Review of Saints or Sinners? Jansenism and Jansenisers in 17th Century France by J. D. Crichton. Veritas. 1996. 288pp. £9.95.
This is much more a book about Jansenists than about Jansenism. It is chiefly about the famous Arnauld family, headed in the historical order of importance by Jacqueline. She was a younger daughter in a bourgeois faimily which had many daughters, and at the age of seven her parents compelled her to become a nun in order to reduce the number of daughters for whom dowries had to be found. Her convent was Port Royal, which was to become one of the most famous convents of all time. By the time she reached eleven she was Abbess. But she still resented the fact of being a nun, because she was wilful and stubborn.
The problem was not that convent life was rigorous and secluded and cut its participants off from what is customarily thought of as pleasure. Far from it. French convents around 1600 were unreformed. That means that the world was open to them and they were open to the world. A nun might have close friends in the world, without gender prejudice, and might entertain a close friend in a chambre separée in the convent.
One of the popular songs in Slieve Luacra half a century ago—one of the few that I ever heard my mother, who was not a singer, sing—went like this:
I won't be a nun,
And I shan't be a nun.
And my mother always told me
That I won't be a nun.
There's an officer on guard
And 'tis with him I will run.
For my heart is full of pleasure
And I won't be a nun !
I later came across it in a Canon Sheehan novel. I cannot say whether he wrote it for the novel and it became popular, or just put it in the novel because it was a popular song around 1910. Either way, it formed part of the culture of Slieve Luacra for about forty years.
Having to do with reformed convents, it would have made little sense in France three hundred years earlier. So far as mere pleasure went, the convent seemed to be the place for it:
"There was little or no common life. Each nun had her garden with an arbour in which to entertain visitors, both male and female. There was no enclosure and on certain feast days the nuns despatched Vespers and Compline in haste so that they could go out into the country nearby and dance with monks from a neighbouring monastery. The choir offices were a scandalous farce. Animal-like noises were launched from one side of the choir to another and as the nuns knew no Latin they doubtless thought that this was no worse than making incomprehensible noises purporting to be Latin at each other" (p123).
But Jacqueline Arnauld was a serious bourgeois, descended on both sides from lawyer families, and she did not see it as her destiny to spend her life experiencing the pleasures of the convent. She tried to leave the convent but her family wouldn't have it. Therefore, having become Abbess when she was eleven, she took the alternative course and, at the age of eighteen, set about bourgeoisifying convent life. She introduced religion and enforced the rules of the order. While her parents had not allowed her to leave the convent they were not horrified by her attempt to do so. But they were horrified when they heard that she was making the convent a religious institution. Her father sent her a message that he was coming to knock some sense into her. But, when he arrived:
"All outside doors were locked and Angelique gathered all the keys in her own hands, afraid that one of the nuns might give way and open a door...Her mother rushed up to the door and poured abuse on her daughter, then Robert (her brother) took up the tale; she was a 'monster of ingratitude, a parricide!, she was responsible before God for what she was doing, she would kill her father!'" (p107).
She agreed eventually to grant her father an interview. Since the event is known as the Journee du Guichet, the Day of the Judas-window, I gather that the interview was held in a room formally within but effectively outside the convent and that they spoke through a grill. She stood firm and he had to give way. And, although her mother "made a rash oath never to enter the portals of the monastery again", Jacqueline (Angelique) had in that confrontation devalued the destiny of the family as hitherto conceived and given it a new destiny. She already had two sisters with her in the convent, put there, like herself, for economic reasons. After the Day of the Judas-window the life of the Arnauld family began to revolve around Port Royal for other reasons. Jacqueline's mother entered Port Royal after the death of her father, and her sisters, brother, cousins and nieces, were drawn into its gravitational field.
Angelique was a practical reformer of convents, and it was through the requirements of practical reform that her association with Jansenism developed. When pleasure was displaced from convent life an earnest doctrine of the supernatural was needed to give subjective coherence to a routine of strict practices. And Jansenism was the source of this—to be strictly accurate, since Jansenism can hardly be said to exist before the publication of Jansen's book in 1640, those divines who supplied Mere Angelique with the spiritual requirements for her practical reform, were predisposed towards Jansenism: they were ready and waiting for it.
Jansenism as a formal doctrine was contained in Jansen's book, Augustine, posthumously published in 1640. It was condemned by the Jesuits and the Sorbonne as heretical and was stoutly defended by Angelique's brother, Antoine, known as the Great Arnauld. In 1653 the Pope issued a Bull summarising Jansenism in five propositions and condemning them. But that was far from being the end of the matter. The Great Arnauld supported the condemnation of the Five Propositions, but said that they could not be found in Jansen's book. Jansenism continued to flourish in the distinction which he made between droit and fait, right and fact: the Propositions were rightly condemned but were wrongly attributed to Jansen.
The original dispute had to do with the freedom of the will and the supernatural condition of human life, which were theological, or at least metaphysical, issues. In the 1650's a secondary dispute arose on the basis of the droit/fait distinction. Since this was a dispute about a fact—about whether the Propositions condemned by the Pope were contained in Jansen's book—one might think that it could be easily settled by factual investigation. It couldn't. The Pope therefore issued a second Bull in 1656 requiring the faithful to exercise belief in the matter of the fact: they were required to state on oath that the condemned Propositions were not only wrong, but were contained in Jansen's book. Agnes, Angelique's sister, who was also an Abbess, wrote: "We are in no way disquieted by the Bull. We condemn what it condemns without knowing what it is" (p135).
"Would that Port Royal had stuck to that view": that is Mr. Crichton's comment (p135). But it was not a view worthy of a family of lawyers, and it was not in Antoine's nature to strike such an attitude: "Rather like a theological Helen, Arnauld launched a thousand pamphlets" (p57).
Mention of Helen brings us to the nub of the theological or metaphysical issue. Helen was a shameless and adaptable Greek—to be precise, a Spartan: and we must be precise because it was only as a Spartan that she was possible:
No Spartan girl
Could grow up modest, even if she wanted to,
You never find them staying at home; no, they go out
With bare thighs and loose clothes, to wrestle and run races
Along with the young men. I call it intolerable.
Then can you wonder that your women don't grow up
As the most beautiful of the shameless Spartans, Helen naturally aroused the other Greeks to great excitement—extreme concupiscience, to use the language of the Jansenist controversy. The fact that they had formed their own women into modest hausfraus only made them all the more susceptible to the wanton influence of the delectable Spartan. She was kidnapped and taken home by the Athenian Theseus. The Spartans invaded Athens and took her back. Then she married Menelaus, King of Sparta. Paris, a Prince of Troy, saw her on a visit to Sparta and decided he couldn't live without her, and she, being free-willed, went off with him to Troy. Then all the Greeks who had tried to have her—or maybe who had had her—went to war against Troy to get her back. The war went on for ten years, during which time Paris died and she married his brother. Eventually Troy was taken. And whatever had been Menelaus's intention until the moment when he set eyes on her again, all he could think of at that moment was persuading her to live with him again. So back she went to be Queen of Sparta.
But Apollo came to Menelaus and explained to him that Helen had been put among the Greeks for a purpose. That purpose had been served and now they wanted her back for themselves:
So, Menelaus, choose for your home another wife;
For Helen's beauty was to the gods their instrument
For setting Greeks and Trojans face to face in war
And multiplying deaths, to purge the bloated earth
Of its superfluous welter of mortality.
Homer has a different account of it:
Whether these things happen or not remains up to God,
Who will do what pleases him most...
So tell me why you weep and grieve when hearing the doom
Of the Argive Danaans and Ilium. This was the work
Of the gods, who spun a web of destruction for men,
That people yet might have a song.
(Odyssey. Bk. VIII)
When Nausicaa comes across the shipwrecked Odysseus hiding naked in the bushes, she says:
Stranger, since it seems
That you're neither evil nor stupid, this misery of yours
Must be the will of Olympian Zeus himself,
Who give happy fortune to men, whether good or bad,
To each as he sees fit.
Telemachus (in Book 2) sums up the position very well:
Regarding these things I make no further plea...
The gods and all the Achaeans know how things are
The way things are is that life is a precarious adventure, lived in an arena in which the immortal but inconstant gods are continually interfering with the destinies of men, usually to score a point in their conflicts with each other.
Homer revels in this adventure. Hesiod, the other literary source of Greek culture, deplores it, but does not dispute that that is how things are:
Draw nigh, and sing for me Zeus, your father, and chant his praise;
It is he through whom mortal men are renowned and unrenowned
At the pleasure of Zeus most high by fame are they crowned or discrowned;
For lightly he strengthens this one, and strength to that one denies.
(Works and Days)
His advice is that a sensible man seeks refuge in industrious obscurity. Though the gods may still mess him up, that will maximise his chances of being left alone. He should be particularly careful about women. None of them are good, because all of them are daughters of Pandora. But if he can find a timid girl-next-door he will maximise his chances of keeping her under his thumb.
According to Hesiod's account, Zeus, soon after creating men, decided he had made a mistake. He was about to wipe them out when Prometheus taught them survival tactics and stole fire from heaven for them. That was when Zeus thought of women. Pandora was created, and Aphrodite and Athena endowed her with sexual allure and cunning, and she was sent as a gift to Prometheus's brother:
And the man thought not on the word
Of Prometheus's warning, never to accept from Zeus, the lord
Of Olympus, any gift, but to send it back again.
Beware of gods bearing gifts! That must be the ultimate in scepticism.
Hesiod also wrote a Theogony, which is nothing like a Theology. It is a list of the gods and an account of their affaires.
With Euripides we are almost at Plato. He is inclined to take a moral, censorious attitude towards the gods—to require them to be civilised and to act by consensus towards a defensible purpose. With him we are in the antechamber of theology, with its insoluble problem of evil. But one can forgive him a lot for escaping from Athens in the last year of his life and writing The Bacchae.
But in Homer there is no theology and no insoluble problem of evil. The gods are the gods. There are quite a few of them, and they act at cross-purposes under the uncertain supremacy of Zeus, who in any case was a usurper. There is no hint of theology, which is a calling to account of the gods. Calling the divine to account subordinates it to the human, and it leads to the merging of all the gods into one god, and the fusing of their conflicting impulses into a harmonious system of attributes.
There is no problem about how the world as we know it results from the activity of Homer's gods. There is no solution to the problem of how the world as we know it results from the activity of Augustine's God, who is benevolent, all-knowing and all-powerful.
Zeus is a family man, with a wife who doesn't know her place, and a brood of brilliant, self-assertive, sons and daughters. Since he achieved to top position by means of a coup d'etat against his father, he cannot feel entirely secure against his own children. These gods do not govern human affairs, but they often observe them closely and, like television viewers of a football match, they find themselves drawn into partisanship on trivial grounds, because the game tends to do that; and then they interfere in the course of the game, using the players as pawns in their own rivalry; and the interference is liable to escalate and get completely out of hand.
I cannot see that, for the most part, free will is an issue in the Greek relationship between gods and men. The gods obstruct or facilitate a human in what he is attempting to do; they obstruct his will or assist it, but they do not determine it. When Hercules killed his children in Thebes it was because he had been "distracted" from his own will by Hera. He was not himself when he did it. Afterwards he went to live in Athens because it would not have been seemly to keep on living in Thebes after such an unpleasant occurrence. And he put the matter out of his thoughts because it was not his thoughts that had conceived the deed.
That is not a free-will issue as understood in the era of the totalitarian God. Neither is Orestes killing his mother on the instructions of Apollo, and then being punished for it, because the deed was both good and bad.
In Christian theology—the theology constructed by Plato and St. Paul and puzzled over by Augustine—free-will is an obligatory belief and an impossible thought.
The issue here is not whether, if God appears to you and orders you to do something, you exercise free-will in doing it. The issue is how a human will, which in the ordinary course of events is formed in all its particulars by this all-powerful, all-knowing, God, can be said to be free. If everything that exists was created by this God who is everything, then everything is as he intended it to be and could not of its own accord be otherwise. A God who has been carefully constructed by definitions to be everything leaves no space for anything else.
Papalism is idolatry, as every good Protestant knows. While it has the one God with his comprehensive system of attributes, it also has a clutter of godlets, as well as an infallible human. The Reformation—Luther, Calvin, Knox and Henry VIII—did alway with the godlets and the infallible human—Henry reluctantly, the others enthusiastically. Free-will became an impossible thought. Reason, operating on the omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence of the creator of everything, cannot produce it. And since this God saves or damns people on the basis of their thoughts and deeds, and what they think and do is determined by him, it follows that it is all decided by him in advance. People are born into the Elect or the Damned, and there is nothing they can do about it.
Once the totalitarian attributes of the Christian God are set out, no subtlety of logic can ward off this conclusion. Without idolatry there is no escape from predestination. And the maintenance of idolatry within Christianity has been one of the great achievements of Papal Rome, the Whore of Babylon. It is the virtue of a whore that she must know how to satisfy needs of several kinds.
The Roman Church never aspired to be an assembly of the go-getting elite, as the systematically Christian Churches bred by the Reformation became. Its destiny was to be a Church for everyone—a madchen fur alle! It lived through alternating phases of laxity and rigour. An occasional dash of rigour was required to keep it in touch with its source in St. Paul. But care had to be taken in the rigorous phases that it did not get stuck in a rut of excessive earnestness and thereby lose touch with its pagan source.
The Port Royal reform was welcomed by the Church authorities, and Mere Angelique became a famous and influential figure in the life of the Church and of France. At the same time the Church authorities were aware of the danger of excessive Christian earnestness reducing the Church to a sect of enthusiasts—a danger which was maximised by the fact that Calvinism was still developing strongly and had gained a substantial base in France.
The Port Royal reform was a Counter-Reformationist response to the Reformation. And while the Church authorities saw it as being necessary to a certain extent to compete with the Reformation on the ground of the Reformation, they remained alert to the danger of becoming, through this competition, a mere Church of the Elect. And they heard the warning bells loud and clear when Jansen's Augustine was published in 1640 and was welcomed by the Port Royalists.
Cornelius Jansen, Bishop of Ypres, had died in 1638 without a blot on his character. He had discussed Augustinian theology with Jean du Vergier de Hauranne, Abbe of Saint-Cyran, who had for a time been spiritual director of Port Royal. Saint-Cyran also had a political involvement in the course of which he got at odds with Cardinal Richelieu, the Prime Minister, who had him imprisoned. He was in prison when Augustine was published, and died shortly after his release in 1642:
"All this was accompanied by a minor reign of terror. The Oratory was threatened, the rumour went around that Mere Angelique was to be arrested...Every effort was made to give the impression that there was a conspiracy and that Saint-Cyran was the heart of it. As the news broke people thought that something very serious was amiss and they suspected that Saint-Cyran was guilty of grave heresies. Even those well-disposed towards him were thrown into confusion and for a time thought he had been in the wrong. Such was the effect of Richelieu's propaganda. But as they recovered from the shock they muttered the word 'martyrdom', and then and forever afterwards Port-Royal regarded him as a martyr for the truth" (Crichton, p70).
In the actual life of the time, Port Royal, Saint-Cyran, Jansen and the Arnaulds—and, of course, Pascal—were a party: the Jansenist party. It may be that this practical association suggested a theological coherence which did not actually exist, but there would be nothing very unusual in that.
Jansen's book was not widely read. The first popular work of Jansenist literature was Antoine Arnauld's On Frequent Communion, published in 1643.
The dispute over Jansenism raged during the following generation in both France and Holland. (Jansen was Dutch, born in Acquoi near Leerdam and became Professor of Theology at Bayonne and Louvain). In Holland, Papal denunciation led to a schism, a split. In France it did not. While Crichton, who deals only with the French dimension, refers to Jansen as "a heresiarch" (p41) the fact that the heresy is very difficult to specify theologically, and that it did not lead to a schism but continued as a strain within the Roman Church, makes its status as a heresy very doubtful.
Holland was a very Protestant state, and this fact influenced the Catholics in the part of it which later detached itself and became Belgium. The Dutch Government actively supported the Dutch Jansenists, obstructed Roman influence, and helped to develop the conflict to the point of schism early in the 18th century. (During the working out of the Jansenist conflict the House of Orange, having lost its original base in Orange in Southern France to the movement of French unification under Louis XIV, consolidated its position in Holland, and supplied England with its new regime which brought religious freedom to Ireland in the form of the Penal Laws.)
Because Holland was a Protestant state, the Roman Church there could not be organised in Bishoprics. Instead of Bishops it had Vicars Apostolic. Bishoprics were seen by Protestant states as an encroachment on the powers of the state. (There were no Catholic Bishops in England until 1850, and even then the appointment of the first Bishops provoked an outburst of popular anti-Catholicism, and an anti-Catholic law was actually passed by Parliament.) The Catholic Church in Protestant states was supervised by Vicars Apostolic appointed directly by Rome, who had no official standing in the state. And yet the V.A.s in Holland seem to have supported the Jansenist tendency.
The Jansenist dispute was interwoven with political affairs both in France and in Holland. It began in France during the civil war in the minority of Louis XIV when Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin were Prime Ministers. It concluded with the schism in Holland during the war by Holland and Britain against Europe, which is formally known as the War of the Spanish Succession because that looks better than First Balance-of-Power War. It was in the context of this war that Holland encouraged its own Catholics of an extreme disposition and made itself a refuge for French Jansenists.
In France the Jansenist movement was restricted both ecclesiastically and politically by Cardinal Mazarin, (a Cardinal who was not a priest, and the architect of the Peace of Westphalia which ended the 30 Years War of religion and earned a condemnation from the Pope which the Cardinal ignored), and was practically resolved by Louis XIV. But it gave rise to some very exciting literature. (The convent of Port Royal was closed down on the orders of the Pope in 1705.)
But what precisely is Jansenism as a theological position? Here is the description of it given in the Catholic Encyclopedia published in 1910, which is usually an intellectual pleasure to read:
"His (Jansen's) fundamental error consists in disregarding the supernatural order. For Jansenius the vision of God is the necessary end of human nature; hence it follows that all the primal endowments designated in theology as supernatural or preternatural, including exemption from concupiscence, were simply men's due. This first assertion is fraught with grave consequences, regarding the original fall, grace, and justification. As a result of Adam's sin, our nature, stripped of elements essential to its integrity, is radically corrupt and depraved. Mastered by concupiscence, which in each of us properly constitutes original sin, the will is powerless to resist; it has become purely passive. It cannot escape the attraction of evil except it be aided by a movement of grace superior to and triumphant over the force of concupiscence. Our soul, henceforth obedient to no motive save that of pleasure, is at the mercy of the delectation, earthly or heavenly, which for the time being attracts it with the greatest strength. At once inevitable and irrestible, this delectation, if it come from heaven or from grace leads man to virtue; if it come from nature or concupiscence, it determines him to sin. In the one case as in the other, the will is fatally swept on by the preponderant impulse. The two delectations, says Jansenius, are like the two arms of a balance, of which the one cannot rise unless the other be lowered. Thus man irresistibly, although voluntarily, does either good or evil, according as he is dominated by grace or concupiscence; he never resists the one or the other. In this system there is evidently no place for purely sufficient grace."
Sufficient grace, understood according to the ordinary meaning of the words, is enough grace to get by with. And, at least in the realm of first and last things, in the context of eternity, enough is as good as a feast. "'What does it matter,' said the Father, 'how we enter Paradise so long as we enter?'"— that was the opinion of the Jesuit in the Ninth of Pascal's Provincial Letters.
The Jesuits, set up to counter the Reformation, emphasised salvation by free-will and good works against Calvinist predestination and salvation by faith. They reassured men of the world that it was possible to live in the world, and live well, and yet be good enough to make it into heaven at the end.
Man, though fallen, was still endowed with sufficient grace to see him through. Sufficient grace was the ground of free will. And so long as a man made a bit of an effort and did some good works he stood a good chance of being saved. (The name for this seems to be Molinism.)
(Somerset Maugham, a sceptic who took to the Catholicism of Spain, has a story about a village in Andalusia which experienced Counter-Reformationist preaching for the first time. The preacher did his work so well, on the subject of the Passion, that the congregation got very disturbed and some went into convulsions. Not having intended them to take it all so earnestly, "He besought his listeners to calm themselves, for there was an uproar, and begged for silence. When at last he was able to make himself heard, he said: 'But, my brethren, reflect that all this I tell you happened many years ago. And it may be that it never happened at all'." (Don Fernando).
The easy-going attitude of the Jesuits was seen by the Port Royal reformers as being connected with the casualness about the sacraments and the general loose living in the Church which they were intent on eradicating. Antoine Arnauld's book On Frequent Communion (which he was against) had the object of inculcating a much more scrupulous and conscientious approach to religious practice. Through Jesuit influence it was condemned by the Sorbonne and later by Rome. At that juncture (1656) Blaise Pascal (inventor of calculus and computer pioneer) began publication of his Provincial Letters in defence of Arnauld, using materials supplied to him by Arnauld.
The form of the Letters is that an earnest seeker after truth questions Jansenist, Jesuit and Dominican theologians about sufficient grace, and its sufficiency or insufficiency, in order to gain an exact understanding of the Jansenist error by pinning down the correct view from which it deviates. A Jesuit tries at the outset to dissuade him from a futile quest—"You must be a theologian to appreciate these finer points. The difference between us is so subtle that we can barely see it ourselves. It would be too difficult for you to understand"—but he has a desperate need to know and he persists.
In the First Letter a Dominican theologian, Augustinian in theology, springs the term proximate power on him to distinguish the Dominican position from the Jansenist position with which it otherwise seemed to agree. "I stored the term in my memory for fear of forgetting it, because my intellect did not grasp it". Asking around he found that the word was used to paper over the chasm between the Dominicans and the Jesuits. Use of the word unites them against the Jansenists, who refuse to use it, even though they mean different things by it. This is clarified by establishing that for one side a man with good eyesight, placed in a dark room, has the proximate power to see, while for the other side he has not because something additional is required in order that he can actually see. "But as they are agreed in their intention to destroy M. Arnauld, they have decided to agree on the use of this word proximate, though each means something different by it."
The following passage is from the 2nd Letter:
"I received a visit from our old friend M. N—..., who is thoroughly informed about topical questions and is in the confidence of the Jesuits...I asked him to explain in a few words the points in dispute between the two parties.
"He agreed and informed me that there were two principal points---the first was about proximate power, and second about sufficient grace. I have already explained about the first and will now explain about the second.
"In a word, I found that the difference about sufficient grace is this: The Jesuits assert that there is a grace given generally to all men, subject to free will in such a way that the exercise of the will makes it efficacious or not without any additional help from God and without lacking anything to enable it to act effectively—it is therefore called sufficient because it suffices by itself for action. The Jansenists, on the other hand, will not allow that there is any grace which is actually sufficient which is not also efficacious—that is to say that all those forms of grace that do not determine the will to effective action are insufficient for action—because they hold that we never act without efficacious grace...
"I then wanted to find out about the doctrine of the neo-Thomists. 'It is rather odd,' he said; 'they agree with the Jesuits in admitting that a sufficient grace is given to all men; but at the same time they maintain that men cannot act through this grace alone, and that in order to act they must receive from God an efficacious grace which really determines the will for action, which is not a thing which God grants to everybody.'
"'So, according to this doctrine,' I said, 'this grace is sufficient without sufficing.'
"'That's it exactly' he replied, 'because if it suffices nothing more is needed for action; and if it does not suffice, it is not sufficient.'
"'But,' I asked, 'what then is the difference between them and the Jansenists?'
"'The difference', he said, 'is that it can be said in favour of the Dominicans that they do not refuse to say that all men have sufficient grace.'
"'I can see that,' I said; 'but they say it without thinking it, because they add that, in order to act, we must have an efficacious grace which is not given to all; therefore, if they agree with the Jesuits in using the term meaninglessly, they agree with the Jansenists in the substance of the matter."
"'That's true', he said.
"'How then', I asked, 'are the Jesuits united with them? Why do they not oppose them as well as the Jansenists?...
"'The Dominicans are too powerful and the Jesuits are too political to come to an open rupture with them', he replied. 'The Jesuits are content with having got them to use the name of sufficient grace although they mean something else.'"
Prayer elicits grace. And then, of course, grace elicits prayer. The basic issue seems to be whether a particular injection of grace, arbitrarily granted, is needed in the first instance in order to determine the will to pray. And if a particular injection of grace is needed to set the will in motion, and this particular grace is efficacious in the sense of being irresistible, and if it is not injected into everybody, does that not mean that God chooses who shall be saved and damns the rest?
Port Royal was obliged to condemn Jansenism in 1661. Pascal's sister Jacqueline, who was a nun there, managed to die before she was required to put her name to the condemnation. So did Mere Angelique. Pascal himself died the following year.
The issue raised by St. Cyran, Jansen and Arnauld was not resolved because it is incapable of resolution within the parameters of Catholicism. Between leaving off the Letters and his death Pascal wrote the tortuous Pensées (Thoughts). The Pensees are as morose as the Letters are exuberant, and both have been in print ever since.
Since he found Calvinism repugnant, and declared that "my only earthly allegiance is to the Catholic, Apostolic, Roman Church" (Letter 17), he tried to satisfy the systematic requirements of his intellect by devising a complicated scheme whereby God could be omnipotent and omniscient without being guilty of predestination, or of being a Jesuit. Calvin's God, by direct action, saved some and damned others. The Jesuits' God gave everybody sufficient grace and then left it up to themselves what they did. Of course he knew what each one would do, but it was not by his will that each one did what he did. Pascal's view was that God intervened actively to ensure that the best were saved. He becomes partisan at that point, without having previously arranged that these particular ones should be the best. He acts to save those who are saved, but he only knows that the damned will be damned. He does not let those whose salvation he is ensuring know that they are saved, so they must live in a condition of uncertainty and terror right up to the end. And in the case of the damned, he knows without doing.
The intellectual rigour which characterises the Letters and many of the Pensées is discarded here. "The heart has its reasons, of which reason itself knows nothing". So it has. But it is somehow unbecoming that it should have been the author of the Letters who made that discovery and acted on it
Vincent de Paul, a reformer as well as a philanthropist, was a friend of St. Cyran and visited him in prison, but in the 1640s he declared war on the Jansenists. He had either to support Jansenism or make war on it because many of his own followers were strongly attracted to it. He made war on it because he judged that it was too high-minded to be practical:
"It was a great source of danger that the Jansenist assault was levelled at abuses recognised by the Lazarists (Vincent de Paul, etc.), which it was their mission to correct. M. Vincent's distress at the light-mindedness of many of those who administered and of those who received the Sacraments was as deep as that of St. Cyran or of Antoine Arnauld; but he believed that spiritual advance and ultimate salvation depended on the grace imparted in the sacrament of the altar...
"To him it seemed that the Jansenists, in the ferocity of their attack, were destroying the treasures of the Church, and that none of the evils that cried for remedy were to be compared for danger to the means employed to extirpate them...
"...one of the principal points of Jansenist teaching was to inspire such awe of the Sacraments that they could only be approached very rarely by the pastor as well as his flock. In short, the religion of Port Royal---full as it was of pure aspiration---was the religion only of the few, and it was calculated to alienate those for whom it was not suited from the practice of any religion. It was not the erudite few, but the great mass of the people, for whom M. Vincent spent himself...
"The Jansenists recognised him as their most dangerous enemy...
"If he had to contend with doubts and questions in himself, he could not have served others in the manner that God required of him. He saw the few bringing injury to the many, the gifted minority threatening the ignorant masses." (Ella King Sanders, Vincent de Paul, 1913. pp381-7)
However awesome Communion might appear when contemplated theoretically, when viewed practically frequent Communion was useful. If it had a good effect, it made little practical sense that perfection should be made a precondition of receiving it. And Vincent required for his purposes an active Church which was entangled with the world, rather than a perfected Church detached from the world.
E. K. Sanders also wrote a book about Angelique of Port Royal (1905), in which she commented: "It has been said that the Port-Royalists had no desires that did not conform to their duty...When that condition is attained human direction loses force, but such attainment is rare" (p379).
Kant, in his Practical Reason, saw the antinomy—the irreconcilable conflict—of duty and desire as an essential characteristic of human existence. The formation of an entirely dutiful desire was not possible, and was not even desirable. Duty and desire would be reconciled only at the point of infinity, at which point humanity would no longer exist.
I was very surprised by this. The conflict of duty and desire, like the differentation of mental and manual labour, was not strongly developed in Slieve Luacra. Desire somehow contrived to be sufficiently dutiful to pass muster, and such dutiful elements as there were in the flow of life there passed me by. Duty came as an external intrusion, and eventually it squeezed me out. If I had not happened to read the Practical Reason early on it is possible that the modern world created by West European Christianity would have remained a mystery to me. As it is I can understand that the culture of Port Royal, in which duty blotted out desire, simply would not do, and that it had to be held in check by an ecclesiastical authority whose official position is on the side of duty only because desire is presumed to be able to look after itself. It was not that Port Royalism was wrong. Rome does not deal in such moral simplicities. It was just that a pinch of it went a long way, like pepper.
The dispute about sufficient grace has nothing to do with us, of course. We know that all those clever, strong-willed people argued over the fine points of a delusion. And yet if you know about their dispute it keeps coming to mind when you hear scientific sociologists and politicians arguing about the upsurge of criminal activity in recent years, and the responsibility of the individual for his actions in circumstances of high unemployment and cultural uncertainty.
Free-will is a basic presumption of British and Irish law. The ideological structure of the law requires that a criminal must have exercised free will. But scientific theory explains action as a product of the encounter between genes and environment. The other day on the Melvyn Bragg show I heard a scientist heatedly denying that her position was determinist. Because, she said, although the genetic structure was given, environment was variable. A particular genetic structure would give rise to different actions in different environments.
Freedom is the abstract possibility of different action in different environments!
But since the environment is no less a specific given for each individual than his genetic structure, the freedom through which criminal responsibility is incurred is no less mysterious than the freedom through which damnation is merited.