The term "Jansenist" derives from the name of Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), Bishop of Ypres and former professor of Scripture at Leuven. His writings contained views deemed hostile to the French government and to the Society of Jesus. His Augustinus, published posthumously in 1640, is a massive three-volume folio elucidation of St. Augustine's views on grace and free will, that third rail of theology since the time of Luther and Calvin. Five of Jansen's theological propositions on grace and free will were condemned by Pope Innocent X in the 1653 bull Cum occasione.

The Problem of Law versus Fact

While many theologians and clergy agreed that the Five Propositions were heretical, not everyone agreed that they could be found in Jansen's work. When required by the Pope or the King of France to sign the Formulary (a sworn statement endorsing the condemnation of the Five Propositions in Augustinus) some Catholics resisted, especially the nuns of Port-Royal, who invoked a policy of "respectful silence" on the issue of whether Jansen had maintained these propositions.


Among the first to be labeled "Jansenist," the nuns can be considered heretical, heroic, schismatic, or merely disobedient, depending on one's historical viewpoint. Some see them as pioneer feminists or as just plain stubborn. But all agree that Port-Royal epitomized the golden age of Jansenism, spiritual, morally rigorous, cerebral, and genteel. There was also in residence a male component to the Port-Royal community, “les Solitaires”, including Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Antoine Arnauld (1612-1694), Pierre Nicole (1625-1695) and others who lived lives of contemplation, scholarship, and manual labor. An influential school was established at Port-Royal from which emanated books such as the Port Royal Grammarand Port-Royal Logic, published in hundreds of editions and several languages well into the 20th century.


As Jansenism developed, it found an ally in the political ideology called "Gallicanism," a tradition of French ecclesiastical independence which dates back to the Middle Ages. This movement re-asserted itself with the 1682 passage of the Gallican Articles by the General Assembly of the Clergy. The Articles stated that:

  • The French king is absolute in temporal affairs.
  • The Pope is subject to a General Council in spiritual matters (Conciliarism).
  • Tradition limits the extent of papal power in France.
  • Consent of the Gallican Church is required for papal decrees to be accepted in France.

Quesnel's Challenge

In 1692 an Oratorian priest, Pasquier Quesnel (1634-1719), published a devotional work entitled Le Nouveau Testament en françois avec des réflexions morales sur chaque verset, a book that was credited with popularizing Jansen’s hitherto obscure theology. Numerous editions were published as late as the nineteenth century, the complete work filling eight octavo volumes. Quesnel’s book was even endorsed by several French bishops, most notably the Archbishop of Paris, Louis-Antoine de Noailles.

Vineam Domini

Pope Clement XI was elected in November 1700, and in 1705 he issued the bull Vineam Domini, which renewed earlier condemnations of Jansenism. The bull was duly registered by the Parlement and became law. It included a condemnation of the "respectful silence" policy by which the nuns of Port-Royal had avoided direct confrontation over the propositions attributed to Jansen. For the next five years the nuns were pressured to submit to the Formulary and were prohibited from accepting new members, but in response they pursued endless lawsuits against church and state until, in 1709, they were forcibly evicted from Port-Royal and scatted among other religious houses.

Public reaction was swift and angry, and the brutal treatment of the elderly nuns aroused widespread sympathy. The bare ruined choirs of Port-Royal became a pilgrimage site and a center of resistance, so in 1712 Louis XIV ordered all the buildings demolished, and even the cemetery destroyed, the corpses exhumed and removed to a common grave. Popular indignation grew, as did polarization between Jansenist and anti-Jansenist camps. Oratorians and Benedictines (especially the Maurists) and the Sorbonne and Parlement of Paris (including many lawyers such as members of the Arnauld family) favored Jansenism. Louis XIV feared that Jansenism and church discord could lead to civil unrest. The monarchy, therefore, allied with the Jesuits, took the lead against Jansenism.

The Apostolic Constitution Unigenitus

Louis asked Clement to intervene once again, something Clement did with extreme reluctance. Eighteen months were required to draft the bull which was designed to extirpate Jansenism entirely, while condemning 101 propositions allegedly found in Quesnel's book. Unigenitus was issued on September 8, 1713 and met with immediate (and in some cases justified) criticism. The 101 condemnations were viewed as excessive force, and mean-spirited overkill, since even Jansen had merited only five condemnations. Although comprehensive, the bull's wording was considered vague. Quesnel had been unfairly treated in not being allowed to defend himself. Furthermore, the bull was not based on Quesnel's original French work but on a Latin translation. Nevertheless, on the order of Louis XIV, Parlement registered the bull and the Assembly of Clergy and the Sorbonne followed suit, but with typical duplicity, Archbishop Noailles prohibited the clergy of Paris from accepting it.

The “Appellants”

An appeal from Unigenitus to a General Council of the Church was then launched by four bishops (more would join later, all soon termed “appellants”). But Louis XIV died in 1715, depriving the pope of the support needed to enforce obedience to the bull. The regent, Philippe Duc d’Orleans, actually favored the opponents of Unigenitus, and the Sorbonne revoked its acceptance in 1716. Gridlock continued until Clement issued Pastoralis officii in 1718, restating the provisions of Unigenitus and excommunicating all who appealed to a general council. Clement died in 1721 without seeing any resolution to the crisis.

Embrun and Deacon Paris

In 1727 the Provincial Council of Embrun deposed the 80-year old Bishop Soanen, leader of the Appellant bishops. When Soanen was sent to house-arrest in a Benedictine monastery, he became chief martyr of the Jansenist cause but continued to publish until his death in 1740. Also in 1727 came the death of François of Paris, a young Jansenist deacon and outspoken appellant, known as a pious friend of the poor and for his extreme austerities. His tomb became the center of a popular cult and soon miraculous cures were reported at his grave. Cardinal Noailles, who had been present at François’ funeral, believed some miracles were genuine and even began the deacon’s canonization process. But Noailles was discouraged from proceeding by the government (Louis XV was now king) and after a lifetime of vacillating he submitted to Unigenitus and died in May 1729.

The Convulsionaries

By 1731 at least three biographies of François had been published, and waves of pilgrims, especially of the lower classes (but also gawkers and curious members of the nobility), were drawn to the cemetery of St. Medard where he was buried. Miracles gained more publicity but the new Archbishop of Paris, Charles Vintimille, condemned them as fraudulent in 1731, whereupon the phenomenon of “convulsions” began, as healing miracles were accompanied by convulsive writhing and other bizarre physical phenomena. After being evicted from the cemetery by order of Louis XV, the “convulsionaries” adopted more extreme bodily penances, including imitations of the Passion, crucifixions and ceremonial beatings which should have killed them but which “miraculously” left victims unscathed. Convulsionaries were also fond of “figurist” prophecy drawn from the Old Testament, which they interpreted to refer to themselves. Their violence and apocalyptic ranting served to divide the Jansenist movement, mainstream adherents of the old Port-Royal brand of Jansenism viewing them as frauds. Even the Encyclopedists considered convulsionaries a “sect of Fanatics” and their miracles “the work of the devil.” Nonetheless, some respected Jansenists (Soanen for example) thought their miracles were genuine, but today the convulsionaries’ antics are largely remembered as a chapter in the early literature of French psychiatry with the studies of “hysteria” made famous by Charcot and other clinicians.

The Refusal of Sacraments Controversy

The policy, enacted by some anti-Jansenist bishops and clergy, of refusing the last sacraments unless a dying person could provide evidence of orthodoxy (i.e. evidence that he accepted Unigenitus) or possessed a billet de confession from a priest of known orthodoxy (i.e. not a Jansenist) produced emotional protest and numerous lawsuits. This was not a new church policy, but the specific use of Unigenitus as a litmus-test of orthodoxy was an innovation which became more systematic and a source of outrage under Christophe de Beaumont, named Archbishop of Paris in 1746. By the late 1760s, discredited by the lunacy of the convulsionaries, and lacking the focal point for hostility once provided by the now exiled Jesuits, Jansenists lost much of their raison d’être and influence in France. But their role in weakening both Crown and Church was not insignificant as France drifted towards revolution.