The Catholic Church in the Modern World

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, France

(Photograph: June 2016, Kevin Davis)


In seventeenth century France, the future of the Catholic Church in the modern world was being decided. It was decided in a decades-long debate about grace — a highly technical debate. On one side were the Jansenists, the passionate disciples of St. Augustine. On the other side were the Jesuits, the “modernizers” who were moving away from the strict, dualist, ascetic theology of Augustine and, therefore, of much of the Western Church until their own day.

According to Leszek Kolakowski, this debate on grace, which is to say how Creator and creature relate, was decisive for how the Catholic Church could exist in modernity. The Jesuits won, and therefore Augustine lost. Is not Augustine a saint and a doctor of the Church? Yes. Nonetheless, in the Jansenist controversy the Church condemned Augustine’s teaching on grace: grace as effectual and sufficient, electing and without cooperation. For Augustine and the Jansenists, unbaptized infants go to hell. Most people go to hell, for the way is narrow and only a few are chosen to receive salvation — as the Jansenists soberly taught.

For Kolakowski, the Church condemned Augustine’s teaching on grace and became modern. This is a provocative thesis, and you can find it in Kolakowski’s God Owes Us Nothing. It is the sort of book that will elicit a strong reaction, from both historian and theologian alike. I could hardly put it down. I will try to explain his analysis further, but first a bit about the author.

Leszek Kołakowski

Kolakowski (1927-2009) was a Polish philosopher who is best known for Main Currents of Marxism (three volumes), Modernity on Endless TrialMetaphysical Horror, and The Presence of Myth. Additionally he produced a wide range of essays, many of which are gathered in the posthumous collection, Is God Happy?

The gist of his biography is that he was an ardent Marxist early in his career but gradually became one of its most capable critics. As a result, he lost his job at Warsaw University in the late 60’s. Most of his academic life was spent at Oxford University and the University of Chicago. His interest as a philosopher was in the history of ideas, which surely owes much to his early training in Hegel and Marx. His mature work was heavily dominated by an interest in religious matters, as he became a sympathetic interpreter of Christianity — with an openness to metaphysical questions. He became friends with John Paul II, as they were both important figures in the Polish Solidarity movement. But Kolakowski never became a Christian believer, except perhaps in his own idiosyncratic way.

The Jansenist Controversy

God Owes Us Nothing is divided into two parts. The first part, which is slightly longer than half the book, is “Why Did the Catholic Church Condemn the Teaching of Saint Augustine?” This is what we will be looking at. The second part is a study of Pascal, the most famous of Jansenists, and his religious beliefs.

Kolakowski - God Owes Us Nothing

Kolakowski spends several pages discussing the doctrinal details in the dispute, looking closely at the source material especially on the Jansenist side. The Jansenists believed that they were faithfully upholding the Church’s ancient teaching, which they identified with St. Augustine, while also trying to distance themselves from the Calvinists. They believed that the Jesuits were bringing Pelagian heresy into the Church.

Kolakowski agrees that the Jansenists were upholding the teaching of Augustine on grace, but:

The Jesuits were no less right in demonstrating the fundamental conformity of Jansenist tenets with Calvin’s theory of predestination. This amounts to saying that Calvin was, on this point, a good Augustinian and that, by condemning Jansenius, the Church was in effect condemning — without, of course, stating it explicitly — Augustine himself, its own greatest theological authority. (5)

Therefore, the Jansenists were also correct to say that the Jesuits were semi-Pelagian. Unfortunately for the Jansenists, Rome sided with the Jesuits. Kolakowski looks closely at each of the five condemned propositions in Pope Innocent X’s bull, Cum occasione, promulgated in 1653 and directed at Jansenius’ Augustinus. If I may attempt to summarize Kolakowski’s analysis, it all comes down to whether grace is sufficient and not merely necessary. All sides agreed that grace is necessary, but Jansenius argued that grace after the Fall must be sufficient and efficacious. “Both Augustine and Jansenius seem unambiguous on this point; once God wishes that a man do good, his will cannot be frustrated, his grace cannot be resisted” (15). By the way, Kolakowski interprets Aquinas as being ambiguous on this, though leaning toward Augustine (see 39-42).

If you are familiar with Calvinist discussions on these matters, then much of this will be familiar to you. So, for example, Augustine argued (and the Jansenists followed suit) that efficient grace is not incompatible with free will, so long as the will is understood as not coerced but freely desirous. We are empowered by efficacious grace to do that which we are otherwise unable to do, i.e, the good. Even though by grace you choose necessarily to will the good, you do it freely because God has liberated you to do so. Kolakowski explains Augustine thus: “Indeed, whatever it is in our power to do, is done freely; therefore free will is perfectly compatible with the action of efficient grace: it is grace which allows our will freely to will that and not this” (19). Apart from grace, we necessarily sin, and any good can only be attributed to grace.

In this Augustinian-Jansenist understanding, there can be no thought of cooperation between God and his creature. Otherwise, the merit for any good in a person would have to be partly attributed to the person. If the person can thwart grace, then the overcoming of sin must be partly God’s will and partly the person’s will. God no longer receives all the praise and glory. Kolakowski frequently highlights the all-or-nothing attitude of the Jansenists. The Jesuits elevate man in an intolerable way for the Jansenist. For their part, the Jesuits were appalled at the Jansenist understanding of a God who condemns on the basis alone of justice without regard to mercy or love. Grace is universal and given to all, which the Jansenists believed undermined the particularity of the Christian faith, which is to say Christianity itself.

Kolakowski also deals with the other related matters of double predestination and “for whom did Christ die?” But we need not spend time detailing all of that. The social-ecclesial consequence for the Jansenist is that the Christian life is one of rigor. While the logic may lead to indifference, the opposite is the case (as with the Calvinists). “Far from justifying passivity, indifference, or moral sloppiness, double predestination is well designed to encourage militancy. It is the ideology of a sect of warriors” (35). If you are chosen, then you are confident. And much of this rigor has to do with the signs of election expected in the believer, namely charity and humility. Unlike the more lenient Jesuit attitude toward penitents and their reception of the Eucharist, the Jansenists were far more rigorous.

The Modern World

Thanks to Pascal’s best-selling Provincial Letters, the Jesuit image of being morally lax was cemented in the popular consciousness. Casuistry would be associated with the Jesuits for a long time. While Pascal’s work was obviously biased and probably dubious in many of its more comical accounts of Jesuit casuistry, it was not entirely baseless. Indeed, the Vatican even stepped-in to denounce the methods found among certain Jesuits.

Kolakowski sees something important here. The Jesuits were striving to accommodate to the weakness of their penitents, who included much of the educated and ruling classes. “The Jesuits operated in the upper layers of society, infected by a spirit of modernity of which some aspects could appear irreversible” (46). You could say that the Jesuits were sensitive to their limitations. Their pastoral approach was founded upon a belief that “impulses and desires could, if properly guided, conduce to good…a spiritual adviser or confessor, in order to mend a sinner’s ways, should accompany him as far as feasible, show understanding for, and even solidarity with, his weaknesses and thereby direct him step by step towards virtue” (46). That is the Jesuit way, and (by the way) it is the Pope Francis way, the first Jesuit pope and “the pope of mercy.”

The Jesuits thereby represented an adaptation toward the peculiar features of modern life. Their capacity to do so is rooted in the Jesuit’s more modern understanding of human nature, moral value, and freedom of the will. Thereby, the Jesuits were fit to take the Catholic Church into this new era of the modern world. “What was at stake was the adaptation of Christianity to a new civilization that had been developing and maturing, surreptitiously, for several centuries. The Liberum arbitrium was one of its important instruments of self-expression, starting with Abelard” (47).

The Augustinian understanding of grace was no longer feasible, not only because it is difficult to believe in the Augustinian doctrine of double predestination and infants going to hell (with pagans), though that is certainly difficult! Kolakowski highlights the practical difference between the Jansenists and the Jesuits. The Jansenists reserved grace for the elect few and for reasons that are wholly unintelligible, theological or otherwise. The Jesuits instead sought to lead all people to God “who is really merciful — that is to say lenient — and understands human weakness. …God is so lavish in distributing his gifts, and nobody is left helpless by him…” (58-59).

Speaking broadly, the difference between the Jansenists and the Jesuits is about how they perceive the gulf, or lack thereof, between God and the world or the supernatural and the natural. For the Jesuit, there is harmony; for the Jansenist, there is crisis! That’s too simplistic, of course, but it helps to understand their basic orientation. Kolakowski puts it this way:

To the Molinists [i.e., Jesuits], unilateral successors of Renaissance humanism, the divine is a familiar environment, almost an extension of the cosy world of experience; grace is just there, omnipresent, and our natural skills are there to manipulate it properly to our benefit and God’s satisfaction. In the world thus arranged life is basically pleasant. For the Jansenists (and the Calvinists, for that matter) there is a terrifying abyss between nature and the divine, and there is no way we could breach the gap by relying on the resources of our incurably corrupt and rebellious nature. The abyss is ontological, moral, and cognitive. (66)

Kolakowski frequently describes the Jansenists as “reactionaries,” in the sense that the modern set of assumptions propagated by the Jesuits was anathema to their basic way of thinking about God and the Christian faith. To their mind, if the Jesuits win, then Christianity is lost. And that is what the Catholic Church chose, because the Jesuits won. To the Jesuit, if the Jansenists won, then the Church would have lost.

Final Comments

Like I said, this is a provocative thesis. It is surely prone to be attacked. Even if you agree with some parts of his analysis, you may disagree with other parts. I think Kolakowski is strongest when he is doing analysis of the texts, and I agree with his interpretation of Augustine and Jansenism on grace. There is indeed a sense in which the Catholic Church rejected Augustine when it rejected Jansenism. Whether this is a good or bad thing, vis-à-vis modernity, is another question. And whether modernity (never clearly defined) is the driving cause or impetus for the Church’s rejection of Jansenism is another question.

Kolakowski actually tries to avoid making value judgments about who was right. He writes at the end of the preface, “The present author’s sympathies and antipathies are divided when he reflects on the conflict between Jesuit modernizers and Jansenist reactionaries. ‘So miserable is human destiny that the lights which deliver man from one evil throw him into another’ (Pierre Bayle).”



    • We don’t have to choose between a life of love and a life of the intellect. They should mutually reinforce each other.

  1. Interesting stuff. So assuming everything about Jansenists and Augustine is accurate (I can’t really judge firsthand), we can ask how pre-Jansenist church theologians interacted with this aspect of Augustine’s thought in the 1200+ years between? He has always been very important to the church, but not with following him absolutely. Aquinas, for example, appropriated much of Augustine but was more optimistic about free will and human nature. Most Catholics and Protestants can also agree he was overly negative on sex, even if he may have been more nuanced on it than some think. We can also ask how much of Augustine’s theology still had vestiges of unreconstructed platonism (I am not trying to push the “Augustine ruined everything” narrative here – I read Confessions for the first time this year and enjoyed it very much).

    I have seen one or two trads accuse Francis of “Jansenism”, saying that he’s too flexible on pastoral practice out of extreme pessimism about human nature!

    Trent is circumspect on predestination, though without ruling it out – single anyway.

    • Between Augustine and Aquinas, the most significant predestinarian debate was in the 9th century between Gottschalk and Hincmar. Gottschalk, a German monk, studied Augustine and vigorously defended his doctrine of double predestination. His primary opponent, Hincmar, was an archbishop in France and managed to have some local councils in France denounce Gottschalk.

      As for Aquinas, matters are complicated, and I will need to revisit both Aquinas and Kolakowski’s source material in that portion of the book. Aquinas affirms double predestination in rather straightforward terms, identical to those of Augustine. But the ambiguity comes with the subjective side, so to speak, of salvation — namely how grace and the will cooperate, including Aquinas’ doctrine of merit.

      But Gottschalk and Aquinas do not seem to be important figures in the Jansenist controversy, which arose in the aftermath of the Reformation and for reasons presumably similar to why most of the Reformers adopted a strict Augustinian doctrine of grace: Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin.

      According to Kolakowski, the Council of Trent could be interpreted in a way that satisfies either the Jansenist or the Jesuit. Thus, it was not until the anti-Jansenist papal bulls from the mid-17th century to the early 18th century that these debates on grace were settled, practically at least. I do not favor the term “semi-Pelagian” for the dominant Catholic view, but I agree that it is not Augustinian in terms of election and effectual grace. (Although, there are some traditional Thomists who advocate double predestination in some sense, like Garrigou-Lagrange, the influential 20th century Dominican).

      I did not know anyone had accused Francis of being a Jansenist! That’s hilarious. But it does show that there is a counter-intuitive aspect at play. The “leniency” of the Jesuits might seem to be predicated on a more pessimistic view of human nature, but that was not the case. The Jansenists had the more pessimistic view, but this meant that they had more rigorous standards for discerning the work of grace — no middle ground between effectual grace and reprobation. The Jesuits liked the muddle of the middle ground, where sin and grace go back and forth in the complexities of life. There are passages about the Jesuits in Kolakowski’s book that are perfect descriptions of Pope Francis, even though this book was written twenty years ago!

      • Ha, well, I don’t think they meant the “Jansenist” accusation literally.

        Another thought: Augustine wasn’t really a pastoral rigorist. He fought against the Donatists and counseled against trying to separate the wheat and tares in this life. I’m not going to say he would have been on the Jesuits’ side (and his context was so different, especially with penintential practices not yet standardized), but the Jansenists might have gone beyond him there.

      • That’s a good point about the Donatists. Formally, the Jansenists of course agreed with Augustine against Donatism and wholly upheld the ecclesial-sacramental authority of the Catholic Church. Kolakowski notes that the Jansenists were definitely not Calvinist in regard to priestly authority and the sacraments. Nonetheless, Kolakowski detects a sectarian tendency in Jansenism, which made them a threat to both Church and state — even as the Jansenists vigorously swore loyalty to both pope and crown. The threat comes primarily by way of their constant criticism of pretty much everyone but themselves. The Port-Royal discipline was intense, including for the school children who lived quasi-monastic lives.

  2. You’re back! 🙂

    Anyway, this is a very interesting post. It’s interesting to think of in light of the counter-point of many Calvinist apologists. I remember that post you had of Kuyper, with Calvinism as the pure Christianity that can exist (and propel!) the world into whatever modern form it might take. I’m skeptical of Kolakowski’s reading because it seems like a convenient just-so story for celebrating the Roman Catholic Church of JPII and others of the communio school. Not that the victory of the Jesuits didn’t herald certain advances, but it seems suspicious.

    Of course, the thing is, Augustine was not some hurdle that people have struggled to get over. One can see his shadow looming even other atheist combatants of the faith. It’s under his wings that one might connect the dots of a Marx (questions of eschatology and the direction of time) or a Freud (the complexity of the soul and its placement within the will). Augustine has his stamp, in some form or the other, upon the “modern” West and was not merely ejected as the Jesuits, or any others, triumphed over his doctrine of grace.

    And judging by the post and not by the actual reading of the book, one is baffled by the history of the Jesuits in this regard. What about questions about the faith’s integrity and syncretism as per the controversy among Jesuits in China over the cult of the ancestors? Or about Jesuit political involvement with the attempted assassination of Elizabeth I and the angry ejection of the Jesuits from Portugal and Spain for their meddling with colonial affairs? Kolakowski seems to collapse the Jesuit’s raison d’etre as opponents of Augustinian concepts of grace.

    It’s also sort of collapsing even the Jansenist critiques into the mold their critics gave them. It should be noted that they did not call themselves Jansenists (at the time), but it was a label to draw a semantic parallel to the Calvinists. It was a way of pegging them for heretics from the gate. We forget that they were relatively poor and the Church of the Court (including most Jesuits) was very rich. And it was the descendants and sympathizers of the Jansenists that were supportive of the early stages of the Revolution, and not the other way around.

    I think the Jesuits are interesting, but this might be pushing it a bit much, warping the complexities of history to fit a mold. And I’m not saying this as some staunch Augustinian.

    On the otherhand, I just got Radner’s disseratation-turned-book “Nature and Spirit” about the Jansenists and the nature/grace debate between Jesuits and Jansenists and will report to you in email if their is anything worth telling!


    • I don’t think Kolakowski would dispute those traces of Augustine in the West. His point is not that Augustine was abandoned altogether but that his doctrine of grace was antithetical to the modernizing spirit of the Jesuits. I assume that Kolakowski would recognize Augustine as a foundational building block for Western society — to this day — but that is outside the scope of this book.

      Kolakowski spends most of his time with the Jansenist literature (documented in detailed endnotes) and recognizes the Jesuit maneuvers — labeling them Jansenists, per the custom of labeling a heretical movement after a founder/leader — and political entanglements. My post could not account for all of that without being much longer than it already is.

      But to your main criticism: “seems like a convenient just-so story for celebrating the Roman Catholic Church of JPII and others of the communio school.” I have to disagree. Kolakowski thought of himself as a humanist skeptic, and Erasmus was his intellectual hero. He never converted, despite having appreciative admirers like JPII. The narrative in this book, focused as it is on Jesuits and accommodation, is much closer to the Concilium school than the Communio school. It’s aggiornamento, not resourcement. Rahner, not Balthasar. Kung, not Ratzinger. Like I said in response to Joel, there are several passages about the Jesuits that could perfectly describe Pope Francis, especially in regard to the controversy surrounding Amoris Laetitia, which is right out of the Jesuit playbook as described by Kolakowski.

      I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on Radner’s book.

      • Fair enough about distinction between Augustine’s doctrine of grace and his other doctrines, though its perhaps a little bit more complicated in how they all interweave. I don’t know enough to say whether its possible to cut that knot. I’m not sure if Kolakowski would label Heidegger as “modern” or not, but he certainly utilized Augustine’s notion of irresistible grace for talking about the unveiling of Dasein. I’m still iffy.

        Fair point about the size of the post. 🙂

        Ok, I was a little sloppy in ascribing it to ‘communio’, I just made the jump to JPII which was not justified. I guess I should’ve said justification for Spirit of Vatican II. One doesn’t have to be a member to fit things in the right box. He’s a skeptic that likes the direction that Rome is going in. I’d hardly say that Pascal is anti-modern or that Calvinism prevented Protestantisms from fully entering into the modern world.

        I think his suspicion about the Jesuits is correct, considering how so many of them have been the main drivers of all of Rome’s many different “modern” pushes (de Lubac,von Balthasar, Rahner, Teilhard de Chardin, and quite a few Liberation theologians are all Jesuits right?) I just doubt it is so neatly tied up as a rejection of Augustine that did it.

        I blew through the Radner book today. It was dense and a slug-fest. I need to digest it for awhile and will email you when I’ve made sense of it.

      • …or that Calvinism prevented Protestantisms from fully entering into the modern world.

        Yeah, I would have loved to see him test his thesis in regard to Reformed churches and cultures. I pondered that a lot while I was reading it. He would probably be fascinated at Puritan New England, for example, which threw-off the strict Calvinism of Edwards in one generation (the “New Divinity”)! Or Neo-Calvinism in early 20th century Holland, which is now wholly secularized. He could probably figure-out a way to see his thesis as fitting into these different narratives. But, since he was a Pole, it is understandable that his interest was in the Catholic Church and Catholic culture.

        The influence of Jesuits in the “modern pushes,” as you rightly say, is fascinating. It is also diverse — from the relatively more conservative theologians (Balthasar and de Lubac) to the relatively more liberal Concilium theologians, like Rahner and the liberation theology Jesuits in Latin America, India, and elsewhere. Pope Francis is influenced by both, though his natural instincts and sympathies are with the latter.

  3. I’ve been reading Ulrich Lehner’s great book “Catholic Enlightenment”, which I’ve mentioned in the comments before. In the chapter on women, he says that due to their strong Augustinianism, the Jansenists took a pretty pessimistic view of marriage as a necessity for childbearing and an outlet for lust. In contrast there were other groups in the church (including Spanish Dominicans) that emphasized the goodness of companionship and the spouses’ mutual sanctification alongside childbearing. He attributes this to the influence of both Trent and Aquinas.

    There are some parts where he is more positive toward the Jansenists though – he seems like a very balanced and careful historian, and knowledgeable on a huge range of subjects.

    • That’s interesting and makes sense to me. I’m sure that I will enjoy Lehner’s book, whenever I get around to it. One of the missing pieces in Kolakowski’s book is the Dominicans/Thomists. He briefly refers to them as offering a middle way between the Jansenists and Jesuits, and he has a few pages on Aquinas which are very good — but that’s it. It seems that a big piece in understanding the Catholic Church’s place in the world will need to include the Thomists.

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