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Moral Rigorism and the Jansenist Monster under the Bed

Many are familiar with Aristotle’s view of virtue. Simply put, Aristotle proposed virtue as the mean between two vices – but the virtue, he continued, does not fall directly between the two. Instead, it falls closer to one than the other. Thus, for example, he proposed bravery to fall between cowardice (the defect of the virtue) and foolhardiness (the excess of the virtue).

This view on human virtues is a good way to understand them. However, one must always remember that theological virtues – faith, hope, and charity – can have no excess; one cannot have too much faith in Jesus Christ, have too much hope in Him, nor love Him too much.

With that in mind, let us turn to pastoral concerns in regards to morals. Pastors of souls especially are called to read the “signs of the times” and prepare their flocks for the particular errors of the day. Failing to do so puts souls in jeopardy, their own included.

For example, for more than a century, the Church rightly confronted the errors of Jansenism, which was, simply put, a form of moral rigorism tied to predestination. Fr. Hardon defines it thusly:

According to Jansenius, man’s free will is incapable of any moral goodness. All man’s actions proceed either from earthly desires, which stem from concupiscence, or from heavenly desires, which are produced by grace. Each exercises an urgent influence on the human will, which in consequence of its lack of freedom always follows the pressure of the stronger desire. Implicit in Jansenism is the denial of the supernatural order, the possibility of either rejection or acceptance of grace. Accordingly those who receive the grace will be saved; they are predestined. All others will be lost. (Catholic Dictionary, p. 237)

This heresy raged following the Protestant Reformation (specifically John Calvin), even into the end of the 18th century. During that time and in particular places (one thinks especially of France), a pastor should speak against moral rigorism with a strong zeal. Of course, the same pastor should speak against moral laxity as well, but since the errors facing his flock were not as commonly of this sort, he would be a fool only to speak against moral laxity and never against moral rigorism. In fact, doing just that would likely push his flock toward the Jansenist heresy, not away from it.

In the modern world, moral rigorism is not the scourge it once was. Yes, we all must guard against it, for it is easy to fall into, especially for pious practicing Catholics. However, the opposite vice, moral laxity, is alive and well today. It is, in fact, flourishing so abundantly that Catholics don’t feel any need to go to Mass or practice their faith, let alone share the Gospel with others. Relativism of religion reigns supreme and can be best described as indifferentism – that all religions lead to the same place, either universal salvation or universal annihilation. As grave as the error of indifferentism is today, most pastors stand silently by while their flocks are infected with it.

Yet even this says too little, for silence is not the common pastoral cry in this realm. Pastors instead warn their flocks against moral rigorism! They speak of the “reasonable hope that all men will be saved” and how “there is truth and goodness found in all religions.” They even rally against those who would speak the dogma “outside the Church, there is no salvation.” Even the more orthodox priests nuance this clearly proclaimed doctrine of the Church so much that their flocks succumb to indifferentism.

In part, this seems to come from a refusal to read any Church documents prior to 1962. Further still, never once is the term “invincible ignorance” used, which, if it were, would help draw a clear distinction between the Truths of salvation and the errors of indifferentism. Pastors just emphasize repeatedly how those outside the visible confines of the Church may be saved.

While this is true enough – it is possible that, due to invincible ignorance, those outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church may be saved – a gross emphasis on the Church as the only ark of salvation is not the error of our day. The error of our day is indifferentism, not Jansenism; pastors of souls would be wise to confront this error instead of embracing it. This requires reading Church documents dated prior to 1962.

That indifferentism is a chief error of today is not just one layman’s opinion. Take these statements Pope Pius IX condemned in his Syllabus of Errors, issued in 1864:

“Man may, in the observance of any religion whatever, find the way to eternal salvation, and arrive at eternal salvation.”

“Good hope at least is to be entertained of the eternal salvation of all those who are not at all in the true Church of Christ.”

“Protestantism is nothing more than another form of the same true Christian religion, in which form is given to please God equally as in the Catholic Church.”

Now, to focus on these condemnations by the Church at the exclusion of all else would be a vice of excess. To ignore them is a vice of defect. The virtue, then, falls somewhere in between. Pastors must warn against both moral rigorism and moral laxity. They must also pay careful attention to our times. Just as the doctor prescribes medicine to remedy the patient’s disease, pastors must speak against indifferentism, a chief error today, so that their flocks might be whole, healthy, and most of all able to attain the salvation freely offered to all by Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

71 thoughts on “Moral Rigorism and the Jansenist Monster under the Bed”

  1. Clear, concise, enlightening.
    Superior work and much appreciated. It does, as they say, put it all in a nutshell.
    How is it that what was not so long ago seen as simple common sense is now held as erroneous, or more commonly not known at all?
    Where are our pastors?

    • We must be the ones to teach the truth. For too long, Catholics have left the teaching to the clergy and religious and were satisfied to simply “pay, pray, and obey.” They did all of this well, built beautiful churches with very little money, and filled them with Catholics. They obeyed men and women- clergy and religious- who they had allowed to do their thinking for them. That seemed to work out just fine, until the clergy and religious stopped being trustworthy. People need to understand that being a priest or religious doesn’t make a person right or good.

  2. Nice article. There was an example about the concept of predestination by a catholic writer/thinker, but I can’t remember who it was. Nonetheless, when I read what he wrote I came to an understanding that predestination as held in God’s view is open to all souls. One is not ever conceived as a reprobate. The beginning of a reprobate in life is anyone’s guess, but once occurring, it never changes. Anyway, that’s what I remember but I am positive this saint believed predestination is open for all. Jesus’ suffering was sufficient to redeem every created soul. That does not mean each soul chooses life eternal of course.

    • Fr Garrigou-Lagrange? He wrote a book called ‘Predestination: The Meaning of Predestination in Scripture and the Church’. I haven’t read it but it is the one book I remember seeing on the topic.

    • “God desires all men to be saved and come to the full knowledge of the Truth.”
      “This is the chalice of my blood… which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

      You got it! 🙂

      • This text is often quoted, but there is an interpretation of this which means God desires all kinds of men doing all kinds of works coming from all kinds of backgrounds and different countries to be saved. This 2nd interpretation is not as reassuring as the way we’ve been led to read it (as though most people could not really stand up against God’s will to save them in the end so we should be optimistic). Haydock’s Bible Commentary is online and I recently read this interpretation but recalled having heard it decades ago from a priest. But this theme regarding who can and will be saved and the difficulty of being saved needs greater clarity for us today. We need to be realistic and practical but retain supernatural Hope. Our Lady of Good Success speaks about the effects of culture where sexual morality is taught to children (presumably in schools) and she says priestly vocations will dry up and the innocence of children will be lost. So if families are immersed in the culture, the evils in that culture will dry up the soil of their hearts where the word of God is sown. I dont have answers just questions.

  3. Francis talks as if the Church has been staggering under some sort of Jansenist inquisition for the past 50 years, with all his invective about “rigid”, “doctors-of-the-law”. What universe does this guy live in? The Church has been a liturgical, doctrinal, theological and disciplinary train wreck. Confusion and chaos have run rampant.

    We need some rigor and doctrinal cohesion.

    • Over the past few weeks and especially in interviews and things from the last few days, I’ve been seeing a sort of reactionary tendency in Francis. Argentina, for decades, was under the control of a fascist regime. He has embraced Marxism as a reaction to fascism, and this tendency has seeped its way into his theology and has become a poison. Quite simply, Francis lacks temperance. So much so that it’s destroying him and the the Church along with it.

      Maybe I’m seeing something that isn’t there… but maybe not.

      • I do not think it is quite so simple as that. Pope Francis’s biographer and fan Austen Ivereigh recently explained how the Pope was following in the footsteps of Peron!

      • Yes, Francis lacks many virtues: Temperance, Prudence, Charity, Zeal, Modesty (which in part means he’s nasty in his choice of words), Justice etc. All these virtues are in the intellect – we must know what each one means, and in the will, in that they ‘temper’ our acts. Francis is obviously outside this kind of thinking.

        It will be very difficult to divorce his words and actions from the adulation of the neo-catholic hordes who seem to find balm in what Francis does and says. One feeds the other. God allows the weeds to grow with the wheat – this is what is so difficult for many of us…but the reaper cometh.

    • That is exactly what the problem is with this pontificate, he is completely ignoring the REAL signs of the times and instead battling an illusion of a rigid reactionary Church which simply doesn’t exist,,,, though I wish it did. The world needs a beautiful, traditional and formal liturgy, clear teachings on doctrine and morals and consistency and universality. Simply put, the Church needs to be Herself again instead of this NewChurch they have invented with all kinds of wishy-washy modernist clap-trap pabulum.

  4. The apostles were aware of how easily heresies and vices could spread within a community. They burned books in Acts. St. Paul warned against having any contact with Christians who warped the Gospel as he had preached it. St Peter says some were twisting the meaning of St. Paul’s epistles “to their own destruction”. Today the word “truth” is despised. We must get back to a position where we can say “the Faith” is this and not that! As you say Steve, virtue is supposedly the mean. Weren’t the Apostles prudent and just and full of virtue? Quoting a great Bishop who understands the dangers :
    In Nebraska, where I come from, at this time of the year, harvest time, there are a lot of rodents who try to intrude themselves in,feasting on the corn, soybeans, and other products of the fields. This requires the farmers to put out appropriate amounts of rat poison to prevent this from happening. The rat poison that is put out is always 95% healthy, good, wholesome, nourishing food. It is only the poison in the 5% that does the killing. I think that this has been overlooked in the ecumenical and inter-religious dialogues sometimes, that inserted into things which might have elements of truth, are also very serious elements of error that place in jeopardy one’s eternal salvation.” Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz (retired)

        • Well, that’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, now, isn’t it? We’ve been telling ourselves for decades that the Catholic faith is still the same, even though our Mass is different, our Breviary is different, our devotions are virtually non-existent, our churches unrecognizable, our attitude of how the Church should interact with the secular world and other religions fundamentally different, etc. . . .

          In my darkest moments, I find myself questioning how the Catholic religion of today could even be the same as before the Council, when to any objective observer, the two appear to be entirely different faiths.

  5. Indifferentism is certainly a major problem, but the larger problem is the heresy of Modernism which has pervaded the Church from top to bottom and which includes indifferentism as well as other major errors of these times such as relativism, the notion that doctrine can be changed, and the position that pastoral practice bears no practical relation to underlying doctrine and can effectively be severed from doctrine.

  6. ” It is, in fact, flourishing so abundantly that Catholics don’t feel any need to go to Mass or practice their faith,”

    Then what makes them Catholics? Isn’t it time to tell such people they are not Catholics? That Catholics go to Mass on Sunday, pray every day and go to Confession at least once a month? That you can’t be a Catholic simply by calling yourself a Catholic?

    A friend told me, years ago, he heard a Jewish, atheist talk show host say, “If the Catholic Church started excommunicating a thousand people a week, their churches would be full.” I’ve never forgotten that because I believe it. Nancy Pelosi should have been excommunicated decades ago. Likewise Joe Biden and a couple of dozen other politicians who call themselves Catholics, and many others, including some priests and bishops. The excuse, of course is, they need the money the government gives the Church so she can fulfill her charitable responsibilities. I wonder if God buys that excuse. I don’t.

    • Actually of the three things you mentioned only one of them is, strictly speaking, a requirement to be considered Catholic. While it is certainly a good idea to go to Confession at least once a month, the precepts of the Church only require that Catholics confess their sins once a year. Similarly, while it is essential to a solid spiritual life life to pray every day, technically it is not required to be a Catholic

  7. While indifferentism, and certainly modernism infect the laity and certainly too much of the clergy, I believe the paramount problem isn’t with what is believed but with what is not known about our faith by the vast majority of Catholics. It is ignorance that is killing the Catholic faith, specifically, ignorance of the true faith as expessed, believed and understood by even the most humble of Catholics in the 19th century. They knew their catechism. They weren’t sophisticated theologians, but good priests could appeal to Catholics to rely on the sacraments for increases in grace, trusting in God’s providence, and invoking the saints, particularly Our Lady when difficulties arose. Do we see that kind of simple faith anywhere today?

    I was just arguing today with an ex-Catholic on another blog, who was trying to convince me that the Catholic church is a made-up institution, with no foundation whatsoever in scripture and that the Hail Mary is an example of necromancy. His obvious hatred and ignorance of all things Catholic surely is no positive endorsement of Catholic education.

    I didn’t fast on Sunday, day 5 of my novena for familites, but by God’s good graces, I was able to pray and eat my garlic. Most Holy Infant Jesus of Prague, Have Mercy on us, Our Lady Help of Christians, Pray for us.

    • Indeed, I wonder just how common VINCIBLE ignorance is…

      I was in a discussion with one of our priests and I expressed my deep concern for my family and friends who are all Protestants. Part of his response was grim; he reminded me that anyone who truly wants to investigate the truth of the Christian faith can gain a good grasp and understanding of the Catholic faith in 3 or 4 hours of trolling the internet.

      Yet how many DO?

      Indeed, how many people spend their time ON the internet…”studying” other things.

      We do NOT live in the days that preceded Helcias’ finding of the Law in a corner of the Temple. No, we have the Law and the Prophets, the words of Jesus and the apostles, the Fathers, the whole Magesterium AT OUR FINGERTIPS.

      How grim will it be for so many some day when God reminds them that they had what no other generations in history had; the Truth laid out right before them. And they ignored it.

      I pray I do not do the same.

      • I hear ya. The internet almost imposes an obligation on each of us, to learn and spread the faith to the maximum extent of our abilities. The past was prologue but we will be judged on the resources we have right now.

      • Good points. The internet has such a variety of styles to deliver Jesus’ Message throughout the centuries, one cannot say honestly that they couldn’t find the Truth somewhere on it. Not to take away from the discussion, but lately I was wondering just how many 2nd marriage people, given the opportunity, will really come back to the Faith. I have a sibling who got divorced and remarried to another non-active Catholic and they looked into annulments for their first marriages. Now, years later my question to them is, well, were you going to Mass in your love for Jesus and reading Scripture even while you were precluded from Holy Communion? No they weren’t. They didn’t care to put forth the effort. I multiply that by tens of thousands of people. It is called apostasy. Our prayers never cease for them.

  8. The way you have described Jansenism, it appears to be identical to Lutheranism. Luther thought that a person was buffeted about by the battle between God and Satan, and sometimes God gained control of the person, and other times Satan gained control. That meant the person themself was not responsible for their choices. Never realised that before!

  9. This speaks very well of the times we live in.

    As a small ray of hope, perhaps, in the dark times we live in, I had a wonderful experience of a pastor doing exactly what is explained as necessary here from the pulpit. Two Sundays ago, my wife and I slept in a little (busy weekend!) and missed the only opportunity we had for the TLM. Rather than attending an awful Novus Ordo to meet the Sunday Obligation, we decided to visit the nearby Ordinariate parish. They meet in a diocesan church, but are functionally their own parish. There were, perhaps, 6 families there? Well, the priest (a convert from Episcopalianism) spoke VERY clearly regarding our clear duty to obey God. He spoke against the reasonable hope that all may be saved. He said that just any Christian is NOT guaranteed to go to heaven, and lamented that his own parents, who are quite old and descending into dementia, have never eaten the flesh or drank the blood of the lamb and thus he cannot be certain of their salvation. He spoke of the absolute need to attend Sunday mass, and to miss deliberately is a mortal sin. After Mass (the Ordinariate Liturgy is actually rather beautiful and shares more in common with the TLM than the Novus Ordo I think… aside from 3 readings instead of 2) I had the pleasure to speak with this wonderful priest, and he spoke about the absolute travesty that was the first translation of the Roman Missal of 1969, and how the 3rd edition is still quite bad. He spoke about the errors rampant in the church, and the need for good catholic teaching. In short, this priest gets it, and is willing to stand against the tide.

    This priest is heroic, and I encourage all to pray for him. I will withhold his name and the diocese I am in so as to protect him from possible repercussions from the powers that be… but, like our own Fr. RP, there are good priests out there in the church who will speak the truth in and out of season.

    To bring the story around to topic, this priest was a good example of exactly what this article is laying out a need for. Though it’s not common, there are places where the truth is being preached, and the truth will ALWAYS win. Have hope!

    • Ordinariate parishes are led by priests and populated by people who WANT to be Catholics. They have left the church of Henry VIII and it’s American affiliate for the true faith. That’s 9/10ths of the battle.

      I applaud the priest you wrote about. I’d much rather attend an Ordinariate Mass than the average NO any day.

  10. One quibble: it is possible that in conditions of invincible ignorance one might be saved, but it is not known for a fact that this is the case. Either way before they exit this life they would have to know and accept the Catholic faith “without which it is impossible to please God.” (De fide). So even if they were in ignorance but sought God’s will and strived to follow the natural law, God would still have to somehow supernaturally reveal the Catholic Faith to them, and even then they would need baptism ex voto and perfect contrition in order to be Catholic before death. We hope God acts in these cases of invincible ignorance, but we simply don’t know, since invincible ignorance in and of itself is not salvific, and God is not obligated to save anyone, although He loves and wishes all to be saved. All we know for certain is that there is absolutely no salvation whatsoever outside the Church.

    • Yes, why the heck did all those brave priests and sisters give their lives to spread the faith? It was because they believed that unless they followed this admonishment “to and teach all nations whatsoever I have taught you” many souls would perish because they would have no opportunity for salvation. Just think of how hard it would be for anyone, anyone who has no idea of Revelation, to obey to the letter and spirit their own culture’s moral code. They would have to have sorrow for their transgressions of this code taught to them by their culture. They would have to have learned from each transgression and not commit that same one again…and keep this up until death. That is invincible ignorance that MIGHT get one saved. All this other clap-trap about millions of others who cling to their false creeds and who sin against these creeds being saved in innocence is a lie.

    • ‘No salvation outside the Church’ makes me think of the unusual case of C.S.Lewis who, though fully aware of the Catholic faith, never became a catholic. “The terrible thing about Rome”, he said, “is the recklessness with which it has added to the deposit of faith.” He obviously had what might be called ‘issues’.

      I did read, however, that when his wife (an American divorcée) was dying of cancer, he told a friend, Nevill Coghill, while out walking with him in Oxford one day that he had been allowed to accept her pain. “You mean,” asked Coghill, “that the pain left her and that you felt it for her in your body?” “Yes,” said Lewis, “in my legs. It was crippling. But it relieved hers.”

  11. While the article is very well done there was that slip of how easy it is for traditional Catholics to be rigorists/Jansenists. Being around traditional Catholics for 20 years I’ve rarely ever seen this. The occasional weirdo notwithstanding does not account for it’s alleged frequency.

    Almost all accusations of rigorism/Jansenism against traditional Catholics are in fact a laxism by the accuser (e.g. a family won’t watch 99% of modern movies, then is attacked for Jansenism/rigorism). We have to be very careful using that word as it does not mean what most people think it means unless one truly believes such people believe all human acts are concupiscence and eat glass to purge their sinfulness. Read the history of the saints and apply that to your very pious trad and see if actual Jansenism arises (they ate vomit by patients in hospitals, whip themselves, strike themselves, live on the top of pillars, ate locusts, standing in freezing rivers). I couldn’t imagine St. John the Baptist, St. Christina, or the Cure of Ars living today with such looseness of terms.

    As a disclaimer I’m not a holy person, not even remotely, but the constant digs at very pious people and their alleged “rigorism” drive me nuts because I’ve studied Jansenism and their lives hardly resemble the constant accusations they are seen to be.

  12. “All infidels and heretics are surely on the way to being lost. What an obligation we owe God for causing us to be born not only after the coming of Jesus Christ, but also in countries where the true faith reigns! I thank Thee, O Lord, for this. Woe to me if, after so many transgressions, it had been my fate to live in the midst of infidels or heretics!” -Saint Alphonsus Maria Liguori, Doctor of the Church. We, in the United States must never forget the times in which we live and the persons(infidels and heretics) in whose midst we live. Without the Grace, which flows from the Sacramental Church, we are doomed to hell. Just look around you, if you doubt that most rigorous of realities.

    “So many people are going to die, and almost all of them are going to Hell! So many people falling into hell!” –Blessed Jacinta of Fatima

    “Taking into account the behavior of mankind, only a small part of the human race will be saved.” -Sister Lucia of Fatima

    And that was 100 years ago. How much unholy water has flowed under the bridge since then? If we could only see ourselves as God sees us, and not the false vision of virtue the world creates to comfort us in our sin.

      • Hi Barbara – Saint Paul gives us excellent guidance and example, and a resume like no other in the history of salvation. I guess we should expect nothing less of the one directly chosen by Jesus to bring His Message to we, the Gentiles. Thank You Jesus, choosing such a man whose character and rigor, you knew so well.

    • It seems Jesus gave us a choice with 100% possibility of success supplemented by His overwhelming Mercy and Grace. Choice is the key to the Kingdom, obedience to the Commandments is the oil on the ancient locks and whatever we lack, the Great Carpenter will fill up fully if we just only try.

  13. Pope Innocent X condemned five propositions attributed to the Jansenists. The first was:

    ‘Some commandments of God are impossible to good men, though they desire and strive to observe them. The power they have at the moment is insufficient, and they further lack the Grace which would render these commandments possible.’

    And then read this from Amoris Laetitia:

    303 …
    ‘Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does
    not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It
    can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the
    most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that
    it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of
    one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.’

    Is there not a certain resemblance? Grace is insufficient to follow the objective ideal?

    • Well modernism is the synthesis of all the heresies, and you’ve just proved that the writer of AL is a Jansenist and the person who signed off on it too. An inconvenient truth I suspect!

        • You mentioned that you thought some of the Church is infected with Jansenism, as though this might be based on an observation, do you think any of the Cardinals are among those you think are infected with Jansenism? It would seem they would exhibit the symptoms most noticeably since they hold the most public positions in the Church. Or is it more of a feeling that some of the Church is infected with Jansenism?

          • It’s just a vibe I get at the parish level with some (not all) traditionalists. I just wonder a bit whether there was some Jansenism in the Church in English speaking nations prior to Vatican II which perhaps set off a Pelagian tendency after that. My experience of the Church is essentially at the parish level, at any rate.

          • My parish is pretty liberal, and it does seem to reflect the Church as it is in the United States pretty closely. At this point it seems like something pretty dramatic will have to happen to turn the boat around.

  14. All this hand ringing. Living a chaste life or at least trying to live a chaste life is not optional. If you want to go to Heaven you must necessarily love Jesus. And what does Jesus say about that?, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” Pray for His priests. Come Holy Spirit touch their hearts and give them the fortitude and wisdom to preach the fullness of Your Truth. Amen.

  15. Being excommunicated by the thousands might get peoples attention but just coming across this sermon from St. Leonard of Port Maurice preached about 300 years ago got my attention and has kept it; along with a sermon preached by a priest from SSPX on the same homily from St. Leonard, I spread this every chance I get.
    I do not agree with the priest and his superiors that this teaching should be omitted due to causing undue despair.
    I doubt St. Leonard was concerned about that effect.

    • St. Thomas Aquinas, when asked, (I’m paraphrasing from memory, which isn’t so good), how can we be saved, said, in effect, that you have to want to be saved. You must make it your business to love God and do His will. That’s a daily job.

  16. Religious indifferentism was the single most stark “teaching” that kept me away from the Catholic Church for decades.

    and extra ecclesiam nula salus is one of the actual teachings that caused me to delve deeply into Catholic doctrine and ultimately convert.

    In the face of modern culture, the actual moral teachings of Jesus are nothing if they are not rigid and rigorous. To suggest otherwise is absurd.

  17. Perhaps we remember that Jansenism went hand-in-hand with Febronianism: Table altars, Mass as a meal, vernacular language, reduction of ritual, dislike for popular piety and distrust in the Sacraments.


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