Sunday, September 8, 2013

Unveiling Unigenitus: Rare Books marks the 300th Anniversary of the controversial constitution

On September 8, 1713 Pope Clement XI issued the apostolic constitution Unigenitus Dei Filius, condemning 101 erroneous propositions of the Jansenist theologian Pasquier Quesnel. Three hundred years later, the largest U.S. collection of contemporary sources on the reception of Unigenitus has been cataloged and made accessible to scholars by the Rare Books and Special Collections department at the Catholic University of America. With 771 titles already cataloged, the bulk of the Albani family's collection Miscellanea Relativa alla Bolla Unigenitus has come under review, but more pamphlets continue to be discovered along with extensive monographs relating to Jansenism, anti-Jansenism and the Pope's ill-fated bull.

Clement issued the constitution reluctantly at the urging of Louis XIV, but that monarch died less than two years after its promulgation, depriving the Pope of the support Louis had promised to guarantee the bull's acceptance as a law of the French church and state. The complexities of the lengthy and often rancorous propaganda battle that followed are underscored by the pamphlets, broadsides and manuscripts assembled by the Pope's family. Lawyers, theology professors, bishops, and ordinary laymen gave vent to their opinions on an unprecedented scale, and on both sides of the pro- and anti-Unigenitus divide.  But the Albani family collected the writings of friends and foes alike. Works by archbishop Jean Joseph Languet de Gergy, (1677-1753) the indefatigable "athlete of the Constitution" are balanced by those of the Jansenist bishop Jean Soanen (1647-1740), deposed and imprisoned at the age of 80 for his appellant views.  In one pamphlet a perplexed dame de qualité writes to inquire whether she ought to abandon her appellant confessor for one more orthodox, while the ladies of Pontoise send a collective letter to the Jesuit general complaining that one of his clergy forbids them to read scripture. Jansenist and appellant literature is banned by French pro-Constitution bishops, whose own pastoral letters are condemned to burning by governmental arrêts. From the safe distance of three centuries the reader is likely to conclude that neither side had a monopoly on truth or justice.

What also emerges from a study of these sources, is the imprecise meaning of the terms "Jansenism" or "Jansenist." Derived from the name of a seventeenth-century Belgian theologian, Cornelius Jansen, the term has been broadly applied to many who never read his controversial interpretation of Saint Augustine. At best a label of convenience, "Jansenism" obscures theological nuances and blurs political differences, especially by the eighteenth century when  opposition to Unigenitus was rooted as much in Gallicanism, the long-standing French resistance to papal authority, recently codified in the Four Articles adopted by the 1682 Assembly of the Clergy. Wherever possible more specific subject headings have been used in cataloging this material, although the arbitrary and unsatisfactory but more familiar "Jansenist" term will continue to be applied to appellants, convulsionaries, anti-Jesuits, Gallican parlementarians, devotees of  Deacon François de Paris and other species who contributed to the fascinating diversity of 18th-century French Catholicism.