François Fénelon, understanding who he was – final part


Cambrai - Cameracvm vulgo Cambray - Kamerijk (Atlas van Loon).jpg Public Domain, Wikimedia CommonsPictures of Fénelon may limit our understanding of him by making us chiefly remember his remarkable appearance. Because of this, I’ve removed the image and posted a map of his episcopal domain.

This final post contains a link to a post by a blogger who respects Fénelon, a portrait of Fénelon in words, an analysis of issues, and Fénelon quotes.

First, for some helpful background and insights into Fénelon’s character, take the link below to Learning To Be Full Of Grace blog. Dan Ledwith believes that if someone else had served instead of Fénelon, things would have been worse for French Protestants than they were.

Should a Reformed Protestant Such as Myself like a Catholic Bishop like Fénelon?


A portrait in words (from NNDB – taking on the whole world):

Saint-Simon Mémoires courtesy of, a famous Frenchman who knew Fénelon, described him in this way:

Still better is Saint-Simon’s portrait of Fénelon as he appeared about the time of his appointment to Cambrai [1696] – tall, thin, well-built, exceedingly pale, with a great nose, eyes from which fire and genius poured in torrents, a face curious and unlike any other, yet so striking and attractive that, once seen, it could not be forgotten. There were to be found the most contradictory qualities in perfect agreement with each other – gravity and courtliness, earnestness and gaiety, the man of learning, the noble and the bishop. But all centered in an air of high-bred dignity, of graceful, polished seemliness and wit – it cost an effort to turn away one’s eyes.

[Original French: PORTRAIT DE FENELON PAR SAINT SIMON, published at François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon

“Ce prélat était un grand homme maigre, bien fait, pâle, avec un grand nez, des yeux dont le feu et l’esprit sortaient comme un torrent, et une physionomie telle que je n’en ai point vu qui y ressemblât, et qui ne se pouvait oublier, quand on ne l’aurait vue qu’une seule fois. Elle rassemblait tout, et les contraires ne s’y combattaient pas. Elle avait de la gravité et de la galanterie, du sérieux et de la gaieté; elle sentait également le docteur, l’évêque et le grand seigneur; ce qui y surnageait, ainsi que dans toute sa personne, c’était la finesse, l’esprit, les grâces, la décence et surtout la noblesse. Il fallait effort pour cesser de le regarder.”]

From this description, Fénelon was charismatic and charming, and humanly speaking possessed worthy traits – such as decency, the original says. However, Saint-Simon said nothing in this particular description about Fénelon’s well-known devotion to God and those he served.

An important statement from NNDB – is it true?

Fénelon remained at Saint Sulpice until 1679, when he was made “superior” of a “New Catholic” [“Nouvelles-Catholiques”] sisterhood in Paris – an institution devoted to the conversion of Huguenot ladies. Of his work here nothing is known for certain.

This statement is important because this episode of his life is troubling, and NNDB is saying that no one can know about it for sure.

But is it true that we can’t know? According to Timothy Kauffman, at Out of His Mouth blog, this part of Fénelon’s life was dealt with in a 19th century work by O. Douen. I hope to read portions of this with help.

The Intolerance of Fénelon, historical studies from documents for the most part unpublished. (L’intolérance de Fénelon; études historiques d’après des documents pour la plupart inédits, par O. Douen

From NNDB, more along this line (link to the edict added):

Presumably it [his time at “New-Catholics”] was successful; since in the winter of 1685, just after the revocation of the edict of Nantes, Fénelon was put at the head of a number of priests, and sent on a mission to the Protestants of Saintonge, the district immediately around the famous Huguenot citadel of La Rochelle. To Fénelon such employment was clearly uncongenial; and if he was rather too ready to employ unsavory methods – such as bribery and espionage – among his proselytes, his general conduct was kindly and statesmanlike in no slight degree. But neither in his actions nor in his writings is there the least trace of that belief in liberty of conscience ascribed to him by 18th-century philosophers. Tender-hearted he might be in practice; but toleration he declares synonymous with “cowardly indulgence and false compassion.”

So here is partial applause along with a snippet from Fénelon that shows that at least in principle he didn’t believe in religious tolerance. Freedom of conscience isn’t a Catholic (Papal) tenet – rather the opposite is. I’ve read that Louis IV’s France was so intolerant that Fénelon stood out as a model of tolerance when he wasn’t. French intolerance can be seen in the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (toleration) which simply used initials for the Reformed faith – R.P.R. (Religion pretendue reformée, “the religion called the Reformed,” or alleged Reformed religion.)

More from NNDB, this time about Fénelon’s mysticism. Because of the age in which we are living, when Contemplative/Mysticism Spirituality (CSM) and Catholic Ecumenism are everywhere, his mysticism is a grave concern. 

… Fénelon had been appointed archbishop of Cambrai, one of the richest benefices in France. Very soon afterwards, however, came the great calamity of his life. In the early days of his tutorship he had met the Quietist apostle, Mme. Guyon, and had been much struck by some of her ideas. These he developed along lines of his own … His mystical principles are set out at length in his Maxims of the Saints, published in 1697. Here he argues that the more love we have for ourselves, the less we can spare for our Maker.

The rest of this excerpt purports to show how Fénelon viewed his relationship with the Lord.

…[For Fénelon] Perfection lies in getting rid of self-hood altogether – in never thinking of ourselves, or even of the relation in which God stands to us. The saint does not love Jesus Christ as his Redeemer, but only as the Redeemer of the human race.

This kind of “love” for Jesus goes beyond selflessness – it’s not really human. It isn’t found in the Bible and goes against the simplicity that is in Christ; it doesn’t echo the definitions of love, and declaration that we love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:19), that we find there.

Recently I bought a copy of Fénelon’s Maxims of the Saints and read his warnings against too much introspection, which he said shows a lack of true love for God and forgetfulness of ourselves. However, there is still too much self-examination for me, perhaps because of having been a Catholic and preparing for Confession to a priest through self-examination. We are to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5) – yes! But the Lord told us to come to Him for rest (Matthew 11:28). Fénelon’s zeal demanded delving even if he didn’t realize this was so. Also from his statements, it’s clear that he believed that the Lord comes to live within those who have already tidied themselves up inside (see quotes below), when God’s Word states this about sanctification:

1 Corinthians 1:30-31

30 But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption:31 that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.

What I’ve concluded about his spirituality:

His mysticism and delving and self-sanctification are my chief concerns about reading his works devotionally. But of greater importance is the fact that as a Catholic priest he celebrated Mass, believing that Mass is a true sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood, and efficacious for the removal of sin. This destroys the usefulness of his works devotionally. Can his judgment on spiritual matters be trusted when he received as truth what is in reality blasphemy?


References to the Word of God in Maxims of the Saints (emphasis added)

(Caution: From all that I’ve learned over the years, the Bible and the Word of God aren’t equivalents in Catholicism.)


… Again, the persons who have, or are supposed to have, the visions and other remarkable states to which we have referred are sometimes disposed to make their own experience, imperfect as it obviously is, the guide of their life, considered as separate from and as above the written law. Great care should be taken against such an error as this. God’s word is our true rule.

Nevertheless, there is no interpreter of the Divine Word like that of a holy heart; or, what is the same thing, of the Holy Ghost dwelling in the heart. If we give ourselves wholly to God, the Comforter will take up His abode with us, and guide us into all that truth which will be necessary for us. Truly holy souls, therefore, continually looking to God for a proper understanding of His Word, may confidently trust that He will guide them aright. A holy soul, in the exercise of its legitimate powers of interpretation, may deduce important views from the Word of God which would not otherwise be known; but it cannot add anything to it.


… The Holy Ghost, operating through the medium of a purified judgment, teaches us by the means of books, especially by the word of God, which is never to be laid aside.

How he speaks of Jesus Christ in the Maxims:


Christ is ” the way, and the truth, and the life.” The grace which sanctifies as well as that which justifies, is by Him and through Him. He is the true and living way; and no man can gain the victory over sin, and be brought into union with God, without Christ. And when, in some mitigated sense, we may be said to have arrived at the end of the way by being brought home to the Divine fold and reinstated in the Divine image, it would be sad indeed if we should forget the way itself, as Christ is sometimes called. At every period of our progress, however advanced it may be, our life is derived from God through Him and for Him. The most advanced souls are those which are most possessed with the thoughts and the presence of Christ.

Any other view would be extremely pernicious. It would be to snatch from the faithful eternal life, which consists in knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ His Son, whom he has sent.

More of what he says about Christ there:


… The wisdom of the truly holy soul is a wisdom which estimates things in the present moment. It judges of duty from the facts which now are; including, however, those things which have a relation to the present. It is an important remark, that the present moment necessarily possesses a moral extension; so that, in judging of it, we are to include all those things which have a natural and near relation to the thing actually in hand. It is in this manner that the holy soul lives in the present, committing the past to God, and leaving the future with that approaching hour which shall convert it into the present. “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.” To-morrow will take care of itself; it will bring, at its coming, its appropriate grace and light. When we live thus, God will not fail to give us our daily bread.

Such souls draw on themselves the special protection of Providence, under whose care they live, without a far extended and unquiet forecast, like little children resting in the bosom of their mother. Conscious of their own limited views, and keeping in mind the direction of the Saviour, Judge not that you be not judged, they are slow to pass judgment upon others. They are willing to receive reproof and correction; and, separate from the will of God, they have no choice or will of their own in anything.

These are the children whom Christ permits to come near Him. They combine the prudence of the serpent with the simplicity of the dove. But they do not appropriate their prudence to themselves as their own prudence, any more than they appropriate to themselves the beams of the natural sun, when they walk in its light.

These are the poor in spirit, whom Christ Jesus hath declared blessed; and who are as much taken off from any complacency in what others might call their merits, as all Christians ought to be from their temporal possessions. They are the “little ones,” to whom God is well pleased to reveal His mysteries, while He hides them from the wise and prudent.

An interesting fact:

T.C. Upham, who translated the version of the Maximthat CCEL used for its text-only version, appended this note:

In the preceding view I have omitted a number of passages which were exclusively Roman Catholic in their aspect, in being of less interest and value to the Protestant reader than other parts.


François Fénelon, understanding who he was – part 2


François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fenelon, Archeveque De Cambrai (1651-1715), Joseph Vivien, 18th century, Public Domain, Wikimedia

Who was this pleasant-looking man? Who was François Fénelon?

He was a defender of the Catholic Church, even to the point of bowing to its decision when some of his writings were banned.

He was a loyal subject of his King and suffered when the King, Louis XIV, exiled him to his archbishopric in Cambrai, some say as a result of his friendship with the French mystic, Madame du Guyon, of whom Louis disapproved; some say because Louis was angry at his novel in which absolute monarchy appeared in an unfavorable light.

Could a man who was so staunch in his own views, and perceptive about human nature, refuse freedom of conscience to others? Could he harden his heart towards their suffering?

Hôtel Dieu - Paris IV by Mbzt, 31 May 2014, Wikimedia CommonsWhile he still had the favor of Louis, he was appointed to the important post of Superior of “Maison des Nouvelles-Catholiques” (House of the New Catholics), an institution where Protestant women and girls were detained for re-education. At the “Nouvelles Catholics,” the harsh treatment of the women sometimes led to their insanity and suicide; or if the women withstood the deprivations and loss of family and friends, and maintained their faith, they were sent to the Bastille, or the ‘Hostel of God’ (Hôtel-Dieu).

So should Fénelon, notwithstanding his integrity, be on devotional reading lists for Christians, including students at Christian colleges? My feeling is that, yes, if you want to know about the times in which he lived, go to him; but if you want spiritual counsel, abstain. But today, despite his suppression of the faith, Christians are reading his devotional works and excerpts from letters to those for whom he acted as spiritual director, just as they would Oswald Chambers, Spurgeon, or the Puritans (some of whom appreciated Fénelon, a friend recently told me).

But, these are Fénelon’s own words:

“The Church must be ready to punish, in the most exemplary manner, all disobedience of indocile spirits. It must finally prefer God to men, and the truth, basely attacked, to a false peace, which will only serve to prepare a more dangerous trouble. Nothing would be more cruel than a cowardly compassion which would tolerate the contagion in the whole flock, where it daily grows without measure. In such an extremity we must employ, says Saint Augustine, a medicinal rigor, a terrible tenderness, and a severe charity. . . . ‘The vigilance and industry of the shepherds,’ says he, ‘must crush the wolves, wherever they show themselves.’”

By the wolves the “sweet Fenelon” designates the Protestants.

This quote can be found at Timothy F. Kauffman’s Out of His Mouth blog, in the articles referred to in Part 1 of my own series. I’m indebted to Tim; it is difficult to find the evidence of Fénelon’s involvement in “Nouvelles Catholiques” in English, except for mention of it.

Fénelon agreed then that, “Indeed, it is entirely within the provinces of the state to punish heretics and schismatics.” (Augustine: Political and Social Philosophy)

Part of the difficulty in learning about him is that some of what he has said has been silenced by applause. He was a man of charm and some human merit. Here is the kind of praise he received in 1902 Britannica:

Fénelon is chiefly remembered for the beauty of his character, his tender and mystic devotion, and the charm of his style as a writer. He is not great as a thinker, nor can the substance of his writings be said to have a permanent value. But there is the same subtle delicacy, sensibility, and tenderness and purity of expression in his style as in his character. An exquisite highly-toned and noble genius pervades the one and the other. As a man he is one of the greatest figures in a great time. As a writer he has been placed in prose on the same level with Racine in poetry. In both there is the same full harmony and clearness, the same combination of natural grace with perfect art.

After this kind of praise who can speak a word against him? Only himself. This will be the subject of the next post in this series. 

Thank you for reading!



François Fénelon, understanding who he was – part 1


François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fenelon, Archeveque De Cambrai (1651-1715), Joseph Vivien, 18th century, Public Domain, Wikimedia


Who was Fénelon, this mature-looking man with the intelligent, attractive face? 

Fénelon, François de Solignac de la Motte (1651–1715). Spiritual writer. In 1695 he became archbishop of Cambrai. Through his friendship with Mme Guyon and his defence of her doctrine of pure love, he became involved in the Quietist controversy and was attacked by Bossuet, as a result of which he was banished from the court in 1697. His letters of spiritual direction have long been greatly valued.

JOHN BOWKER. “Fénelon, François de Solignac de la Motte.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. 1997. Retrieved December 07, 2015 from

Archbishop Fénelon was a hardworking Roman Catholic priest, a nobleman who Let Go, The Spiritual Classic by Fenelon website photomoved in the circles of the nobility and gave spiritual advice to them, for example to mothers raising daughters, and even to the King of France himself, Louis XIV, the Sun King.

For a time Fénelon was tutor of the Duke of Burgundy, who later became king; was a missionary to the Huguenots (Reformed Christians); and Superior at the “Maison des Nouvelles-Catholiques,” a convent where the re-education of Protestant women, and little girls who had been removed from their parents’ homes, took place. As the author of a novel (The Adventures of Telemachus), other works, and letters he wrote as a spiritual director, he is still admired. It is a matter of concern however, that evangelical Christians are reading him devotionally (Let Go, The Spiritual Classic by Fenelon), despite the fact that he was a mystic – as all true Roman Catholics are – and a persecutor of Christians.

Oddly, the well-read and sensible E.H. Broadbent, whose book The Pilgrim Church I’ve been reading, mentioned him in a section subtitled “INFLUENCES for GOOD in the ROMISH CHURCH”:

Madame Guyon (1648-1717) by her life and writings led wide circles to strive after a life of perfect love and entire acquiescence to the will of God. The gifted and saintly Archbishop Fénelon accepted and defended her teaching at the cost of all his popularity and prospects at court. Louis XIV imprisoned her repeatedly, at last in the dreaded Bastille, but those stone walls, twelve feet thick, could not check the influence and spread of her teaching. (p. 289-290)

As a student I learned about Fénelon in French class, and received the naïve impression that he was only a distinguished person from the golden age of French classic drama and fairy tales. Much later I learned from Timothy F. Kauffman, at Out of His Mouth blogabout Fénelon’s persecution of the Huguenots, and of Kauffman’s concern that Presbyterian pastors and professors were promoting Fénelon, and by means of Fénelon, promoting an appreciation of Catholicism among younger Presbyterians.

After this, Fénelon’s advice began turning up in posts at a blog I follow, written by a young Presbyterian. From reading a few of these posts, my impression is that Fénelon’s spiritual direction involved a minute examination of motives in an effort to eradicate selfishness from the human heart. But doesn’t God’s Word sanctify His children? “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.” (John 17:17) Also, Fénelon spoke with such authority about things he couldn’t have known, and because of his position people would have listened and felt the need to obey. It is as if he was certain that he could clearly see into a man’s thoughts, when we know that’s impossible, “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?” (1 Corinthians 2:11a)

France has been called ‘the eldest daughter of Rome’ – to me, a chilling label. View of La Rochelle, 1573, pen and ink drawing, Public Domain, WikimediaFénelon was born, raised, and lived in this nation the century after the French Wars of Religion (1562–98), which followed the Reformation, when “between 2,000,000 and 4,000,000 people were killed as a result of war, famine and disease” (quote from Wikipedia, cited to Robert J. Knecht’s 2002 book The French Religious Wars 1562-1598, Osprey Publishing). The supremacy and peace of Fénelon’s One True Church and Catholic France had been undermined by enemies who still lived in rebellion within his homeland. But we know that these enemies were Reformed Christians, many of whom were children of God through faith in Jesus Christ alone; and so it was Christ’s kingdom that had intruded upon France and the Kingdom of Antichrist, as it had in the Middle Ages in the case of the Vaudois (Waldenses) and Albigois (Albigenses). 

Fénelon was an important actor in the Counter-Reformation, so what are Christians doing reading him for spiritual advice? The following gives the Catholic view of his motivations and actions as he strove to help reestablish the Catholicity of France. 

(A link to the Edict of Nantes at a Protestant website has been added in this text.) 

François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon 

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia online

In 1678 Harlay de Champvallon, Archbishop of Paris, entrusted Fénelon with the direction of the house of “Nouvelles-Catholiques”, a community founded in 1634 by Archbishop Jean-François de Gondi for Protestant young women about to enter the Church or converts who needed to be strengthened in the Faith. It was a new and delicate form of apostolate which thus offered itself to Fénelon’s zeal and required all the resources of his theological knowledge, persuasive eloquence, and magnetic personality. Within late years his conduct has been severely criticized, and he has been even called intolerant but these charges are without serious foundation and have not been accepted even by the Protestant authors of the “Encyclopédie des Sciences Religieuses”; their verdict on Fénelon is that in justice to him it must be said that in making converts he ever employed persuasion rather than severity”.

When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, by which Henry IV had granted freedom of public worship to the Protestants, missionaries were chosen from among the greatest orators of the day, e.g. Bourdaloue, Fléchier, and others, and were sent to those parts of France where heretics were most numerous, to labour for their conversion. At the suggestion of his friend Bossuet, Fénelon was sent with five companions to Santonge, where he manifested great zeal, though his methods were always tempered by gentleness. According to Cardinal de Bausset, he induced Louis XIV to remove all troops and all evidences of compulsion from the places he visited, and it is certain that he proposed and insisted on many methods of which the king did not approve. “When hearts are to be moved”, he wrote to Seignelay, “force avails not. Conviction is the only real conversion”. Instead of force he employed patience, established classes, and distributed New Testaments and catechisms in the vernacular. Above all, he laid especial emphasis on preaching provided the sermons were by gentle preachers who have a faculty not only for instructing but for winning the confidence of their hearers”. It is doubtless true, as recently published documents prove, that he did not altogether repudiate measures of force, but he only allowed them as a last resource. Even then his severity was confined to exiling from their villages a few recalcitrants and to constraining others under the small penalty of five sous to attend the religious instructions in the churches. Nor did he think that preachers ought to advocate openly even these measures; similarly he was unwilling to have known the Catholic authorship of pamphlets against Protestant ministers which he proposed to have printed in Holland. This was certainly an excess of cleverness; but it proves at least that Fénelon was not in sympathy with that vague tolerance founded on scepticism which the eighteenth century rationalists charged him with. In such matters he shared the opinions of all the other great Catholics of his day. With Bossuet and St. Augustine he held that “to be obliged to do good is always an advantage and that heretics and schismatics, when forced to apply their minds to the consideration of truth, eventually lay aside their erroneous beliefs, whereas they would never have examined these matters had not authority constrained them.”


Please stay tuned for part two! 



Edict of Nantes (1598)

Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (October 22, 1685)

The eight wars of religion (1562-1598)


L’INTOLÉRANCE DE FÉNELON – The Intolerance of Fénelon