St. Francis De Sales on the Protestant Tower of Babel

St. Francis De Sales is a profound writer, whose Introduction to the Devout Life has been enjoyed by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. While it is specifically and unabashedly Catholic, the work’s broad themes — on the glory of God, our own sinfulness and insignificance, etc. — are powerful to almost any serious Christian.

As Bishop of Calvinist-controlled Gevena, St. Francis was a bold Catholic evangelist, winning back literally thousands of Calvinists to the Faith, while celebrating Mass in secret within the city. It is said that he nearly converted Beza himself. St. Francis De Sales was also a warm and loving pastor. Introduction to the Devout Life is the result of a lengthy tome sent to one of the women of Geneva who wanted to know, as a laywoman, how she could grow in holiness [It seems that St. Francis was well ahead of his time — Opus Dei and Vatican II would emphasize this special call the layperson has in the evangelization of the world centuries later]. The fact that he took the time to do this as bishop, with all the accompanying responsibilities of being a bishop (to say nothing, of a bishop at constant risk of martyrdom), speaks volumes. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that he developed a form of sign language to evangelize a deaf man. This was a man who truly appreciated the value of the soul. At a time when it seemed the vitality of the Faith was a distant memory, God sent St. Francis, a man who would have happily found his place in the Colosseum in an earlier age. Shortly after his death, it is said that one of the Calvinist preachers in Geneva used him as an example of a model Christian in a sermon.

One of the ways that St. Francis helped heal the Reformation was through a series of critical tracts known as the Controversies, or The Catholic Controversy, which he left around the city for people to read, while the Catholic Church was still heavily persecuted. Comparing the Reformers to the builders of the Tower of Babel, St. Francis said in Part II, Article III, Chapter IV:

What contradictions has not Luther’s reformation produced! I should never end if I would put them all on this paper. […]

You have not one same canon of the Scriptures: Luther will not have the Epistle of St. James, which you receive. Calvin holds it to be contrary to the Scripture that there is a head in the Church; the English hold the reverse: the French Huguenots hold that according to the Word of God priests are not less than bishops; the English have bishops who govern priests, and amongst them two archbishops, one of whom is called primate, a name which Calvin so greatly detests: the Puritans in England hold as an article of faith that it is not lawful to preach, baptize, pray, in the Churches which were formerly Catholic, but they are not so squeamish in these parts. And note my saying that they make it an article of faith, for they suffer both prison and banishment rather than give it up.

Is it not well known that at Geneva they consider it a superstition to keep any saint’s day? – yet in Switzerland some are kept; and you keep one of Our Lady. The point is not that some keep them and others do not, for this would be no contradiction in religious belief, but that what you and some of
the Swiss observe the others condemn as contrary to the purity of religion. Are you not aware that one of your greatest ministers teaches that the body of our Lord is as far from the Lord’s Supper as heaven is from earth, and are you not likewise aware that this is held to be false by many others?

Has not one of your ministers lately confessed the reality of Christ’s body in the Supper, and do not the rest deny it? Can you deny me that as regards Justification you are as much divided against one another as you are against us: – witness that anonymous controversialist. In a word, each man has his own language, and out of as many Huguenots as I have spoken to I have never found two of the same belief.

Quite effectively, St. Francis raised the specter that Protestantism was not one heresy, or one innovation, or even one restoration of the Faith. It was innumerable people running in contrary and opposite directions on countless issues. To be a devout Calvinist in Geneva, then, you must say not only that the Catholic Church was wrong, but that all of the other solutions offered to the “problem” of the Catholic Faith – from Luther, from the Anglicans, from the Anabaptists and Radical Reformers, from even other Calvinsts, and even other Calvinists in Switzerland – were wrong as well.

Whereas the Catholic Church offerred an unbroken line of Tradition, the various Protestants were “re-discovering” innumerable and varied Christianities, and no more than one of these could be right. What’s worse is that you had no way of knowing you were correct – there was no authority higher than your interpretation of Scripture, or your personal church’s interpretation of Scripture. The Early Church, where it disagreed with the various Protestant/Reformed movements, was considered incorrect.

Presented with the problem in this light, and with such eloquence, it’s hardly surprising that St. Francis was so successful. I haven’t read all the Controversies (in fact, I just picked up the book today, and happened to open to that page), but I can recommend Introduction to the Devout Life as one of the best Christian books of all time.

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