Jansenism and Irish Catholicism

“Jansenism”. The Oxford Companion to Irish History. 2007.

“Jansenism was viewed with great suspicion by Rome, and 17th-century Irish synods toed the Roman line. Indeed, while its moral rigorism made it attractive to elements of the Counter-Reformation church, Jansenism’s theological and political radicalism alienated both local hierarchies and Catholic monarchs. This was especially the case in France and most Irish clerical students there associated with the milieux hostile to the movement. Indeed their anti-Jansenist opinions were singled out for criticism by the pro-Jansenist journal Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, Irish clerics, in general, being more attracted to Jesuit-style humanism. The success of the anti-Jansenist bull Unigenitus (1713) marginalized the movement but it survived as a popular millenarian-cum-miracle cult. Neither as a theology nor as a political attitude did Jansenism recommend itself to the Irish Catholic community, either at home or abroad. The frequent claim that Irish Catholicism was Jansenist-influenced springs from the tendency to confuse Jansenism with mere moral rigorism.”

—Dr. Thomas O’Connor. Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer at the Department of History, National University of Ireland. He is the author of Irish Jansenists 1600-1670: politics and religion in Flanders, France, Ireland and Rome (Dublin, 2008), Strangers to Citizens: the Irish in Europe 1600-1800 (Dublin, 2008), An Irish Jansenist in seventeenth-century France: John Callaghan 1605-54 (Dublin, 2005) and An Irish Theologian in Enlightenment Europe: Luke Joseph Hooke 1714-96 (Dublin, 1995).

John Healy, Maynooth College: Its Centenary History (Dublin, 1895), p. 274

“During the eighteenth century many of the most eminent Churchmen in France were, to some extent, tinctured with these Jansenistic views, even when repudiating the Jansenistic errors regarding the operation of grace and free will. But although so many of our Irish ecclesiastics were educated in France during the eighteenth century, none of those who came to Ireland ever showed the slightest trace of this Jansenistic influence, either in their writings or their sermons. Nor has any respectable authority asserted, so far as we know, that the French Professors of Maynooth were in any way tinged with the spirit of Jansenism.”

—Most Rev. John Healy, D.D., LL.D., M.R.I.A.

Vexilla Regis: Maynooth Laymen’s Annual, 1951, p. 84

“Off the playing-fields [of Maynooth seminary] at the end of a short avenue of tall cypresses, there is a little cemetery. Here are the graves of some of the greatest men in the history of modern Irish Catholicism. Here, also, are the graves of Irish boys who had consecrated themselves to God but whom God took to Himself before they reached the priesthood. A few French priests rest here, too. For the original staff at Maynooth consisted of Irish priests from Paris and some French colleagues whom they brought with them. (To this day the College gown is an adaptation of that worn by the clerical professors at the Sorbonne in pre-Revolution times.)

Those gentle dead are sometimes accused of having brought Jansenism into Ireland. My friend, Mr. Tom Wall, Assistant Librarian at University College, Dublin, has written admirably on this silly accusation and on the whole history of the remarkable part played by Irish priests in Paris in the Jansenist controversy. The so-called Jansenism of late nineteenth century Ireland was nothing more than an element of Victorianism that came over with the compulsory English after the Famine.”

—Chevalier Thomas MacGreevy
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Posted on May 22, 2011, in Catholic Education, Irish Colleges on the Continent, Irish History, Jansenism, Maynooth Seminary, Persecution. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Good stuff. The idea that Irish Catholics could be jansenists is laughable. Thunk of all the fun we have at wakes.

  2. jansenism indeed. it is very easy to throw labels around, less easy to make them stick.

  3. Given that Irish received communion frequently for the most part, it is unlikely that Jansenism had any widespread presence in Ireland.

  4. I’m glad you’ve dug up these insights on this question. It’s been something of a received wisdom in many quarters that Irish Catholicism, here and in Ireland, was in some way influenced or tinged by Jansenism.

    Macgreevy’s conclusion is striking: ” The so-called Jansenism of late nineteenth century Ireland was nothing more than an element of Victorianism that came over with the compulsory English after the Famine.” This essentially agrees with the perspective of Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, professor at Maynooth and former student of Joseph Ratzinger, who has written on this question in The End of Irish Catholicism? (Veritas, 2003). Twomey argues that the peculiar nineteenth century interpretation of Trent that took root in Ireland “may well have had more to do with the peculiar socio-economic conditions in Ireland and the Puritan ethos of the United Kingdom at the time.” (57). More specifically, Twomey echoes McGreevy in identifying the impact of the abandonment of Irish for English as the lingua franca – which helped create a keen desire to match and even outdo English middle class mores – and the adoption of a kind of angelism in the Irish mentality, denigrating life in this world in favor of that hereafter. Twomey was struck at just how different traditioanl Bavarian Catholicism was when he first arrived in Regensburg to study under Ratzinger – and the contrast helped him see more clearly just why Ireland was different. And it may also point to why Ireland has had a more difficult time adapting to the upheavals that followed the Council than even Bavaria has.

    Part of the problem is that so few Catholics fully understand what Jansenism really was. It seems to have become a kind of catchall for, well, that kind of moral rigorism that was at work in some parts of the “Tridentine” Catholic world.

  5. Richard, I agree. Most of what people confuse as ‘Jansenism’ was simply Victorian values.

    I read Twomey’s book a few years ago for a project in college and, to be honest, I was not impressed. Definitely the work of a theologian rather than a historian. Roy Foster (a popular ‘revisionist’ Irish historian at Oxford) refers to the book in Luck and the Irish, pointing out that it mentions nothing about the sex scandals, which surely makes a nonsense of its title.

    • Hi Shane,

      It is indeed curious that the sex scandals get no mention in Twomey’s book. Even in 2003, it wasn’t a secret.

      Twomey is too much of a “communio” man for me to be fully on board with his theological perspective. But as it was my first real exposure to any real analysis of the theology of pre-conciliar Irish Catholicism, I found that aspect of his analysis noteworthy.

  6. “Twomey is too much of a “communio” man for me to be fully on board with his theological perspective.”

    Richard, I agree — indeed that’s probably why it was published by Ignatius Press. They focus on reprinting the old ‘ressourcement’ theologians — De Lubac, Congar, von Balthasar, etc.

    • Right – Twomey was an old classmate of Fr. Fessio’s, while they studied together under Ratzinger at Regensburg.

      Indeed, were it not for Ignatius, much of the work of the communio theologians would never have reached any American audience, not least that of Ratzinger himself – a brilliant stroke of foresight by Fessio.

    • james a. sullivan

      when you say “old ressourcement theologians – like De Lubac, Congar, von Balthasar, etc” I presume that there is something derogatory in this phraseology. Do you mean old as in hack, worn out, lacking in a forward-looking value? Are you playing a revolutionary card, suggesting that we are “beyond those guys?” I have no brief to argue for communio/Communio, but ressourcement is essential for theological development, otherwise we have ersatz theology that defies any logical continuity or preservation of type to quote Newman

  7. Postscript:

    Actually, in fairness to Fr. Twomey, he *does* mention the scandals (most notably on p.33) – particularly those in the schools run by religious congregations – albeit briefly – briefly enough that perhaps Foster just overlooked it. Twomey asks, “Why did no one do anything about these horror stories? Why did everyone keep silent? Why did so many conform? Why was there such a singular lack of moral courage?” Still, I can’t help but think he ought to have said more, even if this was not his principal object.

  8. It is noteworthy that well before this in Ireland, that Irish Puritanism surely took hold, with the creation of an Irish reformed church, in Ireland… 1530-1690, and the Irish Articles of 1615.

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