History of the Church: Later Modern Times - Notre Dame

Pioneers of the French Revolution

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I. Jansenism

France, the eldest daughter of the Church, had hitherto withstood the most furious attacks of heresy, and had passed almost unscathed through the tempest which threatened during the sixteenth century to submerge the bark of Peter. Though Calvinism had infected certain parts of the country, the disease had been isolated and finally almost destroyed, as much by the strong Catholic feeling of the people as by the efforts of Church and State. But the powers of evil were determined to win a permanent footing in this fair portion of Christendom. They had need of skilful tactics to effect an entrance, and in proportion to the difficulty of the task were the deep-laid plans, by which they at length succeeded. Not in the soil of sunny France, but in the gloomy marshes of the Netherlands was the poisonous seed sown and the noxious weed nurtured, until the time should come for its transplantation.

While the University of Louvain was resounding with theological disputes arising from the innovations of the so-called Reformers, the doctrine of Divine Grace was a constant subject of controversy. This doctrine had, in the early ages of the Church, proved a stumbling-block, first to Pelagians and afterwards to Semi-Pelagians. Then it was that St. Augustine, by his vigorous defence of the truth, became on this important question the chief authority for future generations.

In the midst of the turmoil, a certain doctor of Louvain, Michael de Bay, known to history by the Latinized name of Baius, formulated a number of propositions dealing with grace. His work was brought before the Sorbonne, and, in 1560, eighteen of the points contained in it were censured. No impression having been made on the author, who simply disregarded the censure, the case was taken to Rome, where, in 1567, Pope Pius V. condemned seventy-nine of the propositions as heretical. Baius retracted his errors, and died in 1589 reconciled to the Church.

So the matter might have rested. But another Netherlander was to give his name to a heresy not circumscribed in its effects, as had been that of his master Baius. Cornelius Jansen, afterwards Bishop of Ypres, in Flanders, was born in Holland in 1585. In the course of his education he reached the University of Louvain, where he soon became distinguished in Theology. Passionately devoted to the study of the writings of St. Augustine, he went so far as to read into them a doctrine which the Saint would have been the first to repudiate. Besides publishing several commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, Jansenius wrote incessantly on the questions of the day, and his manuscripts, deeply tainted with Calvinism and Baianism, made a bulky collection, which he had the intention of bringing out in the form of a book. As the work did not appear until two years after his death, its publication cannot with certainty be attributed to him. However this may be, the Bishop of Ypres died in 1638 without having attracted any considerable share of public attention, and with the reputation of a not unorthodox prelate.

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The evil genius of Jansen and the mainspring of, the heresy which bears his name was the French Abbe du Verger de Hauranne, better known from the title of his abbacy as St. Cyran. The two met, first at Louvain and again in France, where Jansenius had gone to recruit his health. St. Cyran appears not only to have adopted and encouraged the heterodox notions of his friend, but also to have gained some ascendancy over him. It is probable also that he obtained possession of the Bishop's writings either before or immediately after the author's death. Though accounts differ, there is evidence to prove that Jansenius, feeling his last moments approaching, wished to burn the manuscripts. Search was made for them by his attendants, but they were not forthcoming, and he passed into eternity without securing their destruction. In 1640 the book was published at Louvain under the name "Augustinus," and attributed to the late Jansenius, Bishop of Ypres.

A mystery hangs round the Abbe de St. Cyran. So close was his disguise that few were able to detect in the austerity of his life the rigid Calvinistic principles by which he was governed. But St. Vincent de Paul had seen him throw off the mask and declare his real sentiments, in the hope of winning himself as a new proselyte. Cardinal Richelieu, from political motives, took vigorous measures to prevent the venom from spreading. " Before the publication of the Augustinus, "says Father Dalgairns, in his admirable little work on Devotion to the Heart of Jesus—"before what was called Jansenism existed, the eagle eye of Richelieu had been fixed on St. Cyran, and the future heresiarch had been lodged in Vincennes. The act may have been arbitrary, but there was abundant evidence of conspiracy against the Church in the huge collection of manuscripts, enough, we are told, to fill forty volumes folio, found in his cabinet. When entreated to release St. Cyran from his prison, Richelieu answered: 'If Luther and Calvin had been dealt with as I have dealt with St. Cyran, France and Germany would have been spared the torrents of blood which have inundated them for fifty years.' "On being restored to freedom after Richelieu's death, St. Cyran posed as a victim of persecution, and succeeded in rallying round him a goodly company of nobles and courtiers, with ladies of high degree like Madame de Sevigne, and austere nuns like Mere Angelique Arnauld, who supported his opinions and made the fashionable world ring with his praises. The most influential of his followers were the group formed by the Arnauld family, of whom Antoine Arnauld, a doctor of the Sorbonne, was the chief.

It was St. Cyran who introduced the "Augustinus "into France. Its appearance was the signal for a storm of mingled applause and condemnation. Seven of its propositions were laid before the Sorbonne in 1649. They were delated to Rome, and in 1653 five of them were censured as heretical by a Bull of Pope Innocent X. The erroneous nature of their teaching is briefly and clearly shown by Father Dalgairns in the following passage: "The author affirmed that our dear and blessed Redeemer did not die upon the cross for all men, but only for the predestinate; that the rest of mankind did not even receive from God sufficient grace to avoid mortal sin; while the just, who were ultimately saved, had a grace conferred upon them which reduced them to mere machines, since it necessitated their wills, and deprived them of the power of resistance."

The clergy of France and Belgium accepted the Pope's Bull without opposition. Strange to say, the Jansenists accepted it also, but in so doing they merely retired behind their entrenchments. The condemnation, they declared, could not affect them, since the heretical propositions were not really contained in the "Augustinus." They were, in their own opinion, loyal children of the Church, and no heresy was to be found among them. Thus they remained within the fold, protesting their innocence, while their errors spread with alarming rapidity through France and the Netherlands.

But their chief stronghold was the Abbey of Port Royal, near Paris, where the Arnauld family reigned supreme. Antoine Arnauld's gifted sister, Angelique, had at an early age been appointed Abbess of this community. From a state of relaxation only too common in those days, she had gradually won over the nuns to the strictest observance of their duties. In this reform she had been supported by her brother, and by her talented and devoted sister Agnes. But the virtue of humility was wanting, and this alone could have preserved them from Jansenism. One of the saddest episodes in the history of this gloomy and repulsive heresy is the lapse of these two remarkable women, with the nuns who depended upon them, all fatally misled by the false mysticism of St. Cyran. Schools were set up at Port Royal for the education of children in Jansenistic tenets; Mere Angelique and her nuns took charge of the girls, while the "Gentlemen of Port Royal" undertook the care of the boys, and directed the work of both schools. So great was the reputation of the professors, among whom were men of genius like Pascal, that an undeserved importance has been attached to their methods of instruction. Their schools at no time numbered more than fifty scholars.

From the days when Baius first broached his heterodox opinions, the Jesuits, always on the alert to detect and expose error, had been the most zealous opponents of the heresy. They were now fiercely attacked by the Jansenists, and the pen of Pascal was employed to cast ridicule upon them, in his "Provincial Letters." The brilliant wit of this misguided genius veiled his inveterate prejudice and defective logic, so that the "Letters" were then, as indeed they still are, much overestimated. In the heat of the conflict, they were considered as the death-blow of the Society of Jesus, and it cannot be denied that the harm they did was great. The unreasoning multitude adopted prejudices which turned to the detriment of religion generally, and contributed not a little to the causes which led to the terrible French Revolution.

Time after time the Jansenistic errors were condemned by the Holy See, yet the sect lived on, sailing, as it were, under false colours—appearing to belong to the bark of Peter, yet covertly refusing allegiance to the Head of the Church. At last, in 1713, by the celebrated Bull "Unigenitus," Pope Clement XI. declared, in words which left no loophole for evasion, that all who adopted or supported the tenets of the "Augustinus" were unmistakably in opposition to the doctrine of the Holy Catholic Church. But incalculable mischief had already been done. The very austerity and external holiness of life professed by the sect, and by the Port Royalists in particular, tended to insinuate the poison among devout Catholics. Frequent Communion was discountenanced, confidence in God's mercy diminished, and a false dependence on rigid practices took the place of the childlike happiness and cheerfulness in the service of God so distinctive of true Catholic piety.



It must not be supposed, however, that preachers and doctors were sleeping at their posts while the Jansenistic errors stealthily crept into the fold of the Church. From the first there had not been wanting saints and holy men, who by speech and writing opposed the advancing enemy, and fought step by step for the ground. St. Vincent de Paul was one of the first to raise the alarm. St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal declined to admit Angelique Arnauld, when she sought to enter the Order of the Visitation. The Jesuits were always in the forefront of the battle, and we have seen how virulently they were attacked by Pascal, who was only the instrument of more designing and unscrupulous men. Bossuet, a little later, condemned in vigorous terms the false teachings of the Jansenists, and, in a letter written in 1665 to the nuns of Port Royal, eloquently exhorted them to renounce the heresy. The exquisite tact of the illustrious Fenelon was never more sweetly and persuasively exercised than in advising the practice of frequent Communion to persons who, though desiring it, were in danger of being held back by the groundless fears originating in Jansenism. Others there were, like Christopher de Beaumont, Archbishop of Paris, who, with many of the Bishops, did not hesitate to incur the enmity of these powerful adversaries, and endure persecution in defence of their flocks, exposed to the fury of ravening wolves.

But succour was at hand, more than sufficiently efficacious to counteract the chilling influences of that period of darkness and desolation. As of old, when all might well have seemed lost to the Apostles on the lake, when night had closed in around them, and they were labouring against the wind, so now did our Lord Himself come in person to prove to His afflicted people that His arm was not shortened nor His presence wholly withdrawn. From a convent of the Visitation there suddenly shone forth a bright and burning light, which has continued and intensified down to our own days. The apparitions of our Lord to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque are well known to all devout clients of the Sacred Heart. In the Middle Ages—the Ages of Faith—He had told St. Gertrude that He was reserving this devotion for later times, when faith and charity should have grown cold, and when men would require a further stimulus to His love and service. Surely, if ever, such help was needed now, when Calvinism on the one hand and Jansenism on the other, had succeeded in wrapping round Christian souls the cold mists of distrust in God and exaggerated terror of His judgments. The Sacred Heart, as the symbol of the friendship of God with man, was the most decisive, as it was the most consoling, proof that such doctrines were not from God nor of God.

Pope Pius X., by his decrees concerning daily Communion, silenced once and for ever the disputes of theologians on the subject. "The poison of Jansenism," he says, "did not entirely disappear "after the decrees of various Popes. "The controversy as to the dispositions requisite for the lawful and laudable frequentation of the Holy Eucharist survived the declarations of the Holy See; so much so, indeed, that certain theologians of good repute judged that daily Communion should be allowed to the faithful only in rare cases and under many conditions." But this declaration is final. Rome has spoken, the cause is at an end.

II. Gallicanism

Jansenism, as we have seen, attacked the Church from within, Gallicanism oppressed it from without. Certain ill-defined rights of feudal times were still claimed by the Kings under the name of "Gallican Liberties." One of these, the "Regalia," secured to the Sovereign the revenues and patronage of vacant sees in some of the provinces. This led to the bestowal of benefices on younger sons of the nobility, who frequently entered the ecclesiastical state for the sole purpose of being promoted to bishoprics. Abbacies were given to unworthy persons with no vocation for the religious life, and disorders of many kinds were thus introduced into communities. Angelique Arnauld, for instance, became Abbess of Port Royal in her twelfth year; but she was exceptionally gifted, and the very relaxation of the nuns under her charge was the cause of her conversion to extreme asceticism.

The manifold branches of error, springing from the same root, bear in this a distorted resemblance to the one and indivisible Truth. Hence the close connection between Gallicanism and Jansenism, however strongly contrasted they may at first sight appear. Jansenism was in reality a reaction against abuses, largely due to Gallicanism. With the exception of the Abbe de St. Cyran, its adherents were all animated, at least in its earlier stages, by a sincere desire to live reformed lives. It was by playing on this desire that their leader attached them to his cause.

Louis XIV. was an autocrat, and his well known saying, "L'etat c'est moi," is the key to his attitude towards Church as well as State. He aspired to hold the reins of spiritual power in conjunction with those of temporal authority. His ministers and courtiers were aware of this weakness, and encouraged it by their flattery. The Jansenists among them, angry at having been obliged to sign a retraction of their errors, were ready to seize any opportunity of revenge upon Rome. The King provided them with a favourable occasion by extending the right of "Regalia" beyond its ancient limits, and thus incurring the Pope's disapprobation. The Jesuits were represented as actively endeavouring to advance the Roman claims and to deprive the Gallican Church of its independence. In order to settle these questions, the King was urged to hold a council of the French clergy.

Up to this point there had been no regular ecclesiastical action in the matter. When the council was called in 1682, its members were carefully chosen, under pressure from the Government, so that the votes might be entirely in the royal interest. In spite of the absence of some of the most distinguished theologians, such as Bourdaloue, Mabillon, Fenelon and others, the resolutions of the Assembly were issued under the title of "Declaration of the French Clergy." The Archbishop of Paris was a mere tool of the State. Bossuet, almost the only Bishop of note who took part in the so-called council, was under obligations to the King, and was not magnanimous enough to set his duty to the Church above human considerations. He accepted, though with reluctance, the important part assigned to him, and pronounced the opening speech. The four famous articles embodying the "Gallican Liberties" were also his production. They may be shortly stated as follows, in the words of Cardinal Newman:

"1. That the Pope could not interfere with the temporal concerns of Princes directly or indirectly.

"2. That in spiritual matters he was subject to a general council.

"3. That the rules and usages of the Gallican Church were inviolable.

"4. That the Pope's decision in points of Faith was not infallible, unless attended by the consent of the Church."

On the condemnation of these articles by Pope Innocent XI., Bossuet defended himself by representing that he had kept their tenor within the limits of moderation, and that, had he not done so, the extreme Gallicans would have gone much farther, and perhaps ended in schism. But his conduct was inexcusable. "The fault of Bossuet," says Bishop Chatard, "was that he was weak, and could not resolve to forfeit royal favour for the glory of suffering in a just cause."



Fenelon spoke strongly against the articles, declaring that the "Gallican Liberties" meant the slavery of Church to State. Louis himself was alarmed at the dangerous proximity of schism and took measures that the affair should be withdrawn as much as possible from public notice. He was soon, however, embroiled in European wars, and, though he submitted to the Pope's decree, took no measures to enforce it. The consequence was that unprincipled men holding office in Church or State made no scruple to advance these opinions when it suited their purpose. Thus they kept up the dispute, and continued the process of gradually slackening the bonds of religion by the systematic destruction of belief in the Holy See as a central authority in matters of Faith. Gallican pretensions lasted through the dark days of the French Revolution, were renewed in an intensified form by Napoleon Bonaparte, and did not quite die out until the definition of Papal Infallibility by Pius IX. in 1870.

III. Philosophism

The self-styled philosophers of the eighteenth century were the next enemies the Church had to encounter. Their system was the natural and logical outcome of the religious upheaval of the sixteenth century, combined with the paganizing influences of the later Renaissance. When man casts off his allegiance to lawful authority, denies the right of the Church to be his guide, and sets up his own private judgment as a beacon light, he must infallibly fall a prey to the demon of free thought. It is only a matter of time and downward progress. The process begun by Luther and Calvin still goes on in our own days, and will not cease till all men have ranged themselves on one side or the other—within the pale of the Catholic Church or in the rival camp of Infidelity. It is futile to hope that any form of Christianity can long exist conjointly with private interpretation of Scripture. Man requires by his very nature a living voice to solve his doubts, a light to guide him safely through the shoals and quicksands which beset his course, an infallible authority to direct his steps as he pursues the dreary path of his mortal pilgrimage. As well might the ship's captain dispense with the pilot amid the rocks of unknown seas, the Alpine traveller leave his guide in the valley while he ascends into the snows, or the wayfarer in a strange country set at naught the sign-posts and landmarks which point out the road to his destination, as the would-be Christian refuse to hear the voice and follow the light left on earth by the Son of God in His living and visible Church.

Though Philosophism, properly so called, was a distinctively French product, it owed its origin to Protestantism as developed among the Teutonic nations. The German Lutheran, Leibnitz, the Hebrew Pantheist, Spinoza, the rationalist Englishmen, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and their followers, had far more influence in the France of the eighteenth century than their predecessor Descartes, Frenchman though he was. According to Bossuet, the chief danger of Cartesianism lay in the misleading, rather than heterodox, nature of its principles. The misinterpretation of phrases, such as "Cogito, ergo sum," apart from their context, has frequently led students of Descartes' system into serious error. Meanwhile, Jansenism, Gallicanism, and the prevailing vices of French society provided a rich soil for the development of a new crop of tares among the wheat.

The literary circles of Paris, like those of Athens in the time of St. Paul, "employed themselves in nothing else but either in hearing or in telling something new." In the infidel writings of Voltaire and Rousseau, together with those of the Encyclopedists, Diderot, D'Alembert, Condorcet, and others, Frenchmen of this type found the novelty they delighted in, and the poison was sweetened by the most exquisite charms of language. Philosophism appeared at the moment when the French tongue seemed to have attained absolute perfection, at the moment too, when a French audience was best able to appreciate its perfection. The elegant pens of these false philosophers set religion aside, and enthroned reason in her stead in the minds of men long before the sacrilegious scenes of the Revolution gave reality to their dreams of liberty, equality and fraternity, so ably advocated by Rousseau in his "Social Contract." Pure reason and the sovereignty of the people were to be in future the ruling forces of the world. God was to be banished from His own creation, and a free and untrammeled humanity was to make the earth a paradise of delight. The impious doctrines contained in the "Social Contract "were supported and explained to the world by Rousseau's still more impious novels.

Voltaire's attacks were chiefly directed against the Catholic Church, and, through her, against the Divine Person of Jesus Christ. But his cynicism, and the ridicule he cast upon all that is holy were perhaps less dangerous than the seductive glamour of Rousseau. Men and women who feared to join with Voltaire in blaspheming the God of their fathers, and in revolting against the Church of their youth, were more easily enticed by Rousseau's pleasant invitation to return to a state of Nature, wherein all men should be happy, equal and free and brothers! They did not, until too late, perceive the serpent lurking among the flowers. It would be hard to say how many unfortunate souls were led step by step along a seemingly delightful path, until they found themselves deprived of spiritual vigour by the poisonous exhalations of those unhealthy swamps of literature. The attack of Voltaire was directed against Christianity; that of Rousseau against civil government—each aimed in his own way at the disintegration of the bases on which society rests.

IV. Suppression of the Jesuits

Europe at large was tainted with Philosophism, the spirit of unrest was abroad, and hidden forces were at work tending towards the destruction of law and order. Secret societies were extending their ramifications, and, with the object of securing their hold upon the nations, were already seeking to obtain control over the education of the young. Against these dangers, one of the chief bulwarks of the Church was the Society of Jesus, now increased to many thousands of members. The Jesuits were staunch opponents of error, not only by the eloquence of the pulpit and the pen, but by unflagging zeal in training young men of the upper classes to fight the battle of life as worthy soldiers in the ranks of the Church Militant. Their immense success left but little chance for the new Philosophy to win and hold the position it coveted. The realization of this idea by the enemy was the doom of the Society.

In Portugal a man was found ready and willing to begin the attack. The name of the Marquis of Pombal, the unscrupulous minister of Joseph I., will ever be associated with the odium of the suppression of the Society of Jesus. Having obtained ascendancy over his weak King, Pombal used his power to further his own schemes. Among his tyrannous acts there was none more unjust, nor more artfully contrived, than the expulsion of the Jesuits from Portugal, and the systematic blackening of their reputation in the eyes of Europe. The Bourbon princes, prejudiced against the Society, brought pressure to bear upon the Holy See; and the adversaries of the Jesuits knew no rest until the ruin of their powerful foe was accomplished. The Sovereign Pontiff was skilfully brought into the position of being obliged to choose between two evils: the suppression of the Society, or schism on the part of the Catholic rulers of Europe. Clement XIV. chose the former alternative, and reluctantly signed the Brief of suppression in 1773, protesting that he did so only for the sake of peace in the Church. The story is a long and sad one. It suffices to say that the Jesuits obeyed without a murmur, closing their colleges and resigning their churches; and, had it not been for the protection of the Protestant King, Frederic of Prussia, and the schismatic Empress, Catherine of Russia, they would have ceased to exist as an Order. These two sovereigns obtained from the Pope permission for the Jesuits to continue in their dominions as if the suppression had not taken place; thus giving striking testimony to the intrinsic value of the labours undertaken by the Society irrespective of Religion.

V. Conclusion

We cannot close our chapter on the pioneers of the French Revolution without casting a glance at Catholic Austria, whence was to come the unfortunate Marie Antoinette, whose marriage with Louis XVI. of France was among the causes of the catastrophe of 1789.

The Emperor Joseph II., infected by the prevailing philosophism of the eighteenth century, yet holding a middle course between that spirit and true Catholicity, directed his attention and energy towards religion. Frederic the Great, with grim humour, expressed these tendencies of Joseph in the sobriquet of "our brother the sacristan," The Austrian Emperor had, indeed, taken up the role of director of "bell, book, and candle," and nothing might be done in the churches which was not in accordance with the regulations of the imperial code.

However absurd this officious interference in ceremonial might seem to the outsider, it was nevertheless, a petty persecution irritating in the extreme to those who immediately suffered from it. Complaints were addressed to the Holy See, and so serious did the case become that, in 1782, Pope Pius VI. undertook the long and tedious journey to Vienna in the hope of bringing about some satisfactory arrangement. The Sovereign Pontiff met with an honourable reception from the Emperor, but nothing definite resulted from his visit. Joseph continued his injudicious meddling, with more or less satisfaction to himself, and discomfort to his subjects, until his death in 1799, when his system fell to the ground. Josephism in Austria holds much the same place in Church History as Gallicanism in France, though with less far-reaching consequences, and more dependence on Rome.

Outside our present scope lie the political movements which led up more directly to the Revolution. Such were the ruinous European wars of Louis XIV., and the resulting taxation of the lower classes, while the privileged nobility, flocking to Court, left the peasantry at the mercy of men hired to collect their hard-won earnings. The excitement caused by the success of the American colonies in their struggle against taxation by the mother-country, was intensified by the return to France of young nobles like Lafayette, who had placed their swords at the disposal of the colonists. The oppressed and overburdened multitude of Frenchmen felt that they too might win independence, and the liberty described by Rousseau. All was ready for the impending cataclysm.

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