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


And now it is time for a very special Fénelon Friday….

One of my readers has raised questions about my admiration of Fénelon. Basically it revolves around the following concerns:

  • Fénelon was Catholic.
  • He was personally involved in the Catholic Counter-Reformation and clearly stood his ground on his belief that the Protestants were wrong.
  • He was personally involved in the persecution of Huguenot Christians in his appointments as the director of the Institution des Nouvelles Catholiques in Paris from 1679-1687, and his appointment to convert the Huguenots in Saintonge from 1687-1689.
  • Fénelon was not universally seen as the humble, meek, and mild person that he seems to be in his Spiritual Letters (now printed under the title Let
    Go, that I have been sharing on Fridays). In fact, he had some serious detractors.

In light of these facts, and especially given his willing participation in the persecution of Reformed Protestant Christians, how can I look to him as a teacher and promote his works?

This is a fair and excellent question, and it deserves more than a quick comment or a casual reply.

Before I begin to directly address the above concerns, I want to be upfront about some things about myself and be clear about my expectations and goals in writing this post—which is not my usual devotional sort.

I am a congregational pastor who is solidly Reformed in my theological bent.

I believe that the Protestant Reformation was a necessary and divinely led movement by God to address and correct false doctrines and abuses in the Catholic Church, calling it back to the Scriptures alone, grace alone, Christ alone, faith alone, and to God’s glory alone.

As a consistent Protestant Christian in the Reformed Tradition, I believe that we are saved by a personal relationship with Jesus through faith, not by our theology, creed, tradition, or church affiliation. Therefore, just because a person is a bishop in the Catholic church, it does not necessarily follow that they are not saved or that God is not using them; nor does it mean that they cannot have real spiritual knowledge that is worth knowing or promoting.

I am not looking to promote or reignite the Catholic Counter-Reformation in this or any post.

I believe that Scripture and history both clearly teach that God’s people regularly think, say, and do dumb, foolish, sinful, and even outright evil things. No Christian or group of Christians is exempt from this fact—Fénelon included.

When looking at Christians from years gone by, they need to be understood in their historical and cultural context.

I am against the “hagification” of Christians which makes them out to be more than what they were by ignoring their weakness, missteps, and blind-spots. But neither am I interested in allowing such things—especially ones grounded in the social-political culture of their day—become the primary means of judgment of them.

I am not looking to “force” Fénelon on anyone. While his writings have been a great help to me in my walk with Christ and to many with whom I have shared them, I can accept that he does not appeal to everyone…much the same way that Jonathan Edwards does not appeal to everyone.

I am not, in writing this post, asserting that my view is the only valid or rational or “charitably Christian” view of Fénelon. Others may come to different conclusions. God will lead people where He wills. I am not writing to show that others are wrong, but rather to explain why I have come to stand where I do.

Ok. Now that I have set this up…let me get to it…

Let’s begin by looking at the historical context of his involvement in the Institution des Nouvelles Catholiques and his subsequent appointment to work at converting or re-converting the Huguenots in Saintonge.

Fénelon lived during the reign of King Louis XIV (1638-1715). Louis followed the philosophy of cuius regio, eius religio, “whose realm, his religion.” He was staunchly Catholic, and firmly believed his people should be too. It is also important to understand that he was not only King, but the head of the Church in France.

Fénelon was 27 when he got the appointment at the Institution des Nouvelles Catholiques in 1679. It was his first official appointment after his graduation. This “school” was founded in 1635 with the express intent of taking young girls from Protestant families and indoctrinating them in the Catholic faith. While some Protestant families opted to voluntarily send their daughters to the school in order to gain political favor and take advantage of the educational opportunities in Paris, Louis XIV (a vigorous opponent of Protestantism) had no qualms about using his authority to force families to send their girls there.

Things got worse in 1685 when Louis issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, revoking the Edict of Nantes given by his grandfather Henry IV in 1598 which had given Protestants political and religious freedom up to that point. Consequently, the simmering anti-Protestant sentiment that Louis XIV had been intentionally stoking under the surface, erupted into a fresh and brutal persecution of Protestants upon his dissolution of their political protection.

This is the context in which we find Fénelon having to navigate. Fénelon’s appointment as director of the Institution des Nouvelles Catholiques happened right in the middle of this. This appointment is often taken to imply his tacit approval of Louis’ vision and tactics. However, historian of Fénelon Peter Gorday explains in his 2012 biography Francois Fénelon: A Biography—The Apostle of Pure Love that this appointment does not really do that.

Fénelon’s “duties at the Paris convent [i.e., the Institution des Nouvelles Catholiques] were rather those of a visitor or spiritual adviser. His part was to teach, explain, persuade and guide.” He represented church authority at graduations and other ceremonies. Most of the actual day-to-day work was done by an order of residentiary nuns and a chaplain. Thus, the tendency of Catholic historians to interpret this phase in Fénelon’s career as evidence of his obedient churchmanship and solid loyalty to the policies of the French state, but also the inclination of Protestant historians to decry the intolerance and coercive zeal of such an institution and to lament Fénelon’s participation, are both misplaced. He was, in short, mostly a figurehead (Kindle ed., location 896).

In 1687, two years after the dissolution of the Edict if Nantes, Fenelon was handpicked to be a “missionary” to the Huguenots in Saintonge by Louis XIV himself. It is a matter of historical record that he did not want to go. He had dreamed instead of being a missionary in Canada (Harold J. Chadwick, The Best of Fénelon, p. 205). However once it became impossible for him to refuse, he agreed to go on the condition that Louis withdraw his troops from the area and promise that they would not be involved. Louis reluctantly agreed (Chadwick, 207). He did not order the destruction of their homes, churches, and property. That was done by Louis’ army on his orders before Fénelon got there.

While there, Fénelon did at times authorize the use of force to attempt to get people to attend Catholic services. But these penalties he limited to exile from the village and a 5 sous penalty for not attending services (newadvent.org/cathen/06035a.htm). Not only was he responsible for greatly limiting the severity of the persecution where he was stationed, it is also a matter of record that he attempted to take,

Various specific measures that would make things more congenial for the Protestants—omitting certain offensive prayers from the liturgy, reading the New Testament in the vernacular, a more biblically based kind of preaching, vernacular psalms for chanting—are specified in the correspondence that went back and forth between him and his governmental superior in Paris, the Marquis de Seignelay (Gorday, loc. 924).

While Fénelon was involved in the persecution of the French Huguenots and that must not be overlooked, it could have been (in my reading of the historical record) far worse if not for him. While he did separate children from their families, force people to attend mass, fine those who refused, and in some cases exiled people from their village, it is important to remember that he kept the military out of it, he did not support or use physical torture, and he certainly did not condone capital punishment as a means of control, all of which would have happened if he were not there.

It was his refusal to use the harsher tactics and his willingness to make such concessions that drove his contemporaries block his nomination to the bishop in Poitiers. He was seen by his fellows as being too friendly with the Protestants (Robert J. Edmonson and Hal M. Helms, The Complete Fénelon, Kindle ed., loc. 283).

Near the end of his life in 1711 reflecting on this very subject to who he hoped would succeed Louis XIV as king, he wrote,

Above all never force your subjects to change their religion. No human power can penetrate the last defenses of the human heart. Men can never be convinced by force, it only creates hypocrites. When kings meddle with religion, instead of protecting it, they enslave it. (From Fenelon’s Examination of Conscience on the Duties of Royalty, to Duc de Bourgogne).

Fénelon was speaking from experience. He had seen coercion used in both mild and severe forms and seen that it was fruitless. In his twenties he was a participant in such things—that is true. But is also true that in his fifties he was openly condemning such tactics. Should this not be taken into ones account of the kind of man he was?

The letters of his which I have been posting on “Fénelon Fridays” were personal letters written to several people in the royal court who looked at him as a spiritual advisor while he was the Archbishop of Cambrai. These letters were private and not intended for publication. Fenelon’s character in these letters is very fatherly, kind, gentle, and are concerned with humility, meekness, and a total submission to God through Christ.

What did Fénelon’s contemporaries think about him? How was he viewed by those who knew him well? Should not they be the primary sources from which we draw our conclusions? His contemporary Henri d’Aguesseau for instance described him thus:

Never has one man better united in himself qualities so contrary and incompatible with one another. Uncomplicated but fine-grained, transparent but profound, modest but ambitious, feeling but indifferent, able to desire and yet have disdain for everything, always agitated but always tranquil, aloof from everything but entering into everything, Sulpician and missionary and yet a courtier, ready to play the most brilliant roles and yet to live in obscurity, finding his sufficiency in everything and yet self-sufficient, a versatile genius who could assume any character without losing his own, whose depth was an imagination fecund, gracious, and dominant without causing one to feel that domination (Gorday, 223).

I know what he did. I don’t condone his use of force, even if it was so much less than what others expected, allowed, or condoned at the time. I don’t give him a pass on that. But we should remember too, that Protestants (including the Reformed and the Puritans) were guilty of the same sins. History, it would seem, teaches that when religion comes into state power—however well intended—the results prove disastrous.

Fénelon was a man of his time and a loyal Catholic Bishop. He needs to be understood in that context. Yet I believe he is still worth knowing. His letters, to me, ring with Scripture and with a devotion to Jesus and a self-mortifying love that puts the needs of others before himself. They are full of the need to forgive, to be gracious, to be accepting of God’s providence, even when we feel like He has left us. These are things rarely seen and written about in any depth in modern Christian books and sermons. They are things I believe the Church needs. And therefore I desire to promote his thoughts on these subjects.

Have I changed the minds of any who feel differently? Probably not. But I hope that I have at least given such an answer that will allow those who do not share my point of view to at least concede that I am not blind to history and have presented a well-reasoned apologetic of my position.

17 Comments

  1. That’s very well-written, Dan. I would add that Protestants were as guilty as Catholics of coercion and persecution. I come from a long line of New England Puritans, going back to the Mayflower, but some of my ancestors were also Quakers and Baptists who were hounded by the Puritans. I’m also a descendant of Giles Corey, who was pressed to death at Salem. Shall we refuse to read Cotton Mather because he has blood on his hands? The reality, as you rightly said, is that “no one is righteous, no, not one.” Christians have done abominable things to each other, as well as to nonbelievers. May God have mercy on us all!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hans, the Roman Catholic Church is the great persecutor. Protestants should be ashamed of our sins but there is no just comparison. She is drunk on the blood of the saints. In modern times, consider Croatia in the second World War. She did not discipline Stepinac but promoted him.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Playing the “who sinned more” game serves no purpose. The point is that all have sinned, and all need God’s grace. We are called to love, not condemn, our brothers and sisters in Christ, despite our theological differences. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” (Romans 14:4)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hans, it’s not a game at all. And an institution and an individual are different things. Perhaps it’s true that Fenelon was a just man – Dan is helping me to take a better longer look at him (if I’m up to it!). But the institution which Fenelon served was not just, deserves no free pass, and is the enemy of God – though there are His true children within it. I believe that my Mother was one of these.
          Surely for the sake of love and truth towards Christ and His children you can admit this.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes, institutions can and do become corrupt, when they have access to power. Historically the Roman Catholic church has had more access to power, and thus has had more opportunity to be corrupted. But when Protestant institutions have been granted power, they, too have abused it – that was my point. The Puritans who fled persecution in England (where they were out of power) turned around and persecuted others in New England (because they had power), just as other Reformed and Lutheran folk did in parts of Europe where they had power.

            Institutions are but conglomerations of people. It is true that we must distinguish between the visible and invisible church, and that we cannot know for certain who belongs to the latter. But the grounds of salvation are faith alone, not correct theology. Truth be told, no one has perfectly correct theology – not even Calvin. But if we confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead, then we are saved – end of story!

            Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. I am finishing Stepping Heavenward and Fenelon is mentioned in this book. This book has been profoundly transformative (or a transformative tool used by God, I should say) to my soul and many of my wrong patterns of thinking. As Fenelon was mentioned I wanted to read more of him but upon shallow research I wondered if a reformed lay-person like myself should bother since he was staunchly Catholic even after the Reformation. Still, the excerpts in Stepping Heavenward seemed so wise, I wanted to read more. I googled “reformed Fenelon” to see if there were any reformed voices lending a conversation about Fenelon and found your post. I cannot thank you enough, and can now purchase a book with good conscience (and of course read with discernment)!

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    1. I’m glad you were helped. I have found him to be very very helpful. I have a number of his letters on my blog. Just search for Fenelon and you’ll find them. Everybody needs a little Fenelon! 👍👍👍

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  3. Dear Dan,
    I love Fenelon. God has used him to change my life and my thinking. He is so profound and he hits you right where it hurts. God uses him to circumcise my tough heart almost everyday. I am so grateful to have found your article. Fenelon’s choice to remain in the Catholic church and even trying to convert the Protestant Huguenots to Catholicism has driven me crazy.

    I have devoured everything I could find out about him. I’ve read many of his books, and yet have never been satisfied as to why he remained a Catholic. I certainly understand that there are some truly born again Christians in the Catholic Church, but I have always believed that they were saved in spite of the Roman Catholic teaching.

    But Fenelon was a genius who certainly knew what his church officially taught. I need to go back and review the dates that certain beliefs were officially declared (after his time) such as the infallibility of the Pope, Mary being the Mediatrix, and the declaration that for one to believe that he “is saved by faith alone” is an anathema, etc. It is very hard for me to fathom how Fenelon could stay in a church that held so many anti-biblical beliefs.

    I have no doubt that I’ll see Fenelon in heaven. (Obviously, I don’t know anyone’s heart, but his fruit seems to be evidence of a true believer.) I have never seen anything in his writings that aren’t biblical. I’ve never read in any of his works issues about Mary, Saints, Mass, and other Catholic traditions. (maybe I missed something.)

    But I need to get to my point; which is THANK YOU SO MUCH for helping me understand more about Fenelon. When I posted my question on Bing, I really didn’t expect to find an answer at all. I appreciate your research on this and KEEP sharing Fenelon. He’s awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad my post was helpful. Fenelon has been a big help to me spiritually for a long time. Few authors today speak with such wisdom, transparency, and discernment in so few words. Thanks for the feedback and encouragement! 😉🙏👌

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