Too often, writers claim that classic Irish religious culture was “Jansenistic,” or pessimistic, and that Ireland was nothing more than an island with a dark and dreary religious history. Harsh critics point to the recent “scandal” in Galway where nuns were said to have buried unbaptized babies near an orphanage during the first half of the 20th century. The Associated Press (AP) published a correction for the factual errors in its stories of June 3 and June 8, 2014.1 Many people did not hear about this apology by the AP.
Erroneous claims can be examined and dismantled. Newer scholarship reveals a more accurate picture of Jansenism and Ireland. This essay accordingly offers a different picture of the possible history of “Jansenism” in Ireland, stressing the resolute nature of the Irish spirit not to be dominated by external, non-Catholic influences.
Medieval European Catholicism was “abbey centered.” Early monastic life had evolved into the great abbatial sees. The monastic ideal was the only one for the Christian, and the laity absorbed “the culture of the monastery” into their morals and piety. For the Christian West, the thought of St. Augustine (d. 430) overshadowed other Church Fathers, and his dominance shaped monastic spirituality, as well as popular Catholicism. Noted historian Eamon Duffy called the pre-Counter-Reformation Church in Ireland “profoundly Augustinian.”2 Medieval Augustinianism was “rigorist” by its nature, and so the darker moments of the Church’s history in Ireland surprise no one.
When St. Columban (d. 615) traveled from Ireland to France as a missionary, he brought monastic “rigorism” or “Celtic religious austerities” with him. He was exiled from France to Italy for criticizing the immorality of the Frankish court and the laxity of the bishops.3 The Irish were not accused of laxity since popularized rigorism was ingrained. It became cultural. Rigorism was an attitude and an orientation—discipline, but not doctrine. For examples of northern European countries finding somber religion congenial, take note of Scandinavia and The Low Countries at this time.
But now a question arises: if the Jansenists were the “Disciples of Saint Augustine,” was this identification congruent with existing Irish tradition? The question is answered by specifying the source and quality of the Augustinianism under discussion. Popular rigorism derived from tradition and monastic heritage—the remote past—was quite different from the “university, elitist” reform movement (1615-1789) of the Early Modern period on the European Continent. There are two different sources, one in place in Ireland, and the other an outside, foreign phenomenon. Jansenism fit into the conditions of French politics and the logistics of academic Louvain, not the remote situation of Ireland.
Native Irish religion in the Early Modern period was resistant to change. Foreign invaders might bring a new religion, but the indigenous Irish held on to what they had as integral to their identity. Even if the bishops capitulated to the English Reformation, the simple folk did not. In 1540, King Henry VIII declared himself king of Ireland, and in 1560, the Established Church there was erected by law.
In 1542, Saint Ignatius Loyola, on behalf of Pope Paul III, sent a delegation to Ireland to assess the religious situation. The report by his two trusted companions was negative. The local chieftains quarreled among themselves, and some of the bishops were personally corrupt, which meant the clergy were likely the same. The report given to the pope in Rome by legates Alfonso Salmerón and Paschase Broët saw no hope.4 Despite this report, the ordinary Irishman resisted the Crown’s attempt to rip out his ancient roots. That is why Felicity Heal can assert that the Protestant Reformation in Ireland failed in the 16th century.5 Accordingly, observed Robert Trisco, “This was the time when close connections were forged between the Catholic religion and Irishness.”6
Evidence about the work of Jesuit and other missionaries indicates that the Irish adopted the “Tridentine reform” rather late. Trisco refers to the historical work of Michael Mullet and writes that only slowly and after the mid-18th century did “the Irish Catholics embrace ‘the Tridentine agenda of the Counter-Reformation’” and “eventually came to equate this Catholicism with their post-Gaelic national identity and to form the most convincingly Catholic people in Western Europe.”7
The Jesuits, of course, were the implacable enemies of the Jansenists, but there is no history of a “Jesuit-Jansenist” conflict taking place in Catholic, post-Reformation Ireland. In France, the reform movement called “Jansenism” lasted 150 years, approximately 1640-1790. By the mid-18th century, Jansenism had waned in France. The “patriarch of the Jansenists” and their last serious spokesman, Paul-Ernest Ruth d’Ans, died in 1728.8 When juxtaposed with the robust agenda the Jansenists carried out at all levels of French Catholicism, there is no reason to believe Ireland was an outpost for Jansenism as we now understand it.
Another important note is that in the Early Modern period, there were no formal seminaries in Ireland for the training of the clergy. Irish students went abroad to France, Rome, Louvain, or even Spain. They may have been conversant with the Jansenist politics of the day, but they would have been hard-pressed to import such matters into a land where the Catholic Church struggled to survive. There may have been a few Irish Jansenists, but there was no Irish Jansenism. The common people would have been uninterested. Their Church did not need reform along French lines. Importantly, Jansenism was a non-Tridentine model of Church reform. This description simply does not match with the Ireland of the Early Modern period.
Survivals of pre-Christian Celtic religiosity might have been abundant, and even if they displayed “cultural rigorism,” one may hardly call that “Jansenism,” which was a product of Continental intellectuals. If the Irish clergy educated abroad returned home with moral “rigorism,” it was surely no more rigorous than the older “rigorism.”9 Rigorism and Jansenism are not identical.10 At the peak of the Jansenists’ strength, Ireland was either isolated or resistant to such a movement. Raymond Gillespie wrote that the Irish forged a genuine lay spirituality instead of a passive receptivity to theological ideas.11
There is also the likelihood that ancient Celtic liturgical rites survived a long while in Ireland before the legislated Roman liturgical reform supplanted them.12 Liturgy develops when the Church is free. Irish liturgy tended not to develop in the same way as German liturgy because of the lack of political freedom—clandestine Masses will always be understated and hasty. Just ask yourself about the existence of the seaside “Mass-Rock” tradition. The existence of this improvisation excluded all lavish liturgical growth.
Resistance to change in Ireland was a defense against annihilation. Adopting either theological or moral or political “Jansenism” would have meant change, and the stubborn Irish mentality was antithetical to religious change in a climate of oppression. Both Jansenism and Tridentism assumed and required change. The Jansenist ideal was the imago primitivae ecclesiae. To many in the Catholic Church, this resembled misguided Protestantism with its historically inaccurate desire to revive some primitive, spiritualized church. This drive for a pristine, invisible church and its virtues explains the Jansenist penchant for liturgical cleansing and the simplification of rites:
An American scholar, F. Ellen Weaver, has analyzed the relevant documents, especially the ceremonial books and ritual books with their own notes, which pertain to this Jansenist interest in the reform of the liturgy. Nearly all the themes familiar in our own day after Sacrosanctum concilium were pursued by the Jansenist reformers—introduction of the vernacular, a greater role for the laity in worship, active participation by all, recovery of the notion of the eucharistic meal and the community, communion under both kinds, emphasis on biblical and also patristic formation, clearer preaching and teaching, less cluttered calendars and fewer devotions which might distract from the centrality of the Eucharist. Even the “kiss of peace” was practiced at Port-Royal, and a sort of offertory procession was found there and elsewhere among Jansenist liturgical reformers.13
The conclusion is that their program was a thoroughgoing and more systematic Catholic reform envisioned by the Jansenists which Weaver calls their “lex docendi, lex orandi”—the law of teaching is the law of praying. In fact, the whole of their reform program was to seek its expression liturgically.
Even the 18th-century Italian Jansenists of Tuscany and Pistoia centered their reform on liturgy:
Inside the parish church, the service must be made congregational. And here doctrine entered. The liturgy was not an act done by priest for the people, it was “a common act of priest and people.” Therefore all the liturgy, even the prayer of consecration which was said secretly, should be said in a loud voice, and the congregation was to be encouraged to share. The reformers asked themselves whether logic must not demand liturgy in the vernacular instead of Latin, and plainly believed that in principle this would be right; but knew that, in practice, neither their people nor the Church at large would tolerate such radical departure from hallowed tradition. Nevertheless, the people should be helped to understand by being provided with vernacular translations and by readings of the Gospel in the vernacular after the Latin reading.14
The obvious reason why the Jansenists received firm opposition to their liturgical ideas in Ireland is that such were understood to be staunchly Protestant. Today, the same ideas are still rejected in some circles on the same grounds.
Despite Pope Paul VI’s deliberate insertion of §6-§9 into the General Instruction on the Roman Missal of 1969, an assortment of critics continue to claim the reform was a Protestant conspiracy. They think the missal of 1570 is an immutable bulwark against Protestant influence, even though J.D. Crichton has rightly pointed out that this edition is nearly identical to the first printed one of 1474, several years before the birth of Luther. F. Ellen Weaver wrote that Dom Guéranger had a personal antipathy toward the Jansenist reform. In speaking of the innovations of Jacques Jubé of Asnières, she cites Guéranger as saying, “it was an example of the deviations to which liturgy was liable when the Roman Mass books were not adopted.”15
Neither the popes, nor Archbishop Bugnini, nor Dom Botte, nor the Second Vatican Council, nor Dom Guéranger give the Jansenist liturgical reform movement any notice for being “ahead of its time”—Jansenism is never mentioned either for its catholicity or its importance as an orthodox, or mostly orthodox, variant to the mandated liturgical reforms of Trent. Since the canons of Trent were introduced quite late in France, it had been left to individuals and small groups to conduct the Counter-Reformation by themselves in what looks to us now to have been an unsystematic way. Were it not for unfortunate political entanglements which are notorious, Jansenism might have been integrated into the mainstream of the Church, not expelled from it. Though their liturgical ideas did not die, but resurfaced in Europe in different contexts, they were always tainted until well into the 20th century. Jansenists have often been misunderstood or falsely blamed. Currently, Church historians are reevaluating the sources, and they are able to show that specific liturgical ideas were flourishing in France and Italy during the early modern period when the Jansenists tried and failed to introduce them as reforms into the actual life of the Catholic Church.
Irish liturgical minimalism, for lack of a better way to describe the situation,16 was due to circumstances, not a clear reform plan, such as the Jansenists and others proposed. We know more about historical Jansenism now than ever in the past.17 Research has uncovered the real face of this complex phenomenon. For too long, it was distorted by the victory of its foes. But whatever Jansenism was, it was not Irish. An Irish exile might have been involved with it, but in Ireland itself, “Jansenism” would not have made sense. Some say, without proof, that “Jansenistic priests” took refuge in Ireland and spread their ideas to the people. But this hearsay remains hearsay. Any pastor will tell us how people have a way of doing what they want to do despite admonitions. The Irish clergy who were educated abroad may have been aware of Continental controversies, but importing these battles would have bewildered the average Irish Catholic.
Finally, while Jansenism was known for its “resistance to authority,” an Irish “resistance to authority” was not the same thing, because the Irish resisted quite a different authority.18 In the penal era, the threat was from outside. The threat was a hostile Crown seeking to destroy the one true Faith which held together the people of Ireland.
The threat to the Church today is from internal decline. The loss of faith plus aggressive secularism purveyed by the media are responsible. The Jansenists may be long gone, but the enemy still lurks. For those wishing to remain faithful, defiance of secularism has a resource in orthodox liturgy. A bit of Catholic neo-rigorism might even help Ireland and other victims of secularism to keep their faith.
Adapted from “Jansenism and Liturgical Reform,” The American Benedictine Review, vol. 44, no. 4 (1993): 337-351 and also from “Jansenism, the Liturgy and Ireland,” Christus Regnat (Journal of St. Conleth’s Catholic Heritage Association), vol. 3, no. 1 (Christmas 2009): 15-18 (posted on Ignatius Insight, 19 January 2010 to 20 March 2015).
- DUBLIN (AP)—In stories published on June 3 and June 8 about young children buried in unmarked graves after dying at a former Irish orphanage for the children of unwed mothers, The Associated Press incorrectly reported that the children had not received Roman Catholic baptisms; documents show that many children at the orphanage were baptized. The AP also incorrectly reported that Catholic teaching at the time was to deny baptism and Christian burial to the children of unwed mothers; although that may have occurred in practice at times, it was not Church teaching. In addition, in the June 3 story, the AP quoted a researcher who said she believed that most of the remains of children who died there were interred in a disused septic tank; the researcher has since clarified that without excavation and forensic analysis, it is impossible to know how many sets of remains the tank contains, if any. The June 3 story also contained an incorrect reference to the year that the orphanage opened; it was 1925, not 1926. See patheos.com/blogs/kathyschiffer/2014/06/associated-press-apologizes-for-its-coverage-of-the-irish-orphanage-story/ ↩
- Eamon Duffy, Faith of Our Fathers: Reflections on Catholic Tradition (New York: Continuum, 2004). Review by Jason Byassee in The Christian Century (19 April 2005). ↩
- Peter King, Western Monasticism: A History of the Monastic Movement in the Latin Church (Cistercian Publications, 1999). ↩
- Thomas M. McCoog, SJ, The Society of Jesus in Ireland, Scotland, and England 1541-1588: “Our Way of Proceeding?” in Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought, Volume IX (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996). Review by Michael L. Carrafiello in The Catholic Historical Review (1 October 1997). ↩
- Felicity Heal, Reformation in Britain and Ireland in The Oxford History of the Christian Church (New York: The Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 2003). Review by Rosamund Oates in Albion (22 September 2004). Also Stephen Redmond, “A Guide to the Irish Jesuit Province Archives” in Archivum Hibernicum, vol. 50 (1996): 127-131. ↩
- Michael A. Mullett, Catholics in Britain and Ireland, 1558-1829 in Social History in Perspective (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998). Trisco adds: “…this book can be recommended only to those who are already familiar with the general history of the Catholic Church in the islands from the time of the accession of Elizabeth I to the end of the penal age.” Review by Robert Trisco in Church History (1 December 2000). ↩
- Op. cit. ↩
- Michel Van Meerbeeck, Ernest Ruth d’Ans, “Patriarche des Jansénistes” (1653-1728): Une Biographie in Bibliothèque de la Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiastique, fascicule 87 (Brussels: Éditions Nauwelaerts, 2006). ↩
- The Irish are well known for their mirth as well as for religious “rigorism.” Persecuted people such as the Jews and the Irish see how funny the world is, perhaps, due to their transcendent faith. ↩
- Thomas O’Connor, “Jansenism” in The Oxford Companion to Irish History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). O’Connor writes: “The frequent claim that Irish Catholicism was Jansenist-influenced springs from the tendency to confuse Jansenism with mere moral rigorism.” ↩
- Raymond Gillespie, Devoted People: Belief and Religion in Early Modern Ireland in Social and Cultural Studies in Early Modern Europe (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997). Review by Fergus O’Donoghue, SJ, in The Catholic Historical Review (1 July 1998). ↩
- Attila Miklósházy, SJ, wrote that, in Scotland, the Celtic rites may have held out until the 11th century. The implication is that, in Ireland, they were absorbed into the Franco-Roman rites earlier than in Scotland. Attila Miklósházy, The Origin and Development of the Christian Liturgy According to Cultural Epochs (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), Vol. II, 403-405. ↩
- F. Ellen Weaver, “Jansenist Bishops and Liturgical-Social Reform” in Church, State, and Society under the Bourbon Kings of France, ed. Richard M. Golden (Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1982). Quoted in “Jansenism and Liturgical Reform” by Brian Van Hove, SJ, in the American Benedictine Review, vol. 44:4 (1993): 337-351. ↩
- Owen Chadwick, The Popes and European Revolution (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1981), 421. ↩
- F. Ellen Weaver, “Jansenist Bishops and Liturgical-Social Reform,” 64-65. ↩
- Sister M. Bertrand Degnan, RSM, Mercy unto Thousands (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1957), 188. ↩
- William Doyle, Jansenism: Catholic Resistance to Authority from the Reformation to the French Revolution in Studies in European History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001). The review by Jacques M. Gres-Gayer in The Catholic Historical Review (1 October 2001) must be read with care for a proper understanding of Jansenism. Gres-Gayer’s review is, by itself, a summary history of Jansenism. ↩
- Op. cit. Doyle quotes Weaver, Chadwick, Crichton, and others. ↩