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!