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!