which he meant to convey. Jansenius was too much a representative of the scholastic tradition to approach a theological treatise of the fifth century with an effort to understand the manner in which theology was written at that time. He thus approached St. Augustine as if he were a theologian of the late Middle Ages. For instance, when St. Augustine says that the will is incapable of performing good without the aid of God, he means that the will cannot perform a supernaturally good act without such aid.9 From this Jansenius concluded that the will was essentially deficient and could perform no good work whatever without the aid of grace. Contrary to the interpretation of Jansenius, St. Augustine did not deny free will as a knowledge of the context of his writings should indicate.10 Throughout his works, however, St. Augustine constantly insists that we can do nothing without God. This is true, for man according to his very nature as a creature depends upon the conserving power of God for his existence and activity. 11 Finally, Jansenius claims that his denial of the universal salvific will of God is also derived from the teaching of St. Augustine. In view of the teaching of St. Augustine, however, it is difficult to see how such a claim could be justly made. Jansenius denies that God wills all men to be saved,12 St. Augustine teaches the contrary:

God will have all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth but not in such a way as to take away that freedom of will, by the good or evil use of which every man is most justly judged.13


In the year 1648 Fr. Veron, a Jesuit, published an attack upon the entire system of Jansenius in a work entitled Le Baillon des Jansenistes (The Silencing of the Jansenists). Since this book unequivocally identified Jansenistic doctrine with Calvinism, Antoine Arnauld and his Jansenistic followers had the book brought in July 1648 to the Sorbonne for examination. Such a move was intended to lead to a definite vindication of Jansenism. In fact, it led precisely to the final condemnation of Jansenism in a higher court than the Sorbonne.14 At this time Nicolas Cornet, Syndic of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Paris, stated that it was impossible to pass judgment upon Fr. Veron's work without first having examined the Augustinus of Jansenius.15 This was the origin of the famous Seven Propositions of Cornet which were to be examined and reported on by the Theological Faculty of the Sorbonne. The first five are familiar as the famous Five Propositions of Jansenism; the sixth, that the actions of infidels are sins, is the twenty-fifth of the condemned errors of Baius; the seventh, that the Church formerly taught the insufficiency of attrition for sacramental absolution.16 The Five Propositions, supposed to have been taken from the Augustinus, are as follows:

1. Some commandments of God are impossible even for the just for the grace which would make them possible is lacking.

2. In the state of fallen nature we can never resist an interior grace.

3. To merit or demerit in the state of fallen nature a man does not need freedom from necessity; freedom from coercion suffices.

4. The Semi-Pelagians taught the necessity of interior prevenient grace for every action even for the beginning of faith; they were heretics forasmuch as they considered grace to be such that the human will can either cooperate with it or refuse to do so.

5. It is a Semi-Pelagian error to assert that Christ died and shed His blood for all men.17

Due to a dispute among the members of the Theological Faculty of the Sorbonne, action was not taken on these propositions until September 1649. At that time, however, the Five Propositions were discussed and censured in spite of the opposition of the Parliament of Paris and the Jansenistic members of the Faculty. In spite of the opposition of Arnauld,18 the condemnation of the Faculty was sent to Rome by Bagno, the Papal Nuncio to France, for an authoritative confirmation by the Holy See.19 In Rome little notice was at first taken of the censure of the propositions. Jansenist historians claim that this was due to the Dominicans who suspected that their theological opponents, the Jesuits, were behind the opposition to Jansenism.20 Much can be said for this opinion for the Dominicans had not forgotten the dispute, de auxiliis, with the Jesuits concerning efficacious grace. On that occasion they had failed to get a papal condemnation of the Jesuit opinion on efficacious grace. There were also other reasons on the part of the Holy See itself, which hindered immediate action. It was feared that a condemnation of the Five Propositions would prejudice the Dominican teaching on grace. Such a condemnation could be interpreted by the Jansenists as also applying to the opinions of the Dominican school of theology. In view of the fact that Pope Paul V in 1607 forbade any further discussion concerning the controversial question of grace, Pope Innocent X was reluctant to take definite action lest that dispute should again arise.21 Finally, the pope was extremely anxious to avoid a Gallican Schism in France which could be occasioned by such a condemnation. A hasty decision on such a question could have produced more harm than good.

The opponents of Jansenism in France, however, were anxious for a papal condemnation. In order to urge the pope to act, Isaac Habert, Bishop of Vabres, sent to the pope a letter signed by eighty-five French bishops.22 This letter reached Rome in March 1651 and it was partially instrumental in arousing the Pope to the dangers of Jansenism in France. As a result Pope Innocent X appointed a commission of six cardinals to examine the Five Propositions.23 From March 1651 until May 1653 the Holy See was the scene of both Jansenist and anti-Jansenist activity. Both were desirous of furthering their own aims and of getting a pronouncement by the pope favorable to themselves. The Jesuits were at work in Rome from the beginning. Neither were the Jansenists nor the Faculty of the Sorbonne idle.24 Pope Innocent X finally realized that a condemnation was necessary. He commissioned Francisco Cardinal Albizzi, Accessor of the inquisition, to draw up the Bull of Condemnation. At the last moment the pope was perplexed as to whether he should issue a declaration and thus provoke further controversy. Cardinal Chigi told him that a failure to make a decision after such protracted discussions would give rise to the impression that Jansenism had really been approved. Finally, after the preliminary draft was written and re-written about six times, the pope on May 31, 1653 issued the Bull, Cum Occasione, which condemned the Five Propositions supposed to have been taken from the Augustinus of Jansenius.25 This Bull contains an unconditional condemnation of the Five Propositions with an explanation only for the last. This Fifth Proposition is condemned as heretical in the sense that Christ should have died for the salvation only of the elect, 26 The Bull was a complete defeat for the Jansenists whose efforts at Rome proved to be so unsuccessful, but this condemnation was by no means the end of the Jansenist controversy. In fact, it was the beginning of a second and more complicated period in the entire movement.


Before the Papal Bull had arrived in France, the French court had incurred the displeasure of the Holy See by the imprisonment of Cardinal De Retz, Auxiliary Archbishop of Paris. He was incarcerated because Cardinal Mazarin suspected him of Jansenism. To Rome this was an unwarranted intrusion into ecclesiastical affairs and the rights of the papacy. In order to conciliate the pope, the Nuncio Bagno was received most graciously when he presented the Papal Bull on June 3, 1653. The Nuncio requested Mazarin to issue a royal ordinance for the execution of the Bull throughout France. This was done in July when both the bishops and secular officials were "commanded" by the ordinance to do their part for the publication and execution of the papal condemnation,27 The Bull was by no means received without opposition. Some bishops complained that it had been communicated first to the king instead of to the bishops.28 Others said that the Five Propositions should have been first examined by the bishops of France and only then submitted to the pope's judgment. 29 The Bull owed its acceptance by the bishops primarily to the efforts of Cardinal Mazarin who invited six archbishops and twenty-six bishops to his apartments in the Louvre on July 11.30 He said that they were bound to submit since the condemnation of the Five Propositions was due to the urgent requests of the king and the French bishops. The Archbishops of Rouen and Embrun were in immediate opposition. They claimed that the Bull infringed upon the rights of the Gallican Church and recommended that the papal sentence be examined by a National Council. Mazarin was able to get the Bull accepted by these bishops only when he promised that the word, "command," in the Royal Ordinance be toned down to a "wish".31 The Bull was then finally accepted. In addition, all the bishops admitted that the Five Propositions represented the teaching of Jansenius. Bishop Godeau of Grasse and Vence was selected to draw up a circular to accompany the Papal Bull when it was to be sent to the dioceses for approval. The circular stated that the condemned doctrines were not to be defended, but Jansenius' name was not even mentioned in connection with the propositions.32

Even after the bishops accepted the Bull, opposition was by no means dead. Outwardly everything was quiet for a time. The Jansenists at first observed a policy of silence. Then Bishop Godeau of Grasse and Vence and Bishop Violart of Chalons published in their diocese a work entitled Abregee des Cinq Propositions. It was written in three columns containing the three interpretations to the Five Propositions: Calvinist, Augustinian and Molinist.33 The column which pretended to give the teaching of St. Augustine was a considerable modification of the teaching of Jansenius as revealed in his Augustinus. This action of Bishop Godeau is significant because he was one of the bishops present at Cardinal Mazarin's conference of bishops. It will be recalled that at that time all agreed that the Five Propositions contained the teaching of Jansenius. The purpose of this pamphlet was to convince the reader of the ambiguity of the five condemned propositions and so to render the papal censure ineffectual. The Jansenists then began to spread this treatise on the threefold meaning of the propositions. Antoine Arnauld could keep silent no longer, and so he published four pamphlets intended for the next assembly of the clergy in 1654.34 He intended to prove that the Five Propositions were not in the Augustinus of Jansenius. This opinion of Arnauld is contradictory to his opinion of several years before when in his Second Apology he admitted that the Five Propositions represented the teaching of Jansenius. This point is illustrative of the Jansenist technique of equivocation and contradiction. Such an attitude was the underlying cause of the confusion and complication that eventually resulted before the Peace of the Church in 1668. In the second pamphlet Arnauld reiterated that the teaching of Jansenius was identical with that of St. Augustine and in the third pamphlet he claimed that Rome had only inquired whether the Five Propositions were true or erroneous, not whether Jansenius was their author. 35 Arnauld, however, failed to prevent the bishops from taking further action against Jansenism. Cardinal Mazarin decided to summon the bishops, who were then in Paris, for the purpose of pronouncing a joint condemnation against the threefold meaning of the Five Propositions.36 A committee of eight bishops examined the affair and on March 26, 1954 Bishop Aubusson of Embrun presented the report. He explained that the only question was whether the propositions were those of Jansenius and whether they had been condemned as understood by him. The answer to both questions was in the affirmative. As could be expected, the Jansenists opposed this declaration. In spite of their opposition, a report was sent to the pope.37 It stated without equivocation that the Five Propositions were those of Jansenius and that they had been condemned in the sense understood by Jansenius. Curiously enough, some of the Jansenist bishops signed this report. They claimed that they accepted the papal constitution without reservation, but that in conscience they were uncertain whether the Five Propositions were those of Jansenius.38

On April 23, 1654 in a Decree of the Congregation of the Inquisition, Pope Innocent X answered this report. This answer consisted in placing on the Index of Forbidden Books all Jansenist writings of the previous four years beginning with the Augustinus and including the pastoral letters of the Jansenist bishops and the four pamphlets of Antoine Arnauld.39 Then, after a five months' delay. Pope Innocent X on September 29, 1654 published a Brief which elucidated the precise import of the censures of the Bull, Cum Occasione.40 From the time when Cum Occasione was issued, the Jansenists had been maintaining that the Five Propositions were condemned in themselves without any reference to their author. This was the opinion of some Jansenists especially the bishops, but Arnauld and others at first admitted that the Five Propositions could be found in the text of the Augustinus, but that they had been condemned in a sense other than that which Jansenius understood. This opinion was subsequently to be known as the famous distinction between the fact and the right. The papal Brief of September 1654 was intended to answer this distinction with clear assertions: first, that the propositions were those of Jansenius; second, that the propositions adequately represented the doctrine of Jansenius; third, that they had been condemned precisely as containing the doctrine of Jansenius. With these assertions the Brief entirely destroyed the position of Jansenists.41 The Jansenists tried to avoid the papal condemnation by turning the problem into a textual one. The question of the fact and the right as it was applied to the Five Propositions can be approached in two ways, textually and theologically. It was the intention of the pope to condemn the propositions as heretical, not to discuss whether they were to be found textually in the Augustinus. The Jansenists converted the problem into a textual one as a means of defense and as a basis for argumentation. This was done both by Blaise Pascal and Antoine Arnauld. The former in his Provincial Letters argued as if the textual problem were the principal one, whereas the main issue, as understood by the pope, was a theological one. The theological aspect to the question concerned exactly what was taught and whether it was heretical. And so the pope condemned the Five Propositions as heretical and as representing adequately the teaching of Jansenius. From a consultation of the Augustinus there is abundant evidence that Jansenius teaches the errors condemned in the Five Propositions even though the words are not textually the same in all respects. Because the Jansenists knew that the teachings of the Augustinus could not be sanctioned by the Church, they changed their view of the nature of the dispute to a textual one. This was the only way they could avoid giving either complete submission to the doctrines of the Church or defying the Church by teaching heretical doctrines after the pope had explicitely condemned them.

Antoine Arnauld in the Second Lettre de M. Arnauld stated that the Five Propositions were not to be found in the Augustinus, although he had previously stated the opposite in his Apology. Arnauld claimed that, when the Church gave a decision on points of faith, she could command internal assent, but that the fact, whether Jansenius taught such a doctrine or not, was not a part of the deposit of faith. It follows from this that on a question of fact it is enough to observe a respectful silence. The pope has the ability to declare infallibly on a question of doctrine, but the fact pertaining to the judgment of an individual as heretical does not fall under papal infallibility. For the Jansenists this distinction of Arnauld was to assume enormous importance for it turned the Jansenist controversy into another phase, which no longer concerned the question of grace but rather the question of the infallibility of the Church. Such a distinction enabled the Jansenists for years to ignore the papal condemnation and served to prolong the controversy until 1668 when an agreement was concluded known as the Peace of the Church.42

George E. Tiffany
Cardinal Hayes High School


1 H. Denzinger, C. Bannwart, J. Umberg, Enchiridion Symbolorum, Definitionum et Declarationum, Editio 23, Herder & Co., Friburgi Brisgoviae, 1937, n. 1001-1082.

2 C. Jansenius, Cornelii Jansenii, Episcopi Iprensis, Augustinus seu Doctrina Sancti Augustini, Parisiis, 1641, tomus 3, liber 6, caput 11, p. 279.

3 Ibid., t. 2, 1.3, c. 9, p. 199.

4 Ibid., t. 2, 1.3, c. 2, pp. 178, 186.

5 Ibid., t. 2, 1.4, c. 18, p. 258.

6 Ibid., t. 3, 1.3, c. 4, p. 108.

7 Demonstraturi sumus nullam omnino Christi gratiam infidelibus ad bonum operandum dari, ibid., t. 2, 1.4, c. 23, p. 277; Excaecati et obdurati carent gratia sufficienti qua vident et moveantur ad bonum. ibid., t. 2, 1.3, c. 4, p. 108.

8 Ibid., t. 3, 1.3, c. 20, p. 157.

9 Sancti Aurelii Augustini, Opera Omnia, tomus decimus, pars prior, Parisiis, Gaume Fratres, 1838, De Correptione et Gratia, c. 32, col. 1305; De Praedestinatione Sanctorum, c. 7. col. 1350.

10 Augustine, Contra Secundam Juliani Responsionem Imperfectorum Opus,, 1.4, c. 104, col. 1911, Opera Omnia, tomus X, pars altera.

11 Augustine, De Praedestinatione Sanctorum, c. 5, col. 1349.

12 Jansenius, Augustinus, t. 3, 1.3, c. 20, p. 157.

13 Augustine, De Spiritu et Littera. c .33, p. 58.

14 N. Abercrombie, The Origins of Jansenism, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1936, p. 220.

15 C. Ste.-Beuve, Port Royal, La Connaissance, Paris, 1840, v. II, p. 282.

16 Denzinger, op. cit., n. 1025.

17 Denzinger, op. cit., n. 1092-1096; Ste.-Beuve, op. cit., p. 243.

18 L. von Pastor, History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages, London, 1940, v. XXX, p. 222.

19 Abercrombie, op. cit., p. 224.

20 L. Dupin, Histoire Ecclesiastique du Dix-Septieme Siecle, Chez Prolard, Paris, 1727, v. II, p. 218; Ste.-Beuve, op. cit., II, p. 266.

21 Ste.-Beuve, op. cit.. III, p. 117.

22 Dupin, op. cit., II, p. 218.

23 M. Flizet, Les Jansenistes du Dix-Septieme Siecle, Bray et Retoux, Paris, 1876, p. 239.

24 Ste.-Beuve, op. cit., II, p. 235; III, pp. 112 seq.; Dupin, op. cit.. II, p. 214.

25 Bullarium Diplomatum et Privilegiorum Sanctorum Romanorum Pontificum, Editio Taurinensis, A. Vecco et Sociis Editoribus, 1869, v. XV, p. 720.

26 Bullarium, XV, p. 721; Denzinger, op. cit., n. 1096.

27 H. Dumas, La Paix de Clement IX, Marchand Libraire, Paris, 1700, II, p. 73.

28 Ibid., p. 74.

29 Pastor, op. cit., XXX, p. 284.

30 Ste.-Beuve, op. cit., III p. 123.

31 Dupin, op. cit., II, p. 267.

32 Pastor, op. cit., XXX, p. 285.

33 Dupin, op. cit., II, p. 237.

34 Ste.-Beuve, op. cit., II, p. 125.

35 Pastor, op. cit., XXX, pp. 296-297.

36 Ibid.

37 C. Cochin, Henri Arnauld, Eveque d’ Angers, Auguste Picard, Paris, 1921, p. 154.

38 Ibid., p. 156.

39 Dumas, op. cit., II, p. 299.

40 Pastor, op. cit., XXXI, p. 171.

41 Abercrombie, op. cit., p. 239.

42 Ste.-Beuve, op. cit.. III, p. 133; Pastor, op. cit., XXXI, pp. 174, 398 seq.

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