The controversy over the acceptance of Unigenitus in France sheds more light on the conduct of diplomacy at the court of the aged Louis XIV than it does on Jansenism.
In 1671 Pasquier Quesnel had published a book entitled Abrégé de la morale de l'Evangile ("Morality of the Gospel, Abridged"). It contained the four Gospels in French, with short explanatory notes, serving as aids for meditation. The work was approved by the bishop of Châlons-sur-Marne. Enlarged editions followed, containing an annotated French text of the complete New Testament, in 1678 and 1693-4. This last edition was highly recommended by the new bishop of Châlons, Gaston-Louis de Noailles. While the first edition of the work contained only a few Jansenist points, its tendency became more apparent in the second edition, and in its complete form, as it appeared in 1693, it was - in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia - "pervaded with practically all the errors of Jansenism".
Several bishops forbade it to be read, and Clement XI condemned it in a brief, July 13, 1708, which was, however, not accepted in France, because its wording and its manner of publication were not in harmony with the accepted prerogatives of the Gallican church. Noailles, who had become Archbishop of Paris and cardinal meanwhile, and who in 1702 discarded a relic that had long been venerated at Châlons as the umbilical cord of Jesus, was not prepared to withdraw the approbation which he had given to the book, and Jansenism again raised its head.
To put an end to this situation several bishops, supported by Louis XIV himself, asked the pope to issue a bull in place of the unacceptable brief. The Bull would have to avoid every expression contrary to the "Gallican Liberties" and to be submitted to the French government before publication. To avoid further scandal, Clement yielded to these humiliating conditions, and in February 1712, appointed a special congregation of cardinals and theologians to cull from the work of Quesnel such propositions as were deserving of ecclesiastical censure. The most influential member of this congregation was Cardinal Fabroni.
It took the congregation eighteen months to perform its task, the result of which was the publication of the Bull Unigenitus at Rome, September 8, 1713. The Bull begins with Christ's warning against false prophets, especially such as "secretly spread evil doctrines under the guise of piety and introduce ruinous sects under the image of sanctity"; then it proceeds to the condemnation of 101 propositions which are taken verbatim from the last edition of Quesnel's work such as: grace works with omnipotence and is irresistible; without grace man can only commit sin; Christ died for the elect only; every love that is not supernatural is evil; without supernatural love there can be no hope in God, no obedience to His law, no good work, no prayer, no merit, no religion; the prayer of the sinner and his other good acts performed out of fear of punishment are only new sins; the Church comprises only the just and the elect; the reading of the Bible is binding on all; sacramental absolution should be postponed till after satisfaction; the chief pastors can exercise the Church's power of excommunication only with the consent, at least presumed, of the whole body of the Church; unjust excommunication does not exclude the excommunicated from union with the Church. The Bull finds fault with many other statements in the book of Quesnel, without, however, specifying them, and, in particular, with the translation of the New Testament, which, as the Bull reads, has been censurably altered (damnabiliter vitiatum) and is in many ways similar to a previously condemned French translation.
Louis XIV received the Bull at Fontainebleau on September 24, 1713, and sent a copy to Cardinal Noailles, who revoked his approbation of the Moral Reflections given in 1695. The king also convoked the French clergy to convene at Paris to accept the bull.
At the first session, Noailles appointed a committee presided over by Cardinal Rohan of Strasburg to decide upon the most suitable manner of accepting the Bull. Noailles's attempts to prevent an unconditional acceptance proved in vain and the papal report was accepted and officially registered. But a pastoral instruction of Noailles forbade his priests under pain of suspension to accept the Bull without his authorization; that was condemned by Rome. The bishops of France were divided. The Pope felt that his authority was threatened and intended to summon Noailles before the Curia and, if needs be, demote him from the cardinalate. But the king and his councillors, seeing in this mode of procedure a trespass upon the "Gallican Liberties", proposed the convocation of a national council instead, which should judge and pass sentence upon Noailles and his faction.
The pope did not relish the idea of convoking a national council, which might unnecessarily protract the quarrel and endanger the papal authority. He, however, drew up two briefs, the one demanding the unconditional acceptance of the bull by Noailles within fifteen days, on pain of turning in his Hat and incurring canonical punishment, the other more paternally pointing out the gravity of the cardinal's offence. Both briefs were put in the hand of the king, with the request to deliver the less severe in case there was well-founded hope of the cardinal's speedy submission. On the one hand, Noailles gave no hope of submission, while, on the other, the more severe of the Briefs was rejected by the king as subversive of the "Gallican Liberties". Louis XIV, therefore, again pressed the convocation of a national council, but died September 1, 1715 before it could be convened.
Philippe II of Orleans was now Regent of France, who favoured the opponents of the Bull. The Sorbonne quickly passed a resolution annulling its previous registration of the Bull, and twenty-two Sorbonnists who protested were removed from the faculty. The Universities of Nantes and Reims now also rejected the Bull. In consequence Clement XI withdrew from the Sorbonne all the papal privileges which it possessed and attempted to deprive it of the power of conferring academic degrees. The Jansenist controversy appeared to be defunct.