Cornelius Jansen

From New World Encyclopedia
Engraving of Bishop Cornelius Jansen
Cornelius Jansen, Engraving by Jean Morin

Cornelius Jansen, often known as Jansenius (October 28, 1585 - May 6, 1638) was Catholic bishop of Ypres, Dutch Roman Catholic theologian, and the father of the religious movement known as Jansenism. Jansen studied at the University of Louvain and became imbued with the purpose of reviving Christian theology according to the teachings of Augustine. He established a close friendship with Duvergier de Hauranne, a fellow student, with whom he shared and developed many of his theological ideas. In 1630, Jansen became professor at Louvain, and in 1636, bishop of Ypres. Out of his lifework, Augustinus (published posthumously in 1642, in Latin), arose the movement called Jansenism.

Duvergier de Hauranne, who had become the abbé of Saint-Cyran, won over Mère Angélique Arnauld, Abbess of Port-Royal, and through her, the nuns of the convent of of Port-Royal, which became a focus of resistance against the Jesuits. Jansenists held that it is impossible for a person to overcome the corruption of original sin without God’s grace, and that this grace, when given, is irresistible. Jansenists also believed that only an elect number would ultimately be saved by the grace of God (see Predestination). Jansenists criticized the Jesuits for moral laxity. In 1642, Pope Urban VIII forbade the reading of Augustinus in his Bull, In Eminenti; in 1653, Pope Innocent X condemned Jansenism as heretical. In 1709, Louis XIV, who saw the conflict between the Jansenists and the Jesuist as a threat to the unity of France, ordered the dispersal of the nuns of Port-Royal to other convents, and in 1710, he had the abbey completely destroyed.


Cornelius Jansen was born October 28, 1585, to a Catholic family in the village of Acquoy (Accoi), in the province of Utrecht, near Leerdam, Netherlands (Holland). His parents, although in moderate circumstances, secured for him an excellent education and sent him first to Utrecht. According to the custom adopted by the humanists of the Renaissance, Jansen Latinized his name to Cornelius Jansenius. In 1602, he entered the College du Faucon at the University of Louvain, to take up the study of philosophy. After two years, at the solemn promotion of 1604, he was proclaimed first of 118 competitors. He began his theological studies at the College du Pape Adrien VI, whose president, Jacques Janson, taught the doctrine of the theologian Michael Baius (Michel de Bay, died 1589, in Louvain). Baius, inspired by Augustine, taught that humanity is affected from its birth by the sin of Adam, his ancestor, and that his instincts lead him necessarily to evil. Humans can be saved only by the grace of Christ, accorded to a small number of the elect who have been chosen in advance and destined to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This doctrine attracted Jansen and another student, a Frenchman named Jean du Vergier de Hauranne, afterwards abbot of Saint Cyran and a leader of the Jansenist movement.

Jansen and Du Vergier became friends in Paris, where Jansen went in 1604, and determined to revive theology, which they believed had been reduced to subtle and vain discussions among Scholastics by the theologians of the Sorbonne. Jansen and Du Vergier believed that men should render homage to God, and that the pride of Renaissance intellectualism had alienated Christians from the Jesus who loved the simple and the humble. In 1611, Jansen followed Du Vergier to his parents’ home, located in the outskirts of Bayonne, and was entrusted by the bishop of the city with the direction of the episcopal college there from 1612 to 1614. Afterward Jansen, with Du Vergier, dedicated himself to the study of the writings of the early Church Fathers.

In 1616, Janesen returned to Louvain, to take charge of the college of St.Pulcheria, a hostel for Dutch students of theology. Among his students he had the reputation of being somewhat choleric and an exacting master, as well as a recluse from academic society. However, he took an active part in the university's resistance to the Jesuits, who had established a theological school of their own in Louvain, which was proving to be a formidable rival to the official university faculty of divinity. A violent dispute had arisen at Louvain between the Jesuits and the disciples of Baius, whose theology had been condemned by Pope Pius V in 1567. Jansen began a thorough study of the works of Augustine, which had inspired Baius, paying special attention to the texts written against the doctrine of Pelagius, who denied original sin and held that humanity is entirely free to do good works and to obtain salvation by means of its own merit.

In the hope of suppressing the Jesuit encroachments, Jansen was sent twice to Madrid, Spain, in 1624 and 1626; the second time, he narrowly escaped the Inquisition. He warmly supported the Catholic missionary archbishop (apostolic vicar) of the (Northern) Netherlands, Rovenius, in his contests with the Jesuits, who were trying to evangelize that country without regard to the archbishop's wishes. He also crossed, more than once, the Dutch Calvinist-Presbyterian Gisbertus Voetius, still remembered for his attacks on René Descartes.

Jansen yearned to show that Roman Catholics could interpret the Bible in just as mystical and pietistic a manner as the Protestants, and made this the object of his lectures when he was appointed regius professor of scriptural interpretation at Louvain in 1630. To this end, he devoted himself to Augustinus, a bulky treatise on the theology of Augustine, barely finished at the time of his death.

Jansen supported the idea of Belgium, achieving its independence from Spain, and becoming a Catholic republic, possibly even Flemish-ruled, similar to the Protestant United Provinces. These ideas became known to the Spanish rulers, and to assuage them he wrote the Mars gallicus (1635), a violent attack on French ambitions generally, and on Cardinal Richelieu's indifference to international Catholic interests. The Mars gallicus had the desired effect; after acquiring the degree of doctor in theology at Louvain, Jansen was made the rector there in 1635; in 1636, he was appointed bishop of Ypres (Ieper) in West Flanders by the Pope and the Spanish Court. In 1638, two years after his elevation to the episcopate, Jansen died of the plague.

Thought and works


In 1640, despite the efforts of the internuncio Richard Aravius to thwart them, Jansen’s friends in Louvain published the work he had dedicated to Augustine, under the title, Augustinus Cornelii Jansenii, Episcopi, seu Doctrina Sancti Augustini de Humanae Naturae, Sanitate, Aegritudine, Medicina adversus Pelagianos et Massilienses (The Augustine of Cornelius Jansen, Bishop, or On the Doctrines of St. Augustine Concerning Human Nature, Health, Grief, and Cure Against the Pelagians and Massilians). Jansen had spent twenty-two years writing the book. In the epilogue, Jansen declared: “I leave my work to the judgment of the Roman Church…. I retract all that she will decide that I ought to (must) retract.” His theses were condemned by the Holy Office in 1643 and 1653.

The work was divided into three volumes; the first, chiefly historical, was an exposition in eight books of Pelagianism; the second, after an introductory study on the limitations of human reason, was devoted to the states of innocence, fallen nature and pure nature; the third volume comprised ten books on "the grace of Christ the Saviour," and concluded with "a parallel between the error of the Semipelagians and that of certain moderns." Jansen claimed that in order to write the book he had read the entire works of Augustine ten times, and the treatise against the Pelagians thirty times.

Jansen based his doctrine on two Augustinian concepts. One was the distinction between the grace originally endowed by God on humanity at the creation, so that it could dwell in oneness with God, and the grace which seeks to elevate fallen humanity from its sinful state. The other concept was the theory of the "victorious delectation" of grace, in which a man willingly and voluntarily acts in a way that overcomes sinfulness and evil, because he profoundly believes acting in that way will bring him the greatest pleasure.

Jansen (and Baius) believed that God endowed people at the creation with a human nature which necessarily sought the vision of God (beatitude) as its ultimate purpose. As a result of Adam’s sin, human nature became depraved and was stripped of elements necessary for its integrity. The human will became unable to resist the corruption of original sin, unless it is aided by a movement of grace superior to, and triumphant over, evil. The human soul, motivated only by the desire to seek the greatest pleasure, is impulsively and irresistibly drawn to the force which attracts it the most. If this force comes from heaven and grace, the soul is drawn to virtue; if it comes from original sin and fallen nature, the soul is determined to sin. A man or woman, irresistibly, but voluntarily, does good or evil, depending on whether he is dominated by grace or by original sin. Jansen compared the attractions of grace and evil to the arms of a scale, where one side goes down when the other rises.

Condemnation of Jansen's teachings.

The Augustinus was widely read throughout Belgium, Holland, and France, and a new edition, bearing the approbation of ten doctors of the Sorbonne, soon appeared in Paris. On August 1, 1641, a decree of the Holy Office condemned the work and prohibited its reading. The following year, Urban VIII forbade the reading of Augustinus in his Bull, In eminenti, on the grounds that Catholics were forbidden to publish anything on the subject of grace without the authorization of the Holy See, and that it reproduced several of the errors of Baius. Though the pope also forbade several other works directed against the Augustinus, the Bull was not easily accepted by all Roman Catholics. Some pretended that the Bull had been forged or interpolated, and in Belgium, where the Archbishop of Mechlin and the university were favorable to Jansen’s ideas, the controversy lasted for ten years.


Duvergier de Hauranne, who had become the abbé of Saint-Cyran, won over the family of Arnauld of Andilly, particularly Mère Angélique Arnauld, Abbess of Port-Royal, and through her, the nuns of the convent of of Port-Royal, which became a focus of resistance against the Jesuits. The Jansenists adopted a rigoristic position in Christian ethics and criticized their Jesuit opponents for moral laxity. When Duvergier de Hauranne died, in 1643, Doctor Antoine Arnauld succeeded him as head of the movement which he had created, and soon published, On Frequent Communion. A conflict arose between the Jesuits and Antoine Arnauld, who called himself an Augustinian. The Jesuits called him a Jansenist, claiming that his doctrines originated with Jansen and not with St. Augustine.

In 1649, Cornet, syndic of the Sorbonne, extracted five propositions from the Augustinus and On Frequent Communion, and submitted them to the judgment of the faculty. When the French Parliament prevented the faculty from pursuing the examination they had begun, it was referred to the general assembly of the clergy in 1650. Eighty-five bishops considered it more fitting that Rome should pronounce judgment, and submitted the five propositions to Innocent X. Eleven other bishops protested to the pope against the idea of bringing the matter to trial outside of France, demanding a special tribunal, and the opening of a debate in which the theologians of both sides should be allowed to submit their arguments. Innocent X appointed a commission consisting of five cardinals and thirteen consultors, some of whom were known to favor the Jansenists. The commission met for thirty-six long sessions, with the pope presiding in person over the last ten. Advocates of the Augustinus finally presented a table with three columns, in which they distinguished three interpretations of the five propositions: A Calvinistic interpretation, rejected as heretical; a Pelagian or Semipelagian interpretation, identified as the traditional doctrine which was in need of modification; and lastly, their interpretation, as the idea of St. Augustine himself. This presentation did not avert condemnation of the five propositions as heresy, by the papal Bull, Cum occasione (May 31, 1653).

Five Propositions:

• Some of God's commandments are impossible to just men who wish and strive to keep them; considering the powers these just individuals actually have, the grace by which these precepts may become possible for them is lacking; • In the fallen state, it is the nature of man never to resist interior grace; • To merit, or demerit, in the fallen state, man must be free from all external constraint, but not from interior necessity, • The Semipelagians admitted the necessity of interior grace for all acts, even for the beginning of faith; but they fell into heresy in pretending that this grace is such that man may either follow or resist it;

• To say that Christ died or shed His blood for all men, is Semipelagianism.

The condemnation was reiterated by Innocent’s successor, Alexander VII. The French bishops were required to make all of the priests, monks, and nuns sign a formulary accepting the pope’s declaration. In 1656 and 1657, Blaise Pascal wrote, Les Provinciales (Provincial Letters), satirizing the moral reasoning of the Jesuits, in defense of Antoine Arnauld, who was condemned by the Faculty of Theology at the Sorbonne.

Louis XIV of France was determined to eliminate the Jansenists as a threat to the unity of his kingdom. There was a temporary respite when Clement IX became pope in 1667, and the papacy and the French Roman Catholic church clashed over Gallicanism. After this controversy was settled, in 1705, Louis XIV obtained from Clement XI the bull Vineam Domini, renewing the earlier condemnations. In 1709, Louis XIV ordered the dispersal of the nuns of Port-Royal to other convents, and in 1710, he had the abbey completely destroyed. In 1713, the bull, Unigenitus Dei Filius, condemned 101 propositions of Pasquier Quesnel, who had succeeded Arnauld as head of the Jansenists in 1694. The promulgation of Unigenitus as French law in 1730, finally caused the strength of the Jansenist party to decline.

In 1723, followers of Jansen's views established an autonomous Jansenist church at Utrecht, Holland, which still existed in the late twentieth century. Jansenism also spread to Italy, where in 1786, the Synod of Pistoia, which was later condemned, propounded extreme Jansenist doctrines.

Jansenism is important in the history of philosophy because of the development of Port-Royal logic, and the influence of the Jansenist leader Arnauld on French philosophy and politics.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries. Zondervan, 1996. ISBN 0310208122
  • Blaise Pascal. Pensees and Other Writings Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0192836552
  • Dalgairns, John Bernard. The Devotion to the Heart of Jesus with an Introduction on the History of Jansenism. Philadelphia: H.L. Kilner, 1890.
  • Doyle, William. Jansenism: Catholic Resistance to Authority from the Reformation to the French Revolution. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. ISBN 0312226764
  • Kinder, Hermann and Werner Hilgemann. The Penguin Atlas of World History: Volume 1: From Prehistory to the Eve of the French Revolution. Penguin (Non-Classics), 2004. ISBN 0141012633
  • Radner, Ephraim. Spirit and Nature: A Study of 17th Century Jansenism. Herder & Herder. 2002, ISBN 978-0874513998
  • Shelley, Bruce L. Church History In Plain Language Updated 2nd Edition. Nelson Reference, 1996. ISBN 0849938619
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

All links retrieved January 7, 2024.

General philosophy sources


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