The ‘Free French’ Church

From 1054 A.D. to the very threshold of our own times, the question of defining the extent of Papal authority continually occupied the growing Catholic Church in the West. A struggle was manifested in two distinct schools of thought. One school of thought maintained the belief that the supreme teaching authority within the Church rested in the Ecumenical Councils on the ground that all Catholic Bishops have equal pastoral authority. The other school in opposition advanced the principle called ‘ultra-montanism,’ which maintained that the Pope was above the authority of the Councils.

    “During the 17th Century ‘ultra-montanism’ found its principle resistance in the Church of France, and its principle support among the Jesuits. The Faculty of the Sorbonne proved to be a great bulwark against ultra-montane theories and championed scholars maintaining the French cause.

    “The entire body of French clergy drew up a declaration in 1682 A.D. in order to protect the canonical rights of the French Church against the encroachments of the Ultra-montanists. In writing this declaration of 1682, the French clergy were mindful of the primitive teaching of the Catholic Church, restated by the Council of Constance (1414-1418), which decreed, it had ‘its authority immediately from Christ, and everyone, whatever his rank or position, even if it be the Pope himself, is bound to obey it in all things which pertain to the Faith, to the healing of schism, and to the general renewal of the Church.’ ‘This document,’ a contemporary historian says, ‘is an important document in the history of Old Catholicism.’ Its contents may be summarized as follows: (1) The Pope could not release subjects from obedience to temporal power. The authority received by the Church from God is spiritual, not temporal (i.e., ‘My Kingdom is not of this world.’). (2) The Decrees of the Council of Constance remain in full force in the Church. The Papal authority in no way affects the perpetual and immovable strength of the Decrees of the Council. (3) The independence of the French Church must be maintained (the authority of the Apostles must be exercised in accordance with the mind of the whole Church). (4) The decisions of the Pope are not infallible — his ‘judgment is not irreversible until confirmed by the consent of the whole Church’ (Jervis, Hist. Ch. France ii.p. 50). The Declaration, signed by 34 Archbishops and Bishops and formulated under the guidance of Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux, reaffirmed the position which had at all times been dear to the French Church. This document became a norm for the conduct of relations between the National churches of Northern Europe and the Roman Curia.

    “Italian Ultra-montane writers attacked the French clergy. In response, Bishop Bossuet wrote a ‘Defense of the Declaration’ which so powerfully influenced belief in the principles held by the French Church that his learned opponent, Cardinal Orsi, advised the Roman Theologians to abandon ultra-montanism as a ‘hopeless’ cause. However, the most powerful factor in preserving the ‘Old’ Catholic tradition in France was the support of such scholars as Arnauld, Pascal, Cyran, Tillimont and others. They carried the standards of Port Royal, the envy even today of scholars, theologians, educators, and churchmen.

    “Francois Mauriac, whose judgment of Port Royal is obviously biased by personal predilections, nevertheless admits, in his recent book on Port Royal’s most celebrated son, that ‘after three centuries Blaise Pascal is still alive. His slightest thought troubles or charms or irritates, but he is understood instantly. Pascal is the brother of all sinners, of all converts, of all wounded men whose wounds may reopen at any instant, of all whom Christ has pursued from afar, and who trust only in His love.’

    “Port Royal in France was not only the vessel containing the mental and spiritual giants of its day, but it proved a major influence in preserving for our time the Tradition of the Church that her children believe and that the Saints knew, loved, lived, and died for.

 

The Heritage of Port Royal:

    “To trace the origin of Port Royal, around which the storms of Church and State revolved in the 17th century in the controversy touching on the growth of Papal power, it is necessary to go back to the year 1204. At that date an Abbey was founded at the head of the Valley of the Rhodon near Chevreuse (about 18 miles southwest of Paris) by Eudes de Sully, Bishop of Paris, and Mathilde de Garlande, to ensure prayers for the safe return of Mathilde’s husband, Mathieu De Marly De Montmorenci, who had gone to take part in the Fourth Crusade. The site of the Abbey was known as Port Royal, and it is said its name derived from a corruption of the low Latin ‘porra’ which described the ponds and ‘mares’ which abounded in the neighborhood.

    “The community of nuns of Port Royal flourished during the 14th and 15th centuries and attained certain fame, but in the 16th century the religious wars and the war with England tended to relax the discipline of all religious houses–and Port Royal did not escape from this infection of its religious life. As everywhere, in the religious houses of the time, the nuns of Port Royal became worldly and the rule of St. Benedict was forgotten, while for more than thirty years, no sermon had been preached save at seven or eight professions.

    “The regeneration of Port Royal came about under the guidance of Angelique Arnauld, appointed by a Papal Bull at the age of 11, in the year 1602, to be Abbess of Port Royal. Taking over the community which at that time consisted of 10 sisters, Mere Angelique proceeded to reform it after having been ‘completely converted’ nine years after her appointment. She succeeded in introducing vows of poverty and seclusion and re-introduced the teaching work of her Abbey after it had long lain idle. Though at first these increased austerities caused a rupture with the Arnauld family and no little trouble with the formerly ease-loving nuns, she was able to successfully heal all difficulties. Her energy and steadfastness of purpose overcame all obstacles. She not only won her family to Port Royal, but her influence made itself felt in other houses and a widespread revival of the spiritual ideal for which the primitive Cistercians were renowned took place. By the year 1626 Port Royal had increased the number of its inhabitants to more than 80.

    “To escape the unhealthy conditions engendered by the swamp land surrounding the Abbey, the community was required to take a house in Paris to which a body of nuns removed. The two sections of the convent were thereafter known as Port-Royal de Paris.

    “About 1636 A.D. a remarkable group of men — physicians, men of letters, soldiers, scholars, and ecclesiasts, influenced by a friend of Port Royal, the Abbe de S. Cyran, took up their residence at Les Grange, near Port Royal des Champs, where they resolved to lead a life of self-renunciation and consecration and took for their rallying cry ‘Thought allied with faith’, making redemption of souls their mission. These men were the Solitaires. They took no vows, but systematically divided their time between religious exercises, literary pursuits, teaching and manual labour.

    “The Solitaires were regarded as forming a joint community with the nuns of Port Royal, among whom many had relatives. Among these men were Antoine Arnauld, Lemaistre de Sacy, Arnauld d’Andilly, Nicole and subsequently, Blaise Pascal, Lancelot and others. These men conducted schools called ‘Les Petites escoles de Port Royal’ which soon acquired a great and undying reputation for anticipating in many ways modern ideas of education. In the hands of these men lay the spiritual destiny of ‘Old’ Catholicism in France. Of them, the saintly princess, Madame Elizabeth, a sister of Louis XVI, wrote, ‘Their theology apart, that I do not understand, these gentlemen of Port Royal were holy persons. What a life they led, compared to ours!’

    “The Abbey of Port Royal was more than a convent of reformed nuns and the community of ‘Solitaires’ more than a band of holy men gathered together from every walk of life to give themselves wholly to God. They had ideas which, supported by brilliant minds and holy lives, were considered dangerous to the pretensions of ultra-montanists, scholastics and ecclesiastical politicos. Saint Cyran had worked with Cornelius Jansen, Bishop of Ypres, in a study of the early Fathers in an attempt to restore vitality to the lifeless theology of the time and restore the Church to the simplicity and purity of primitive times. Jansen’s work culminated in the publication of ‘Petrus Augustinus’ in which their theories, based on the writings of St. Augustine, were expounded. Saint Cyran, however, continued to apply these theories to practice in life and the Port Royal Solitaires supported him. The Jesuits, having been severely censured in the ‘Augustinus’ as fostering the ancient heresy of Pelagianism in the Church, exerted all their efforts to have it condemned. Five propositions were presented to the Pope as having been contained in the writings of Jansen and the request that they be condemned heretical. Though the Jesuits’ plea was heeded, historians still doubt the likelihood that the propositions were ever contained in Jansen’s works. The Jesuits also coined the word ‘Jansenist’ as a term of reproach to the Port Royalists. A formulory was drawn up in which the five propositions were condemned and the Port Royalists were requested to sign it under pain of expulsion and suppression.

    “Richelieu, who had not been able to win Saint Cyran, whom he considered the ‘most learned man in Europe,’ to his political aims by offers of ecclesiastical preferments — in all five Sees which Saint Cyran refused — determined to use the situation to put him out of the way. Through the joint attacks of her adversaries Port Royal suffered. Saint Cyran was imprisoned on a vague charge of heresy. The nuns and Solitaires, refusing to sign the formulary that they were convinced was a false statement were several times dispersed, but their powerful defense in the brilliant language of Arnauld, the stirring writings of Pascal, and the saintly lives of the nuns and recluses held off the fatal day of the Abbey’s complete destruction and earned them undying fame. To the doors of Port Royal flocked people hungry for spiritual nourishment in a desert of theological bickerings and dead scholasticism to find the peace of God even in the midst of these struggles. Marie de Gonsagne, later Queen of Poland, had a lodging at Port Royal and subsequently offered the community a refuge from their persecutors in her kingdom.

    “But the Port Royalists did not flee from the ordeal. Saint Cyran, upon the death of Richelieu, was released from prison only to die shortly afterwards from the effects of the confinement. Mere Angelique died in 1661 in the midst of the battle. Jacqueline Pascal, her successor remained steadfast in vindicating Port Royal of an unjust calumniation. Writing of conditions to a friend at that time, she says, ‘I know that it is not for women to defend the Faith, but when Bishops are as timorous as women, it befits women to be as brave as Bishops.’ Antoine Arnauld was stripped of his scholarly honours and died, an exile, in Holland. The combined strength of the enemy prevailed in time and the little schools were suppressed, the Solitaires dispersed, the nuns imprisoned, and finally in 1709, the Abbey was completely destroyed even to the desecration of the graves. It was said of the Port-Royalists that they led the lives of strict puritans yet were nonetheless Catholics who bowed neither before King nor Prelate in the defense of their Catholic faith. When a worldly prelate, friendly to Port Royal was described as a Jansenist, it was said of him, ‘What, he a Jansenist? That is impossible. To be a Jansenist one must first be a Christian.’

 

The Church of Holland:

    “The ruin of Port Royal was a tragic and inhuman episode in the history of the ascendancy of the ultramontane party in the Catholic Church. The destruction of the abbey had been the avowed purpose of its detractors, the Jesuits, who, with the consent of King Louis XIV, thought thereby to put an end to what they contemptuously termed ‘Jansenism.’ They failed in this object. The celebrated hymnographer and historian of the Church of England, John Mason Neale in his book, ‘The So-Called Jansenists,’ could say almost 200 years later, ‘The spirit of Port Royal lived on, and still lives.’

    “Pasquer Quesnel, the last of the so-called ‘Jansenists’ connected with Port Royal, shouldered the mantle of Antoine Arnauld. Quesnel, elevated to the post of Director of the Oratorian School in Paris early in his career, was forced to flee France in 1684 with several others. They preferred exile rather than signing an anti-Jansenist formula which they regarded as a ‘senseless and despotic’ document and which all members of the Congregation of the Oratory were required by Rome to sign.

    “In Brussels he joined Antoine Arnauld and remained with him until his friend’s death in 1694 and from then on he became the ‘oracle’ of the Port Royalists. In May 1703, Quesnel was suddenly arrested in Brussels and thrown into the prison of the Archbishop of Malines who had obtained an order for his arrest from King Philip V of Spain. With the help of a Spaniard, who contrived to make a hole in the prison wall sufficiently large to admit the egress, Quesnel escaped.

    “Quesnel fled to Amsterdam where, after the fall of Port Royal, he continued with friends to fulfill the mission of conscientious Catholics. He died at Amsterdam in 1709 in time to witness the seeds of his mission bearing fruit. For in Holland, the means whereby Catholics cut off from the Church of Rome could cling to the Catholic Faith and maintain its primitive doctrine was at hand.

    “The French cause upheld by the Gallican Bishops against the growing claims of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, was to be crushed under the heel of Napoleon, who proved an unwitting ally of ultra-montanists. However, the Tradition and Episcopate of the Catholic Church was to be carried on through the Church of Holland and preserved until the day when the ultimate goal of ultra-montanism, the Declaration of Papal Infallibility, was to enslave all Roman Catholics to the will of a few and leave a portion of the Catholic flock, that adhered to the old and unchangeable faith of the Christian Church, without shepherds.

    “Here the intervention of the Hand of God, through the agency of Dominique Mary Varlet, Roman Catholic Bishop of Ascalon, forged the link by which Old Catholics the world over were to receive an Episcopate of undeniable Catholic authority and Apostolic succession.

    “The Church of Holland, which had provided shelter for many of the clergy of France from the persecution of the Jesuits, was itself to be the scene of the next stage of the struggle. With the rise of ultra-montanism, the traditional right of the Church of Holland to elect its own Archbishop was in jeopardy. The Metropolitan Chapter of the Cathedral Church at Utrecht had, from the beginning, possessed the right of electing its own Archbishop, who exercised all ecclesiastical authority over the affairs of the Roman Catholic Church in Holland.

    “In 1697, exercising this customary privilege, the Chapter elected Peter Codde, their Vicar General and already Bishop of Sebaste, as their Archbishop. The Pope would not recognize this election, and substituted a person of his own appointment, Theodore de Cock, who was expelled by the Chapter. But with the death of Archbishop Codde, the See of Utrecht became vacant, and Rome, refusing to accept Bishops elected by the Metropolitan Chapter, adopted a policy of withholding the Episcopate from the Church of Holland in the hope that the independent Church of Holland would submit to the will of the papacy or die a natural death.

    “Bishop Varlet, a French refugee in Holland, at the request of the Chapter, braved Papal censure by successively consecrating Cornelius Steenoven (1724) and Cornelius Jan Burchman (1725) as Archbishops of Utrecht. The celebrated canonist, Van Espen, defended the rights of the Chapter to elect its own Archbishop. The Church of Utrecht continues to this day in preserving an independent Catholic Episcopate in Holland whose validity has never been questioned by Roman Catholic authorities.