Is the Pope Catholic?

November 28, 2007

Not according to this website which condemns the 101 heresies of Benedict XVI. By the end of this you begin to feel just a little sorry for the current Bishop of Rome, some of whose heresies are as unobjectionable, one would have thought, as the idea that the Church is in need of Reform! But this isn’t any website. This is the domain of the uber-Feeney-ites for whom the idea that the Church of Rome could possibly err is anathema. This is one hard-core website. This blogger finds the material on the Church and the Jews rather disturbing.

So, why mention it at all. Well, the one redeeming feature of this site is that these guys like Augustine’s theology of grace. And because they like Augustine’s theology of grace they also like Cornelius Jansen, and there are some goodies to be found here. I came across this site a couple of years ago and it is the only place on the web that I have found Jansen’s Augustinus available for download. Yes, all three volumes at around 250Mb.

Also rather tasty, for those without access to EEBO, is The True Idea of Jansenisme by Theophilus Gale, complete with preface by John Owen. The text version on this site appears to be taken from the rather poor EEBO imaging with some loss of text. I have put Owen’s preface in the next post. I have corrected some obvious mistakes in the website’s version and restored all missing text from a copy in the Bodleian. If you think I am going to correct and post the whole book you can think again.

Jansenism is a fascinating phenomenon, but not well known today. A few years ago I was telling a minister friend (who would be the first to admit that he is no church history guru) that one possible avenue for my research would be looking at the relationship between Jansenism and Reformed theology. Thinking I had said ‘Jensenism’, he expressed surprise that I was thinking of writing a thesis on the new Archbishop of Sydney!

No, this was a trajectory within post-Reformation Catholic thought, which emphasised original sin, human depravity, the necessity of God’s grace, and predestination. This repristination of Augustine arose out of the writings of the Louvain theologian Cornelius Jansen and was a reaction against the thought of Luis de Molina who gave greater scope to human free-will through the concept of God’s middle knowledge. The stronghold of Jansenism was the Parisian convent of Port-Royal which would become associated with great names such as Blaise Pascal and Jean Racine.

Jansenism fascinated a number of Reformed theologians. The controversy between Jansenists and Molinists paralled that between Reformed and Arminian Protestants, indeed it seems certain that Arminius himself was heavily influenced by Molinism. Reformed writers were able to make use of this conflict to point out the divisions in the Roman Church, as well as to enlist Jansenist support for their own views on predestination and grace. Jansenism, however, was not Protestantism. It was a highly ascetic and sacramental movement and one which came to put a premium on the miraculous – the carriages of the rich and famous would draw up to Port-Royal to watch the ecstatic ‘convulsions’.

One example of Reformed fascination with Jansenism is the case of Theophilus Gale. He produced The True Idea of Jansenisme in 1669, having spent several years in France in the earlier part of the decade. He had become intrigued by the phenomena of Jansenism and taken the trouble to study the writings of both parties in the dispute. The book is divided into historical and dogmatic sections.

The following gives a flavour of Gale’s assessment:

The Jansenists (as Jansenius and St. Cyran their heads) seem good friends to Justification by Free Grace, and Faith in the blood of Christ, without any regard to human merits as abused in the Popish sense. ‘Tis true they make use of the name merit, but in no other sense than it was used by Austin, without any approbation of the thing, as the ground of Justification. This is manifest not only from their Books, but also by their Practice. It was the usual method of Jansenius, for the comforting of afflicted consciences, to send them to the blood of Christ alone: and Mr. St Cyran seems mighty warme and pressing on this point. The like instances I have had touching others of this persuasion in France, who being to deal with dying persons, insisted much upon pressing them to have recourse to the blood of Christ.

Neither indeed are the Jansenists verst only in speculative and notional, but also in practick and active Theologie; especially the chief of them Jansenius and St. Cyran seem to have had a very deep, broad, spiritual light and insight into the Mysteries of the Gospel, and true Godlines; and I am apt to persuade my self, they had some feeling apprehensions and inward acquaintance with those choice Gospel truths, they commend to others. They talk much of studying the Scriptures, and acquainting our selves with the mind and Spirit of God therein; they presse, with some affectionate importunitie, to the renouncing our own righteousnesse, strength, wisdom, wills, &c. They greatly commend to us spiritual povertie, soul-humilitie, heart-mortification, self-emptinesse, and abjection, &c. These things they insist upon, not according to the Monkish mode of external mortification, but in a Gospel strain, with so much meeknesse of wisdom, and yet with so much spiritual passion and warmth, as if their words were but sparks, or ideas of that Divine fire which burned in their hearts. This I have particularly observed in Mr. St. Cyrans Epistles, in reading whereof, and comparing his expressions with the Character and Idea I have of his Spirit, and life, I must confesse I have been much recreated. But thus much of their Doctrine.

Gale’s picture of Jansenism is not entirely accurate. His own polemical interests skewed his view of these French theological rebels. He described those who refused to subscribe to the formulary issued to the clergy as ‘Non-Conformists’. In their loss of their livings and readiness to fall under the censure of excommunication, he saw an analogy with his own English non-conformity. His natural sympathy for the Jansenists led him to think that they are more favourable to Protestantism than they in fact were.

And albeit the Jansenists hitherto have not dared to profess any great affection for or inclination towards those of the Reformed Religion; yet ’tis conceived they want it not, but rather the opportunitie.

The occasional volume written against the Calvinists is explained away as a ruse to keep the Jesuits at bay.

For further reading, the best two books to start with are:

Jansenism by William Doyle, a brief but very helpful historical study with an excellent bibliography.  

God Owes us Nothing: Brief Remarks on Pascal’s Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism by Leszek Kolakowski.

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5 Responses to “Is the Pope Catholic?”


  1. Hi,

    Many thanks for your site and this post. Helpful indeed!

    R. Scott Clark
    Westminster Seminary California

  2. RS Says:

    Dr. Clark,
    My pleasure. Thanks for taking the time to read.
    Richard.

  3. GLW Johnson Says:

    Back in 1978 I took a historical theology class with Bob Godfrey at Westminster theological seminary in Phila. and wrote a reseach paper on Blaise Pascal and have been fascinated by Jensenisn ever since. I was totally unaware of the book you mentioned that carried an introduction by John Owen. Thanks so much.

  4. Russ Says:

    If you find the section on the Church and the Jews disturbing, try their National Socialism Links.

    But the decline of Augustinian doctrine of predesination in the Roman Catholic Church is fascinating; on this, the Jesuits seem to have triumphed decisively over Thomas.

  5. RS Says:

    Yes, scary isn’t it.


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