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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 743-744

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Book Review

Jansenism: Catholic Resistance to Authority from the Reformation to the French Revolution

Jansenism: Catholic Resistance to Authority from the Reformation to the French Revolution. By William Doyle. [Studies in European History.] (New York: St. Martin's Press. 2000. Pp. x, 109. $11.95 paperback.)

For the larger public Jansenism is moral rigorism; for a religious historian it is a movement that disrupted post-Tridentine Catholic renewal; for a secular historian it is what the subtitle of the work announces: resistance to authority. From whatever angle, its history is complex: many participants, many books and pamphlets, and a lot of ideological side-tracks/digressions. What was it all about? A book, of course, Augustinus by Cornelius Jansenius, and five "propositions" or excerpts, that were or were not in this book. The book was condemned; the five propositions were condemned, but the Janenists said that the book could not be condemned because it represented the thought of St. Augustine, that the five propositions could be censured, but since they did not appear in the book it did not matter. Rome evidently did not appreciate this arrogant attitude, nor did the French monarchy, which could not bear such an independence of thought. Therefore, more condemnations came, followed by more resistance. Another book was [End Page 743] condemned, Quesnel's Reflexions morales, and 101 propositions in it. This time the Jansenists said that they were in the book, but they could not be condemned as they represented the authentic Catholic tradition. They appealed to public opinion; they denounced the Pope and bishops who had betrayed the faith; they secured the elimination of their arch-enemies the Jesuits; they also destabilized the monarchy since it had sided with their opponents. Then came the Revolution and Jansenism disappeared with the entire Ancien Régime church.

This is the story told by William Doyle, in more details, of course, that display excellent research and good pedagogical sense. There are a few minor mistakes, that only a specialist will notice, or object to. In sum, this small but useful book delivers what it purports to: a clear presentation to the English-speaking readership of the present state of research on Jansenism and its political influence in Ancien Régime Europe.

This having been said, since I am writing from the perspective of a religious historian in a Catholic historical journal, I wonder if such a book does justice to Jansenism. After all, more than a religious and political movement, it was a spiritual and theological one. This perspective, which was well defended by the late Louis Cognet, is increasingly overlooked by contemporary French historians who do not especially care for these issues. The result is that Jansenism is much more politicized than it deserves to be, and the real theological issues are given a political twist that they probably do not have. In other words there is a need for a book equal in quality to the one under review that will give us a presentation of Jansenism in its natural context: the Catholic renewal by whatever name one wishes to call it.


Jacques M. Gres-Gayer
The Catholic University of America



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