Cornelis Jansen was a Dutchman, born in the province of Utrecht of Catholic parentage, but closely touched by the Augustinian theology of his Calvinist neighbors. When he entered the Catholic University of Louvain (1602) he found it in the heat of a violent controversy between the Jesuit or Scholastic party and a faction that followed the Augustinian views of Michael Baius on predestination and divine grace. Jansen inclined to the Augustinians. In the interval between his undergraduate studies and his professorial work, Jansen accepted the invitation of his fellow student Jean Duvergier de Hauranne to live with him at Bayonne. They studied St. Paul and St. Augustine, and agreed that the best way of defending Catholicism against the Dutch Calvinists and the French Huguenots was to follow the Augustinian emphasis on grace and predestination, and to establish in the Catholic clergy and laity a rigorous moral code that would shame current laxity in court and convent, and the easygoing ethic of the Jesuits.
In 1616 Jansen, as head of a hostel of Dutch students at Louvain, attacked the Jesuit theology of free will, and preached a mystical puritanism akin to the Pietism that was taking form in Holland, England, and Germany. He continued the war as professor of Scriptural exegesis at Louvain, and as bishop of Ypres. At his death (1638) he left, not quite finished, a substantial treatise, Augustinus, which, soon after its publication in 1640, became the doctrinal platform of Port-Royal, and the center of contention in French Catholic theology for almost a century.
Though the book ended with a curtsy of submission to the Roman Church, the Calvinists of the Netherlands acclaimed it as the very essence of Calvinism. 17 Like Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, Jansen fully accepted predestinarianism: God, even before the creation of the world, had chosen those men and women who should be saved, and had determined who should be damned; the good works of men, though precious, could never earn salvation without the aid of divine grace; and even among the good minority only a few would be saved. The Catholic Church had not explicitly repudiated the predestinarianism of St. Paul and St. Augustine, but she had let it sink into the background of her teaching as hard to reconcile with that freedom of the will which seemed logically indispensable to moral responsibility and the idea of sin. But man’s will is not free, said Jansen; it lost its freedom by Adam’s sin; man’s nature is now corrupt beyond self-redemption; and only God’s grace, earned by Christ’s death, can save him. The Jesuit defense of free will seemed to Jansen to exaggerate the role of good works in earning salvation, and to render almost superfluous the redeeming death of Christ. Moreover, he urged, we must not take logic too seriously; reason is a faculty far inferior to trustful, unquestioning faith, just as ritual observances are an inferior form of religion as compared with the direct communion of the soul with God.
These ideas came to Port-Royal through Duvergier, who meanwhile had become abbot of St.-Cyran. Fired with zeal to reform theology and morals, and to replace external religion with internal devotion, M. de Saint-Cyran, as he was now called, came up to Paris, and was soon (1636) accepted as spiritual director of the nuns at Port-Royal-de-Paris and of the solitaires at Port-Royal-des-Champs; that double institution now became the voice and exemplar of Jansenism in France. Richelieu thought the reformer a troublesome fanatic, and jailed him in Vincennes (1638). Saint-Cyran was released in 1642, but he died a year later of an apoplectic stroke.
Even from his prison he had continued to inspire innumerable Arnaulds. Antoine II, “the Great Arnauld,” published in 1643 a treatise De la Fréquente Communion, which carried on his father’s war against the Jesuits. He did not name them, but he denounced the idea, which he felt that some confessors had tolerated, that repeated sinning could be compensated by frequent confession and Communion. The Jesuits felt that the attack was meant for them, and they mounted up the score against the Arnaulds. Anticipating trouble, Antoine left Paris for Port-Royal-in-the-Fields. In 1648 the nuns, frightened by the Fronde, also left the capital, and returned to their former home. The Solitaries vacated the rooms there, and moved to a nearby farmhouse, Les Granges.
Pope Urban VIII had already (1642) condemned the general doctrine of Jansen’s Augustinus. In 1649 a professor in the Sorbonne asked the faculty to condemn seven propositions which, he said, were gaining too much popularity. The matter was referred to Innocent X, and the Jesuits took the opportunity to impress upon the Pope the dangers of Jansenism as essentially a Calvinist theology in Catholic guise. At last they prevailed upon him to issue the bull Cum occasione (May 31, 1653), which condemned as heretical five propositions allegedly taken from the Augustinus:
1. There are divine precepts which good men, though willing, are absolutely unable to obey.
2. No person can resist the influence of divine grace.
3. In order to render human actions meritorious or otherwise, it is not requisite that they be exempt from necessity but only free from constraint.
4. The semi-Pelagian heresy consisted in allowing the human will to be endued with a power of resisting grace, or of complying with its influence.
5. Whoever says that Christ died, or shed his blood, for all mankind, is a semi-Pelagian. 18
These propositions were not taken verbatim from the Augustinus: they were formulated by a Jesuit as a summary of the book’s teaching. As a summary they were fair enough, 19 but the Jansenists contended that the propositions, as such, were not to be found in Jansen—though Arnauld slyly suggested that they could all be found in St. Augustine. Meanwhile nobody seems to have read the book.
Antoine Arnauld was a fighter. He acknowledged the infallibility of the pope in matters of faith and morals, but not in questions of fact; and as a matter of fact he denied that Jansen had stated the propositions condemned. In 1655 he again carried the war to the Jesuits by publishing two Lettres à un duc et pair (Letters to a Duke and Peer), attacking what he claimed to be Jesuit methods in the confessional. The Sorbonne entertained a motion to expel him. He prepared his defense, and read it to his friends at Port-Royal. It did not impress them. One of them was a new adherent named Blaise Pascal. Turning to him, Arnauld pleaded, “You, who are young, why cannot you produce something?” 20 Pascal retired to his room, and wrote the first of the Provincial Letters, a classic in the literature and philosophy of France. We should listen to Pascal at some length, for he was not only the greatest writer of French prose, but the most brilliant defender of religion in all the Age of Reason.