The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 88, Number 1, January 2002
E-ISSN: 1534-0708 Print ISSN: 0008-8080
Brian Van Hove,
Le Rigorisme chrétien (review) in
The Catholic Historical Review – Volume 88, Number 1 (January 2002), pp. 171-172
Le Rigorisme chrétien, by Jean-Louis Quantin. [Histoire du Christianisme.] (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2001. Pp. 161. 95F, paperback.)
This short book or rather extended essay by a younger-generation scholar fills a need which has been long felt. Terminology seems never used with precision, and there has always been much confusion about the polemics in the decades after the Council of Trent in regard to laxism and rigorism in Catholic moral theology. Quantin traces the history quickly, giving fine references which cannot be verified exactly since they generally do not include the page numbers in the sources. Even so, rigorism is not easily pinned down. Like the ever-slippery “Jansenism”, it may in pastoral practice refer more to broader tendencies from various quarters. Still the word in itself was “born” in 1670 in the Spanish Netherlands. The University of Louvain and the clergy formed by its influence [bishops were selected from the Faculty of Theology] often recommended a delayed absolution for penitents. This delay was intended to produce the fruits of contrition and conversion before absolution could be given. Those who opposed this practice labeled their adversaries “rigorists”. Later, the French equivalent would sometimes be called by the name of “petits collets”. Besides this penitential current, there was the question in theology of probabilism and probabiliorism, opposed by those perceived as “rigorist”. On the other hand, Quantin tells us that the term “laxist” appeared rather late, and then not in France but in 18th century Italy (p. 18). In the previous century only the terminology of relâchement was known. A most useful point to be retrieved from this gem of a study is that the classic conception of “rigorist”, in theory as well as in practice, belonged clearly to the Ancien Régime. Even when the old moral books were recycled after the French Revolution, times had changed and the old severity fairly soon gave way, due to a lack of deep doctrinal roots, to the dominant moral authority of Alphonse-Marie de Liguori. Thus using the term “rigorist” in a loose way deprives it of any specific meaning whatsoever. In his conclusion the author stresses that the real problem, both for Catholics and Protestants in the centuries after the Reformation and Trent, was how to integrate the totally regenerated Christian with the partially regenerated and faltering. Rigorism as a tendency in Christianity tried to impose on the weak a collective remedy which would make them as strong as the elite and thus the whole of the church would be completely converted. The failure of rigorism, in any age, lies in its inability to bring this about.