Cornelius Jansen

Cornelius Jansen Wikimedia Commons

The conservative Catholic intellectuals who are increasingly unhappy with Pope Francis hark back to the Jansenist purists who fought with the Jesuits in 17th-century Europe and were eventually swatted down by the papacy.

They were strict moralists who followed their patron Saint Augustine in embracing predestination, separating the sheep from the goats the way the Calvinists of the time did. They attacked the Jesuits for laxity to sinners, and when the pope proved unsympathetic to their views, they questioned papal authority.

Sound familiar?

Today’s neo-Jansenists are likewise moral sticklers, focused laser-like on the twin evils of abortion and same-sex marriage, They are driven crazy by a Jesuit pope who tells them to stop harping on those issues, whose most famous remark is, “Who am I to judge?”

Where he portrays the Church as a hospital for sinners, they want to restrict Communion to the deserving, whether that means excluding politicians who are soft on abortion rights or holding the line against divorced and remarried Catholics. Possible papal readiness to open the door to the latter led Ross Douthat of the New York Times to blog the other day, “Pope Francis would be either dissolving important church teachings into what looks to me like incoherence, or else changing those same teachings in a way that many conservative Catholics believe that the pope simply cannot do.” Oh, can’t he?

Today’s neo-Jansenists do their predecessors one better by embracing the Spirit of Capitalism famously associated with Calvinism by sociologist Max Weber. To tweet that inequality is the root of evil, as Francis did the other day, distressed them deeply. Altogether, they resemble the neo-Calvinists who have become the intellectual leaders of contemporary American evangelicalism.

The old-time Jansenism included world-class luminaries like mathematician Blaise Pascal and playwright Jean Racine but never the Catholic majority. In their emerging struggle with the Jesuit pope, the neo-Jansenists have lesser lights like Robert George and George Weigel, even as the faithful are overwhelmingly on Francis’ side. And so, history seems likely to repeat itself.

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Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

7 Comments

  1. Let’s call people names — throw a neo in with it to sound sophisticated — instead of engage their positions. I suppose this is what progressives mean by dialogue.

    There is plenty of criticism to throw at the likes of Weige et co., but this is not it.

  2. And how do conservatives dialogue? Liisten to the likes of +morlino or arroyo ….. (Neither of whom is quite sure, in their words: “with what this pope is all about”.)

  3. Archie Haase

    The problem with western moralists is they drive people away from Christ. This is akin to beating a child because you say you love them. I am Russian Orthodox. From my point of view the whole of the Roman church and today’s Greek Church is heresy —- are so busy chasing money and prestige from money they ran over Christ in their cash machine and ran from the scene theology.

  4. “abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.” -Pope Francis

    “It is must be therefore reiterated the strongest opposition to any direct attack on life, especially innocent and defenseless life, and the unborn child in the womb is the most concrete example of innocence,” said Pope Francis. “Let us remember the words of the Second Vatican Council: From the moment of its conception, life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.” ( Gaudium et Spes, 51).

  5. Mark Caponigro

    Poor Saint Augustine does not deserve blame for the unChristian, unloving actions carried out by his supposed followers, who have abused his ideas and misunderstood his total commitment to the love of God for all creatures.

  6. Professor Mark Silk doesn’t appear to have actually read a lot of Pope Francis’ writings, instead he seems to be relying on media soundbites of Francis’ words – many of which have been gross distortions of his original statements.

    It also appears that he hasn’t been reading the writings of the scholars (Weigel and George) that he accuses of being Neo-Jansenists.

    Weigel has been a strong defender and promoter of the reforms of Pope Francis.

    Also, Pope Francis himself has made some of the strongest statements against abortion ever declared by the Church since the 1995 Papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae.

    “Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question [of abortion]. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations”. It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.”

    -Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 2013-

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