From the Renaissance to the French Revolution

Rev. James MacCaffrey, S.J., 1914



(d) Quietism.

Mysticism as implying the substantive union of the soul with God was the distinguishing feature of the pantheistic religious creeds of India, as it was also of some of the Greek philosophical systems. In the Middle Ages, while many of the ablest exponents of Scholasticism were also distinguished mystics, yet more than once Mysticism or the theology of the heart, unrestrained by the guiding influence of the theology of the intellect, fell into grievous errors akin to the Pantheism of the Buddhists and the Stoics. Many of these Middle Age mystics maintained that perfection consisted in the union of the soul with God by quiet contemplation, so that those who reached that state had no need of external aids to sanctity, such as good works, the sacraments, or prayer; that they were under no obligation to obey any law, ecclesiastical or divine, since their will was united to God’s will; and that they need make no effort to resist carnal thoughts or desires, as these came from the devil and could not possibly stain the soul. Such, however, was not the teaching of the great Spanish authorities on mystical theology, Saint Teresa, Saint John of the Cross, and Louis of Granada, whose works on spiritual perfection and on the ways that lead to it have never been surpassed. But side by side with this school of thought, another and less orthodox form of mysticism manifested itself in Spain. Many of the sectaries, such as the Alumbrados or Illuminati, carried away by pantheistic principles, fell into error, and put forward under the guise of mystical theology not a few of the extravagances that had been condemned by the Council of Vienne (1311) and by the judgment of the universal Church.

Closely akin to the errors of this Spanish school was the doctrine known as Quietism taught by Michael de Molinos (1640-96), a Spanish priest, who having completed his studies at Valencia took up his residence in Rome. He published a work entitled Guida Spirituale in 1675, the ascetical principles of which attracted so much attention that translations of the book appeared almost immediately in nearly every country of Europe. The teaching of Molinos was denounced to the Inquisition by the Jesuits and the Dominicans, and in 1687 Innocent XI. issued the Bull Coelestis Pastor,1 in which he condemned sixty-eight propositions put forward by Molinos. The author having been arrested was obliged to make a public recantation, and remained a prisoner until his death (1696).

According to Molinos perfection consists in a state of self-annihilation in which the soul remains entirely passive, absorbed completely in the contemplation and love of God. By means of this passivity or complete surrender of the human faculties to God the soul of man is transformed, and is in a sense deified. While in this condition there is no need to act or to desire to act, to think of rewards or punishments, of defects or virtues, of sanctification, penance, or good works, nor is there any necessity to resist carnal thoughts or motions since these are the works of the devil. Such a system, founded nominally on the pure love of God, and leading of necessity to the overthrow of law, morality, and religious authority, found great favour in Italy and Spain, where it required all the energies and powers of the Inquisition to secure its suppression. It was backed by the Oratorian, Petrucci, afterwards created a cardinal (1686), whose books on the spiritual life were attacked by the Jesuit, Paul Segneri, and condemned by the Inquisition.

Quietism found favour in France through the writings and teachings of Francis Malaval of Marseilles and of the Barnabite Pere Lacombe. The individual whose name is most closely identified with Quietism in France is, however, Madame Jeanne de la Mothe Guyon, a young widow who on the death of her husband gave herself up to the practice of prayer and to the study of the principles of the spiritual life. Admitting as she did the fundamental doctrine of the system of Molinos, namely, that perfection consists in a state of self-abnegation in which the soul is wrapped up completely in pure love of God, she rejected most of the absurd and immoral conclusions that seemed to follow from it. According to her, and more especially according to her principal defender, Fenelon, pure love of God without any thought of self-interest or of reward or punishment, constitutes the essence of the spiritual life, and must be the principle and motive of all deliberate and meritorious acts. This teaching constitutes what is known as Semi-Quietism. Madame Guyon published several works and gave many conferences in various cities of France. The close connexion between her teaching and the mysticism of Molinos attracted the unfriendly notice of the French authorities, particularly as Louis XIV. was a strong opponent of Quietism. As a result Madame Guyon and her spiritual director, Pere Lacombe, were arrested in Paris (1688), but owing to the interference of Madame de Maintenon, Madame Guyon was released.

Fenelon, then a priest and tutor to the Duke of Burgundy, grandson of Louis XIV. and prospective heir to the throne of France, was deeply interested in the teaching of Madame Guyon whose acquaintance he had made in Paris. Fenelon, while rejecting the false mysticism of de Molinos, agreed with Madame Guyon in believing that the state of perfection in this life is that in which all righteous acts proceed from pure love without any hope of reward or fear of punishment, and that all virtuous acts to be meritorious must proceed directly or indirectly from charity. This teaching found a strenuous opponent in Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux. A commission consisting of Bossuet, de Noailles, then Bishop of Chalons, and Tronson, superior of the Sulpicians, was appointed to examine the whole question (1695). A little later Fenelon, who had just been promoted to the Archbishopric of Cambrai, was added to the list. The conference met in the Sulpician seminary at Issy, and as a result thirty-four articles were drawn up, all of which were accepted by Madame Guyon and Pere Lacombe. The former having returned to Paris was arrested, and forced to sign another recantation of her theories and to promise that she would never again attempt to spread them. From that time till her death in 1717 she took no further part in the discussions.

But the controversy regarding Semi-Quietism was to be carried on between the two greatest churchmen and literary giants of their age, namely, Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux, and Fenelon, Archbishop of Cambrai. Bossuet, not content with the partial victory that he had secured at the Issy conference, determined to expose the dangerous tendencies of Madame Guyon’s teaching by a short statement of the Catholic doctrine on perfection and the spiritual life. This he did in his book Instructions sur les etats d’oraison, which he submitted to Fenelon in the hope of obtaining his approval. This Fenelon refused to give, partly because he thought Madame Guyon had been punished severely enough and should not be attacked once she had made her submission, and partly also because he believed the views of Bossuet on charity and self-interest were unsound. Before Bossuet’s book could be published Fenelon anticipated him in a work entitled Explication des maximes des Saints sur la vie interieure, in which he defended many of Madame Guyon’s views. This book was submitted to the Archbishop of Paris, to Tronson, and to some of the theologians of the Sorbonne, from all of whom it received the highest commendations.

The Bishop of Meaux, annoyed at the action of Fenelon, denounced the book to Louis XIV., who appointed a commission to examine it (1697). Fenelon, fearing that a commission, one of the members of which was his rival Bossuet, would not be likely to give an impartial judgment, forwarded his book to Rome for judgment. While the Roman authorities were at work a violent controversy was carried on between Fenelon and Bossuet, which, however much it may have added to the literary reputation of the combatants, was neither edifying nor instructive. On the side of Bossuet especially it is clear that personalities played a much greater part than zeal for orthodoxy. In Rome opinion was very much divided about the orthodoxy of Fenelon’s work. Louis XIV. left no stone unturned to secure its condemnation. In the end Innocent XII. condemned twenty propositions taken from the book (1699).2 This sentence was handed to Fenelon just as he was about to mount the pulpit in his own cathedral on the Feast of the Annunciation. After mastering its contents he preached on the submission that was due to superiors, read the condemnation for the people, and announced to them that he submitted completely to the decision of the Pope, and besought his friends earnestly neither to read his book nor to defend the views that it contained.

Chapter VII Section (c) Footnotes

1 Denzinger, op. cit., nos. 1221-88.

2 In the Brief, Cum alias, Denzinger, op. cit., nos. 1327-49.

Chapter VII Section (d) Bibliography

Molinos, Guida spirituale, 1681. Oeuvres spirituelles de Madame Guyon, 42 vols., 1713. Guerrier, Madame Guyon, 1881. Fenelon, Explication des maximes des Saints sur la vie interieure, 1697. Bossuet, Sur les etats d’oraison, 1696. Crousle, Fenelon et Bossuet, 1896. Delmont, Fenelon et Bossuet d’apres les derniers travaux de la critique, 1896.

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Lane Core Jr. (lane@elcore.net)
Created November 22, 2000; revised November 23, 2000.