Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Jansenist Church

The Synod of Pistoia
Fr. Ray Blake has an interesting article about the place of individual holiness in the Church universal, replete with all its sinners and misfit characters. Although he does not state it explicitly, the tone of his article underlines the spiritual influence of Jansenism in the heart of the contemporary Church. 

Although, we must concede, there was a prevailing belief that only monks and nuns could be holy—laity and secular priests lived in a mediocrity by contrast—the "old" spirituality of the Church permitted an ambiguous contiguity between herself and the sinner. It was an age of "literary converts" from sinful pasts (think Oxford before integration), where those with prolonged states of sin could feasibly come to the hospital of the soul and hope for an eventual cure. Then came the "universal call to holiness."

Holy Communion was probably under-received prior to the 20th century. Canon Law mandated at least an annual reception; Lateran IV called for at least biannual communication. Now the tables have completely reversed. The most poignant line for this reader was this:
"In practice, if everyone is to receive the Eucharist, does it means that there is no room for the prostitute or the gay man or adulterer unable to control his sexual desires or the alcoholic or the wife beater or the paedophile or the murderous God hating gangster, or the simply confused, or just plain ordinary sinner with a divided soul who loves the idea of God but is too damaged to fully embrace him."
The prevailing communitarianism of modern Roman Catholicism presumes a positive opinion of His people—the "people of God"—by the Almighty. How many inane hymns from the popular blue Gather books are about the congregation? In a Mass with friendly handshakes, the ashamed and lost sinner who wants to be left alone has no place of welcome. I myself had the unique experience of attending Mass on Pascha with my un-baptized girlfriend in Buffalo, NY. My sweetheart and a pew of middle-aged Italian men (decked in pinstripe suits and wearing pinkie rings) were the only ones not to approach for Communion.

The antiquarianism of the reformed Roman liturgy and the obsession with the activities of the congregants, since 1964, almost amounts to a neo-Jansenism, an assumption of a pure, God pleasing Church. The original Jansenists, in their zeal to imitate the life and times of St. Augustine of Hippo, discouraged frequent Communion because of the certainty of unworthy reception. These vicarious Augustinians also wanted to simulate the presumed bareness of the patristic liturgies, reducing the priest to an overseer. The recent Roman liturgical reforms accomplished much the same things and, despite what Michael Davies may have thought, the case for a visible protestantization of the Roman rite is a difficult one to make, all things considered. The changes more reflect a concern for the people, simplicity, and a pseudo-patristic experience than anything to do with Cranmer or Luther. While the Reformers created large portions of their own rites ex nihilo, new reformers cobbled their's together with new pieces, but also old elements of first millennium sacramentaries, prefaces, and books of blessings. However, the original Jansenists made their changes when a sense of sin still prevailed. Without sin, when the priest decreases, the people must increase—and how they have.

While Fr. Blake is right that some Orthodox churches see infrequent Communion, this is not entirely true. Here, at least, Communion is near-total at Greek Orthodox churches and the same at Eastern Catholic churches. The Slavic Orthodox tradition of Confession the night before Communion probably decreases the number of receptions. At Tradistan, nearly everyone goes up.

While in the first eight centuries or so, everyone in the church went to Communion, not everyone who assisted at the liturgical celebration stayed for the anaphora. The Romans expelled non-communicants after the Gospel. The Greeks did so with "The doors! The doors! In wisdom, let us be attentive!" There was no difficulty in leaving. Frequent reception is not a bad thing at all, but the manner in which it is now done certainly does not welcome repentance. Nothing is more awkward for a lapsed Catholic at Christmas Mass than watching everyone else but him go up to the altar.

Newman described Purgatory as a "hospital for the sick," a phrase adapted several paragraphs ago for the entire Church. A hospital the Church must be. Communion may be the medicine, but the patient must first accept the diagnosis. Unfortunately, the neo-Jansenists have not read a medical degree.

Note: for a brief overview of the original Jansenist movement, reader this monograph by Dr. Hull.


  1. I would argue that the greatest first change in Communing policy was when infants started to be denied the Sacrament. It looks to me that the Roman church's policies on Communion were affected by Trent or - rather- a very strange interpretation of Trent.

    Trent: "Children who have not attained the use of reason are not by any necessity bound to Sacramental Communion of the Eucharist."

    In other words, somehow "they don't need to go" became "they cannot go" and the age of "discernment" was marked anywhere from ten to fourteen until Pius X encouraged it be dropped to seven. By putting in a mindset that a little child has to be "ready" to receive from the Lord's table (in direct contradiction to the words of Christ in scripture), the stage for Jansenism is already set.

    Also, it's my understanding that reception was not that frequent in the pre-VII church. The only reason Trads seem to push for more frequent Communion is because Pius X pushed for it. Even then, they have almost a ROCOR level of encouraging Confession before Communion as the Confession lines tend to stream out the door. Nothing wrong with that, it's just an observation.

    1. Also, it's my understanding that reception was not that frequent in the pre-VII church.

      If a systematic survey was ever done on this question, I have not come across it. But the anecdotal information I have heard or read, at least from the U.S., was that it wasn't uncommon in mid-century for a good third or more of the congregation to refrain from Communion, with some suggestion that this began creeping upward in the final years as oral contraception began becoming more widely available. Then came le Deluge.

      Of course, that's still a majority receiving, and that's surely more than was likely the norm before Pius X. Jansenism may have been condemned, but that doesn't mean it didn't enjoy a triumph anyway. As the old (1909) Catholic Encyclopedia article on "Frequent Communion" states, despite the condemnations, "the reception of Holy Communion became less and less frequent, owing to the spread of rigid Jansenistic opinions, and this rigour lasted almost into our own day."

  2. Communion may be the medicine, but the patient must first accept the diagnosis.

    A pithy way to put it, though as many have pointed out of late, the real medicine is the Sacrament of Penance.

    That said, it is remarkable just how Jansenistic the usual liturgical praxis is in the contemporary Church. It's a bizarre funhouse mirror Jansenism, of course, one wherein the only sense of sin remaining is that of social sin, and it's never enough to keep anyone from Communion - and it doesn't.

  3. One of the local Spanish-speaking parishes often sees a sizable portion of the Mass-goers remain in the pews during Communion. Considering some of these are children, I don't think this can be chalked up to them being mafioso or cartel. I have to wonder if Mexican Catholic culture is not so pushy about getting the laity into the Communion line.

    I, for one, would love to feel less pressured to receive at every Mass. Unfortunately, the awkwardness of the pew-and-kneeler setup makes anyone who wishes to remain seated very conspicuous, especially if they happen to be sitting in the middle.

    1. We could start the case against pews... Round 2 ;)