Compendium of Church History - Notre Dame

Seventeenth Century
The Century of Religious Agitation

Throughout the seventeenth century the Church had to struggle against absolutism and secularism in monarchies; Jansenism, Gallicanism, and Febronianism in religion. The Papacy was utterly ignored in concluding the Treaty of Westphalia, and in consequence the Church lost all influence in the affairs of State and political movements. Yet, while Louis XIV was setting aside the authority of Pope Alexander VII, by declaring "Gallican Liberties," and Germany was rent asunder by the Thirty Years' War, God raised up zealous missionaries to bring the light of the gospel to distant countries laid open by Catholic discoverers.

Gunpowder Plot.
The Gunpowder Plot, in 1605, was a scheme on the part of some rash Catholics to blow up the House of Parliament. Its failure brought increased persecution to the Catholics of England during the reign of James I. Parliament added seventy articles to the penal code.

The Thirty Years' War
The Thirty Years' War grew out of the Protestant revolt in Germany. It began in 1618 and ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Germany was divided into three religious parties, which Ferdinand, successor of Charles V, tried in vain to unite. The Bohemians renounced their Catholic leader to choose a Protestant prince instead. This fact made the Emperor Ferdinand II determine to crush the Protestants.

Meanwhile Calvin, a disciple of Luther, had preached his pernicious doctrines in France, and French Protestants under the name of Huguenots joined in this war. Cardinal Richelieu, in opposition to the Catholic House of Austria, aided these Huguenots. The Catholics would have been victorious and thus restored political and religious unity to Germany had it not been for Richelieu.

The most subtle heresy that afflicted the Church appeared in France about the middle of the seventeenth century. The author was Jansenius, Bishop of Ypres, whose tenets were contained in a book, published after his death, entitled Augustinus. This volume was a collection of perverted texts from St. Augustine's works, and the doctrines set forth:

  1. Man cannot resist grace.
  2. Jesus Christ did not die for all men.
  3. Some of the Commandments of God are impossible, not only to sinners, but to the just.

In 1713, by the Bull Unigenitus, Pope Clement XI declared, in words which left no loophole for evasion, that all who adopted or supported the tenets of the Augustinus  were unmistakably in opposition to the doctrine of the Holy Catholic Church.

The heresy of Jansenism was combated by the devotion of the Sacred Heart revealed to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque, toward the close of the seventeenth century. One of the most pernicious doctrines of the sect has been offset by Pope Pius X, whose decrees concerning daily Communion have silenced, once and forever, the disputes of theologians on the subject of frequent Communion.

"The poison of Jansenism," he says, "did not entirely disappear "after the decrees of various popes. "The controversy as to the dispositions requisite for the lawful and laudable frequentation of the Holy Eucharist survived the declarations of the Holy See; so much so, indeed, that certain theologians of good repute judge that daily Communion should be allowed to the faithful only in rare cases and under many conditions."

While Jansenism attacked the Church from within, Gallicanism oppressed it from without. The four articles embodying the "Gallican Liberties "were drawn up by Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux:

  1. The Pope could not interfere with the temporal concerns of princes, directly or indirectly.
  2. In spiritual matters the Pope was subject to a general council.
  3. The rules and usages of the Gallican Church were inviolable.
  4. The Pope's decision in points of faith was not infallible, unless attended by the consent of the Church.

Gallicanism meant the slavery of the Church to the State. The belief in the Holy See as a central authority in matters of Faith gradually slackened under the influence of unprincipled men holding office in Church or State. Gallican pretensions lasted through the dark days of the French Revolution, were renewed by Napoleon Bonaparte, and did not die out until the definition of Papal Infallibility by Pius IX in 187o.

Religious Orders of the Seventeenth Century.

The Visitation Nuns were founded by St. Jane Frances of Chantal, to carry on the work of Christian education.

The Lazarists were founded by St. Vincent de Paul to give missions.

The Sisters of Charity were founded by St. Vincent de Paul to protect and care for the sick and destitute.

The Trappists, a branch of the Cistercians, were founded by Bouthillier De Rance, to further by labor and prayer the welfare of the Church.

The Brothers of the Christian Schools
were founded by St. John Baptist de la Salle, for the education of youth.