Cornelius Janssens, 1585-1638, Bishop of
Ypres and the theologian who gave us
Cornelius Janssens (1585-1638) was the Flemish bishop of Ypres in the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium). Janssens was of an easily irritable personality, given to fits of temper and moodiness. He was withdrawn and suspicious by nature, inclined to see the negative side of things. In other words, he wasn’t a lot of fun at parties, not that he tried to be or would even go them if he could help it. (I know some of my friends are going to say: “hmmm. We know someone like that"; ‘curmudgeonly’ is the word one friend in particular uses.) Janssens despised the Jesuits and their scholastic theology (yes, in the old days Jesuits were conservative Thomists) preferring the patristic approach, and he was particularly fond of Saint Augustine. (Well, yes, the shoe may fit, though I am by no means the scholar.) In any event, Janssens wrote his magnum opus, Augustinus, a summary of Augustinian thought. Now, nobody ever has been able to write a summary of Augustine’s thought—even Augustine (who tried). Augustine was a prolific writer and his thought was constantly evolving. At the end of his life he wrote his Retractions to try to systematize his thought, but even he failed. His work is simply too broad both in volume and scope to be put in a nice coherent and consistent précis. What Janssens did was to write a brilliant theological work reflecting his (Janssens’) thought with references to the great Doctor of the Western Church. Unfortunately he went a bit overboard on some of his ideas and the work was condemned and put on the Index of Forbidden Books. But that is not to say that it didn’t have influence. It had huge influence as one might expect a forbidden book to have. Without wanting to oversimplify, Janssens basically devised a Catholic variation on Calvin. It was certainly not what Janssens intended to do, but his anthropology was so negative, that is to say that his understanding of human nature was so depraved, that it basically reduced the human person to a pawn in the hand of a Sovereign God who might or might not choose to save it with no regard to the individual’s will.
Janssens’ name was lent to a heresy that in all truth has gone even far beyond what the dyspeptic bishop would ever have taught. It attracted notable adherents, not least of all Blaise Pascal, Angelique Arnauld and the nuns of Port-Royal-des-Champs, the Abbé de Saint Cyran, and others. The Jesuits were the opponents of this heresy. Though condemned by the Pope in 1653, Jansenism persisted to infect French seminaries and religious establishments up through the time of the Revolution. And it came to America—not with the Irish of the mid-nineteenth century as is commonly said (though the Irish Church indeed was, and is, infected with the heresy) but with many (I am not saying all) the French émigré priests who fled the Revolution in 1789 and helped build the American Church. It is often said that the American home of this heresy is Mount Saint Mary’s, Emmitsburg, which was founded by émigré priests. While this is a great over simplification, many priests of the Diocese of Arlington VA, a diocese known for (some) clergy with a very narrow and not necessarily authentic interpretation of Church teaching, have been educated there. Many Washington priests also have studied there, though whether Marcel Guarnizo is an alumnus or not I do now know. And—to be balanced—many really fine priests who are knowledgeable in the faith and pastorally sensitive men have studied there.
One of the keys to understanding the basic flaw in Jansenism is that it does not see the world—and its inhabitants—as existing within the love of God. The world is seen as fallen and not redeemed—those whom God has chosen for salvation are saved out of the world, not in it. Creation is fatally flawed and anything to do with creation is an impediment to grace. This leaves us with a negative understanding of human sexuality. Sexual relations, even within marriage, are tainted by human concupiscence. Jansenism would say that marriage gives a permissible forum for sexual relations if they are restricted to narrow conditions—they must, for example, be used (only for) procreation. All sexual acts must be open to the possibility of procreation. The unitive element of sexual relations—increasing the intimacy of the spouses through the mutual exchange of physical pleasure—is not a constitutive part of the marriage act—for Jansenists—and indeed is sinful other than as a byproduct of the procreative element. And even as a byproduct of the procreative element, the taking of pleasure in sex is wrong. This will give us a very distorted view of marriage—certainly one incompatible with the scriptural roots of our Christian faith, especially those found in the Hebrew (Old Testament) tradition.
Given such a “theology” of human sexuality we can see why Jansenists and Catholics influenced by the Jansenist heresy, would believe that those who forgo marriage for remaining single (and, of course, chaste), and especially those who consecrate themselves to a celibate lifestyle, are spiritually superior to those who must accommodate themselves to the married life. Thus the religious and the clergy are “higher” than the married laity in the hierarchy of holiness. This delusion is particularly dangerous as we have seen in the recent sex-abuse crisis, not that there is anything wrong in celibacy but rather that such an attitude encourages a psychological state in which human sexuality is buried away in the remote corners of one’s self-awareness, leaving an individual open to a denial of reality. (See Blog Entry: History in the Making, Sex Abuse Crisis—Let’s Stop Telling Lies, 5/20/2011)The idea that a priest has a responsibility to “safeguard” the Eucharist against an unworthy reception is not of itself a Jansenist doctrine though it does reflect a Jansenist view of the state of a soul. Jansenists were preoccupied with making those sorts of judgments about both themselves and others whereas the mainline mystical tradition in Catholicism takes a more moderate approach. I am teaching a course on Saint Teresa of Avila this semester and I am struck by how often Teresa speaks of being “unworthy,” but also what role that unworthiness plays in her spiritual life. A consistent theme in Saint Teresa is humility and by humility Teresa explains that the more advanced a soul is in grace, the more aware it is of its own unworthiness of God’s favor, yet this unworthiness does not make it back off from God but only approach God with deeper gratitude. Teresa would not approve of a person receiving Holy Communion in what our Catholic Tradition calls Mortal Sin but neither is she hung up on “worthiness” and “unworthiness” in approaching Christ. In fact, Teresa would be deeply grieved by a person in serious sin rather than preoccupied about their receiving Holy Communion. This is what I find disconcerting in the current question. Aside from the priest’s spiritual attitudes in refusing Holy Communion, what is the spiritual condition of those who are so anxious to keep others whom they judge—wisely or not—to be “unworthy” of the Eucharist from receiving? The priest in this case might not be ("might" being the operative word) infected by Jansenism, but the howling chorus of those justifying his actions would certainly seem to be. When I read the local blogs—“An Archdiocese of Washington DC Catholic” and “Restore DC Catholicism”—I pick up a sense of Jansenist infection—not just in this question but looking back through their archives. These “Catholic Bloggers” remind me of Henri Brémond's judgment of the Jansenists: "Before penetrating into the depth of the mind Jansenism ruins the peace, condition of all true religion. Before making converts it makes partisans, sectarians, whom it fatally severs from the mystical currents of their time."