Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

One of my students, in a paper concerning the Church’s doctrine on the four last things, made the curious comment that God had not “incentivized” salvation appropriately, and thus human beings could not be at fault for their sins. Had God, the student argued, developed an appropriate system of (earthly) reward, salvation would be much easier to achieve. I confess I chuckled at this very utilitarian assessment of the divine plan. And yet, my young student’s remark is emblematic of a deep suspicion of the sufficiency of grace pervasive in our present moment. Underlying this student’s assessment is a way of thinking that plagues many and is particularly germane to the debate surrounding Amoris Laetitia: namely, that God is somehow at fault when we sin.

Within weeks of the public presentation of the dubia concerning Amoris Laetitia by four Catholic cardinals, Michael Sean Winters charged the cardinals with “Jansenism” in an article in the National Catholic Reporter. Across the pond, Piers Paul Read of the Catholic Herald criticized the cardinals in an article titled “The Return of Jansenism.” It is curious, even ironic, to see this old heresy resurrected in modern debates. For it seems that many who have criticized those seeking clarification of Amoris Laetitia are themselves guilty of a new kind of Jansenism—a Jansenism emerging from the twenty-first-century experience, one rooted in presumption rather than despair, but sharing the same pessimism concerning the human condition and the efficacy of God’s love.

Jansenism takes its name from Cornelius Jansenius, a Dutch theologian who died in 1638. His writings gave rise to a complex movement in Catholic thought and practice that prevailed, principally in France, in the seventeenth century. Its adherents adopted a view of Original Sin, grace, and predestination that was said to arise from the teachings of St. Augustine but was ultimately condemned by the Church. The Jansenists rejected free will and man’s ability to cooperate with God’s grace. Their pessimistic view of the human condition led to a rigorist approach to participation in Holy Communion. They taught that most people, even those free from mortal sin, were unworthy to receive Communion. This rigorist position concerning reception of the Sacrament, although not central to Jansenist thought, came to typify Jansenism in the public mind.

Fast-forwarding the controversy to the twenty-first century, Michael Sean Winters writes:

How many times in these pages have I observed that a key hermeneutic in understanding both Pope Francis and his critics is to grasp that he is an old Jesuit and that old Jesuits contend with Jansenists. That is precisely the dynamic at work with these four cardinals. … The problem, I think, is that the four cardinals believe Pope Francis is muddying the waters by reclaiming the church's long standing teachings on conscience, on the difference between objective and subjective guilt, on the application of the church's twin teachings on marital indissolubility and God's superabundant mercy to the human details of a situation, that is discernment, and perhaps most especially, that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, the most Jansenistic of the positions put forward by the critics of Amoris Laetitia. They want to look upon the world through the lens of church teaching and see only black and white, but human lives are grey and when seen through the lens of church teaching, that human greyness should invite compassion not judgment from a Christian pastor. Their approach works for an accountant but not for a pastor (emphasis added).

In propositions, we might summarize Winters’s comments thus: 1) God is superabundant in mercy. 2) The proper interpretation of Amoris Laetitia holds in view that human lives are morally “grey”; hence, it is not realistic to expect actual human beings to conform their lives to moral norms of the faith. 3) The reception of Holy Eucharist, when understood in view of God’s mercy and pastoral compassion, should prescind altogether from any question of moral “worthiness.” 4) Those who seek clarity in the doctrine set forth in Amoris Laetitia, or root themselves in the Church’s revealed understanding of sacramental readiness, are merciless “accountants” who reduce the faith and Holy Eucharist itself to mathematical sterility.

Read’s accusations of Jansenism in the Catholic Herald expressed a similar viewpoint:

Is there a faint echo of the Jansenist controversy in the current dubia drama? No one would suggest that Cardinals Burke, Brandmüller, Caffarra, and Meisner believe in predestination, but they are clearly closer to Antoine Arnauld in their belief that the Eucharist is something so sacred that it should only be given to those in a state of grace; while Pope Francis’s view that it can be regarded as a medicine for ailing souls would seem closer to that of St Margaret Mary and St Claude de la Colombière. (emphasis added)

Laying aside speculation concerning Pope Francis’s viewpoint, which has not been publicly expressed, one sees in Read’s contrast the same concern that animates Winters’s article. Winters objects to restricting Communion to those who have already reached “perfection,” while Read suggests that only a Jansenist would reserve Communion to those in “a state of grace.” Contrasting the twofold exigency of Holy Eucharist—reward and medicine—seems facile at best and disingenuous at worst.

Instructive here would be a glance at a pope whose primary interest was to lower the age of first communion and to affirm daily and frequent communion amidst a climate of lingering Jansenism: Pope Pius X, who writes: “[T]he poison of Jansenism, which had infected even the souls of the good, under the appearance of honor and veneration due to the Eucharist, has by no means entirely disappeared.” With this in view, Pius X instructs that it is “the desire (indeed) of Jesus Christ and of the Church, that all the faithful of Christ approach the sacred banquet daily” in order to receive strength, precisely because Holy Eucharist is not “a reward or recompense for their virtues.” Yet, this same pontiff declared: “Let frequent and daily communion … be available to all Christians of every order or condition, so that no one, who is in the state of grace and approaches the sacred table with a right and pious mind, may be prevented from this.” Pius X clearly sees himself in opposition to the Jansenists, whom he calls by name, and yet he judges that in order to receive Holy Eucharist worthily, “it is enough, nevertheless, that they be free from mortal sins, with the resolution that they will never sin in the future.”

Thus, the criteria governing the worthy reception of communion are freedom from mortal sin and a firm purpose of avoiding sin in the future. Nothing more, nothing less. Pace Read, neither St. Margaret Mary nor St. Claude de la Colombière believed that a person who is in mortal sin should receive Holy Communion. Both Read and Winters level the false accusation of Jansenism against those who merely uphold the perennial teaching of the Church on the worthy reception of the Sacrament. However, they have, even if unwittingly, put their finger on something that is of crucial importance in the Church today.

It takes little inquiry to determine the true heirs of Cornelius Jansenius. Jansenius was himself heir to the debate that had raged for decades between two groups with opposing conceptions of the interrelation between grace and free will: the Baianists and the Molinists. The Baianists began with Luther’s belief in the invincibility of concupiscence and ended by collapsing the order of nature and grace. They believed that there was no such thing as natural virtue, because sin could not be avoided. It was a grim view, which found no virtue even in the noble. The Baianists’ was an alternate universe where Homeric heroes were not courageous, Platonic philosopher-kings were not just, and Stoic orators were not equanimous. Interestingly, the Baianists, for all their pessimism concerning the capacities of ungraced nature, were actually naturalists. For they held that had our first parents never sinned, they would have merited heaven as part of their natural condition. The final and indefectible bond of charity in which heaven consists was, according to the Baianists, owed to human beings as their natural end.

Whereas the Baianists emphasized the role of grace at the expense of free will, the Molinists opted to highlight human freedom. For the Molinists, grace anticipates free will, in that God gives a person efficacious grace precisely because he foresees that the person will consent to it and act virtuously. Jansenius, for his part, sided with the Baianists, composing a volume supposedly founded on the theology of grace in the thought of St. Augustine. Though he died before the volume was completed, Jansenius’s followers extended and popularized his beliefs.

Among the tenets held by the Jansenists were the following, the substance of which had been condemned two hundred years earlier by the Council of Trent:

    • “Some of God’s precepts are impossible to the just, who wish and strive to keep them, according to the present powers which they have; the grace, by which they are made possible, is also wanting.”
    • “In the state of fallen nature one never resists interior grace.”
    • “In order to merit or demerit in the state of fallen nature, freedom from necessity is not required in man, but freedom from external compulsion is sufficient.”

From this we can see that for the Jansenists man has no control over whether or not he sins. He acts from necessity based on what he loves, that which attracts him irresistibly. There are two such loves, or “delectations”: one oriented towards virtue, the other towards vice; one grace, the other concupiscence. Thus the Jansenists reduced morality to meaninglessness. There is no hope here—one inescapably acts according to a delectation that does not in any way correspond to one’s free will. Both merit and damnation are possible without true freedom.

By rendering the will passive, Jansenius removes the very essence of love—freedom. For love under compulsion is hardly love. In the view of Jansenius, our storm-tossed souls merely crest and fall with no possibility of self-control. The upshot: Sin is ultimately God’s fault, rather than ours, because God could place the irresistible love of virtue in our souls, yet chooses not to.

The Church’s response to Jansenism has been a robust theology of grace that emphasizes the grace merited by Christ as necessary for any supernatural act, thus underscoring the distinction between the order of nature and the supernatural order. The Church further maintains that with grace it is possible to avoid each and every mortal sin, that if we fall it is the result of our own misuse of free will, and that grace assists and does not destroy human freedom. God does not command the impossible. Rather, God’s grace is truly sufficient for us—grace that really gives us the power to advance in virtue and overcome sin. Granted, most human beings do not at each and every moment cooperate with this grace, so this “truly sufficient” grace is rendered only “merely sufficient,” as grace fails to have the supernatural effect for which it was intended. In other words, no one sins because he is incapable of doing the good, as the Jansenists said. For Jansenius, there are only two eventualities: Either grace is present in the soul—and it is necessarily efficacious—or grace was never given, and the person could not help sinning. The logical consequence is that if anyone is damned, he is damned unjustly. Such a claim is wholly antithetical to Scripture and tradition.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus arose to counter the effects of Jansenism. Naturally, as Read indicates, the Jansenists were vociferously opposed to this devotion, and in this they had a sort of native understanding of it. For the doctrine of the Sacred Heart is, as Pius XII put it, “not only the symbol but, in a sense, the summary of the whole mystery of our redemption.” In the heart of Christ we find the mystery of the two natures hypostatically united in the one divine Person, Our Lord’s humility in submitting himself to our fallen nature, and the sheer intimacy with which God approaches humanity. If in Deuteronomy Moses could exclaim, “For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?” how much more can we say this after the Incarnation?

In his encyclical on the devotion to the Sacred Heart, Pius XII writes: “[I]t] is only under the impulse of love that the minds of men obey fully and perfectly the rule of the Supreme Being, since the influence of our love draws us close to the divine Will that it becomes as it were completely one with it, according to the saying, ‘He who is joined to the Lord, is one with the spirit’” (emphasis added). Of importance is this: God’s love re-creates our own hearts and conforms them to Himself. This doctrine was intolerable to the Jansenists, who found it offensive both that God’s love was universal and that God’s boundless love did not leave the sinner where he was, but rather raised him up to a new life.

St. Thomas Aquinas offers a useful theological foundation for this understanding of the Sacred Heart. Taking up the question of whether or not God loves all things, St. Thomas writes: “[T]he love of God infuses and creates goodness.” Here he underscores that God’s love effects something new in us that was not there before. God causes love to be in us, raises us to the status of being lovable and of loving Him in return. St. Thomas is careful to note that God’s love is unlike human love in this regard. When human beings love, we merely behold what is lovable in another, affirm it, and desire that it be preserved. But when God loves, He causes goodness and love to exist in the beloved. He raises us up to the level of love: Grace, after all, elevates and perfects nature. This ontological statement can be transposed to the moral order: God’s love causes the soul to be conformed to Him, and this is precisely in what grace consists. Grace makes the moral life possible. In freedom, we can cooperate with the invitation to love and be drawn into the heart of God. This is the essence of the devotion to the Sacred Heart, and an intimacy intolerable to its Jansenist opponents.

Winters and Read (and those who share their view) have this much correct: God is superabundant in mercy. But moral and anthropological pessimism do not do justice to God’s mercy. For God’s superabundant mercy extends to redemption in Christ, who takes on our very nature in the hypostatic union and truly sanctifies our nature interiorly. By sanctifying us in a startlingly intimate way, the merciful God creates love in us—makes us lovable, draws our hearts into his own, and makes us fully free and capable of living the Christian life with vigor and joy. The moral norms of the Church are grounded, therefore, in what we might call a supernatural realism. Contrary to the sentiments of our age, realism is not found in an anthropological pessimism that settles for the “grey” of continually “missing the mark” and denies God’s transformative love. Rather, through faith we know that God’s grace makes us capable of virtue, even at times heroic virtue, as we see in the lives of the saints, who we might say are the most real among us.

We are, indeed, plagued by a new sort of Jansenism, one rooted in presumption rather than despair. The “old” Jansenism arose from both anthropological and theological despair—the Catholic absorption of total depravity, and the loss of hope in the possibility of salvation. Ironically, those who criticize the four cardinals—and anyone who believes that Amoris Laetitia is in need of clarification—often fall into a new form of Jansenism. This “new” Jansenism is marked by a similar pessimism with respect to human nature—total depravity under a new name, whether “weakness” or “woundedness” or “greyness.” And like what preceded it, the new Jansenism articulates a loss of hope in the power of grace to regenerate the soul. The difference is that the new Jansenism tends towards presumption. Whereas the Jansenism of old despaired that anyone could really be loved by God, be good enough to receive Holy Communion, or be saved, its newer version has so little faith in the power of God to change hearts that it presumes God does not care for something so insignificant as the human heart. No, God is too busy to care about my paltry sins. None are loved personally as they are, but rather all are loved in a great, amorphous mass of humanity that could not but be saved. One need not be in a state of grace to receive Holy Eucharist, because the state of grace is not a real possibility for most people.

At first blush, the new Jansenism sounds encouraging—none are guilty, all are saved! In truth, however, a pessimism that would canonize all is only a shade less pessimistic than one that would condemn all to hell. As St. Thomas notes, both despair and presumption are sins against hope.

The supernatural realism espoused by the Church overcomes Jansenism, old and new. It overcomes the human tendency towards pusillanimity, whether born from despair or from presumption, which would shrink back from that life of love that demands conformity—real life. What the Sacred Heart shows symbolically, and revelation confirms, is that God is a jealous God indeed—drawing all men to himself, to be purified in the fire of the heart of God in order to become nothing less than fire. Today we hear much about how arduous the Christian life is, how burdensome its morality, how unyielding its demands. In truth we are in the midst of a crisis of love. For once we are plunged into the fire of God’s love, what else could satisfy? Surely, neither our own paucity, nor any sin.

Jessica M. Murdoch is associate professor of fundamental and dogmatic theology at Villanova University.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles