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 Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O101-FnelonFranoisdeSlgncdlMtt.html
Archbishop Fénelon was a hardworking Roman Catholic priest, a nobleman who moved 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 blog, about 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. Fénelon 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
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!