Moreland on Jansenist Catholicism…and Summer Fridays With Pascal

My friend Michael Moreland has a very interesting post, Irish Catholicism and the Long Tail of Jansenism, whose core speculation is that those European quarters most influenced by Jansenism are also among those most likely to see a decline in Catholic influence. A bit from Mike’s post:

Indeed, while the Church’s influence across Europe has fallen, the collapse in those parts of Europe (or places missionized by Europeans) arguably influenced by Jansenism has been ferocious: the Low Countries (we think of Jansenism as primarily a French movement, but Cornelius Jansen himself was Dutch and Bishop of Ypres), France, Quebec, and Ireland. The place of the Church in the culture of those parts of European Catholicism less tinged by Jansenism has fared a bit better: Poland, Austria, Bavaria, Italy, and, most especially, Spain and Portugal and their former colonies in Latin America and the Philippines….

If there is something to this, though, we shouldn’t be surprised. Jansenism—with its hyper-Augustinianism, insistence on human depravity, confused doctrine of freedom and grace, other-worldliness, and moral rigorism—was theologically pernicious (condemned in Cum occasione by Pope Innocent X in 1653 and in Unigenitus dei filius by Pope Clement VI in 1713). A Catholic culture shaped by it distorts our understanding of the human person and society, and bad theological doctrines about God, human nature, and sin can wreak havoc even if the institutional forms of the Church endure for a time. Jansenism produced a towering genius in Blaise Pascal and a minor genius in Antoine Arnauld, but it was an unfortunate development in early modern Catholicism.

The post is typically erudite and penetrating. Yet it evoked more than a bit of sorrow and regret in this devotee of Pascal, a major figure in the development and defense of the religious society of Port-Royal (as Mike observes), morally a Puritan movement within the Church. For the definitive account of the destruction of the society, one must read Sainte-Beueve. As T.S. Eliot once said of him: “Pascal was not a theologian, and on dogmatic theology had recourse to his spiritual advisers. Nor was he indeed a systematic philosopher. He was a man with an immense genius for science, and at the same time a natural psychologist and moralist.”

And so I have resolved to institute a little summer series–Summer Fridays With Pascal. Enjoy over a good glass of Bordeaux.

Here is something from Pensées–appropriately enough, on “Thought”:

All the dignity of man consists in thought. Thought is therefore by its nature a wonderful and incomparable thing. It must have strange defects to be contemptible. Yet it has such, so that nothing is more ridiculous. How great it is in its nature! How vile it is in its defects!

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